Communications • Documentarian • Writer

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Lady Diana and Trudeau get the Royal Treatment at the Canadian Canoe Museum

Canoeing is quintessentially Canadian. Pierre Berton, one of our great national historians and storytellers once quipped that  “a Canadian is someone who can have sex in canoe”. While it didn’t come to that, looking for something unique to do last year on July 1st, our national holiday, I enlisted an old boyfriend to come along with me to the Canadian Canoe Museum.

Now, I have to confess that my canoeing experience is limited to a couple of overnight excursions at camp and some extremely relaxed paddling around the lakes of southern Ontario. I know pretty much nothing about canoeing – except that other people love it. Many pay big bucks to go up north, traverse rivers with exotic names, and get eaten alive by mosquitos. All I can muster is a basic J-stroke and even then, I rely on Canadians several generations deep to determine our course anytime I get anywhere near a vessel.

Nonetheless, the idea of a museum devoted entirely to the canoe intrigued me. As someone who, if I thought about canoeing at all, thought ‘a canoe is a canoe is a canoe’, I wondered what I would find. Now, having toured the premises, I can say with 100% certainty that I knew next to nothing about canoes themselves and less about their central role in the history of European exploration and settlement of North America. The Canadian Canoe Museum exceeded every expectation I had. From the incredibly generous and knowledgeable volunteers who welcomed my friend and me at the door, to the range and depth of the display, the variety of activities they offer, and the impressive book and craft shop, I was blown away.

A fantastic range of canoes – over 100 – is on permanent display. From the West Coast Salish large, sturdy vessels whose hulls are hewn from red cedar trees, and which are used to navigate in rough Pacific waters. To tiny slips of canoes delicately crafted from birch bark that designed to glide along the small rivers of the east coast. To impressive, watertight kayaks that insulate the paddler from ice cold Arctic seas.

And then there are the celebrity canoes. Three high-end canoes presented to various royal personages including Diana, Princess of Wales are suspended from the ceiling. (Alas the People’s Princess didn’t appear to be a fan of this mode of transport – a sign says that as far as anyone can tell she didn’t ever use hers and it does look like its in suspiciously pristine condition. This is in contrast stark contrast to Prince Andrew, Duke of York, who went to boarding school nearby and borrows his from time to time). A gorgeous beaded jacket and gloves worn by former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau is elegantly displayed in a glass case.

And for hard core canoeing fans, there is a permanent exhibit in honour of canoeist extraordinaire Herb Phol, Canada’s most famous paddler. Unfortunately, like painter Tom Thompson before him , Pohl died while canoeing.

Museologists give pride of place to the canoe in their rendition of Canadian history. First Nations used canoes to navigate established trade routes along the continents waterways. They, in turn, guided the Europeans, who then consolidated local and regional knowledge into detailed maps. In the mid 19th century, geologists paddled canoes to survey mineral deposits. The RCMP even used canoes to keep the peace. The humble canoe kept on proving its worth.

Artfully constructed dioramas bring all this history to life. An example of a typical heavily stocked canoe attests to the fact that the courier du bois did not travel light – one canoe could carry up to 8000 lbs of goods and supplies. With up to 150 portages along one route from Montreal to Fort Chipewyan in the northwestern Alberta, the sheer athleticism of these men is impressive especially when you consider that all the material had to be pulled out of a canoe, moved, and repacked each time. Makes me ashamed of any complaining I’ve done schlepping bags while going through airports.

A replica of an overnight camp was so inviting, I temporarily forgot my intense fear of bears, and wanted to sign up for a canoe trip just so I could sleep around a campfire in the shadow of an upside down canoe. Which, as it turns out, is a program that the Canoe Museum offers to both adults and children.

Less than 20 years old, the museum’s holdings now number more than “600 canoes, kayaks and paddled watercraft” from around the world. They have an artist in residence. Canoe restoration workshops. Even float and flow yoga classes.  Ambitious plans to expand are underway – an international architectural competition to find the ideal architect has been launched. When the ice melts, I am very much looking forward to returning. And, who knows, I may even learn how to paddle and become a proper Canadian.

Medalta: Canada’s Internationally Renowned Ceramics Arts Centre, the Gem of Medicine Hat

Medalta is one of Canada’s best-kept secrets. Nestled against the red cliffs of the South Saskatchewan River in Medicine Hat, this beautiful, old brick factory and clay works has become one of the premiere ceramic arts centres in the world. Occupying over 40 acres, the setting is a unique combination of bucolic and dramatic; the magnitude of the prairie sky with its vast and ever changing canopy provides a striking backdrop for the industrial grandeur of the site.

Shortly after my arrival in Medicine Hat, Barry Finkelman, Medalta’s gregarious and indomitable Executive Director and General Manager called me. He had gotten word that I’d directed Brick by Brick: the Story of Evergreen Brickworks, an award winning documentary about another adaptive reuse design and suggested a screening which would involve comparing and contrasting the two projects. As it turned out, Barry was also a transplanted Torontonian. He and I had even grown up in the same part of the city. Between our affection for The Big Smoke and our shared interests in the intersections of history and culture, we quickly forged a friendship.

Extruder Room, Medicine Hat Brick and Tile at Medalta. It is now open for public tours.
Extruder Room, Medicine Hat Brick and Tile at Medalta. It is now open for public tours.

Decades back when Barry started at Medalta, he was just a crazy kid with a dream. The site was more crumbling ruins than anything else and you had to look hard to see the potential. Moreover, many locals, who had worked under extreme conditions inside the plant, harboured less than positive feelings about the space.

Medalta Workers. Photo Credit: Friends of Medalta Society Archive
Medalta Workers. Photo Credit: Friends of Medalta Society Archive
Photo Credit: Peel Library, University of Alberta
Photo Credit: Peel Library, University of Alberta

Nonetheless, funds were raised, people hired, and over the decades, the vision realized. With its 10 kilns – including a soda kiln, car kiln and large gas car kiln – Medalta draws artists and artisans both from Alberta and around the world. It has also become a community hub, hosting a weekly farmers market, special events like an interactive Hallowee’en installation that is a must see for kids and adults alike, and has becoming an exceedingly popular venue for wedding receptions and other events with waiting lists a year long.

Medalta Artist Resident and Stojich Fellow Paula Cooley. Photo Credit: Medalta
Medalta Artist Resident and Stojich Fellow Paula Cooley. Photo Credit: Medalta
Medalta Artist Resident Katie Stone. Photo Credit: Medalta
Medalta Artist Resident Katie Stone. Photo Credit: Medalta

Visiting ceramic artists are able to choose from four separate residency programs ranging in length from two to twelve months. Participants are often housed in the community, though Barry is currently busy with plans to convert part of the former Medicine Hat Brick & Tile factory to an on site residence. However, one standalone dwelling will be specially remodeled for one of Canada’s foremost ceramic artists, James Marshall. On the day I toured the site, he was busily marking up a concrete floor with chalk, indicating just where he wanted walls for his new home to go.

Medicine Hat Potteries (Hycroft) shut down in 1986.
Medicine Hat Potteries (Hycroft) shut down in 1986.

For other visual artists, such as Barbara Mitchell, Medalta itself is the muse. During the course of a lengthy archeological excavation, Barb and her collaborator Sheridan Bullman took inspiration from the dig. They created a series of eight 4’ by 6’ immersive photographic canvases that, along with a video work, resulted in the exhibition Re-History, shown last summer at the Esplanade Gallery. These striking industrial ‘portraits’ were immensely popular and the duo is exploring touring the show.

Photographer and Filmmaker Barbara Mitchell in her studio preparing exhibition 'Re-History'.
Photographer and Filmmaker Barbara Mitchell in her studio preparing exhibition ‘Re-History’.

With my academic background in history and armchair interest in architecture, I was taken with both the historical artifacts and the sheer physicality of the site. Fortunate to be invited on many tours, as I walked through the kiln buildings, drying rooms and old factory floors, each time I marveled at some new element: the cinematic light that pieced through the building’s exterior shell; the stillness now almost engulfing a once deafening workplace; and the cool, almost damp interiors which contrasted with the dry hot heat of an Albertan summer day.

Medicine Hat Potteries (Mycroft) factory floor left much as it would have been when in operation. This section of Medalta is not yet open for public tours.
Medicine Hat Potteries (Mycroft) factory floor left much as it would have been when in operation. This section of Medalta is not yet open for public tours.

Once a major centre for clay products, Medalta and other neighbouring Historic Clay District industries supplied Canada and the United States with everything from bricks to sewer pipes – all necessary infrastructure material for a rapidly urbanizing continent. By the early part of the 20th century, Medalta Potteries had became well known for its crockery and pottery, at one point even producing a specially ordered set of dishes for the Ethiopian Emperor Halie Selassie.

Creamer with image of Emperor Haile Selassie. Amongst Rastafarians, he is worshiped as the returned Messiah. Photo Credit: Medalta
Creamer with image of Emperor Haile Selassie. Amongst Rastafarians, he is worshiped as the returned Messiah. Photo Credit: Medalta
1952 Medalta Pottery produced for Rosh Pina Synagogue. Photo Credit: Medalta
1952 Medalta Pottery produced for Rosh Pina Synagogue. Photo Credit: Medalta

Today Medaltaware is a collector’s item, commanding a high price. A vast array of all these artifacts is artfully displayed in the Medalta Museum. Part of the collection is even housed in a restored beehive kiln, which is certainly one of the more unique museum spaces I have encountered. The work of resident ceramic artists is also on display in the Art Gallery. And if all this isn’t enough, tours are available so visitors can get a sense of how the plant operated back in the day.

Little Synagogue on the Prairie: the amazing story of how Alberta’s oldest synagogue was lost and then found

For a pioneer village junkie like myself, Heritage Park beckoned. With over 180 attractions and exhibits, this Calgary based theme park bills itself as “one of North America’s largest and most successful living history museums”. A veritable cornucopia of ‘all things heritage’ it has something for all ages and stages, including an operational early 20th century steam engine train, paddlewheel boat, functioning vintage cars and trucks, historic amusement rides, and if all that isn’t enough, many pioneer buildings.

But of all the wonders that Heritage Park has on offer, one stood out from amongst the rest when I visited on a hot July day last summer. The Montefiore Institute is a pale yellow synagogue, dating from around 1916. The oldest synagogue in Alberta, it  is also the only one in a historic park in Canada, and one of the few remaining rural synagogues in North America. It is a magnificent find, a rarity in heritage circles, and I would argue, the jewel in the crown of Heritage Park’s vast holdings.

Now almost 100 years old, the synagogue was constructed by Jewish immigrants in Sibbald, Alberta. They had arrived in Canada from Russia due to the efforts of the London-based Montefiore Institute, whose members wanted to create a better life for their persecuted brethren. This ambitious and optimistic plan had one serious limitation: drought. The region was simply too dry to farm, and by 1927, most of the inhabitants had left, many – not surprisingly given the severity of Alberta winters – for California.

Taken around 1920, this is the sole surviving photograph of the synagogue in Sibbald, Alberta. At its height, the settlement had about 70 inhabitants.
Taken around 1920, this is the sole surviving photograph of the synagogue in Sibbald, Alberta. At its height, the settlement had about 70 inhabitants.

Eminently practical, nearby settlers purchased the abandoned buildings from the Government of Canada and moved them down the road to nearby Hanna. The synagogue was converted into a private two-bedroom house, inhabited by the same family for close to 70 years.

Were it not for the dedicated work of Lethbridge historian Emanuel Cohen who spent decades painstakingly tracking the synagogue down, it might have been lost to history. In possession of only a single photograph, which documented what the building looked like, members of Calgary’s Jewish Community had already begun negotiations with Heritage Park to erect a reconstruction so as to reflect the history of Alberta’s early Jewish settlers when Cohen finally found the original building.

Montefiore Institute on the move. Photo credit Richard Pitman, Hanna Herald
Montefiore Institute on the move. Photo credit Richard Pitman, Hanna Herald

Dubbed The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project, money was raised to transport it to its current site and restore it. Because the building had been left pretty much intact, restoration was fairly straightforward. According to an exhibit now inside the synagogue, heritage experts were able to quickly discover the original paint colours and layout. Even the Star of David on the facade survived – boards had been placed across the tympanum when a private home. The Montefiore Institute had functioned as a house of worship, a school, and a place of study; housing over 1,000 books in English, Hebrew and Yiddish. Two of those books still survive.

Restored, the Montefiore Institute is a wonderful, restrained example of prairie architecture. Modest though it may be in scope, I found it a profoundly moving testimony to the many individuals who came to Canada to escape persecution and build a better life for themselves and their children. Their lives were not easy but their faith was great.

The Sands of Time: Eztikom and Alberta’s Vanishing Towns

Though I am a big fan of the hustle and bustle of city life, the flip side of our increasingly urbanized world, is that small towns are not only being depopulated but they are also simply disappearing. In Canada, perhaps nowhere is this more visible than on the prairies. In his 1962 autobiography Wolf Willow, Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Stegner, wrote that when he returned to East End, Saskatchewan, his hometown, as an adult, he discovered that it had fewer inhabitants then when he had been a child. The pace of urbanization has only increased over the last 50 years. In fact, so many frontier and early settlement towns have literally disappeared that in Alberta, I discovered a group had formed to unearth them in order to ensure that local history is preserved. Working with old maps, these casual cartographers are scouring the province to locate the now missing towns. There is yet another group, Vanishing Alberta, devoted to photographing the remaining ruins, buildings and artifacts before they are gone forever.

Last year, I experienced this phenomenon firsthand when I took a road trip with Val, a music teacher, with whom I was working in Medicine Hat. An immensely friendly and lively woman, she had been born just down the road in Eztikom, and we agreed, that come spring, she would take me there.

Though only a short drive, Etzikom is worlds away. Until recently it had been a thriving agricultural community but was fast on its way to disappearing. Like many other buildings, Val’s home had been boarded up and abandoned. A few residents still held on but now had to drive miles for basic groceries, as there were no longer stores of any kind. Local legend had it that an out of province author had seen a beautiful old home at an agreeable price online and had bought it sight unseen. Upon arriving and discovering that she was unable to buy even milk in town, she lasted not even a year before heading back to more convenient, less isolated parts.

In an attempt to keep the town alive and draw tourists, residents had turned the local high school into a museum and, I will say unequivocally, the Etzikom Museum did not disappoint. It was full of delightful and unexpected curiosities. Old classrooms had been transformed into display halls with artifacts and remnants of rural town life. The entrance hall, outside what would presumably have been the principal’s office, now housed the interior of the town’s old diner. We were able to slide onto round stools and order a tasty, locally made snack. One former classroom housed a terrific collection of pianos and player pianos with rolls, which once inserted, could belt out tunes from yesteryear. Val gamely sat down at a beautiful old square piano and gave the keys a whirl. Though now a little out of tune, back in the day I could only imagine how comforting the sound of the piano’s music must have been to early settlers who found themselves so remote from concert halls. Val’s playing and the sights of the town outside brought to mind Willa Cather’s searing portrait of rural American prairie life, The Song of the Lark.

Windmill Collection, Etzikom Museum, Etzikom, Alberta
Windmill Collection, Etzikom Museum, Etzikom, Alberta

Outside, I toured the impressive collection of windmills that had been installed in the school’s former playground. Little did I know how important this device had been to the settlement of southeastern Alberta. Etzikom is located in Palliser Triangle, a region so dry that until the importation of the windmill, it was virtually uninhabitable. Companies like Eaton’s did a brisk mail order trade with newly arrived settlers.

Boyd Stevens, Orion, Alberta
Boyd Stevens, Orion, Alberta

The road home took us past Orion, an even smaller town. Most homes there had already been swallowed whole by the prairie, the houses already half-filled with earth blown in by fierce winds. Orion was home to only two inhabitants, octogenarian Boyd Stevens and “the widow who lives down the road”. When I asked him if he would consider moving, now that there was virtually nobody around, without hesitation he responded no. He had tried living other places but to no avail. He always came back to Orion. “I’m an old prairie dog,” he said. Life had picked up a little since a new evangelical church had been constructed a few years back, but the town remained mostly empty, save for Sunday, when folks drive in from nearby farms to worship.

The sun was casting its long rays across the grasses as we drove home. Val pointed out where her mother’s homestead had once stood and the route her mother had taken as a child to get to her one room schoolhouse, which stood at a crest of a nearby hill. Both the home and school have long since disappeared but if you looked hard enough, it was still possible to just make out the old trail her mother had taken those many years ago.

The Things We Hold Dear

Last year, I spent a spell working at Medicine Hat College. Though founded in 1965 and thus a relative newcomer on the academic scene, the college laid claim to some history. Proudly displayed outside the C-Suites on the 2nd floor, was an old painted glass pitcher with several matching glasses. Bequeathed to the college by Vera Bracken, a pioneer woman born in 1909 and after whom the college library is named, her parents had received the glassware as a wedding gift and packed these precious objects into a covered wagon for their cross-country journey. A pretty if not particularly exceptional set, I was drawn to it and moved by the extent to which Vera and her parents had held these fragile items dear. In a small wagon with not much room, tough choices as to what could fit must have been made. And they chose the glassware. Goodness knows what was sacrificed in its place. Extra shoes, cooking implements, chamber pots, perhaps even the family dog.

What we choose to keep and take with us when we move is highly idiosyncratic. My Austro-Hungarian grandmother, fleeing from the Russians at the end of the Second World War, packed a pressed Edelweiss flower so she would always carry with her a memory of home. My mother, a devoted reader, brought her beloved children’s books with her when she emigrated from England by steamer. And I myself have carted hunks of grey concrete from the Berlin Wall in an aluminum frame knapsack across countries and continents.

Susanna Moodie. Collections Canada
Susanna Moodie. Collections Canada

In Sisters in the Wilderness, the remarkable biography of Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Trail, author Charlotte Gray recounts, that in the vain hope of recreating elements of her genteel British life in Upper Canada, Susanna Moodie selected a Coalport tea service to take with her when she emigrated in 1832. The china survived a sea journey, rough roads to her first homestead and almost made it to her second home intact when careless movers caused the wagon to tip over and the service was smashed beyond repair. For Susanna, it was a devastating psychological experience.

On a happier note, children’s book author Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie series fame gives special place in her novels to the china shepherdess that her mother brings with them throughout her peripatetic childhood. More than just a beautiful object that signifies the creation of a new home, the shepherdess represents civilization itself. She embodies all the family has left behind and hopes to build, and it is almost the only object that has any real emotional value beyond Pa’s fiddle.

Laura Ingalls Wilder at 70. Hoover Library
Laura Ingalls Wilder at 70. Hoover Library

In an age where we are encouraged to fill larger and larger houses with more and more stuff, the impulse to accumulate the new is relentless. Given that we now move an average of 12 times in our lifetime, it is remarkable that we wish to keep anything but the most necessary objects for any length of time at all. All this packing and unpacking can make even the most materialistic of us long to live like a monk.

And yet. Anyone who has gone looking for antiques knows that objects both tell us their story and we, in turn, imbue them with our own. Perhaps it is this dynamic that makes our relationship with stuff so emotional and so visceral. Our cherished possessions affirm who we are and where we come from, and even assert who we might become. Beautiful or ugly, practical or ephemeral, they surprise and delight us with their resiliency and their preservation or destruction marks us indelibly.

Mystery at the Meaford Museum

Friends, who know me, will attest that I am unable to resist a small museum or a good visitors’ centre. It is often in these out of the way and unexpected places that I find anomalies and treasures – objects that give me profound delight, not the least because they are housed in such unassuming places.

And so it was at the Meaford Museum. Racing to the nearby beach and anxious to get in the cool waters of Georgian Bay, I must have passed their doors 50 times without ever going in. However, towards the end of one lazy, hazy day of summer, I found myself drawn inside where two museum staff, listless summer students, interrupted their card game, to sell me a ticket and remind me they were closing shortly.

Possessed by a lifelong fascination with pioneer artifacts, I never fail to be impressed by the fortitude of the early settlers. Theirs was a life of unimaginable hardship. Many were drawn to southern Ontario with false promises of arable and accessible farmable land, only to be greeted by dense forests and rocky fields. Inside this unpretentious Grey County museum, the local story was dutifully laid out. There was the de rigueur smattering of artifacts. I admired the small collection of beautiful ancient hand-sewn quilts – some from scraps of recycled clothing fabric – each attesting to the impulse of people everywhere to create beauty no matter what the circumstances. A pretty china doll, no doubt the precious and treasured toy of a young girl, was displayed beside the utilitarian soap saver, perhaps held equally precious but for entirely different reasons, by her mother.

But it was the chair that took my breath away. What patriarch had sat in that? And to what purpose? Hand carved, exquisitely crafted, I was astonished to discover it was nothing less than the Speaker’s Chair from the House of Commons.

How had it travelled almost 400 miles from Ottawa? It turns out that until 1921, tradition allowed for the Speaker of the House to take his chair with him when he retired. So The Honorary Thomas S. Sproule, elected to Parliament in 1878 and made Speaker in 1911, brought the impressive piece back to Georgian Bay upon his retirement.

So many questions went through my mind – once home, what would you do with such an astonishingly beautiful chair. Where did he put it in his house? Did he have parties during which, after a few drinks, guests could take turns sitting in it? Did his grandchildren sneak on to it, only to be reprimanded and told they were never to sit on it again? Did he like it so much, that he put it at the head of the dinner table so he could eat his dinner each night in elegance? Or did it inspire feelings of melancholy? Gazing upon it, did he cast his mind back to the good old days, missing the action of Parliament and the authority he had held?

Now back in Meaford, perhaps no one listened to him, least of all his children. And what of all the other Speakers and their chairs – where are they? Did they languish in some ancestor’s garage collecting dust, find their way to a Sally Ann when heavy furniture went out of fashion or, more hopefully, end up in various museums across the country?

Minimal digging on my part led me to the Parliament of Canada website where a diligent curator has put together a history of the Speaker’s Chair. No less than 15 chairs were produced between 1867 and 1917, divided into roughly 6 distinctive designs. Sproule’s was handcrafted in Dundas, Ontario by the Valley City Seating Company though it doesn’t merit a mention. Much as I would hate to see Sproule’s Chair leave the Meaford Museum, it would be wonderful to see a collection of all of these impressive antiques brought together. Scattered across the country, perhaps the time has come, for these important symbols of Canada’s democracy to be brought back together and proudly displayed.

As for Sproule, he was a doctor by profession and both he and his wife were avid teatotalers. He lived in Markdale, Ontario  with his wife and one daughter. Speaker from 1911-1915, his claim to fame is that he was the first Speaker of the House to call out a member of the House for ‘disorderly conduct’. In 1915, due to ill health, he resigned and was named to the Senate. He died two years later. As to what use he and his family made of the Chair, that remains a mystery.

Motion Pictures Potency

TIFF is currently in full swing and while there are many, many great films to screen, I recently came across a perfect gem of a movie on DVD, Electric Edwardians: The Lost Films of Mitchell and Kenyon. Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon travelled through Edwardian Britain filming ordinary local people in the morning and then holding screenings later the same day so that these folks could delight in seeing themselves on the big screen. This was a lucrative business for a number of years until the audience tired of watching themselves and demanded narrative. The two men abandoned the business and placed the negatives beneath the floorboards of a house. Packed in tin canisters, these precious films were discovered close to a hundred years later when the building was slated to be demolished. Painstakingly and lovingly restored by the British Film Institute, Electric Edwardians is a sample of the most compelling of the found footage, set to a sublime musical score by Klive and Nigel Humberstone. As an added bonus on the DVD (which should almost be screened first), some of the films’ restorers and historians talk about the complex technological task of bringing Mitchell and Kenyon’s work back to life. Watching the documentary is one of the closest things to time travel I have ever experienced. Often the subjects look right into the lens, kids ham it up for the camera, and the net effect is as melancholy as it is magical.

Children Phys Ed Demonstration 1904, from Electric Edwardians

Closer to home, when I was working on my film on the history of the Evergreen Brickworks, I stumbled across some early films of Toronto at the wonderful and underused City of Toronto Archives. Canada’s visual records are alas not nearly as well organized and preserved as in other countries. Much of the Libraries Canada’s collection is not available on line and can only be screened in Ottawa. It’s a real shame because nothing quite brings the past to life like a – beautifully restored – moving image.

Great Toronto Fire from 1904

At the Steinbeck Museum, Small is Beautiful

I found these two tiny leather bound Dust Bowl migrants diaries incredibly touching. I don’t know if these men were interviewed by Steinbeck when he wrote his 1936  journalistic account of the plight of migrants for the The San Francisco News (his fictional masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath came three years later). But reading the handwritten notes felt intensely intimate, and provided me with a greater sense of the desperation of their lives than all of the rest of the interactive displays in the museum.

“April 21  Worked again to day the price was raised to $.30 per hamper and made 14 hampers witch made us $4.20”

“April 22 – Today we had something different. Rain and it rained most all day. Couldn’t do any thing but stay in the tent and read”

“April 23 – The boss gave us a cabin to live in so we moved our stuff in. Lo worked all day and me only a half day. Got $2.00 for our trouble”

Finding a diary from another age is always moving, always feels like a priviledge.  Amanda Vickery’s fascinating TV series At Home With the Georgians. used private diaries and letters to great effect to bring the past to life.

Closer to home, my old prof from McGill, Historian Andree Levesque is collecting the letters and diaries of unknown Quebecers of all backgrounds to create a vast archive that let us know what life was like in Quebec. Check out this  incredibly ambitious project:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/life-video/video-why-this-quebec-historian-wants-your-memories/article7128129/

Random California

Just came back from a brief visit to San Francisco, hanging with Cousin Tom and family. What’s not to love?! Left a cold Canadian winter behind only to find myself a few short hours later wearing nothing but a sundress and shades. Spring is in the air, flowers blooming, and everyone was out and about enjoying President’s Day weekend and the unseasonably warm temperatures.

Highlights for me included a glorious, relaxed lunch at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. In a world of over hyped food, Chez Panisse lived up to, and even exceeded its reputation.  Delicious. Unique. Fresh and Simple. Some of the best food I have ever had.

Next down to Oakland. I loved Novella Carpenters endearing, quirky book Farm City and had the Cousin drive me around until we located it.  Alas Novella was out of town but new curbside plantings were in evidence (was that a fruit tree and artichoke plant?) and the garden was being prepped for spring. The colourful graffiti that adorned the nearby buildings was really cool.

At sunset we also wandered around Berkeley where students scurried around in sundresses and shorts (talk about an alien culture – I went to one of the coldest campuses in Canada where our regular attire was parkas and snow boots, leaving only our eyes exposed). Had drinks in the beautiful, tree house like Faculty Club with friends from McGill now on staff.

But it was the flora, the fauna, the sun, the sand, the ocean – although still cold – that stole the show. However in the end there is really no place like home.