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Tim: a fond farewell November 14, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in family, life, world.
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tim-1

Tim imitating the discus statue at the Auckland Museum.

Tim died yesterday, a few weeks into his 81st year. Tim was an original.  Tim was my uncle.

tim-2My father’s eldest brother, Tim was a confirmed bachelor. He invited Janet (Lavenderbay) and me to Hawaii when he was helping to cheer on his athletic brother in the Ironman. We shared a lovely condo, with a “lanai” overlooking the sea. This was the first time I had a chance to get to know my uncle, because he lived in New Zealand. We spent a day visiting Volcano National Park, and Tim was up for every adventure.

When we finally made the long trip to New Zealand a few years ago, Tim paid for our airline tickets. He was there to entertain us on our last day in Auckland, driving us around and telling us convoluted and fascinating stories of everything under the sun.tim-3

So, in honour of the eccentric and delightful Tim, here are a few traits to treasure:

  • He loved his root vegetables. In Hawaii, his favourite meal for any time of the day (when we weren’t cooking) was onion, potato, edoes, and whatever else was handy — along with lots of fresh ginger and garlic — all cooked together. And, to top it off he drank the cooking liquid.
  • He drove a mauve-coloured car, standard, in a somewhat (how do I say) distracted manner.
  • He strongly supported Amnesty International, and read voraciously all the news of the world.
  • He had visited Papua New Guinea several times, and tramped through wilderness and up mountains in New Zealand and further afield, until his knee gave out.
  • He loved to laugh and have long conversations, and would even sing if asked. At his 80th birthday party, he sang his school song.

Sing on, Tim. Sing on.

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Paris is behind me now July 2, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in change, explore, journey, learn, life, urban, world.
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along the Seine 1

Holidays are hard. Well, maybe not the holiday itself, but the post-holiday adjustment. I’m not talking about jet lag or laundry, but a kind of ennui that seems to last for weeks.

rue MontorgueilWe lived in Paris for 10 days. The five of us rented an apartment, bought groceries, walked everywhere, visited museums, took a couple of train trips, attended concerts and lunched at a café on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. I believe that the tight itinerary expertly researched by Lavenderbay (check out her daily Paris blog starting here) helped us to truly experience the best of the city. It was wonderful and exhilarating. At times it was overwhelming and exhausting, but it wasn’t hard.

The hard part was coming back. The hard part was getting used to no longer having fresh croissants for breakfast, or stepping out of the door to browse any number of interesting boutiques or market stalls, or being able to take one of a multitude of metro lines to another exciting destination. We live in downtown Toronto, the biggest city in Canada, but it doesn’t feel at all like Paris. It feels, well… disappointing, sleepy, provincial.

Chinatown - 5.24 pmI know that sounds harsh. But think about it: there are lots of cars and pedestrians at rush hour, but at most other times, all except the malls are nearly deserted. There is a city market, and a few other neighbourhood markets if you know where to look, but they are the exception and not the rule. It feels like most of the population is indoors — in their cars, at home in front of the television, shopping in a grocery store or mall… The part of Toronto that most seems like Paris is Chinatown. Does that seem as strange to you as it does to me?

Obviously, Toronto (and Canada in general) just doesn’t have the wealth of history, architecture, and upheaval. Canada isn’t centralized like France, where Paris is not only the capital but the cultural centre, the showcase and heart of the country. And Canada is too big and too under-populated — even in the city-centres — to support such an efficient transportation system.

metroWe might imagine improvements, though. For example, I could like to see what would happen if a large population centre actually decided to excel in public transportation, and invested in it, so that everyone who lived in that geographic area could travel quickly, on time and relatively cheaply. Imagine what our cities would look like if they were designed for people, not cars!

taxiAh, well. Canada is where I live and Canadian is who I am. So, what would bring a tourist here if they come from a city such as Paris? We pondered this question for a while, and decided that it was the space, the open vistas, the wild country, the untamed wilderness. Toronto is not a cosmopolitan city, it is merely a place where people live and work. There are some nice museums and art galleries, some decent culture and beaches. And we do have history here, it’s just different, it’s just spread out and diluted by this huge country.

This is the land called “big lonely” by the hobos who used to travel by boxcar during the Depression. This is the country that spans a continent, bordering on three oceans. This is an open country, not confined by history or geography, celebrated for its peaceful and liberal attitudes. Yesterday was Canada Day. I’m glad I’m home.

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A step back in time May 4, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in Canada, change, diversity, explore, learn, life, world.
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Scenes from a Mennonite kitchen 1This past week, I had the privilege of visiting an Old Order Mennonite couple. The group of us stayed for about 40 minutes, listening to tales of harness-making and quilting, ploughing and making preserves.

My only previous exposure had been seeing the black horse-drawn buggies near St. Jacob’s, and buying Mennonite sausage at the market. (Yum!) You may have seen the women, in lace caps and flowered dresses, and men in their dark suits and sober hats. They belong to a tight-knit community, and as much as possible try to stay out of the public eye.

The Mennonites are sometimes known as “the quiet in the land.” A few years ago, I saw the award-winning play (“Quiet in the Land“) by Anne Chislett; its portrayal of the tension between tradition and change in a small Amish community is heartfelt and compelling.

Out of the approximately 50 types of Mennonites in Canada (the Amish are a Mennonite offshoot), many have modernized to some extent. Most of the Old Order Mennonites now have telephones and electricity, and more modern groups drive cars and go to university.

Descendants of a radical wing of the Protestant Reformation, the pacifist followers of Menno Simons (1492-1559) endured two centuries of bitter persecution in Central Europe. During these two centuries, many Mennonites sought sanctuary in Prussia and southern Russia. Others, like the Swiss ancestors of the southern Ontario Mennonites, emigrated to North America. Their descendants now live all around the world, from Paraguay to the Congo, with two-thirds living outside North America.

Scenes from a Mennonite workshop 4

This global perspective means that the Mennonites are active in reaching out to people around the world through relief organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the volunteer-run self-help stores known as Ten Thousand Villages.

During our conversations, I observed the care given to crafting everything from leather bridles to hockey gloves, peach preserves to quilted chair covers. I looked at the weathered hands of the old couple, and their faces lined from sun and smiling, and I could see that their simple hard-working life had been full and fulfilling.

Although I am modern in my desire for freedom and self-determination, part of me longs for that kind of connection — to the land, to the community, to their craft, to their beliefs — that the Mennonites show in their lives.

Scenes from a Mennonite workshop 2Scenes from a Mennonite workshop 1

Scenes from a Mennonite kitchen 2

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Related Links:
NY Times Book Review: A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
Introducing the Mennonites
Special section: Modern Mennonites
Mennonite Central Committee
Third Way Cafe
Ontario’s Mennonite Heritage

The world’s food, our fortune April 26, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in change, consumer, diversity, energy, food, learn, life, nature, world.
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6 comments

wheat seeds - Time

One of my favourite family stories has to do with food. My mother grew up near London, and remembers standing at the back door and watching bombs falling during the Second World War. The frequent air raids meant that visits to the nearby bomb shelter became part of the family’s daily routine. On one occasion (that I know about), her mother ran out of the bomb shelter during a raid to fetch the roast from the oven. Bombs may be falling, but the family has to have its dinner!

The western world’s focus has recently turned from the consumption of “stuff” to the consumption of food. Much has been written about the current global food shortage crisis.

Yet how can it be a crisis is when people have been talking about a global food shortage for at least 10 years? There have been famines and other food-related crises in the world before now. Perhaps this time is different because the wealthy countries are sitting up and complaining, too.

The food shortage is affecting countries in different ways. There have been protests in Mexico, where the price of tortillas rose 400% in at the end of 2007, and Haiti, where the poor are eating “dirt cookies” (made of dirt, water, salt and butter. India recently banned the export of all except the highest quality rice. A sharp increase in the cost of milk (blamed on floods in Argentina and a drought in Australia) have affected foods from cheese to croissants. Higher wheat and fuel costs were blamed for a 20% increase in pasta in Italy. There have been bread-queue riots in Egypt, and unrest across Africa.

Global Food Crisis - Der SpiegelIn some parts of the world, food prices for staples have risen 50% or more over the past year. However, in the United States, consumers have had to cope with a 6.5% increase in their grocery bill.

A UN official recently listed a number of causes:

  • growing populations
  • crops being used for biofuels
  • more sophisticated (or diverse) diets in places like India and China
  • a lack of strategic grain reserves
  • the effects of climate change causing drought conditions in places such as in Australia, affecting wheat production in recent years.

A related problems is that of inefficient food distribution and food wastage. Have many of us have refrigerators full of food we don’t need and might not get around to eating? I can’t even imagine how much wasted food restaurants and grocery stores throw into the garbage. In 1995, the BBC reported that 17 million tonnes of food is added to landfills in Great Britain each year because it’s cheaper for the food industry to dump it than give it away.

And with the globalization of food production and distribution, more people are beginning to rely on processed or pre-packaged food. Western foods (can you say MacDonald’s?) are a cultural as well as commercial influence.

The fact is, like the cheap energy we have been used to, food doesn’t get any respect. I’m not suggesting that high food prices are good — there are too many people in this world who have barely enough to eat as it is — but that the North, as the source of much of the world’s food, doesn’t know how to tighten its belt. (And while I’m on the subject of belt-tightening, I know I’m not the only person who should be eating less!) The word “rationing”, familiar with the Second-World War generation but a foreign idea to most westerners today, is coming into vogue again.

People react to the threat of a global oil shortage produces in two ways: by panicking and and buying up all remaining stocks (have you seen the price of gas lately?), or increasing research into alternative energy sources in order to wean themselves off oil dependency.

That’s why I think the boom in biofuel research and production — as wrong-headed as some of it is turning out to be, what with everyone running off madly in all directions — is a good sign. It means that costs are now high enough to make people value alternatives, and maybe think more carefully about conservation and how to stop wasting the energy we produce now.

And so I recommend the “don’t panic” approach to the current food shortage. (Waves of panic-buying of staples and rice-rationing have already hit some U.S. food stores.) Greed won’t get us out of this difficulty, but thankfulness might. We need to appreciate what we already have, and support ongoing work to better manage food distribution, diversity, and sustainability. Let’s get our governments to find some swords-into-ploughshares funding and share the wealth… of food, that is!

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Related Links:
CBC interactive: Global Food Prices
CBC: “Beef is out, wheat is in: farmers”
Guardian, UK: “Change in farming can feed world: report”

Telegraph, UK: “Potatoes could solve food shortage”
ABC: “UN warns on food shortage riots”
Financial Post: “Forget oil, the new global crisis is food”
Time: “How to End the Global Food Shortage”