Update #13: Spetses

Ligoneri beach, Spetses(Ligoneri Beach, Spetses)

Our time in Greece is coming to a close (already?!), but we’re still squeezing in some last minute exploring. We decided on Spetses, a Saronic island located about 2.5 hours away from Athens by hydrofoil. Because it’s relatively close to Athens, it tends to be especially busy on the weekends, so we smugly decided to leave on a Monday after the rush. It would’ve been a good plan, but because neither of us are up to speed on European royalty gossip, we hadn’t realized that our trip coincided with the wedding of Prince Nikolaos, the son of the former King of Greece. Despite the fact that Greece hasn’t had a king for over 30 years, King Constantine won’t give up his title. Their friends – kings and queens and princes and princesses from all over Europe – still consider them royalty as well, and came to the island for the wedding. And when royalty travels, paparazzi does too.

Paparazzi(Crowd outside the Poseidon Hotel)

To tell you the truth, it was kind of novel to be on the island while this was happening. People were excited; it was palpable. But it wasn’t too distracting – the island was simply bustling the way you would expect it to in the summer. That being said, Spetses is a swanky island, but not obnoxiously so. It has all the charming markers you’d expect of a Greek island: narrow cement paths, seaside cafes, lots of pretty vegetation and good beaches. People tend to emphasize the fact that cars aren’t allowed on the island, but motorbikes are to the point of nuisance. We opted to enjoy the island on foot, and particularly enjoyed the walk between the main town of Dapia and the old port, where we came across pomegranate trees, courtyards littered with fallen lemons, and kittens that walked right into our outstretched hands for a cuddle.

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Uninterview: On first books and chicken feet

I’ve mentioned Darcie Friesen Hossack on this site before. We met a few years ago when we were both enrolled in the Humber School for Writers and have kept in touch since. Recently we’ve been talking more frequently. Her first book, Mennonites Don’t Dance, will be released by Thistledown Press on September 15 and Bats or Swallows will be out a month later. It’s been nice to compare stories and cheer each other on throughout the process.

Mennonites

I’d prefer to talk over a few glasses of wine, but because Darcie lives in Kelowna and I’m currently in Athens, our chats take place virtually. A few days ago we overcame our 10 hour time difference to talk a little more formally about our books and so that I could ask Darcie some questions I’ve had about her background and how they relate to her stories. The conversation eventually turned into a discussion of roll kuken, sugared tomatoes and other Mennonite foods. This isn’t surprising considering that when Darcie isn’t writing fiction, she’s a food columnist. In fact, she recently featured the halva recipe I posted a few weeks ago in one of her columns. We’re going to reconvene in a few months to debrief our books’ respective releases or at least talk about fried chicken feet again. Thanks, Darcie!

You can read more of Darcie’s thoughts at her blog or follow her on her Facebook page. In the meantime, pour yourself a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and eavesdrop.

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What I've Been Working On

Ever since we’ve been back from France, it’s been hot. Really, really hot. We left Athens a few days ago because the city was empty anyway and we’ve been cooling our heels in Agistri, swimming twice a day, drinking a lot of icy drinks and getting stuff done. So, just what have I been working on in Greece? Not just swimming and drinking, promise. I spent some time finalizing things for Bats or Swallows, but mostly I’ve been working on other projects.

It’s funny how words accumulate, how slow and painful it can be, but how one day you look at the Excel file you use to track your word count (you do that too, right?) and you realize it’s a higher number than you expected it would be. Most of the words need to be rewritten or reordered or resomethinged, but at least you have material to work with, clay to mold. You have ideas that have actually been put on paper.

I’m working on a novel. I was anticipating a breakdown point with what I’m working on now, for it to implode, but it’s August and it hasn’t happened yet. Which means, I think, that I’m doing a better job than I have in the past.

I haven’t shared much of the writing from this project – it’s very first drafty and sometimes doesn’t make sense and every page or so there’s something in the writing that makes me cringe. I get self-conscious when even Andrew looks over my shoulder as I’m typing. For awhile I was calling the book Living Expenses, but that title doesn’t fit anymore. I have another title in mind now, but maybe it will change too. Not-Living Expenses is about a family. A small one. It’s about marriage and roadtrips and the Greek shipping industry, which sounds more ambitious than it really is. It’s an internal book, I think. Maybe the first novel you write has to be internal.

I can tell you the names of the characters in the book. There’s Zoe and Anna and Nicholas. I have a good handle on Zoe and Nicholas. Actually, you’ll be able to read a little bit about Zoe in Bats or Swallows in a story called “Swimming Lessons”, and you’ll probably be able to tell that her story belongs to something larger. She was the one that started everything. I think I know Nicholas pretty well too because I’ve been writing him for the past month. Actually, I call him Niko now that we’re on better terms with each other. I’m not going to share any writing about him yet, but if he had a soundtrack, it would include these songs (excuse the crappy You Tube links; I don’t have an Internet connection and I don’t want to use all of Rosy’s bandwith uploading MP3s):

(Okay, enough vaguely creepy talk about my characters as if they were real people. You do that too, right?)

I’ve also been writing a zine. I can tell you the name of the zine because I had to submit a bio for a reading I’m doing in the fall and I included it, so now I really have to finish it. The zine will be called Places and Things. The last zine I made was a few years ago and I keep thinking I won’t make any more, but then I get it in my mind that I really, really want to make one, so I do. I like zines because they’re forgiving like that, and also private.

When I first discovered the Internet as a teenager, it felt like a private space. Hardly anyone I knew used the Internet, and the concept of Googling someone’s name didn’t really exist. Most people didn’t have websites (“homepages”) and I actually shared an email address with my parents until I finally signed up for Hotmail a year- maybe more than year! – later. My zine, on the other hand, felt really public. It was being distro-ed by zine distros that no longer exist, I had reviews in magazines like Broken Pencil. I got mail. Now it’s the other way around. Blogs and websites are the norm, I’m all over the place online, and I rarely get letters (and when I do I’m horrible at responding to them, argh). I may not keep up with zines much anymore, but the zine world feels like a small, private place I still like to visit from time to time.

None of these things are finished yet, but they’re getting there, and with some patience and luck (on my side, and I guess yours too depending on whether or not you want to read them), they’ll eventually see the light of day, some sooner than others.

Update #12.5: Paris filtered through Diana

So, in Paris I kind of fell in love. Her name is Diana.

Fleurs

The Diana is a type of camera with a plastic body. It’s feather-weight and uses 120 medium format film. It was originally designed as a cheap novelty item, the kind of thing sold for 99 cents a piece, but was abandoned and like with many toy cameras with wonky results, a cult following developed.

The day we decided to explore Montmartre, we stopped in at the Paris Lomography store and on impulse I purchased one. For all intents and purposes, the Diana is a crappy camera. It has light leaks, a cheap body and lens. Some might say that I could simply download an Iphone app to get the same quality of photos. But there’s a difference, and even if it’s a stubborn, misguided insistence on my part, so be it.

Jardins Luxembourg

I have a Holga, which is the same concept (plastic body, cheap, medium format), but I’ve been frustrated with it since my first roll of film. It was a little too fussy for me and I got very few usable shots out of it. It’s currently sitting up on a shelf in the apartment in Montreal.

With the Diana, on the other hand, I was extremely pleased with the quality of the photos. They’re grainy and the light is wobbly and sometimes things look strangely flattened out, like I’m looking at a cardboard cut-out of the Sacre Coeur rather than the real thing. I like it. I like the dreaminess, I like the feelings these photos evoke.

Sacre Coeur

There’s been a lot of photography related activity in this household this summer. Andrew takes photos every day here in Athens. He’s also been reading many books about it, and I end up flipping through them as well. The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer is a brilliant discussion of photography and literature, on considering photography as a continuous conversation, one where similar themes and images are repurposed and reinterpreted over the years. I read Susan Sontag’s classic On Photography. I’ve examined the photos of  Robert Frank’s’ The Americans, started looking at the images once published in Steiglitz’s classic Camera Work magazine, and seen so many photography exhibits at different museums in Athens, Paris, Berlin.

Bar a chiens

I love taking photographs, but the truth is that I’m satisfied with my little point and shoot. I don’t need fancy lenses, I don’t need to play with settings. The digital photos I take turn out crisp, the resolution is good, and the camera’s small enough that I can take it with me wherever I go. I’m more interested in the memories I’m capturing – I like taking pictures of my friends, of the details of places I’ve been to.

Store window

Most of my artistic impulses are focused on writing, but I still get the urge to make something more visual from time to time. I decided on collages back in May, picked out the perfect hardcover notebook to paste them in and started saving little scraps of papers. It didn’t work out as planned: the notebook has one collage in it, but is fat with random papers I’ve stuck in it to use for future collages. I’ve saved too much, but it will all probably be discarded if I don’t figure out a way to use them soon.

Somewhere in Montmartre

Now that I’ve seen the results of my first rolls from the Diana, I’m glad I have this little camera. It will do the trick for awhile.

(The rest of the photos are here.)

Update #12: France

Back when I graduated from university Andrew and I rented a car and drove between Paris and Strasbourg, winding through the Champagne region, camping, and sneaking out of campsites before we had to pay the next morning. I went to Paris again in 2005, this time with Lesley. She was going to grad school in Victoria, I wanted to hang out with her, but tickets to BC from Toronto were exorbitant. A ticket to Paris, on the other hand, was surprisingly much cheaper, and because we could stay at my cousin Panayiotis’s apartment, the trip was actually economical. Both trips were wonderful, but it’s funny: I’ve been in France for the past two and a half weeks, and it was like the Universe was all, “You think you had good times in the past? I bet I can do even better than that.” Um, sure? Merci beaucoup, Universe.

A WEDDING, IN CHAMPAGNE

After the church ceremony

The motivation for the trip was the wedding of Lisa and Alain. They live in Montreal, but Alain is from Breuil, a village in Champagne, which is where they decided to host their nuptials. A bunch of us arrived a few days earlier to enjoy the countryside and drink champagne. I left Montreal at the beginning of May, and was ecstatic about the idea of catching up with best friends in such an idyllic setting.

In Breuil

The wedding itself was beautiful, and the ceremony was in an old stone church in Breuil where we sang (or at least, attempted to sing) French church hymns. The reception was in another nearby village, Fismes, where the meal lasted until midnight, the champagne flowed freely, and the dance floor was busy. It was a perfect celebration.

Lisa and Alain!
(The radiant couple)

PARIS!

Other than the Champagne region, we settled down in Paris. We spent the first few days at my cousin and his girlfriend’s apartment in Montparnasse, and then rented a studio of our own in the Marais for the second half. It was on the sixth floor of an old building with the slantiest stairs, and there was no elevator. The pipes in the building were also ancient, but the climbing and precarious plumbing was worth it for the view:
View from our apartment
(Looking down onto rue Rambuteau)

A short version of our time in Paris:
Basically our trip summed up in a photo.
(A picnic in the Jardin des Tuileries)

This photo speaks for itself.

A longer version:

Our last day is also representative of the trip. We woke up early, grabbed a pain au chocolat from the bakery across the street, and took the metro to the Paris catacombs. Instead of going into the museum we met Gilles Thomas, an expert on Paris’s network of underground tunnels, who took us and 3 others on a tour of the quarries below the Cochin hospital. This area may eventually be turned into a museum – they’ve applied for a permit and there’s a good deal of lighting set up, plus the access point is easy, a long flight of stairs. In the meantime it’s closed to the public unless you know someone like Gilles, and Mr. Under Montreal unsurprisingly knows someone like Gilles. (You could probably go yourself if you asked nicely. Take a left at the urology building, walk through the parking garage, knock on the door.)

Hopital Cochin quarry
(The tunnels are old, and are marked with the names of the streets above or the years pillars were built. Occasionally you’ll see the rough draft sketch of the inscription scribbled on the walls.)

After 2 hours of exploring tunnels, we were hungry and went off in search of a bistro. I had an entrecote, Andrew had steak tartare. There was wine. We went home and napped, and then set off again, first making a stop at the bookstore at the Centre Pompidou. We eventually ended up at La Grande Epicerie in the Bon Marche department store. My version of heaven would include a Grande Epicerie, which is stocked with every French food you were ever curious about. There is one counter specifically for foie gras, with prices over 100 euro per kilo. You can get bottles of Angelina hot chocolate, slices of Pain Poilane or jars of Christine Ferber jam (a steal at 6.75 euro a jar compared to what I saw at other stores!). We bought supplies for a picnic and then headed off to the Champs de Mars where we were meeting Panayiotis and Marieme. The clouds were ominous, but we stubbornly set up shop beneath a tree anyway and spread out our food. When it started to rain, we took out the umbrellas and ate underneath those. The Eiffel Tower was beautiful, all swathed in fog, and the fields were mostly empty, and we were proud of ourselves, the most prepared picnickers in all of Paris on the evening of Saturday August 7, 2010.

Le Champs de Mars et le Tour Eiffel dans la pluie

We were also lucky to be in Paris when the Tour de France ended, and after eating lunch here (Which Les wrote about), we sped over to Place de la Concorde to watch the cyclists do their final stage in Paris. Andrew is a Tour de France fan, so I’ve learned terms like “peleton” and “maillot jaune” and it was exciting to be part of the massive crowd cheering on the cyclists. You don’t get a sense of how fast they’re biking until they pass by in an overwhelming blur, and when you’re standing so close to it, it’s engulfing, like a quickly rising cloud of dust.

Cyclists!

Other happy coincidences: The day before I left, I found out via Twitter that one of my favourite food writers, David Lebovitz, was doing a signing in Paris. I was able to swing by and buy a copy of his book, The Sweet Life in Paris. The Clair de Lune film festival began and we spent one evening watching A Bout de Souffle outdoors in the Jardins des Champs Elysees. We sat near the front, Jean Seberg larger than life in scratchy black and white film, everyone around us huddled in scarves and drinking wine they’d brought themselves.

There are too many other lovely moments to list here. Seriously, Paris, are you always this perfect? (I read David Lebovitz’s book; I know it’s not, but in 2 week increments it’s pretty fantastic.)

Marche des fleurs

We’re now back in Athens where I hope I will shed the extra pounds I’ve gained from eating cheese every single day simply by sweating. I would also like to rest my feet a little, and do a million loads of laundry. Everyone in the city is on vacation until August 23rd according to the little signs I see taped hastily to store windows, but now it’s my turn to be productive again. A bientot.