Torris Travels

Torris Travels

0 comment Thursday, April 24, 2014 |
Tardiness is my Achilles heel. Chronic lateness has caused me no end of anxiety, the loss of a few jobs, and more than one strained relationship. But despite my best efforts it continues to occupy the next-to-top spot on my list of personal flaws.
It�s not that I don�t care about being on time. I hate to be late, but my estimation of the time it takes to complete a task is often wildly optimistic. So even though I should have known better, it seemed entirely reasonable that I could get up at nine o�clock, clean the whole house, hem two pair of jeans, make some freezer-ready meals for my kids, pack my bags, have a shower and walk the dog, and still be ready to leave for the airport by four in the afternoon to catch my flight overseas.
As usually happens when I load too much to do into too little time, the hours sped by. When it got to be nearly three forty-five, logic should have told me to ditch the shower I still hadn�t had, but my horror of being in public with yucky hair trumped rational thought. All the way to the airport I simmered with anxiety. I doubted that my youngest son had ever driven so carefully, but still we made it to the terminal just under the wire�one hour and five minutes before flight time.
The line of passengers checking in was short, although everyone seemed to have time-consuming issues with seat selection or overweight bags. I avoided looking at my watch. Normal people don�t get this, but we tardy ones rationalize that if we don�t look at the time, we might not actually be late. Seriously.
Finally it was my turn. I handed my passport to the woman behind the desk, who typed speedily, frowned deeply and then signaled to a supervisor. They conferred for a moment then he uttered words I never thought I would hear, despite having played fast and loose with check-in times all my traveling life.
"I�m sorry, but you will not be able to board this flight due to your late arrival at check-in." My knees buckled. He might as well have told me I had 24 hours to live. We had a little back-and-forth, the supervisor and I, with me pointing out that I had actually been standing in line before the 60-minute cut-off. He informed me�officiously, I imagined�that what mattered was the moment I presented myself to a check-in agent.
I pointed out a few other things, such as how it was essential for me to be on this flight, and that this was all ridiculous anyway, because the plane was there, and I could get to it in time. But your bags won�t, he said, and that�s why there are minimum check-in times. I stooped a bit lower and tried to pull some imaginary rank by saying that I traveled this route all the time, with the implication that I was a Very Important Passenger. In that case, you should know better than to arrive late, he said.
Ouch.
I begged. Implored. I detest using emotion to manipulate, but I even turned on a few tears. Nothing doing. Now, I know that getting mad is the last desperate card of self-righteous people and it never, ever, works, but my sickening disappointment left no room for any kind of reasonableness. I tried to intimidate him. I demanded to know his name and position and let him know � without yelling, mind you � how displeased I was with the treatment I was getting. In a very regrettable way, I tried my best to shift the blame to him, but he was immovable; a granite block without a whiff of empathy about him . I had to give it up.
The agent who reissued my ticket couldn�t have been nicer. He saw only my distress, not the uglier flip side. While I waited to find out how much my mistake was going to cost, I cooled off a bit and did some hard thinking. The whole thing had been no one�s fault but my own and I had made things tough for someone who was only doing his job. It didn�t feel very good.
The agent handed me a new ticket, now routed through London instead of Frankfurt. He shook his head when I reached for my credit card. "Don�t worry about it," he said. That did it. Relief dissolved what was left of my fear and anger and I resolved to track down Granite Man and tell him I was sorry.
I found him at the departure gate of my original flight�ironically, the plane was still there, delayed by forty five minutes�and offered my regrets for having made his job more difficult. He looked unconvinced and only reluctantly accepted my handshake. I slunk away hardly feeling any better.
An hour later, there he was again at the door of the London-bound plane. I figured I�d just pretend to be invisible, but as I tried to slip past him he said something totally unexpected. He asked, kindly, if everything had worked out in the end. And he apologized. For having upset me with bad news. For having appeared to be unfeeling, when in fact he had felt very sorry for me. It was the only way he could make himself do something he hated, he explained. I nearly hugged him. Then he asked to have my boarding pass and told me to wait a moment.
On the way to London, I had lots of time to reflect on human behavior and how, when we lose objectivity, the spillover is sometimes hard to contain. How important it is to be responsible for what we do. How we err when we make assumptions about others and how disarming an apology can be�although to be completely honest, I don�t know how easily these conclusions would have come had I not been spared paying a stiff fee. And thanks to the decency of the person I had affronted, I was enjoying an upgrade to business class.
That might have been the entirely satisfactory end of it all. But as I made my way to my connecting flight at Heathrow airport, I spotted a familiar face in the crowd. It�s a bit disingenuous to think that this improbable stroke of luck might have been a reward for being tardy, or sorry, or both. But still.
"Mom!! " My eldest son grabbed me in a bone-crushing hug. "I'm about to leave for Amsterdam. What the hell are YOU doing here?"
Well, it�s kind of a long story. But you know how I�m always late...?

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0 comment Tuesday, April 22, 2014 |
When I need a break from writing my best-selling novel, the internet is the place I go � it�s so much less stressful than trying to move that pivotal sex scene forward with dialogue. I take a look at the news for the umpteenth time, re-read my sent emails and sometimes do a little online shopping. I prefer that to the real thing for several reason; for starters, there�s the phenomenal choice minus the pressure to buy, and there�s no clerk eyeing your every move when you say you�re 'only looking�.
(According to the French newsmagazine l�Express, only 2% of online browsers actually make a purchase from sites they visit, compared to 55% of walk-in shoppers in the real world. This is no surprise, but the French love a challenge and have set up a sort of bureau for the Conversion of the Reluctant E-Shopper. Just imagine what the Russians could do with that.)
Generally I only ever shop online for two things � cheap airline tickets and big shoes. Like 4 out of 5 women, I have a thing for footwear, but by an accident of genetics I have been denied the thrill of investing in the money pit that is a closet full of shoes. On my first visit to the UK in 1969 � when Buying British was still a bargain � my right foot was measured by a weedy shoe shop clerk who was so astonished by the result that he blurted, 'Good Lord, Miss, your feet are enormous!!� Fourteen-year-old girls do not handle news like this well, especially when it makes other people�s heads turn.
That traumatic experience has haunted me since. When I want new footwear (as opposed to needing any) I either go online or to the one out-of-the-way store in Canada where asking for my size doesn�t get a blank look or a giggle. Sometimes I forget myself when I�m in a shopping centre, overcome by a yearning desire to have a pair of lovely shoes like the ones in the window. There�s a special tone I use for these occasions � casual, not obviously hopeful, an I�m-a-big-girl-and-I-can-take-rejection � because I already know perfectly well that I�m wasting my time and no they won�t have those Manolo Blahnik knock-offs in a size 12US/10UK/43.5EU.
So yesterday I wandered over to the Clarks UK website because the ugly, cloggy, incredibly comfortable things currently on my feet are starting to wear out. Clarks has always been faithful to my particular needs, even if their stuff is not exactly what you want to wear to the opera. I ticked the option to sort results by size and came up with�exactly nothing. Never mind the style, there was not a single pair of shoes my size to be found on the entire website!
Dear Clarks, I emailed, please tell me there�s some mistake.
The answer came back within the hour, assuring me that Clarks and Co understood my distress, but that, 'regrettably, due to a drop in popularity of size 10s� they had taken the difficult decision to discontinue this size.
A DROP in POPULARITY?? What, size 10s just aren�t trendy any more? Or maybe I've been missing out on the whole optional part of shoe sizing, in which case I want to be a 7!
Are big-footed women abandoning shoe-wearing altogether, or have they become an endangered species? Gad, maybe it�s an age-related thing and we�re dying out. Get me some duct tape. I�m going to have to keep these things going for a while yet.

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0 comment Monday, April 21, 2014 |

The south-eastern corner of British Columbia is a mountainous, thinly populated region known for its rugged beauty, abundant natural resources and a rough-and-ready past. Running parallel to the Canada-US border is the Crowsnest Pass, location of two of the worst mine disasters in Canadian history, the cataclysmic, murderous collapse of Turtle Mountain, and a reputation as a wild and lonely place. It was also the setting for the strangest experience of my life.
In the mid-seventies I was one of a small group of casual friends whose common interest was motorcycling, and early one summer evening we left Calgary for a few days of fun riding through the mountains, heading across the border and through Idaho. Our ultimate destination was Spokane, about five hundred miles to the south-west, give or take a few extra miles of detours to take our pleasure on sinuous secondary roads.
By the time midnight was several hours gone, we were well into the Pass, and it had started to snow. Our pace slowed, both for safety and comfort. Riding at low temperatures is an exercise in bloody-mindedness and the wind chill factor at even 50 mph makes it feel like the high Arctic. We were also getting tired, and I was not the only one nervous about losing control on the increasingly slick road. The Crowsnest Pass highway is dotted with the remains of once-thriving coal towns, some still clinging to life, others virtually abandoned, and we decided that at the next one we would call it a night.
Soon enough, out of the blackness came the relief of a neon sign, blinking wetly in the falling sleet. It announced a hotel, a clapboard structure that looked cheap and a little rundown but we didn�t care; all we needed was a place to dry off out of the cold and to get a few hours of sleep. We pulled off the road into the empty parking lot, unstrapped our gear and hauled it up the wooden steps to the hotel entrance. Light from the lobby spilled through the glass-fronted doors�a good sign at two o�clock in the morning�but but there was no one at the front desk as we went in. We rang the bell for service and waited, chilled to the bone.
Across from the front desk was a dining room, and after ringing the bell again and waiting for a few more minutes with no response, we peered through the doors to see if we could raise anyone. The lights in the room, which held about twenty tables, were full on, but our calls went unanswered. Somebody remarked that the food must be lousy as nearly every table held the remnants of a meal, with plates half-full of food and untouched glasses of beer. Cigarettes had been left to burn down into sagging tubes of ash. Chairs seemed to have been pushed back hastily and some had toppled over. Uneasy glances passed between us; the place felt eerie, hurriedly abandoned.
A narrow staircase led up from the lobby and we moved towards it in unison, bunched together and laughing nervously, a little too loudly. I figured I�d be safe with four guys but they sounded as apprehensive as I felt, and it wasn�t at all reassuring. On the second floor, rooms led off the hallway, some with closed doors, some wide open, lights on. Clothing was scattered everywhere, beds were unmade, messy. A red negligée lay puddled on the floor of one room and somebody wisecracked that the place must have been a brothel, raided in full flagrante delicto.
But the negative vibes were strong and we didn�t want to spend any more time up there speculating about the possibilities. No one wanted to stay, but going back out into the freezing night was not only unappealing, but risky.
Back downstairs, we tried to make light of it all. There must have been a police raid either for drugs or illicit sex, and that would explain everything. Someone pointed out that there had been no cars in the parking lot. Surely if the hotel patrons had been arrested, they wouldn�t have been allowed to take their own cars? What would make people leave so suddenly? And why did it feel so odd, as if the air were heavy with dread?
After a low-voiced consultation we decided to hole up in a corner of the dining room with a good view of the doorway and try to get some sleep on the floor. We arranged ourselves to be as close together as possible, and I was grateful for the chivalrous offer of an inside position. We hunkered down, all except for Pete, who sat upright against the wall and, to my consternation, drew a 9mm Luger from his pack to rest on his lap. No damn way he could sleep, he said. Too f-ing weird in here.
We slept fitfully, and just after dawn we were up, hastily pulling our stuff together, not willing to spend another minute in the place. In the gray, chill light we roared away one by one, leaving behind a nameless, deserted town and an enduring mystery.
This experience came back to me when my son returned a few days ago from a road trip that took him through that same part of the country. He and his girlfriend stayed at a hotel that seemed all right when they checked in, but once in their room he was taken over by a sense of foreboding so strong that he became violently sick to his stomach. In the morning his girlfriend woke up with the same feeling and they couldn�t get out of there soon enough. In Malcolm Gladwell�s 'Blink� he writes of our instinctive and sometimes unconscious reactions to events, people and situations�messages that we often ignore, sometimes at our peril. What were we reacting to? I have often wondered if the place I stayed in was haunted, and my son is convinced that his hotel room was.
What about your stories? Have you experienced something odd that had no rational explanation and was left to float in the vague, unsettling realm of the paranormal?

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0 comment Sunday, April 20, 2014 |
Dear Mom, Just finished baking a whole lot of your gingersnap cookies this afternoon, only about the fourth time in ten years that I�ve managed to do any kind of Christmas baking. In the lean years � and by that I mean the years when I haven�t been able to get my act together enough to do more than presents, turkey and tree � I missed the gingersnaps the most. And it felt a bit like I was letting everybody down, although Eldest Son certainly didn�t mind. He might have loved them as much as his siblings had I not eaten my way through an entire bowl of uncooked dough back when I was breast-feeding him. I kept getting interrupted just when I was about to roll and bake them, and the bowl sat in the fridge for a couple of days. Gradually emptying, spoonful by raw spoonful. Poor kid � no wonder he has an aversion to ginger. But the rest of us love your recipe, which was your mother�s before that. Ginger chews they are really, so long as they�re not left in the oven long enough to crisp. Now the oversized cookie jar is full to the brim, and what wouldn�t fit in there has gone into a Christmas box for the neighbours. I pray that I�ll be able to leave them alone, but the jar is see-through glass and I might have to put it in the basement until Christmas Day, just to get it out of my peripheral vision. Mom, you�d probably look askance at the tree we�ve got this year. It�s a nice enough little thing, reasonably full and not dropping any needles yet, but the decorations went up in record time and frankly, it shows. Your trees were always beautiful, so artfully arranged, with reflective orbs suspended just so over the lights for maximum effect. I remember the year that Dad got fed up with your tree-trimming instructions (interference, he called it) and, in a fit of uncharacteristic exasperation, took handfuls of tinsel and just threw them at the tree. I was the only person who thought that was funny. Our tree is a happy medium between perfectionism and random tinsel-tossing although maybe just once, some year when I don�t also have to produce dinner or wrap presents. I�ll decorate a tree all in blue and silver, or red and gold. My kids would be disappointed by such loveliness, though. Many of our best decorations were hand-made by the craftiest woman in the family and even if they don�t shine, they mean a lot to us. But back to those cookies, Mom. The recipe says that 12 teaspoons of ginger, 8 cups of flour and 1/2 cup each of molasses and golden syrup will make, along with the other essential ingredients, 20 dozen cookies. I only got about 14 out of it, and I didn�t roll them in sugar either. It�s a new world, Mom. People watch their weight now, although the stats say that we�re more overweight than ever. As it is, I�m damn lucky I got Dad�s metabolism, otherwise I�d weigh about three thousand pounds. Unlike a penchant for sewing, the gift for turning out delicious cakes and cookies didn�t skip a generation. While you were precision itself in the making of blazers and other complex garments, I was of the 'Make-It-Tonight� school of tailoring and your granddaughter would be hard pressed to even hem a pair of jeans. She is, however, a baker extraordinaire. Dessert on Christmas Eve will her offering, and if you were here to sup with us, you�d be asking for seconds. Not to be confused with the Eating Contest that seems to have become a tradition among the younger set at Christmas, the appeal of which is utterly lost on me. All I can think of is that Japanese kid who makes a living, revoltingly, out of stuffing himself. We�ll be about ten around the table tomorrow night, a nearly two-fold increase from the years when you were still with us. Christmas was always too quiet, despite the eight cousins and their progeny who lived within shouting distance. The great divide between you and their mother had a spill-over effect on the rest of us, although the real reason might be the merciless teasing visited on my eight-year-old self by the eldest one. And I always suspected that they liked their other cousins - the ones that weren�t related to me - better. If Dad�s brother hadn�t gone and married your lovely younger sister, I would have had some cousins all to myself too. The recipe box is a treasure trove of memories, and I have fun looking through it. There�s your 'Never Fail Pastry�, written in a younger hand, the 60s 'Festive Mulled Wine�, and the perennial favourite: 'Rhoda�s Cheese Balls�. Those got made last night and slung in the freezer right away. The only way I can control my appetite for salty, savoury things like that is to put them out of sight and hope they stay out of mind. You know, Mom, I�m basically an atheist. All that stuff about life-ever-after is just nonsense, if you ask me. When you�re done, you�re done, and whoever is left behind better just get on with it. But still, I find myself talking to you in my head, and wondering if I�m getting through to you. That�s what happened this afternoon, while I was rolling those fourteen dozen cookies. Telling you that, despite the down-market Christmas tree, you�d be pretty pleased to know that I still make your ginger cookies and that I love the fact that the recipe is in your handwriting. I never understood why you thought your writing was messy and childish. It�s perfectly legible and absolutely you. It�s also the last tangible connection I have with you and helped me make-believe that you really were in my kitchen this afternoon, with the sun pouring through the window and carols playing on the radio. Merry Christmas, Mom. Miss you. Love you. Your daughter

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0 comment Friday, April 18, 2014 |
A couple of weeks ago I suggested to my faraway cousin Kathryn that she get a Facebook account so we could keep in closer touch. Her reaction was lukewarm. Both of her almost-grown children were on it and she knew enough about the tell-almost-all atmosphere of social networking sites to know that she�d probably be faced with things she�d rather not know. "And they might not want me to be there either, which would be hard to take."
I had resisted Facebook for quite a while too, mostly since it seemed pointless for a relative introvert who had only three friends in high school and didn't go to university. My offspring were old hands at Facebooking but from my point of view, online socializing made for pretty superficial relationships. Then there�s all those privacy issues, and don�t even get me started on what a time-waster it is. Seeing my daughter absorbed in Facebook at midnight when she had an exam in the morning took all the self-control I had not to pull the plug on the internet.
But I�m not always around my children. In fact, I�m away from them more often than not, living on the other side of the ocean while they lead independent lives, working and studying, partying, snowboarding, jamming in the basement with friends. MSN has always been my communication mode of choice but instant messaging is dependent on physical availability, and I�ve spent a lot of time waiting and hoping for signs of life eight hours behind me.
And sometimes real-time chats are a bit like pulling teeth, especially with my biggest son whose tolerance for extended communication via keyboard is seriously limited. Around the two-minute mark in a conversation, he invariably needs to have an immediate shower, go to the gym or make something to eat. I got worried that we would soon be out of each other�s orbit altogether.
But when my daughter came back from Asia with hundreds of photos and uploaded the best to her Facebook page, I began to think there might be a point after all to having my own account. If we were FB friends, then I could enjoy her pictures right away without having to remind her for weeks to email me 'just a few, please?�
So I climbed on. Within a week I had collected a whole six friends� half of whom were my own kids. I got to see the Asia pictures, and then spent some time wandering around other people�s pages. It turned out to be kind of fun � in a voyeuristic sort of way � to read the wall posts about last night�s party, the latest travel adventures or the best strategy for a better grade in that Friday morning Geomorphology class.
Pretty soon I was checking at least half a dozen times a day to see what was new and who said what to whom. Then a couple of my own kids� childhood friends�people who had been around our dinner table countless times and whose knees I had bandaged � sent me friend invitations. I was flattered, but wasn�t that a little bit weird? Why would they want to share their stuff with a buddy�s middle-aged mom? My son told me that I was the one being weird and to just accept, already.
I got some invitations that I didn�t know what to do with from people I rarely saw and had nothing in common with. My daughter's advice was to just ignore them but I worried that my silence might seem rude. She rolled her eyes. Anybody who took Facebook seriously enough to be offended by a non-response was, in her view, in serious need of therapy. My sons just looked at me like they do when I really don�t get it. Wasn`t that the point of Facebook? More is better, right?
To my amazement, my octogenarian aunt joined up and asked my kids if she could be their friend too. This woman is like a second mother to me, but my children barely know her. What a windfall!! Now distance didn�t matter � they could all get to know each other and do some family bonding without waiting for a funeral or a wedding. I worried a bit about her seeing the photographic evidence of my offspring�s lifestyles � never mind the language they use sometimes � but she�s cool about most things.
"So give me a good reason!" said Kathryn. Well, because Facebook is like a virtual kitchen. It�s the place where kids and friends collect � even if briefly � and almost always leave behind a little something of themselves. Most of the time I hang around on the periphery, enjoying the humour, the smart-ass remarks and the obscure references to things I know nothing about. But more importantly, I�m also privy to nuggets of information that sometimes reveal how they view themselves and others and if life is treating them well � or not. How fun that camping trip was. How they need a new place to live at the end of the month. How great the job is. How it�s time bite the bullet and go back to school.
The kitchen is the perfect place to be an observer; it�s where you�re welcome in the lives of a younger generation as long as judgment and intrusion aren�t part of your act. My virtual kitchen allows me the contact I wouldn�t otherwise have considering how far apart we all are. An affectionate eavesdropper, I pick up littered scraps of news and conversation and drop in my own bits now and then, anticipating that somebody will have something to say in return. I�m rarely disappointed.
Actually, it�s almost as good as the real thing, although I really wish somebody would develop a decent hug application.

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0 comment Thursday, April 17, 2014 |
We are on the final approach to Brussels airport, and my seat belt has been securely fastened the whole way. If my only clue to the nationality of this airline was the 'st�, I�d say it was British. And it is. If ever you want to zoom around Europe for next-to-nothing, Easyjet is the way to go. (Shameless promotion of an airline in which I do not have shares.) From the air, Belgium is a harvest vegetable stew of oranges, reds and yellows on a green backdrop. With few exceptions, vivid fall colours are missing from the autumn landscape in the south-east of France, which stays pretty much green all year round. I miss the definition of the seasons by colour and temperature, although this is only a mild complaint! - anyone lucky enough to live in Provence has no business moaning about anything. From a few thousand feet up, the villages look like they belong to that toy train set my older brothers never let me play with; their matchbox houses built of brick, with steep-pitched roofs. Why is that? There�s no snow to slide off them in winter, so perhaps it�s because of the extra room gained under the eaves. It all reminds me a bit of England, but prettier and less dense. We are picked up at the airport by a welcoming party of two of my Favourite Belgian's children, some grandsons, and a son-in-law who whisk us away to the coastal town of Oostduinkerke to spend the weekend. All of Brussels is on the highway heading west, it seems. High-speed bumper-to-bumper traffic is not something I'll ever get used to, although it's the norm in the densely-populated countries of Europe, whose citizenry heads en masse for the sea, the mountains or the countryside on their days off. Belgium is the Canada of Europe, according to me. To the south is a much bigger, more powerful neighbour with a voice that carries, if not around the world, then at least around Europe. Like Canada, it is a country of two cultures and languages - French and Flemish - that struggle for supremacy against a backdrop of sometimes-bitter history. The level of concession is astonishingly low � if you live in a Flemish-speaking commune but are a Francophone, you�re sunk. All administrative business is conducted in Flemish and you have no right to put so much as a For Sale sign on your lawn in anything other than the official language. Shopkeepers, even those who speak French, are known to refuse to serve French-speakers. The Flamands, chafing from old injustices and an inferiority complex, are known for their refusal to accommodate the Walloons - French-speaking southerners - who are viewed through a historical lens as aristocrats unwilling to acknowledge the linguistic and economic clout of their northern neighbours. Brussels is caught in the middle. As the capital of Belgium and the capital of Flanders, it is a distinct region in its own right and recognizes both French and Flemish as official languages, although only a small minority speak Flemish. French-speakers account for well over half of the population, with the rest taken up by the multitudinous languages of Brussels� international community, the result of both the European Union and NATO being headquartered here. The city is wonderfully cosmopolitan as well as being very attractive, and is at the top of my favourite-cities list. Despite their deep political divisions, Belgians are viewed as friendly, welcoming people with a reputation for unpretentiousness. Like my Quebecois compatriots, they move to the familiar tu more readily than the French. They have a reputation as peace-brokers and negotiators, take no major stands on the international scene, do no sabre-rattling and generally go about their business with a minimum of fuss. Ignoring, for the moment, that they have been unable for months to achieve the necessary compromise to install a functional government acceptable to both sides, Belgium is nevertheless a place that exudes calm, prosperity and efficiency. It's a fascinating place from an architectural point of view. An architect or urban planner would able to explain to me how the Belgians manage to create a sense of uniformity while remaining highly individualistic in their building and house construction, but what comes across to this visitor is a very pleasing originality in which the unexpected is entirely expected. Stone, bricStone, brick and wood are common materials, but what the Belgians do with them is limited only by their considerable imagination. To be expected, of course, of the birthplace of the surrealist René Magritte. On this mild November long weekend, the tidy town is filled with couples, dogs and children strolling the esplanade and the vast, hard-packed beaches. Even at thisEven at this time of year, the outdoor seating areas of the restaurants lining the esplanade are full, their patrons swathed in woollen scarves. Most places offer the Belgian specialties of mussels and fries, or waffles loaded with whipped cream and chocolate. My preference is for le gaufre Bruxellois, a lighter-than-air waffle made with yeast. Its Liège counterpart is heavier, sweeter and irregularly-shaped � both are scrumptious and the variety of toppings nearly limitless. Apart from waffles (and chocolate!), the Belgians are known for their hundreds of varieties of beer and a peculiar habit of eating fries with mayonnaise. Last year when we were here in September, I was lucky enough to catch an unusual sight. There are fewer than a dozen fishermen left along the North Sea who practice the 500-year-old tradition of shrimp fishing on horseback. A net attached to two planks is pulled through the surf behind the horse, catching shrimp and other fish. On my On my bucket list is a horseback ride along a beach like this one, but the older I get the less likely it is to happen. Remember that scene in The Black Stallion, when the boy finally gains the trust of the horse and clambers aboard to canter through the surf? It chokes me up just thinking about it. This weekend holiday at the coast is a lapsed family tradition, renewed in recent years. My FB � the patriarch � has three children from two marriages, and his lovely daughter�s two sons each have their own dad. The French word for a family like this is recomposée, which seems a bit more realistic than 'blended'. I am the only non-Francophone in the mix and the conversation between the younger ones often goes too fast for me to take in everything, but I never feel excluded. They have been warm and welcoming of me from the start. We spend Saturday evening playing cards, making origami figures and watching movies projected onto a lovely old damask tablecloth stuck to the wall, but mid-viewing the duct tape gives way and the screen puddles gracefully to the floor. No matter - we don't mind Nicholas Cage on a cinder-block background. The second day dawns overcast but blooms into sunshine by late morning, perfect for another long beach walk. When I first spotted this little fellow, he had his underwear on, but eventually ended up with nothing at all, much to everyone's amusement. eventually ended up with nothing on at all, to his well-wrapped mother's amusement. Other than us, he and his well-wrapped mother were the only French-speakers we heard in two days in Oostduinkerke. Had to take a spin on a cuistax (from cuisse meaning 'thigh� and tax for 'taxi�) along the esplanade. Every imaginable kind of these wheeled vehicles is available for rent, and I try out a low-slung recumbent tricycle that steers by body lean. After about thirty yards my legs are in agony, but it's more fun than a step machine. I�m dying to try out the bungy swing/jump with my FB�s daughter, but we�re turned down for being too grown-up! Very disappointing � just when I had worked up enough nerve to make a fool of myself. We finish off the day with a fine meal � huge bowls full of steaming, garlicky mussels for the initiated and an excellent steak for me. Next morning we head back to Brussels, with a stop along the way in Ghent, where the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States was put to an official end. The first mechanical weaving machine was also built here, and as a result Ghent became an important centre for the wool industry. A turbulent history saw the city traded back and forth between the Romans and the Franks as well as the Spanish, French and Austrians but these days it is resolutely Flemish. Were it not for the electric tram and the street signs, one could well imagine being transported back into the Middle Ages. I also noticed, not for the first time, how well put-together people generally are. Women do not wear running shoes with ill-fitting jeans. Or ski jackets. Or, god forbid, sweats. Dinner on our last night is put on by my FB's son-in-law, whose skills in the kitchen are second to none. Here is Mario's 'Roulade Paupiettes de Volaille� - too good not to share. Ingredients: Boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Cream cheese, about 1 � Tbsp per chicken breast. (If you can get French cheese, so much the better, otherwise Philadelphia will do.) Sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped (1 per chicken breast) Shichimi Togarashi (Japanese seasoning) Orange zest (optional but adds that little je ne sais quoi that distinguishes a chef from a mere cook) Directions: Place wax paper over opened chicken breasts and flatten with a meat mallet. Mix cream cheese with tomatoes and a feeling of Shichimi Togarashi. (A feeling � pronounced with a French accent � is Mario�s equivalent of 'a bit more than a pinch�) Spread cream cheese mixture on one half of chicken breast. Roll breast, securing with toothpick. Brush lightly with cooking oil. Finish with a sprinkle of orange zest over breasts. Bake at 400F (200C) for about 20 minutes or until cooked through. Serve with oven-roasted potato slices or risotto. Or whatever you like � it�s absolutely delicious no matter what you eat with it. I have no pictures of it, but your imagination can manage something, I�m sure. I'll leave you with a few more Belgian specialities, although my tastes run simpler than these extravagant confections. They're a bit like baked-good version of George Clooney - awfully nice to look at, but out of my league.

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0 comment Wednesday, April 16, 2014 |
In the summer of 1978, I was 24 years old and living more or less happily with my boyfriend in a subsidized apartment just off the ninth hole of the municipal golf course. The rent might have been cheap but the view was million-dollar, extending due east over the rolling greens to the shiny skyscrapers of downtown. In the winter the sunrises were gorgeous, and I presumed, without any personal experience, that the same was true for summer. My kitchen walls were covered in bright floral wallpaper and the tangerine couch in the living room was a hand-me-down from my mother, whose zest for colour turned the suburban bungalow of my childhood from white to pink, then turquoise before finally settling on bright yellow.
I sewed my own clothes from McCall's patterns ('Make it Tonight, Wear it Tomorrow!'), was nice to my neighbours and called my mother at least once a day. I took in a stray cat, was good at my job � good enough to be promoted to Manager until it was discovered that managing the office and managing my arrival time were two separate skill sets � and went to the library once a week, on average. If occasionally I gave crazy drivers the finger or got a warning to pay my overdue heating bill, it wasn't because I was a bad person.
So when a knock at the door one evening interrupted our dinner, I was a little surprised to find two cops standing in the hallway. They eyed me sceptically,
"Deborah Soooodoool?"
"Sudul. It rhymes with poodle. And noodle."
"Oh, we're in the right place then." They both laughed. "We were expecting somebody East Indian." There was really nothing to say to that, so I laughed along with them.
"Looks like you've got a few parking tickets outstanding," said the red-headed one. He looked at a paper in his hand. "Well, more than a few. Nineteen, actually, as of the beginning of this year. Would that be right?"
Well, damn, that would be right.
When the weather was fine, I rode my motorcycle to work because it was fun and cheap and because there was a little space where I could leave it for free behind the office. But when it turned wet or cold, I took the car and played hide and seek with the parking cops, ducking out of the office every few hours to move the car or plug the meter with a couple of quarters. At least twice a month I'd find a ticket under the windshield wiper. The best thing about that was that if I left it there, I was good for the rest of the day. Procrastination ran interference with my best intentions, and tossing the ticket in the glove box put off the annoyance and financial pain of putting a cheque in the mail. It also made it easier to forget.
The two cops seemed to be waiting for me to do something. "Maybe you'd like to get your purse?" the redhead prompted.
"Pardon me?"
"You might want to have that with you when you come downtown. This," he waved the paper at me, "is a warrant for your arrest. ""
He couldn't be serious. I started to laugh, in that hiccup-py kind of way you do when it's involuntary and inappropriate.
The boyfriend offered up some reasonable points about wasted taxpayer money and having bigger fish to fry. We all agreed that this attention on me and my tickets was ridiculous and laughed together as one. I was almost convinced that this jollity would put an end to the whole thing and I could go back to my supper. What it actually meant was that I found myself in the back seat of a police cruiser without any inside door handles.
I hoped my neighbours were blind or completely incurious and slunk down as we drove off, only to stop a few blocks away at a house where a woman was mowing the lawn. Red and his partner got out to talk to her but soon enough, they came back to the car and she resumed her mowing. Red volunteered that she too had a bunch of unpaid fines.
"But she swears that she paid them all yesterday. " He rolled his eyes. "Now, if you'd told us that, we would have given you the benefit of the doubt," he said, helpfully, "at least until tomorrow. I'd put ten bucks on her being at city hall paying them first thing in the morning."
"Really," I said.
It was a windy evening and on the way downtown a big gust blew through the car, scattering papers out the window and over six lanes of traffic, which I took to be a direct intervention from Above. Red's partner threw on the brakes and they both jumped out to chase after their errant paperwork, while I crossed my fingers that the one with my name on it would get sucked into an updraft. Red's triumphant face told me it had not.
We pulled up in the alley behind the police station. The back door had none of the 'Serve and Protect' PR of the public entrance and I started to feel a bit sick. Red brought out a pair of handcuffs � "It's just standard procedure, nothing personal" � and only reluctantly relented when I promised him I'd go along peaceably. Riding up to the fourth floor in an elevator smelling of pee sucked the last bit of humour out of me and when the doors opened to a room full of cops and Red crowing, "Look who we've got!", I thought I might die.
The woman behind the thick glass partition itemized the contents of my purse and when I balked at giving her my scarf, said drily, "We don't want you to hang yourself, honey." Bail was set at $75. I called the boyfriend, who didn't have the cash. The only good thing about that was that I'd already used up my one phone call and it was he who had to call my mother. I didn't know which was worse � being in jail, or being a disappointment.
I was frisked by a matron who clucked disapprovingly over the reason for my visit and led me to a big cell holding half a dozen women, most of whom seemed to be under the influence of substances I generally avoided. Matron took pity on me when I started to cry and put me in a single cell instead, with a sink, a toilet with no seat and a mattress I didn't dare sit on. Smoking was allowed, but I had to make an official request for a light.
After four hours of solitary confinement that felt like twenty-four, my bail was finally processed, but not before I had re-examined my attitudes about the nature of crime and punishment. From the other side of the fence, it seemed like a silly idea to put procrastinators like me, or for that matter, anybody who hadn't actually hurt anyone, in jail. Fraudsters, vandals, petty thieves � surely society would be better served if these people did something useful like painting a community centre or reading to the blind. After reimbursing their victims, of course.
But I have to admit that my time in the slammer made me resolve to do better. I vowed to get up early enough to take the bus to work. To stop procrastinating � about everything. To use the glove box only for Kleenex and the tire pressure gauge. And failing that, to always have bail in my pocket.

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