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Feb '10

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Quebec talent contributes to Hollywood

September, 2009

Many Canadians contributed to the early growth of the U.S. film industry. As the Montreal World Film Festival (August 27 to September 7) winds down, let’s take a look at seven Quebecers, all born before 1930, who were key to big-screen history.

Mack Sennett was born in 1880 in Danville (Eastern Townships) as Michael Sinnott to an Irish family from County Wexford. By 1908, he made his way to New York and became a leading man in the early short films of the legendary D.W. Griffith, who put Sennett in charge of comedy films. In 1912, he launched his own Keystone Studios. In additioni to the well-known Keystone Kops, the studio made the first feature-length comedy, Tillie’s Punctured Romance starring Charlie Chaplin and Ontarian Marie Dressler. The landmark Hollywood sign was originally built by Sennett on the grounds of his mansion in Los Angeles.

Florence La Badie was born in 1893 in Montreal to a well-off family and educated by the Sisters of the Convent at Notre Dame. A prodigy, she spoke English, French and German and sang and played piano well enough to perform with the Philadelphia orchestra. Moving to New York, the talented heiress became a film actress with Thanhauser Studios, particularly with the Million Dollar Mystery, a 23 episode series. She became an ardent peace activist and was obsessed with President Woodrow Wilson, a family friend. In 1914 she took a six month leave after a stay at the White House. Rumours spread that she had had Wilson’s illegitimate child. She died in 1917 after a car crash.

Douglas Shearer was born in 1899 in Montreal and grew up with his sisters in Westmount. One sister, Norma (see below) became one of the all time Hollywood queens. He was never an actor, but was nominated for 25 Academy Awards and won 14 for his contribution to sound. A McGill engineering student, he visited Los Angeles just when Norma’s career was taking off. Hired by Jack Warner (to babysit canine star Rin Tin Tin!), he pioneered, in 1926, his technique of sound synchronization. Working with RCA Victor, he invented sound on film in a single reel. Employed by MGM, he became lighting director as well. Later, he improved film stock quality and began stereo research. During the Second World War, at the request of Winston Churchill, Shearer helped the development of radar. In addition to his 801 films, he created Tarzan’s yell and the MGM lion’s roar.

Norma Shearer was born in 1902 in Montreal. She lived the life of a Westmount debutante until the Depression hit and she had to play piano in a music store window. Her mother had Norma’s crossed eyes cured by the famous Dr. N.H. Bates, whose “Bates Method” is still controversial. This led to a modelling career and a trip to Mayer studios in Hollywood, where she was championed by MGM boy genius Irving Thalberg, whom she eventually married in 1928. This union won the enmity of her rival Joan Crawford. Thalberg produced a string of hits, but died at 37, leading to a fight with Louis B. Mayer over her royalties from the estate. She won. She will be remembered for the fireworks between her and Crawford in The Women as well as her many box office successes in the ’30s.

Glenn Ford was born in Ste. Christine (near Quebec City) as Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford, a “miracle baby,” since his pregnant mother survived a house fire three weeks before his birth. His family moved to Santa Monica, Calif., where he attended high school. His film career began in 1934 and he got his first starring role in The Adventures of Martin Eden, a Jack London story, in 1942. It premiered in Quebec City, where he was lionized by both English and French press. Glenn enlisted in the Marines and was one of the first to liberate Dachau. Back in Hollywood, he starred in Gilda with Rita Hayworth, a role that shot him to the top. Blackboard Jungle is another of his classics. In 1968, at age 52, he went to Vietnam in a combat role. Younger filmgoers may remember him as Jonathon Kent, adoptive father of Superman.

Colleen Dewhurst was born in Montreal in 1924. Her father was a CFL player for the Ottawa Rough Riders and raised her as a tomboy. She took odd jobs in order to study acting in New York, where she debuted in 1946. She met and married acting icon George C. Scott (twice). She became the interpreter par excellence of Eugene O’Neill plays. Her many stage triumphs led to TV and film offers. TV roles included Murphy Brown’s mother and roles in Dr. Kildare, Hitchcock Presents and Love Boat. Canadians will remember her as Marilla in Anne of Green Gables. In film, she was paired with Barbara Stanwyck, Diane Keaton and Sean Connery.

Christopher Plummer was born in 1929 in Montreal on “Black Friday”, the day of the great stock market crash. Acting in Montreal and Ottawa led to roles in New York and England. He portrayed many plum Shakespeare roles at Stratford, UK, (Richard III, King Lear) and Stratford, Ont., (Henry V, Hamlet, MacBeth, Cyrano.) Film beckoned in 1958, leading to the 1965 mega-hit The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews. Forty years later, still active, he had a strong supporting role in George Clooney’s Syriana.

Bruce Yaccato’s wonderful 2006 Screen Legends provided much of the above information.

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The “goddess” who took us to “heaven”

Click here to view a slideshow of The “goddess” who took us to “heaven”

Originally published: February 2006

Corfu was to be our stopover on the way to Albania from Brindisi, Italy. We planned to spend one night there before taking on Albania, a country no one recommended. All that changed when we debarked in Corfu and were greeted by Aphrodite, a buxom, loud, talkative business woman who spoke non-stop English and looked nothing like the Greek goddess.

Aphrodite was at the port to pick up tourists and talk them into staying in Pelekas at her pension. She promised us paradise in Pelekas, a village that she boasted was literally heaven on earth, or at least in Corfu. It had beaches, shopping, wonderful restaurants, and views surpassing any on the island, (by the time we arrived I wondered if we would be greeted by any other Greek gods) and it was only 45 minutes away by car. Of course, there were four or five buses daily to Corfu Town and many buses to the three beaches, all very near Pelekas. Always ready for adventure, we agreed to take a chance, but didn’t count on Aphrodite’s continuous babble about the virtues of Pelekas during our drive there. Why, we worried, did she have to convince us? Weren’t we already prisoners in her car?

We were exhausted and hot and ready for anything when she finally parked in the middle of the village, which looked lovely indeed. We had warned her about my knee — that I could not, under any circumstances, climb up any winding narrow alleys (her English was flawless so she did understand me). She responded that we would be thrilled with the room for only $30.

We got out of the car and started climbing. I asked Irwin if he thought she had understood. He shrugged. He pulled me up rocky, winding, twisting alleyways, higher and higher, till I protested. “How will I ever get down from here,” I whined. “It can’t be much farther,” he responded, not really knowing what else to say. Finally we arrived to see Aphrodite’s little room, not yet cleaned up from the last residents, and she proudly showed us the spectacular view. “I’m terribly sorry,” I said “But I cannot stay here. It will be almost impossible for me to walk down this hill to the village. And how will I get back at night?” She looked glum but accepted the $10 we offered her for the ride.

Gingerly, I edged my way down the hill to the centre of town with Irwin carrying the bags in front of me to brace any potential slips or falls. I immediately noticed a white-washed pension of sorts in the middle of the village and we decided to leave the bags there on the terrace while we searched for a room. I asked the owner for a room there against all hope. It seemed like too perfect a place to have a room available in the middle of July. Irwin trudged on to check out other rooms on the little expanse of street that was obviously Main Street Pelekas. At this point we were willing to pay anything to get a shower and a rest as long as my knee could handle it. The village did seem incredibly picturesque and compact.

The owner of this too-good-to-be-true pension did have a room on the main floor for us and after he cleaned up after the last customers, we immediately paid him $60 for two nights ($30 per night for a double with air-conditioning and terrace overlooking what seemed like the entire island), and relaxed! “Aphrodite has brought us to paradise,” I told Irwin. Too bad she had to go back to the port to look for a more able-bodied customer for her little nest on the cliff. We never did understand why she thought I could manage the steep trek up and down the hill.

We discovered a wonderful restaurant right next to our pension and ate all our meals there. I still remember the fresh taste of the taramasalata and tsatziki. I’ve eaten Greek food hundreds of times, but this was like nothing I had tasted. The tomatoes and cukes were so fresh and plentiful, the calamar so… well… fresh… and crisp. Were we in paradise after all?

The next day we took the bus to Corfu Town to spend the day walking around the Old Town, parts of which were too touristy for our liking. We discovered the rather dilapidated Jewish Quarter and the synagogue and had a young man who had the keys show us around briefly. It was a beautiful little synagogue, very old and quite ornate. We read the names of Holocaust victims on a plaque. We continued our walk through the Old Town, found the port and ordered our tickets for the two hour ferry trip to Albania the next afternoon for a hefty $60 each including some extra taxes and charges. Corfu Town is bustling with tourists and townspeople. The food was overpriced and underwhelming so we held off for Pelekas.

Then we happily returned to our little piece of heaven, which by the way is just across the island from Corfu Town. I urged Irwin to try out any of the three beaches, all a few kilometers from Pelekas by bus, but he was tired and wanted to lounge around the village with me rather than go it alone until, that is, I discovered the shops! I should explain that by this point on the trip I had decided to avoid beaches if possible given that I couldn’t swim or sit on the sand because of my knee. We walked up to the next level of the village where I promptly found my favorite jewellery store in all of Europe, bought Greek silver necklaces and bracelets for family, and friends, and engaged in an hour long conversation with the owner and his 85 year old mother (long after Irwin left). He told me a little about the history of Pelekas – how his mother had seen the Jews of Corfu Town taken away by the Nazis, how houses had been destroyed and families never seen again. He was planning to marry a Dutch doc tor, a second marriage, but she was debating about what she would do in Pelekas, not knowing a word of Greek.

After our last lunch at our wonderful outdoor restaurant, we said goodbye to our new friends, including the Albanian waitress who was the only one to be pleased we were traveling to Albania, and set off for the tug boat ferry that would take us to Saranda, Albania’s most popular resort town on the shores of the Ionian Sea.

For more information on Pelekas, google Pelekas! You’ll find many accommodations but not the one we stayed at. Alas, I don’t remember its name or the name of the restaurant next door, but you can’t miss them, should you ever wish to venture over to the isle of Corfu, on your way to Albania.

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Riga — a little piece of Latvian heaven

Click here to view a slideshow of Riga

Originally published: December, 2007

As we walked away from the train station in Riga with map in hand and no reservations, we decided it might be best to stay in the Old Town. But where was it? Crossing the street, we spied a girl walking in the opposite direction and asked her for directions. She graciously agreed to lead us there, saying it was only minutes away. Her English was good for a 17-year-old and she agreed to help us find a hotel.

Alina had just finished purchasing dog food at the outdoor city market and was on her way home to feed her pooch, but she wanted to help us and practice her English. After a few minutes of searching, we checked into the 3-star Forums Hotel, located at one end of the Old Town. It’s a classy, friendly little place with sophisticated rooms complete with cable TV.

Alina, who is Polish, waited for us in the lobby while we washed up. Then the three of us were off to explore the Old Town and have lunch. There is no shortage of eclectic, trippy restos in this city of wonders. We wanted to try John Lemon, listed in our guidebook, a funky ‘60s styled soup and sandwich place with sofas, orange walls, and inexpensive choices including jacket potatoes and homemade soups. It’s on Peldu in the heart of the Old Town. My favorites: cold borscht with cucumber, yogurt, dill, garlic and, of course, beets; and a baked potato rubbed in garlic and stuffed with cottage cheese and chives.

Alina went home after lunch, saying she would meet us the next morning and take us to Jurmula, a beach resort 40 minutes away, by mini-bus. We would spend the day with her strolling on the beach and, as she explained, touring this enchanting place where her family rented a summer home.

You may be wondering why Alina wanted to spend an entire day with us! Perhaps it was an occasion to practice her English. Whatever her reason, the three of us bonded and we looked forward to the next day’s excursion.

After lunch we headed to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, an imposing building in the centre of the Old Town. The museum, established in 1993, “shows what happened to Latvians under two occupying totalitarian regimes from 1940 to 1991, remembering the victims of the occupations, those who perished, were persecuted, forcefully deported, or fled the terror of the occupation regimes.” In the dark exhibit hall on two floors, tall, red boards and free standing structures display thousands of artifacts, photos, and historical documents. At one end of the room, you can sit and watch a video on a  small TV screen presenting the history of the Soviet occupation. There is also an audio-visual archive that contains testimonies of those whose lives were influenced by either the Soviet or the Nazi occupation. During the occupations, more than 550,000 Latvians perished, over one third the population.

We decided to see the Museum and Documentation Centre “Jews in Latvia” next. Created in the late ‘80s by a group of survivors of ghettos and concentration camps, the Museum is housed in Riga’s Jewish community building. The historian Margers Veste­rmanis, a former prisoner of the Riga Ghetto and the Kaiserwald concentration camp, headed the group. The collection holds documents, photographs, videotapes and objects testifying to the history of Latvian Jews. There are personal archives of outstan­ding Latvians along the hallways of what was once a school, including Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief Ashkenazi Rabbi in Palestine from 1921; Yeshayahu Leibovitch (1903-1994), Jewish religious thinker; Shimon Dubnov, Jewish historian who perished in the Riga Ghetto; Dr. Noah Maise; Isaiah Berlin, philosopher (1909-1997); and Aron Nimzowitsch (1836-1935), innovative chess player.

The period between 1918-1940, the time of the first Latvian Republic, was the peak of freedom and creativity in the Jewish community. This passage is from the guide to the museum: “What should a Jewish museum be like in a region where everything that was Jewish perished in the Holocaust and where only miraculously preserved tombstones remind us of the past of the Jewish people? Should the Jewish museum in this historical reality be only a collector and trustee of things saved from destruction — relics? Or should it be a memorial of the world that perished forever — in torments and suffering? We choose the last.”

Only 25 km from Riga, Jurmala is best reached by mini-bus, which departs every 15 minutes from the train station and costs about $1. Covered by white sand, the beach stretches over 32 km. There are sections of Jurmala, each with their own beach, but you can walk along the sand from one end to the other if you has have the energy and time.

We stayed around Majori, first touring the main street with its charming shops and outdoor cafés, and then walked to the beach, marveling along the way at the incredible wood mansions, some dating back more than 100 years. What beautiful colors and designs! Some have been converted to hotels, while others are in a dismal state, in need of new owners and investment. Halfway along our beach walk, we stopped at the Baltic Beach Hotel, a Western-like impressive but uninteresting structure, not warranting its high summer rates.

We discovered a sand sculpture exhibit jutting out of the fence surrounding it, between the beach and the boardwalk. We ate in one of the many outdoor cafés. We ordered shrimp, egg and avocado stuffed into the shell of the avocado, and smoked salmon sandwiches. Sitting among locals and tourists from abroad, we felt like we had found a little piece of heaven. We took the train back to Riga for a different kind of adventure, which included viewing the inside of the ancient Jurmala train station.

Back in Riga Once back in Riga, Irwin went off to the internet café while Alina and I took off for the huge shopping mall and my introduction to Latvian fashion, which is European and sophisticated. I bought Alina a little orange purse in a shop across from our hotel and thanked her for the trip to Jurmula and our orientation in Riga. We tearfully said our goodbyes, promising to email.

That evening Irwin and I walked through the Old Town and into the huge Cathedral Square where we searched out ‘Kiploka krogs,’ written up in our guidebook. This cozy den is otherwise known as The Garlic Restaurant, offering up garlic soup, garlic roast chicken, garlic salad, and (although we didn’t try it but wish we had now), garlic ice cream! There is fresh ground garlic to spread on whatever you deem does not have enough! As you leave you will be offered a sprig or two of parsley should you wish to be around anyone else in the next couple of days.

Our favorite restaurant (also a nightclub) that we visited twice is Casablanca. We sat outdoors under the heat lamps. We ordered from the gourmet menu. My favorite was the avocado, shrimp and cucumber soup with a yogurt (leben) base at $7 — exquisite, although the Cold Berry Soup with cream cheese at $5 was equally good. On the first night, we shared it for dessert but, on the second, we each had our own. Irwin enjoyed the lamb and olive tangine, and I found the peas in a bed of mozarella, tomatoes and shitake mushrooms delicious — everything a vegetarian could wish for. On the second night, we both tried the grilled Latvian trout with grilled vegetables ($17 US). Large, spicy and succulent, our fish went well with the outdoor musicians who serenaded us with folksy jazz, long into the night.

We took the city tour of Riga by bus the next day, getting off at two or three spots just to see what the city looked like outside the Old Town. The bus crosses the Daugava River and stops at some interesting neighbourhoods, full of small colorful wooden buildings. But we were happy to get back to our centre, the Old Town and its cobblestone walks with new discoveries at every corner.

With its splendid and lavish turn-of-the-century architecture greeting you at every turn, its universal and delectable cuisine, and its inexpensive accommodations, Riga is the new little Paris. I had expected a provincial little place climbing out from under Soviet occupation. What we saw and experienced was the opposite — a vibrant, exciting and charming city that we will certainly revisit.

To reserve at the Forums Hotel: www.hotelforums.lv

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Visiting St. Petersburg in style

Click here to view a slideshow of St. Petersburg

We arrived in St. Petersburg just before midnight and took a short cab ride to our hotel on the Fontanka, the left branch of the Neva River that flows through the centre of St. Petersburg.  Our hotel, the Asteria, lay across from a row of turn-of-the-century buildings. We were about a kilometre from the city center on Nevsky Prospekt and, at the end of Nevsky, is the famed Hermitage Museum, daunting for its size and for the difficulties of viewing its holdings.

Next morning, a Sunday, we ventured out toward Nevsky. And within a half a block, we stumbled upon a ballet theatre. We tried to get tickets for the evening performance of Swan Lake, but the theatre was closed. We walked along the Fontanka about half a kilometre and turned right. (We realized later there is a short cut to Nevsky.) After a short walk, we found a ticket kiosk.

Procuring tickets for Swan Lake for the following evening was an adventure. The friendly lady in the kiosk wrote prices on a small square of paper and, with my five words of Russian and our smiling gestures, we finalized the purchase — at $48 a seat in the third row. It turned out the tickets were right behind the conductor, and his body in motion was entirely blocking our view.  Spotting some empty seats along the row, we moved. Why we weren’t sold these seats in the first place, I’ll never know. The ballet was beautiful and what better place to see it than in the ballet capital of the world!

Russia is full of illogical frustrations, but don’t take them to heart. Here’s another: the next morning we decided to see the Hermitage — guideless and guileless. We asked the hotel clerk how to get there on foot and we promptly set off on the long walk. (She didn ’t tell us about the short cut). As we neared the immense Hermitage, it was eerily quiet. After circling the entire group of buildings, we finally found someone who told us the Hermitage was closed on Mondays. Back at the hotel, I asked the same clerk why she had sent us to the Hermitage on a Monday. “You asked for directions,” she said, “not whether it was open.” Ah, the intricacies of the post-Soviet Russian mind.

That day we strolled around Nevsky and took an hour-long bus tour around the city ($25). Irwin bought a beautiful sweater in a huge department store that used to be called GUM. It ’s now a myriad of boutiques, that run on two levels around one square city block, its front  on Nevsky .

It takes time and patience to get used to the immensity of the city. At almost every turn, there is a museum or palace to visit. Unfortunately it was raining and cold that day . We walked by the Church of Spilled Blood and on to the souvenir market, where prices are about 50% higher than in most stores! Although the church had an incredibly breathtaking fa çade, its pricey entrance fee and the name itself didn’t attract us inside.

That evening, as we waited outside our ballet theatre, we met two American women, one of whom lived in Moscow. They were discussing their packed day with their tour guide. She had taken them to the Hermitage! Could she be our answer? One of the young women happily called the guide on her cell phone and, wonder of wonders, the next morning sitting in our lobby waiting for us was Maria Luneva, former professor of Russian History, ready to show us her St. Petersburg. Maria is beautiful, charming, incredibly knowledgeable, efficient, and speaks marvellous English.

We were off to visit the world famous Hermitage Museum. Maria shepherded us through the hordes of waiting tourists to see the highlights of the larger and smaller palaces of Catherine the Great. We viewed a da Vinci, two Raphaels, and a few rooms of Impressionists along the way. Although I paint and love art, there’s only so much I can remember and appreciate, and for some reason, this whirlwind tour of the Hermitage left me exhausted. What I do remember most is Maria telling us that only 10% of Catherine ’s collection is ever shown at one time. This time we saw a room full of cameos. The Hermitage is all about superlatives and I couldn ’t imagine going it alone.

As Maria was securing our entrance tickets to the Hermitage that morning, she introduced us to a young woman who worked in the gift shop. She happened to be one of the corps de ballet in Giselle, being performed that evening at the tiny but splendid Hermitage Theatre. She also happened to be from Quebec City and had moved to St. Petersburg to study ballet. She was fluent in English, and, according to Maria, she spoke beautiful Russian. We decided right then that we would be in the audience that night, even though it would be our second night of ballet in St. Petersburg and the tickets were $100 each. We invited Maria and looked forward to a beautiful evening. The theatre is exquisite, as was the experience of seeing our young and talented Quebecer. We had never seen Giselle and we loved it. The performance was accompanied by the State Symphonic Orchestra of St. Petersburg.

At 228 years old, The Hermitage Theatre is the oldest theatre building in St. Petersburg and seats only 100 people. Its first season opened in 1785, but performances ceased after the death of Catherine II in 1796. Only in 1989 was the theatre restored and opened again.

The next day we were off to the fortress on the island, which was the heart of ancient St. Petersburg. Maria took me to a marvellous indoor souvenir department store, where prices were very low and the service excellent. After driving Irwin to a nearby Internet caf é, Maria sat on the balcony sipping coffee and waited for me to fill my basket.

We lunched the first day with Maria at a pierogi place, sampling various kinds from meat to herring, tuna and cabbage. These were baked in large squares and cut into pieces. I confided in Maria that what I most loved about Cuba, our winter destination, was visiting people in their homes in Havana. I certainly wasn ’t asking but she responded with a surprise invitation to lunch at her gorgeous apartment on our last day in town. Maria and her husband purchased their sumptuous turn-of-the-century penthouse in 1990. It is the same building that Shostakovich lived in and there is a bust of him in the courtyard. The apartment was beautiful and Maria was a wonderful hostess.

On the way, we stopped at a new shop that was offering free liquor to the first 100 or so customers. We walked out with two bottles of local liqueur and made our way to a neighbourhood pastry shop where we picked out goodies for dessert. I may not remember everything I saw at the Hermitage, but I do remember every detail of that visit to Maria ’s apartment.

St. Petersburg was the only city in which we visited ORT this. To remind you, ORT is the worldwide educational organization that we visited in several places last year. It turns out that ORT is right off Nevsky and only a block or two from our hotel. Bringing greetings from Montreal ORT, we were invited to tour the computer school.

I would highly recommend that you book an organized tour of St. Petersburg if you go. Alone, it can be a challenge. Maria Luneva can be reached by email at: mluneva@yandex.ru or call: +7-812-232-9725 (cell) or +7-812-921-2530 (in Russia).

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Magical, folksy, charming Tallinn

Click here to view a slideshow of Magical, folksy, charming Tallinn

Originally published: October 2007

If ever pictures were worth a thousand words, they’re worth at least 2,000 when it comes to Tallinn.

I introduced this magical place in my last article by telling you where we stayed. The Villa Hortensia is in the Old Town, at one corner of a courtyard of artists, artisans and a Chocolaterie that serves up sumptuous tiny chocolate pastries, pots of tea, café au lait, soups, and sandwiches. The skylight on our “lofty” bedroom ceiling brought us all manner of music from the Chocolaterie, but mainly Jacques Brel. Still, how romantic to wake up and go to sleep to the sounds and smells of the café below.

It rained for most of our four days in Tallinn but this did nothing to dampen our pleasures, which included hours spent reading in the cafés (we found another lovely one across the street from our courtyard), and daily trips to the indoor market near the train station to purchase our lunch. Our tiny loft had a kitchenette, where we ate the local delicacies, the same lunch every day — huge slabs of lox shoved between fresh rolls that we tore open, tomatoes, and sometimes marvellous cottage cheese along with the lox. The entire meal for two came to $6. Each night we sat in our courtyard before going to sleep and marvelled at the famous White Nights. Here we were at 11 pm and the sky was a deep blue. It was hardly dark enough to light the candles on the table.

We stayed within the walls of the Old Town for the greater part of our stay, only venturing out to see the garish shopping centre just outside and the Museum of the Occupations, where everything was translated into English. Housed on two levels, this moving testimony to both the Soviet occupation and Nazi terror was the first of three such museums we visited on this trip. In fact, there was almost too much to take in. It was raining that day too, which matched our spirits after leaving this museum.

As we were sipping coffee outside our courtyard on the second morning, we began to notice small troupes of children, seniors and couples, dressed in festive costumes, walking toward the main square. We followed them and, to our amazement, the entire square was filled with multi-coloured booths selling Estonian crafts. A stage was set up and the first performers of this “World Folkloric Festival” were getting ready to perform. Most of the groups were from the Baltic region. It was especially beautiful to see the variety of people, on both ends of the age spectrum, come together to perform and enjoy the sights of Tallinn — but I’ll let these photos tell the story.

From Tallinn we took a train ride, the first of several, to St. Petersburg, clutching our lunch bag of (you guessed it) our favourite sandwiches from the market. We arrived in St. Petersburg at night for four days of adventure that included the Hermitage, two ballets, and meeting a history professor turned tour guide, who showed us her St. Petersburg. All this and more next month!

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Stockholm to Tallinn

click here to view a slideshow of images from Stockholm to Tallinn

Originally Published September 2007

This summer’s adventure began in Stockholm, where we spent just two days, eager for more exotic and less expensive cities.

From Stockholm we took a luxurious ferry to Tallinn, Estonia and then, after three enchanting days in the Old Town, moved on by overnight train to St. Petersburg, where we spent four days and enjoyed two ballets!

From St. Petersburg, we traveled by overnight train to Riga, Latvia, a city full of culture and surprises, where we spent three days, including a day trip to Jurmula, an enchanting resort 40 minutes from the capital.

From Riga we took a day train to Vilnius, Lithuania where we spent three days touring the Old Town, especially the Jewish museum of the Vilna Gaon.

From Vilna we took a day train to Bialystock, Poland where, before World War II, 70,000 Jews resided. From Bialystock we traveled by train to Warsaw, this year for rest, recreation and shopping, having toured the Jewish sites last year. From Warsaw we moved on to Budapest, Irwin ’s favorite Eastern European city. After one night in Budapest, we flew to Israel for two weeks to see family and revisit our younger days, especially mine in Haifa, my still-favorite city.

We spent four days in Jerusalem, visiting my aunt and uncle and cousins. It’s been five years since our last visit so it was an emotional time. We visited our Cuban friends in Raanana who have recently made Aliyah (immigrated).

I re-entered the Old City of Jerusalem celebrating a personal anniversary — forty years since I first entered through Damascas Gate in 1967. Cousin Judy took us to the Bethlehem Machsom (checkpoint) and we had a glimpse at the wall that cuts off the Palestinians from Israel.

After Israel, we spent three days in Budapest and finished up in Vienna for the last two days.

As I sort through the hundreds of photos of places and people we met and saw along the way who hosted us and showed us their cities, I look forward to sharing this adventure of a lifetime with you.

Stockholm was beautiful, cold and expensive. Our hostel was right in the middle of the Old Town, perfect for exploring narrow, cobblestone streets full of caf és and boutiques. At $100 US a night for a tiny room, the hostel itself was nothing to write home about. With its clean showers and washrooms shared with many, we had to rent the sheets and make up our cots after landing jet lagged and bewildered. But the manager was extremely friendly and helped us book our overnight ferry to Tallinn, Estonia.

Unfortunately it was rainy and cold in Stockholm, forcing me to buy a sweatshirt and wear it for the next two weeks! This rain followed us to Tallinn and, to a lesser degree, to St. Petersburg and Riga. While they were sweltering in the south of Europe as far up as Budapest, we were shivering in outdoor restaurants, pulling blankets provided by the management around us and sitting as close as possible to the outdoor heaters. We drank lots of tea and ate berry crumble, which is served up warm in almost every caf é in the Old Town.

We were fascinated by the White Nights in Stockholm, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, and Riga. There is daylight till 11 pm in Tallinn! This makes for natural security and romantic late night teas in outdoor cafés.

We took the Hop-On-and-Off Bus around Stockholm, stopping twice in different areas to take pictures of the architecture and sip coffee on picturesque streets. This do-it-yourself tour is  $25 and you can get on and off the red double deckers for 24 hours and explore different parts of the city on foot. The bus tours are available in most of the cities we visited and all cost about the same. Our happiest time on the bus was meeting a couple from California and getting to know them. The people we meet, whether tourists or citizens, always make our trip more memorable and enjoyable.

From Stockholm we took the most luxurious ferry ride we’ve ever experienced to Tallinn overnight. Our romantic and cabin had a double bed and we had to pull ourselves away from its sheer luxury and privacy (after roughing it in the Stockholm hostel) to experience the cuisine of the “coffee shop,” which included thick lox sandwiches and glorious desserts. We won’t dwell on it here except to say this was possibly our most fatte­ning summer adventure ever. The ferry ride, $150 US each, was pricey because the price is for a return trip. Most Stockholmers spend the day in Tallinn and return home the next evening. There is an enormous buffet on board, which the Swedes lined up for in two shifts, at $45 a head. We opted for the less daunting café.

The only snag on this leg of the journey was in finding the port our ferry left from. Our manager ’s assistant mista­kenly told our cab driver to take us to the wrong port. (Stockholm is a huge port city and there are many ports so it ’s easy to confuse them.) We ended up paying our driver triple, but finally, after stopping and asking several times, we reached the terminal, took a number, and waited an hour or so to board. The luxurious ferry made up for the harrowing misadventure of finding it.

To give you a real taste of Tallinn, I’d have to provide you all with the thick slabs of mouthwatering smoked salmon we gorged on at the market during our three day visit.

We stayed at the Villa Hortensia in the Old Town, in a tiny loft with rustic wooden beams and a kitchenette. Villa Hortensia, owned and managed by a Finn, Jan Parn, is located in a courtyard surrounded by artisan shops and a Chocolateria.

Tallinn is enchanting and accessible, and Estonians are happy to be free of Soviet domination. Their language, appearance and behavior seem more Scandinavian than Slavic to this Canadian with her limited knowledge of Scandinavian people and countries.

Since there is much to tell about our visit to Tallinn and many pictures to show, I will continue next issue with the description of Tallinn ’s Old Town and the World Folk Festival we stumbled onto in the main square.

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Last and best stop in Romania

click here to view a slideshow of images from Romania

Originally published: July 2007

For all of its 332,000 plus inhabitants, Timisoara, Romania has that small town atmosphere that makes you fall in love – both with the city, and again with your partner, once you step out into its flower lined squares and winding narrow streets.

We stayed at the Hotel Timisoara (tel: 498-852-295-278 Str 1 Mai 2) and paid about $80 if I remember correctly. But be aware that prices fluctuate, going up, not down. It ’s almost a year since we happily walked into this hotel’s luxurious lobby, with its internet facilities right by the registration desk and its outdoor/indoor café and bar ready to welcome and feed us at midnight, when we finally arrived by train from Sibui.

Timisoara is right on the Hungarian border and is famous as the birthplace of the 1989 revolution. It ’s Romania’s fourth largest city and is known by Romanians as “Primul Oras Liber” (First Free Town). The first Ceausescu protest was here.

Hotel Timisoara has its back to Piaja Victoriei, a beautifully-landscaped  pedestrian mall lined with shops and cinemas, with the National Theatre and Opera House one end.

It was on this square that thousands of demonstrators gathered on December 16, 1989. Many were slaughtered. A memorial plaque at the front of the Opera House reads: “So you, who pass by this building, dedicate a thought for free Romania.”

In a corner of the square right near our hotel, we enjoyed cappuccinos at a gorgeous little outdoor café. The cafés have a Hungarian air about them and so do the cakes. Unfortunately, we were accosted by gypsy children begging. I can never resist them.

We ventured out the second day to find the synagogue. A senior gentleman we met on the street directed us to the Jewish community headquarters hidden on the second floor of a dilapidated building on a narrow street.

We met the leader of the community, who took us on a tour of the crumbling synagogue and told us it was to be renovated and transformed into a community centre. The size of the synagogue made me imagine the large community that once congregated there. The community now is quite poor, especially the seniors. We were invited to lunch with them but declined.

Instead we left a donation for the seniors and made our way to one of the many restaurants lining the huge square a few streets away. The food was wonderful and the view of the square spectacular. We dined on fish, vegetables, potatoes and cr ème caramel, with prices below even Romanian averages.

Because I’d rather leave room for pictures, I’ll end now and invite you to read about this summer’s voyage to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and St. Petersburg beginning in our September issue.

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Magical Sofia

click here to view a slideshow of images from Magical Sofia

Originally Published: May 2007

Sofia is a beautiful city for walking and walking is exactly what we did for the three days we spent in this colorful Bulgaria capital. We chose Hotel Slavyanska Besseda at Ul (St.) Slavyanska from our Lonely Planet Bulgaria guide book. The description was intriguing “decent mid-range option popular with businessmen from Russia and Eastern Europe.” Since we were coming from Eastern Europe (although I don’t see myself as a “business man”) and the price ($35-$50) seemed right, we reserved from our hotel in Varna and took a cab straight there from the train station. Hotel prices, by the way, are always higher than what is quoted in the guide book by at least 25%.

Our hotel was definitely in the middle of the action, hardly visible on a narrow corner that didn’t at first seem very picturesque after beautiful Varna. But we were soon out exploring, looking for a place to eat and window shopping in the late afternoon. We found a hip outdoor restaurant about a kilometer away and whiled away the evening on sumptuous Gazpacho soup, lots of wine and chocolate cake. The soup was so good I went back for more the next day. Sofia was more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than I had imagined. It has the old world charm with its narrow winding streets but it’s also very modern with its boutiques, bars, and restaurants. People are friendly, perhaps not as friendly as small town Varna, but certainly polite.

The next morning we were out walking, first past the Canadian Consulate, then on to find the synagogue, which turned to be huge but inviting, and the markets. Sofia is a beautiful, clean city with lots of long narrow streets full of boutiques and reasonable-priced restaurants. We loved the huge multi-leveled market, the outdoor market that seemed to stretch on forever, the grand synagogue where we met the leader of the Jewish community who talked to us about the Jewish community of Sofia.

We loved the outdoor fruit and vegetable market with its endless stalls of colorful produce, and the Cathedral behind it surrounded by parks and a playground. I’ll let the photos do the walking for you. I believe they tell the story of our days in Sofia better than my words. After three days of blissful discovery, we were off to Romania, the subject of next issue’s Times and Places.

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Kiev, Fastov & Pavoloch

click here to view a slideshow of images from Kiev, Fastov & Pavoloch

Originally published: February 2007

In Kiev we were hosted by ORT Ukraine. ORT is one of the largest non-governmental education and training organizations in over 100 countries that teach practical computer applications along with Jewish culture. ORT staff arranged our hotel, Lybid Hotel, 1 Peremogy Sq., Kyiv, 01135 and then took us on a tour of Kiev’ ORT Technology School, where we met teachers and viewed architectural models designed by high school students. As a member of ORT Montreal, it was my pleasure to bring greetings from the board of directors here. We emailed from the computer room at the ORT school to our friends at ORT Montreal.

In the evening we dined with Slava Leshchiner, Director of World ORT Representative Office in Ukraine, at a wonderful restaurant where we were invited to choose appetizers from a sumptuous looking tray. I tasted many of them but most enjoyed the cottage cheese verenikes. The next day we visited the Babi Yar monument. Babi Yar was the mass grave where thousands of Ukranian Jews were massacred during the Holocaust.

Kiev has certainly changed since my last visit in 1981. The downtown area is massive with sidewalks, flanked with boutiques and restaurants. We visited the huge indoor market which sells everything from cheese to flowers.

On Friday night we attended services at a synagogue two blocks from our hotel and enjoyed meeting members of the Jewish community who invited us to join them for a light supper following services. We communicated in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

The next day we headed out of town to Fastov, a small town where my grandfather spent much of his youth, and farther on to Pavoloch (Pavolitch in Yiddish), where my grandmother, Malka (Molly) Karasick, grew up. She had always talked abut Pavoloch as a vibrant town that housed three synagogues, a study house, and over 4,000 Jews so I was expecting something a bit bigger than Yagolnitsa and Losatch, where my paternal grandparents lived.

Fastov consisted of a main street, a rather lovely theatre and a cemetery that we visited, although none of my relatives were there. My grandfather, Velode William Levitus left around 1920, managing to hop on the boat that was taking my grandmother, Malka Karasick, along with her father, Dovide, to Canada. They were distant cousins and he once told me that he visited her in Pavoloch and gave her a ride in a wheelbarrow when she was three and he was a few years older.

Our ORT driver, also named Slava and a lovely woman who worked at ORT accompanied us on our journey of over three hours.

When we arrived in Pavoloch, we wondered where the town was. The terrain seemed empty. Two or three women stood huddled together as we drove closer to the only standing building. Suddenly, one of them came running up and spoke to our friends explaining that the building was in fact a museum for the town. What town, I asked myself looking around at the bare earth that seemed to stretch for kilometers. Larissa announced rather humbly that she was the present curator of the museum and that she would give us a tour. In fact, this building was the only remaining building in the town and had once been the main synagogue.

There were many sections to view, including recreated rooms from the time when my grandmother was living here. It was obvious that someone was paying to keep up this museum. There are a lot of Pavolochers in Winnipeg and we were told some of them sent money to keep up the museum/synagogue. I asked Larissa if there was a list of Jews who had lived in the town. She responded that there was a list of 2,000 Jews who had been killed in one night in 1943. They had been forced to dig their own mass grave. She gave me a bunch of dried flowers and led me to the sight of the grave. Two thousand had left during the pogroms and the rest had been murdered in one night during the Holocaust. This was the legacy of the once beautiful town my grandmother had so proudly described.

I asked Larissa if she had any records of my great-grandfather, Dovide Karasick, who was a teacher in the Hebrew school. She went to find the curator-emeritus, who was old and frail, and he told her that a photo of my great grandfather existed in the museum. The photo was small but I could make him out, standing with his students in front of the school. What a joy to see him and to imagine the rich life my family had had here, before the pogroms, before the Holocaust. Standing near the mass grave, I wondered where the motivation had come from, the motivation to travel out to every village and town and systematically murder every Jewish man, woman and child. How lucky I was that my great grandfather had had the courage to leave, that he had sent one son to Winnipeg to earn enough to send for the rest of my Pavoloch family.

I will let my photos describe what we saw and felt in Pavoloch. If you would like to visit Pavoloch, contact me at irblock@hotmail.com

For more information about Pavoloch, visit shtetlinks.jewishgen.org/pavoloch

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When in Ukraine, speak Ukrainian or travel with Yuri

Originally published: December, 2006

Traveling in northern Ukraine to discover my roots unleashed a roller coaster of emotions. I found myself in absurd, even amusing situations in places where all but memory has been erased.

I found myself luxuriating on overnight trains or enjoying coffee and pastries in lavish old world cafés while remembering my great uncle Haim — transported with his young wife and baby from his last known address in Chortkow to the concentration camps and their deaths.

Lviv or Lemberg, as it was known in my grandparents’ time at the beginning of the 20th century, is one of those places of mixed emotion. And visiting the home of my great-grandfather three hours south in a tiny village called Losatch is a more dramatic example of these conflicting feelings.

To begin our story, a word about language. If you don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian, clerks react strangely, sometimes not responding at all. None of our four spoken languages worked. Luckily we did meet a few young people who knew English.

After an hour-long train trip from Krakow, we took a cab to our hotel, which we discovered in Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe: Hotel Dnister, 6 Mateiko St. Lviv, 7900 Ukraine. reservations@dnister.lviv.ua. This 4-star hotel (US $100 a night) features an elegant dining room with hundreds of menu choices and a piano player. We had fallen into the lap of luxury. The Dnister is a 15-minute walk through a park to the main square. Along the way there are some fine silver jewellery shops and a decent Internet café.

Our first day was a dreary, rainy Sunday. Everything was closed except a cafeteria where we enjoyed borscht and fish (all of it was “cheap as borscht”) and other Ukrainian specialties such as verenikes (dumplings).

We spent the afternoon at the Wien hotel café on the square and the next three evenings at their lovely outdoor restaurant.

On the second day, we traveled to my paternal grandparents’ villages of Yagolnitsa and Losatch, three hours southeast of Lviv. We hired a driver, Yuri, 26, a friend of the hotel receptionist, an international business graduate who speaks English well. He had never been to either of these villages but for $50 US he was willing to find them and share our adventure. On the way, we learned he had a Jewish grandfather, from whom his family had been estranged. His time with us was an awakening of a part of his identity he had never explored.

We highly recommend Yuri to visit villages near Lviv. Call him in Lviv at 8066 185 1645. (He has no email.) If he can’t take you, he belongs to a group of taxi drivers and can arrange your trip with one of them.

Seeing the sign for Yagolnitsa was exhilarating. Here we were in the town (which looked more like a village) where my grandfather, great uncle and great-cousin Shia had lived and thrived as Jews. I was eager to find out if there were any Jews left here, but a drunken and happy resident informed us that there was only one and he was very old, not in a condition to meet us.

We lunched at the local restaurant (served by two girls who never stopped smiling) on potato verenikes, sour cream that looked like butter, veal with potatoes for Irwin, three salads, wine and two glasses of tea. ($12 for all three of us). We couldn’t seem to locate the Jewish cemetery.

There are plenty of turkeys and chickens prancing around, as you can see from the pictures. It’s a beautiful place, but nothing is left of the life that once was for my family.

We drove on to Losatch, my grandmother’s village, about 30 kilometers away. We were in search of my great grandfather’s house, which I knew existed because my cousin Avrum Fenson of Toronto had discovered it 14 years before with his late father Melvin.

Yuri and I got out at what looked like the only public building on the only street in the town, which was lined with houses. Inside we met with four women. At first, none of them knew the house of Pinchas Fierstein. Then one of them had an idea and drove with us down the street to a house with a terrace, like the one I had seen in a postcard my great grandfather had sent to Winnipeg.

There seemed to be a celebration in progress as we walked up and asked if this was Pinchas Fierstein’s house. At the name, an old Babushka leapt out and hugged me. She had known my great grandfather. The family who lived in the house had married off their daughter the day before and her friends were in the back still celebrating with vodka, food, and music.

After touring the house and having the bride dress up for us in her wedding dress, we went out in the yard and joined the friends who immediately asked us to sing a Canadian song. All we could think of was “O Canada” to which they responded with the Ukrainian national anthem, hands on their hearts. It was warm out there in the rain and mud in the lean-to decorated with carpets, as we shared this memorable moment, one of the happiest in my life, in a time and place that meant so much to me. I hope my children, niece and nephews will make the trek here to touch this time and place as I did.

To see the house where my grandmother grew up, to see the birds of peace that my great grandfather had carved above the door and the Hebrew script painted over them, so high I couldn’t make it out — this was a day I will always cherish.

My great-grandfather Pinchas was murdered by the Nazis in 1943 along with his son Boomka, my grandmother’s younger stepbrother, and his wife. In this house, which he built, I felt his presence.

Yes, these people are interlopers. Kind as they are, they took this house, a house belonging to a murdered Jew, and claimed it as their own. I felt no anger toward them. They showed great warmth and compassion for me and my family. And certainly, this visit was much more fulfilling than the emptiness of Yagolnitsa, where I craved to know the house my grandfather and his family had lived in. Where was the rich culture they had spoken of? What had happened to the Jews of this place?

Back in Lviv we retreated to our outdoor restaurant and discovered a cheaper, more central hotel for next time or for you on your first visit. It’s called the Wien Guest Rooms and it’s just beside the hotel and outdoor restaurant, also called the Wien at 12 Swoboda Ave. The menu was fun. Here are some samples: Viennese Style sausages on fire 7.70; Vegetables on Sword 9.20; Pancakes with cheese mass 7.85; Ice Cream Nut 9.85; Ice cream with Advocat and Fig 17.50; Turkey live fried with onions 14.90 (it took us two days to figure out they had left the r off “live.” At first, I wondered if they had procured some live ones from Yagolnitsa.

Here’s what we had for dinner the last night: Salad with eggs, potatoes, pickles, red pepper tomatoes, salad with cauliflower, pepper and mushrooms, skewer of chicken breast with mushroom and zucchini, ice cream with cherries, chocolate cake, pot of fruit tea with honey, two (half) glasses of wine. Sound good? It was.

By the way, $1 Cdn = 4.5 hryvnia (Ukrainian currency)

Yuri showed us around the town the third and last day, including the opera house in the middle of the square and a bazaar where we purchased a few babushka dolls that looked nothing like the original babushka, Katarina, in Losatch.

By the way, if you don’t know Ukrainian or Russian, you’ll have trouble reserving a train unless you do it from your hotel. We reserved our train to Kiev, the overnight “grand tour” from one of the big hotels on the square. We had a beautiful “cabin.” And actually, you haven’t lived till you’ve cracked open a half bottle of Ukrainian champagne served in stem glasses on the night train to Kiev. Strangely, the charge was waived.

Lviv to Kiev: US $140 for two in a deluxe cabin leaving midnight, arriving 8 am.

For information on the Jewish community of Lviv or to visit the synagogue, contact Sarah Bald at 380-50-955-5555-65 or bald@mail.lviv.ua

We visited Kleparov station with Yuri, and read the plaque: “The last stop of Lvov Jews before being expelled and put to death in the gas chambers of Belzetz. All Galician Jews, 500,000 Jews passed here in March 42 - 43.”

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To walk in their footsteps and touch them in some small way

Originally Published November, 2006

Krakow is a beautiful city, too beautiful to be so close to Auschwitz.

We stayed in the Jewish district, Kazmierz, which in 1495 became the city’s Jewish quarter, one of the main cultural centres for Polish Jews. Now it is a ­re-creation of what life used to be like before the Holocaust. In March, 1941, the entire Jewish population of the district was deported to the Podgorze ghetto, where 16,000 people were crammed into 120 buildings or sent to concentration and death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The ghetto was liquidated in March 1943, ending seven centuries of Jewish life in Krakow.

Kazmierz boasts a handful of synagogues, all mira­culously intact, some with sumptuous interiors. The tiny Remu’h Synagogue at ul Szeroka 40 is one of the two functioning synagogues in the district. Just inside the entrance, a wall has been formed, a collage of the fragments of tombstones from the adjacent cemetery.

The grandest of all the synagogues in Kazmierz was the Old Synagogue on ul Szeroka, the oldest surviving Jewish religious building in Poland. It is now a museum.

Our small pension, Tournet Pokoje Goscinne at ul Miodowa 7, was run by a young couple with small children. It was clean, but small after our lavish hotel in Lodz. We arrived by train after dark and decided to venture out and buy food at one of the many small grocery stores in the area. We walked into the Old Jewish Square, which reminded me of Jacques Cartier Square in Old Montreal. Like Old Montreal, Kazimierz allows visitors to imagine life as it once was. There is a difference: there is no trace of the thousands of Jews who lived and flourished in Kazmierz.

There are many restaurants, some featuring Klezmer bands, that line the square, most sporting Hebrew menus or signs. Many are overpriced and certainly not “Jewish style” as they advertise. An example is the choice of lard or sour cream to accompany verenikes or pierogis in the restaurant we chose, which was decorated inside and out to recreate the shops and dress of the Jews who once lived and worked within its walls. When I mentioned the incongruous inclusion of lard on the menu, the server said she would mention it to her manager.

We took a street car downtown on our second day to see the largest square in Medieval Europe, Rynek Glowny. The square is the centre of the Old Town with narrow streets leading into it, where you can find boutiques and restaurants.

On one of these streets, we had lunch at Greenway, a small franchise, which we had discovered in Lodz. It’s a charming self-serve vegetarian restaurant with Polish and Mexican specialties and is very inexpensive. Then we spent the afternoon sipping ice-cream drinks in one of the many outdoor terrace cafés surrounding the square. The grandest site in the square is the Town Hall Tower. There are a multitude of churches to visit, but since we were in Krakow mainly because of Auschwitz, we did not venture into any of them but saved our energy for the third day, the day we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Tours to Auschwitz can be purchased at every hotel in Krakow. The Holocaust is big business for the Poles, strange as that may sound. We relied on them to get us to Auschwitz safely and to guide us through the kilometers of testimonials to the torture and murder that went on there.

The bus was too comfortable. The documentary on the small TV on the 1 1/2 hour trip was informative, but strangely out of place and time. It made it difficult to imagine those other times — the packed, thirst-ridden, sick and dying who were herded to these gates. I wanted to see the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei.” It was strangely shrunken, and the camp was so much bigger, the barracks sturdier, and the distances longer than I had imagined.

Everything was empty and vast, save the small bunches of tourists being led around or wandering by themselves in pairs or families. As we walked out of the Visitor’s Centre some tourists were eating ice cream bars as they stood in the rain, well dressed, well fed, ready to embark on their tours of the largest killing ground in Europe.

Seeing Auschwitz-Birkenau, or what is left of it, I learned more about life there — and death —  than I had reading and studying and writing about the Holocaust. I learned the Nazis were extremely methodical and meticulous to a fault. Yes, I had known these facts, but seeing thousands of shoes, tobacco boxes, children’s clothing, and suitcases —only a tiny fraction of what was actually collected — made me realize how vast this operation was — this operation of annihilation.

And that is where, in my eyes, it differs from other holocausts. There was a vast and organized collection — booty — stolen from the living souls and from their dead bodies before they were thrown into the gas ovens.

Only in one regard did the Nazi butchers lose their sense of order and discipline: it was how and when an inmate was tortured and killed. This was completely arbitrary. We witnessed it when we visited the punishment building and the shooting yard outside it.

I have always been sure there is no god. I was brought up an atheist. Seeing Auschwitz-Birkenau confirmed my disbelief. What god with any form of supernatural power could have witnessed his chosen people as they were starved, tortured and experimented on — men, women and children? What god could have stood by and watched “his people” being deprived every human dignity before they were burnt in the ovens — and do NOTHING?

I learned also that hair turns grey, even when it is shorn off. Sixty years and it smells of mildew.

As I walked along the kilometer-long road and track that took members of my family to their deaths, the road at Birkenau, the vast camp adjacent to Auschwitz, the death camp — as I walked on the road that leads from the train station to the crematoria, past the barracks (for the inmates who were forced to help exterminate the victims), it was raining lightly, and I was having trouble keeping up with my “group.” My knee hurt from the dampness and I thought about my pain compared to that of the thousands of men, women, and  children who had walked this road from the trains, and those who veered off it or tried to escape and were shot by the side of the road.

I have thought long and hard about what to tell you about Auschwitz.

No description can bring you there. You must go if you are able.

Before we left, people asked me why I was going, why I needed to inflict this experience on myself. I went to Auschwitz to do the unthinkable — to imagine what it was like. I needed to go, not to understand — for how can such horror be understood — but to feel closer to those who perished, to walk in their footsteps, at least physically, and in doing so, touch them in some small but meaningful way.

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Vets uneasy over rumoured transfer of Ste. Anne's Hospital

September, 2009

There is apprehension among local war veterans and Royal Canadian Legion members following news the federal government has begun discussions on transferring responsibility for Ste. Anne’s Veterans Hospital to the Quebec government’s control.

Located on a 21-hectare site in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Ste. Anne’s was one of nine veterans’ hospitals built in Canada for casualties of the First World War.

Although it is the country’s last veterans’ hospital, the number of patients is expected to drop in the coming years. With 446 private rooms, there are currently about 415 residents at the hospital with an average age of 86, compared with 725 averaging 76 years in 1992.

“There’s been talk of this for many years,” said Stuart Vallières, president of the NDG branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. According to Vallières, speculation about Ste. Anne’s being turned over to Quebec has gone on since Queen Mary Veterans Hospital was transferred decades ago to the province.

“It’s still not a done deal. I think it’s very talked about and worked on. My personal opinion is that they seem to be delaying it as long as they can. The longer they delay it, the less impact it has on war veterans, particularly those now from the Second World War.”

“I’m sure that any veteran you talk to would not be looking forward to seeing that happen,” he added. “In this province – and this is a very personal opinion – we’ve had more governments here talking about separating than we’ve had being part and remaining part of Canada.

Second World War veteran Bob Thompson and the Royal Canadian Legion crest

“The veterans have the respect of the Canadian government, and as a result of our efforts over the years to express the needs of veterans, the desires of veterans, we’ve been able to form a very good association and a working agreement between the government and ourselves.

“And I think most veterans would have to admit that as far as treatment – and I’m talking now about seriously disabled vets – they’ve been very fairly treated by the government and we have no complaints at all and this association continues at Ste. Anne de Bellevue. The veterans there receive excellent treatment.”

Asked whether he felt veterans’ specific medical needs might not be fully recognized if their care were no longer provided by Veterans Affairs Canada, Vallières responded, “That’s right. That would be my very personal opinion.”

At the Royal Canadian Legion’s Lachine branch, similar apprehensions about a possible transfer were expressed.

“It should stay strictly as a veterans’ hospital,” said Bob Thompson, who served in Canada’s navy during the Second World War. “If the province were to take it over, that would mean anyone would be able to enter that hospital, and veterans might even have a hard time getting in with other people moving in and taking priority.

“The veterans would lose a lot of their power in there,” he said.

“They wouldn’t have preference, I believe. The way it is now, you have a good chance of getting in, but should they take over, I think it would be much harder.”

Ste. Anne’s Veterans Hospital would be likely to end up as a senior citizens home, another branch member suggested.

“Anyone would be able to go there,” she said. Another vet saw the potential for linguistic problems developing if English-speaking vets, who have been served until now by the officially bilingual federal Veterans Affairs, were to suddenly fall under the aegis of Quebec, which prioritizes use of the French language through Bill 101.

According to Bonnie Sandler, a Montreal social worker with extensive experience assisting the elderly, other changes of concern to veterans and their families are also happening now. Sandler regularly places seniors in retirement residences and works with many veterans.

Until recently, she was able to place clients in private residences. They would pay a portion of the total fee and Veterans Affairs would pay the larger amount.

“That was the story for all veterans until recently,” she said.

“My last case involved a visit to a few nursing homes. Then Veterans Affairs came out saying they are no longer taking up the slack of private placements. This man is sitting in one of the rehab centres right now. He should have been moved already. They’re saying he’s got to go into the public system.”

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Chefchaouen: a friendly community of magical characters

click here to view a slideshow of images from Chefchaouen

September 2009

We visited Morocco twice this year. In May we spent three weeks in Fez, Marrakesh, Essaouira, El Jadida and Rabat. On the flight back we mulled over possible destinations for our three-week vacation in July. Before we landed in Montreal, we had come to a decision: We would return to Morocco.

You might ask why we returned so soon to the same country – a first for us. The May trip was difficult because my bad knee was at an all-time low. We travelled with a couple from New York whom I didn’t know well – another first for us, and we’ve since decided that although they were lovely people and it did save us money when we hired a guide, we’re not cut out to travel with anyone else.

Despite these things, we enjoyed ourselves immensely. The locals were friendly and supportive. The weather was perfect (it was too hot when we returned in July). The second language, French, made it easy for us to communicate. Every town and city is exotic and exciting in its own way. And you know that old saying about the devil you know – except there is nothing devilish about this place. I’m not sure why Morocco has such a bad rap; it must come from people who haven’t been there! True, there are beggars young and old selling small tissue packages, and people who try to stay alive by hocking every manner of watch, painting, purse, shirt, shoe and key chain, and “guides” every time you turn around, but Turkey was much worse when it came to being hounded and harassed for our Western buck.

What we love to do in Morocco may not be ever yone’s cup of tea. Our cup of tea is fresh mint and we sip it watching the people go by. We love to walk through the Medinas, or old cities. Each town, no matter how small, has its Medina, as well as its Melech, the part of the old city where the Jews lived. Unfortunately, our museum and archeological site days are over, because of my knee.

I love bargaining and bantering with the shopkeepers more than Irwin does, and my favourite sight-seeing subjects and photo ops are the people. The plethora of dress among both women and men is perhaps the most colourful and exotic I have ever seen. Almost anything goes – except the crass bareness of some Westerners who show themselves to be disrespectful of Morocco’s somewhat traditional and conservative dress code. Mini skirts or shorts are not de rigueur, and it’s best to have some part of your chest, back and arms covered. The easiest way to fit in is to buy a Moroccan kaftan or blouse, as we did.

I’m going to begin my account in Chefchaouen, where we spent a week in July. Eventually I hope to describe each place we visited.

On this second visit we stayed in the north of the country, which has a large Spanish influence. In fact, more people seem to speak Spanish as a second language rather than French, which is predominant in the south. We landed in Casablanca, then took a train to Tangier, where we caught buses to Tetuan, Chefchaouen and finally Asila, a beach town on the Atlantic where we stayed for four days. As usual, we planned very little in advance, deciding where and when to go on the spur of the moment.

We spent a week in Chefchaouen, partly because I got sick and partly because it is so magical. Travellers have discovered this little jewel nestled in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco, which is said to have over 200 hostels and hotels. The town’s name refers to the horn-shaped mountain tops that tower over it. We arrived in the town’s new, lower section with no guide book, and took a taxi to the upper level, where the Medina – and all the action – is. Chefchaouen’s central oblong- shaped “square” is lined with coffee shops and eateries. Off in almost every direction are the winding cobblestone lanes of the souk, or Market, where you can purchase everything from light fixtures to small sacks of dye, leather purses, and costume jewellery.

We began to search for a hotel with an elevator, but, alas, ever y lane we tried had only walk-up pensions with shared bathrooms. We finally decided on Hotel Yasmina, because it was clean and had only 18 stairs. Later that afternoon we met Melinda, an Australian former nurse who married a Berber (the indigenous people of North Africa) and now runs a lucrative shop with him at one corner of the square. She recommended the one luxury hotel in the area, the Parador, a four-star establishment with a pool. We promptly reserved a room for the following night.

I knew even before we settled into our cots at the Yasmina that my days of happily sharing a bathroom with other travellers are over. Still, at 108 dirhams ($15) a night, it was an experience – one I’d rather not have again. The Parador was 540 dirhams ($75) for a room with a private bathroom and a fan that shut off automatically every 60 minutes. The “pool” turned out to be more of an outdoor bathtub.

For dinner we tried Casa Hassan, a fabulously decorated place on three levels with a three-course dinner for 80 dirhams, or $11. For appetizers, our traditional harira soup and white cheese salad were both excellent. The vegetable pastel, a cinnamony and spicey stuffed pancake, was exquisite. Irwin declared his meat kebabs with rice and vegetables perfect. The lemon tarte, a thin layer of lemony bliss over honey- and cinnamon- flavoured crumbs, was the pièce de résistance. By Day 2 we had found favourite spots for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and we were welcomed in each like family. We played a lot of chess in Chefchaouen – at breakfast, after lunch and before dinner – so it was of no surprise to our restaurateurs that Irwin enrolled in the international chess tournament. It was, however, a surprise to Irwin: I talked him into it at the last minute. It was five-minute-a-game speed chess, with which he had no experience, but I thought it would be fun, as well as a great photo op for The Senior Times. Irwin played seven games, lost all of them and packed it in at 11 p.m. It was more fun to watch youngsters as young as eight – including one with a lollipop in her mouth who batted the chess clock as nonchalantly as if she were shooing a fly away – winning game after game against Irwin and others than it was to watch Irwin lose.

I’ve saved our best experience for last. In Chefchaouen we met Florence, an osteopath raised and trained in Paris who is married to a Berber and has a 2-year-old daughter, Lina. Florence opened her business, aptly called “Art du Bien Être” on the ground level of the house she rents with her husband for the equivalent of $300 a month. It’s all painted blue and resembles a large cave on two levels. Florence helped me through a sore hip I had developed at Melinda the Australian’s shop while bending down to look over her jewellery. Florence was my Nightingale, so relaxed and spiritual. After my first osteopathic treatment, I asked her if I could have a massage (a steal at $20 an hour) every day until I left. If you ever find yourself in Chefchaouen, Florence is worth looking up even if you’re perfectly healthy.

On our last night we attended the end of a free concert with 500 people in an open air auditorium listening to 13 men chant liturgical music on a huge stage, all dressed in white and playing various instruments. There were many children watching and it was past midnight.

One of the charms of Chefchaouen is that it’s almost impossible to get drunk there. There are no bars and the vast majority of restaurants do not serve alcohol. This means no loud, beer-guzzling tourists. It’s a pleasure to be in a safe, alcohol-free environment where children run around freely after dark.

Meanwhile, the Chefchaouen re- gion is one of the main producers of cannabis in Morocco, and it is said that your hostel owner will offer you hashish at the drop of a hat, so if you want to relive your hippy days, this is the place to do it. (We didn’t.)

Chefchaouen is full of characters. Here is a list of some of the most memorable:

• The boy who approached me while I was ordering an ice cream cone. He pointed to himself, so I bought him one, which he took to the elderly men sitting around a fountain. They nodded to me in approval.

• The boy who came up to us at a café and asked for 7 dirham ($1) to buy a sandwich. We offered to buy him the sandwich, and he insisted that the money would do just fine. When we told him it was the sandwich or nothing, he left us, pouting.

• The young man who stopped us with a loud “Shalom” to tell us his father’s name was Ben Yakov and he sold antique carpets and would we like to see his carpet warehouse. When we asked how he knew we were Jewish, he pointed to the Hamsah (Hand Against the Evil Eye) keychain hanging from our knapsack. But wait a minute. Everyone in Morocco wears them, Muslims and Jews.

• The town’s only full-time beggar. This elderly lady does the restaurant strip twice a day with her hand out, yet seems no worse off than any of the other Berber women in the town.

• The guy standing outside his restaurant who said “Come and eat” and when we said “We’ve eaten” he responded with “Come and sit.”

• The shopkeeper who, on our fifth day, stopped us and said, “You’ve been here five days and you haven’t bought anything from me.” Nobody goes unnoticed in Chefchaouen.

I leave you with some of my favourite 5am Chefchaouen sounds: roosters cockadoodling, donkeys braying, birds singing, and the muezzin calling people to prayer. It was a magical place.

If you go to Chefchaouen: • The Parador is located in Place El Mekhzen. Call (011) 212-39986136.

• Florence’s home office is behind the big mosque at 7 Derb Leizer, Souika; her number is (011) 212-663-419- 303. Or you can ask Melinda (you can’t miss her shop – just ask for the Australian woman) and she’ll direct you to Florence.

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Autistic adults find their place

September, 2009

As you walk into Darlene Berringer’s apartment on Sherbrooke near Greene, Yosef Robinson and Ansovina Dolce take you into the room where they are working on their projects.

Yosef is 27 and has a masters degree in urban planning and Anso is working on her art.

Darlene Berringer helps high-functioning autistic young adults lead full lives Photos: Todd Pritchett

“Each of them is brilliant in their own respect,” Berringer says of her autistic students. Her mission is to integrate them fully into careers where their talents and personalities can shine. Berringer was the founding director of Giant Steps, a school for autistic children and adolescents. It started small, she says, in a church basement in Pointe Claire. The school now has branches worldwide.

Before starting Giant Steps, Berringer taught music therapy at Concordia University.

The shortage of resources for young adults with autism prompted her to leave Giant Steps and begin her new career direction.

She got a letter from the director of Giant Steps in New York asking what was happening with the young adult graduates. “I hate to say this, but nobody wanted the adults.” That is when she turned her energies toward high-functioning autistic young adults.

The three cornerstones of her project are work, study, and socialization. Berringer says that socialization is extremely important.

Many autistic adults hunt for relationships online and it can lead to trouble, she says. “There are sexual predators that find [them] and say ‘come to me.’ ” Sometimes the young adults try to continue the relationship even though we discourage them from doing so, she adds.

Yosef interjects to say that he craves romantic relationships because he already has friends.

Berringer says that romantic relationships are a huge issue with autis- tic adults. “When you’re a so-called neurotypical person and you start out, slowly your system sort of automatically gets into it,” she says. “For these guys, it’s not automatic.”

They don’t know how to make romantic relationships work, she says. “There’s usually a sense in you where you feel passion,” she says about non-autistic adults. “Yosef will say, ‘yes, I’m passionate about this person’ but he’s only dealing with them online. How you can you be passionate with- out them even being there?”

“We’re like stray sheep,” says Loren Gabbaor, a member of the project or “collaboratory.”

“The black sheep,” Yosef adds.

Ansovina, also a member of the collaboratory, has a similar problem when it comes to making friends. She is an exceptional artist who also sells jewellery, and has limited speaking skills. Berringer says that at Anso’s work place, when everybody else is talking and laughing, she just stands by herself. “Not even a hello or a goodbye.”

Anso works on one of her drawings

Because these adults don’t fully understand how to interact with others, there can be some awkward situations.

Yosef is an urban planner and has to go out on assignment from time to time. Berringer was driving him down Ontario St. for a project he was working on. It was freezing. When he was almost finished, he told her that she could go and that he could finish the rest by himself.

“It was very cold and I needed to write some notes,” Yosef says. “I wanted to find a warm place to write them so I found a shoe store, and the clerk started to ask me, “Can I help you?” And I told her that I was writing notes. She was about to escort me out the door so I started touching her shoulder. I wanted to make her smile and not be angry. You know, let’s be friends. And she said ‘get out.’ And I told her ‘Je t’aime.’ Not good.” Berringer explains that this is a common situation and that Yosef was misunderstood. “He was panicked because he didn’t want that negative energy,” she explains. “So when he said ‘je t’aime’ and touched her shoulder, she went ballistic. What he was trying to say was, ‘Please, I don’t want to hurt anybody, I just want to write my notes’.”

The socialization aspect of the collaboratory would involve teaching how to avoid situations like these and help these young adults form relationships. “Kind of like a matchmaking place with people from the collaboratory,” Yosef says. “Set people up according to their sexual orientation, their likes and dislikes, their background.”

Berringer says the CEGEP and High School system should be tailored to fit the needs of the autistic people in the system.

“Usually they don’t get past high school. They [the schools] sort of leave them without anything. “What I want for a lot of the kids that are in high school with autism, is that in Grade 10 or 11, I want the school to change. I want to bring in a career technical education,” she says. “By this time they are starting to look at careers that they want to get into. It could be one or two or three that they want to look at, but I want to build that for them. Not let’s continue to do math when they don’t really like math. We already know math after all these years.”

She says that during that time, students should focus on those areas that interest them so that they can build on their skills.

This way, when they leave high school, they would have the ability to enter the job market. “It shouldn’t just be study, it should be work and study. That’s my belief.”

Another main component of Berringer’s project is finding jobs for her protégés after they are done school. She is starting small, but she has succeeded in helping several young people already.

“I’ve always liked cities. Since I was a young kid, I’ve always liked geography an awful lot. I love to learn about different cities … Cleveland or Monterey or Mexico City or Johannesburg – wherever!” Yosef says

Yosef is an urban planner. He works out of the office, often in Berringer’s apartment, and they go together to get his work from his boss at the main office. She goes with him to prevent any sticky situations.

“Darlene checks the reports very thoroughly to make sure that I am writing in a writing st yle that my bosses would accept,” Yosef says.

She also goes with her students to their interviews. “You go in and you explain. You’re honest and truthful,” she says.

“The key is to be pushy in a nice way,” Yosef elaborates.

When Loren was introduced to Berringer, his dad had got him a job where he was doing very simple tasks like photocopying. That job finished and his mother called Berringer for help. “His mother said ‘he’s not working and we’ve tried all kinds of places and it’s very hard to get him in.’” He was playing computer games all day long, Berringer adds. “This is something that you will hear over and over again about people with Aspergers (a form of autism), that they live and breathe computers.”

“It wasn’t my fault!” Loren says. Berringer agrees and explains the difficulty involved in autistic adults finding jobs without assistance.

“Loren wanted to get into an accounting firm and I was going to put him in one. But once we spent time here, we really look at his skill sets. No one ever really had. I told him that he was not an accountant,” she says.

“You have incredible information science going on in your head,” she told him. “He knows so much about so many things. I was so impressed. I told him that he could easily go into library sciences.

“I called Charles [Loren’s current boss] and he said that they really didn’t have any work. I said, ‘I don’t think that you know him wel l enough.’ I told him about all of his talents and he was shocked. I said, ‘I’d really like you to give him a shot, even if you don’t pay him.’

“He went in and once Charles found out what Loren had to offer, he said, ‘that’s amazing.’

“None of us knew that he was so technically aware. He’s so modest. You have to pull the information out of him,”she says.

“We want them to get a job and love it,” Berringer says. Not just sit at a job – build on a passion for it. Once they have a job and they have some money, they will be trained in financial literacy.”

“I hate it when people say that they are autistic so they can’t. We say, ‘No, no, no! They can.’”

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Earl Jones victims soldier on

September, 2009

The collective financial loss of the victims of fraudulent investor Earl Jones is thought to be as much as $50 million. But there is no accurate measure of the devastation the con man has hurled into the lives of the clients who trusted him for decades.

“We’re into the eighth week of this and the first six weeks were mostly shock, a lot of panic and fear, feeling sick to your stomach every day, waking up at 3am saying ‘Oh my God,’” said Betty Davis, a 78-year-old widow who lost 30 years of her savings and nearly half of her future monthly income to Jones. Seeing her stand tall, with her clear blue eyes and lovely smile, wearing a pink baseball cap, apologizing for the chaos created by workmen changing her kitchen door, one would never know she’s just had the carpet pulled out from under her.

“The only thing that kept me sane is playing golf. But now I figure things have calmed down and I’m starting to be active in redesigning my life.”

Whi l e she found meeti ng wi th other victims helpful, it was also a painful experience, Davis said. “Staying in touch with other victims is too heavy – the load of anguish and distress is too much to bear if you’re right up against it. It’s a very emotional matter, a tremendous blow to your self-esteem. It knocked your life apart and you have to rebuild it.”

Betty Davis with her son Joey Davis: "We want to give people hope" Photo: Kristine Berey

Still, Davis is one of the luckier ones. Her son Joey Davis is nearby and, along with other sons and daughters of Earl Jones’s victims, is taking the fight for justice for victims of white collar crime to a higher level while mobilizing public opinion.

“We effectively want to change the criminal laws in Canada,” Joey Davis said. “We want stiffer sentencing for white-collar crime, institute a single regulatory body over all financial institutions in Canada, and we want to see a charter of rights for victims of white-collar crime and a national compensation fund. We’ve got some big guns going – it’s not just an Earl Jones situation. White-collar crime is a scourge across the country.”

So far there have been over 225 cases, Davis says. He and other children of victims have formed an organizing committee and have met with government officials, including the Prime Minister. The group will organize a “march of generations” on Parliament Hill September 26 to launch the National Coalition against White-Collar Crime.

Davis has put out a call for victims to come forward and tell their story. “We want to give people hope. We’ll be starting a foundation, a one-stop shop for any concerned citizen. This affects everybody, not just the rich.” Though most victims were seniors, Davis says this is not a crime of elder abuse. “This man was in operation for 30 years. His clients were my age when he gained their trust, which grew over the years. Jones knew that over time these people would be vulnerable and elderly – he had a long-term strategy.”

The West Island Community Resource Centre and Sun Youth are working together to provide immediate practical help to victims. As well, emotional support is available at local CLSCs, says Brigit Ritzhaupt, program manager for adult mental health services at the CSSS Ouest de l’Isle.

“We have short-term counseling, spread over six to eight sessions, or long-term counseling. I know that some of the victims have come to terms with their anger and loss. They’ve looked at how they have coped in the past while at the same time looking at their strengths and taking charge once again.”

However, healing may take much longer for some, says Anne Davidson, director of the West Island Community Resource Services. “This debacle is a reminder that many older people do not have their families around because they moved away to explore a broader spectrum of opportunities,” she wrote in the West Island edition of The Gazette.

She invites Montrealers to continue reaching out to the victims, some of whom are struggling to maintain their most basic needs. “There are so many ways people can help. They can offer a service if they can’t offer money. We have some people who need medical equipment so they can stay in their home, people unable to keep dentist appointments because they have no cash. Similarly, they can’t afford glasses or go to medical appointments. We have a multitude of needs – right now some can’t pay for their groceries.”

Davidson says many are in crisis situations that could last up to a year. “A lot of the victims need advocacy. They say they’re ‘OK’, but they’re really not. Some are holding back; they don’t really believe they’re that badly off yet. It’s summertime and the harshness of reality is always less in summer. It hasn’t hit them yet.”

Reach the West Island Community Resource Centre at 514-694-6404 and Sun Youth at 514-842-6404.

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Putting the blame on mom

September, 2009

More than 50 years ago, when Lil Levinson-Garmaise was raising a family in late 1950s Montreal, she was also starting to do something most other women wouldn’t have dreamed of: making a name for herself as an author of musical comedies.

Carmen Cohen, which is probably her best known work, was initially produced in 1957 and revived five years ago as Carmen on the Main, with Rita Wasserman playing the lead role. Despite the fact it is light entertainment, it has achieved a degree of cultural significance, partly because of its theme, which centres on Montreal’s once-thriving garment industry.

Over the past 12 years, Levinson-Garmaise and several others have staged four shows at the Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors. In October, her latest effort, a musical comedy called Put the Blame on Mom, will be playing for four nights at Congregation Beth-El on Lucerne Rd. in Town of Mount Royal. A cast of 30 actors, singers and dancers, ranging in age from 65 to 93, will lampoon psychiatry and the burden of guilt members of that profession have tended to place on moms – at least in the cliché.

The production will feature at least one person who shared in Levinson-Garmaise’s initial success. Glenda Radin has agreed to return as musical director of soloists for the new show. Other collaborators include choreographer Lil Arfen, producer Rita Scott, musical director Nick Burgess and artistic director Lorna Wayne.

“When we went into production almost a year ago, Rita, Lil Arfin and I were looking for a musical director, and I remembered that 50 years earlier I had an excellent one in Glenda,” Levinson-Garmaise said. “I had a hard time finding her. I went through the phone book. One lady who answered was Glenda’s sister-in-law. That’s how we connected.”

Accordi ng to the author, Put the Blame on Mom tells the story of some women who decide to rebel against psychiatrists who (in typically Freudian lockstep) insist on blaming mothers when things go wrong in their children’s lives.

“Psychiatrists always blame mothers,” Levinson-Garmaise said. “I don’t know to what degree, but this is a known fact. But it’s all lighthearted. No doctor ought to take this seriously. We’ll have a disclaimer on the program. I’m sure they’re going to laugh. They’ll need a sense of humour, of course.”

Although they’ve done shows together before, “we’ve never done so much dancing, so much movement and had so much energy on stage,” Arfin said. “So there’s a good spirit. We’ve all enjoying it very much be- cause it’s so different.”

The difference between this show and all the others is that they’ve got professional people in charge and they’re teaching the others such things as how to move on stage, Radin added.

Levinson-Garmaise’s retelling of Carmen was set to the music of the famous opera by Bizet. However, in her version, the lead female character was Jewish and worked in the fictional (albeit very real-sounding) Atomic Men’s Pants Manufacturing Co. on St. Laurent, otherwise known as The Main. In 1957, the show ran for a week at the Beth Aaron synagogue, then located in Park Extension, but since become the Beth Israel–Beth Aaron Congregation.

While Act One of Carmen Cohen took place at the fictional factory, Act Two was set at Montreal’s famous, although now defunct, Ben’s Delicatessen. Hi Radin, who is cast in the upcoming show, had played Ben. “The show went over very wel l,” Levinson-Garmaise said. “It was reviewed by Sidney Johnson of the Mont real Star. For an amateur performance that was quite unusual.” A year later, a producer in Hamilton, Ont., got in touch, seeking the script. They staged the play there and made $3,000 in one week, equal to $30,000 today.

There will be four performances of Put the Blame on Mom. Three evening shows take place from Wednesday, Oct. 21 to Saturday, Oct. 24, with a matinée scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 25. Tickets are $20 for the evening shows and $18 for the matinées. For tickets and informa- tion, call 514-738-4766. Congregation Beth-El is at 1000 Lucerne Rd.

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From treadmill to dance floor ... discovering tango

Much has been written about the benefits of exercise, which include an improved sense of well-being and better sleep, keeping us healthy. Scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that regular physical activity can alleviate certain degenerative illnesses and fight depression.

MonTango owners Andrea Shepherd and Wolfgang Mercado Alatrista

Why then do some of us avoid “working out” like the plague? Could it be the robotic repetition? Is it the pulsating but monotonous rhythm of “aerobic work-out music”? Or is it simply the smell of a gym? Non-exercisers may want to trade in their running shoes for dancing shoes, as researchers are discovering that social dance delivers many of the same benefits as regular exercise, with a few pluses.

Last year, Madeleine E. Hackney of Washington University School of Medicine found that both exercise and dance, specifically tango, improved functional mobility in Parkinson’s patients. But the sense of balance of the dance group improved significantly more than that of the exercise group.

According to research presented at the 56th annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, dance can inspire sedentary adults to become more active, increasing their fitness level. “Using the tango to inspire people to get active and simultaneously improve their health may be a lot easier for some than being persuaded to walk into a gym,” says lead author Dr. Stephen P. Cobley of Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK. “Dance is something almost ever yone can do and enjoy, and use to their advantage.”

Researcher Patricia McKinley of McGill University’s school of physical therapy also found that dancing the tango was excellent for improving balance. Of the people she worked with, ranging in age from 62 to 91, those she assigned to tango class rather than to walking sessions experienced superior improvement in their balance, posture, motor co-ordination and cognition. “Walking over the long run will probably improve balance, but not as quickly as tango,” says McKinley, who took up tango for the first time when she was in her fifties.

The tango is enormously popular in Montreal, as evidenced by the presence of many tango schools around the city. In fact, our city is known as the tango capital of North America. The dance dates back to the many influences brought to Argentina by immigrants in the 19th century and was first danced around brothels in Buenos Aires. Like the European “sarabande,” it was originally associated with the seamy side of society and frowned upon. Following the First World War, it became all the rage in America and was adopted by the mainstream. While “ballroom” tango has formal steps as do other ballroom dances, the Argentine tango’s essence is improvisation and communication between the partners, keeping the dancers firmly in the moment.

Andrea Shepherd teaches Argentine tango in NDG at MonTango, the tango school she owns with her “life/dance partner” Wolfgang Mercado Alatrista. “People who dance Argentine tango are passionate about it,” Shepherd said. “It changes people’s lives.” She is a case in point: Last year, she left a 19-year career in jour- nalism to teach dance full time.

The seductive rhythms of tango music have captured the imagination of great composers like Claude Debussy, who incorporated its signature pulse into his musical vocabulary. Composer Astor Piazzolla, whose name has become synonymous with tango, brought these mysterious and exciting sounds from the wrong side of town onto the concert stage.

While the tango demands concentration, it is learnable at any age, says Shepherd, who believes that if you can walk, you can dance. In fact, in Shepherd and Mercado’s classes, simple walking with a partner is the first movement a novice dancer learns. “One of the things that drew me to tango more than to other dances is the fact you can dance it forever – you don’t feel old in a tango club as soon as you hit 30! Our students range in age from 18-80,” Shepherd says.

MonTango, located at 5588A Sherbrooke W., offers free trial classes for beginners from September 8 to 11 at 7 p. m. Info: 514- 486-5588 or www.montango.ca . For other tango schools in Montreal visit www. milonga.ca

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Should sellers hire agents offering lower commissions?

September, 2009

Should sellers use real estate agents offering the lowest commission rates?

Not necessarily, since sellers could face a trade-off. It is crucial to generate numerous interested buyers to increase the odds of negotiations commencing and competitive bidding situations occurring; marketing budgets are proportional to commissions. Smaller marketing budgets could equal fewer numbers of buyers. This is not to say that agents demonstrate less effort at lower commissions, but rather that their abilities are budgeted. Furthermore, the longer a property stays on the market, the greater the difference between the initial asking and sold prices: Fewer buyers means longer sales.

The sale of a property usually occurs between agents, a testament to the number of property owners using our services. Some selling agents offer less than half the total commission to the buying agent. Since commissions attract agents, who represent buyers, it is important to consider what it could mean if your agent offers less than half the commission. While some buyers look for properties independent of what their agents provide, alleviating a potential commission issue, most buyers working with agents prefer their services, which include research.

Sometimes properties have difficulty selling because of their features, location, staging, competition, and price. When you are dealt a “low hand,” sometimes no commission will be effective in selling the property. A good agent can make your “hand” stronger. A “strong hand” is analogous to having knowledge of market conditions, staging and competition, providing amazing listing details and photos, having effective marketing plans, selling and negotiating skills, not to mention numerous contacts and buyers in the field. There is a connection between quality and quantity of service and cost, since it is very difficult to provide valuable services for cheap prices.

It is imperative to understand that the selling agent does not keep all the commission. Half usually goes to the buying agent. Then the broker needs to be paid, usually between 10 and 25 per cent of the compensation. Then there are marketing costs, insurance and real estate board membership fees, government agency fees, and taxes. It is clear why some agents refuse to negotiate commissions.

However, agents’ commissions generally range between five and seven per cent, which demonstrates flexibility. As long as property owners understand the potential trade-offs related to low commissions, they should be able to find an agent willing to sell their property. I generally work for the average, charging lower and higher commissions depending on the goals of the seller. Commissions can be useful in negotiations, but no agent will give away hard work and well-deserved success; agents also lose money when properties do not sell. In the end, the key insight to all of this is that homeowners do not necessarily benefit from agents offering the lowest commissions.

To find out more, contact Daniel Smyth at 514-941-3858.

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Eat a bagel and feed a child

“My son came home a changed kid with new confidence in himself that I have never seen. – Nancy.”

After a wonderful summer of camp adventures, the children and counsellors are home, tanned and rejuvenated. They cannot wait to go back – for many, camp is a home away from home. Since 2000, Generat ions Foundation has sponsored 2,700 children to go to summer camp. Thank you to everyone who made it possible for all those kids to have a summer they may not otherwise have been able to experience.

Now, a new school year has begun. Students are finding their way around, being taught by new teachers, stocking up on school supplies and new clothing – while exciting, it can be overwhelming for many children and parents.

At Generations Foundation, we are looking forward to our annual fundraising Back to School Bagel-o-Thon Breakfast, hosted by the Morena family of St. Viateur Bagel & Café on Monkland Ave. in NDG, Sept 10.

If you are unable to attend, tune in to Q92.5 from 5:30 to 9am; the station will be on location for the auction and other items of interest.

You’ll have many chances to win great prizes. You’ll also be able to meet Mike McLaughlin, well-known Montreal portrait and courtroom artist, at his canvas. We will introducing Elizabeth Hanley, the 15-year-old West Islander who will soothe you with her soulful voice. Elizabeth, a self-taught guitarist whose musical influences include The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Joss Stone, has performed and competed regionally.

Generations invites ever yone to enjoy a delicious and complete breakfast with a generous serving of fresh fruit and all the trimmings, a bagel of your choice, straight out the oven, and coffee. (Try the restaurant’s decadent café viennois.) Afterward, you may want to order a dozen or more bagels to take home. One hundred per cent of your purchase will boost the Generations Foundation food programs for schoolchildren and their families. So, when you bite into that bagel, you’ll feel even better knowing your purchase is also helping to feed a child. We hope to surpass last year’s Bagel-o-Thon total of $14,000.

The Back to School Bagel-o-Thon Breakfast takes place at St. Viateur Bagel & Café, 5629 Monkland in NDG, Thursday, September 10 from 5:30 to 10am.

• • •

Our phones will soon be ringing off the hook with requests from professionals in the schools who will teach hungry and disheartened children who cannot learn properly. The professionals know first-hand what Generations Foundation can accomplish. We expect to provide nutritious breakfasts, lunches and snacks to approximately 6,500 children daily. Generous Montrealers can help.

Many children are bussed to and from schools in other districts. Generations works with professionals and volunteers to provide practical solutions to help students of all ages stay in school. Generations provides the necessities for cooking classes to boost the students’ morale and skills. Leadership students are involved in meal planning, preparation, serving and cleaning up.

Many students benefit from our food programs: mentally and physically challenged students as well as those from dysfunctional families and those whose parents struggle day to day to make ends meet.

Generations provides refreshments are for sports activities run by the police or community centres.

The need for Generations Foundation services is increasing. To learn more, please visit our website at www.generationsfoundation.com or call us at 514-933-8585.

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Making language work for workers

September 5 marked Labour Day and if your labour is merely laborious, take solace that this was the original connotation of the word. When the word first surfaced in English in the 14th century, its sole sense was as “arduous toil”; by the late 16th century the word was used to refer to the rigours of childbirth. It was only in 1776 that its main sense today of work done in order to obtain material wants and needs surfaced, in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations: “The annual labour of ever y nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, which it annually consumes.”

The first Labour Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. In 1884, the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labour organizations, and in 1885 Labour Day was celebrated in many U.S. industrial centres.

In Canada, on April 15, 1872, the Toronto Trades Assembly organized the first North American “workingman’s demonstration.” Some 10,000 Torontonians turned out to watch a parade and to listen to speeches calling for abolition of the law which decreed that “trade unions were criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade.” On July 23, 1894, the Canadian government enacted legislation making Labour Day, the first Monday of September of each year, into a national holiday.

The labour movement appropriated some common English words and gave them specific work-related senses. The use of “strike” to mean “withdraw labour, ” developed in the mid-18th century and was first recorded in the Annual Register in 1768: “A body of sailors … proceeded … to Sunderland … and at the cross there read a paper, setting forth their grievances. … After this they went on board the several ships in that harbour, and struck (lowered down) their yards, in order to prevent them from proceeding to sea.” The word “scab” is first noted in the 13th century and referred to a “disease of the skin.” The OED relates that by the end of the 16th century the word acquired a slang sense as a term of abuse or depreciation applied to persons: “A mean, l ow, ‘scurvy’ fellow; a rascal, scoundrel, occasionally applied to a woman.” By the end of the 18th century this negative sense was extended to refer to a person who refuses to join a strike or who takes over the work of a striker.

“Picket” also has been extended in meaning. It comes from the military sense of a small, detached body of troops, sent out to watch for the approach of the enemy or its scouts. Ultimately, the word comes from the French “piquet,” which referred to a wooden stake driven into the ground.

To paraphrase Paul Simon, “There must be fifty ways to lose your job,” such as “rightsize,” “can,” “let go,” “deselect,” “axe,” and “rif ” (short for reduction in force). If you bemoan these 20th century euphemisms for job dismissal, you can take small comfort that the euphemistic process started even earlier. In Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, a character states “I wonder what old Fogg ’ud say if he knew it, I should get the sack, I s’pose- eh?” This expression goes back to the days when workmen had to provide their own tools that were kept in a bag at the employer’s workshop. When you were given back your sack it meant you were dismissed. Even the seemingly non-euphemistic “fire” came into American English in the late 19th century as a punning alternate to “discharge.”

I trust you enjoyed a non-laborious Labour Day. Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You? Contact him at hrichler@canada.com

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He's more than our longest-standing volunteer: He's family

We would like to introduce Senior Times readers to Lyle McGuigan, who, with 28 years of loyal service, is Sun Youth’s longest-standing volunteer. On December 20, Lyle is going to be 78 years old.

Lyle McGuigan is flanked by Sid Stevens (left) and Helio Galego, who says Lyle is “like a living GPS!”

He first came to Sun Youth in July 1981. His brother was part of the Seniors Club and suggested he also become a member. After four months, Sun Youth executive vice-president Sid Stevens suggested that Lyle become part of the team and do some volunteer work with the organization. Lyle became responsible for making coffee for Sun Youth’s many volunteers and he worked in the administration department counting monetary donations and helping with administrative work.

Before coming to Sun Youth, Lyle McGuigan had been a taxi driver for many years, but a series of events led him to end up on welfare. He was also struggling with alcoholism. When Lyle first came to Sun Youth, his life was a mess, but Sid and the rest of the crew saw the good in him and decided to give him a chance. They have no regrets about integrating him into the Sun Youth family, of which he’s now a full-fledged member.

With the help of Sun Youth and support groups, Lyle put the bottle down for good, ending the unhealthy relationship he had started with alcohol many years before. Lyle took his last drink on February 9, 1989. Everyone at Sun Youth is proud of Lyle for his 20 years of sobriety.

“The Sun Youth staff was always behind me and gave me a lot of moral support when I needed it the most,” Lyle says. “Still today, they are always there for me. They’re like family!”

Just as we are there for Lyle, he, in turn, is dedicated to our organization. If you ever come to Sun Youth, whether to give or to receive, you will be greeted by Lyle and our information officers. If you are a senior who benefits from the food supplement home deliver y program, you probably see him every month bringing you a food hamper. It’s great to have Lyle around you when you go on the road, because, as a former cab driver, he knows the cit y like the back of his hand. Helio Galego, director of crime prevention and victim services, attributes his knowledge of the city’s streets to Lyle. “He showed me everything I know on how to get around in Montreal,” Helio says. “Lyle is like a living GPS!”

Sid Stevens also has nice things to say about Lyle: “Lyle is the type of individual that, if he didn’t exist at Sun Youth, we would have to invent him. He’s an individual that has been so helpful to our organization since we moved to our actual location back in 1981. For us, he’s part of Sun Youth; part of the foundation and part of the landscape. Sun Youth would not be the same without Lyle.”

For information on how to contribute to Sun Youth, call 514-842-6822 or visit www.sunyouthorg.com .

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Frequently asked questions about garage sale-ing

When are the best times to go to garage sales?

Many of us wait not-so-patiently for garage sale season to begin in May. May and June are good months – as long as they’re not too rainy – as is September. The best time is Saturdays from 8:30 am to noon. There are bargains to be had in the rain as well, as we discovered last Saturday. Our finds? Costume jewellery (new) and a London Fog red, lined jacket with the $69 price tag still on it – for $5. When it’s raining, you’ll mostly get moving and estate sales, which are usually pricier and run by garage sale agents, who can sometimes be rough and unpleasant to deal with. Sunday’s a good day for sales advertised as Sunday only. For the two-day sales, the good stuff might be gone by the second day.

Albert, my garage sale companion and graphic designer for The Senior Times, shows off our purchases with me in Hampstead. Albert initially didn’t want the ed jacket, but I got him to try it on and he fell in love with it. He also found a beige Gap jacket. I picked up Parasuco jeans for $5, a Miss Sixty skirt for one of my girls in Havana, and several designer T-shirts. All of the above came to $20.

Which areas are best?

Hampstead, Westmount, Côte St. Luc, NDG, Montreal West. Hampstead especially has good prices and loads of clothes and toys, sometimes new from manufacturers and importers.

Should I bargain?

That depends on the price and how much you want the item. If the prices are low, say $1 to $5 for clothing and toys, it’s not cool to bargain, especially if the garage sale is for charity. But if you’re buying in quantity, you can always put ever ything you want aside and then ask that an amount be taken off the total. Usually the seller will do this without you asking. And the price ends up being much lower per item.

Is it better to go alone, with family, or with a friend?

Definitely go with a friend who loves garage sales as much as you do. My friend Albert Cormier, graphic designer for The Senior Times, and I have a system: We keep a small map of the areas we don’t know well, like Hampstead, and we get off to an early start Saturday mornings. We are fast and respectful of each other’s time, and we help each other find things we’re looking for. I’m always looking for toys and clothes for my Cuban friends. Often Albert will call me over when he’s found a box of small toys and help me pick out the best things. We even buy each other birthday presents at garage sales!

How will I stop myself and my family from buying things we don’t need?

The short answer is, “Don’t bring the grandkids.” The long answer: I have never regretted buying something at a garage sale. I have been garage sailing since my kids were babies and I firmly believe some of the best purchases I’ve ever made have been at garage sales. I outfitted my daughters when they were 2 and 4 from a garage sale run by a mother whose daughters were 4 and 6. It’s amazing how many gifts, still wrapped, people sell at garage sales. As for children’s clothes and toys, most of them look new or are new. I remember buying seven Barbies still in their boxes for children in Cuba – at $3 each.

At the Hampstead Sisters’ Blowout, held once a year in May or June, Albert and I purchased dozens of Indian blouses and scarves for his seven sisters as well as tablecloths and costume jewellery, all new and all for $1 or $2. New goods are perfect for birthday and Christmas presents.

I wanted to buy Charly, but, alas, he wasn’t for sale. I did buy a Chihuahua wardrobe ($5), for when Irwin lets me have another dog.

What’s the difference between garage sales, estate sales and moving sales?

Estate sales and moving sales usually offer more furniture and higher-priced items, such as antique knick knacks and costume jewellery. They have a more formal feel to them and prices are often marked. The best deals at estate sales and moving sales are towels and sheets – if it doesn’t bother you to sleep on someone else’s sheets. We have found new linens as well!

Will I find what I’m looking for?

If you’re looking for a particular item, you probably won’t find it. I remember we searched everywhere for a bicycle for Emily, the daughter of our Cuban friend Dr. Martin, who visited us for three weeks in June. We kept missing the bikes and couldn’t find anything to fit his daughter’s size. What we did find was a huge box full of Barbie furniture and accessories, all for $5. One week we found a lot of naked Barbies. The next week we found nothing but clothes. We spent the afternoon dressing them to send back to Cuba for every girl in Emily’s class. We also found a cap with “Emily” on it! The rule is, if you stop looking for it, you’ll find it. Dr. Martin sent us a picture of Emily playing with her Barbies and reported that she liked the new bike, but was in love with the dolls.

Barbara Moser has 30 years experience in garage sale shopping in west-end Montreal.

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Eyeglasses are expensive, so shop carefully

September, 2009

Shopping for eyeglasses is a trying experience – they can be so pricey – so there are certain things to keep in mind when your shop for them.

There are tons of brands, so it is pretty hard to comparison shop, since in most instances you are comparing apples and oranges. The style you choose is important, because glasses change your face, define your personality and become part of your wardrobe. Take a camera shopping with you and snap pictures of yourself wearing each pair you like, then go home and look at them.

If you need progressive lenses, while the cost may seem outrageous, there are reasons why they are so expensive. With progressives, you can’t just pluck a pre-ground prescription lens off a shelf and slip it into a frame. Almost every lens is made to order, because there are so many possible combinations of near vision, far vision and reading glasses. Also, it can be difficult to get your combination right the first time. If you are dealing with a good shop, you will be able to return within a certain number of days (30, 60 or 90) and they will fix the combination for you – at no extra charge. This service is built into that expensive price.

Here are some words of wisdom for when you shop for glasses:

• If the glasses don’t seem right (blurry, dizzying, the ground seems off ), don’t let your eyes adjust to the problem – get the glasses corrected.

• Carry a spare pair of glasses when you are travelling. (Keep your last pair to use those in an emergency.)

• Most optical stores in North America offer free minor adjustments if you have a problem on the road (a lens pops out, you lose a screw).

• Glasses that have no screws between the glass and the frame will never loosen and fall apart. You’ll never need that little screwdriver again.

• Titanium frames are much less breakable. If you are klutzy, you might want to consider them, but they are pricey.

To find decent prices, you have to go to stores that buy in large volume.

While the following chains offer lower prices, they may not always have the trendiest frames:

1) Costco stores have optical departments. 2) Some Walmart stores (Lasalle, Kirkland, Carrefour Laval) include Greiche and Scaff outlets. Frames run $24.99 to $100.

3) Laurier Optical is a home-grown chain that sells progressives for $99 to $299.

4) Lenscrafters is a huge North American chain that offers more middle-of-the-road, less trendy options.

Sandra Phillips is the author of Smart Shopping Montreal. You can find money-saving ideas on her shlog at www.smartshoppingmontreal.com

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Who decides what treatment is best for us

September, 2009

The Supreme Court of Canada rerecently decided that adolescents should have a say regarding serious medical decisions that affect them, as long as they have the maturity to do so. The issue was discussed in the case of a 14-year-old girl upon whom life-saving blood transfusions had been imposed after she had refused them for religious reasons.

The court held that although it is wrong to deny a person a say in what happens to her on the grounds of age alone, the teenager in this case did not have the capacity to exercise her judgment in a mature fashion and the forced transfusions were justified.

Our fundamental right to make decisions concerning our own bodies must be balanced against the obligation of society to protect its valuable citizens. The protection of a vulnerable citizen, in this case a minor, superseded her right to make a decision concerning her own body. How then do we apply these same principles to “golden agers?”

The Quebec Civil Code states very clearly that every person is inviolable and is entitled to the integrity of his person. What this means is that, as long as you are not a danger to yourself or to society, no one may interfere with you without your free and enlightened consent. You must know and understand what it is that you are consenting to or refusing, and your consent must not be forced on you by anyone.

The Canadian Medical Association’s Code of Ethics sets out physicians’ obligation to provide their patients with all the information necessary to consent or not to medical procedures, and instructs physicians to “respect the right of a competent patient to accept or reject any medical care recommended.” No one can be forced to undergo care of any nature, whether it be an examination, specimen taking, tissue removal, or treatment, whether medical, psychological or social. Just because a person is ill does not mean he lacks capacity. If a person is competent, he is the best judge of what is in his own best interest. The will of the individual supersedes everything. That is our law — and it also applies to situations involving assisted living and moving into care establishments of varying types.

So, what if we are competent and perfectly capable of making our own decisions and, in that context, we decide we do not want medical treatment even though we are ill and the treatment is recommended by our doctor? What if we do not want to go into a home or a residence but others are pushing us to do so? Must we listen to those around us, or do we have a right to decide for ourselves?

There have been cases where a hospital, physician or relative has applied for a court order to force treatment upon a patient. However, if we understand the nature of our condition and the purpose of the suggested treatment and are able to foresee the possible consequences of refusing the treatment, we are considered competent and able to decide for ourselves. The courts have held that just because a patient disagrees with her physician with regard to her care, it does not mean she is incompetent. What is important is that she understand the possible consequences of her decision.

Placement in a residence or institution is considered part of treatment, so as long as you are competent you cannot be forced to go into one. However, where the court found a patient minimized the nature of her illness and did not understand the benefits of supervised accommodation or the risks of living on her own, an order for placement was granted. In another case where both an order for treatment and an order to force a patient into a residence were requested, the court granted the treatment order on the grounds the patient did not fully understand the nature of her condition or the necessity of the treatment. However, it refused to grant an order for placement as it predicted that after treatment the patient would be able to leave the hospital and return home. In yet another case a hospital patient with incurable cancer refused to go to a long-term care establishment and expressed her desire to return to her home. This patient understood her medical condition and the judge stated that her right to self-determination included the right to refuse placement. The hospital’s request was rejected.

So, should we listen to those around us or decide for ourselves? The answer is: both. We should listen to those advising us and then have the courage to decide for ourselves.

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Moderate drinking works when socializing with friends

Articles about preventing dementia are numerous. The most recent one I read was in the Montreal Gazette on August 28, under the headline “Moderate drinking in elderly can ward off dementia: study.” Whether it is drinking pomegranate juice, doing crossword puzzles, or exercising regularly, studies suggest many ways we can ward off Alzheimer’s (AD). As with many diseases, prevention involves exercising body and mind, proper diet, and avoiding excessive alcohol and coffee.

This study suggested that the risk of dementia may be lessened with moderate drinking due to a protective effect of alcohol in reducing inflammation and heart disease, but what concerned me was the social interaction related to drinking.

My worry is with seniors who are socially isolated. As people age, their circle of friends shrinks and it becomes more difficult to keep up with social activities they once enjoyed. Harsh winter weather makes leaving the home more difficult. Physical disabilities such as hearing or vision impairment can make social interaction stressful. Family gatherings may be few if children have moved away.

In short, many seniors spend much of their time alone. This can lead to depression and perhaps cognitive impairment, as suggested by some studies. Alcohol can be a dangerous addition to such a mix.

Some cognitively well individuals insist on remaining in their homes, even when their physical handicaps create a safety risk. These once sociable seniors live lonely lives. Seniors who live alone must make an effort to have a social life, such as joining clubs or taking courses.

For cognitively impaired individuals, living alone presents a whole different dimension. A needs assessment and care plan outlines whether the person can be alone for periods of time. Home care may turn out to be the best option, and hired caregivers can insure the person’s physical needs are looked after. The individual’s social needs should not be overlooked. Social interactions are as important for the cognitively impaired as it is for the cognitively well.

I recall an assessment of a man with AD who lived in the large home where he had lived most of his life with round-the-clock care. He was no longer able to leave the upper storey of his home because of the stairs. He remained there for over two years with no interaction besides his caregiver and family visitors. The television was his only source of entertainment. For the last year of his life, he moved into a nursing home, close to his family, where he enjoyed being among others. His physical needs were better managed because the facility was equipped to make transfers more comfortable.

All assessments and care plans should include studying the person’s social life with recommendations when appropriate to include social interactions.

While moderate drinking may ward off AD for scientific reasons, I know I will drink my martinis with friends. Send comments or questions to b.sandler@sympatico.ca

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Recent Senate appointments reek of patronage

The idea of a Canadian senate – an upper chamber modelled on the British House of Lords that offers sober second thought to decisions of the elected House of Commons – was a good one, in its time. Stephen Harper built his political reputation in part on his call for an elected Senate that would modernize the institution and make it directly representative. Not a bad idea, but one that would never succeed without provincial agreement and a nod from the senators themselves.

The Liberals stacked the Senate with partisans while they were in power, including the usual assortment of hacks and bagmen, and as they compulsorily retire at age 75, or die, Harper is replacing them with his own loyal crew. Some will call it hypocrisy, as the Liberals are doing, while others will see it as realpolitik. But there is no doubt, our prime minister has shown, in his last two rounds of appointments, including one last month, that he is not prepared to show leadership by appointing independent women and men who have bipartisan stature and can be counted on to vote with their good sense and conscience, including on the future shape of the Senate.

Let us remember that what we are talking about is a most lucrative patronage appointment. Senators receive a base salary of $132,000, plus extras for positions such as committee chairs. They are eligible at age 55 for pensions worth 75 per cent of their best five years salary after serving six years in the Senate; the pension is indexed to the cost of living after age 60. Like the 18 senators appointed in December, all have been asked to relinquish their seats after eight years, but nothing obliges them to do so.

Senators get 64 return trips per calendar year anywhere in Canada by plane or train. They can designate someone else to travel. Senators can claim up to $20,000 per year in travel and living expenses if they live 100 kilometres from Ottawa. Senators receive $149,400 to set up an office on Parliament Hill, hire staff and conduct research, and nothing prevents them from appointing a family member to their staff.

Harper’s nine appointments last month brings the tally there to 53 Liberals, 43 Conservatives and six independents and progressive conservatives. Harper is nearing a majority in the Senate, though his party is in a minority in the House of Commons. Among those appointed in Quebec:

• Jacques Demers, 65, the former Montreal Canadiens hockey coach and RDS commentator, who courageously admitted in his 2005 biography that he was illiterate. We salute Demers for his honesty and subsequent efforts to learn to read and write. As a hockey hero, he will be an asset to Harper come election time. However, a man who hasn’t read a book for almost his entire adult life is hardly ideal to review legislation. The other Quebec Senators are straight from the patronage book:

• Judith Seidman, co-chairwoman for Harper’s leadership bid in 2003 and a former educator, health and social sciences researcher.

• Claude Carignan, 44, mayor of Saint-Eustache, a lawyer, vice-president of the Quebec Union of Municipalities, and a failed Tory candidate.

Less obvious but equally calculated is the appointment of Linda Frum Sokolowski, the Toronto-based conservative journalist. She’s praised Harper for his steadfast support of Israel, a key to his drive to make continuing inroads among Jewish voters. She’s 46.

Unless and until there is reform, Carignan’s got the job for the 31 years, Frum Sokolowski for the next 29 years.

To soften the sting, Harper named NDP premier Gary Doer to the plum diplomatic appointment as ambassador to Washington, much as Brian Mulroney named former New Democrat Stephen Lewis ambassador to the United Nations.

This latest round makes it a record 18 appointments to the Senate in less than a year – a blunt reminder that the Senate as it is now constituted is an aberration that must be reformed, and that it takes real courage to carry this out. Now that he’s in power, Prime Minister Harper has not shown that he is much different from his predecessors, or that he has the stuff to carry out his own laudable call for Senate reform.

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Right-Wing talk show hosts feed anger to their followers

September 2009

For many years, I have spent part of the summer with close friends in Maine. As a good many Montrealers know, Maine offers a cornucopia of goodies in the summer – ocean swimming (cool-ish), blueberries (pricey), upscale scenery (the George Bush estate) and lobster (along with champagne, in my view, both vastly overrated.)

As for me, a long-time political junkie, when I’m not playing golf near Old Orchard Beach (once a frequent haunt of René Lévesque) or watching the Red Sox on television, I’m twiddling the dial looking for political talk shows.

Rush Limbaugh is at the top of the list for several reasons. Limbaugh is an entertainer and a good one. But he violates most of the rules I tried to follow when I hosted a Montreal talk show, first on radio, then television. Rush is the centre of his show. His callers are just disembodied props. Unless their opinions coincide with his, he has little time for them. Rush uses his callers like cigarette butts: to light up another harangue of his own. Many of Limbaugh’s views are outrageous . He wants US President Barack Obama to fail. He says again and again that Canada’s health system kills people and is socialism at its worst. He forthrightly advances his view that Sarah Palin, George Bush in a skirt, would make a fine president in 2012, when Obama must be defeated or the Republic will fall.

When I first began to listen to Limbaugh, especially on the car radio, I often had to stop the car for fear of driving off the road in a rage. I believed then that Limbaugh was an ignorant racist who spent most of his time whipping his huge audience (20 million) into a frenzy of hatred.

But I no longer think that. I now believe Limbaugh (and the legions of other right-wing, conservative talk show hosts) are not creating hatred, they are tapping into hatred that is already there. That is the most remarkable thing about the United States this summer, the scary amount of anger and hatred stalking the land. This phenomenon is most visible on the Fox News network, not in its treatment of news (the network has some very able and balanced commentators, like Chris Wallace, the son of Mike Wallace) but in the talk show hosts that take over, mostly in the evening.

You need a strong stomach to watch these people (my wife leaves the room when I turn on Fox.) There are four of them, unleashed by Fox every night like a quartet of Doberman pinschers, snapping and snarling at all things democratic and liberal.

First there is Glen Beck, followed by Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren. You need to hear Beck to believe him. He is a teetotaler whose commentaries are so dyspeptic that he seems to be suffering a dry drunk. He charges that Obama is a racist and says his government reeks of the excesses of Nazi Germany.

Bill O’Reilly is a smoother operator than Beck and he has the ratings to prove it. But O’Reilly’s treatment of many of his guests is simply appalling. After inviting them to come on, O’Reilly proceeds to bully and berate them so that the viewer, who already knows what O’Reilly thinks, has no idea what the guest thinks.

When O’Reilly had on an informed Catholic nun who supported Obama’s health care plan and tried to show how it related to Catholic social doctrine, O’Reilly cut her off and bounced her the way Ted Tevan did with his radio callers years ago in Montreal.

Sean Hannity is the poor man’s Bill O’Reilly, and not nearly as well informed as his master. I have not heard Hannity say a positive thing about Obama since he was elected eight months ago. Hannity’s idea of deep analysis is to keep throwing Rev. Wright’s name around; his idea of penetrating questioning is to state his own opinion (“I think Obama is a dangerous radical”) and ask his guests if they agree with him. They invariably do, because most of the guests on these programs are chosen precisely because they hold the same rigid conservative views as the hosts.

Which brings us to Greta Van Susteren. For a lawyer who spent time in the criminal courts, Greta’s questions are about as crisp as wet spaghetti. My guess is that this is because she often does not understand the issue under discussion. She spends much of her time criticizing people in Congress because they do not carefully read bills, like the current thousand-page health bill. Apparently Van Susteren does not realize that it is the broad thrust of bills that are voted on, not the minute legal niceties.

So there you have it – Fox’s big four. Yet whatever weaknesses they have, apparently they are cleaning up in the ratings. Why is that? Because night after night, they cater to the anger and rage that is boiling over out there in TV land.

What is the source of this anger and hatred? If Rush Limbaugh and the Fox quartet don’t create this anger, then where does it come from? It comes, I am convinced, from changes in the country that neither Fox nor Limbaugh can control and may not even understand. But they can read the writing on the wall. Before mid-century, the conservative yahoos who make up the Fox audience will be a minority in their own country. They are losing their place in the sun. They look at the White House and they see the first black president. They look at the Supreme Court and they see the first Latin woman.

This is not the way it was supposed to be. They are confused. They are angry. Limbaugh and Fox give voice to their anger and that may well be a good thing. But the game is up and they know it.

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Protecting ourselves against unscrupulous financial advisers

Unfortunately, this summer we became aware of a seemingly impossible financial fraud committed against many Montrealers, including seniors, some of whom are incapacitated or isolated geographically from their children.

The financial regulators, in this case the Autorité des Marchés Financiers (AMF), seldom heard from in the past, emphasize that one of the problems with Earl Jones was that he was unlicensed – as if his having a license would have changed his behaviour or prevented people from becoming victims. If we go back five years, there are many examples of licensed brokers in insurance and mutual funds perpetrating similar fraud or promoting products that were not duly registered. One only has to refer to the AMF website (www.lautorite.qc.ca) or the headlines in our local newspapers.

How should we protect ourselves in a financial transaction?

• Make sure you have legitimate copies of paperwork handed to you by the broker upon completion of a transaction. The broker can provide you with his own in-house statement, but there should also be a statement from the company with whom you are dealing sent directly to you.

• Look for a track record. Look for companies that offer a genuine array of products and who you can access by phone and also with a private code online. Verify whether the company or product is registered and licensed in Quebec. Start your search for a track record by simply googling the person’s name. You can also look for past infractions on the AMF website.

•The moment you hear a story about a better return than is available at your financial institution or a teaser about a product that will save you taxes, investigate it thoroughly. Many advisors use the words tax or tax savings as a lead in to sell a product. Often these tax savings are negligible or are designed for a very small, wealthy segment of the market.

• Ask to see the tax opinion from the company on its letterhead. Have them remove it from their vault and show it to you, or better still, verify if a documented opinion exists with either revenue department. Some brokers suggest that clients leverage and borrow or remortgage and invest the proceeds for tax savings and future opportunities. Many clients do not understand the peril they may put themselves in. Ultimately, clients are responsible for their own actions, not the broker. Make sure you clearly understand what you are getting into. Make sure the tax free product comes with a get out of jail free card.

• Be wary when you hear the words offshore. Offshore is where you take a vacation – not where you should invest your money. While you may come back from an offshore vacation, your money will likely disappear. Carefully check the name of the company in which you are being advised to deposit your savings. Scammers often create company names that sound similar to genuine financial institutions,giving them an appearance of legitimacy. Ultimately there is no foolproof way to protect yourself, but you can take simple prudent measures to greatly reduce risk.

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What's Happening September 2009

ART
Sunday September 13 from 1 to 5pm and Monday September 14 from 11am to 4pm Creative Social Center will hold an exhibition and sale of paintings and sculptures at Chevra Kadisha Synagogue, 5237 Clanranald. Info: 514-488-0907

Until September 13, Wednesday to Friday from 1pm-5pm and Saturday and Sunday from 1pm-5pm Le Collectif d’Artistes Mile End display their exhibition titled Le Collage. Info: 514-271-3383

Until September 26 Beaconsfield Library exhibits oil and pastel paintings by Robert Vanasse at 303 Beaconsfield. Meet the artist September 13 2pm-4pm. Info: beaconsfieldbiblio.ca

September 26 and 27 from 1pm-5pm Koryu Shotokai Ikebana School presents Autumn Songs, an annual exhibition where each flower arrangement attains the harmony of forms, rhythm and colour. Sunday September 27 at 1:30pm there will be an oboe concert by Ling-Fei Lang. Bon-Pasteur Chapel, 100 Sherbrooke E. Info: 514-844-4693

BAZAARS/SALES
Sunday September 13 from 9am-2pm the Ladies Auxiliary of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 94 hold their fall flea market. Breakfast served beginning at 9am. 205 Empire. Info: 450-466-0308

CLUBS
Wednesday, September 16 at 7:30pm Atwater Library hosts its monthly book club meeting. Mary Soderstrom will lead a discussion on The Reader. Info: 514-935-7344

Saturday, September 19 at 8pm Single Persons Association invites 35+ singles to its farewell summer dance party at Ste. Catherine Laboure Church, 448 Trudeau. $12. Info: 514-366-8600

Sunday, September 20 at 7:30pm Zoological Society of Montreal will visit Blair Orchard and Île Bernard. $55. Tuesday, September 15 the monthly meeting will be held at 1444 Union. Info: 514-845-8317

Saturday, September 26 at 9:30am Montreal Urban Hikers Walking Club will take a guided walk in Westmount, starting at Victoria Hall, 4626 Sherbrooke W. Saturday, September 12 at 9:30am the club will meet at Beaver Lake Chalet. $2 donation. Info: 514-938-4910

CLASSES
Wednesdays, September 30 and October 7 at 1pm, Atwater Library, 1200 Atwater, presents a beading workshop on making wire-links necklaces. $25. To register: 514-935-7344

EVENTS
September 9 and 10 at 10am, Nordic Walking and other senior activities will take place at the Dollard Des Ormeaux Civic Center. Info: 514-684-1012 ext 290

September 8 - December 12 Creative Boost presents Streams of Consciousness, a series in literature, music and visual arts. Guests include Rawi Hage, Hans Tutschuku, Pierre Nepveu and others. Dialogue with Professor Norman Cornett. Info: 514-844-7752

Wednesday September 9 at 9:30am Temple Emmanu-El-Beth Sholom holds their 2009 Book Lovers Forum. Larry Weller reviews the poignant account of contemporary India, and Balram Halwai, a servant in the caste system a 395 Elm. $8. Info: 514-937-3575

Sunday, September 13 at 9am Ovarian Cancer Canada invites the public to walk in the Winners Walk of Hope event starting at Complexe environementale St. Michel. $25. Proceeds go to Ovarian Cancer Canada. Registration required. Info: winnerswalkofhope.ca or 1-877-413-7970

Sunday September 13 from 4pm-6pm Beth Zion Congregation invites people to roll up their sleeves and knead together to make traditional challah. Activities are planned while the dough is rising. 5740 Hudson. Reservation required. Info: 514-489-8411 x24

Monday, September 14 at 7pm, Temple Emanu-El Beth Sholom holds Chocolate Tasting and Beyond, including tasty treats and a nutritionist’s tips on how to include chocolate in a healthy lifestyle. $15. Info & registration: 514-342-1234, Local 7201

Monday, September 15 at 1pm Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 85/90 presents a military whist card party at 3015 Henri Dunant. Info: 514-637-8002

Wednesday, September 23 at 7pm West Island Palliative Care Residence will host Fashion for Funds at Chateau Vaudreuil Pavilion. $50 (first come first serve seating) $100 (VIP seating). 21700 TransCanada. Info: 514-693-1718

Thursday, September 24 at 7pm The Yellow Door hosts a night of poetry and prose featuring author and filmmaker David Homel, spoken word song artist Moe Clark, and others. 3625 Aylmer. $5. Info: 514-939-4173

Wednesday September 30 Temple Emmanu-El-Beth Sholom invites you to join them for a light dinner and discussion with well-known journalist, broadcaster and author, Joe King. 395 Elm. Info: 514-937-3575

Wednesday, September 30 at 7pm the Visual Arts Centre hosts a night of poetry and prose featuring poet Alessandra Naccarato, author Virginia McClure, journalist Carolyne Van Der Meer and others. 350 Victoria. Info: 514-488-9558

Thursday, October 1 at 7pm Atwater Library presents the Atwater Poetry Project led by poet Katia Grubisic, with readings from John Reibetanz and A.F. Moritz. Free. 1200 Atwater. Info: 514-935-7344

October 21 to 25 Congregation Beth-El, 1000 Lucerne, and the Showtime Players present Put the Blame on Mom. $20; matinées $18. Info: 514-738-4766

LECTURES
Tuesday, September 15 at 10am Beaconsfield Library presents a lecture by Bhaskar Boswami titled Yogic Principle for Optimum Health, which will discuss the five basic principles of yoga. Info: 514-935-7344

Thursday, September 17 at 12:30pm Atwater Librar y hosts Dr. David Millar for its lunchtime series on Networking for the environment: excitement, examples, success. Info: 514-935-7344

Thursday, September 24 at 12:30pm Atwater Library hosts Danish author Peter Fogtdal for their Lunchtime Series. He will discuss and read from his book The Tsar’s Dwarf. Info: 514-935-7344

Tuesday, September 29 at 9:30am Beaconsfield Library presents a book and film review of The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Info: 514-935-7344

Wednesday October 7 at 7pm Temple Emmanu-El-Beth Sholom hosts a special evening event entitled Churchill and the Jews by Martin Gi l ber t. Professor Ronal d Cohen reviews the neglected aspects of Churchill’s career, his relationship to the Jews and Jewish issues. 395 Elm. Info: 514-937-3575

THEATRE & FILM
Thursday, October 1 at 12:30pm Tailsman Theatre presents an excerpt from the play Rock, Paper, Jackknife for Atwater Librar y’s lunchtime series. The play premieres at Centaur Theatre’s Brave New Looks festival the following week. Free. Info: 514-935-7344

Tuesday October 6 at 7pm, McGill Faculty of Medicine film & discussion series presents “Films that transform: In Dialogue with Others on the Journey”. Moyse Hall Arts Building, 853 Sherbrooke W $10/$5 students & seniors. Info: mcgill.ca/wholepersoncare

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Verona: city of love and legend

click here to view a slideshow of Verona

September 2009

Verona is the enchanted city, paved in pink marble, whose beauty inspired Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet.

I met Gianfranco in Perugia and we decided to take a little trip together. He is from Puglia, the southeastern region of Italy, and moved to Perugia to study linguistics. When we met, he did not speak a word of English, but with my knowledge of French and three weeks in Italy, I had picked up enough Italian to get by.

With a population of roughly a quarter million, Verona is located in the region of Veneto in northern Italy. It took five hours by train to get there from Perugia, with a stopover in Florence.

Verona has everything one would expect from an Italian city: ancient Roman monuments, fine wines, narrow streets, high fashion, centuries-old basilicas, castles and a river that flows through and around the city. What we didn’t expect was how pleasantly affordable it was to visit compared to such other fashionable Italian destinations as Venice or Florence. We found a budget hotel in the centre of town, only a few blocks from the train station. We also bought Verona cards for $10 each, which gave us entry to all the museums, churches and sights in the city for one day.

Our first stop was the Castelvecchio, the castle next to our hotel – the Residence Hotel Castelvecchio. It was built in the 14th century by the della Scala family and features classic castle architecture complete with courtyards and crenellations. It is now a museum that holds a collection of sculptures and paintings (mostly religious-themed).

We walked a few blocks to the magnificent first-century Roman amphitheatre. It is the third- largest amphitheatre in Italy and holds up to 25,000 spectators within its 44 tiers of pink marble seats. It is still used today for a variety of events including fairs, theatre and opera. Unlike at the Coliseum in Rome, there were neither pushy street vendors trying to sell me cheap bracelets nor overpriced tours inside. The arena was ours to explore at our leisurely slow, Italian pace.

The main reason I wanted to visit Verona was to explore the city that was the setting for the most famous tragic romance of all time – Romeo and Juliet. We walked to the Capulets’ house, which is called “Casa di Giulietta” (Juliet’s house). The small brick house is filled with paintings and frescoes of the lovers. Gianfranco took my picture on the famous balcony, which for some reason I had imagined to be much larger and full of flowers. It was just a plain little balcony. The balcony overlooks a courtyard with a bronze statue of Juliet whose right breast is polished from all the tourists who touch it for luck. The passage leading to the courtyard is, in essence, an international hall of love graffiti. Lovers from all over the world sign their names and draw hearts on the wall. Oddly enough, the house has no historical connection to the real Capulet family. However, the Montague house, “Casa di Romeo,” just a few blocks away, really was home to the Monitague family. The villa is privately owned, with no real defining Shakespearian artifacts other than a small plaque next to the door inscribed with a quote from the play “O, Where is Romeo? … Tut, I have lost myself, I am not here, this is not Romeo, he’s some other where.”

We walked down Verona’s famous fashion row, paved with pink marble and lined with exclusive high-fashion shops. I relished in the open-air shops in the main piazza selling a variety of Italian glass jewellery while Gianfranco patiently sat on the bench and talked on the phone.

We wandered around and across the Adige River, then up countless old steps to the Castel San Pietro. There we sat, communicating in a mixture of broken Italian and sign language as we admired the foggy, enchanted city.

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If pre-cooked is the way of the future, what kind of future will it be ?

September, 2009

There have been several stories recently proclaiming the end of food. Not food as nutrition, of course. We will always have to eat, something. The warnings are that we will no longer need to cook. We will regard Grandma’s wonderful babka recipe as amusingly archaic since we’ll be able to get “Grandma’s Babka”™ from the frozen food section of any supermarket.

The fastest growing – and most profitable – section of supermarkets is prepared food. In a rush after work? I can pick up salads, ribs, chicken and dozens of other presumably freshly cooked dishes on the way home. In the mood for lobster salad? Damn! Last time I checked, I still have to buy the pre-cooked lobster, crack it open and put the meat onto the pre-washed and packaged mixed greens. Well, at least I can say I “made” it myself.

What concerns the Flavourguy in me, however, is that there is a level of cooking before we even get to the recipes. That’s where we turn on the heat. If cooking food led to civilization – another current hot topic – what happens when we lose that skill?

The Flavourguy knows how to light a fire – and a barbecue Photo: Scott Philip

I write this from PEI, where we have spent much of the past several summers renovating a cottage. Toward the end of this summer, our daughter invited some of her friends from Charlottetown for a beach fire. “Dad, if they don’t know how to make one, can you do it?”

This question is provocative. How do 20-year--olds raised in the Maritimes not know how to make a beach fire? What happens when they actually want to cook something? When the crew arrived, I loaded them up with wooden matches, newspaper, several armloads of dried brush, and a few stout pieces of lumber that we no longer needed and herded them to the beach. They soon had a roaring fire and were scuttling in the dark looking for driftwood. I heard one of them chortle, “Look what I found; it came from a pile of wood with a sign saying ‘please do not remove.’ ” That’s the campfire equivalent of illicit downloading.

Soon they were roasting marshmallows and playing guitar. These are deeply subconscious traits that remain even if we don’t quite remember how to make a fire.

Walking away from the inferno, I passed my fire-making contraptions. There was an old and cranky Weber, which, like me, when prodded in the right places, still does great bbq-ing. There was also an insane, propane-fuelled wok burner purchased mail order from a Chinese graduate student. Dongsheng Zhou was studying in the USA and couldn’t get his apartment kitchen wok to the high level of heat required for decent stir frys so he built one that can out-power a jet engine. Last night I cooked 10 pounds of mussels in a few minutes. On most stoves, it would need a half-hour.

We have an old propane stove in the cottage and even a microwave oven, but, for me, serious summer cooking is done outdoors on one of these finicky fire-burners. The Weber must be checked frequently. Wood and charcoal burn unevenly and those Weber baffles, great for maintaining an even heat, rusted away years ago. The wok needs constant watching. It can turn a noodle dish into scorched earth in less time than it takes to chop a garlic clove.

Each of them demands an involvement with my meal beyond eating. Consumption is a fine thing, but preparation is passionately rewarding. Here is the secret that cooking teaches: I know how to use fire and therefore I create. In creating, I am.

Slow-cooked brisket:

This makes a smoked meat that my clan liked better than Schwartz’s!

Coat a 4-pound brisket with a thick layer of salt, cracked pepper, cracked coriander seeds, finely chopped garlic and onion (or garlic and onion powder). Use a cup each of salt and pepper and about 1/4 cup each of the rest. My nose guides me. Cover the meat and cure it in the refrigerator for 3 days.

Heat the bbq to about 135C (275F). Leaving the spice rub on, put the meat on a rack in a pan. The heat should circulate around the meat without fat hitting the fire. Put the pan on the grill, pull the lid over and cook for 6 hours, adding smoking chips or wood two or three times. If you have to lift the lid frequently (as I do on my old Weber), add another hour of cooking time.

Remove the meat and let it come to room temperature. It will be tasty but tough. Steam it in a covered pot for 2 hours. Serve by slicing thinly across the grain. This is important; if it is still tough you are likely cutting in the wrong direction. It should slice easily, falling apart as it comes off the knife. Serve with mustard, rye bread and pickles.

Reach the Flavour Guy at flavourguy@theseniortimes.com

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Romania — diamonds in the rough

click here to view a slideshow of images from Romania

Originally published: June 2007

We decided to visit Romania after Bulgaria because our good friend, Andreas, would have been upset if we’d missed his country. We had little to fear: it was an enchanting and adventuresome five days. We took the train to Bucharest, where we spent two short days and one night, and then we took a train to Transylvania, where we were not bitten by any vampires. We were, however, bitten by another kind of parasite in Bucharest, upon stepping down from our train car.

It was cold in the early morning rain and we were exhausted, this being the last week of our summer adventure. We were accosted by a “taxi driver” who said he would take us to an “inexpensive” hotel. Since it was 7am, we thought “why not?” and off we went, stupidly following this creep who picked up a buddy as we entered his car. They decided we should change money along the way at a bank-o-mat. You’re probably wondering how such savvy travelers as we could make not one but three mistakes — not changing money at the station, not knowing the exchange rate, and following strangers into their cars. There is no excuse: we simply let our guards down.

The cohorts told us the exchange rate before I got out at the bank-o-mat, but the amount they suggested was the highest amount one could take out. That ’s when the light bulb went on. I took out about half that amount, got back in the car, and whispered to Irwin that something was wrong and that I thought they were up to no good.

We arrived at the hotel, which looked seedy. An employee was standing outside, seemingly waiting for us. I got out, and asked him what the correct exchange rate was (because our driver and his buddy had asked for what I later discovered was the equivalent of $200 for the 10 minute cab ride.) This guy was obviously in cahoots with our driver. He didn ’t want to tell me the rate, but I found out at the hotel desk from the equally shady attendant. After sending our criminal friends off and paying them the equivalent of $10 for the ride, we took one look around and decided to find a better hotel. Our choice was across from the Hilton, where, luckily that same afternoon, we overheard a group of Israelis on a guided tour. We approached the guide, who put us in touch with another guide for a full-fledged tour the next day.

For $50 we saw Bucharest in four hours, riding around in a nice Mercedes. Our tour included Nicolai Ceausescu ’s palace, built over a massive area he destroyed on the backs of thousands of Bucharest residents. 7,000 homes and 26 churches were destroyed. Ceausescu starved the people to pay for this monstrosity, moving farmers to grim housing blocks in the city and rationing food, while he moved to his palace and literally lived like a king. The people coined this huge building Casa Nebunulu, The Madman’s House.

Thousands of dogs were let loose when people were evicted from their homes, creating an enormous problem that would continue for the next decade. Ceaucescu had wanted to build the world ’s largest building but the palace came in second place, slightly smaller than the massive Pentagon in Washington. On the grounds, there is a costume museum that ’s worth a gander, but I decided to bypass the palace itself because there were no elevators.

We visited a synagogue, a beautiful old edifice still in use, and talked to a few of the senior worshippers outside. Our guide took us to a lovely outdoor restaurant but the fare there was quite ordinary.

About 30 hours after we arrived, we boarded a train to Brasov. On this state-of-the-art train, we met a family of scientists who were traveling to a mountain resort with their two daughters and cat. They gave us suggestions about where to visit after Brasov, mentioning Sibui. Happily, we took their advice. From Sibui it was on to Timisoara, which is near the Hungarian border and is famous as the starting place of the rebellion that toppled Ceausescu and ended his brutal regime.

Bucharest has its beautiful parks and culture, and is climbing steadily out of its years of suffering under Ceausescu. But, frankly, we were happy to head for smaller more walkable towns, and Brasov was one of these. We had phoned ahead and booked a lovely inn about 15 minutes by foot from the picturesque town square. It ’s not easy to book a hotel when you’re changing countries, which in part accounts for our arriving in Bucharest unprepared.

This inn was one of the nicest and most reasonable on our trip. Brasov is nestled in green mountains and, when you are standing in the town centre, you feel at once protected and comforted by them. We needed that after Bucharest!

The wide pedestrian street called Republique is full of shops and restaurants, but mostly shops. We picked the Ambassador Restaurant, right in the middle of the scene, and had one of the most delicious meals I can remember in the six weeks we were traveling (prices in $CDN!) — whole grilled trout ($4.); Grilled Vegetables ($1.60); Cucumber Salad ($1.60); pancakes with ice cream ($2); and our waiter could tell us what to choose in five languages! “It may come as a disappointment to you,” he said in his exquisite English, “ but we’re out of vanilla ice cream.” Don’t worry, he divided the pancake into two portions and filled it with forest fruit ice cream, drizzled with raspberry sauce, a wonderful end to a fine dinner in Brasov. At the time, the restaurant was only three months old yet the wooden deck chairs and tables were certainly a cut above the pizzeria next door.

The beaded jewelry sold in the boutiques along the mall make great gifts. Romania has its own brand of beaded eggs, not unlike the Ukrainian variety.

After one night and two beautifully restful days (I vow to go back) we were off to Sibui on a less than state-of-the-art train. In fact, the doors between the cars were open to the outside and the compartments open to the beggars; one cornered us in our compartment but, thankfully, Irwin yelled and he retreated. It was quite a harrowing ride for me after the last train but we finally made it. Alas, the train station was equally harrowing, undergoing renovation from top to bottom. I was forced to hobble over unsteady planks in the rain and mud while Irwin followed carrying the backpacks, no longer on wheels. We had trouble finding a hotel but knew we had to because there was no way we were going to get on a train at night in the middle of that decrepit station.

As it turned out, Sibui was also being renovated, refurbished for this summer’s crowd. The medieval town square is quite a sight, with every second building undergoing some kind of repair. That and the mud made the place less desirable than Brasov, but if you ’re going this year, all should be in good order. The potential for this town and others in the area is incredible. Romania is definitely the next Croatia, ready for tourists and still reasonable.

I’ll save Timisoara, on the Hungarian border, for next issue, my last installment before we head out on this summer’s adventure to Estonia, and Lithuania and St. Petersburg. That’s the plan for the first two weeks anyway. Then we’ll see!

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Varna has it all — the sea, the culture and the gold!

click here to view a slideshow of images from Varna

Orignally published: April 2007

We chose Varna, Bulgaria because we wanted to relax in a resort-like setting after our emotional and sometimes difficult adventures in Poland and Ukraine.

Varna, population 350,000, is Bulgaria’s third largest city. It’s on the northern Black Sea coast and has the look and feel of a seaside town with all the cultural amenities of a city. Small and famous resorts, bearing names like Sveti Konstantin and Zlatni Pyasati, dot the coast, luring many tourists and making Varna a jumping off point. For us, Varna had it all, and we saw no need to explore farther along the coast. Varna is small enough to be accessible on foot and large enough to be convenient for tourists. It’s flat and well paved, with very few high rises.

We arrived late on the hydrofoil from Odessa (I’m saving Odessa for another article) without reservations. The taxis at the port lived up to their corrupt reputation, but we finally got one to take us ($10 for a five-minute ride in the dark) to the hotel most likely to have available rooms – the Hotel Odessa, a three-star, four-story hotel overlooking a huge square that leads to the beach and kilometers of scenic walks. Prices for doubles are about $70US, including a buffet breakfast. The best part is the location and the outdoor restaurant, which is part of the square, a people-watching scene par excellence. As we learned our first night, the restaurant is open till midnight and has a huge and inexpensive variety of salads, fish, brochettes, and tasty desserts. Food in Varna is varied, inexpensive and excellent. Fish is the specialty, grilled or fried. At our hotel we sampled the grilled bluefish, the whole grilled trout and the village salad with that famous Bulgarian feta.

On our second day, we ventured off in the opposite direction of the beach, down a long and fun-filled pedestrian mall lined with ice cream parlours and boutiques. Eventually you hit a crossroad and, if you turn left, you find the Archaeological Museum. Bulgaria’s largest museum, it features some of the oldest artifacts in the world. The highlight of the site is room after room filled with 6000-year-old gold and copper jewellery and art. These treasures were discovered by accident in 1972 at the Varna Necropolis, about 4 km from the town, and are apparently the oldest of their kind in the world. Here, you can experience the evolution of humankind in this region, which claims to be the home of the oldest civilization in the world, one pre-dating even the Mesopotamians.

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin is worth a gander, but my favorite part of Varna is the outdoor market, which starts at the Cathedral and stretches for blocks in a kind of circle (or maybe we were just walking in circles). In any case, there is everything there, from underwear to food and souvenirs. The tablecloths are especially nice and inexpensive and make lovely presents. We sent a few back by mail. Unfortunately the price of the mailing equaled that of the tablecloths ($60).

Our best food find was a cafeteria where we both ate dinner for a total of $4 US. This cavernous place with outdoor seating offers by-the-piece delicacies and salads by weight. Just tell them what you want by pointing. The offerings included feta in a kind of fried coating with red pepper salad, grated carrots and peas, and chicken in all forms. You can have a chicken brochette for 50 cents or a wiener for 35 cents. Crème caramel and coffee set you back 75 cents. To get there, go to the McDonalds on the main mall and turn right and walk half a block down. It’s at Kniaz Boris I street off Slivnitza and it’s called MECAP (backwards N) (Backwards R)

We stayed in Varna four days, relaxing, walking up and down the pedestrian walkway discovering more and more jewellery shops, restaurants and coffee shops, and a delightful artisan market with a Bulgarian dancing show. The people are charming and speak enough English to converse, an improvement over Ukraine.

One evening we chanced upon a worldwide ballet competition in the outdoor theatre about half a kilometer into Primorski Park, which winds along the sea for about 10 kilometers. The promenade itself is wonderful but to find a three hour ballet recital of the highest calibre was spectacular. Canada competed!

Another evening we joined our new friends from Israel, Sima and Shimon, who invited us to a strange concert that included fashion models and an organ player. Oh, yes, there was also an opera singer. The lady, who was in her eighties and lived in Israel, had been one of the children evacuated from Varna before the Holocaust. Bulgaria has one of the best records of saving Jews during that time, we found out.

After four days we took the train to Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, to get a taste of the big city.

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