How to be a good guest

With visitor season in full flood here on Canada’s west coast, I’m reminded of a piece I wrote several years ago about how not to be a guest from hell.

The rules were basic:

Remember your mother’s caution that guests, like fish, stink after three days.

Don’t impose.

Don’t overstay.

Be helpful.

I’ve an addition to the good guest instruction list that will be evident in a few short paragraphs, but indeed, this is the story of my fall from guest grace.

Our friends James and Chris are lovely people: hospitable, generous, and warm. A few years ago they bought a century-old beachfront cottage to which they added an extension with all the mod cons. Their combined kitchen/living room is open and spacious and the view from the dining table is 180 degrees of ocean-front distraction.

It’s heaven.

Ours is a comfortable friendship, in which we fall into easy synch and rarely exhaust conversation. They often invite us to spend the night when we’re in their neighbourhood and, of course, as good guests, we usually decline and stay only for tea or a meal. We try not to impose and are always helpful.

On this particular summer day, James was filling the kettle – an old timey whistler by the look of it – when we stopped by. Chris was at the stove.

“Stay for lunch,” she said. “We’re just having soup.”

I pitched in to carry soup bowls and teacups to the table and we sat facing the ocean view while we ate.

When the teapot ran dry part way through the meal, I got up to refill the old-timey kettle and placed it on the gas stove.

Back at the table, I was listening for the kettle’s whistle when a disembodied and urgent voice stopped all conversation.

‘FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!’ followed by a blaring SQUAWK! SQUAWK! SQUAWK!

The voice and the squawk picked up speed and volume.

And then, shouting:

‘EVACUATE! EVACUATE! EVACUATE!’

We turned. The new stove in the new kitchen was ablaze, flames shooting to the ceiling and the room filling with toxic smoke.

Chris was the first to speak.

“It was an electric kettle,” she said.

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Posted in Random stuff, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Love letter to NSW, minus one hectoring cab driver

I sent this missive to the New South Wales Taxi Council and the Sydney Morning Herald this week. Just to get it out of my system.

Here’s what happened when my daughter married an Australian and moved to New South Wales.

I started traveling to Australia.

Obviously, if I had my druthers, they and their two little girls would be closer, but I understand that the draw of a before-work surf is hard to beat and not readily available in Canada. So I go to Australia and have to say, the more I visit, the more I like it. Not just the beaches. Everyone knows they’re special. Nor even the wine, which is beyond decent. My most recent trip included the Jenolan Caves.
2017-07-08 15.32.18
Bless those who discovered it a century or so ago and committed to preserving the formations. For that matter, the whole topography of the Blue Mountains is breathtaking. No Rocky Mountains, to be sure, but red hued vistas to be appreciated from the top down, rather like the Grand Canyon.

So I was all full of Australia love endorphins last week on my return trip home that included an overnight at an airport hotel. I took the train to the international terminal, pondered seeking a shuttle, but it’s a big airport and decided it would be easier to taxi to the hotel.

sydney airport taxis

I wound my way to the front of the taxi rank queue where an attendant directed me to a spot on the curb. A cab was hailed, the driver got out, opened the trunk and I volunteered that I was going to the Stamford Plaza Hotel.

Taxi driver: “F@ck!”

Did I hear right? Surely not. I hesitated, then got in. Dumb.

As we pulled away, he made a phone call, speaking in a language inaccessible to me. I heard the hotel name and then gales of laughter. He ended the call and began to lecture.

Taxi driver: “I’ve waited 90 minutes for a fare and then I get this, a trip that’s going to take about four minutes. Why didn’t you take the shuttle?”

Me: No answer.
Taxi driver: “I have to pay $35 for airport taxi privileges and you have to pay a $10 airport fee that’s included in the fare. The airport is privatized. Did you know that?”

Me: “I’m sure this can be a hard way to make a living.”

Taxi driver (angry now): “No. It’s that with a small trip like this, I end up having to pay and you have to pay more than if you’d taken a shuttle. Where are you coming from?”

Me: “I’ll be flying to Vancouver in the morning. (Instant regret. He didn’t need to know that).

Taxi driver: “So you took the train to the international terminal? Why didn’t you stop at Mascot Station? It’s near your hotel.”

Me: “How would I know that?”

Taxi driver: “Or why didn’t you stop at the Domestic Terminal? You could’ve walked from there.”

Me: No answer.

Taxi driver: “Look! There’s the Domestic Terminal. If you’d stopped there you could’ve saved yourself a lot of money. Over that way is Mascot Station. You could’ve stopped at either of those.”

Me, quietly: “This isn’t my city.”

Taxi driver: “This is your hotel. That will be $23.”

He said he had no notes to change my $40 and handed me a fistful of change. I didn’t count it. Nor, to my regret, did I take his name or number. I can’t even recall whether his cab was white or blue. All I saw as I exited, was red.

All of this to say, one person can alter the tone of an experience.

Sydney is a fabulous city. I’ll fly there again and probably take a cab.
But this is my 2017 Sydney take-away story.

It took just one person.

Posted in Random stuff, Travels | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

40 years ago I had a baby

Courtney;

Forty years ago, I had a baby.

Something I’d no business doing, really, given that I had none of the traditional infrastructure in place. But, honestly, I wonder if I’d held out for the infrastructure and purposely gone about the business of planning my life, would there even be a you. And, as it happens, a life without you just doesn’t bear thinking.

Yours was a birthing story of how it was – or at least how it could be – in a northern Canadian community in the ’70s. The fundamentals of getting there were as they should be, obviously, but when it came to the big day you arrived in quite a clattering way, one which I’m pretty sure wouldn’t be at all acceptable by today’s hospital standards.

I arrived at hospital on July 12, thinking you were imminent. You weren’t. I was shown to a bed in maternity and promptly administered an enema which brought on all kinds of urgency and I remember thinking ‘oh God, oh God, oh God, I’m going to have my baby in the toilet.’ I bet I wasn’t the first labouring mother with that particular worry. It was a stainless steel toilet and everything about that facility was very echo-y. Do they still give enemas?

Just about everybody smoked then, even new moms apparently, and I passed the evening pacing the halls and popping into a smoke-filled lounge where a lot of big bellied women were talking about labours present and past between cigarette drags. I met a man in that lounge who was there to pick up his baby. His wife had died in delivery.

The evening turned into night and the date to July 13 and there was a degree of panic about your heart rate. Nurses worried the cord was tightening around your neck with each contraction and were frustrated in their attempts to reach my doctor. He eventually bounced into the room, all goofy and hazy. He’d been at a concert (Bim – funny the things you remember) and was stoned on BC bud. Before going into delivery he popped downstairs for a B vitamin injection he hoped would straighten him out.

So that was how we went into delivery. Stoned doctor, purposeful nurses, me hyperventilating into a paper bag. When you arrived a spontaneous betting pool erupted over your weight.

There’s more and I promise to only do this every 40 years.

After you were whisked away there were some messy complications that required waking an obstetrician who arrived to find the last set of surgical scrubs were on your father. I recall him striding into the room unhappily tying up the back of a gaping patient gown.

All in all, it was a calamitous start. And there you were. Tiny and perfect and powerful.
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I was just a couple years into my journalism career when you were born. I was young, ambitious and a bit of a party girl. I know that last bit won’t surprise you.

You changed me. I still had ambition and liked a bit of a party, but my focus shifted. I would forego pretty much anything – money, career, new furniture – to be with you.

All in all, it’s worked out.

Here we are 40 years later – two score – and I’m writing this in your Australia kitchen. I must say you’ve taken the be-resourceful-and-independent teachings farther than I intended.
image
You are, quite simply, a pride of my life. A beautiful and wholesome person, a remarkable mother, a cherished wife, adored sister and daughter. Wickedly funny, intimidatingly smart, kind, loving, and lovely.

Lucky, lucky me.

Happy birthday, my glorious girl.

Mom

Posted in A certain age, Notes to my daughters, Random stuff | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Summertime and Mojitos are easy

A record-breaking heat wave is expected for my part of the world this weekend, which, I digress to say, is nothing like a heat wave in Phoenix where it is too hot for even planes to escape.

Still, it’s warm and lovely. The ocean is as blue as the sky, and I spent $7 on mojito mint.

As anyone with half a garden knows, mint grows like chickweed or dandelions. Once you get it started there’s just no stopping it. You throw it into salads, soups, and teas, and dig it up for your neighbours, and still it thrives.

But when your garden of free mint is a few hours away and you’re hit with a summertime hankering for mojitos, you will gladly pay $7 for mint that is also labeled organic, as if you cared at this point.

Apparently the mojito has been around in some form since at least the 16th century when Francis Drake happened on Cuba. It’s said to be one of the – if not THE – most popular cocktails in the world, so I don’t know why I first heard of it when my daughter returned from the Caribbean and reported that 1. she was pregnant and 2. had she known she would have abstained from mojitos. (The baby, happily, could not have been more perfect).

Since having become acquainted with mojitos, Mr. WI64 and I strive to sample offerings on menus in new locales.

The best, by a mile, was in the bar of an historic Port Townsend nunnery-turned-hotel; the worst at a bar in Victoria, that had to scramble for a couple of pathetic mint leaves.

I’ve neither the temperament nor attention span for complicated instructions and the thing about mojitos is, they’re dead easy. As easy as my almost-as-good-as-it-gets baguette in which you dump the ingredients in a bowl, mix and let rise.

On the off-chance that you’re not already well into a pitcher of mojitos of your own making this weekend, here’s how to make the most refreshing and summery of summer drinks:

Mojito for one

A fistful of mint leaves (10, 12, more – don’t scrimp)
½ a lime – quartered
2 oz white rum
2 full tsp fine sugar
2.5-3 oz soda or mineral water
Ice

Spank that fistful of mint leaves. It helps open the flavor.

Put the mint leaves, lime, rum and sugar in your glass and using a muddler (if you have one) or spoon (if you don’t) muddle the combination until the lime is juiced and the sugar dissolved. Spend 30 seconds or more on this activity. Add your soda, give a little stir, add ice, taste and swoon.
IMG_4290

It’s that easy and that good.

And I can vouch that it’s not half bad with that baguette.

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Puppy dog tales and an online infatuation

Update: Zoe has gone to another. Such is the risk with online love.

Gather around the IPad, friends, while I tell you a little story about a dog or two.

I didn’t have a dog as a kid and the dog that made the biggest impression did so in a literal kind of way.

I was 17 and walking home from a school function with a friend when we spotted a dog at the gate of a family that kept vicious dogs chained to a row of doghouses. There was no animal control authority in my small town, and I think we were all relieved these dogs were kept on a short tether. In hindsight, the short chains probably went a long way to the dogs’ nasty temperaments. On this evening, one of the dogs was loose and sitting at an open gate.

“Keep walking,” said my friend and I did. The dog snarled, lunged and sank its teeth into my calf. I kept walking dragging it with my right leg until it let go and went home.

If I wasn’t afraid of dogs before then, I was ever after.

Until. Until six years later, a scrawny terrier camped outside the Prince George newspaper where I worked. I took it in, fed it a hotdog under my desk, then took it to the vet. Distemper. I named him McMurphy after Jack Nicholson’s crazed character in One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest.

Not long after, a Norwegian Elkhound came calling. Just showed up on our porch. When he fought off a bigger dog who’d attacked poor frail McMurphy, we named him Leon after boxer Leon Spinks. Leon protected McMurphy. McMurphy guarded my babies.

Fast forward several years. Daughter #1 was walking along a street near our home when a guy pulled up on a bicycle with a basket full of puppies.

“Here,” he said, handing her a pup. “Find it a home.”

We named her Stanley because we were anatomically ignorant and she grew into a big galumphing shepherd cross that insinuated herself to the whole neighbourhood. (“Stanley!” I shouted when as a puppy she bounded after three men passing our house. Two of the three turned with what-have-I-done expressions. Both were named Stanley.)

Stanley

Our girl Stanley.

The point of these puppy dog tales is that I’ve never looked to own a dog, they’ve just kind of arrived.

But today I’m finding myself in an online flirtation with a chocolate lab. Six years old. Now being fostered. Needs a loving home and I’m falling over myself – in an online way – to acquire her.

Seems Facebook is like the Plenty of Fish of dog matchings.

Zoe – that’s her name – is a good looking girl and getting lots of attention. There is competition for her affection and, as with many infatuations, some of it will be younger, closer, and have more money.

But who knows.

Watch this space.

Posted in Random stuff | 7 Comments

Tip from a hopeless gardener

For a week in early June our garden is in full flight of voluptuous poppies, stately flag-waving irises and rose buds bursting to burst. The hawthorn trees are shades of fuchsia and Dogwood flowers are soft ivory with tinges of pink and olive. It’s very pretty. A garden that passersby pause to appreciate.

Let me say right off the top, it has NOTHING to do with me. Mr. When-I’m-64 knows a thing or two about flowers. Me, I know forks.

Anyway, I was telling our friend Colin – a real life gardener who sometimes saves our garden from me – about my horticultural roots on the Cowichan River and my recollection of visiting friends on the opposite river bank (this was a happy childhood of summers spent swimming between friends) and viewing our house in midwinter. There was snow, lots of it, and from my cross-the-river vantage point I could see our sundeck was straining under the weight. Still, in sunny optimism, poking through all that January white were the yellow heads of plastic daffodil bouquets my mother had stuck in pots months before.

Just this past week Mr WI64 and I came home from a trip and there near the front walk was this:

forks

The healthy ‘orchid’ found by our front walk.


And in a nearby flowerbed (designated mine, God knows why.) these:
tulips

Note how the tulips are lying down, something I could’ve easily accomplished with the real thing.

“You must’ve told Colin about your gardening genes,“ he said. Unlike me, he didn’t have to do a touch test to verify whether or not they were real.

I am successful at growing one thing. Garlic demands nothing of me, only that I stick it in the raised bed in the backyard in October and harvest it in July. That’s pretty much it and because it tolerates my neglect, I grow quite a lot of it.

Lately, just as we’re heading to bed, the motion detector light in the back yard snaps on. It doesn’t illuminate any critters that I can see, but I’m pretty sure if it’s not a raccoon, it’s a neighbourhood cat going for a pre-bed pee in my veggie patch where squash and a bit of chard I’ve planted near the garlic need a fighting chance to survive.

In my one shining moment of gardening inspiration, I headed to the dollar store to buy up its stock of plastic forks.

Herewith, my fork fortress to deter intruders from peeing in my patch:

forks

My 2017 crop: forks.


So far, it seems to be working.

Should my garden produce only garlic this year, I think we can pretty much narrow down the cause.

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The almost-as-good-as-it-gets baguette and a question for Madame Macron. The French post.

There’s a sweet little boulangerie in my city, for which I’ll use up $10 in gas in order to buy a $4 baguette that makes those at the grocery store taste like play dough. (For small town British Columbians who, like me, grew up pronouncing the surname Trottier as Trotty-er, a boulangerie is a French bakery. And, yes, I had to look it up. If you’re French and reading this, please don’t unsubscribe. More on you later.)

Anyway, the baguettes from this place are the real deal. Hard and crusty on the outside and all air holes and chewiness inside.

In a quest to create a more-than-passable baguette, I’ve been perusing and testing recipes in my own little kitchen baguetterie (to qualify as a boulangerie, an assortment of breads need to be made on site. Ergo.)

The easiest recipes produced basic, bland white bread.
Some of the more complex called for the kind of trickiness employed in folding fitted sheets.
One had – no kidding – 34 steps.

Since, as well as having a negative attention span, I’m essentially lazy, I want easy and authentic and, holy Hannah, last night I may have cracked it.

In the spirit of sharing an awfully good thing and to save you toil and time, herewith, my Almost-As-Good-As-It-Gets Baguette recipe.

Here’s what you need:
1 package of yeast
White flour – decent, not bleached
Water
Salt
A linen cloth
A cast iron fry pan
A baking sheet or two

The recipe I used said to dump all the ingredients into a mixing bowl, however, to make sure your yeast is good, I recommend first mixing it with a bit of warm water and less than a teaspoon of sugar to ensure it bubbles.

If you’ve got a stand mixer, mix the ingredients until they’re smooth (if you’re mixing by hand, this is sticky dough so suggest you mix and knead right in the bowl) then cover and let it rest for an hour and a half.

Then:
Generously flour the linen cloth, cut the dough in half, and place on the cloth. With your palms, push each piece semi flat, then use a rolling pin action to quickly elongate it. Don’t overhandle, just make it long and thinnish. No awards for technique here.

Make a fold in the cloth between your loaves so they don’t touch. Rise to double.

Preheat the oven to stinking hot (475-500) and put the fry pan on the lowest rack.

Before you transfer your loaves to a baking sheet (parchment paper is a good idea here), use a razor blade or sharp knife (I used a fish filleter) to make three or four cuts in the top of each loaf. When you’ve put your pans in the oven, toss some ice cubes into the frying pan. The steam is the secret to the crust.

Bake for 20-30 minutes till dark and crusty and – what’d I tell you?

So back to the French.

Brigitte Macron, France’s new first lady, is exactly my age and a stunner in the way of Deneuve or Bardot.

1491487375_MacronProfile (1)

Brigitte Macron and I have age in common. And that’s about all.


If she were ever to read this (presumably with a critical eye to baguette baking), I have a question: Brigitte, what did your now-husband Emmanuel possess at age 15 that knocked you – then 39 – off your feet?

When I was 39, I had a 15-year old daughter, which meant I was exposed to 15-year old boys in my kitchen, at the door, and when I’d unexpectedly come home to a party in progress and find one throwing up on the lawn. From my observations and recollection, 15-year old boys are works in progress. Mostly limbs and appetites.

Emmanuelle Macron, France’s new president, must’ve been a different kind of 15.
Certainly he possessed something extraordinary.

No judgment, just curiosity. He was 15.
Brigitte, what was it?

Posted in A certain age, Random stuff | Tagged , | 13 Comments