Friday, 31 January 2014

Tet or Lunar New Year

Today is the Lunar New Year and we move into the year of the horse.

Every year means something in terms of personal good wishes and what the year may bring.
Health, Happiness, Wealth, traditional greetings.

Families and friends will celebrate with whole fish dishes, dumplings, oranges, longevity noodle broth, most dishes signify wealth and happiness.

Lots of firecrackers, and gifts mostly those little red enveloppes stuffed with brand new crisp paper money. There will be prayers to the different Gods and to the Jade Emperor in Heaven.

While I lived in China it was always a fun time of the year, I really liked the festive atmosphere and the continuous fireworks illuminating the sky of Beijing. Going to the various Temples to visit with the Gods. Temple of the Earth and the Temple of Heaven and then there was another very famous and ancient one in the near my house, people went there to pray to the God of Wealth and the various other deities burning incense sticks.

In Vietnam it is called the TET New Year and is celebrated along the same lines. As in Cambodia and Laos and South Korea. A time of lavish decorations and festivities.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

un peu de musique

On this eve of the Lunar New Year in Asia, a celebration in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Korea brings joy and fireworks for 7 days. I remember in Beijing every habitant of the city was allowed 20 lbs or 10 Kg of fireworks and all size were sold around the city. With a population of 15 million you do the math, that is a lot of fireworks, day and night to scare away the evil spirits, so the year be fruitful and joyous. I simply loved the madness of it all and the display all around the city.

This music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is a classic and I love it.

Dresden, Saxony, Royal Palace mosaic frieze showing procession of the Princes of the Wettin Family.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Those little food products you do not always notice

For many years living abroad we would encounter food stuff that reminded us of home but would not be items we would consume or buy at anytime, like SPAM, Nescafé, Salada tea, Marlboro cigarettes, these 4 items are and were famous around the world. Often introduced by armies during an armed conflict like the Korean War (1950-1953) or simply by multinational companies who expanded their markets to foreign countries.

The local population took to them and often saw these products as a luxury. We did not and could not understand why these products had such status. Often there is quite a history behind such products, like SPAM being imported by US troops during the Korean conflict. The Korean population was starving and being able to buy a can of SPAM at the US Army PX was a luxury but only if you had the connections and the money. Later this product took on an aura all of its own and to this day is given in elaborate gift boxes. Imagine doing this here, your friends would think you are joking.

Nescafé has a similar story, at the end of the Second World War in Europe many food staples were simply not available, chocolate, fresh fruit, nylon stockings, cigarettes, coffee. Many countries had a coffee culture going back to the Renaissance when Admiral Christopher Columbus brought it back from the Americas with tobacco, tomatoes, potatoes, oranges and chocolates to name a few native products of the Americas introduced in Europe in the 15th century.

So again the Allies had Nescafé and drank it all the time, the Europeans were curious and envious, quickly a black market was established and Nescafé was available for a price, thus it entered the local life and in countries behind the Iron Curtain, Nescafé became a luxury consumed by the Communist Elite. To this day in countries in the Balkan like Serbia it is still considered chic, though this is changing now with products widely available to all.

In the Middle-East it was Marlboro cigarettes and Benson & Hedges later who dominated the market.
Egypt the largest country and with an important percentage of its population smoking cigarettes there was a huge demand for British or American Tobacco products. Again the elite would set the tone and foreign cigarettes were considered far superior to any local product.

One surprise I had in all my years amongst the Arabs was how popular Johnny Walker Red Label scotch was, only to be outdone by the Black Label brand. I remember in the Sudan whenever we visited Khartoum which was often back in the late 1980's and early 90's everything was paid in cases of scotch. The government was '' officially '' strictly observant of the Sharia.
You needed a curfew pass, you needed some other service from some nice Muslim official
the payment was in Johnny Walker. All Sudanese soldiers at check-points in Khartoum were paid in packages or cartons of cigarettes usually Marlboro, their favorite, God help you if you did not have a pack to give out, they could be very violent. One night a European Consul was badly beaten for refusing to pay the usual bribe.

The joke became that the real name of the Scotch was Johnny Mohamed Walker. I remember one night in Cairo at one of the big supper night clubs at the Meridien Hotel frequented by Saudi Royalty and other Gulf Princes, the scotch would flow. The famous singer and actress Sabah was performing and she would call out to the famous patrons in the audience.
There was next to our table a senior member of the Saudi Royal Family who was enjoying a bottle of Johnny Walker Black label, Sabah asked him how was his friend Johnny. Everyone laughed.

I also remember visiting the Casino at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek, in a Palace built for the opening of the Suez Canal to house Empress Eugénie of France. The casino had tables for Bacarat and Chemin de fer, Roulette etc... it was only opened to foreigners, Egyptians could not get in.
The Gulf Princes would be there every night and play incredible amounts, I remember one Prince loosing one million dollars in 5 minutes at Roulette, I was stunned. There was an elderly Armenian banker who worked for a Swiss Wealth Fund, I think it was UBS. He was hired by the King of Saudi Arabia to watch over his sons, they had a limit on any bets of 2 million dollars a night. They played so badly that the game was over in 30 minutes tops. This old banker gave wonderful parties at his penthouse apartment in Zamalek close to my home.

What one man considers luxury the other will think is bunk.


Wednesday, 22 January 2014

A renovation project

When we lived in Rome just a block away from our home was the Villa Torlonia, a great park which once was the summer home of the Princely Torlonia Family. The Torlonia family originally came from the Auvergne in France, bakers who had a contract to supply daily all the bread for the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. When the French Emperor invaded Italy he needed bread for his troops and le boulanger Marin deTorlonie supplied the bread. You can well imagined that he became very rich, very quickly, he had about one hundred thousand mouths to feed daily.

Marin de Torlonie changed his name to the more Italian sounding Marino Torlonia became a cloth merchant and banker in Rome, he was a clever fellow and he became Pope Pius VII banker who in turn bestowed upon him Nobility titles, making him Duke of Bracciano.

By 1860 when Garibaldi and Cavour united all of Italy into one single Kingdom the Torlonia family rivalled in wealth the Prince of Savoy now King of Italy.

Giovanni Torlonia son of Marino was now also Prince of Civitella Cesi and Duke of Poli e Guadangnolo. He married a rich German heiress and went on to build his summer home Villa Torlonia on Via Nomentana just a few yards outside the Porta Pia gate in what was then considered the countryside.

He also accumulated several other Palaces which the family still owns to this day, among them the
Torlonia-Giraud Palazzo on Via della Conciliazione which is the street leading to St-Peter's Basilica.
The Nunez-Torlonia Palazzo on Via Bocca di Leone, the Villa Albani on Viale Regina Margherita.

The Torlonia family married well, with branches in the Royal Family of Spain, Prince Alessandro Torlonia married the Infanta Beatriz of Spain. The current Prince is also a Gentleman of the Papal Court, the correct title is Prince Assistant to the Papal Throne. An honour shared with Prince Marcantonio Colonna.

Main gate entrance to Villa Torlonia on Via Nomentana

When visiting Rome, the Villa Torlonia on Via Nomentana is worth a stop and a visit. It is famous for other reasons, it was between 1923 and 1943 the principal residence of Il Duce Benito Mussolini and his family. The Torlonia were prominent Fascists and the Prince rented out his palace and the park to the Duce for the annual symbolic sum of 1 Lira.

The Palazzo where Mussolini lived until 1943.

At the fall of Mussolini in July 1943 which was orchestrated by his son-in-law Count Ciano, the park and the palace of the Villa Torlonia where quickly abandoned has the population of Rome vented its anger by looting and burning the buildings. The ruins were used by the British Army for a few years. Then the park itself was simply open to the public, it was in a very sorry state, the buildings some were left with only charred remains and the great park was simply left unattended until 1998 when the city of Rome decided that it could no longer tolerate the situation. Prince Torlonia was convinced to give the property to the City since he did not wish to restore it himself. The complex sits in a fashionable area of Rome and it was decided to rehabilitate the whole by stages given the astronomical cost of re-building and cleaning it all.

The house of the Owls which is situated a few yards away from the Palace

From the beginning it was decided that the project was to show how a great Princely family lived in Rome in the mid-19th century. First the park was rehabilitate with new trees and flower beds, the various faux antique temples were cleaned and made safe. Then the library building was restored to house various exhibits of artists. The old stables were made into administrative buildings and the old Citrus tree hot house which has is built in a medieval style was turned into a restaurant and day care centre. The main house which was the residence of Il Duce was totally restored in the original baroque style in vogue when the Torlonia lived there before 1923. Only the bedroom of Mussolini and his wife is furnished. By 2007 the park was a very pleasant place to walk and sit quietly. The House of the Owls was also restored and re-opened.

What remained to be rebuilt was the old exotic plants hot house built in an ornate Moorish style at the bottom of the park and the great theatre. For both buildings funds from the European Union were secured given the complexity of the work at hand.

The theatre in ruins prior to the start of the restauration and re-building in 2007.

I remember both buildings in 2007 has being nothing more than a few dirty half demolished walls overtaken by weeds and plants. The theatre building was a wedding gift of Prince Alessandro Torlonia to his bride Princess Teresa Colonna. Building started in 1841 and only completed in 1874 it was only used once in 1905. The princess is buried in front of the theatre in the great column with her Urn sitting at the top. The original frescos where done by Constantino Brumidi who painted the frescos of the Capitol in Washington D.C.

the theatre restored 2014

The work on the theatre was very slow and laborious, the interior was richly decorated and the various artisans and artists had to reproduce what had existed in 1874. Using drawings, sketches and documentation on the building. The same for the Moorish Green House, which is a pastiche of what an Islamic style building would look like, remembering that at one time the Oriental style of decoration was very much all the rage in Europe.

 the semi-circular glass gallery facing south and used as an indoor garden 

 the amphitheatre area 

The side corridors leading to the amphitheatre, decorated in Roman Imperial style

The ballroom in the Palazzo. 

By looking at those pictures of the restoration work, you can appreciate the incredible work and craftsmanship that went into re-building those buildings in the park of Villa Torlonia.

Below are the photos of the Moorish Green House at the bottom of the garden of the great park. Like all great houses, there was a need to have fresh flowers and citrus trees in quantity, lemon, orange, lime, pomegranate, flowering trees of all kinds and palms. In the warm months they would be scattered all around the park but in the colder months they would be brought to this building. The roof is all glass and the walls are coloured glass.  This is quite a large building and the lavish decorations show that the owners could afford the best. By 2007 the building was a ruin, very little survived and it was difficult to imagine that it could be brought back to life. But as the pictures show, it was completely restored.

Front of the Moorish House  

Side wall of the Moorish style green house.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Marching and drill exercise

Since the age of 5 or so I have been a collector of 54mm lead soldiers. I have quite the collection which I have gathered from around the world over all these many years. I am running out of space to arrange and present my miniature army. Since they are not all the same era, I try to arranged it so it matches historical moments with some kind of consistency.

So this afternoon I decided to re-organise my soldiers, this I did under the gaze of the Philosopher King Frederick II the Great of Prussia, a sometimes friend of Voltaire, who by the way was a real pain at times.  His father the Sergeant King Frederick-Wilhelm  and his grandfather Frederick I who proclaimed himself King of Prussia, thus creating the Kingdom.

I have run out of space really, in two display cases, I have XVIII century Imperial Chinese soldiers, Greek soldiers, Sparta and Athens, from Antiquity, Russian Imperial Soldiers period 1900, Saxon Soldiers, Napoleonic and 1812 Russian Artillery and military band, French and English soldiers from Canada 1759, Italian Carabinieri and Papal Swiss Guards, Pope John XXIII in his black Mercedes Benz, and many more in boxes, including some Ottomans.

So I decided after much playing around with formations to retire for the time being the French and English Soldiers of the Seven Years War in Canada 1759 and their commanding officers Montcalm and Wolfe.
This way I can give more room to the Coronation Coach of Queen Elizabeth II, the Beefeaters, the Canadian RCMP and other British military troops. Also not to forget the Duke of Wellington, the Austrian troops with their great big Hapsburg flag and give Napoleon and his grenadiers more room. Czar Alexander I of Russia comes with artillery and a military honour guard and band of the Preobrazhensky guards. It looks more orderly now.

Putting away the other soldiers took me part of the Saturday afternoon, exhausting task. They have to be carefully place into respective boxes, I have hundreds of such boxes. I also have a very large collection of other pieces not on display.

Camille Saint-Saens accompanied us with his Marche Militaire Française.

Below some photos of the display case which I got in Rome at a furniture store on Via dei Serpenti.

 Austrian Troops charging French soldiers.

 French Cuirassier Officer shooting Austrian Officer 

 Tsar Alexander I receiving military honours.

 Coronation Coach with military escort

 Duke of Wellington with British troops

Thursday, 16 January 2014

What is Sacred in our world?

I get to read a lot of news and the more I read the more I wonder about what our XXI century society considers Sacred with a Capital ''S''.
Is there anything in our world left that is Sacred? I mean by that something we all hold in common and can agree upon that is Sacred.

The word Sacred as defined means: From the Latin, Sacrare, Middle-English, Sacren, French, Sacrer.
Inviolable, untouchable, Holy, worthy of veneration. Humans in all cultures and since time immemorial have held certain things to be sacred, one is life, birth, another is burial grounds, Religious Temples in every Faith are sacred, anyone performing a religious rite in a ceremonial,
a Constitution, a National Flag, Human Rights as defined in the UN Charter and recognised as such by the Nations of the World.  

However because our general culture tends to trivialise what was considered Sacred many now think that little or nothing is Sacred and can be ignored or discarded, at any rate it is open to debate on the internet where people are free to insult each other with impunity and anonymity.

Is Life Sacred? Recently a man was shot to death in a cinema for texting before the show started to his child. Some commenters, several of them, commented that he fully deserved it, he had it coming, they said. Really? A human life is so worthless today that a simple text message, a disagreement can lead to murder?

In Ottawa in the last 3 years there has been an epidemic of hit and run by careless drivers who injured seriously or killed people. After hitting someone the driver simply takes off, thinking no one will have noticed. However escaping justice is difficult since all car repairs are reported to the Police in case of accidents. Only after the drivers have been found or denounced by someone do they come forward, how disrespectful can you be towards another human being. It seems that not assuming any responsibility is the norm.

What about all the children and other people who are slaughtered in various schools or public places in the USA and still despite the horror, some people claim that their right to own an assault weapon trumps everyone else right to live in peace.  An obscene point of view based on twisted logic and depraved sense of entitlement.

Many great figures have been ridiculed and attacked publicly because they did not meet a certain modern popular idea or standard decided upon by a trendy way of thinking.

I think here of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) who devoted his life to others, built a hospital in Africa and cared for his patients, a visionary in his time.  A Nobel Peace Prize Winner and recognised by the World as a Humanitarian of high moral standing is brought down by an article with unproven facts, simply vague rumours claiming he was an awful person, this is trumpeted on Radio-Canada in an historical segment.

No one is safe from salacious rumours and stories surfacing decades later simply to titillate a bored public thirsty for dirt. No one will ask if it is true or not, the public appears more than willing to believe just about anything.

There are schools of thought, I do not know if you can call them that, but this is how they present themselves, who will say the harshest things simply in a crusade to set the record straight or this is what they believe. Correct the mistakes of the past by denouncing them in the present, very reminiscent of Communist Regimes like China and North Korea. Can we ever correct the past? How? What is past is past. How can anyone not living during a specific time period and born later sometimes decades if not centuries later, claim that he or she can correct or apologize on behalf of the dead. We can correct current behaviour or not repeat past mistakes, though with the prevailing ignorance of events more than 20 years old, one wonders if we are not condemn to repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

The same in the work place, we have policies on a Respectful Workplace but that is totally meaningless. No one understands what it actually means. Employees who are incompetent hide behind it. It appears that bullying by Management is now the norm, it is all passive, aggressive behaviour, lies and deceit. Management unable to provide proper guidance and a lack of interest in the job to be done. Every manager has her eye on the Media, what are they saying and how will this affect my bonus or promotion, doing the job is not even on the table. Customers and employees are abused in the worst way and no one is held responsible.

Have you ever noticed now how when you phone a large corporation who is suppose to provide a service they will address you by your first name. You have no idea who this person is speaking with you, but they treat you with contempt and provide generally poor service. You have little choice in the matter. Where is management, they are no where to be found and will not respond to any enquiry. It seems that lack of respect for people in general is the way of the world. But why have we descended to this level?

Another outrage was committed recently in a London Cemetery where the ashes of Sigmund Freud and his wife were interned in an antique Urn 2300 years old. The vandals smashed the Greek Urn at New Year in what appears to be an aborted theft. Freud died in 1939 and his wife in 1951, they had been left at Peace until now. Again what kind of mentality in our society allows people to disturb the dead and vandalise burial grounds. A total lack of respect, of consideration for others. Unable to understand the gravity of the gesture or the words expressed.

Unfortunately there is more and more lack of respect in our society for people, ideas, or what was considered until now as Sacred by all. We strive so much to push the real accepted rights and the made up imagined rights of the individual over those of the collectivity that our shared values are forgotten. What hope is there for any Civilization amid such confusion.

Tiepolo, Pulling teeth.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

False expectations.

In the last few days several newspapers in Canada have carried stories of Hospitals apparently sending home patients, to find that they died a few hours later. Their condition was worse than what the doctors in Emergency service thought or the Nurses in charge of discharging patients followed established procedures sending patients on their way not realizing that the patient was alone and had no one to care for them at home.

The practice of clearing beds is not a new policy, it is one which was implemented in many Canadian Hospitals in the mid 1990's as Provincial health budgets were slashed by politicians in a drive to be seen as business minded, bringing the concept that a health care facility could be run like a factory producing widgets, ''Be efficient and Work Smart'' was and still is the philosophy behind it all.

Our politicians in Canada understood that our current health care system instituted in the 1960's needed reforming to control costs. Many a Province  spend a very large part of their operational budget on health costs. But how to reform a system seen by most Canadians as a Sacred Cow without committing political suicide, this is the crux of a complicated question.

It is Winter in Canada and this winter 2013-2104 has seen the effects of dramatic climate change, the temperature in much of Canada has been severe and this brings a host of problems not encountered often before.  So people are more vulnerable in many ways and if you are not in good health or elderly then you are more at risk, sometimes as the news stories show, at a far greater risk than one would expect. What as also changed in the last 25 years or since 1990 is the way government services are provided, in this case hospital care.  Politicians in an effort to please the public have been slashing budgets and services, what we knew or came to expect in terms of services before 1990 and what is done today is totally different.  With cuts there are a lot less services and people are expected now to look after themselves or make private arrangements. This means, making sure the hospital room is cleaned properly, that meals are served and follow diet, that medication is dispensed and bed sheet are changed for clean ones. In some Provinces a small tip or favour to hospital staff can ensure better service.

Last year  I was invited to a business dinner with various people who had in common that they worked in providing social services to the population in general. Next to me on my left was a big Hospital administrator from Northern Ontario and on my right was the head of the Soup Kitchen in the National Capital region. The Hospital Administrator was explaining that the Government of Ontario to get more mileage out of its budgets in order to provide more efficient health services, I love the buzz word ''efficient'' what ever that means, he had to ensure that people do not spend any more time than absolutely necessary at the hospital and doctors and nurses where asked to work as a team to ensure that the patient be looked after, treated and then released quickly.

What happened next was to ask the individual to continue his or her convalescence at home and let families look after the relative in need. This way with a minimum of beds available much more people could be processed, again a word I love, it has that mechanical ring to it. This in turn would lower cost, it is all about money and little else.

I told him that this was a fine in theory but the public at large was not aware of this plan or if they are it is at a very superficial level, not believing that this might apply to them or their loved ones. At any rate this is the here and now and this is the way it works.

But in Canada many a politician has made his or her career by claiming that financial disaster is at hand due to difficult times, they never explain what they actually mean by that. So the easiest thing to do is to portray yourself to the electorate as a pro-business and cost cutting kind of politician who will solve all problems by downsizing and cutting or slashing budgets, making the government so small in can fit in your bathroom. This is called ''thinking outside the box'' and is suppose to look smart.

The politician being careful of course to NOT ever mention or explain that you are also getting rid of services in the process. The latest is to require all to have a computer and be online in order to access Government Services. You are not online too bad we do not want to hear from you, you do not exist, but we fully expect you to vote for me at the next election.

Again in this cynical political approach the over 65 crowd which represent a very important segment of our society in Canada are pushed to the margin.

In recent weeks more stories have come forward about how hospitals have sent home often in the middle of the night elderly patients without enquiring if this person had anyone to take care of them.

In one case at the Grace Hospital in Winnipeg  on New Year's Eve when it was -40C, an elderly man was put in a taxi, wearing slippers and his pyjamas and sent home. He did tell the staff at the Hospital that he had no one at home and he did not feel well, nonetheless the procedures are the procedures. He was found frozen to death in a snow bank in front of his house the next morning by his care giver. He died of a heart attack and hypothermia did the rest. He had gone to the hospital complaining of symptoms like heart trouble, vomiting, fever etc. The staff obviously did not think much of it or where too short staffed to be able to care for him during the Holiday period.

Being short staffed to provide any kind of government service is also the common trend nowadays, it is called ''greater efficiencies'' by senior bureaucrats, one person is called upon to do 3 to 4 jobs. The other problem is that at night or after 6pm in any hospital, the staff is usually junior or new, fully trained but not as experienced as the Monday to Friday 7am to 6pm medical crowd, mistake can happen and often as we see today in the service sector, the new younger generation is too self-absorbed to notice anything outside of their zone of knowledge. A few days later the CBC reported that Grace Hospital is now involved in a second case resulting in the death of a patient.

This is only Winnipeg cases, similar cases of elderly persons being mistreated, neglected and dying happen in other parts of Canada each week, this is truly shameful and unacceptable.  In all cases, the politicians promise to look into the matter and change the procedures, all the while they are looking for a politically expedient answer.

One wonders, when the big management types in the different Provincial Ministry of Health came up with these procedures, did they think of all possibilities or were they just being ''efficient or cost effective'' in order to please their Minister with quick solutions.

I am willing to bet based on my own Government experience, that expediency took over from common sense. Not to forget the promised of a big bonus for anyone who finds politically easy solutions to difficult problems.

All these changes in the way services are provided never seem to take into account that in Canada, people in general do not live with their family and it is very common to see elderly people on their own without any close relatives to help them out. Often they live in another part of the country and cannot come rapidly in case of need. Care givers are very expensive and not for every budget. What drives all this is the politics of cutting taxes, smaller government and trying to make government function as if it was Walmart.

The lesson in all this for all of us is to be prepared and have a plan in case you fall ill or need assistance, do not count on the Government to help you out. The governments at all levels are far too enamoured of processes and procedures and providing a service is simply not part of the equations. As they say ''As long as the public believe we are providing a service that is all that matters''.

Being a senior, over 60 years of age in Canada is not a pretty picture, unless you are financially well off.  Another disturbing statistics in Canada, the number of suicides is the highest amongst Seniors over 80 years of age, this does not attract much attention, because most are male and end their lives violently. What a sad situation.


Thursday, 9 January 2014

January what can you say....

January is one of those months where everything starts slowly after the Holidays. People are back to work, more debts on credit card than would be advisable, apparently this is why the Canadian dollar is falling in value on the Stock Market, too much debt by individual Canadians, unemployment is also up to 8% while it is going down in the USA. We are not past the ides of January and it's the first of two winter school holidays. Some will head south, others will go skiing, others will just go to the mall. One wonders what would we do if we did not have the malls, as if you could possibly need more stuff just after the Holidays. I have not set foot in a mall since 1985. I am no longer sure what they look like, not a bad thing.

The days are getting longer a few minutes everyday, on a bright sunny day like today when the sun is so bright as it is reflected off the ice and snow that you need strong sun glasses in order to see anything, it can give you a pick me up feeling.

Puppies continue to lounge in the sunshine, it seems that they cannot get enough sun on any given day. January is also the time of the year for yearly physical and I have already done my blood work. Next week it's the examination, I do not expect anything to be revealed. Good health is precious and worth more than gold.

The late Hugh Lord Cholmondeley (chum-lay) at his home in Houghton Hall, Norfolk with his collection of toy lead soldiers depicting here the battle of Waterloo.

Houghton Hall, Norfolk

This week is also busy with little things, like going to the car repair shop to have the damage to the rear bumper fixed. A minor accident due to very slippery roads and black ice. I was parked and in a shop and saw it happen. Luckily for me the gentleman stopped and gave me the necessary details and his insurance paid it all. For a minor thing it still was one thousand dollars in repair and handwork.
Even walking is difficult and most people walk in the street because the sidewalks are impossible as they are covered with a thick coat of very slippery ice. 

Next week two days of volunteering at the museum which always keeps me very busy and tired at the end of the day, but it is a lot of fun and challenging. I will try to explain the Renaissance to 11 year old kids in 50 minutes. I have to be efficient and to the point in my presentation, difficult to do when they have not studies geography or world history and have a very sketchy idea about art in general.
So the Renaissance is very far away from their preoccupations but who knows they may find it interesting, I will try to connect it to their reality in some way.

If you wonder about the late Lord Cholmondely and Houghton Hall well I also have a collection of about 140 lead soldiers, no where near his impressive collection and my house being somewhat smaller than Houghton Hall, I would have no room for such a large collection. But nonetheless I should rearrange my army. I do not know if David the current Lord Cholmondeley is an avid lead soldier collector.

Here is David Lord Cholmondeley who is also Lord Chamberlain of Her Majesty at Houghton Hall
posing by a painting of Geoffrey Kneller's of Juan Carreras. The only painting bought by Czarina Catherine II the Great in 1779 to have returned permanently to Houghton Hall. His ancestor Sir Robert Walpole sold his painting collection to Catherine the Great. A wonderful exhibit of the collection was held in the fall of 2013 at Houghton Hall, the first ever of this fabulous collection now permanently at the Hermitage.
My point is have you noticed his socks? Now you can tell this is a gentlemen, purple socks, I need a pair, such raffine taste.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

7 January 2014 Christmas Season is Officially over!!!

So it is over, we had some fierce weather from 23 December onwards. We took down the decorations today house is back to normal.  It also means we now enter the dark period of winter, no festive lights, it's winter and the reality of icy sidewalks and difficult driving conditions, cold unpleasant weather and dark days with little sunlight is our lot.

            The tree waiting to be put away, puppies taking the morning sun. 

In Ottawa we will have a kind of, sort of bureaucratically nice Festival called Winterlude Jan. 31 to Feb. 17.
Last year the weather cooperated and the ice sculptures at Confederation Park where interesting. Skating on the Rideau Canal was good. Hopefully this year the weather will stay sufficiently cold for all the outdoor activities, if not it can be a watery mess. Winterlude is really a weekend carnival of sorts, all activities are concentrated on the weekends of the festival with nothing much happening during the week. The activities are mostly about skating on the canal with activities for children.
Though it is 30 years old it seems that the organizers have not much thought about what else they could do to make this festival more interesting to visiting tourists from abroad and for the population in general.

Until the May Tulip Festival that is pretty much all there is in Ottawa, meaning this is the worst of time in the Capital. Lucky those who can escape to Florida or warmer climes wherever they may be.

For me it will be a return to my volunteer activities, reading and being a pillow to my dogs.
I am reading the new biography of Johnny Cash by Robert Hilbrun, a fascinating book, I can see why it got such good reviews.  I am not a Cash fan but he was a popular music figure while I grew up and remember him from the 1970's.

As for being a pillow for my dogs, well the hounds have decided that they can just sleep on us whenever they feel like it. Just climb on top and make themselves comfortable. They go into a deep sleep and weigh more than elephants. After a while you have to move them, to which they do not take kindly, giving you sleepy eyes dirty looks, uncomprehending.

Of course Nicky can be bought off for the price of a cookie, just say the word ''Biscuit'' and he stares at you the way wolves do before the kill. Biscuit is an important word not to be fooled with. Nora is the same though not so obvious. She also will make herself comfortable on you but you won't be, it is very one sided. Hounds will be hounds I suppose.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

La Fête des Rois Mages, Epiphanie

Well here we are in January 2014 the New Year has started and we are at the last holiday of the Christmas Season, Epiphany.

The weather in Canada has been frigid and made for a difficult start for this new year, power failures in major cities, snowfall, extremely cold weather. During the Season we travelled to see family and we entertained friends and neighbours at home, we were also the guests of friends for dinner.

H. Bosch, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1499

We also celebrated with our friends L & Y in Montreal their first wedding anniversary at the restaurant of the Sofitel with a nice champagne luncheon. They had kept their nuptials secret for one year and announced it by sending a beautiful agenda of their courtship with photos. A real labour of love given the elaborate script in 3 languages.

Plum Pudding flambé at dinner on New Year's Eve 

We had our traditional Plum Pudding flambé and some good champagne, one bottle being a Moet et Chandon 2004 vintage. It had a wonderful taste of crisp apples and honey. We listened to the traditional 74th edition of the Vienna New Year's Day Concert from the Golden Hall of the MusikVerein on Austrian Radio. We also played operettas by Franz Lehar and Will waltzed with Nora who was a bit lost.

We also received from our friend J.H. his traditional Christmas Fruit Cake, for the last 30 years each year we get one and they are superb. I do not think that even a person who is not fond of fruit cakes would be able to resist his creation. In a class by itself, I do not know how he does it, if there is some secret in the recipe but they are unlike any other fruit cake made by anyone.

John's Fruit Cake 2014

2014 is a Municipal Election Year in Ottawa and in Ontario for that matter. In Ottawa voting day is October 27.  Lots of new challengers to the posts on City Council and Mayor Jim Watson is running again. The issues are multiple, from the LRT train tunnel construction, public transit, intensification of the centre core of the Capital, re-development of major city streets and the new plan favouring pedestrians and cyclists. Possibly a more European approach to city life.

We are also celebrating the 450 Birthday of William Shakespeare and the 150 Birthday of composer Richard Strauss. It is also the centennial year of the start of the First World War (1914-2014) which had a great impact on Canada as a Nation.

In 2014 we are travelling to Salzburg, Austria for the Music Festival in early June and to Stratford, Ontario for the Shakespeare Theatre Festival.

Prosit NeuJahr!

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Cold Ottawa

We had been warned by the Canadian Weather bureau that the New Year would bring Arctic air down to us in the south, well many cities in Western Canada have seen lows of -40 C and from Central Canada to the Maritimes its -30 C on average. Ottawa at -38 C today with the wind chill factor included which means that your skin should not be expose to the elements for more than 10 minutes if you want to avoid frost bites which are quite painful and can be dangerous to your health.

Last week the Director of the Soup Populaire (soup Kitchen) in Gatineau across the river from Ottawa was saying that it was known that 11 people in his area are homeless and refuse to come in, social workers and soup kitchen people have tried to entice them and speak with them, trying to convince them to come in. They may accept to come in maybe for a hot meal but will continue to sleep on the street at night. I cannot imagine how anyone can do that without risking death from hypothermia. Last winter in Ottawa 25 homeless people died from the cold. It is not that we lack space for people to sleep in warm and clean places or receive medical attention or get a hot meal. No, there is plenty of space for everyone and it is free, the problem as a friend of mine who works in social services explained, many are suffering from mental illness and are unwilling to stay indoors for what ever reason. They are adults and have rights, so we cannot stop or compel them if they refuse help. Sad but this is a reality in the big city.

Some are deranged to the point of walking aimlessly, screaming at imaginary people, cursing an invisible presence, in the summer it is annoying since they often do this in the middle of a busy intersection as people and cars try to go around them. In winter on a very cold day its scary because you know that they will harm themselves by not dressing warmly and suffer from exposure to the cold. What can be done for them is limited again because if they refuse help that is pretty much the end of it. In Ottawa the Police will no longer intervene, after being accused by several self-proclaimed rights groups of harassing the poor. It is up to the under-staffed and financially limited shelters to take care of such people if they can. But they do not have the specialize medical staff, mental illness is often seen as a marginal disease, unlike heart or other medical conditions which have a higher social profile.

All this to say that on a cold day like today I think of such people and what they are facing in our Canadian Cities.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Message from EIIR

I meant to listen to the Christmas message of our Sovereign on Christmas day but being in Montreal sans computer that was not possible.

A friend who had listened to it said that the message was about reflection. Here is the message from Queen Elizabeth II of Canada.

January 1, Buon Anno!

On this sunny and cold morning of 1 January 2014, Feast of the Circumcision of the Infant Jesus.  A Happy New Year to you all!

Here is a photo of the snow sleigh of Frederick Lord Stanley of Preston, Governor General of Canada taken in 1893. Notice the attendants in heavy furs. Probably beaver or black bear fur to keep warm.
This photo was taken by the huge toboggan run which back then allowed people to slide from the cliff above the Ottawa river all the way down, quite the ride.

Of course the other tradition today is the New Year's Day Concert from Vienna, the 74th year, which is broadcasted around the world. The Viennese have made New Year their Holiday par excellence, to the point that the World thinks of Austria when thinking of the first of the year.

I love listening to the concert each year, this year Daniel Barenboim will conduct from the Golden Hall of the Musikverein. We are reminded that 2014 marks the 100 anniversary of the First World War which saw so many dramatic changes in the World and the end of Empire in Austria. Let's not forget that 2014 is the 150th Anniversary of Richard Strauss (1864-1949).

Prosit 2014!

The Skateway on the Rideau Canal is open from Somerset street to the Bank Street bridge. Happy skating to all.