Thursday, April 24, 2014

US and the Arts


While Spousal Unit and I were in Quebec, we were amazed at the presence of the arts everywhere we went. These pictures are from a single mural in Levis, showing the area's history and progress over time. This was one of many wonderful murals throughout the area (there's another in this post).


It made me think about the way that art is not present in my daily life here in the states. There are no murals on my way to work (though there are a few in other areas of town). Art isn't brought to mind by any outside forces aside from the occasional concert poster - it's a self-driven venture.


We started our vacation by hearing the Orchestre Symphonique de Quebec play Mendelssohn while a local theatre group performed A Midsummer Night's Dream (in French). It was incredible. The acting was delightful, the minimalist stage with ladders instead of trees was a fun take, and the orchestra blew my American mind. Imagine a 100-piece orchestra with perfect timing, tuning, and feeling. It's not often that I've gone to hear a group and fully recognized them as professional, full-time musicians without knowing anything at all about them - often, it's understood that the orchestra or band is a secondary gig for its members, or even a freelance one. Being paid to play classical music is not a highly appreciated thing here. And it should be.


A coworker mentioned to me that her son's high school orchestra went on tour in Europe, and every night, the concerts sold out, concerts put on by American teenagers who, performing in the US, would have had an auditorium half full at best of people who were all related to someone on stage. But in Places Not Here, there is a broader appreciation for music, for drama, for general beauty. It's recognized that art drives culture, drives general societal development. If the arts die, so does the society - in more than just a dramatic sense. Presence of art is how we measure the development of past societies; why shouldn't we keep that in mind for present day?

Random mural in Quebec. This is all two-dimensional.

In the US, when money is needed for road construction, we cut K-12 music and art programs - removing an important reason to use those roads. Balanced budgets are important, but what about Shakespeare and Lascaux and Mozart and Basho? When there isn't quite enough in our defense budget (which was more than big enough ten years ago, knock it off already), we cut our language programs and hinder our future ability to communicate with others, meaning we'll be more likely to need those defenses when misunderstandings occur. (I'd wager that many of the people who would eagerly cut language budgets don't realize that understanding a language sheds light on the culture as well.)

Studying the arts and other such ventures is an exercise in creativity, which can overflow into everyday life. Art informs life; past informs present; a new source of energy may be dreamed up entirely because one physicist takes the time to play guitar on a regular basis. These arenas of life are not separate from each other. They are all connected (and this isn't just hippie BS I'm spouting at you).


While Spousal Unit and I wandered and saw that firm understanding on display on the sides of buildings, in shops, on street corners, in alleys, we felt it tug the lack of understanding in the states into sharp relief. Again, it's not that there's a complete lack of arts here, but that it isn't so fully integrated as it could be and is consistently being removed or ignored. And while we repeatedly said, "Wow, we should move here," what we really meant was wow, what a situation back home.

Everyone in politics is focusing on the budget deficit, but the arts deficit expands in obscurity. And that is what will destroy us someday.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sally Anns and a Can of Spam

Sally Anns are one of my favorite cookies. By their taste alone, they evoke a sense of home and comfort, reminding me of the kitchen at my grandparents' place and the simple happiness of mid-afternoon sweets. They're the only food that evokes the thought, This would be better with a cup of coffee. Making them was a good Easter activity, especially as I was stuck away from the family due to unpacking (the books are now free!) and yard work shenanigans (such as finding a dead mouse in the yard, which was lovely).


With help from my mom, I found the recipe in the family cookbook (my great-great-grandparents are on the cover, and other awesome old pictures are scattered throughout). I decided that the transgression of buying a can of Spam (just once) was worth it for the sake of the cookies. Poke holes in the bottom of the can to allow for air flow.


I didn't have enough butter for a full batch, but half of one made 18 Cookies of Unusual Size. I made the mistake of microwaving the butter a bit too long, resulting in very sticky and soft dough. Don't overdo it, people.


Sally Anns
1 c. butter, soft but NOT melted            1 tsp. baking soda
1 c. sugar                                                1/4 tsp. ginger
2 eggs                                                     1/2 tsp. cloves
3/4 c. molasses                                       1 tsp. salt
1/2 c. buttermilk or sour milk                1/4 tsp. allspice
4 c. flour                                                 1/2 tsp. cinnamon

Combine all ingredients in order, one at a time. If dough is too soft to work with, refrigerate for one hour. Knead dough briefly on a floured surface if still too sticky. Roll out to 1/4 inch thickness; use the Spam can to cut out cookies, lifting and dropping them onto an ungreased cookie sheet in one motion. Bake at 350 for 7 to 8 minutes. Cool on a rack before frosting.


I also spilled powdered sugar all over while making icing. (Grandma would have had a good laugh at all my mix-ups.) As I didn't have gelatin on hand, I went with plain icing, but real Sally Ann frosting is delightful. It hardens to a tasty crisp, making the cookies stack very well and keeping them moist and soft in perfect contrast.

(This is another one of those times when I will conveniently and repeatedly "forget" that gelatin is not vegetarian. The comfort is worth it.)



Sally Ann Frosting
1 pkg. unflavored gelatin      2 c. sugar
1/4 c. cold water                   1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 c. water

Dissolve gelatin in the cold water. Combine sugar, salt, and remaining water; boil five minutes, covered. Remove cover and boil until it spins a thread. Remove from heat and pour over gelatin mixture. Beat until the mixture holds peaks (this may take some time). Use immediately. (This makes nice Christmas cookie frosting, too.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Quebecois Food

We left for Canada, and maple syrup was on our grocery list. We returned, and we still need syrup. How did that happen? Especially when I was so surprised at it?

Syrup is served with freakin' everything there. You can get it with sweet or savory crepes, in beverages, on your burger, as a dipping sauce for fries ... . These people love their syrup. I was surprised at the taste, because I've never liked maple syrup before - it has a bitter aftertaste. But none of the fresh syrup I had in Quebec was like that. So I ate a lot of it.

Apple and swiss crepe, and a mushroom/egg/asparagus crepe, at Casse-Crepe Breton. Possibly our favorite place on the whole trip.

Mushroom and parmesan poutine with cheese curds

This was dinner for us several nights. The brie was much more creamy in the middle.
I didn't like it at first because it was so different, but now ...

Le Croquembouche was a feast for the eyes and the stomach.

Raspberry brioche, croissant, chocolate raspberry mousse cake, and a maple tart.

Le Billig, another creperie.

Crepes Suzette, to go with my sauvignon blanc. Spousal Unit had chocolate banana crepes.

The oldest grocery store in North America, J. A. Moisan. This is half of the spice room.

They sell syrup in cones at the Marchee du Vieux-Port. It's very sweet.

Most restaurants ask if you want your coffee in a cup or a bowl!
This is a bowl of Viennois, half espresso and half hot chocolate.

A caribou - hot port wine and (you guessed it) syrup. A lot like mulled wine!

Inside L'Oncle Antoine. It was originally a house, built in the 1600s.

Our last meal of the trip was at Chez Victor. I had a tofu burger - a slab of grilled tofu, with mozz and pears sauteed in wine. Spousal Unit had an elk burger. Dipping sauces were mayo with syrup and rosemary, and mayo with curry powder.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Sights of Quebec

We saw a lot more stuff than I'll mention here, because I don't want to bore you all with crappy pictures and long histories. So these are the really cool pictures.

Chateau Frontenac, above our heads. There's been a building there since the 1600s, but it
burned down multiple times. (Like most buildings in Quebec.)


This chapel is part of the Musee de l'Amerique Francophone. Gorgeous (and burned down several times in the past.)


Skyline at night, from across the river.

The Haitian exhibit in the Musee de la Civilisation was very intense. Art focused a lot on the 2010 earthquake and other recent disasters, so it was very death-focused. They refer to the earthquake as "that thing" because it was too terrible to be named.

Also at this museum: an extensive First Nations exhibit. Pas de deux is part of their lifestyle; it refers to hunting and means there is no distinction between humans and animals (literally, there are not two).

Murals under a highway bridge. There was art everywhere in the city.
Montmorency Falls, bigger than Niagara. It was a gorgeous day, and I walked through snow up to my knees to stand in the remains of a fort that General Wolfe built before beating the French in a 22-minute battle.

The falls are in the background. I laughed.


J said this building looks like the one from Ghostbusters. I'm glad we didn't have any supernatural experiences, though I do want to go back for the Ghost Tour: guides in period costume point out, at night, where people died throughout the city.

To the left is the Hotel Clarendon, oldest hotel in the city.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Vacating

Our farewell sunset

I write this from the airport in Toronto, which is far nicer than any airport I've ever been to (based solely on the lounge, with its uniform tan chairs divided into small cubicles in a meager yet still existent attempt at privacy). For the first time, I actually stepped down off an airplane and onto the tarmac before walking into the building, and it's a bit like I've stepped into a movie. (Except young traveling ladies in Hollywood movies most certainly do not belch like sailors after having ginger ale. They get cute hiccups instead.)

Spousal Unit and I are headed to Quebec City for a delayed honeymoon - after getting married, we visited Door County, but this is the first real vacation we've taken together, and so it is the honeymoon we've been meaning to take. Tonight we'll go to see A Midsummer Night's Dream in French, with a live orchestra, and we'll pay slightly less for tickets by virtue of being young, at least by Canadian standards. I'm okay with that.

There's an old nunnery/hospital turned museum, and a castle, and a waterfall, and two dozen walks to take, and while we want to do all of it, the theatre is the only thing we've distinctly planned for the trip. We will recreate as desired, when desired. After our early-morning flight, I'm excited to take a couple of naps.

I'm eager for the afternoon for multiple reasons, one being that I submitted a story for a writing contest and will learn today whether I've placed. I'm looking forward to (one way or another) no longer being nervous about an empty inbox on top of trying to be too polite. (I've never been to Canada before, and I'd rather overdo it.) Writing helps the nerves.

So far, Canada's pretty adorable. Their airline mascot is a raccoon.

For some reason, raccoons think Ps and Rs are tasty.

They gave me a glass on the plane. Like a real one. Made of glass. And as we were whisked through the customs people continued their conversation as though I was the most innocuous person on the planet. Us Americans are used to being treated like the walking dead at our own airports, eager to nom some brains. I appreciate that despite my country of origin (and the dubious online search history that a writer must live with), we only have to deal with that on one side of the border.

There might be more from me while we're out and about. If not, think of me gaping at buildings older than the Declaration like some culture-shocked tourist. The image probably won't be far from reality.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Letter to the Former Owners

Dear Former House Owners,

I'd like to thank you for the following items you so kindly decided to bequeath to us, for whatever reason.
  • Patio table with six chairs
  • Fire pit
  • Seven-foot metal windmill that makes me hear this in my head
  • Framed photo of the backyard in summer, to taunt us in this false spring
  • Moon-shaped hanging candle holder
  • Several children's art projects behind the closet door, as well as a Buzz Lightyear poster
  • Child's skis and ski poles, abandoned on a top shelf in basement storage
  • Hot pink Victoria's Secret robe, made with the tears of Sri Lankan children
  • Random chunks of asphalt in the yard
  • A furnace fan that will not shut up
  • What I assume is at least eight years worth of dust
I have to admit, it's weird to think about these things as though you left them to us on purpose. It's also awkward to think of you leaving them accidentally--or for any reason. Here's how I imagine some of your conversations going.


Left on Purpose
"Honey, wouldn't it be nice to leave a few things for the first-time homeowners? Like the patio set?"

"Sure! Let's throw in those rocks scattered in the front yard, too! It'll be a fun surprise once they get a lawnmower."


Left Due to Time Constraints
"We don't have time to pack any more stuff! Let's go!"

"What about this first art project Jimmy ever did?"

"LEAVE IT WE MUST FLEE!"


Left Due to Lack of Caring
"That fan's annoying. Should we get it fixed before we leave?"

"No."

"Okay."


Left Due to Zombie Invasion
"WAAAAH!"

"Grrr."


Despite the fact that we've named the house Montressor, I'm hoping we don't find your remains in the basement due to the last circumstance. That would make this whole thing even more awkward. Please be alive.

Sincerely,
With a nose full of your dust (thanks a lot),
Allison

Monday, March 31, 2014

Peace in the Valley


Every day, the sun sets.

Right now, I can think of a dozen poems and a dozen poets right for the occasion. But I have no words of my own. It's one of those times when I'm glad for other writers in the world - people who've been there before me, to give voice to feelings I can't articulate. Their efforts are a soothing balm in difficult times, though they can't heal on their own.

I could go on. I could consider the cyclical nature of life, delve into memory, pound out words with a soft fury that I don't understand. But the most peaceful thing right now is in knowing that the sun will set today, just like it has for millennia past. Not everything has changed.

But enough has.

***

I wrote the above a week ago, the day my grandma passed away. In some ways, it's still unreal. In others, I'm both relieved for her and devastated for everyone who loved her. Since then, I've been to her visitation and funeral and seen first hand all the lives she influenced. I've learned that all you can say to a parent who loses a parent is I love you, over and over; sorry strikes the wrong chord, falls flat for daughter to say to mother, for so deep a hurt. I've considered both terrible futures and beautiful memories. I've learned that sixty six years of marriage is not enough.

Since then, I've bought a house with a garden and seen a chickadee in the backyard. I've started planning how many birdfeeders to get and where to put them, so that my yard will have the busy flutter of Grandma's. With an incredible amount of family help and love, the kitchen has been assembled, and I plan to buy a can of Spam so that when I make Grandma's Sally Ann cookies, I can cut them into the proper shape. (They taste different otherwise.)

Since then, life has blurred around the edges and my brain hasn't focused well. But I was still able to write, to make little connections: her harmonies that influenced my own musical taste, her alternating fashionable and practical clothing styles that subconsciously affected mine, and even (as my cousin pointed out) the source of my slightly crooked pinky fingers.

So much of her is part of me. Maybe that's why this feels like less of a goodbye. It doesn't make it easy, but it does add an element of peace.
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