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Feb '10

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Marrakesh's Jemaa el-Fna: madly marvellous and mystical

click here to view a slideshow of images from Marrakesh

Our minivan driver Ahmed got us to Marrakech, Morocco, around 11pm after an eight-hour scenic ride from Fez that included stops in Sefrou and Bhalil, a small town in which some of the homes are built in caves. We stopped for tea in one such cave, home to an 80-something widow who not only served us tea but danced for us with a jug on her head. But I’ll save more tales of this day-long adventure for an upcoming issue.

Marrakesh, a city of more than one million with a strong Berber influence, sits almost in the middle of Morocco. Sipping tea in its famed square, Jemaa el-Fna, one literally feels in the middle of the country.

We were exhausted and hungry when we checked in at our hotel, the Ryad Mogador, which we had booked online on otel.com. At first they didn’t seem to have our booking, but in the end they found it. This is sometimes a problem with otel.com but usually the paperwork goes through smoothly – and the price is always better than when you book on the spot or through an agent. We paid the equivalent of about $60, which included a modern, comfortable and cozy room as well as breakfast.

The Ryad Mogador is in a fantastic location. It’s in the newer part of town, facing a huge bus station just outside the walls of the Old City. It’s right next door to a supermarket, so we were set, especially when I needed ice for my knee, which Irwin got in the fish department. The first day we slept in and at noon got a taxi for $1 (for a 15-minute ride) that took us straight to the entrance of the centre of Jemaa el-Fna.

In retrospect, we realized there was no other place to be in Marrakesh than this teeming square that spans a full kilometre. Our sojourns to the new city paled in comparison and we inevitably felt disappointed with the restaurants and atmosphere in that part of town.

Irwin remembered having been in Jemaa el-Fna in 1968 and said it ­hadn’t changed all that much. He pointed up to one of the rooftop cafés and told me he remembered sitting there for hours watching the people go by.

This is exactly what we did for the next couple of days – except we chose a street level café because my knees could never have made it up the narrow steps to the rooftops.

From Jemaa el-Fna one can take any lane into the maze of the medina and the melech (the old Jewish quarter) and discover smaller souks (markets). It’s hard to get lost. Just ask around and find your way back to Jemaa el-Fna.

Among the souks you can explore are Souk Addadine (metalwork), Souk Chouari (basketry and woodturning), Souk Smata (slippers and belts) and Souk Kissarias (clothing, fabric and leather goods.) I’m not sure if there’s a connection between “Smata” and “Shmata.”

The most colourful market is the berber souk, which sells just about everything.

We spent most of our time with our books and camera, soaking up the atmosphere and appreciating the array of workers, strollers, and shoppers. And then there were the snake charmers, musicians, women selling henna tattoos, and the unfortunate monkeys on leashes doing tricks for a few coins, which the tourists avoided.

It was a 10-ring circus, something like Barcelona’s Ramblas except all in one square. I’m not talking about one monkey or snake charmer, I’m talking dozens!

It was in Marrakesh that I first began to appreciate the beauty and versatility of women’s clothing in this liberal Muslim country. What I love about the Moroccan lifestyle is that virtually every code of dress is accepted. You often see women walking together arm in arm, one wearing traditional garb and the other in jeans with no head covering. The only thing you’ll never see on a Moroccan woman is shorts and skimpy tops. Most tourists are respectful and cover their arms and legs to some degree.

On our first visit to Jemaa el-Fna we decided to take one of the small paths into the densely crowded souk to scout out a place for lunch. We chose the first “eatery” we found, a rather primitive place with three pots cooking on an outdoor fire. We pointed to the pot of our choice and were served rich and flavourful stews (mine was vegetarian) with bread and soft drinks that came to about $3 each. The warm hospitality of the owner/waiter gave us strength to attempt some of the longer market trails, but I was so overwhelmed with the sheer colour and variety of … well, everything … that I eventually agreed with Irwin that stopping for a mint tea at a café facing the square would be a fitting end to the afternoon.

Two or three mint teas later I had taken the pictures you see here. As twilight approached and the food vendors came out into the square to offer their wares, cooked on open fires at their stalls – there seemed to be hundreds of them – we decided we had had enough and headed to the new town to eat – a big mistake.

It was May when we visited Marrakesh, a perfect time of year to travel in Morocco. When we returned to the country in July for three more weeks, we confined ourselves to the north.

But I still look forward to more of those souks and sipping tea at the Jemaa el-Fna.

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Daou delights with delectable delicacies

Barbara Moser

December, 2009

When you dine at Daou, be sure to go with a group. That way you can sample a selection of the restaurant’s delicacies.

This authentic Lebanese restaurant has two locations: 2373 Marcel Laurin in Ville St. Laurent, and the one we visited, at 519 Faillon E.

We went on a Thursday evening with our friends Avrum and Marnie, their daughter, Hardial, and her boyfriend, Addison. We constituted a rather large and demanding bunch of hungry and eager diners, which meant we got to sample many items from the long and luscious-sounding list of cold and hot appetizers. Most come in two sizes, and we opted mostly for the larger ones, which more than satisfied our pangs and palettes.

We sat in the centre of the sleekly decorated, airy room and were immediately greeted by our waiter, who served us complimentary pickled turnips, green olives and pita.

We were a somewhat complicated group and full of questions, but the waiter was calm as he walked around answering all our queries. He was obviously used to diners who don’t know their fatouche from their foule. We kept changing our minds about whether we wanted large or small portions and whether we wanted to order the chef’s suggestions of grilled meats ($25.95), a vegetarian platter ($18.95), combined platter ($21.50), and appetizer platter ($25.95). Two such dishes might be perfect for a couple, but for a group of six, sharing larger portions of appetizers seemed like a better option. Here are the dishes we finally settled on, in no particular order:

The feisty fatouche salad ($11.95 for the large size) was an entertaining mix of veggies, oil, lemon, small pieces of pita and Middle Eastern herbs that tasted like zatar or oregano. This was yummy and fed us all at regular intervals. It was indeed much bigger than it looked on the plate.

Ground chick peas with pine nuts (Hommus & Snoubar in Arabic; $10.25 for the large size). This is one of my favourite dishes, and at Daou it’s fresh, lemony – and hard to stop dipping your pita in. Marnie described it as not sticky, but light with texture as well as flavour.

Red pepper & walnut dip (Muha­mara $6.75). It’s an original and another of my favourites. It’s tangy and spreadable, but I wouldn’t advise too much spreading or you won’t have room for the other dishes.

Pressed cream yogourt with garlic (Labneh $6.95). You’ve never had it so good, except maybe in the Druze village of Daliat-el-Carmel, Israel.

Fava beans with oil, lemon and garlic (Foule $7.50). This filling, vegetarian Lebanese comfort food was done to perfection with just the right amount of garlic and lemon, although some in our party found it too salty.

Cooked meat stuffed with minced meat (Kebesanieh $9.95) This pie was a favourite with the meat lovers.

Cheese rolls (Rakakat $7.95). We gobbled these up fast. They’re wrapped in a flaky filo dough and filled with soft white cheese. A favourite of Addison’s. Lebanese sausage ($5.95 for a small portion) is done up in a rich tomato sauce. Irwin’s favourite.

Spinach pie ($2.25) and Thyme pie ($1.75) are not-so-little morsels meant for individual diners. The thyme pie was a puffed-up pita loaded with thyme, which Marnie thoroughly enjoyed. I dipped my spinach pie in a few dips.

Babaganoush ($8.95 for the large size). This blend of eggplant, sesame, garlic and lemon, was a masterpiece of smooth, mouth-watering goodness.

Of the stuffed vine leaves with either meat or rice, most of us preferred the vegetarian ones, although Irwin was a fan of the meaty ones. Even our $37 bottle of Lebanese wine was divine.

For dessert, we shared Daou’s homemade Ricotta Cheese Crêpe with pistacchio and rosewater – a medley of textures and flavours. Avrum and Irwin ordered Baklava, “like my mother never made,” Irwin said.

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Two bar seats at the three Tomatoes Trattoria

December, 2009

It was a coolish Saturday evening in downtown Burlington, Vermont and we decided to try out Three Tomatoes Trattoria, right in the middle of the Church St. pedestrian mall.

This Italian restaurant is located in a basement quite a few stairs down from the street entrance, but you’d never know it once you reach the bottom.

The place is huge and on this Saturday at 7 pm it was packed with merry diners, families with children, dressy-looking couples out for a date, and at least one older couple from Montreal hoping for a table.

We were told there would be a half-hour wait at this, their busiest time, but we were invited not only to wait and drink at the bar but to eat there too! We chose the two end seats in front of all the wines and spirits and were greeted by the cocktail server who was also, we discovered, our food server. Another long food bar behind us was half filled with diners who also hadn’t reserved a table.

We both felt like sharing some comfort food, meaning it had to be meatless. We chose two pasta dishes, one with penne and one with linguini: Pesto Basilico, $13.95, sautéed broccoli, spinach, diced tomato, with basil – pine nut pesto and pecorino Romano with Linguini; and Spicy shrimp fra davolo, $17.95 – imported olives, garlic, white wine, spicy tomato basil sauce with penne. We decided to share a large Caesar ($7.95) which arrived immediately and which we thoroughly enjoyed. This may be the best Caesar salad I’ve tasted in a very long time with its hearts of romaine lettuce, very tangy with nice large pieces of anchovies, which we divvied up and two pieces of “Crisp Red Hen Bakery Garlic Crostini.” No bacon – we checked.

When the salad arrived, our server was ready to grate fresh romano cheese and grind fresh pepper onto our plate. The portion was generous. If I’d had my own, I would have had little room for the pastas, which were also generous. We each tried one dish for about five minutes and then switched dishes to try the other. Back and forth we went, relishing every morsel. The linguini was full of medium pieces of sautéed broccoli and spinach and the pine nut basil pesto gave the whole dish a zesty, slightly spicy flavor.

I was hard pressed to give it up to taste the shrimp penne, but once I started on the latter (or platter), I was smitten by the large shrimp, tails on, sitting among the penne covered in a spicy tomato sauce and sprinkled with big black olives.

Although we were quite full, Irwin insisted we share a dessert. We ordered cappuccinos and lemon mousse cake. ($6.95) Lemon was the flavor of the evening. I love all that is made of lemons and this was no exception. A fresh mousse atop lemon pound cake, it was the perfect ending to this Italian feast.

So next time you’re in Burlington, don’t let those stairs deter you. Once you’ve sampled the fare at Three Tomatoes, you’ll know why you may have to sit at the bar on a Saturday night. Or you can try making reservations at 1-802-660-9533.

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Making friends in the ER: an ode to the Montreal General

Barbara Moser

December, 2009

In some respects, it was a productive and relaxing day. I lost some weight, made three new friends, corrected 30 of my students’ poetry essays, read The Gazette cover to cover, and got editing help for articles in this issue.

I spent the day – the entire day – at the Montreal General Hospital emergency waiting room. Like many who waited with me, I had little choice but to appear at the ER at 9:30 am. We all had problems that could not wait or could not be tended to by our family doctors.

After being told, when I arrived, by the triage nurse that there was an eye clinic at the MGH that day and that I wouldn’t “have to wait long,” an ER doctor directed me, nine hours later, to take a taxi to the Royal Vic and to make it snappy because the eye clinic there was about to close. I raced over and was examined first by a resident and then by her teacher, a retinal specialist, to determine that my retina has not detached. I was treated exceptionally well by these doctors and am grateful for their care.

Back to the MGH at 9:30 am. There was a line up to register and see the triage nurse. Then we had to find a chair in the waiting room while watching a new smaller waiting room for H1N1 patients go up before our very eyes, complete with plate glass windows. If you had an ear problem, the three hours of drilling and banging certainly didn’t help.

At one point there were four stretchers in the waiting room and little room to walk around them! People were getting called in once or twice an hour, but these same people were coming back to the waiting room to wait for the next step in their diagnosis or treatment or for a test result.

To get to the café, the closest place for food and water, one had to go outside and through a set of doors. No one alone and in pain, and certainly those on stretchers, could manage it, so those of us who were able bodied, helped by going to buy these poor people bottled water. It can’t be healthy to go without food for an entire day!

Try not to go alone to the ER if you are in pain. You absolutely will need someone to tend to you while you wait… and wait …. and wait.

Arriving in an ambulance does not always ensure you will be seen right away. One of my new friends had been having a root canal earlier that morning. Suddenly she had a severe reaction to the codeine her dentist had given her. It seems he hadn’t read her allergy list. Probably because he didn’t want to take any chances, he sent her by ambulance to the hospital. But when she arrived, she was told her problem wasn’t serious and she had to wait with the rest of us.

My new friends, Norma and Jack, waited longer than I did. We kept each other company editing articles for The Senior Times, sharing chocolate bars Norma brought from her car and doing crossword puzzles. We got to know each other.

In nine hours you get to know someone.

Norma and I discovered we both love garage sales. Luckily we were well enough to carry on a conversation.

Masks are in the entrance for anyone who… well… I’m not sure whom they are for. One woman sat with a mask on all day even though she had no flu symptoms. Another guy coughed a few times into the air of the waiting room until I reported him to the guards who promptly brought him a mask.

One poor man lay on a stretcher in the middle of our small waiting room for hours. Finally he was called in. An hour later he came out, found a chair and started moaning. He pointed to his side. It was some kind of sciatica, which can be brutal. He cried and writhed till three of us walked up to the registration desks (there were no nurses around and when they rushed through and someone nailed them, they pulled away, one stating “I’m not here.”) In any case, after three or four of us complained about the inhumanity of his plight, a nurse approached the man and loudly asked him why he was breathing so heavily. He was obviously in panic from the pain. She finally found him a stretcher and one of us helped him walk into the newly built H1N1 waiting room, where he remained alone and in pain for quite some time. He was still there when I left for the RVH.

At 6 pm, Irwin showed up, and brought miracle upon miracle — fresh strawberries, apples, bananas, small juices, cheese and crackers. I began to serve all my friends and then lo and behold, I heard my name called. I was in shock.

Was I really the Barbara Moser whose name was being called?

Thank goodness Irwin was there to accompany me in the cab in the rain to the RVH a half hour later. I quickly said goodbye to my friends promising them each a free subscription to The Senior Times for their editing help.

Suggestions for changing the emergency room procedures at the MGH in case anyone’s listening:

If there is no specialty clinic or if it’s moved, why not inform people when they arrive so that they can move themselves to another hospital where there is such a clinic?

Why can’t people not in life-threatening situations or in pain get a number like they do in a bakery or at the SAAQ? Then they could go home or sit in a cafe and come back at a certain hour. Of course they never know because of the number of ambulances that come in, but with more than 20 people waiting more than nine hours, surely, they have some idea. They seem to thrive on giving out as little information as possible. Whom does this benefit?

Could they at least put a vending machine with water and sandwiches in this waiting room or have someone selling drinks and snacks from a cart like they do on the train? If patients are alone on stretchers for hours in the waiting room, a nurse’s aide should come every so often to check on them and get them water if they need it or help them to the bathroom.

The waiting room is just too small. There are not enough seats for everyone. So expand the waiting room and put in more chairs. Why can’t we afford a few of those recliners? If you have H1N1 symptoms, go to a special clinic set up to diagnose and treat you, not to a hospital emergency room! Please! The triage nurse should be sending these people back to these clinics unless they are having serious respiratory problems. If they are, a 12-hour wait could kill them!

And yes, we already know we shouldn’t go near an ER unless absolutely necessary, but couldn’t the triage nurse let us know if it is absolutely necessary?

Postscript: Norma and John waited until 1am to be seen — another six hours after I left.

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Delectable and charming, Galo grills up Portugal on a platter

Barbara Moser

October, 2009

As many of you know, Irwin and I love to eat… out, especially when the dining establishment reminds us of our trips abroad. So we jumped on the chance to review Restaurant Galo in Town of Mount Royal, not exactly our stomping ground but as we discovered, well worth the taxi ride.

This family-run Portuguese Grill serves up, among other delicacies, grilled sardines, which are few and far between in Montreal. Fresh ones are a staple for me when I travel abroad so it didn’t take me long to decide what I’d order once we walked through the charming white exterior with its bay window into the equally charming interior that holds no more than 12 tables covered in white tablecloths. Our server is the sister of co-owner, Tanya Santos. Tanya explained that her partner Martine Meunier holds the fort in the daytime and she and her mother and sisters work the evening shift. The restaurant quickly filled up on this Thursday evening.

Alexandra was quick to offer us the specialty of the house, which comes either as an appetizer ($7.50) or a main course with home fries or rice and salad ($12.50). They are called Rissois in Portuguese. These are half moon croquettes filled with either cod or shrimp. Both were crispy on the outside. The shrimp variety were larger and stuffed with Bechamel giving them a creamy texture. The cod croquettes were my favorite of the two, with more of a spicy bread crumb consistency. Alexandra told us that her grandmother, Analia Lopes, makes the Rissois. We highly recommend her cooking.

Our salads arrived in glass bowls, very elegant, with tomato slices atop frizzy lettuce, cukes, and a slice of red pepper, drizzled with a light dressing of white wine vinegar and oil. I liked the idea that the salad was its own course, not a side on the plate with the main course.

The mains come with home-made fries or rice and salad but you can substitute grilled veggies for the carbs for $2. I chose Sardines ($14) and Irwin chose the Mixed Meat Grill ($17 for one, $27 for two) both with Grilled Veggies, which was actually an original, a grilled tomato filled to the brim with chopped zucchini, onions, and peppers, topped with a generous slice of Portugese goat cheese. Irwin ordered a glass of what Alexandra described as full-bodied Portuguese red wine ($6.50). While we were waiting for our main courses, we enjoyed the bright, friendly atmosphere with a mix of customers, lots of bubbly conversation and the joyous and lively Portuguese dance music.

Just before our mains were served, Albert and Susan Weiner approached us and asked if it was our first time at Galos. They have been neighbourhood regulars since Galo opened two years ago, September 10, 2006 to be exact, says Albert. Susan loves the chicken and fries. Albert loves the sardines and so did I. There were four big ones, about 8 inches long and quite succulent, grilled and marinated, then basted with the special house sauce, which, we were told by Tanya, includes as one of its ingredients the hot sauce that is on every table. Don’t use this stuff like ketchup though. Take it easy.

Irwin’s plate of mixed grilled meats included two pieces of chicken. a large sausage called chorizo, and a piece of pork filet, all marinated and brushed with two sauces, and all of which Irwin pronounced “delectable.”

The grilled tomatoes were a surprise. They were huge and tasty complementing the fish and meat perfectly. We cheated and ordered an extra plate of the home fries ($2) not wanting to miss out. We both thought they were “dangerously exquisite” – Irwin’s words, but I agree fully. And full I was, even before we were talked into trying the home-made desserts: a chocolate mousse, not too rich or gooey, and homemade cream “beaten by us (the family)” layered on tea biscuits dipped in espresso, and topped with strawberry garnish. The cream was sinfully rich.

Our lattes were perfect, with a light and creamy foam. What better way to end our first experience at Galo, which obviously will not be our last. So friends, if you have a car and can pick us up here in NDG, we’re ready to introduce you to Portugal in TMR.

Galo Portuguese Grill, 1970 Graham, corner Kindersley. Reservations: 514-504-5110.

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Home at Mesquìte: our neighbourhood southern BBQ

October, 2009

Michael Minorgan (chef Michel), Lauren Reynolds and Gulam T. Rahman Photo: Barbara Moser

I am at home at Mesquìte. It’s half a block away from my home and office, but there’s more to it. I don’t have to shop for groceries, prepare meals, cook, bake, or clean up! And I can enjoy Mesquìte’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week.

When I come in, I am always greeted with a “Hi Barbara” from owners Gulam T. Rahman or Michael Minorgan.

And now for the ultimate feeling of home: They’ve named a burger after me in their new menu! It’s called Barbara’s Portobello Mushroom Burger “with roasted red peppers, creamy goat cheese, guacamole and tomatillo mango relish” – all my favourite foods on one plate. The menu, of which I got a sneak preview, coincides with Mesquìte’s 5th anniversary.

I can’t believe it’s been five years since they opened on the corner of Decarie Blvd and NDG Ave, a block from the Villa Maria Metro and in front of the 24 bus stop. There is not a week that goes by when I’m not at Mesquìte two or three times with family, friends and the Senior Times team. We ST ladies are always celebrating birthdays.

Lunch specials are all served with Chef Michel’s daily soup or tomato juice and coffee or tea. The soups are exquisitely spiced. I’ve never been able to replicate one — although I’ve tried. Sandwiches come on grilled baguette with one side. It’s always hard for me to choose between the home-made russet fries, coleslaw, onion ribbons or mixed garden salad although my favourite is the black beans, which also come as a breakfast side.

Two sandwich favourites among my friends and family are BBQ Brisket and the Smoked Salmon and Goat Cheese, which on the new menu, includes bacon and avocado slices.

The nice thing about Mesquìte is that they’re flexible. as my favorite server Lauren Reynolds can tell you. If you don’t want the bacon, no problem. As a matter of fact, this was the genesis of my namesake: I ordered the meat burger with portobello mushroom and asked Chef Michel to hold the meat and add goat cheese, roasted red pepper and guacamole. Sometimes I even say: hold the bread and onions. For my omelette of spinach, mushroom, and cheese on those leisurely Saturdays and Sundays (brunch is served till 3 pm), it’s like this: egg whites only, hold the toast, add spicy hollandaise (no extra charge for this) and two sides (since I don’t have the meat).

For dinner the choices are endless, even for this pesky pescetarian.

Here are a couple of sensational sounding chioces on the new menu, which by the way, is not pricier than the old one: Appetizers: Corn Meal Flash Fried Baby Calamari with Roasted Tomato Remoulade ($8.95), BBQ Chili Lime Tiger Shrimp (4) with Pico de Gallo ($8,95). Mains: Atlantic Salmon Salad Grilled or Blackened ($17.95) – one of my favourites – and Mahi Mahi Grilled or Blackened ($17.95).

I have yet to try Chef Michel’s Ultimate Country Salad of shaved pickled beets, romaine, baby field greens, cucumber ribbons, shaved fennel, goat cheese, toasted walnuts, sweet corn and fresh tomato vinaigrette ($14.95), but I will. I love the fajitas ($13.95) with a choice of BBQ pulled pork (Irwin’s favourite salad), BBQ brisket, BBQ chicken, vegetarian (my choice) or a combo of two meats served with “pit smoked black beans, sour cream, guacamole and pico de gallo.” For carnivores, Mesquìte’s St. Louis Ribs are so popular there is a rib-eating contest at least once a year, which, I’m not keen on — especially for seniors with heart problems!

If you’re not a big dinner spender, you can choose a BBQ sandwich ($8.95) with one side of pulled pork, turkey or chicken or brisket (unpulled). I’m at Mesquìte right now on a Saturday morning about to order my favourite Florentine Benedict ($9.95) with spicy hollandaise, a side of beans and an extra of tomatoes.

Speaking of tomatoes, Michael and T. have recently decorated the place in rich red tones to go with the original rich red wood bar, tables and chairs. Unfortunately it’s a bit cold to enjoy the terrace.

Oops, I almost forgot the desserts. How could I? The bread pudding and the frozen key lime pie are to die for!

Mesquìte has a full bar, featuring daily cocktail specials, and two big-screen TVs. Happy 5th anniversary to my friends at Mesquìte! Thanks for bringing Southern BBQ to NDG and making me feel right at home.

Prices start at $6.95 for the half sandwich of the day with one side, soup, and coffee.

Reservations: 514-487-5066.

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A Moroccan Odyssey Part II: The children of Morroco

October, 2009

click here to view a slideshow of images from A Moroccan Odyssey

The children of Morocco are endearing, enchanting, sad, and in many cases very poor. A number of young children work alongside their parents in shops and restaurants. Countless others are sent out to the streets to hawk small packages of tissues, flags, and snacks. Then there are the beggars – some quite professional.

According to Human Rights Watch (2005), Morocco has one of the highest child labor rates in the Middle East and North Africa. Government stats suggest that 600,000 children ages 7 to 14 are engaged in some kind of economic activity. Of those, 372,000 are under age 12. The numbers of children engaged in rural work is higher, but we noticed a fair number of children in every city, with the exception of Chefchaouen, where children are forced to beg or sell tissues.

These photos are not of child beggars. I didn’t want the children to think I was taking pictures of them in that situation. These photos reflect children of all ages and levels of income and at all levels of happiness.

The three boys posing for us in Chefchaouen reflect the large number of teens who seem to have absolutely nothing to do but sit around and watch people go by. Occasionally they will ask to be your guide for a few dirham and will lead you to shops and restaurants who will give them a small commission for taking you there.

The photo of the young girl and her grandfather in the “cave shop” is indicative of the close relationship between grandparents and grand- children we noticed. The boy in the photo with me at his father’s jewellery shop in Essaouira knows how to create the jewellery as well and will likely take over his father’s shop. So will the boy in the tiny textile shop in the souk in Rabat. These children don’t look unhappy. It was May when these pictures were taken and these children were not in school.

In Tangiers we ate quite a few meals outside overlooking the port at family style restaurants where a chicken or fish dinner can be had for $3 or $4. Two sisters, about 7 and 10 wearing hijabs patrolled the area selling tissues. I invited them to eat with us, telling the waiter to bring them each a chicken dinner with fries and a coke. They sat down beside us without a word. The waiter then asked them to skedaddle, and sit at the far end of the restaurant. I protested and insisted they stay with us. They split one of the meals and took the second one home, probably for their parents.

A tourist couple in Casablanca, offered a young mother and grandmother with a toddler their left over food after we offered ours. I would make sandwiches for children on the street from my leftovers or sometimes just offer fries off my plate. The ones who took the bread from the basket — you knew they were hungry. It’s strange to be sitting there eating outside and have them watching you. After all these are not cats waiting for the fishbones, these are children and young adults.

A boy in Chefchaouen was the glad recipient of an ice cream cone. He approached me and just stared at me as I was ordering mine. Another boy wanted a sandwich and got one.

In Casablanca we bought a flag from a boy selling them at our café for 10 dirham ($1). Another man sipping coffee next to us had a similar idea and just gave the kid $1. Whenever we gave, it seemed to encourage others to do so.

Then there are the lucky children, who seem very attached to their parents, walking along happily, or strapped to the backs of their moms, the children helping with the shopping or at the water fountain. Many others walk alone down the narrow streets as if they owned the place, with no adult in sight, some as young as three.

The saddest scenes, and of these scenes I have no pictures, are the children born with deformities or whose parents couldn’t afford simple medical treatment that would have given them a “normal” existence. They sit on the street, often with parents, begging. One girl sat outside her house on the street all day with her hand out. She must have been about 14 or 15. What a sad look she had, with nothing to read, nothing to do all day but beg. I gave her money twice, which she barely acknowledged. In the hour I watched her, no one gave her even 10 cents.

What angers and frustrates me is that this country’s king has palaces in every city. When he is about to arrive, that place is instantly cleaned up and made to look like nobody lives or suffers there. I guess he never sees the deformed children, the street children, and child beggars. But he must know of them. He must know the statistics. The truth is — he just doesn’t care.

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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

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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

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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

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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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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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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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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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Humanists also deserve a voice

March 2009

In her letter in the Gazette, (Sunday, March 1) “Why do atheists worry about God?” Sheila Mediena expresses concern about the Humanist Association of Quebec’s forthcoming campaign to adorn 10 city buses with the ad: “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

She wonders why atheists, who, she writes, “put their faith in humanity” don’t “put their money into something useful for humanity – like supporting schools for girls in Afghanistan, instead of polluting our environment?”

Let us set the record straight for those who connect religious belief and humanitarianism: There is no correlation. Humanists are no more likely to be humanitarians than those who believe in God. Furthermore, humanists do not necessarily “put their faith in humanity” any more than believers do.

To answer Ms. Mediena’s question, atheists have the right to be “preoccupied” with the fact that most of the world believes in God and yet acts of unspeakable horror are committed by believers.

In the last 50 years, atheists have tried to soften their message that there is no god with a more positive approach, using the term “humanist,” which emphasizes that we are responsible for our ethical behaviour and should enjoy life to the fullest because there is no afterlife.

If believers have the right to plaster slogans that warn people about what will happen to them if they do not accept the Lord – and to let us know how much God loves us regardless of what sins we commit – humanists have the right to let people know they can take it easy and enjoy life.

If Ms. Mediena is worried about physical pollution, both types of ads are equally at fault.

– Barbara Moser

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Unplanned stop in Thessaloniki kicks off Greek island hop

We arrived in Thessaloniki, Greece, at 7 am, and had expensive cafés au lait ($5) while waiting for the travel agencies along the port to open. We thought we’d hop a cruise to some Greek Islands the next day.

At 8:50, one travel agent opened her doors to us. Early bird Christina Jeirani of Overseas Travel greeted us with a sleepy smile and began to process our desires, travel wise. We had decided to loosen the purse strings and try our first cruise.

After years of avoiding cruises, we resolved that sleeping on a ship and cruising around the islands would be just what we needed after the walk into Macedonia from Albania, and all those buses, trains and ferries. We wanted to have a few days without worrying about where we were going to sleep and eat.

Christina found a seven-day island hop with Easy Cruise that included Bodrum, Turkey, as well as several Greek islands, for 500 euro (about $800) with half board. Later we discovered we had probably over paid a bit because this was no luxury cruise. But that’s a story for the next issue.

We actually breathed a sigh of relief at the price, thinking it would be much higher. Not so easy! Cruises don’t leave from Thessaloniki! We would have to get to Athens and depart from Piraeus (the port).

Christina booked us a hotel in Thessaloniki, the Mandrino, for 65 euro. After checking in, we took a bus three or four stops to the railway station, where we were informed that the only seats available to Athens were on the express leaving the next day at 7 pm – for 48 euro each! Okay, we said, rather hefty, but what choice did we have? We then went back to the tourist office and asked Christina to get us a hotel in Piraeus, which she did – for another 89 euro. But better safe than sorry in Athens at 11:30 pm, right? This is the downside of last-minute plans, but we wouldn’t trade such freedom for the world – of bookings.

We then asked Christina for an interesting restaurant, since we hadn’t eaten for 24 hours. She, after a giggling session with her friends, sent us to Ouzo Medathron. Everyone knows it, she said, because the food is exquisite. And it was! It’s in a fun courtyard full of hungry, happy Greeks, downing every imaginable variety of mussels; sardines, not the canned variety; anchovies, the real thing; all sorts of meats and truly marvelous Greek salad. It was all topped off with ice cream and strawberry or chocolate syrup on a bed of baklava strings sprinkled with honey and espresso, for – nothing! “Well,” Irwin says, “The dessert and coffee are complimentary!” What a joyful experience – especially when we got spritzed with the mist that was ingeniously connected to a fan, for a little relief from the stifling heat.

The next morning we waited for the Jewish museum to open and when it did we spent an hour and a half marvelling at the growth of the wonderful community of up to 70,000 Jews who first settled in Thessaloniki as Roman slaves, augmented later by Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and other points across Europe. It was a thriving, vibrant community with over 20 newspapers in Spanish and Ladino, full of scholarship, schools, over 30 synagogues, hospitals, seniors’ homes, libraries, orphanages – until the Nazis brutally and systematically devastated the community, transporting all but a few Jews to Auschwitz after destroying the cemetery and humiliating and tormenting the men. We saw the deportation order telling the people there would be food waiting for themand to pack all their jewellery and valuables. The museum has a small library and bookstore with several publications about the community.

Thessaloniki, as we discovered during our unplanned 24-hour stay, has a charm all its own. It was our introduction to a bustling Greek city, which was full of friendly shoppers. We discovered cheaper and nicer hotels on the same street as the Mandrino, and we’ll stay in one of them next time. No reservations seem to be necessary in this city – just the way we like it.

That evening, after packing burekas and tomatoes purchased from a nearby grocery, we got on the train for Athens. The next afternoon we would board our “Easy Cruise” and begin an adventure like none we had ever known, starting with the Greek island of Kalymnos.

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Behind the walls, Skopje’s Old Town enchants

Our favourite Old City restaurant

Skopje is perhaps the most surprising city we’ve ever visited, possibly because we had no guidebook or recommendations from friends to depend on.

The kindness of the Macedonian people continued as our bus from Ohrid, which we had boarded with the help of the Dimoska family, stopped at a cafeteria. It was a welcome respite on this hot and stuffy four-hour trip. I was already regretting leaving the family in Orhid or at least in the town.

While everyone was buying burekas I was in line for the toilet. Alas, I had no denars to pay the attendant. One of my fellow passengers came to my rescue and also changed a euro or two to denars so we could partake in the marvelous, huge cheese burekas that we wolfed down as the bus departed.

In Skopje, we were dropped off at the train/bus station and found a cab to the hotel the family had recommended. Upon discovering that it was beyond our budget, we asked the owner for advice and were the recipients of yet more Macedonian hospitality.

He drove us to an inexpensive hotel! It was 35 euro and 5 euro extra for the necessary air conditioning above a bar on a small street across from the Greek consulate. The room was tiny and non-descript but it was a walk from the town circle and as we later found out, on the same street as the Jewish community centre. It was a windy-twisty but interesting 20 minutes to the massive circular ton square. We had to write down markers such as Sex Shop along the way. But don’t get me wrong. It was a pleasant area, past bakeries, pet shops, restaurants, and shoe shops. We had pasta and salads in a posh, antiquey European style restaurant after checking out the bookstore for a guidebook — to no avail.

Strange architecture adorns Skopje

The next morning, we headed out towards the medieval fortress across the bridge and once inside the small gate, we discovered an Old City. Its narrow stone streets beckoned to my yearnings for small old-fashioned boutiques, handicraft shops and cafés, and to Irwin’s yearnings to find an internet café where he could sip espresso and play internet chess.

Lo and behold Irwin was reading a small sign posted beside a door. We had stumbled upon the Honorary Consulate for the State of Israel. We rang the buzzer and immediately were let in. Usually security isn’t this lax, but our friend upstairs told us he had been expecting a friend. We climbed the stairs and there was the assistant to the Honorary Consul, his son, a dapper young gentleman who welcomed us warmly, serving us coffee and providing us with two students who would to take us over to the Jewish Foundation building. During coffee, we talked about the history of Macedonian Jewry. He told us 7,148 or 98% were deported to Treblinka. Only 200 Jews now live in Skopje, some having immigrated to Israel.

Inside the foundation building we met Victoria who is responsible for running the day-to-day operations of the foundation responsible for building the “Holocaust Memorial Center of the Jews of Macedonia.” Macedonia is returning land and funds to the remaining Jews as reparations for land and property that was stolen, and the center will be ready, says Victoria, this summer. I had a fleeting thought that it would be nice to return for the opening.

Victoria spent three years in Israel ten years ago, but her family returned fearing the conflict there. We stepped out onto the street and she showed us a restaurant or two where we could sample authentic Macedonian cuisine. Then, she took us to her friend’s jewellery shop where Irwin purchased gold earrings for my birthday at a great price.

A lazy afternoon in the Old City

After our lunch of kebab for Irwin, an exquisite yogurt soup for me, and Greek salad and roasted peppers for both of us we wandered our own ways. I discovered an antique beaded jewellery shop where I spent two hours negotiating prices and sipping Turkish coffee. He hightailed it to the more modern bar/café where he played chess on his laptop.

That evening we met Victoria for dinner in a cave like, ornate restaurant, (the name of which I wrote on a slip of paper and lost) and ordered wonderful salads of eggplant, red peppers, hot dishes of meat for Victoria and Irwin and a giant tomato cut like a pie. It must have been 5 inches in diameter and it was then that Victoria disclosed the fact that her country produces the best tomatoes in the world. She’s right as far as I know!

The next morning we walked over to the Jewish community center and met the president and secretary, two youngish women who spoke impeccable English and showed us the synagogue. This is a small but thriving community complete with a choir and a publication centre of sorts. We purchased an English cookbook of Jewish Macedonian recipes written by one of the oldest members of the community and were given a video of the choir, which we cherish and play for friends.

We spent the afternoon arranging our exit from Skopja, which was by mini-bus to Thessaloniki. We figured we would arrive in this port city and hop a last minute cruise to the Greek Islands — to make up for the one we had missed in Trieste.

It was a bit more complicated than that. But that story will have to wait till February.

We spent our last night in Skopje trying to get some sleep so we could get up at 3:15 am to be picked up at 4 am in our minibus to Thessaloniki. Our fellow passengers were a university student who’d just finished her exams and a history buff/guide who supports his son in Santa Monica, California. To supplant his income he imports used cars from Germany. He talked a lot about the about the conflict between Macedonia and Greece. According to him the Greeks are not only jealous of the name Macedonia, used by “non-Greeks” but wary of future territorial demands on the fertile northern part of Greece, from which thousands of Macedonians were expelled, their property confiscated. Ostensibly they were part of the Communist rebellion, which was put down with the help of the British after the Second World War.

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A ballet mom's memory

Molly was 8 when she first experienced being on stage before a live audience. It was 1989. She had been a student of Ora Kozlov’s at the Greene Ave Ballet School for three years and now Ora had chosen Molly and other lucky little girls to dance in Ballet Ouest’s Nutcracker. Molly was a chef, dressed in a chef’s costume, a chef’s hat and a big wooden spoon.

The rehearsal involved long hours at Westhill High School, where Ballet Ouest performed in the 1980s. Molly loved every minute of it. Her big night came and I volunteered to help with make up and costumes. What mother wouldn’t?

I remember the look on her face for the entire 3 or 4 minutes she was on stage for every performance. It was magical. The morning after the finale Molly wouldn’t go to school. She lay in bed clutching her autographed program and cried, saying she didn’t know how her life would go on without The Nutcracker. What was the use of going to school if she couldn’t be on stage dancing The Nutcracker?

I called her ballet teacher Ora who asked to speak to Molly. I don’t remember what she told her — probably that all ballerinas feel this way after their first performance and that she had to eat and go to school and be strong so she could continue being a dancer. Whatever she said, Molly got up and went to school.

The next year Molly was a Mother Ginger in the ballet. And the third year she was in the opening party scene. Molly never got the chance to dance as Clara but she continued to study dance with Ora till she started college.

Molly still has that program book from 1989. And I know we both often remember that first magical night on stage in The Nutcracker.

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A long walk — and a lift — from Pogradeci to Macedonia

The Dimoska family

Our congenial host at the Parlimenti Hotel in Tirana drove us in his slightly worn Mercedes-Benz (almost everybody drives one in Albania) to a lot where mini-buses were filling up with passengers bound for Pogradeci, a resort region on the shores of Lake Orhid, a lake shared with Macedonia. We started out on a good road. Suddenly the driver made a u-turn, drove back to where we started and took a road that re-aligned my internal organs. It seemed to go on forever.

Once we were back on pavement, the drive was uneventful and hot. We followed a winding road around a mountain. For the queasy, it was harrowing. We stopped halfway (after 2 hours) at a roadside resto where the owner tried to stiff us 10 euro for two pieces of cheese, bread and a simple salad. We eventually settled on 500 lek ($6), which according to us included a hefty tip.

Once in the Pogradeci region, we almost stopped at the Lunhidas Hotel, described in the guide book we’d purchased in Tirana as a “tourist centre” with swimming pool. We noticed that here, 10 kilometers out of town, the lake looked crystal clear. But it was too far from the centre and we always stay where the action is. Our driver dropped us off at the first place on the hotel strip in town. We liked the looks of the hotel and the price, $34 Cdn for a modern room with balcony overlooking the lake. The bed however could have used fewer metal rods.

We strolled along the boardwalk and decided to rent a paddleboat ($2.50 Cdn an hour). The odor of excrement was too strong to go swimming near the shore so we paddled out toward the middle of the lake, where the water looked clearer, and Irwin jumped in. One of four sturdy soldiers-on-furlough in a neighbouring sailboat, hearing us conversing in English, begged to interrupt. The conversation continued until after two of the lads had boosted Irwin onto our boat, nearly tipping me over. Irwin’s physical condition, being what it is — chess, jazz, wine, pizza, lengthy books — made it impossible for him to do it on his own.

Strolling along the boardwalk in Pogradeci

We spent the afternoon treating the five soldiers to ice cream, beer and coffee. The English speaker, translating for his friends as he spoke, complained bitterly of Albanian corruption. His parents, farmers, had no money to send him to university so he was conscripted and hates every minute of it. He told us that rich parents pay to get their children through university.

We spent Sunday wandering along the bustling 3 kilometer boardwalk. I was saddened by the Gypsy mother with toddlers begging on the boardwalk. Making a quick detour I returned with pastries, which the kids grabbed as if they hadn’t eaten in days.

We spent the afternoon on the terrace of our hotel viewing the pier in the sunset drinking Martini and Rossi and playing chess. Monday morning, while sipping cappuccino, we asked — two women–professors from a nearby university and quizzed them about the soldier’s reports. They claimed that nobody takes seriously the universities where a diploma can be bought. We also quizzed them about how to get to Macedonia. It sounded simple: “Get a cab to the border, five kilometers away. Then get out and walk across. There will be cabs waiting on the other side to take you to Orhid, Macedonia’s lake resort.”

We got out of the cab, said goodbye to Albania, and walked 100 meters to the friendly Macedonian border police. They instructed us, in sign language, to walk ahead, either 30 or 300 meters (I’m not sure which) indicating there would be taxis.

20 minutes past the border. Where are those cabs?

We walked and walked and walked. No sidewalks. No cars. No buses. Just a two lane highway. I told Irwin I wanted to go back. “I don’t go back,” and “It’s uphill,” were his quirky replies. I was worried. We were in the middle of nowhere in the mid-day heat with our knapsacks on wheels. No food. Little water. After 30 minutes, a modern red jeep came rolling down the highway. Instinctively, we put out our thumbs.

Our savior stopped and we asked “Ohrid?” He invited us in, threw our bags in the back and started to drive — and drive and drive. He spoke no English, French, Spanish, German, or Hebrew, but we managed to convey we were Canadians. He called his wife on his cell and she told me in perfect English that he would gladly drive us to the bus station to catch a bus to Skopja, the capital. We drove through a touristy, more sophisticated version of Pogradec, called Ohrid and stopped at a large bus station, where he insisted on purchasing the tickets in Denar. We returned the amount in Euro to him later. Then he motioned for us to get back in the car. We had no idea why but by this time he felt like a long lost cousin so we climbed in knowing our bus would leave from the station in half an hour. He drove faster now, obviously heading for somewhere. After 10 minutes he stopped abruptly and turned into a house with a small porch. Mr. Dimoska was taking us home — and we would meet the bus across the road from his house on its way to Skopja.

The Dimoska family is in the construction business and lives in a three storey house their father built. Fiona and the children, Victoria and Michael greeted us in English. Victoria and her cousin were playing with the new kitten. We posed for pictures, and sampled Fiona’s homemade blueberry juice and Turkish coffee. Then we hugged the entire family including the grandma, all of whom had graciously welcomed us to Macedonia. We gave the kids some Canadian souvenirs, and crossed the highway to the bus stop with Fiona, who said she was sorry we were leaving so soon. But we’d had our fill of “resorts” and wanted some big city life. So on to Skopja we journeyed.

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What I learned one weekend in September

Last month I learned what it feels like to watch your child in pain and be utterly helpless to do anything about it.

I began to understand what parents go through when their children are seriously ill and spend months in and out of hospital, what it is like searching for a doctor who can tell you something… anything that will reassure you that your child will be okay, that your child will stop hurting and smile again.

I learned that friends can be like family. I learned that my cousin, Paula, knows how to turn fear into humour.

Molly visited Montreal from L.A. this month for a friend’s wedding.

On the Saturday the wedding took place she woke up with severe pain. She said it was the worst pain of her life. I could barely steady my hands to call 911. The ambulance drivers arrived and began to question her. She could barely talk so I tried, as I am wont to do, to intervene and answer for her. They were curt with me, telling me she is 27 and can answer for herself. As if this changed the fact that she was my baby and I wanted to explain to them what she was feeling.

The pain started to subside and they told her she could choose to go to the hospital or stay. She decided to stay and soon the pain went down to “1/2” out of ten.

Together we prepared her for the wedding. She looked like a princess in her Betsy Johnson dress, asked me for make up, and together we decided on the necklace and the gold earrings with the tiny rubies, her birthstone, that I had bought her in Greece this summer. I decided to accompany her and her date, Don Patton, a friend of ten years, to the wedding service. We drove her father’s car to pick him up. The wedding was beautiful.

The bride looked beautiful but no woman in that church looked more beautiful than Molly. Yes, I know I am her mother but now I am being perfectly objective.

We left the church and I said good bye trusting Don to take Molly to a hospital should the pain start up again. It did, not 30 minutes after I left them. It was intense and Molly ended up not far from the reception hall where she and Don were heading, the Santa Cabrini Hospital. I had never heard of it before.

I was on the metro going home, when Don called me. I left the metro shaking and got in a cab not knowing how far the hospital was.

After ten minutes of Molly being in great pain, a triage nurse assessed her and calmed me down, saying she had two children and knew what it felt like. I will never forget her kindness. Apart from being able to speak English she calmed me down several times during Molly’s 24-hour stay in Emergency.

The pain subsided and then it got worse. She was on a cot lying in a room, where the average age must have been 70 and no doctor was coming. She started writhing and moaning and I grew desperate, walking over three times to a nurse who was distributing cake among her co-workers, begging for a doctor or something to relieve the pain.

I wanted to change places with Molly. I wanted to believe in a god. I couldn’t imagine how this had happened or why no doctor thought my daughter was more important than people with gun shot wounds or the 87 year old lady, whom we later got to know well, who had fallen and was covered with bruises.

Finally Molly was given morphine and a harried doctor told me he was sending her for blood tests and an X-ray. I was so relieved she was getting something for the pain, I forgot to ask for his pre-diagnosis. I felt myself becoming overwrought and feeling more and more helpless. After another hour I begged a nurse to tell me more. She mentioned the area of the liver and a possible inflammation. When I heard the word liver, I freaked out. After the X-ray and after the two shots of morphine had taken some effect, the doctor returned at 11 pm and told me it might be gall stones or a stomach infection of some kind. He mentioned the word “virus” then too but I could only remember gall stones and liver and started to worry about surgery. He told Molly’s father and me that he was booking an ultra-sound for the next morning to investigate the gall bladder.

We decided to go home at midnight to get some sleep and leave Don to look after Molly till about 1:30 am. We were both exhausted but as soon as I got home my body became wracked with fear and regret that I had left my baby alone in Emergency.

At 7 am we were back with Molly. At 9 am she had the ultrasound. We had to pay cash for it, $180 and by the time we left the hospital that day, we learnt the hospital stay would cost $900. We paid cash $150 for two doctors. This was nothing to me but Molly commented that she marveled at our wonderful health care system and the fact that people pay nothing for all this care while people in the US have no access to healthcare. So much for our complaints about our health care system!

Finally after more hours of helpless waiting and a few jokes, and great relief from cousin Paula, who came to the hospital that morning and regaled us with her anecdotes of the trials of my uncle’s hospital stay (four days in emergency in great pain with no food) and generally lifted our spirits so that the fear in my body lessened to the point where I could laugh. Of course Molly, by this time, was in no pain at all but still connected to an IV.

After another two hours a 30ish doctor who looked like she had stepped out of a fashion magazine, wearing street clothes, appeared by Molly’s cot-side and told us she was betting on a virus because the ultrasound had shown no gall stones, that in fact, the area was clear.

I asked her, how could such pain come from nowhere? It happens, she answered. She gave us medication for the “spasms” should they come again, and told us if they do, we should return to the hospital.

What a scare! What relief! Monday morning as I looked at my beautiful daughter sitting beside me petting the cat, I thanked those who looked after her, my friends who were there for me by phone with kind words and reassurances, my cousin Paula, Don, who held Molly’s hand through the worst of it, Molly’s father who put up with my hysteria, and the doctor who gave us the good news.

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Expensive, enchanting Trieste: first stop on our spontaneous summer adventure

Trieste canal

Our first stop on this summer's adventure was Trieste, Italy at the Northeast top of the Adriatic Sea. Trieste has all the best qualities of Italian cities — accessible on foot, terrific tomatoes, marvelous mozzarella, and fabulous fish that tastes like it just came out of the sea. Then there's the gelate — multi-flavored Italian ice-cream in its various forms — yogurt, sorbet and rich cream — at every corner, which became a serious threat to my diet.

Our hotel, the 2-star Alabarda, was friendly but offered only 30 minutes of free wifi in the room. This seemed rather stingy when we later compared them to other hotels in Albania, Macedonia, and Greece, places we would visit later in the month.

This is the first time we took a laptop to Europe. It fit nicely into our knapsack on wheels and we rarely took it out of the hotel rooms. It was nice to not have to find the local Internet cafe, usually crowded with smelly teens. We had bought a $10 adaptor at Trudeau airport, which simply attaches to the plug and then goes into the wall. A helpful rep at Bureau en Gros told me that more expensive converters are unnecessary for laptops, which already have the ability to run on 110 or 220 volts.

Sunset in Trieste

We arrived on a Saturday and spent most of the day catching up on sleep and walking the streets that run around the Grand Canal. The first afternoon, I walked across the street to the Supermercado and purchased some succulent peaches, nectarines, tomatoes, and cheese, as well as a perfect size orange melon resembling a cantaloup. The next morning we enjoyed a wonderful cafe latte at one of the spots along the canal. Fancy coffees are the only thing cheaper than Montreal, apart from the wine and gelate.

The music in the bars and restaurants is awful — loud and aggressive. We asked one waitress to change it and she happily obliged.

We had three restaurant meals in Trieste (eating the second meal from the supermarket deli counters) and the average bill was 30 euro ($50) including wine and sparkling water. The service was always friendly and accommodating.

Muggia fishing tackle

The hotel gives out a special menu for a restaurant that is two streets away: Risorante Pizzeria O-Scugnizzo. For 20 euro you can have Primi (First Course) pasta, Secondi (Second Course) fish or meat in tiny portions; Contorni (salad or grilled veggies), and Bevanda (Beverage) — either mineral water, ¼ liter wine or beer. We weren't that hungry or willing to splurge yet again so we asked if we could share. We could and did! Irwin had the spaghetti with fresh mussels and clams (both in the shell) and I had the secondi of grilled squid. Restaurant food in Trieste and in Rome, as we were later to discover, is well prepared and fresh but beyond our budget.

On the second day, we visited the port and decided not to take the cruise going to the Greek Islands for one week. We weren't ready to be packed in like the grilled sardines I had for lunch, listening to loudspeakers and unable to stay in a place longer than a few hours. At least that's the impression we had of cruises before we took one two weeks later in Greece.

Instead we boarded a chug-a-lug to Muggia, a half an hour away (6 euro return) and toured a lovely little port town, sampled more gelate and more delicious coffees. You get the picture!

What a beautiful little town. We would have inquired about the apartments for sale at 140,000 Euro if it hadn't been a lazy Sunday.

On the third day in the evening, we boarded a ferry headed for Durres, Albania for a return visit to this budget land of friendly people and hair raising rides along mountain cliffs. Next issue Albania — still the best kept secret in Europe.

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Syros and Athens

From Mykonos, which we found touristy, arrogant, and over-priced, we sailed to what we both now call our favourite island of the cruise -- Syros. It's a small, old-fashioned kind of place. As we walked straight off the ship and onto the port, we noticed many older Greeks sitting all along the homey cafes having coffee or sharing food they had ordered. We immediately felt at home. We bumped into a book shop with an English stand and bought another of Ian McEwen, who we both like, as we have almost run out of novels on this trip. We found a cafe playing soft Greek music and eventually bought a CD of the female singer, whose name I will have to tell you next blog.

We visited the Apollan Theatre, a small replica La Scala in Milan, a cosy site that represents the town, which is on a hill. The streets are so scenic as is the harbour, that I had to click away every few minutes. For lunch we found a women's collective self-serve, run by 28 women from the district. The food definitely tasted like it came straight from their kitchens. I had eggplant stuffed with feta. They do a lot of feta stuffing here.

We took a local bus to the nearest beach, which was clean and reasonably quiet and had a wonderful and relaxing time cooling off. We had Greek coffees, rather like Turkish coffee, played game or two of chess overlooking the beach area and made our way back in a crowded bus to the town, where we reluctantly boarded the ship for our last night on board.

We are now in Athens in an area called Plaka, which has pedestrian streets filled with market-like shops and pricey cafes. We found, with the help of the young woman who manages this internet spot, a reasonably priced Greek restaurant filled with locals. How to describe it? A cross between Shwartz's Deli on St. Laurent, though 10 times the size, and a typical Montreal Greek eatery. There was little for vegetarians. Irwin had an excellent order of Kebab and shared my spicy cheese, hot green grilled chili peppers,and tomato and cucumber salad. The name of the place is Thanassis. It seems to go on for blocks and is very popular. Right next to it is an equally popular but slightly higher priced Bairaktaris, also recommended by our internet manager. We had lunch there today and they had more to offer a vegetarian. We shared a Greek salad, zucchini croquettes, and sweet red peppers, grilled and stuffed with feta. I have to try those when I get home, but will they taste as good?

It's hot, very hot and hard to get away from it. July is definitely not the time to visit Greece. And now, I've left the most important for the end. As soon as our ship docked in Piraeus, we dropped off our bags at our hotel, which we had reserved the day before our cruise departed, the Phidias (50 euro a night for a lovely and spacious double) and made our way, with the same friendly taxi driver to the Acropolis. We wanted to get there before 9 because we had heard it would be teeming with tourists. And it was! Alas, they don't take VISA and we had to walk all around until we found a taxi driver who would change our dollars. US dollars are quite unpopular here. Finally we managed to buy tickets and were soon climbing (and I mean climbing) the steps leading to the Parthenon. It was my third visit. I was 18 the first time, 22, the second time and now, well it's certainly changed. The first time, in 1968, I remember touching those famed columns. Now, you can hardly get close enough to take pictures without heads in your way. It was Irwin's first time and for him it was "dramatic."

We are spending our day in Plaka since it's Sunday and little else is open. It's a lovely place to relax if you don't mind spending over $5-6 for a latte and the same for ice cream. It seems that since the euro has become part of the Greek scene, we Canadians are at a bit of a disadvantage, financially. But all in all, Greece is a place we are growing to love, and we will be back!

We've already decided to book a cruise next summer with Easy Cruise Life and see four or five more islands. What a comfortable, low-key and interesting way to travel!

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Panos and Mykonos

Yesterday we docked in Panos at 2 pm and were told we had to take a "tender" boat to shore as it was windy. Windy my foot! We noticed the more luxurious cruises were right near the dock. The tender filled to capacity and more. It was not in our estimation the safest mode of transportation, especially on the way back to the ship at 10 pm. There were few if any lifejackets, with children and more people sitting on the roof of the boat, but when we complained about the safety, we were told by the cruise director, Anita, that these boats weren't under "their umbrella." Of course they are! What would happen if someone fell off? There would be no way I could last in that water more than 2 minutes!

Panos was lovely. It was small enough to walk around. The houses and streets are blue and white — lots of paint on these islands! We found an Internet cafe but couldn't connect our laptop so we used theirs for free. Just had to purchase expensive drinks! I didn't stop taking pictures of the narrow streets with their colourful doors and balconies. Every twist and turn brought a new photo op. Since we had our lunch on board (we have one meal a day, lunch or dinner plus breakfast included on our half-board plan), we started looking for a restaurant around 7 pm and found one right on the beach, from where we could watch the sun set in style.

We asked for a mixed platter of our Greek favorites, including grilled peppers stuffed with feta and tarmosalata. I was the one stuffed by the end of it, and then I made the mistake of ordering "little fishies" — grilled sardines — and could finish only half. Oh well! The thin kittens had a great time delicately eating whole fish! During dinner we met a single male high school history teacher from Calgary, very charming. Forgot to mention we also had a nice swim at a public beach with bamboo umbrellas. A bit dirty but okay for Irwin!

Today we are in Mykonos! What a difference! Made pricey and crowded by the "rich people who live here," we've spent the day wandering the picturesque streets looking for Internet cafes such as this one in which we can cool off. The heat is getting to me. We Canadians aren't used to the sun being so strong, even now at 5 pm! In these cafes we use their laptops (ours doesn't seem to work on these two islands) and pay big prices for small non-alcoholic drinks. But it all works out in the end.

Tomorrow is our last island: Syros. Then on Saturday, it's back to Athens. Don't be surprised, dear readers, if you see one of the photos I've been taking on the cover of our August issue! We must confess that we didn't take the 47 euro tour to Delos today to see the home of Apollo! We're just not up to the heat and having to do anything in a group.

And now we're off to the city beach for a short swim before finding our shuttle bus to the new port and climbing aboard our tender to take us back to our ship.

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Kos

We are now in Kos, a Greek Island only two hours from Bodrum, Turkey, where we spent yesterday. Bodrum was touristy but it was a joy to be back in Turkey, which we visited four years ago. Prices have definitely shot up but we enjoy the people and the ambiance. There's a huge market there, a small Grand Bazaar (which exists in Istanbul). We had a fish lunch by the sea and strolled along the busy streets looking for a "bathing suit" since I'd unwittingly left mine in the cabin, thinking I'd spend the entire day touring around. It turns out that many of the restaurants and bars offer free swims, complete with deck and lounge cars and umbrellas, in exchange for a pricey drink or coffee at $5. We had to shop for a change of clothes and buy a bathing suit for Irwin, but in the end we managed to climb into the cool and refreshing water and have a short swim.

Our ship left at 8 am this morning and less than two hours later, we were strolling along the port of Kos, an island that suffered an earthquake in 1913. There is still a castle here that looks something like the one in Bodrum which we are not ashamed to say we missed. We are into "hanging" not touring more castles. The temperature yesterday was over 40 degrees and today it reached 38. So sunblock is essential. Still the heat takes it toll. We are not young anymore and there's only so much walking in the heat we can stand. Irwin is now falling asleep in his car at this lovely wireless cafe so we must make our way back to the shop and look forward to dinner, which tonight is "sole." We hope it has more soul than the past meals on our half-board plan, which have been underwhelming. If we have any energy we will return after dinner and check out the action.

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Kalymnos Island

We arrived in Piraeus very late after a comfortable train ride and made our way by taxi to our hotel, sharing the ride with a young geologist who lives near the city. The taxi driver tried to charge us for two trips and after a long argument, he left angry with a nice tip for one trip.

Our room was underwhelming, especially for 89 euro, a measly breakfast included. The next morning we walked around the picturesque yacht bay and thought we would try to find a more reasonably-priced hotel for our return July 26 (from our cruise). Happily we found and booked a nicer hotel, better situated, for 55 euro, which will be our base for visiting Athens and the Acropolis when we return.

Our hotel manager told us we could walk to the port. Unfortunately it took an hour and by the time we arrived, I was a wreck! Irwin was fine. We discovered that our cabin had a window, a substantial upgrade from our booking of an inside cabin. It’s actually meant for four people so it’s quite spacious.

We have since learned that we probably paid more than we should have because we didn’t need the meals and we booked at the last minute, probably paying a hidden agency fee. Other cruisers told us that they got good deals by reserving early online. Still we feel content. And we’ll know for next time.

Today we docked at Kalymnos Island, which is approximately 100 kilometers square. The island is so beautiful that I cried when I disembarked and saw the terraced pastel houses built on the mountainside. Future paintings?

We had a mediocre lunch, quite pricey, in a portside resto, but we got good advice from the British retiree who served us and suggested taking a bus to the other side of the island to a beach town called Misouri. The water was clean, calm and cool — a pleasure to swim in. And though there were many hundreds of Sunday swimmers, it didn’t feel crowded in the water. The town is simply exquisite. How nice it would be to spend six months there writing a novel. Getting the bus back was an adventure. We waited over an hour and finally it came and was packed all the way back to Pothia, the main town where the ships dock.

Tomorrow — Bodrum, Turkey. One of the nicest surprises is that our cruise ship leaves in the wee hours so we lose no time on land — exploring and enjoying the scene.

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Thessaloniki

A walking bridge connecting to the new city of Skopja to the Old Town

We spent our last night in Skopje trying to get some sleep so we could get up at 3:15 am to be picked up in our mini bus to Thessaloniki. Our driver arrived on time and picked up a very interesting man and a student who had just finished her university exams. He was a guide who supplements his income importing used cars from Germany to support his son in Santa Monica. He told us about the conflict between Macedonia and Greece, which is not only jealous of the name used by “non-Greeks” but also, according to him, wary of future territorial demands on the fertile northern part of Greece, from which thousands of Macedonians were expelled, their property confiscated, ostensibly because they were part of the Communist rebellion, put down with the help of the British after World War II.

We arrived in Thessaloniki at 6 am our time, 7 am theirs and looked for coffee while waiting for the travel agencies along the port to open. At 8:50, one did. Early bird Christina Jeirani of Overseas Travel greeted us with a sleepy smile and began to process our desires, travelwise. We’ve decided that we’d loosen the purse strings and try our first cruise, yes, you heard it here first, cruise!

Christina found a 7-day island hop including Bodrum, Turkey and Mykonos for 500 euro with half board. We breathed a sigh of relief at the price and accepted. Not so easy! Cruises don’t leave from here! We have to go to Athens, Piraeus (the port). So after finding our hotel, booked by Overseas, and called Mandrino (65 euro), we took a bus three or four stops to the railway station to be informed that the only seats available were on the express leaving the next day at 7 pm for 48 euro each! Okay, we said, rather hefty but what choice did we have! We then went back to the tourist office and said “Get us a hotel near Piraeus please,” which Christina did for a hefty 89 euro! But better safe than sorry in Athens at 11:30 pm, right?

We then asked her for an interesting restaurant since we hadn’t eaten for 24 hours! She, after giggling with her friends, sent us to Oysoy Meaaoopon in Greek, or Ouzo Medathron. Everyone knows it and the reason is that the food is exquisite. It’s in a fun courtyard full of hungry, happy Greeks, downing mussels in every imaginable way, sardines – not the canned variety, anchovies – the real thing, and various meats and truly marvelous Greek, yes Greek salad. They top it all off with ice cream and strawberry or chocolate syrup on a bed of Baklava strings sprinkled with honey and Espresso for — nothing! Well, says Irwin, the ice cream and Espresso are complimentary! What a joyful experience especially if you get shpritzed with the mist connected to a fan.

This morning we waited for the Jewish museum to open and when it did we spent an hour and a half marveling at the growth of this wonderful community of up to 70,000 Jews, who first settled here as Roman slaves, augmented later by Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and other points across Europe. It was a thriving vibrant community with over 20 newspapers in Spanish and Ladino, full of scholarship, schools, over 30 synagogues, hospitals, senior homes, libraries, and orphanages until the Nazis brutally and systematically destroyed all but a few, transporting them to Auschwitz after destroying the cemetery and humiliating and tormenting the men of the community. We saw the deportation order telling the people there would be food waiting for them and to pack all their jewellery and valuables. The museum has a small library and bookstore, and many publications about the community now and then are given out.

In three hours we will be leaving on our train for Athens. Tomorrow at 2 pm we will board our ship. This is one town we would like to see more of. We’ll be back!

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Crossing the Macedonian border

We took a taxi from Pogradeci to the Macedonian border (5 km), said goodbye to Albania and walked the 100 meters to the border police. We showed our passports and they welcomed us, telling us in sign language to walk ahead, either 30 or 300 meters (I’m not sure which) and that there would be taxis to the town called Ohrid, pronounced Okrid, on the other side of the lake that Albania and Macedonia share. We walked and walked and walked. No sidewalks. No cars. No buses. Just a two lane highway. I told Irwin I wanted to go back. He said “I don’t go back. It’s uphill.” I was worried. Here we were in the middle of nowhere with our two knapsacks on wheels, our money, and our baby laptop. After about 30 minutes, a red car came up behind us. We put out our arms. Were we actually going to hitchhike?

The gentleman stopped and we asked for a ride to Ohrid, not knowing how far it was. He invited us in, threw our bags in the back and started to drive, and drive and drive. He spoke no English but we managed to convey that we were Canadians. He called his wife on his cell and she told us in perfect English that he would gladly drive us to the bus station to get the bus for Skopja, the capital city.

Ohrid is a touristy, more sophisticated version of Pogradeci. We stopped at a large bus station, where he insisted on purchasing the tickets in Denar. We returned the amount in euro later. Then he motioned for us to get back in the car. What did he mean by this, we asked, but by this time he felt like a long-lost cousin so we climbed in knowing our bus would leave from the station in half an hour. He drove faster now, obviously heading for somewhere. Suddenly, after 10 minutes he stopped abruptly and turned in to a ground floor apartment with a small porch. He was taking us home — and we would meet the bus across the road on its way to Skopja.

His wife Fiona was lovely and so were her two children, Victoria and Michael. Victoria and her cousin were playing with their new kitten. We posed them for pictures, and sampled some of Victoria’s homemade blueberry juice and coffee. Then we hugged the entire family, especially our saviour and his mother, who had so graciously welcomed us to Macedonia, and made our way to the bus with Fiona.

The bus was hot and stuffy but we finished our books and four hours later were walking away from the bus station looking for a hotel. Finally we found one for 35 euro, 5 extra for necessary air conditioning, across from the Greek Embassy, about a 15 minute walk to the great square in the centre of this somewhat eclectic city of 700,000. Our room is tiny but we feel safe across from the embassy manned by a burly policeman at all times.

This morning we walked in all directions looking for the elusive post office, hidden in a circular building that looked like the inside of a flower. Inside after much negotiation we decided to only send home the heavy books for the special rate of 5 euro rather than the books and t-shirts for 40 euro! We headed out towards a medieval fortress across the bridge and inside we found the Old City. Its narrow stone streets, somewhat resembling the Old City of Jerusalem, including the fortress, beckoned to our yearnings for small old-fashioned boutiques and cafes, and lo and behold, we stumbled upon the Honourary Consulate for the State of Israel. We rang and were immediately let in and introduced to the assistant to the Honourary Consul, his son, who greeted us warmly and served us coffee. We talked about the history of Macedonian Jewry. He told us 7,148 or 98% were deported during the Holocaust, all to Treblinka. Only 200 are left here in Skopja, some having emigrated to Israel.

We were invited to visit the foundations of the new Holocaust Memorial Center of the Jews from Macedonia. Inside the new building that is the Foundation for the Center, we met Victoria who runs the day-to-day operations. Victoria spent three years in Israel with her family ten years ago but they returned, fearing “the wars.” We spoke Hebrew and she then showed us a few restaurants below her building that we could choose for lunch. Alas she wasn’t allowed to accompany us but we will be meeting her this evening with her boyfriend.

Our lunch of kebab, yogurt soup, Greek salad and roasted peppers, and Macedonia Riesling was a treat, but we are not ready for much more than a nap right now. Tomorrow we visit the Jewish community centre one minute from our hotel.

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Pogradeci

As promised, our congenial host at the Parlimenti Hotel drove us in his slightly worn Mercedes-Benz (almost everybody drives a Mercedes in Albania) to the lot where mini-buses were waiting for passengers to drive to Pogradeci. The cost for the almost four-hour trip was $14 each. We started on a reasonably good road but suddenly the driver made a U-turn and drove back to where we started and ended up on a rocky unpaved track through some construction area that seemed to go on forever. We never found out what the detour was for.

Once we got back on a paved road, the trip was uneventful, if hot, until we climbed up several mountain ranges — and for the queasy, it was harrowing, since the road was narrow and the cliffs steep and potentially deadly. We stopped more than halfway (after 2 hours) at a “café” where the owner tried to stiff us 10 Euro for two pieces of cheese and a simple salad. We eventually settled on 500 lek ($6) which according to us included a hefty tip.

We thought we would stay at the Lunhidas Hotel, a “tourist centre” with a swimming pool. We noticed the lake was crystal clear, but it was too far from the centre of town, and we always stay in the centre of town. Our driver dropped us off at the first place on the hotel strip bordering the lake (Lake Orhid). We like the looks of the hotel, named Enkelana, and especially the price ($34 CDN with breakfast) for a modern room with a balcony overlooking the lake, TV and a bathroom. The bed however could use a few less metal rods.

We strolled along the boardwalk and decided to rent a paddleboat ($2.60 CDN) for an hour. The odour of excrement was too strong to go swimming near the shore. We paddled out toward the middle of the lake, where the water looked clearer, and Irwin jumped in. One of four sturdy lads in a neighbouring paddle boat, hearing us conversing in English, begged to interrupt. A conversation ensued and continued after the two lads boosted Irwin onto the boat. Irwin’s current physical condition, being what it is, (chess, jazz, wine, pizza) made it impossible to do it on his own.

After inviting the lads for coffee on the boardwalk, the English-speaking one told us a bit about Albanian youth and his own difficult circumstances. He is the son of poor farmers from this area and is completing a compulsory year in the army, which he hates. He won’t go to Afghanistan or Iraq because the $10,000 for six months service is insufficient compensation for having to kill and risk being killed. He complained that the senior officers won’t even talk to him and the class system in the army prevents him from getting recognition and training. He told us that the university system here is corrupt and that one can buy grades for money. He has no hope of going to university because of lack of funds, even though he is bright and articulate. The boys are embarrassed by the condition of the lake and told us that when the dictator Enver Hoxha lived here in the summers, polluters risked severe punishment. Our lad would like to get out of Albania but he has no marketable skills.

We stayed at our hotel for dinner where we were the only couple on the second floor overlooking the lake and it was charming. We chatted for a few minutes with the daughter of the waitress, a graduate in psychology who can’t find a job in her field because “Albanians don’t recognize the need for psychologists yet.”

Irwin ordered steak with garnishes and we shared three or four salads, a fish soup, a glass of Macedonian wine, and Fanta — the bill coming to $23. We strolled on the main street, bought a small watermelon and ate it in our hotel room, keeping the balcony door open all night for the breeze.

The music continued well into the night, taken over sometime in the early morning by the howling of dogs, followed by the call of the Muezzin, summoning the faithful to morning prayer.

So far today (Sunday), we've sat outside here on the terrace — with a “borrowed” Internet password (top secret) that the waiters will not divulge but will gladly punch in — reading and soaking up the breeze by the lake, and gone out to buy cookies for two withered ladies sitting on the street across from the hotel and a stash of croissants for the gypsy children who beg at our table intermittently.

Tomorrow we plan to take a minibus to the Macedonian side of the lake and make our way from there to Skopje.

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In love with Tirana

On our way to Albania

Today we arrived in Tirana, Albania. Our ferry from Trieste was no cruise, but it was a pleasant 24 hour trip.

We met a German Jewish journalist-photographer off to an assignment in Kosovo. His editor had asked him to do a travel book on Kosovo! We also met a young couple from Vienna traveling to Albania to see her family. Luckily, her brother was picking them up and we were offered a ride to Tirana from Dures, where the ferries dock. A bus ride would have taken 2 hours or so, for what is a 30 minute trip.

Our new friend's brother Gazi insisted on taking us out for coffee and found us an affordable and centrally-located hotel for 35 Euro. Our room is huge compared to the one in Italy and down the hall we have a bathroom bigger than our own at home.

Reflective Muggia

We're still hoping we have Wifi here. The owner’s son assured us we did before he left for parts unknown. His mom doesn’t seem to know a thing about it. If not, there are Internet cafes every three minutes.

Gazi recommended a fish restaurant that we tried for a 4 pm lunch. It was fabulous! We had two whole fish, grilled, two Greek salads and one mixed salad. With fries and toast, and complimentary watermelon for dessert, the bill came to about $30. We finished the afternoon with a stroll around our area, which includes a food market and many many gold and silver shops.

A gorgeous twin view along the canal

We’re in love with Tirana already. We haven’t heard English yet except from the waiters and shopkeepers. Everyone is helpful and polite, except perhaps the boys who greeted us in our hotel and asked for money twice, not giving us a receipt until we insisted. At that point we got a handwritten note with the name and address of the hotel. The mother of course asked if we had paid when we returned. We hope the son hasn’t run off with our money to one of the casinos we saw not far from here.

If we do have Wifi, we’re bedding down in this town for a while!

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First post from Trieste

Our first stop on this summer’s adventure is Trieste, Italy at the Northeast point of the Adriatic Sea. Trieste has all the best qualities of Italian cities — accessible on foot, the best tomatoes in the world, marvelous mozzarella, fabulous fish and seafood that tastes like it came out of the sea yesterday. Then there’s the gelate (multi-flavoured Italian ice cream in its various forms — yogurt, sorbet and rich cream) at every corner.

Our hotel, Alabarda, two star, is friendly and has 30 minutes of free Wifi from the room. This is the first time we've taken a laptop. It’s nice to not have to find the local Internet café, which is usually smelly and crowded with teens. We bought a $10 adaptor, which simply attaches to the plug, which then goes into the wall. I found out from a nice man at Bureau en Gros that more expensive converters are unnecessary for laptops, which already have the ability to run on 110 or 220 volts.

We arrived on a Saturday and spent most of the day catching up on sleep and walking the streets that run around the Grand Canal. We’ve had three meals so far and the average bill is about 30 Euro for two including one entrée, ¼ liter of wine and sparkling water. The service is always friendly and accommodating.

The first afternoon, I walked across the street to the Supermercado and purchased some succulent peaches, nectarines, tomatoes, and cheese, as well as a perfectly-sized orange melon resembling a cantaloupe but tasting like the real thing. This morning we enjoyed a wonderful café latte at one of the spots on the canal. Fancy coffees are the only thing cheaper than in Montreal, apart from the wine and the gelate.

The music in the bars and restaurants is awful — loud and aggressive. We asked the waitress tonight to change it and she happily obliged.

The hotel gives out a special menu for this restaurant, two streets away (Ristorante Pizzeria O-Scugnizzo). For 20 Euro you get Primi (first course) which is pasta, Secondi (second course) which is fish, Contorni (salad or grilled veggies), and Bevanda (beverage) — either mineral water or ¼ liter of wine or beer. We weren’t that hungry or willing to splurge yet again so we asked if we could share. We could and did! Irwin had the spaghetti with fresh mussels and clams (in the shell too) and I had the Secondi of grilled squid. After three meals here, one could say the food is exquisitely prepared and fresh. So fresh! The olive oil is better than anything I’ve tasted in Montreal.

Today we visited the port and decided not to take the cruise going to the Greek Islands for one week. Why be packed in like the grilled sardines I had for lunch listening to loudspeakers and unable to stay in a place longer than a few hours? For a minute I wanted to try it just once. But Irwin quickly nixed the idea and instead we boarded a chug-a-lug boat to Muggia, a half-hour away (6 Euro return) and toured a lovely little port town, ate more gelate and had more delicious coffees. You get the picture!

What a beautiful little town! We would have inquired about the apartments for sale at 140,000 Euro if it hadn’t been a Sunday.

Now that we’re back in Italy, we remember why it’s one of our favorite countries in the world!

Tomorrow we want to look into ferries going to Croatia. Our intention this time is not to miss Sarajevo. If we can, we’ll take a ferry to Zadar on the coast of Croatia, and then move on to Split and maybe the island of Hvar before making our way to Sarajevo by bus or train! We like not knowing exactly where we’re going. The cruise wouldn’t have been our cup of coffee!

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My Vegas: 30 years of memories and Elton

Elton John singing Candle in the Wind at this 200th concert in Vegas

Most people I know who haven’t been to Vegas have little desire to experience it. They have no connection to the place. They see it as crass and glitzy.

But for me, Vegas means a lot. It holds 30 years of memories — of family, love and loss.

My first time was with the father of my daughters just before we married in 1975. I was smitten — with Vegas.

We never left the Tropicana: the food was free or close to it, the orange juice freshly squeezed, the lox abundant and succulent. It was my first encounter with the starry glitter and tinkle of the slots. Not that I’m a gambler, but I’ve always liked the nickel machines.

My mother lived in Vegas for ten years. She moved there to be closer to Paul Anka. Once at a show we saw together, he asked her to dance, recognizing her from her many fan letters. She still has his autographed pictures on her walls: “To Eva, Love Paul.”

On the Strip: Flamingo Hotel bathers

On my visits during those years, Mom and I would sit for hours in the piano bar at one of the Strip’s cheaper hotels and watch Angelo, the singer-piano man, belt out our requests — hers being Nat King Cole and Paul, and mine, Elton John.

My sister Melanie moved to Vegas to live with my mother. Melanie had a tough life and in Vegas she felt like a somebody. She loved the Strip, the slots, the lights, the free drinks, the buffets, the music — and most of all, Neil Diamond.

Melanie died in Vegas in December 2000. She was 48. Her funeral was in a room at her favorite hotel, the famous Golden Nugget.

I remember walking along the Strip the day of the funeral, having come from Melanie’s apartment carrying our grandmother Molly’s wine glasses wrapped in our grandmother Laura’s embroidered tablecloth.

Melanie had no children, just a dog. I remember taking her aging Pekinese to have him put to sleep. She would have hated me for that, but I just couldn’t take him on.

On this trip, I see Melanie everywhere.

I’ve come to Vegas to visit my daughters and accompany my husband on business. I am staying at the Hilton Star Trek, just off the Strip. Gone are the days when you could stay at the Aladdin or the Hilton Flamingo for $17 a night. These rooms cost $160. Alas, the laid back Aladdin was blown up to make room for a glitzier hotel, which is the fate of most Vegas hotels.

The slots have changed. Now you slide your bills in and if you win, the coins don’t come pouring out. I miss that sound. Now it’s a fake jingling and you get a slip you can exchange in another machine. The drinks at the slots are still free and are they ever strong! They still do everything to get you to gamble.

There are no bookstores in sight. And I’m the only one this morning at the Hilton Buffet with a laptop. People are looking at me like I’m weird.

The buffets are still good and plentiful, but prices are up. Today’s brunch is $14. It’s a better deal than the restaurants; the fresh fruit grown in California, just two hours away, is divine.

They now have penny slots in every hotel but the thing is you have to bet at least 25 cents if you’re going to win more than a few pennies. I still love to watch the high rollers bet $25,000 a shot. But I don’t dare try my hand at Black Jack anymore.

Now for my jackpot! Amy, Molly and I took in the Elton John show at Caesars. Tickets start at $100 and peak at $250. We opted for $115 in the first row of the second balcony. We all agreed the concert was the best we had ever seen. I cried every second song, seeing 40 years of my life and Elton’s career pass before me in a flash, watching the big screen images of the sixties, reveling in the memories and the present. Holding my daughters’ hands and swaying back and forth, we waved the black and red boas we had been given in the lobby to celebrate Elton’s 200th concert in Vegas.

What a show! The stage was an ever-evolving magical place with massive inflated breasts, red roses, a lipstick and other overtly playful phallic parts. I was thrown back to the days when sex was less serious and more innocent. I cried during Candle in the Wind, Rocket Man, and most of all, when he sang his finale — Your Song, in honour of his two bodyguards who had just tied the knot in California! I laughed when he lovingly referred to Celine Dion as “that skinny bitch” who never has to worry about her weight as he does.

Amy, Mom, and Molly in our boas after the concert, taken from Amy's iPhone

He looked just lovely to me in his longish appliquéd jacket and the glasses, more muted than I remember – the whole Elton aging gracefully into a less raucous show-off, his virtuoso piano playing more beautiful than ever, his voice strong and robust, having lost none of its sexy, smooth tone. My girls and I knew all the words, sometimes singing along. This is the sign of a star — to last more than two generations.

Molly and I walked over to the Riviera in the heat and were blessed with a stunning rendition of Your Song by a house crooner, the talented and friendly Mark.

To cap off our stay, we saw Menopause — the Musical, a zany slapstick look at “the change” through the eyes of four icons of “our age” — the professional woman, the fading soap star, the Earth Mother, and the Iowa housewife. The songs are takeoffs of tunes from the 60s and 70s, with themes ranging from the ever-present hot flashes to ever-present need for food to the ever-present need for sex from hubby. The best performance of the show was a very risqué dance rendition of My Guy sung to a huge red vibrator. (I just can’t bring myself to use the D-word).

All of us who have gone through the change were invited onstage to do an aging can-can and receive buttons: I’ve changed.

I don’t have much change left as I leave this town. If you go to Vegas, I recommend staying on the Strip. You can take the monorail (at $11 a day) to get around but you’ll still have some walking to do. It’s much more expensive, more crowded, less accessible, and you get a lot less “bang for your buck.”

Vegas has changed — a lot since 1975! Little is free in this town. It’s not the easygoing place I fell in love with 30 years ago. Yet, all in all it was a slice. Thanks Elton for playing my songs!

So, everyone, get off your high horses and live a little. You won’t find high culture here, but it’s a breath of not-so-fresh air in the city that never sleeps.

Elton John plays the Champlain Valley Fair in Vermont July 21.

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The physical stuff, the kids, and relationships at 64… or is it 66?

Talking to Susan Freedman is like talking to an old friend. The last time we spoke was just before the Montreal Fringe five years ago. At the time we spoke about her second play Sixty With More Lies About My Weight, titled after her first play in 1999 entitled Fifty-Seven and Still Lying About My Weight. Now she’s back with less of a vengeance in her third installment, Sixty Four and No More Lies, and as she put it on the phone from her home in Vancouver, she’s “a bit more thoughtful and vulnerable.”

“After my other shows, people would say, ‘she has no problems,’ but after this one, they’re going to say, ‘she has problems.’”

Freedman has just turned 66 but kept the title because she wrote the play two years ago.

Although we are seven years apart, Susan and I share the same worries. “Physical problems are definitely a part of aging – and a part of the show,” she said. And then, there are “the kids” (actually in their 30s) and how they talk to us and “react” to everything – or over-react.

“They can only act like kids with us,” Freedman says. “They do it when they’re 30 or 35 because, in lots of cases, they’re still single and at their age, we were probably married and had a kid. This generation is very different.

“You can’t say a goddamn thing because everything you say is wrong,” she says. “If you say things that upset them, they respond, and everything you say upsets them.”

In her third 45-minute one-woman show coming to the Fringe this June, Freedman will “ruminate on life” in the context of feeling chest pains.

After blood work and X-rays, being angry at her husband and kids about not being there for her, and rationalizing about how the pain must be from something she did at the gym, her character reminisces about her life and makes “strong references to the rocks in the path.”

What does this theatrical expert on aging say about other relationships such as marriage?

“I’m an incorrigible optimist,” she says. “I’ve been married three times. You realize it’s about letting things go. Not reacting to everything.”

Like our kids do.

Sixty Four and No More Lies is at the Fringe June 13 to 22 at Geordie Space, 4001 Berri. Tickets are $9.

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It's all in the bag at the Fringe

Three old bags (photo: Robert Ménard)

What is there about bags and ladies, especially old ladies, that go together? Three women “of a certain age” explore this theme in their play Three Old Bags, playing at the Fringe Festival this month.

“We all knew each other and we wanted to do something together,” said Gissa Israel, one of the three actors/writers, from her home in Knowlton. Israel and her contemporaries, Pina Macku and Emma Stevens, all in their 60s, performed the play at Theatre Lac-Brome last summer. The characters they play are in their 80s. Could this be because these actors don’t see themselves as “old bags?” Only the director, Mary Harvey, is a “young bag,” Israel said.

“We carry our life in our bags,” Israel said of the double-entendre theme, which includes the notion of bag ladies. But Israel doesn’t see the connotations as negative.

The message is hopeful, she said. “These three characters never give up. Each one has a situation in their lives that would make her want to give up.

“The hope is that there’s a renewed interest in life. It’s about renewal and it’s about friendship.”

Bring your bags to the performances Saturday, June 14 to Sunday, June 22. For the full performance schedule call 514-849-FEST or visit montrealfringe.ca.

Three Old Bags will also be “in the bag” at Piggery Theatre from Wednesday, July 2 to Thursday, August 14. To reserve call 819-842-2431.

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Victoriaville festival celebrates 25th

Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell (photo: FIMAV)

Every year, the town of Victoriaville, once famous for producing hockey sticks, draws hundreds from across North America for a five-day festival that celebrates Musique Actuelle.

Musicians also flock there, eager to participate in what is considered a premiere showcase for music that pushes the conventional envelope beyond accepted norms of harmony, melody and rhythm.

No, you will not hear Norah Jones or Paul Anka at this 25th Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, which gets underway May 15 in the town, halfway between Drummondville and Quebec City.

What you will get is a broad range of music that can be classed as musique actuelle, a term invented to embrace creative music that ranges from free jazz and improvised music to electronica, Noise, vocals, alternative rock – even a group or two that could be classified as folk.

The variety is astounding, considered without equal in its scope and the level of the musicians.

This year’s lineup was conceived as a retrospective and includes some stellar performers who have given Victo its reputation.

The regulars who attend include a Calgary physician, a McGill University mathematician who develops models in the Faculty of Medicine, and a saxophone player from Niagara Falls, NY. Part of the fun is walking from one venue to the next, chatting about the highlights – and lowlights.

There are plenty of fine concerts to choose from among the 23 shows. Visitors can always choose a combination that can be included in a package. For $99 a person, you can see two concerts, plus a night in the Hotel Villegia, double occupancy with breakfast the next morning. A range of accommodations includes camping.

The festival opens Thursday, May 15 with pioneering Montreal-based saxophonist/composer Jean Derome and a dozen of the city's best-known improv musicians with two pieces, including a tribute to Victo.

Fans will welcome the return of saxophonist John Zorn, who rose to prominence with his virtuosity and unique combination of Jewish-sounding themes and avant-garde harmonics. Zorn leads a sextet at 10pm in his “The Dreamers” project, recorded this fall on his Tzadik label, with guitarist Marc Ribot, drummer Joey Baron and Kenny Wollesen on vibraphone, and percussionist Cyro Baptista.

Zorn plays again Friday at 10pm, blowing that battered horn and leading his hard-edged Moonchild project, featuring experimental rock vocalist and guitarist Mike Patton.

Two other shows earlier Friday should be fascinating: Montreal guitarist Tim Brady presents three works for electric guitar, digital processing and tape at 1pm, accompanied by video, and then a “double quartet” tribute to the great Dmitri Shostakovich.

Then at 8pm, improvising electric guitarist Fred Frith premiers his Cosa Brava ensemble featuring violinist Carla Kihlstedt, accordion player Zeena Parkins, and drummer Matthias Bossi. Oh, they all sing. Skipping to Sunday, Shanghai-born Xu Fengzia returns for a 5pm gig with her zither-like guzheng, accompanied by German violinist Gunda Gottschalk.

Jazz fans will not want to miss two exciting shows Sunday. Saxophonist/pocket trumpeter Joe McPhee leads a quartet of European musicians at 8pm.

Roscoe Mitchell, a founder of Chicago’s ground- breaking Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, plays at 10pm with a double quartet that includes such exceptional performers as pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Corey Wilkes.

Electric guitarist René Lussier kicks off Monday's triple bill, with turntablists Martin Tetreault and Otomo Yoshihide, who may also play guitar.

You may not like it all, but there is a lot of choice.

For the full lineup, ticket and accommodation information, go to fimav.qc.ca.

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Bialystock, a sad town in Poland

From Vilnius we moved on by train to Bialystock. We were on our way to Budapest, where we had a plane to catch for Israel. We planned to go back through Warsaw and take a train from Warsaw to Budapest. Then we would spend two weeks in Israel. We decided Bialystock would be a good place to spend a day or two. We had grown up hearing the name although we had no family roots there. We were interested in seeing another Polish town, one where many Jews had once lived and flourished.

Bialystock is a town that looks like the heart has been cut out of it. It's pleasant enough. There are cafés and a modern hotel right in the middle of town. There are pretty streets and people living out their lives in peace, but the town is too quiet, too calm.

Seventy thousand Jews lived in Bialystock before the Holocaust. There was a town square where they traded, whole neighbourhoods where they lived, a fish market, a massive synagogue. Now there is a lot of empty space.

We took a tour with young lady who knows all about the Jews who once lived here. She is not Jewish but she is interested in how our people lived and died in this town. She and her friends do their best to look after the cemetery which is on the outskirts of town. There is hardly a gravestone that has not been desecrated. We walk through the shambles, the tombs stretching out in their jagged shapes as far as the eye can see. She tells us that the "neighbours" have stolen as many grave stones as they could carry to be used as foundations for the apartments they have built in the area surrounding the cemetery.

The children of these Jews, buried on these grounds, cannot look after their graves. They are the victims of the Nazis and they have no graves. She takes us to the site of the synagogue. On one night, the Nazis forced 2,000 Jews into this synagogue. Then, they set fire to it. They tried to climb out of the windows. They were pushed back in. Men, women, and children, burned alive.

We stood on the site of this synagogue. It is in an apartment complex. There are gardens for children to play. There is a twisted structure, a memorial to the 2,000 who perished here where we are standing. How can we be standing here so peacefully? Where are the ashes? Where are the graves? The memorial has some graffiti on it. No different from Vilnius, we think.

It's hard to know what to feel.

We walk along the main street. In one of the windows of a tourist shop we see paintings of Chassidic men counting money by candlelight. Men wearing prayer shawls counting gold coins. I enter the shop. I ask the man behind the counter if he understands what he is selling. "You Jews caused us trouble for hundreds of years. What do you want from us now?" I leave the store. I am angry, can't speak, don't know what to say, what to feel, what to think, except: They still hate us. We're gone from this place, we're all dead here. What or whom do they hate?

We walk through streets of wooden houses. She tells us these were once the houses of Jews. They are to be torn down to make way for a new shopping centre. This was the site of the fish market.

Bialystock is a sad place. There is a heaviness here. It is everywhere.

We have a quiet dinner at the hotel. We try to pretend we are tourists. But what we have seen is never far from our minds.

Why have we come? We have come to bear witness to the dead, to those souls who died in that torched synagogue. But we will not go back to Poland. It is enough. It is too much.

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My family in Havana

I have kept a secret from many of you for the past three years — I have another family. They are in Havana, Cuba, and I have just returned from my 5th visit with them.

Almost hidden from view on a narrow street in Old Havana at Acosta and Picota streets is the Adath Israel Synagogue, an Orthodox Jewish community. Most Jewish visitors to Havana do not realize that there are actually three synagogues housing three distinct Jewish communities in Havana, representing the Conservative, Sephardic and Orthodox branches of Judaism.

The main Jewish community centre, housed in the Conservative synagogue in Vedado, serves the largest community. It includes a Sunday School and its leaders are responsible for youth programs, and arranging exit visas for Cuban Jews wishing to emigrate to Israel or take trips to Israel such as March of the Living, sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee. They are also well connected with Jewish communities in the US and Canada, in particular the Canadian Jewish Congress.

My favorite community is the Adath Israel, or as it is known in Spanish, the Communidad Relgiosa Hebrea Adath Israel de Cuba. Yakov and Yamilet, a young married couple who are leaders of the community — Yakov refers to himself on documents as the treasurer, shohet (ritual slaughterer of Kosher meat) and cantor — have always welcomed me as family and allowed me to distribute much-needed cash donations and clothing, toiletries, and toys directly to their members. This way I know exactly who is receiving what I have brought. Over the times I have visited, I've learned shoe size and special needs for clothing and medication. Each time I visit, I try to improve the way I give out what I have brought. This time, I contributed $100 towards a Purim Party (Purim is a Jewish holiday celebrated in March) and with Yamilet's help, prepared 150-200 gift bags, each with a piece of clothing or underwear or toiletries for more than 60 children.

In the past I have collected cash from my friends here and given it out to people hand to hand along with clothing and toys. This time, I concentrated on clothing and toys.

The community is also a meeting place for Jewish seniors who eat breakfast at the synagogue as well as a snack in the evening after services. One day I bought ice cream for everyone at the evening services. It cost me $24 to serve a big portion of strawberry or chocolate ice cream to over 60 people — a good investment in bonding!

Speaking of bonding, while we in North American Jewish communities suffer from assimilation through intermarriage, Cubans who marry Jews are converting to Judaism in record numbers and enjoying the feeling that a close-knit community brings for their chidren and their extended families. So when you help "a Jew" in Cuba, you are helping many others who are not Jewish. With the Jewish population of Cuba at 900, it's difficult not to intermarry!

The average monthly salary in Cuba is approximately $12, and for pensioners it is closer to $8. From this, people are expected to pay 50 cents for a bar of soap,  $1.20 for toothpaste, $3 for shampoo, and for clothes, the prices are very similar to Canada. So you can imagine how much my friends appreciate a new piece of clothing, a toy, a bar of soap, shampoo, or a piece of costume jewellery.

Since 1990, Jews have been allowed to practice their faith and their culture openly and freely. They do so with a joy and enthusiasm that I have never seen in countries where Jews have always had this right. Holidays are celebrated with passion and pride. On Purim, as is the custom, the children of the congregation dressed up in costume and were treated to a clown and puppet show. These are almost ordinary occurrences for our children and grandchildren, but to see the rapturous looks on the faces of these children is to understand how much this community means to them.

My friends have asked me why I go back so often. Perhaps if you look at my pictures, you will understand. Or perhaps you will have to see for yourself. The next time you're planning a trip to Varadero, change your plans to Havana. It's a city full of culture and beauty. Here you will meet real people and begin to understand how they live. Try to bring more than a few small toiletries for the maids. Below is a list of what you could bring and distribute to people at the Adath Israel and to other Cubans that you meet or befriend outside your hotels.

Next issue, I will try to provide more information on the cultural activities and sights Havana has to offer.

  • What to bring:
  • small toys from the dollar stores including hair bands and ponytail holders
  • small toy cars (nearly new or new)
  • socks, underwear and bras
  • sneakers and sandals for all ages, new or nearly new 
  • t-shirts, shorts and skirts (only light summer wear) for all ages, new or nearly new
  • colognes, costume jewellery, sewing supplies, small pieces of material for doll making, soaps, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and dental floss (ask your dentist for samples)
  • samples of medication from your doctor — in short supply are blood pressure medication, syringes, and pain medication of any kind.

If you have these things to donate but can't make it down to Havana yourself, please bring them to The Senior Times offices at 4077 Decarie Blvd. (corner NDG Ave.) or call our office at 514-484-5033. I'll be sure to take them on my next trip to Havana and they'll go directly to the hands of people who need and deserve our support.

Contact Adath Israel at adathisrael@enet.cu.

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