Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Little Bit of Toledo

I'm not sure if it's because it was the first town we visited or what, but Toledo is really something. Beautiful from every angle, loads of alleys full of a longing to bring you on board, and enough hills to keep an Olympic walker in prime condition.

Here is my Toledo.

Prints of many of these images are available to purchase in a variety of sizes. See my website for more details.

Today I Ate Cow Stomach

A story from Tuscany.

The guy at the community centre gives me the scoop on why there is no internet in Monticchiello. “Internet not work today. Come from next town, next town not work.” With that out of the way, he invites me for lunch. “Big lunch in church, with whole town. Come, I show you.” In the church’s lower level, long rectangular tables are covered in bright white cloth, fully set, and ready to serve. My new friend shows me the menu, which contains no English words. He recommends two dishes that, in his mind, are superb. See you at noon, I say.

“There is no room,” we are told when we arrive a few minutes ahead of schedule. We can come back for the dinner seating, I say. We’re just around the corner. “No, maybe there is room,” someone says, and that is followed by a flurry of activity. A table is added at the end of a row, along with four chairs that look like they were in the church’s garage sale pile.
I point out the two menu items like I’ve ordered them a hundred times before, a small and a large plate of each, and the server compliments me on my choices. Wine and water first, then the spaghetti-like dish arrives. The pasta is thick and fresh, and full of flavour. The four of us hover over the two plates until the second dish arrives. It has an interesting texture, and what can best be described as a full-bodied flavour. Jonas and Matthew try small fork-fulls, then wrap their arms around the spaghetti plates like alpha wolves who haven’t eaten in a week. Rats.
Laura asks the server what the dish is. He starts to say something, then says, “I will go back and ask so I can tell you exactly and correctly.” Okay. We’re thinking octopus, maybe squid, one of those chewy, fishy things. When he returns, he says, and this is a quote, not just a vague recollection that gets the gist of things, but the exact words, “Precisely, it is the cut up strips of the stomach of the cow.” He notices the shock that registers on our faces, and says quickly, “It is good?” Laura replies, It is different, in that sing-songy kind of way that let’s you know that while not an outright falsehood, she is not being entirely forthcoming. “Yes, it is different for you, for sure.”  As soon as he leaves, Matthew and I turn to one another and say at the same time, Which one of the cow’s stomachs is this?
Okay, we just paid fifteen euros for two plates of cow stomach. I have a tendency to work harder when things get physically tough, because that’s my arena. I thrive in circumstances that require endurance and strength. Not feeling well? Go play hockey, that’ll clear the sinuses. Tough hill to climb? I’m gonna run it. Your backpack getting heavy? Let me carry it for a bit.  I am particularly gifted in this department when there is a food element involved. Throw fifteen euros of cow stomach on the table, ha! You don’t know who you’re dealing with, Italy!
I dig in with gusto. I have a full glass of wine, enough water to fill my cup a few times, some bread, and some cheese that I think was meant for the spaghetti, not the trough de vache. But this flavour is like a cumulative entity, and after not too long, I can feel the beginning of the end. I put forth a valiant effort, with my back to the wall I give a hundred and ten per cent. I am in Italy, so I go to the mattresses. Wine, water, bread, and cheese disappear at a dizzying pace, and the boys watch my performance with smiles and snorts of laughter. Laura puts no stock in efforts like this, no matter how Herculean. Nor is she about to waste time putting a cow’s stomach into her own. It’s not about the stomach, I preach. We’re a team, and I’m not giving up on the team, we are finishing our meals. She rolls her eyes, in that loving, ‘You’re an idiot, but you’re my idiot’ kind of way.
Alas, with three forkfuls to go, I have no more wine or bread, and my water supply is dangerously low. I am done. I make a big show of shedding a phony tear, and apologize to my family. The boys giggle quietly until real tears come out of their eyes, but Laura is already heading out the door, pretending not to be associated with us.

Laura and I enjoy a quiet afternoon at the apartment, while Jonas and Matthew pretend to be spies and explore Monticchiello with our walkie-talkies.
In the evening we pack our bags again, and recall our favourite memories of the week. Jonas’s still nail-less fingertip looks a little better every day. And tomorrow, we leave for Florence.

Today I ate cow stomach.

A Little Bit of Seville

A trip to Spain as part of some random 25th anniversary celebration, with a birthday party mixed in as well.
Spain pulled out all the stops, and said, "We're here for you."
Endless fun. Lots of beautiful stuff, but the people were not to be outdone either. Everyone was friendly, and could care less about our inadequacies en español.

If you're inclined to visit Andalucia when the temperatures are bearable, try end of March or maybe into April. T-shirt weather in the afternoon, light sweater in the early morning or late evening.
Here's a little taste of Seville.

Jodhpur to Jaisalmer

Excerpt from my book about The Incident in Jaisalmer -

We are rarely out late in the evening but tonight our train leaves at 11:30. Streets on the way to the train station are lined with people sleeping under blankets or papers, laying on strips of cardboard.
We get our seats confirmed, numbers 49 to 52, then climb aboard the train. As we settle in, a Tasmanian man and his daughter make their way to our berth. There are two soldiers in seats 54 and 55 who appear to be in the wrong place, as the Tasmanian and a Chinese fellow have those seat numbers printed on their confirmed tickets. The conductor comes by and sorts everything out, and the soldiers move to new seats. The Tasmanian tells a funny story about how everything was going very smoothly up to the point of getting on the train. “We just left our room about 20 minutes ago, got caught up in some kind of procession, but that cleared up quick, no traffic all the way to the station. There’s nobody in line at the enquiries desk so we get our seats confirmed right away, over the platform walkway and down the stairs and our car is right there. We get on board....and there’s a man in my bed. How do you like that?” And he has a gun, I add. “He has a gun!” roars the Tasmanian, and we laugh in a way that releases a lot of the stress accumulated by travelling in India.

This overnight ride is supposed to be only five or six hours, and thank goodness for that as I have never been this cold in my life. All those times as a kid at 6:30 a.m. hockey practice, freezing my toes and crying later when they would start to thaw, I have never felt an all- encompassing cold like this. The temperature probably drops below zero, and had my pre-trip preparation time involved actually removing my long johns and extra socks from my bag and, you know, putting them on, it would be okay. Cold, but manageable. One of the groovy, patterned, but very thin sheets we bought this afternoon is in an open bag, so I pull that out and cover up. At five in the morning, when we should have been arriving in Jaisalmer, we are stopped in the middle of nowhere. For four hours. For whatever reason, we no longer have an engine (Matthew gives me a look), so we wait for another train to come by and connect to our cars (which incidentally have icicles hanging from them) and pull us the rest of the way. It is well after 9:00 a.m. by the time we arrive in Jaisalmer, tired, shivering, and hungry.

We get turned around more than once as Jaisalmer is not an easy city to navigate with a simple guide book map. The Shahi Palace Hotel is well beyond our budgeted amount, but it’s really clean (as opposed to clean-ish), actually kind of stylish, and has a restaurant on the roof that looks directly at the phenomenal Jaisalmer Fort. We’ll take it. We have a late breakfast on the roof while our room is prepared, chat with some other travellers, then step out to get acquainted with the city. 
From the outside, the fort reminds us of some of the hill towns in Tuscany, maybe a little rougher around the edges. We have a look at an attractively restored haveli (basically a mansion - out of our price range), check out some prices for camel safaris at local travel agents, then have supper on the hotel rooftop.

Without heat, and in this temperature, the rooms are a little uncomfortable until we all pile under the covers. Matthew shares with Laura and me, and Jonas gets his own bed. I am asleep before anyone else for the first time in recorded history, but I am also the first one awake at three in the morning, when I find that my stomach and my brain are not cooperating. The feeling in my chest is one that I have not felt in twelve long years. 
I am thinking about the Seinfeld episode where Jerry talked about people’s fears, and how the number one fear in America was public speaking, which incredibly, ranked higher than a fear of death. In my case, public speaking also ranks ahead of death in terms of the fear factor, but there is one other thing that ranks above even public speaking. Without being too graphic, I’ll just say it involves the forced ejection of material from my insides in an upward direction. It took about ten seconds of being awake to understand what lay in store for me for the rest of the morning. Having no time for denial or anger, I immediately get into a sitting position doubled over the edge of the bed. With the pain swelling and subsiding, I declare before Vishnu and everyone else that I will never eat train yogurt again, that I will never allow my body temperature to fall below ninety-five degrees for any reason, and that all I want to do is go home. And that is where I settle. Rocking back and forth, I want to be home. I want to be home, I whisper to my knees. Eventually recognizing that there is no evading the inevitability of my destiny, I relent, and allow stomach and brain to work in concert. So again, without being unnecessarily descriptive, it is a short while later that I unintentionally wake up Laura, who does all she can, which quite frankly is nothing, because honestly, what can one do as a bystander in that situation?
I return to a sitting position at the side of the bed, wide awake even though I’m ‘exhausted,’ as I now have two nights of fitful slumber (but less yogurt) under my belt. If  I lay even remotely horizontal, a certain feeling returns, and it’s getting to the point where I’m not sure what’s worse, the fatigue or the feeling
The rest of the crew is now awake. Battling fatigue and new distractions, I can’t keep The Feeling™ at bay any longer. Jonas tells me it sounded like someone let a rabid animal loose in the bathroom. They decide to go have breakfast without me, and then out to explore the town and that magnificent fort.

I spend the rest of the day trying to expel my inner demon. I am so tired that all I want to do is sleep, but that generally requires some form of horizontality, and well, you know. I end up sitting at the side of the bed with a half dozen pillows on my lap. Leaning forward, I manage at least a few minutes of dreamy doziness, but eventually my fatigue outweighs my fear of the number one fear, and I just need to lay down. I immediately fall asleep, wake up an hour later, and The Feeling is gone. How do you like that?
I shake my fist in no direction in particular, and smile.
Ahh, India. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Why is Hate so Popular? Airline Edition

In response to all the noise directed at Delta this weekend, I thought I'd maybe send some praise an airline's way, just to help balance out the universe.

Last fall I booked two tickets, Winnipeg to Madrid return, through KLM who organized the flights for us: Westjet to Montreal, KLM to Amsterdam, and finally, KLM to Madrid. I got such a great deal, I was worried something was going to mess it all up, and since I had several months (six, to be exact) before our flights, I had plenty of time to stew.
A couple days after booking, I got an email from KLM saying they rebooked my return flight to two days later, a Tuesday instead of a Sunday. Since one of us in this two-ticket relationship had to work on Monday morning, this would not work. I was ready to cancel the flight and book a new one, but the cost was about 60% more. Ugh. So I checked out KLM's contact info, and they said to get in touch any time via Twitter. So I did. 
I got a near-immediate response, they had a look at the new flight info, and confirmed to me that two days later might put a crimp in our plans, so they set to work trying to make things right. Half an hour later, they sent me new flight info that involved leaving Madrid at 6:00am instead of 9:40 am, not fun, but arriving home at 4:00 in the afternoon (instead of 11:45 in the evening), giving everyone an opportunity to get a good night's sleep before heading off to work the next morning.
Fantastic. I thanked them enthusiastically for fixing this quickly and to my great satisfaction.
The months passed.
When our departure date arrived, I breathed a sigh of relief that nothing else went awry. Before we left for the airport for our morning flight to Montreal, I decided to check my email one last time.

"Your KLM flight Montreal to Amsterdam has been cancelled."
Well, crap.
"KLM is now looking for an alternative…"
We're heading to the airport in ten minutes!
"…or you can choose a new flight yourself online."
In ten minutes!!
Fortunately, before totally freaking out, I read the next email that came from KLM.
"Dear Reymond, Attached to this email is your ticket to Madrid. Enjoy!"
I scanned the email quickly, reasonably certain that I understood it, and forwarded it to my wife's phone (as I live in the dark ages) so we could read all the remaining details later at the airport so we wouldn't be late for the flight to Montreal.

The long and the short of it ended up as follows: The flight to Montreal went off as planned. KLM booked us on an Air Canada flight from Montreal to Heathrow that left an hour later than our original KLM flight, and then an Iberia flight (which we had to run for, through the bulk of Heathrow, but no bother) to Madrid, that got us there thirty-five minutes later than originally scheduled. As I had planned our train out of Madrid at a time that allowed for delays at the airport, we had plenty of time to eat some lunch and explore the beautiful garden at Atocha Station in downtown Madrid.

It was a little bit of a crazy day, but KLM took care of us. They had a problem, and they made it right, and they did it with a smile on their face. I'm sure they took a significant loss on this, but they respected their obligation to us.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of KLM, we had a wonderful two weeks in Spain.
So thanks, KLM, from me to you.

ps. Other players in the effort to make our Spain travels enjoyable were: - a great way to book Spain train tickets online, easily and in English for those of us who are not well-versed in the Spanish language., where we found our accommodations in Seville and Granada, which were both excellent.

Hotel Santa Isabel in Toledo - fantastic rooftop view.

Hertz - rented a car in Seville and dropped it in Madrid; but for a few minor hiccups (someone was training that day so it took a little extra time, and the drop off at Atocha could be better marked or more easily explained when renters are planning to drop a car at Atocha, because Google's directions will take you directly into the taxi area, where the taxi drivers are not easily amused - not that I would know any of this), it was a reasonably streamlined experience.
Alavera de los Baños in Ronda - a fabulous hotel with character and wonderful hosts.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Travelling with Children - A True Story

At what point do you let your child decide he has had enough cantaloupe for breakfast, especially when you want to be sure everyone’s getting enough fruits and vegetables after all those ham sandwiches? Apparently, one piece earlier than I did.

The drive to Matera was a long and winding one. You know the kind, where the road turns sharply to the left and right, uphill and right back down before your stomach has time to realize it’s supposed to be going down with the rest of your body. Usually that sort of thing is kind of fun, but today we got what marketing people might call a “value added bonus” along that scenic drive.

So, that cantaloupe.

Matthew started making some noise about not feeling well, but managed to keep things under control for about fifteen minutes. Eventually though, the roads wore him down, and that cantaloupe needed release.

As soon as Matthew lurched forward, Jonas looked like he was trying to escape a house on fire, using all four limbs to propel himself out of the car, despite the fact that the car was still moving. All I could say was, Yup, pull over. As soon as possible please. And I reached back and put my hand under Matthew’s mouth. I have no idea why or what I hoped to accomplish. As soon as Matthew was done, he took a deep breath, one of those chest-expanding breaths that makes you purse your lips and exhale like Dizzy Gillespie blowing on his trumpet. That feels better, he said.

We pulled into what looked like a cross between a cafe and a repair shop, with two old fellas sitting on lawn chairs out front. Drinking beer. It was 9:30 in the morning. Laura helped Matthew get cleaned up while I stood with my (clean) hand on my chin, pondering what to do next as I looked at the floor of the car. The men rested their beers on their laps, and leaned forward slightly, curious as to what we were up to.

I figured the first thing I needed to do was deal with the sheer volume, pulsating on the floor where there should have been a rubber mat. I knelt down, and used my hand and forearm like a squeegee, pulling a surprisingly large quantity of breakfast over the lip and out the door, which landed on the ground with an impressive splat. At that point, the beer drinkers pretended to be looking nonchalantly in the other direction.
I cleaned my arm off with the remains of a kleenex, and ran across the street to the grocery store to get cleaning supplies. We did our best to clean out the car, and used a half-dozen air fresheners to deal with what remained.

Back in the car and on the road again, Jonas eyed Matthew like a hawk, wary of any suspicious movements or sounds. But with the foul cantaloupe eradicated, Matthew was happy as could be. I told him that when he is a teenager, any time he is annoyed with me, he must remember this precise moment, when he was throwing up in the rental car in Italy, and I was holding out my hand in a way that only a father could at a time like that.
That is love, Laura told him.

Monday, July 3, 2017

A Portrait

Soundgarden first came to my attention at the beginning of my last year of fine arts, back in 1989. It was probably September or so, when I made one of my regular pilgrimages to Musiplex in downtown Winnipeg. I don't recall if they had those groovy, new-fangled listening centres set up yet, but one look at the cover of Loud Love, just sort of a mass of swinging hair, and I figured this was something that I could get into.
Back to my apartment I went, to my stereo, my over-ear Radio Shack headphones, and I sat and listened.
"Money can't give what the truth takes away."
"Trees fall down like dying soldiers."
Hands All Over is still one of my favourite songs.
His voice was just something else, you know, unrestrained power with absolute control, and he was just a kid! Not even two years older than I was.
When Badmotorfinger came along, Room A Thousand Years Wide and Jesus Christ Pose took my breath away. The song-writing was on a whole other level from what I'd normally listen to, but there seemed to be a deeper connection to things that were actually worth thinking about. Although this wasn't so much on my mind back then, ideas like these were among the things that I grew into caring about.
When Superunknown came along, things were changing rapidly for me. I was married, and my wife and I were expecting our first child. I sang Black Hole Sun and Like Suicide until I was hoarse, and then Jonas was born. A lot less loud music and singing.
1996 brought Down on the Upside into the world, and I snapped it up like a metalhead dad looking for something that reminded him of something he wasn't really looking for anyway, but was eager for it nonetheless. And I brought it home and thought, ugh. I might have listened to it a couple times, and then it made its way to the bottom of the cd rack.
1997 gave us another child, more responsibility, and even less time for basketball, painting, and loud singing. But as kids do, they grew up, and as they did, this new life found time for some of the things from the old life, and with effort and practice, it started to happen more and more often. (Of course, a whole lot more happened in the intervening years - we travelled the world with our kids, we watched them grow into magnificent young adults, I did a ton(ne) more drawing, and of course, I recorded a couple pretty awesome metal tunes, but that is for another story.)
Then back in May this year, I woke to the news that Chris Cornell had died. But wasn't he the same age as me?
I posted on Facebook that when I was in my twenties, I wanted to paint like Frank Frazetta, play basketball like Michael Jordan, and sing like "this guy," and I linked to the video for Black Hole Sun.
And then I listened to a whole lot of Soundgarden.
I rediscovered the reasons why I liked them in the first place, found my copy of Down on the Upside, and gave it a listen. And it wasn't nearly as terrible as I remembered it being. In fact, it was pretty good. Really good. Amazingly good. But I remembered why I was disappointed in it. Side by side listenings of Superunknown and Down on the Upside showed, to my ears anyway, a distinct drop in audio quality, even compared to Badmotorfinger from five years earlier. And in my busy life, that was enough for it to get lost in the pile of cd's.
But now I had time to listen, and the number of songs that I really liked numbered nearly as many as there were on the album. Tighter and Tighter I could listen to over and over and over again. And I did. And it reminded me that the things that are worthwhile just take some time. Sometimes they're just a little bit harder. And when you get past all that, it's what feels right, and was right, all along.
And that is how I found myself staring at that eight yard roll of Strathmore that had been sitting in the corner of my studio for a good five years, probably longer, still in cellophane. I cut off a hunk and hung it on the wall. I grabbed some coloured pencils and my General's pencils and did some preliminary sketching, trying to figure out how I would do this thing that I was about to do. I found the method that worked, and I got started on a portrait of Chris Cornell. After investing a dozen hours or so, it wasn't working out. I gave up. I abandoned it for a couple days, erased some of it, then just started fooling around with it, and I forgot that it wasn't working. With time and effort, and a lot of loud music, it got it to this stage where I can say I'm almost done. Some tweaks and tonal adjustments, and it will get there.
Loud music and drawing faces.
Sleep tight.


The large drawing on the right, 40 by 60 inches.
Smaller acrylic painting on the left, 36 by 48 inches.