Sunday, 23 June 2013

summer bliss

It's really here, we've passed the solstice and we're right in it -- glorious glorious summer. And that of course means beach time and at Mas Blanc, that means driving down to the Mediterranean. For years, I've had a favorite spot, the long stretch of dunes at a beach called Espighette, about half an hour from Montpellier, which is itself an hour's drive from here. There are several kilometres of nothing but sand and sea and sky....

This is my idea of a perfect beach: uninhabited
So that's where I wanted to take my niece Katie who was visiting recently, and we set off last Sunday for Espighette. On the way I told her how beautiful it would be, absolutely serene, just us and the sea... and assured her that we would not venture down to the section designated as "nudist". Besides, the water would likely still be too cold for swimming, we'd just sit and have our picnic lunch on the dunes.... However, several thousand other people had the same idea, and a traffic jam kept us on the highway for nearly an extra hour in the noon heat... I began to fume and curse, and in frustration gave up that route and turned off to Stes.Maries-de-la-Mer, where I knew we'd have to settle for a more public beach. And yes, it was quite a different scene from the one I had described -- and oddly enough, a whole lot of fun. It was like being part of  a joyous impromptu street theatre production in which we were observers and participants at the same time... music, colour, laughter, such a mix of young and old together: the French DO know how to have a good time.

The French take on Beach Life -- NOT Lake Huron.
Here at home, there is continuing work in the garden, and as it is quite windy these days as well as dry, I've been watering my potted plants early every morning. Today, round about 7 am, I spied a little shiny eye peering at me from the edge of a large clay pot... I waited, and eventually this lovely little fellow came out to greet the day -- I'd heard his sweet voice last night but didn't know where he was hiding.

Some days you just get lucky...
I water the fruit trees in the evening, and yesterday, as I stood down in the field with the hose -- a small pump brings water from the river -- and watched the moon come up, I remembered that I'd read earlier in the day that it would be a particularly enormous moon, something to do with where the moon and the earth are vis a vis each other... and that this would be a PERIGREE moon. And it was... The universe provides such treats for us, whether or not we know the terms... all we have to do is pay attention...  and be grateful for unexpected pleasures.

Okay, it's only the moon... but still... isn't it just divine?

Wednesday, 19 June 2013


So now, a little break from nature, and back into the world of words... Here's what is on my bedside table of late -- those books that the French call "livres de chevet" -- and I recommend all three, depending on your inclinations.... whatever are your druthers when it comes to reading (an Americanism from the late 1800s, meaning "would rather")...

Let me first suggest the fifth in the Marc Edwards mystery series, this one titled BLOODY RELATIONS (published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster). You'll probably enjoy it more if you've read the earlier four, but in any case I draw it to your attention for various reasons, not least of these being that it is fiction set in 1838, a period of great struggle in Canadian history. The blending of mystery with history is unusually effective in this series, written by Don Gutteridge, author of forty books of poetry and fiction. I admit my bias here -- Don is one of my favorite people, our friendship stemming back to my days in Grade 13 when he was my English teacher and one of those who encouraged me to write (the other was my history teacher, Bob Huschka... without these two I  probably would not have dared to begin thinking of myself as a writer even at that early stage).

You can get more information about Don's series by going to

Here's another suggestion, of a very different nature. Set in contemporary eastern Ontario, KEEPING THE PEACE Is a collection of short stories by Colette Maitland that might be categorized as realistic fiction... holding the mirror up to life itself...In the words of Diane Schoemperlen, "these are stories about the people you do know, and about strangers too, those people you pass on the street without giving them a second thought".... These are, indeed, stories that wake you to the complexities of human existence, your own as well as the fictional characters who struggle to keep the peace in their difficult lives.  Again, I admit my bias: I met Colette several years ago in the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop in Toronto, and she shone out in the group of writers for whom I was the instructor. We've never met since but I've kept my eye on her, and she's maintained some contact with me, so that I could see that my faith in her talent has been justified and verified. Her debut book is bound to be only the first of many -- this one published by Biblioasis, a new publishing house that is bringing forward a wonderful range of new Canadian authors.

 You can get more information about Colette and her collection at

And now, for something completely different....

Check out BRICK #91, the current issue on the newsstands/bookshop magazine shelves NOW...
Yes, I must make full admission here as well, for drawing your attention to BRICK in this case is not only a literary service but also perhaps rather self-serving. My essay "Reprise" is fortunate enough to have found space in this particular BRICK -- the little sister to an earlier essay titled "There Is No Word For Home",  published in 2000. I'm also part of a fascinating series of brief pieces by 25 authors about our favorite endings to novels -- or, in the case of Jan Zwicky, her thoughts on the final bars of Hadyn's last string quartet.  NOT TO BE MISSED!

For more info, have a look at

Friday, 14 June 2013


Honestly, all I want to do is share some of my pictures, so I will have less to say than usual but I do have to tell you right off the bat the sad news that Mother and Father Dove did not achieve their aim of producing a nest of dovelettes... When I arrived home from Nantes one of the first things I did was to check, with the aid of binoculars, whether there was still a dove sitting on the next in the cedar hedge across from my bedroom window. Yes!  and the next day looked again, quite expecting to see little dovies... but no. Not even Momma.. GONE. A close look at the situation leads me to believe that one of the feral cats who roam around here closed in on the nest, and did the babies in... either in egg stage or.... I found a couple of adult feathers in the hedge the next day, which would suggest some kind of battle took place and the bird-side lost. I've hated these damn cats for a long time, but now, should one stray into my path in the next while, there'll be a rock thrown in its direction for sure.  I don't mind so much that they keep down the mice and rats but killing birds? Not acceptable.

As you know, I love the birds here, even the noisy Nightingales who keep me awake half the night. I am very fond of the Hoopoes who generally arrive from Africa sometime in the early spring -- this year, I saw the first one in May, a little later than usual. A pair has nested close by this season, and one of the offspring has a decidedly curious nature, checking out Mas Blanc in various ways -- windows, and here, on the terrace table.

There's something inherently hilarious about Hoopoes, especially young ones.
Lest you think I am totally fixated on creatures with wings, let me assure you that I have broader tastes in wildlife than that. Here's a shot of one of my VERY favorite animals, and this one too is a baby... would fit on my palm if I had tried to pick him/her up but it would have been a ticky bit too prickly...

Indeed, this is a  sweet little hedgehog... the French name is HERISSON...
So from fauna to flora, here are a couple of recent photos of some of the marvellous flowers that show themselves this time of year in the Cevennes. Pretty well finished now that the warm weather has come, the wild orchids are a brilliant addition to the fields an roadsides, such delicate beauty and colour...

Orchids, of whatever variety, need to be seen individually
But by this time of year, there's another flower that is lovely in itself, even lovelier in small groupings of three or four or nine... but best enjoyed, I think,  in "mass profusion"... and every so often you come across a field, like the one below, and you can do nothing but jump out of the car with your camera and sing "hallelujah!"

Isn't this where Dorothy fell asleep in THE WIZARD OF OZ?
 And just to end this stroll through nature's wonders here in the south of France, a shot or two from the recent visit to Florac, about 75k north of where I live, up in the hills of the Cevennes. Leaving flora behind, here's a little fauna... well, a horse, in fact. White horses are indigenous to the southerly part of Languedoc, their initial home being down on the wetlands of the Camargue along the Mediterranean. They are popular throughout the region now, and I thought this one particularly pretty.

If you've read my story "Sitsy" in the collection YOU NEVER KNOW,  you will know that
 this is indeed a Sitsy and if named so, will bring good luck.

And now a turn back to flora, to end this posting with a burst of colour, the brilliant yellow of genet (also known as broom) that covers the rocky hillsides here this time of year,  evident on the hillside in the photo of this Sitsy, as well as all along the roadside. It is a thorny plant and not to be taken home for bouquets, simply enjoyed as a visual treat when driving through the Mediterranean region.

Glorious to look at... and with a lovely perfume as well.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013


I belong, I admit, to that enormous throng of older women who adore Rafael Nadal not only for his prowess on the tennis court but for what seems extraordinary sweetness alongside his angry-looking facial expressions while playing to win... And indeed, he did win, his 8th French Open title, on Sunday, breaking records and still managing to look slightly surprised and grateful as he took the trophy. Okay, I know I sound star-struck.... so let me explain... The first time he won the French Open, in 2005, he was only 19, still very much a boy.... I happened to be stuck in bed, unable to move much after some neurosurgery in the Clinique Millinaire in Montpellier... but a kindly nurse turned on the television set above me, and I began watching tennis with an interest I'd never had before. It was "something to do", after all. The match on that particular Sunday, when Nadal first won, was quite exciting as I recall, but that's not what has made me his loyal fan ever since. When that boy realized that he'd won, he tore across the court, leapt the barrier, and embraced his mother (then Uncle Tony, his coach). His mother! A boy who loves his mother... that's my Rafa. I'm a fan.

Now, on to other more serious matters, such as how beautiful France is this time of year...Nantes was impressive and it was easy to gain access to a real sense of historical time while walking the streets and visiting the churches and museums. But for pure pleasure, give me a seaport town.... My stay in La Rochelle was entirely satisfying -- for one thing, the rain had stopped -- even though all the museums and churches I had intended to see were closed for one reason or another (Monday is never a good day for public monuments in France.) I didn't really care, I just walked and walked and walked and every so often came back to the harbour for a coffee or a bite to eat. I suppose in one way the following photo shows a world in which the rich hold the power -- count the sailboats and multiply by thousands of euros -- and one could view it with some anger at social injustice. But oh my, isn't it a pretty scene?

From this port, thousands of French citizens began their immigration to Canada, some for reasons of religion and others simply in order to begin a new life in a new country
After La Rochelle, I drove down toward Bordeaux through flatland close to the sea that is as different from where I live as day from night or chalk from cheese... But that's true every few hours in France, you seem to be entering another region that has its own identity through geography, architecture, history, food.... Everywhere, however, I was struck by the woods and forests -- France is well treed in spite of having been cleared for farming practices over many centuries. I think I must have counted fifty shades of green on my way into the Dordogne, an area famous for its beauty (and for the overlay of English ex-pats who now live there, so many that it is known as "little England" and this is not necessarily said in complimentary tones).

Not too far from city of Bordeaux lies the place I have long wanted to visit:  the Chateau de Montaigne, which has been rebuilt since the 16th century when Michel Eyquem de Montaigne lived there but which has incorporated the actual tower in which he cogitated and then wrote his "essais", and is now a museum dedicated to his memory. For many years I have kept the book of his essays by my bedside, and he continues to inspire and educate and delight me with his wit and grace and endless curiosity about himself and about life around him. All set for a great sentimental moment, already harkening back in memory to a visit I made many years ago to Yeats' Tower (Ballylee) near Gort, in Ireland and I was vastly disappointed to discover the Chateau closed to visitors (Tuesdays as well as Mondays).  Out of frustration and to prove to myself that at least I had tried, I took a photo of this memorial to Montaigne in the village.

 It's true, I have strange heros..French essayists and Spanish tennis players
  If you haven't read Montaigne's essays -- or even if you have -- you should have a look at a recent book called HOW TO LIVE: A LIFE OF MONTAIGNE by the British writer Sarah Bakewell. Aiming to live well -- who can quarrel with that as an ideal to follow?

For me, living well means having a walk every day if I can -- not too crazy about cold wind and rain, that'll keep me in by the fire, but if it's fair, walking is the best way to feel entirely human, one's mind kept turning over by thoughts as one's body is moving through space... As I earlier mentioned, I was impressed by the abundance of trees I saw everywhere in my travels, and none more lovely that in the Dordogne where I stayed overnight with friends, Dorothy & Peter, who are renting a country cottage for a few weeks. Dorothy and I took a perfect 5k stroll through flower-bedecked pastures and shady green forests, an extra pleasure for me to be in the company of deciduous trees so like those with which I grew up...  I could almost imagine I was back home in a maple bush.

Heaven. Pure and simple.

Saturday, 8 June 2013


Don't want to bore you to tears with more travel photos but... but these are really nice, okay? And as they've come from FRANCE, where LE MAS BLANC WRITER'S RETREAT is located, they at least have a certain relevance beyond their attractive appearance.

As I explained in the last post, I was invited by Alberto Manguel to attend an international writers' festival he organized in the city of Nantes (at the mouth of the Loire in lower Brittany) this past weekend that was the first in what will be an annual series of ATLANTIDE literary events. The "glue" holding the festival together was the concept of MYTH, both ancient and contemporary... Writers from Canada, Spain, England, the United States, Slovenia, Portugal, Iran, Argentina, Albania, Korea and Iceland came together to share ideas and address some interesting notions about how myth underscores our human existence... from the myth of Hollywood to the myths of the Haida people to the myth of Happiness, and more... Discussions and arguments to delight the mind and heart.

I drove from Tornac to Nantes, stopping twice along the way. The weather was pretty bad, so I didn't get to go "walkabout" as much I might have liked, but I still was able to revisit some places I'd long wanted to see again, such as the Loire Valley. I spent one night in Saumur in a hotel across from the town, that afforded a pretty-well perfect view of the chateau... this shot was taken in the morning BEFORE the rain started again.

The chalky stone from which buildings in Saumur are built is called Tuffau.
Nantes itself is an enormous city -- the 6th largest in France -- and I saw but a miniscule portion of what it has to offer but even that was extremely satisfying, including the cathedral, the Jardin des Plantes (where they've been keeping records and examples of "foreign flora" since the 16th century). It was a Sunday morning, and the park was full of happy families strolling paths through beautifully landscaped gardens where special exhibits, created of shrubbery, had been included to amuse and delight children. I particularly liked this one.

How can shrubbery have such a sense of humour?

 Iwill  also include here a shot of the old LU biscuit factory which may only have meaning for those of you reading this who have grown up loving those cookies called LE PETIT ECOLIER (plain biscuit with a chocolate coating on which is stamped a scene of a schoolboy). LU is a famous biscuit-maker in France, and much identified with Nantes (there is a buttery cookie called after this city made by LU as well).

A detail from the LU factory main entrance...SERIOUS biscuits.
Tomorrow I'll add some shots from my travels homeward... I know, I know, you're impatient but you'll just have to wait. And who knows whether I'll get to this blog before or after the FRENCH OPEN tennis in the afternoon, during which I will be crossing my fingers for Rafa...

Friday, 7 June 2013


Here at Mas Blanc, where I have just come back after a week away in other parts of France, this is a season filled with the sound of music, especially now that the heavy rains and cold winds have abated. Everybody and his uncle -- birds included -- is singing Halleluyah or the avian equivalent...There are sparrows, redtails, thrushes, blackbirds and nightingales all doing their best .... "peep peep, cheep-cheep, twiddle-oo-churr-churr, dix-huit dix-huit, and coo-coo-coolly coooooo"... This latter song-cycle being the ring-necked doves who have again decided, as they do nearly every year, to raise their young in the vicinity of the house. Usually they've picked a spot high up in the enormous  micocoulier tree that shades the terrace, and often the winds that sweep through this time of year have tossed their nests to the ground. This year, however, they've picked a nicely sheltered spot so close to the house that they've been using my bedroom window sill as a spot to bill&coo, a kind of lift-off site from which they foray fluttering forth.

So whaddya think, lovey-dovey, shall we settle down & make a nest?
As it happened this year, the perfect spot offered itself to these two as they sat on my window railing, considering their options... "Why yes... the cedar hedge right across from us! why did we never think of that before!" Several days of flying around with bits of straw from the garden in their beaks, and before you could even look surprised, there it was, a nest with Mother Dove well enconsced and looking, well, decidedly broody...

Oh honey, this is the BEST nest in which I've EVER laid an egg..
So now I've been away for more than a week -- more about that in the next post -- and still Mrs. Dove is sitting there looking for all the world like one VERY bored bird, waiting for the birdlings to hatch. (So I was very very glad to read Kerry's post on her blog PICKLE ME THIS, letting us know that long-awaited baby Iris has indeed made a happy appearance... Congratulations all round! )

Mr. Dove comes and goes as is his wont, and does the occasional "waiting to be called to the delivery room" pose just so I can snap his photo.  I do like birds and I prefer to think of these pretty doves as "higher creatures" than pigeons, even though the birdshit on my windowsill would be hard to distinguish, one from the other....

Is this my good side? Am I divinely gorgeous?
Now, just a little teaser for the next post, to explain where I've been and why... I drove up to Nantes (in Brittany where the Loire begins to open out into the Atlantic,) to attend ATLANTIDE, an international literary festival organized by my old friend, Alberto Manguel. Here's the poster that adorned the Centre des Congres where the three-day event took place, an image more than appropriate for the festival itself and for Alberto's influence in choosing the writers who came -- that is, reading... reading and books, and more books and more reading, and more books....more ideas, more conversations, more exchanges, more and more and more.