Tuesday, July 24, 2012

War, Civilization and Food in the Canadian Capital

Cyndy picked us up at the bus station in the height of the heat wave that had been ravaging Ottawa for the last 30 days. Although there were going to be nine people for dinner at her place just a few hours later, she shuttled us off to her favourite lunch spot where we settled into catching up over bagels, salad and smoked meat (I know we are not in Montreal anymore, but we are still very close to the Province of Quebec!).

Cyndy’s partner David’s brother Eli was arriving by plane soon after we arrived, and the Berman Shabbat dinner was being hosted at their place. I was thrilled. I had met the rest of the Bermans on my last trip to Ottawa and I was eager for Marc to meet David’s parents and siblings. Friday night with the Bermans is full of tradition and a lot of fun. When we returned home and got settled, I set to work with Cyndy to set the table, figure out where to place the Sabbath candles where they would not blow out (fans and air-conditioning were blowing everywhere to cool down the house), take the sidur (prayer book) and the kipot (head coverings) out of the drawer and generally figure out the seating arrangement. I was given the honour of blessing the bread, David’s mother would bless the candles and David would lead the service.

Cyndy was practically fainting from the heat in the kitchen, but she still managed to produce an amazing meal with many ingredients fresh from her garden. Shirley and Shire (David’s parents) arrived with fresh challah and a home made triple layer chocolate cake. Eli’s birthday was a few days away and this was a great opportunity to celebrate with the whole family since he was going to be in town.

An hour later the whole family had arrived and the Berman siblings were in deep conversation and we were in similarly deep conversation with Shirley and Shire. They are cut from the same cloth as my Uncle Osher (of blessed memory) and Aunty Irene. They did a lot of the same things at the same time in different parts of Canada. When I told Shirley their names, she immediately said “Osher from Winnipeg right? Oh my god! I didn’t know him personally but I knew of him!” I felt very proud that my uncle was so famous all the way from Winnipeg to Montreal!

It was a wonderful evening from every perspective. Amazing food and great company. What a perfect first night in Ottawa.

Canadian War Museum (courtesy of the Internet)

If there was a theme for our trip to Ottawa, I think we would all agree that it was museums and food. Both aspects of our visit were very satisfying, well presented and educational. Since the weather was quite unbearable, hanging out at the air conditioned War Museum made perfect sense for our first full day of touring the city. The museum itself is huge and packed with exhibits taking you chronologically through the pre history and history of Canada through the lens of the wars fought, the reasons for them, Canada’s role in them and the fall out. Although I had some “design” issues with the overwhelming bombardment (no pun intended) of information, we were both moved by the things we saw. The main message I took away with me was that history is not something that just happens. We are all part of how it unfolds. The last exhibit is a multimedia slide show of images of the conflicts around the world today. Each museum guest is encouraged to speak out about the things they disagree or agree with. Postage paid postcards addressed to the Canada’s Prime Minister, The President of the United States and Members of Parliament line a long shelf on the way out of the exhibit hall. The museum strikes a good balance between the horrors of war, the commemoration of our war heroes and the importance of being informed about the conflicts our Country is involved in. Well done Canada!

Parliament Buildings (courtesy of the Internet)

When the Museum closed for the day, we walked from the Museum down Wellington until we hit the Parliament Buildings where we waited in the shade for Cyndy to pick us up. Once in her car, we were transported from War to haute cuisine in short order!

We did not have reservations, but Cyndy was relatively sure we would be able to get a table at the Side Door, an Asian Fusion restaurant on York street. The maitre de took his time reviewing the reservation list, to make it clear he would have preferred it if we were better organized, but did find us a quiet table in the lower level of the restaurant. The restaurant menu style is based on small sharing plates, so we all perused the menu and came up with a selection of delightful delicacies that brought us back immediately to the delicious meals we had in Vietnam and Thailand. The surprising ending to the meal was an assortment of beautifully decorated sugared donuts presented on a long narrow black slate plank that literally stretched the width of the table. There were seven donuts and three of us! Our waitress was giggling in the background as we found the strategy for dividing up the different flavoured donuts to everyone’s satisfaction.

Hogsback Falls

Our second day in Ottawa, we visited Hogsback falls with Cyndy (barely a trickle due to the drought) and then David joined us for the official tour of Sussex drive including passing the residence of our Prime Minister Steven Harper and the various embassies and memorials in the area including a visit to Rideau Falls, unfortunately less than gushing due to the heat and lack of rain.

But the main attraction was the Zen Kitchen, a vegan restaurant we had reservations for that evening.

The restaurant décor was a hit with me right away. The quiet restaurant was decorated with masks made of found materials. Each one more interesting than the next. I spent the first few minutes in the restaurant taking pictures of them! Everything on the menu sounded amazing and when we had made our choices, none of us were disappointed. The chef came to our table and we talked a bit about our time in Thailand, as she had a trip planned for this winter.

The grounds of the Museum of Civilization

Inside the main hall of the Museum of Civilization

Day three was the Museum of Civilization, a beautiful building in an incredible setting full of very interesting exhibits. I found two of the special exhibits especially interesting. The first was called God(s) a users guide (http://www.civilization.ca/gods) You can read about it here. Marc and I did not have the same impression of the exhibit. He felt it was not a topic that deserved that much time or space in any museum. I argued that in fact it is a topic that is central to the way our world works and the exhibit was a way for people to think about the roots, the symbols, the books and the conflicts and the place God and Religion play in our lives. What was most clear to me after visiting the exhibit (beautifully presented in my opinion!) is that the way we practice our religions, the symbols we use and the traditions we all hold on to, have more similarities than differences. If we could all spend more time appreciating the similarities and accepting that we are all brothers and sisters, the world would certainly be a much better place. If you get a chance to see the exhibit, I would love to know your thoughts.

Right next to it was an exhibit of the life work of an Aboriginal artist named Bob Boyer. I particularly liked a series of paintings on blankets and here are a few examples. You can read more about him here.

Year of the Rat stamp series

Christmas stamps

Olympic stamps!

I had no idea that the Museum of Civilization housed the Archives of Canada Post. However, when I got to the third floor there it was. Near the entrance is a big round room with all of the commemorative stamps Canada Post has produced. It is like a museum in miniature. Hundreds of masterpieces no larger than 2” x 2”, displayed by year and by topic. My heart was pounding as I walked around looking for the stamps Violet and I designed beginning in 2003 and ending with our Olympic stamps in 2010. They were all there according to year and topic. I was all alone in the room, so I couldn’t share my excitement when I found each stamp. I instead took pictures to send to Violet and sat down with my computer to write a note to Alain Leduc at Canada Post without whom we would not have had the opportunity to be involved in these amazing design projects. Violet and I have worked on thousands of projects together, but the stamp projects were our most exciting and rewarding. Knowing that all of our designs are displayed in the Museum of Civilization was a huge source of pride.

I was a bit overwhelmed at that point, and there wasn’t much more in the Museum I was going to be able to fully appreciate. Luckily it was almost closing time!

Cyndy picked us up and we picked up a few groceries and headed home for yet another great dinner. Fresh fish and grilled vegetables on the barbeque! The weather had cooled and we set the dinner table on the back porch. Cyndy, like Violet, is an amazing gardener and our view while eating dinner was her beautiful garden.

Cyndy's garden

We all enjoyed every morsel of the dinner we prepared together. And that is what it’s all about really isn’t it? Good friends, spending time together, breaking bread together, making good food together and drinking good wine together. At that moment, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect scenario.

There was more great food and more activities, but I think I have touched on the highlights. We hugged our friends goodbye on Tuesday morning and Cyndy delivered us to the Ottawa bus station where our bus to Kitchener, Ontario awaited us.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Strangers in a strange land

We crossed the border by train. After 10 months away, we were looking forward to being back in Canada, but not surprisingly, filling out the customs form was a bit daunting. They ask all sorts of questions that are usually easy to fill in, but after being away so long, it was hard to remember the right answers, and we were sure the customs agent was going to wonder why we had been away so long. I got particularly nervous when the gentleman in the seat ahead of us on the train was asked politely to follow the officer to the customs office …

The very polite man in uniform looked at our forms, looked straight at me and asked with a puzzled expression on his face, “You left Canada how many months ago? And you have nothing to declare? Not even any souvenirs?” What is it about customs officers that make you feel guilty even if you are perfectly innocent? We had of course bought a few things since leaving Canada, but they were safely in New York and not in the bags we were bringing into Canada. “No room” I said innocently pointing to our bags. “OK” he said as he looked up at our travel bags, shook his head and moved to the next row of travelers. There was a big sigh of relief in our row as he moved past us.

The 12-hour train trip returned us immediately to travel mode, so it felt very normal being in a city where we could not speak the language or read any of the signs. Again we were strangers in a strange land, ready to learn about the culture and see the sites — but then we remembered we were in Canada!

For a few moments we were angry, with Quebecers for being so strong-minded about preserving their culture, and at the same time, with ourselves for not knowing French. After all it is the official second language of Canada! But almost immediately, the overwhelmingly friendly and helpful Montealers made us feel so at home that we forgot about the French business almost entirely (OK not entirely. It continued to bug us that we couldn’t read the signs or understand the announcements on the metro, or read the menus in restaurants, or the signs in the supermarkets – C’est la vie!)

By the end of our trip in SE Asia, I was a pro at finding hotels using Agoda.com, but now that we were back in North America, I had to hone my skills in another marketplace. Using expedia or hotels.com seemed too commonplace so I looked for other options. Our friend Guylène in Montreal sent me several links to bed and breakfasts, and I started to investigate myself online. One of the first sites that appeared in my search was a website called airbnb. Conceptually it is one step up from couch surfing. You rent a whole apartment or a room or a couch in an apartment for a price. Airbnb takes a cut and looks after the e-commerce part. You can list your apartment/room/couch or you can find someone else’s apartment/room/couch for a variety of prices (and comfort levels). It is buyer beware for sure, and after reading some very bad reviews, I was a bit leery of giving it a try, but I thought hey, this is Canada, not India. How horrible could it be?

You can get in touch with your host and ask all sorts of questions. If you are good at reading between the lines, this service is a great option. I liked Mylène right away. She was friendly and supplied us with good answers. Her apartment was a perfect size for us and in a good location close to the metro, a park for Marc to run in, good restaurants and coffee shops and a good grocery store. We decided to go for it and it was everything and more than we expected.

Our apartment

Mylène met us at the apartment and gave us an orientation. The apartment was perfect. High ceilings, modern décor, sparkling clean and organized to our taste. She left us with a metro map, Jazz festival schedules, tourism brochures, and a list of the best restaurants and cafes in the area and even a bowl of fresh apples on the table as a welcome gift. As we parted, she set us off in the direction of the 80-bus line that would take us directly to Place Des Arts where all of the Jazz Festival events were taking place.

We spent the next two days taking in free and ticketed concerts. Several outdoor stages were set up throughout the impressive Place Des Arts complex, an area of downtown Montreal dedicated to culture. All the outdoor events were free, and there was a different concert to see every hour somewhere throughout the site. The Festival itself, as all music festivals these days, was very eclectic. We did hear Jazz music, but we also heard every other kind of music, which suited us just fine. The whole area was filled with thousands of “Beautiful People” from mid afternoon until midnight of all ages. At the end of each night, the multitudes of festivalgoers flooded the streets, lining up politely for buses or flowing in a very orderly fashion down the escalators to the underground metro lines.

By day two we were in love with Montreal. Even with the knowledge that there is a lot of “crazy” here (like students rioting out of control about justifiable University tuition hikes, Separatists and Nationalists keeping Montreal’s economy from flourishing by continuing to threaten separation, large immigrant populations that have trouble integrating well, laws forbidding English on signs above a certain point size, and the odd news story about metro civil servants not serving a blind Anglo customer simply because he refused to speak French). Maybe it is the “crazy” that is so refreshing. These people and this city are real. Like New York, the streets are filled with people all the time. There is a buzz of ideas. There is a tapestry of culture. And Like New York is to the United States, Montreal is completely different from any other city in Canada.

We realized quickly that one week in Montreal would barely touch the surface of what there is to see and do here. We decided to concentrate on walking tours and leave the indoor attractions for another trip. Our first stop was Little Italy, which was walking distance from our apartment on Hutchison and Jean Talon. The Jean Talon market was our first stop, where we tasted the delicious sliced fresh fruit set out at all of the produce stands. We bought steamed corn, pickled beets, olive bread, cheeses and assorted veggies and fruit to stock our fridge and also stopped for lunch at an outdoor restaurant serving the most artistically presented salads we had ever seen. The rest of the day was spent walking the streets of Little Italy with its authentic coffee shops and somewhat kitschy shopping area. Just outside its periphery, we hit a Sunday street market. On the sidewalk were racks of discount wedding dresses which drew crowds of, shoppers looking for a bargain. It reminded us of “My big fat Greek Wedding”. There were bridesmaid’s dresses as well, which were quite a sight to see!

There are a few things you simply can’t miss in Montreal. Bagels is one of them and smoked meat is the other. A trip the establishments serving up the best of each of these Montreal delicacies was the next thing on our list. We walked into St. Viateur Bagels on our second day in Montreal and shared a hot and delicious sesame bagel right out of the oven. Then we walked to Fairmont just a few blocks away to o the taste comparison. You can check out the scoop about these two competing bagel shops at this link. I think we both agree that St. Viateur come out on top. It was about a twenty-minute walk from there to Shwartz’s. There was a line up outside as is always the case and it was blisteringly hot outside, but we waited in line for the experience. I simply watched Marc eat his smoked meat sandwich as there is nothing for a vegetarian in this place except for a dill pickle! It was worth it though to see the enjoyment on his face as he savored each bite.

We toured the downtown area by foot on another day and eventually made it to Old Montreal, which was definitely a highlight of the trip. The architecture and cobblestone streets take you back to another era. As we were looking at our map on one of the streets of Old Montreal, a couple stopped us to ask if we needed help (each time we opened a map or looked confused, which was quite often, someone would ask us if we needed help — people here are amazingly friendly and helpful). “We live close by” he said, “How can we help?”

I don’t think we actually needed help at the time, as we were just referring to our map to read about the monument just in front of us. But he was insistent. “We love showing people things they will not find in a tourist brochure,” he continued. “Come this way and we will show you something.” We were standing in front of what once was the oldest hospital in Montreal. He told us a bit about the history of the building and then showed us a zigzag line in the street, which aligned with the edge of the building. “This,” he said proudly, “is the footprint of the building as it stood when it was first built. There were once walls here. That is not in any guide book!” He then smiled at us and said, “We have lived here for 15 years and take a walk in this neighbourhood every evening, and there is always something new to see”. We had only been in Montreal for a few days, but we knew that we would feel the same way. What an incredible place.

As the sun set on a perfect day, we began to see the effects of the street lighting on the monuments and centuries old buildings lining the cobblestone streets. There was a different walking tour for Old Montreal at night in our brochure, which we knew would be exquisite, but after about seven hours of walking, our feet were telling us we would have to leave that for another trip. We found our way to the metro and to our cozy apartment on Hutchison.

The last two days of our Montreal visit were dedicated to visiting friends. We had two friends in Montreal that we had not seen, quite literally, in a lifetime. I had not seen Guylène, a friend I went to art school with in Vancouver, since graduation in 1988. And we had not seen Ron, a friend we knew in Israel on Adamit, since he left the kibbutz in 1978.

My reunion with Guylène was particularly emotional. The sorrow of losing our dear friend Glenda almost two years ago came immediately to the surface. We know that our bond to each other is so connected to her. Her words came out in French and mine in English and we hugged each other tightly barely breathing. Guylène’s partner Nicholas quickly introduced himself to Marc and we all moved to the kitchen where they had prepared a wonderful breakfast for us. The rest of the morning was non stop talking, the guys on one side of the table and us on the other. There was absolute joy in the room. I got a chance to see the work Guylène is preparing for an art exhibit in December and to understand her process. We talked a lot about Glenda and how much she meant to us and how present she is in our lives. Marc, Nicholas, Guylène and I took a walk around the neighbourhood after our wonderful breakfast. They left us in Mont Royal Park where we would continue our day’s walk towards Snowdon Deli where we would be meeting Ron for smoked meat (for the boys) and blintzes (for me) later that day.

I will credit Richie with this quote. While visiting Barbi and Richie in DC (many moons ago), I must have said something like “It is so great to be with you guys!” His answer was quick and to the point, “This is forever”. He was referring then to the friendships and relationships developed on the top of the hill in Israel on the Lebanese border in a small kibbutz called Adamit. Any of you reading this who were there know exactly what Richie was talking about. That afternoon last week in Montreal, when Ron walked through the door of Snowden Deli after 34 years, there was no awkwardness, just friends sitting down for a meal as we did so many times in the communal dining room so many years ago.

Marc remembered fondly tiulim (hiking trips) led by Ron while we were together on Adamit. So neither of us was surprised when he suggested heading out into the country the next day to show us around the Mont Tremblant area a few hours out of the city. He picked us up promptly at 8:00 am with a cooler full of drinks and fruit and off we went. It was a beautiful day and the scenery was wonderful. As an added attraction, there was a blues festival at the top of the mountain that we were able to take in. We had lunch at the top and exchanged tales of trips to the Far East in the 60’s (for Ron) the 70’s (for Marc) and our recent year of travel. As we soon found out, many things stay the same as time passes. Ron continues to travel around the world extensively, but now with a suitcase rather than a knapsack and comfortable hotels and organized tours, rather than hostels and a lonely planet in his pocket.

For dinner Ron took us to a fantastic Greek restaurant called Marvin’s, not far from our apartment. It is one of these places you would walk past without noticing if you didn’t have the inside scoop. Great food and a neighbourhood atmosphere that could not be beat. We were all served a huge Greek salad before our entres arrived. Marc and Ron were in heaven with lamb chops done to perfection. The place was packed with locals as well as take out orders leaving every few minutes. A definite Montreal neighbourhood experience!

Ron dropped us at our apartment and we parted ways. “L’hitraot!” (until next time, as we say in Hebrew). “Give my best to Amiram and Bilha when you see them in Toronto”. And with that our visit with Ron and our trip to Montreal was at an end. Early the next morning we tidied up Mylène’s apartment and made our way to the bus station for our trip to Ottawa where another reunion was awaiting us.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Broudos in Brooklyn

Photo courtesy of Sandy and Sheldon
I asked myself yesterday — when did I find time to write all those posts while we were away? Since we have been back, although I have certainly thought about writing, the days go by, and the experiences happen and the blog post never gets written. Is it a sign?

I am sitting in Montreal at 7060 Rue Hutchison, which is a lovely apartment I found through airbnb (more on that later). Mylene has it set up perfectly — right out of an IKEA showroom. The space and location is as perfect as the décor. We have been here now six days, and feel like we could stay for a lot longer. But if I get too involved with Montreal in this post, I will have skipped our New York experience, which would simply not be the right thing to do.

Right now if you could see me, I would be sitting with one hand under my chin, looking up blankly with a puzzled look on my face. The big cartoon bubble above my head would have this inscription: “Where to start?”

… The last two months in New York have been a gift. Although it is probably not often that parents move back in with their kids (when they are healthy and financially stable), that is sort of what we did. We didn’t actually move in, but a two month visit is certainly an unusually long period of time. But I guess, everything about what we have been doing the last year is a bit unusual. The “gift” part is that we had the chance to BE with our kids — be part of their daily routine, and feel a part of their lives in a very special way. This experience was as exciting and as memorable as anything we had done thus far. Thanks A & M for allowing us to be parents at very close range. (If we drove them crazy, they didn’t let on.)

The two months were also a time of transition, some might call it culture shock, after eight months of travel. And maybe that is true to some degree. But I think it is more than that. I remember Leslie saying before we left for Israel, Nepal and all other locations East, that it would be a life changing experience. She was right. We are not really different, but our priorities have changed dramatically. And I, for one, want to hold on to that.

Living out of a suitcase for eight months teaches you a lot. Firstly and most importantly, all you need in this world can fit in one suitcase. When you get sick of those things, throw them away and replace them (even if you don’t believe me — it is true). Secondly, if you carry too much baggage (take that literally or figuratively), it will drag you down and keep you from doing the things you really want to do. Don’t get me wrong, I like nice things. And I have a storage locker full of them. But I don’t miss them, and I don’t need them to be who I want to be. This is new. And that is the part I want to hold on to.

These two months have also been a time for reflection. We visited a lot of countries and had a lot of varied experiences. People always ask, what country was my favourite. And some ask if we found a country or a city we would want to settle down in. I always have the same reaction. Every city and every country and every experience was part of the whole adventure. I simply can’t play favourites. But did we find a place we could call home? Not until now.

If I had grown up here, I don’t think I would have this perspective, but as a person arriving in New York in 2012, I think it is a city that has everything the world has to offer all in one place. It is the place where all worlds collide, in a good way. There is such a mixture of culture that anyone can fit in, whoever you are (whether you have one suitcase or 100). We think we could live here.

To put it simply, we have spent the last two months living in Brooklyn. With Aaron and Melissa’s guidance we have sampled the artisanal food at the weekly Smorgesburg in Williamsburg, tasted the artisanal beer at the local bars, perused the stalls at the Brooklyn Flea, attended movies at BAM, frequented the weekly street markets, attended weekend outdoor concerts in Prospect Park, including GoogaMooga, visited the Brooklyn Museum (Marc has been three times!), the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens as well as an endless list of daily events, if you just have time to fit them in. We are starting to understand why New Yorkers tend to include at least three events into their calendars for each day. There is way too much to do around here, and most things are just too good to miss.

Coney Island

Coney Island

Coney Island during the Mermaid Parade

Some of the other highlights included:

Our friend Micah invited us to attend the Personal Democracy Forum Conference that he and colleague Andrew Rasiej have organized for the last 9 years. It was an amazing experience that you can read about here. There is a video of each of the speaker’s talks at this site and if you have time, I hope you will listen to some of them here. Food for thought.

We attended the Clearwater festival on the Hudson with D & D, S & G where we saw in person for the first time Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and family. I know for East Coast folks it is not unusual to see these guys, but for us it was a very special experience (one more item off the bucket list). The same weekend we also got a chance to get reacquainted with old friends Tom and Mary who hosted all of us for the weekend of the concert. An added treat was being joined by Micha and Leslie at the festival.

Arlo Guthrie and family at Clearwater

Tom Paxton at Clearwater

While in New York, both of our sisters came to visit on separate occasions and we were able to share our excitement with them. Aunty Sandy and Uncle Sheldon also made it to the Big Apple while we were there and we had a great day with them in Brooklyn.

Cousin Sheila was staying in Brooklyn exactly during our time there, so we were able to pretend we still lived in the same building (but this time in Brooklyn) and hang out eating great food while dreaming about being here full time.

We were able to have great extended visits with our friends Doug and Devora and our godchildren Gabi and Sophie in Princeton. Our home away from home!

We managed to make it back to the East Coast in time to celebrate Dotan’s Bar Mitzvah in Philadelphia — mazel tov to the Yardens! And thanks Josh for visiting us often in Princeton.

Friends and family telling their stories at Steve Miller's memorial in Manhattan

We also timed our return to be able to attend our friend Steve Miller’s memorial. Steve Goldman and Marc were able to be included in the multitude of speakers telling their personal stories about Steve. Shortly after the memorial, Bracha arrived and we were all able to have a great dinner with Pam at the only Druse restaurant in Manhattan. Sadly, it would be the last time we would see Bracha’s seeing eye dog Suki, who you can read about here.

Richie also managed to time his visit to New York while we were still around and we had the pleasure of his company for a couple of days. We have a joke going about gin and tonics which we took advantage of while he was in town.

We left Brooklyn on July 5th headed for Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Back to Canada, Canadian dollars, poutine and smoked meat, eh! More on that in the next post.