Monday, 29 November 2010

The pursuit of Happiness

As I finish reading the biography of Voltaire, I came across many facts I was not aware of, per example in his time, people had little knowledge of other countries or of what was going on elsewhere outside of the immediate area where they lived. Well over 95% of the population did not know how to read and write and where so ignorant of the world that the lives of average people was governed by superstitions and whatever the Lord of the Manor or the Priest said to you. Public Opinion as we know it today did not exist. In his time public opinion was people at Court in Versailles and a few intellectuals. The rest of Frenchmen had no knowledge really of what was happening. This gives a very different coloring to mass movements under the Revolution 20 years after his death. The crowds were still being manipulated then by clever orators. Political manipulators who believed they could turn on and off mob fury against anyone perceived as an enemy, this led some historians to state that the French Revolution was more a civil war than a true revolution.

When Voltaire went to England for the first time, it might as well have been to the moon, France and England were vastly different countries, England had a Constitution, a well established Parliament, the Justice system was well organized and there was Freedom of Expression, none of that existed in France.
The Roman Catholic Church controlled many aspects of life in France and any crimes against the Church was punished with extreme severity, cutting off limbs, tearing out of tongues, torture and burning at a stake was very common punishment for any slight against the authority of the Church. Per example failing to remove your hat when a religious procession passed was enough for a death sentence.

With the age of Enlightenment in Europe the idea of Freedom of Expression in France and elsewhere started to gain ground and with it came the idea that man should pursue Happiness. It was a fashionable idea. As of 1730 this idea appears in writings by many philosophers of the time in France and elsewhere.
This idea or concept will then be borrowed by American thinkers who were much influenced by both England and France's Enlightenment movement. This borrowed concept will finally be incorporated into the US Constitution as an idea that all men are entitled to the Pursuit of Happiness, an 18 century concept which has loss its meaning in our modern age.

Legal reforms in France only came about with the Revolution, during Voltaire's life he will write about the need to reform the law, for a separation of Civil and Criminal Law from Church Law. That judges had to be trained in the legal profession and not become judges because they could afford to buy a judgeship. That punishment must be a deterrent not a means to seek revenge.
That Justice is part of the Social Contract and the Law should apply equally to all, whether Noble or Commoner. The accused should have access to legal representation and should be allowed to cross examine witnesses against them.

Many of the ideas of the time were about shaking off the authority of the Church and its stranglehold on society. Allowing men, at first this meant people who had property and where educated compared to all of society as we think of it today, to have a social contract between the governed and the King, establishing obligations and basic rights. Voltaire or any other person, per example could not travel abroad without permission of the King.

Books which were denounced by the Church and failed to pass the Censors at Court could be burned publicly. Writers of such banned books could also face severe punishment. It is difficult for us to imagine  today in our Western World where we can do and say pretty much whatever we want and have the freedom to travel and behave inappropriately and not fear any retribution what it must have been like to live in such a repressive regime.  Of course such regime exist still today in some parts of the world.

The ideas of the French Enlightenment were denounced by the Church as the work of Satan and the Church used its enormous powers and influence to persecute anyone who dared challenge the established authority.  After reading Voltaire's correspondence contained in this book, I understand better the ferocity of the Revolution against the old order and the Church in France in particular.

Caramel, a sweet and hair remover

Caramel (2007) Directed by Nadine Labaki; written (in Arabic and French, with English subtitles) by Ms. Labaki, Jihad Hojeily and Rodney Al Haddad.

This month ARTE the French-German Television station is celebrating its 20th Anniversary. They are showing award winning movies from the film Festivals of Europe. Caramel is a Lebanese production and refers to the sweet which is used in Oriental cultures also as a hair remover. The Beirut beauty salon where most of  ''Caramel" takes place is likely to be a familiar type of establishment, even to people who have never been to the Lebanese capital. What the shop lacks in sleekness and chic it makes up for in the kind of friendly, sisterly warmth. 

Women of various shapes, sizes, ages and backgrounds gather to bond and gossip. Their camaraderie is occasionally disrupted by a crisis, but you are likely to remember this charming film, directed by Nadine Labaki, less for its gently comic, mildly melodramatic plot than for its friendly and inviting atmosphere.

Ms. Labaki plays Layale, owner of the shop, which is called Si Belle. Like many unmarried women in the Middle East, Layale, in spite of her professional independence, lives with her parents. She is also having an affair with a married man and spends anxious hours waiting for him to call, ignoring the attentions of a handsome traffic policeman who is obviously smitten with her.

Layale’s friends and co-workers are supportive and tolerant of her, and also have troubles of their own. Jamale (Gisèle Aouad) is a recently divorced actress made frantic by the necessity of competing with younger women for work in television commercials. Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), a Muslim, is engaged and is worried about what will happen if her future husband discovers that she isn’t a virgin. Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), who cleans up around the shop and washes hair, develops a crush on an elegant client. And then there is Aunt Rose (Siham Haddad), a seamstress who lives down the street from Layale’s shop with her demanding, mentally disabled sister, Lili (Aziza Semaan).

Life for these women is not easy or especially fair, and each of them faces moments of humiliation, loneliness and potential heartbreak, there are also twinges of real pain and disappointment.
But in the best melodramatic tradition, their toughness, good humor and loyalty see them through. 

I very much liked this movie because it shows life as it is and not as it is too often portrayed in the news. I know, for having lived for 8 years in the Middle-East, such charming people and their family, their stories and little dramas, hopes and joys. The movie touches on many topics, adultery, homosexuality, women's issues, marriage, family life. It brought back many memories of cities like Cairo, Amman, Damascus and Beirut, where I lived or worked or visited many times over.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Advent Calendar

Well today is the first Sunday of Advent and on 1 December we will start our Advent Calendar. Will got me this very nice Calendar made of wood with little drawers containing each one Nougat. I love Nougat, there is something so rich in the name itself, there are 24 in total.

 Next week, it's the start of the Xmas Markets all over Europe, here in Italy and in Germany, Austria, lots of good things to eat and hot Spiced Wine.
We will be sure to visit some market. In Rome Piazza Navona has a Xmas Market, but we have been to Germany who has great Xmas Markets, music, good food, specialties and all kinds of handicraft for Christmas. It simply beats any shopping you might do in a store.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Reading China Daily

The Official newspaper of the Government of China, the China Daily is published in several languages and brings news from China that indicate where the Chinese Communist Party is taking the country. News Items prior to the G20 in Korea indicated through a series of interviews that the People's Republic of China was not about to help the USA with its current financial problems, senior official stated that they knew in advance that the Western Press would make much of the current undervalue of the Yuan or Renminbi the official currency of China but for them the G20 meeting was about much more than that, inasmuch as the value of the Yuan is not really a pressing concern for the Chinese Government. What they wish to talk about is more global issues on trade. Then after the G20 meeting the White House and the Western Press were talking about how the meetings had not gone well and how China had said little about the value or letting the Yuan float to a higher level against the US dollar. The real message which was not carried by the Western media was that China and Russia are about to drop the dollar as a currency in which they conduct foreign trade. The Chinese believe that the US dollar is a weak currency brought down by massive debt and the US President is not able to be decisive and is now weaken by a Republican Congress. The Chinese are not interested in weak leaders or countries with big debts and since China owns much of the US credit debt it is now unloading it around the world. Then on the 24 and 25 November articles in the China Daily announced that Premier Wen of China and Premier Putin of Russia had concluded an agreement to use each others currency when doing bilateral trade. This is a powerful signal that the US dollar is no longer considered by China as a strong currency and that they do not intend to allow their currency to reach a higher value against the US dollar. For the USA this chess move is a signal that the end game as started, China intends to replace the USA as a dominant economic force and that the USA will not be able to surmount the numerous economic problems facing it.

China has started to dump US dollars and buying other currencies weakening further the US dollar and by creating its own consumer class in China (about one billion people) they will no longer need the USA for its own goods. For China trade partners now are Brazil and India, Russia the old ally of the cold war.
Leave the Americans to their troubles with war on terrorism, Afghanistan, Irak, North Korea and its Nuclear Program, Iran and the Middle East issue, and its economic woes, in other words enough on the US plate to exhaust completely the rival. The Chinese Communist never forgave nor forgot that the USA supported Taiwan and the Nationalists against the Communists nor the humiliation of years of being snubbed by the USA until Kissinger and Nixon finally decided they could recognize China. The recognition though came but not on American terms.

Unfortunately no US politician will have the courage to point to the coming years of difficult economic reality at home, no one is willing to believe despite all the signals that this is happening.  The sun is finally setting and in ten to fifteen years time, a short time really, China will be telling the USA what to do.  By running after too many rabbits at once the US has exhausted itself. In the meantime China continues to invest massively in Africa, South America and Europe. It has already come to the rescue of Greece and is doing so in many other countries, eclipsing the USA. China has the money and loads of cheap labor, the signs have been there for years but no one paid attention. It is worth reading China Daily to know what is happening or where things are going.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Something I have learned since 7 July

On 7 July 2010, I started my diet with a dietician, a professional well known to many other health providers in Rome. She is very good and I lost a lot of weight around 12kg. I am so far 4 kg or 8 lbs short of my perfect weight. I did this to improve my health and also to get my blood pressure under control to a more normal level, it is not high, it is on the border, either over slightly or just normal.

What I learned during this process is how men can develop specific male health problems with the weight around their waist area, the fat in that area can cause with age a lot of serious health problems. Now this week I had surgery for an hernia, it was large and more serious than I thought. What I learned from speaking with the surgeon and the resident doctor was that male abdominal muscles are very important and should not be neglected, they play an important part in keeping everything in place. Unfortunately too many men do not seem to be aware of this fact and have soft abdominal muscles and thus many problems with their back and with hernias etc...   Lifestyles and drinking habits, lack of exercise and often deskjobs do not help.
I find that too often we are unaware as men of the dangers of poor habits, they are not discussed in the media and are not part of the general discussion in society. I for one was mildly aware of what I should do and also as you age needs change. The fact that the image we see is usually of young under 35 men and that programs of exercise or diet are focused on youth leaves anyone else older out in the cold, youth sells in the Marketing world, even with an aging population.

In North America it is a phenomenon of its own, you can easily find articles on women topic, from food to health, to fashion, education, work and career. Try finding anything about men, it is far more difficult and it is often very slanted. Same goes for medical or health information, information is not provided with the optic to grab the interest of a readership but is more focused on telling us about a problem without offering any solutions. If a solution is offered it is often a fad and will not last. So you need to get good advice from a professional.

So it is up to us individually to inform ourselves of what we should be aware, small things are often more important than we think.
Out of my hospital adventure I received these very nice flowers from my colleagues at the Office.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Back from Villa Mafalda

Well yesterday I had my surgery, it was not a day surgery, walk in and out procedure. It was painful but all is well now and am resting with pain killers. It really is a nice clinic or Casa di Cura as we say here in Rome. Lots of care for the patient and lots of attention to details. The food is good too served on nice china ware.  The big stress was that all of this happens in Italian and when you are groggy with painkillers words escape you and you do not know how to explain what you are feeling, however the nursing staff speak a little English and one of the doctors spoke French. The pain is described in Italian as fastidioso or dolore intenso. Then there are all the little details, what you cannot do or should avoid after the operation. I also like the fact that the doctor pointed out to me that there will be no scar, important detail per la bella figura.
I have to go back in a few days for a check-up and settle the bill, it is a private clinic, so it is not cheap.
But then again you do not wait and all is done in an atmosphere of calm, cannot say that about public hospitals in Rome.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Life in Rome

On Friday night we went to one of our neighborhood restaurant's called Stella Maris (Sea Star), the specialty is fish and it is owned by a family from Sardinia. The food is good and we being regulars and neighbors always have a table. Had some mussels and then some calamari and octopus a nice green salad and a little dessert, all with a nice Vermentino White wine. After dinner I asked the owner for a glass of Mirto which is a liquor made of Myrtle which is his specialty and is served with spice cookies his wife makes. He also surprised us with a plate of hot chestnuts to go with our Mirto. How very nice I thought, it is chestnut and Olive Oil season right now in Italy, in France its Beaujolais nouveau but here in Italy it is unknown. We  have 16,000 wine labels in Italy so Beaujolais is not exactly something people go for.

The chestnuts were good and hot to handle, delicious and on a cold night was just the perfect way to finish a meal, a luxury.

On Tuesday I will have a small operation in an Italian Hospital, being operated on by a Italian Surgeon all in Italian. I have been to Mexican and Polish Hospitals in the past and the service was always fine and
have really no problems with getting medical problems attended to. This time maybe because I am older I am a bit apprehensive, it is surgery, nothing complicated and the doctor is well recommended by everyone I spoke too. I suppose what bothers me is that with the stress of the operation is the fact that it will be in a foreign language.  I speak some Italian and I do understand what people are saying quite well, it is just that I have to make an effort to pay attention, so I catch the meaning of it all. The hospital is a private clinic and it is well known. But surgery is always a little stressful no matter what.
Because of this medical situation, I missed yesterday a private visit to the Quirinal Palace, a real shame.
I will not be able to go for lunch and the opera in Florence next week.  But I cannot put this off, it must be taken care of now.

So is life.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

François Marie Arouet dit Voltaire 1694-1778

Well you probably heard of Voltaire the author of Candide which was made into a musical by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. He wrote many works in his lifetime and his writings challenged the establishment in France and elsewhere in Europe.
Unfortunately like many famous historical figures he has become a bit of a caricature. Popular culture sort of reduces everything to a cliché. So in Montreal I went into one of my favorite bookstore on Green Ave in Westmount, Nicholas Hoare, , they always have the nicest collection of books. I saw this book, a biography of Voltaire by Ian Davidson, published by Pegasus Books. Davidson took over 1860 letters written by Voltaire during his life to friends, acquaintances, Kings and government officials. It's Voltaire speaking and talking about himself, his life, a very personal, intimate portrait of the man. He suffered from depression, he wanted to be recognized and loved, he was a syncophant, he suffered from erectile disfunction at 50, he had an incestuous affair with his niece Madame Denis who was 20 years younger than he was. He also lacked judgement sometimes and fancied himself a great spy, he was simply an amateur in diplomacy, especially when he wanted to reconcile France and Prussia. He spoke English well and also wrote in English. He became very rich early on in life, he had a very difficult relationship with his father and his brother Armand.
                                              François Marie Arouet, Voltaire

He became the epitome of the age of French Enlightenment, a new man who challenged by his writings the Ancien Regime and was hated by the Roman Catholic Church for exposing its hypocrisy and corruption.   He never sought to become the leading figure of the Enlightenment movement nor the leader of anything for that matter, but in his life time he was famous and controversial all over Europe. He feared rivals or persecution by the authorities, he was intensely ambitious for literary success, his career was marked by feuds and crises. It certainly gives me a better appreciation for the man who in Canada is remembered for saying that '' Canada was nothing more than a few hectares of snow''. In his life time France lost North America to England to the regret of every French government since.  This biography shows the man in his greatness but also as a human being, capable of folly and pettiness, who in the latter part of his life realized that he was part of a greater movement heralding a totally new age.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Visited with Mom

I believe that I wrote some time ago of a visit with my Mom who is now in a care facility. Mom is slowly dying of Alzheimer, it has been 11 years now. She is still looking healthy, good skin tone and lively eyes, she loves to listen to opera music, eats well, smiles and laughs a lot. What we can no longer do is have a conversation and she no longer remembers who I am, though she will at times give you a look indicating a brief moment of lucidity, she seems to recognize me but does not remember my name anymore. My sister had warned me that things had changed since the last visit. Looking back I now see how things were five years ago, when she still went out with my Dad to the restaurant and enjoying outings and then two years ago when she entered this facility and today.
It’s very painful to see this slow but sure decline.

On the other hand my father has increasing pulmonary health problems and with the cold humid windy winters in Montreal, I am also worried about him. His lungs are very fragile and he has to be constantly careful.

Talked with my sister and brother-in-law who are both in the health field and have a lot of experience with elderly people, death and dying.

This morning just before going to the airport, I went to see the doctor who has been following my mother for years now and spoke with him about what to expect.

We had a good conversation on what to expect in the next three years. Mom is now at stage 7, the final stage and it is a matter of time before the disease completes its progress.  The doctor explained what to expect, it is not pretty and I was distressed to hear it. I find it necessary to know, so that I can prepare myself for what will happen. Talked with my sister and her husband, my father has a lot of problems with acceptance and what is coming. Luckily my Mom had the foresight to tells us all many times some years ago before she became ill and to include in her living Will that she does not want any extreme measures and machines to keep her alive or to prolong life. She has always said that when it is time to go, its better to leave with dignity than to hang on.

It does not help that today the weather is gray, dreary and rainy.

Sitting at Montreal, Dorval AKA Pierre E. Trudeau airport

I remember this airport from the 1960’s when flying was an exotic adventure for a few lucky people and if you flew overseas well that was as if you were going to the moon. I had one uncle who worked for Air Canada and he and my aunt would travel to Italy, Portugal and France, they were like astronauts to us kids. No one travelled much further than somewhere in Canada and usually by train or to the USA, even then a lot of people drove to Florida in winter.

To me the airport in Montreal will always be Dorval named after a French Aristocrat who owned the land in the area during the French Regime in Canada (1534-1763). Currently it has been re-named and re-built completely as the P.E. Trudeau airport after our late Prime Minister of the 1970’s. Dorval is also the oldest city on the West Island of Montreal, founded in 1667 by les Messieurs de Saint-Sulpice, the Sulpicians and led by French Nobles, Father François Salignac de Fénelon founded a school and a mission post for the Indians. Pierre Le Gardeur de Repentigny was the owner of “La Presentation” at the time. In 1691, Jean-Baptiste Bouchard d’Orval bought the “La Présentation” land. The word “d’Orval” which was the name of a small hamlet where he was born in Aisne, France. 

The airport use to have a restaurant called the Kebec on the second floor, the specialty was roast beef with all the fixing and the décor was sumptuous with views of the runways, going to this restaurant prior to a flight was a big thing, it was exciting and glamorous. You had a huge meal with cocktails and wine and then took your flight. No security lines in those days, once you were checked-in that was it. There was also one hotel at the airport a Hilton and every Sunday night they had a radio show on CJAD live from the Jupiter Lounge with big band dance music, it was part of the marvel of air travel and the glamour that went with it, Will loves to say that in those days Gentlemen and Ladies flew on aircrafts, men wore tie and jacket and ladies had nice dresses and pearls. We are very far from this era today, the glamour is gone and people dress as if they are cleaning out the garage, many are also very self-absorbed.

Today the Hilton Dorval is gone, it has been replaced by a newly built Marriott and the airport terminal itself has been completely rebuilt, you could not say where the old terminal buildings were. It still has that Canadian homey feeling, big but not too big, it is practical, modern and has a no nonsense approach.

Went through security easily, lots of staff, well organized, helpful, they tell you what to do to speed things along. The food options are very different nowadays, mostly fast food, but I note a lot of options for vegetarians and people wanting to eat healthy, fresh fruits, etc..

Despite the number of passengers it is relatively quiet.
So onwards to Zurich a city I have not visited since 1975.
Again this time I will only see the airport terminal between 2 flights. Zurich Airport is sleek and clean as a whistle, just what you expect in Switzerland with that funny singsong low German-Swiss they speak. 

Saturday, 6 November 2010

125th Anniversary Transcontinental Canada

This weekend is the 125th anniversary of the inauguration and completion of the Transcontinental railway across Canada, it was built as a promise to the Province of British Columbia in 1871, so that they would join the union with other Canadian Provinces. It was completed by Sir William Van Horne in 1885. The Last Spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was the final spike driven at Craigellachie, British Columbia at 9:22 am on November 7.
Some 30,000 men and 6,000 Chinese migrant workers built this railway which is clearly a symbol of Canadianism linking the Nation from Sea to shining Sea, across several time zones and thousands of kilometers. With the Maple Leaf, the Beaver, the railway is an iconic symbol for all Canadians.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Changes everywhere

After work I make a point of going for a little walk, the building we are in is 50 years old and is not in good condition and has very poor air circulation, so you feel tired after a few hours. Ottawa is enjoying some very good weather though a bit cold but sunny, so I go for a walk. Today I walked down Laurier ave towards the Rideau Canal ( a UNESCO site) and the University of Ottawa, my old Alma Mater. Incredible changes on campus, so many new faculty buildings, modern architecture and hundreds of trees planted all over the campus making it a very green place.  A new foot bridge, said to be the most used bridge across the canal connects the University centre with the Queen Elizabeth Drive. When I think of what the campus was like when I was a student, it was mostly a huge paved parking lot with a few old buildings, some with a historical background, not exactly an inspired campus. In the last 30 years, the campus has been transformed.

What has also changed is the restaurant scene in Ottawa, a city not known in the past for fine dining, people use to go across the Ottawa River to Gatineau for fine French restaurants. On the weekend the city was basically dead and on Sunday's you could not even buy gas. In the last 10 years the restaurant scene has been  totally transformed.  Some very good restaurants have now opened with creative chefs and innovative menus. Gone are the cheap eateries and poor service in mediocre decor. The restaurant scene has certainly matured, to the great benefit of the city.

What I also notice is the number of monuments which have sprouted all over the centre of the Capital.
It use to be that most monuments were concentrated on Parliament Hill around the Houses of Parliament, now you find them around the War Memorial on Confederation Square and along the great avenues.
It is also interesting to note the number of streets which have been transformed like old Wellington Street near Richmond Road, Bank street, King Edward, there has been obvious investments and urban renewal. Not to mention the new Convention Centre twice the size of the old one.

Now if only the new Mayor and City Council can solve the problem of the rapid transit system through the centre of the city, it should make for an interesting improvement to the Capital.