Sunday, 30 June 2013

O Canada terre de nos aïeux!

Here are some numbers on Canada for this 1 July 2013.

Canada turns 146 this Canada Day. Some other numbers and their significance for Canada:
4 The number of Canadian provinces on the day of Confederation.
9 The number of Canadians to travel to space.
12 The number of Academy Awards given to National Film Board productions.
16 The number of UNESCO world heritage sites (with eight more listed as tentative).
21 The number of Canadian Nobel laureates.
33 The number of years O Canada has been the official national anthem.
56 The number of Canadian-born celebrities with stars on the Hollywood walk of fame.
85 The percentage of the world’s maple syrup produced in Canada (most of which comes from Quebec).
200, approx. The number of languages spoken in Canadian homes as of 2011.
308 The number of seats in the House of Commons.
525 The number of Canadians to play in an NHL game during the 2011-12 season (making up 53 per cent of total players in the league).
36,138 The average income per capita as of 2012.
8,892 The length (in kilometres) of the border between U.S. and Canada (making it the longest international boundary in the world).
1.4 million The aboriginal population of Canada as of 2011.
9,984,671 Canada’s total area in square kilometres.
33,476,688 Canada’s population as of 2011.
48 the number of years since the proclamation of the New Canadian flag in 1965.

From a more personal note: 
To me Canada is not about a lot of cliches which come to mind on our National day. No it is about the dialogue we can have in this country to advance social causes. In the 1970's the death penalty was done away with and the National consensus was that it was the right thing to do. Then came the decriminalisation of sex acts between consenting adults, in the famous phrase of our Prime Minister Pierre E. Trudeau, the Government has no business in the bedrooms of the Nation. Then came the Charter of Rights which changed Canada for better or for worse, depending on your point of view. Yes we have become obsessed with our rights instead of our responsibilities but in the end it was for the greater good, all of us benefitted in one way or another from this Charter becoming the Law. One consequence being that 10 years ago Same-Sex Marriage came to be and it is accepted by the majority of people. 

We came about all these changes and many more not mentioned here because we could achieve a consensus on a National Level without falling into the usual traps we see in so many other Nations. We had a discussion amongst ourselves and in the many public consultations. The process was not highjacked by some special interest group or Church. It was us the Citizens of Canada who decided and our politicians who had a vision of where we could go. 

In some cases the Supreme Court of Canada pushed the Government or Parliament to act. No one took the Justices to task for ordering the politicians to act in accordance to our Constitution and to their responsibilities. This civilized approach is a great blessing and is not common amongst Western Nations, if I only look at recent examples in France, UK and the USA.  This is what I like the most about my country. Nothing is perfect in this world and I often complain about what I see as needing reform. 

Nonetheless what we have in Canada allows us to live in an inclusive society, that idea has made much progress in the last 40 years again to our benefit. Our social safety net guarantees social Peace and stability, something that is not always valued and often underestimated. People are equal despite the economic discrepancies. For all this and more I am grateful.

Canada is my home, la terre de mes Aïeux. 

Bonne Fête du Canada à tous! 

Saturday, 29 June 2013


Today is a rainy day or another rainy day, we have had quite a few so far this Spring and Summer.
So not being able to go outside given the steady and heavy downpour I decided to look into our storage room and open the 6 large packages containing all my Oriental rugs which I bought many years ago in Damascus and Tehran. They were all packed when we left Rome and not yet opened.

Damascus has always been a good second hand and old carpet market. The best carpet shops are or should I say were, in the old Souk (Market Place) near the Omayyad Mosque and the old ruined Roman temple. I wonder what has happened to this market place and the people I use to know there. The Civil War in Syria has certainly turned everything on its head and we are now looking at a very bleak future for Syrians.

Tehran and Iran also has a rich carpet culture, many designs from various regions and tribal areas, each with its signature style in colours and patterns, beautifully hand woven in wool with natural dyes.

The origin of the carpet market in Damascus goes back to a time many centuries ago when travellers would bring with them carpets to sell so they could finance their trip to Mecca in the Hejaz. Carpets could easily be sold, sometimes for lots of money if the carpet was a rare design or of a particular high quality weave and so it went to this day, prior to the Civil War.

Travellers came from as far away as Central Asia and by way of caravan would go all the way to the Hejaz, covering several thousand kilometers in the process. Today the trip is done by truck, the whole family piles in and travels for weeks. I remember each year when pilgrimage time came for Muslims, you would meet families on the side of the road selling their carpets. Many would stop in Damascus where they would meet the merchants who had a keen eye for the best quality. Carpets would be bought after lenghty bargaining, it is all a bit like poker, who has the best cards. You could be sure that the merchants did not pay a lot of money for the carpets, the trick is to know not to pay too much because you know that in the shop your customers may be just as difficult in what they think is the correct price.

This is where you can tell a Westerner from an Asian, how many times Westerner show their hand too quickly by asking right out, how much is it. Big mistake, you just lost the game and will probably pay far too much. Another rule was that if you asked how much, you were committing yourself to buying the carpet and once that done you could not back out, unless you saw another rug which was, by agreement of all parties present, of better quality.

Another source of amusement was when Western tourists would walk into a store, husband and wife with kids, wife did all the talking and bargaining, husband looks bored and does not participate or worse find an excuse to step out, leaving is wife to be the man in the family. Merchants know how to reel in that sort of tourist. Later you would here the wife explain how she got a real good bargain by only paying thousands of dollars for a rug worth maybe a few hundreds at most.

When in a carpet market observing and respecting cultural differences is very important. Don't play the affirmative action scenario, won't work and you will be the one loosing.

Merchants of course in a place like Damascus which saw a lot of tourist knew all the angles and how to play Western tourists. After all one has to remember it is exactly like a game of cards and the rules are the rules. I quickly learned from my Arab friends what to say and how to play the game.

If the merchant asked me what I would like to see, I would explain that I was looking for something specific without saying what exactly. What dimensions do you want, a big rug, a small prayer rug, maybe a silk rug.  I never bought a silk carpet simply because I do not like them. They are meant to be hung on walls as far as I am concerned.

In a carpet shop there is no need to explain where you are from or what room you will put your carpet in or for that matter that your cousin Betty Sue has one just like that and how cheap it was. Too much information and you are giving away the game.

The merchant would then start showing me some rugs, one, two, three or more, all the time observing my reaction. Silence is best during this period, showing too much interest and you are again giving away your intentions, showing your hand as it were. Always remember that this is going to take time, maybe the whole afternoon, no one cares about time. You will be offered tea with lots of mint and sugar, too hide the fact that it is not of very good quality. Food may also be offered, don't worry no one will ask you to pay for it.

It is also best to sit while the merchant is showing you rugs, he usually has one or two helpers who do all the manual work while he speaks with you. He will off course ask you how much you would like to pay, it is best to say that it all depends on the carpet and then maybe we can agree on a mutually fair price, NEVER give an amount, you will ruin the game.

After looking at 20 or more rugs all piled up on the ground, you may say to the merchant that one rug did catch your eye, Oh! he will say surprised. Where is it, I just saw it, at this point the merchant will have his helpers sort out the carpets quickly.
So that we can find the one you wanted. At this point I would say that in fact I was looking for maybe 2 or 3 carpets not just one. So I raised the stakes, making this game even more interesting. Funny how merchants love for Westerners to play the game with them, it is more interesting for them than the usual Arab customer.

It is also important to be somewhat aloof and formal, always polite and pay compliments on the quality of the carpets being shown, this will score points with the merchant. Being overly friendly and laughing loudly, talking to much, is not going to work, you are there for a negotiation. So many Westerners have absolutely no patience for this and cannot be bothered, preferring to pay too much instead of playing the game. It is also pointless to ask if the carpets are made by child labour and give the usual speech about child labour. You will only get the usual prepared response to Western concerns.

I would then narrow down which carpets I wanted and slowly start talking price, but first I would do what all serious carpet buyer does, take off my shoes and walk barefoot on the carpet, kneel on it to feel the weave and ask that it be turned so I could examine the weave underneath by running my fingers on it and asking about the number of treads. If you do this without being prompted by the merchant, this will show that you are serious. I heard some Westerner say, oh no need to do that, I trust that it is good quality, obviously not understanding that no one buys a carpet on the word of the seller.

Carpets are bought by men in the Middle East, like meat or sea food at the grocery store. It is just one of those traditions, its a man job. Again it flies in the face of what we believe in the West but you are dealing with ancient cultures and norms change slowly and some do not change at all.

When we finally came to talking price, I would not say how much I was willing to pay, instead making a point that I wanted quality but had limited means and beg the merchant to understand my position again complimenting him on the quality of his shop, quickly adding that I would be paying in cash on the spot if we could agree, God Willing!

The merchant would then announce a price, I would of course say I was surprised and protest that I simply could not afford it. After all I wanted to buy maybe 3 carpets and how could I if I gave all my money on one carpet. Please give me a better price. The merchant now clearly has the ball on his side and he has to know what to say to close the deal. He too will protest that he has children to feed etc...
It is all a big game, keep smiling and pile on the compliments while saying at the same time, what should I do and look a little worried.

Ask again for a better price, never give an amount out because this will be the defacto price and the bargaining will be over. Finally, I would simply say that I will buy this and that carpet but we must reach a good price. The merchant sensing that the sale is imminent will state what he will call his last price, but remember this is not the absolute last price, it is just a last price. Finally you can now announce how much you are willing to pay, remember again to give an amount 15% lower than what you are actually willing to pay being careful that the amount you name does not insult the merchant. If he said 100 you can say 75, for sure he will then lower his price to 90 you can raise to 80 making sure that he understand that you have little room left. Take your time at this point, stay very calm and cool.

Finally you will probably agree to 85 as the absolute last price, at that point you cannot back out of the sale, to do so would show you have no honour and the merchant would loose face, something that must not happen ever. It did happen once to me, I accompanied friends to a shop and at the last moment the wife of said friend decided to walk out of the deal, I was mortified, this may work in Canada but does not work at all anywhere else. She simply did not understand how insulting her behaviour was.

You can be sure that if you concluded a sale in one store, you will always be welcome to return and next time probably treated like family, but that does not mean the prices will be much better, just a little better.

I really enjoyed my time buying carpets and have very fond souvenirs of those days. Something you simply cannot replicate here in North America.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Canada at the 55th International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

Marc Mayer Director of the National Gallery of Canada speaks of the art of Sherry Boyle at the Canada Pavilion in Venice, Italy.

If you are in Venice this summer you can visit this exhibit. 

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Summer Season and the National Holidays in Canada

Depending on your point of view or decrees of Parliament in Ottawa, we have 2 National Holidays, one is on 24 June know as La Saint-Jean or La Fête Nationale, the other is July 1 Canada Day also known as Dominion Day. Of course we all know now that Ottawa is actually built on Algonquin land, meaning that we are squatters? Parliament has not addressed that one yet, but I am sure it is coming.

Lucky us the weather since 21 June finally turned warm but not hot. So as tradition decrees the Governor General's Foot Guard, he also has a Horse Guard but they are stationed in Toronto,
are at Rideau Hall for the Annual Inspection Ceremony.

The Governor General, His Excellency, the Right Honorable David Johnston, C.C., C.M.M., C.O.M. inspects the Guards.
You can also see them every morning at 10 am sharp on Parliament Hill and at Rideau Hall.

Gate at Rideau Hall

Rideau Hall Residence of the Governor General of Canada since 1867. The other Residence is at the Citadelle of Quebec City where the GG spends part of the Summer months. Rideau Hall is open to the public and can be visited.

Also with summer, you can see the Musical Ride of the RCMP which is quite the exciting show with lots of dressage and horsemanship.

Finally as we enter into Canada Week, I unfurled my old Canadian flag, the one which has travelled with me all over the world for the last 33 years and has been on display every Dominion or Canada Day. This year it hangs from our balcony, the neighbours have already complimented us.

Monday, 24 June 2013

La Saint-Jean, 24 Juin 2013

Bonne Fête de la Saint-Jean à tous!

Le drapeau du Québec depuis le 21 janvier 1948. The flag of Quebec is designed according to the old Carillon French Regimental flag. The blue is the symbol of France and of the Virgin Mary since ancient times, the fleur de lys is the symbol of the French Monarchy and the White Cross is the symbol of Catholicism.

Le feu de la Saint-Jean une tradition depuis les temps immémoriaux. Celebrating the Summer Solstice with a huge bonfire as did our ancestors the Gauls, who worshipped the Sun and elements fire and Earth.

 Notre Dame des Victoires 1687, Old Quebec City, lower town.
 Les Plaines d'Abraham, Quebec, below the St-Laurent a magnificent river which at this point becomes a bras de mer, with a mixture of sweet and salty water. Here looking East towards l'Ile d'Orléans.
Vieux Quebec, 17th century buildings in Lower town.

At the Citadelle de Quebec on Cap Diamant, home of the Royal 22 Regiment, the most famous Regiment of the Canadian Army, known as the Regiment Canadien Francais, with many illustrious military heroes of the  First and Second World War.

Berlin developments

If you are a reader of this blog you will know that for the last 15 years I have been following developments in Berlin in regards to the re-building of significant 18th century buildings in the City centre and in surrounding areas including the old Royal Capital of Potsdam.

For the last 20 years the Government of the City of Berlin and the Federal Government of Germany and the Land of Brandenburg have invested phenomenal amounts of money into making of Berlin once again a great European Capital as it was prior to 1933 when the Nazi dictatorship took over Germany which led to so much destruction and death.

The vision of the German authorities as been to return Berlin to its status as a City of Enlightenment as it was under Frederick II of Prussia and under the numerous philosophers, musicians and artists which made Germany famous.

All the great museums of the Museum Island in central Berlin have now been rebuilt and refurbished, so too the Lutheran Cathedral. The great avenue Unter den Linden is once again lined with double rows of Linden trees from the Brandenburg Gate to the Palace Bridge and the various historical buildings lining this famous avenue have also been restored.

A group of German Citizens got together and proposed that the City Palace be rebuilt so to complete the architectural ensemble of the German Capital. The Palace was the Berlin Residence of the Hohenzollern Dynasty who ruled Brandenburg, then Prussia as of 1701 and the German Empire from 1870. The entire life cycle of Berlin for the last 800 + years have been marked by this one reigning family.

The Palace was heavily bombed and caught fire in the last days of the Second World War, though damaged the Palace could have been salvaged but in 1950 the Communist rulers of what had become the Eastern sector of Berlin decided to blow up and demolish what was left. Instead they built in 1974 a People's Palace in the traditional brutal architectural style of the Communist era. With the reunification of the city after 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall and Communist regime, Berlin became once again the Capital of a United Germany. The German Parliament moved from Bonn to Berlin and re-occupied the re-built Reichstag. The British Architect Norman Foster preserved the old walls of the building but designed an entirely modern structure inside, using glass for walls and the great dome. He explained that the transparency of glass would be the symbol of the return of democracy.

Now after years of debate and fund raising by citizens the old Imperial City Palace of the Hohenzollern is being re-built on the scale it once occupied, the outside walls will be exactly as they were before the war, however the inside will now be dedicated to learning. For this reason it will be called the Humboldt Forum, after Wilhelm and Alexander Von Humboldt who were friends with Schiller and Goethe. The Palace re-building program is financed by private funds and supplemented by the Senate of Berlin and the Federal Government of Germany. Total cost of rebuilding the Palace $780 million dollars, completion date 2018.

Here are some pictures of the construction activities and area.

 Cathedral of Berlin at night across the street from the construction site

Humboldt Box interpretation centre on the reconstruction project

 Part of the site under construction
From the café terrace of the Humboldt Box view of another part of this reconstruction project.

 What it will look like once re-built, front facade.

Side cut view of the whole building, this entire project was conceived by an Italian architect.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Parliament Hill, Ottawa

This week I was driving down Wellington Street passing in front of Parliament and noticed some progress on the renovation of the various buildings. A comprehensive program of renovation of all buildings in the Parliamentary precinct started about 5 years ago and will continue until 2017. This means that plumbing, electricity, roofs and windows and cleaning of the stones on the buildings is painstakingly done to ensure historical accuracy. Asbestos also has to be removed and so far tons of it have been taken out of the West block. The roofs are also a complicated task, it is all copper and much of it has intricate ornamental facets. You need special craftsmen to work on the copper and reproduce all the detailing.

What I did notice was that the wall along the street has been renovated as well as the gates. In the late 1950's when the car was king of the road, the wall along Wellington street was opened to allow car traffic to enter directly, one entrance was at Metcalfe street and another one near O'Connor street, the Gates at the East block was considerably widened. Now some 55 years later these modern entrances have been closed off again and the wall re-built as it would have looked around 1860.  This means using the same stone and carving the various motifs into it, there is also some wrought iron work involved since the gates have to be recreated as they were then. The original work was done by Scottish and French-Canadian tradesmen. The same people who had worked previously on the building of the Rideau Canal which starts in Ottawa. The only restricted car entrance to the Hill is now located at Bank street and Wellington street, basically only members of Parliament and Senators can drive unto the Hill with a special permit pass after they have gone through a car screening process.

 Parliament Hill, original fence of stone and wrought iron along Wellington street, the stone work is black with 150 year old soot.
 Re-built wall at O'Connor street, the stone is new but carved in the original setting of 1860.
 Here you see the blackened original pillar standing next to the new re-built one. Closing once again what was a car entrance installed in late 1950's.
 Leaf detail carved like original pillar.
 Re-built wall at Metcalfe street work still in progress
 East Block Gate re-built and now waiting for the Wrought Iron Gates to be installed.
 Another view of the East Block Gate from Wellington street.
Sovereign's Gate, Main Gate of Parliament Hill only opened for the Sovereign or the Governor General.

Other work is also going on with the various buildings. The old Bank of Montreal Building at O'Connor street and Wellington street is being completely transformed to be used by Parliamentarians and the Government for Official functions and State occasions. The building is in the Art Deco style and has beautiful black marble and other coloured marbles inside.
The Bank of Montreal Building on Wellington Street being transformed into the Official function room of Parliament, next to it will be other rooms and kitchens.

The Old Metropolitan Life Insurance Company is also being totally re-furbished to be used by the Senate as a library, research centre and Offices for junior Senators. The more senior Senators will have their offices in the main Central block of Parliament.

 The West Block (1857) all the stone work has to be re-done, copper roof replaced
 This portion is partially completed with new copper roof on one tower.
 The blue paper structure here is in fact the roof of one of the towers, which was detached and brought down waiting for its new copper cladding, before being re-installed.
This picture show the back or North side of the West Block renovated only the new windows are missing.

The West Block is probably the one building which is being completely re-built from the ground up. It had been badly modernized in 1959 and currently only the outside walls have been preserved everything else has been demolished. This building originally built in 1859 will be used once again for Parliament Committee meetings and Offices for Members of Parliament. The famous Room 200 which was the party room for Parliament has been demolished and the old Bank of Montreal Building across the street will replace it.

The East Block is also undergoing major renovation to its roof and it is partially completed.
 New copper roof on the East block with wrought iron detailing
Governor General's entrance to the East block on Parliament Hill.
Prior to 1939 most Government departments, the Cabinet room, the Governor General's Office were all located in this building. Difficult to imagine by today's standard. All have moved out except for the Cabinet room.

The Langevin Building, across the street from Parliament Hill houses the Privy Council of Her Majesty in Canada and the Prime Minister's Office which is a government department by itself. The building is not big enough for all the staff and many are working in buildings on Sparks Street behind.

 The Library of Parliament directly behind the Central Block, original building of 1876, survived intact the great fire of 1916 which destroyed the central block because the Librarian had closed the Bronze doors connecting it to the central block of Parliament.
Architectural detail of the Library of Parliament in Canadian Revival Gothic Style. The interior in Canadian woods and the marble statue of a young Queen Victoria appearing in her late 20's is quite beautiful.

Here below are some pictures of the view from Parliament Hill

 The Museum of Civilizations designed by Douglas Cardinal located across the Ottawa River in Quebec.
 The Great hall of the National Gallery of Canada during renovation to the glass panels of the structure it has been recovered by an art installation to make it look like a gigantic iceberg.

 Major Hill Park and the spires of the RC Cathedral of Ottawa c.1848
 The Supreme Court Building in Art Deco style high above the Ottawa River
The Ottawa River looking West towards the Chaudiere Waterfall which are bigger than Niagara and called the Great Thunder by the Algonquin people.

 On Parliament Hill you will find many statues of former Prime Ministers of Canada and of important figures in Canadian History. Here the statue of Lester B. Pearson, Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, Nobel Peace Prize winner 1956, he gave Canada our National Flag 1965 and he is the one who propose the creation of the United Nations Peace Keepers.

The Peace Tower of Parliament and its clock and famous carillon