Scrapbook #14: Les festivals

Often when we get the urge to take a little day trip, we turn our gaze towards America. There’s something about going to a different country, even if it’s only an hour away, that feels more… exotic. This is silly considering how many interesting things there are in Quebec itself, and on Saturday, when the sky in Montreal looked overcast and the city was overrun with Grand Prix mania, we decided to get out of town, but stay within the province.

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We ended up in Victoriaville, Quebec, about 2 hours outside of Montreal. There was this festival des fromages, see. It sounded so promising.

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Scrapbook #13: Fuck Paris

What do I want to talk about. A lot of things, actually, but I’ll just talk about this.

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It’s been that kind of weekend, a sweet one. It started on Friday with a quick trip to Atwater Market. We bought two red snappers, whole, and some new potatoes, some thick stalks of Quebec asparagus, a bunch of rhubarb and this unassuming fat white onion. A bottle of wine. Battled the traffic back down to our corner of Montreal, and then Andrew got the barbecue started and I stuffed some lemon slices into the fish, cut up a few potatoes and some of that onion and wrapped it in foil, and he cooked everything out on the balcony. The fish got charred to a frightening mess, but it tasted good, and that onion shined through surprisingly sweet and perfect. Around 10:30 after finishing the wine I got the idea that rhubarb pie would be good for desert. I rubbed the flour and the butter with my fingertips because I couldn’t find the pastry cutter and then realized it was late, I was tipsy and sleepy, and not really in the mood to make a pie. So the dough got patted into disks and put in the fridge.

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Montreal winters are unforgiving, long. Dark and snowy. But they’re not so bad while you’re living them, until you get a weekend like this one and marvel at human beings’ ability to deal with shit.

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Scrapbook #12: Out East

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Back from the loveliest sejour out East. We ate a lot of lobster, which we purchased directly from the lobster fishermen minutes after they puttered their boat into the harbour.

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There was lots of driving along country roads and some walking up wind-whipped hills to look out at the ocean.

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Some days it was grey and the ocean was frothy and cold, but there was some sun too.

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Scrapbook #11: Notebooks

I have a new favourite notebook. It’s not very fancy, but it’s perfect.

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Writers have a thing for notebooks, right? There’s so much romance and intrigue hidden within them: secrets, quasi-brilliant ideas, dreamy thoughts, first sentences, character names, grocery lists, glorious quotidian banality! And promise too, all those blank pages bound together, ready and waiting for your words. I have a shelf of beautiful notebooks – some presents, some purchased on a whim – and they’re pretty or handsome, but they’re also depressingly empty. It took me awhile to figure out that even blank notebooks shouldn’t be judged by their covers.

Over time I’ve developed specific criteria for the kind of notebooks I prefer. First, they have to be softcover. Hard cardboard means the book will be heavy, and therefore the first thing I take out of my bag when I’m feeling lazy (i.e. frequently.) They have to be lined because while in theory I like the idea of having white space to doodle, in practice my writing goes slanty and uneven and, who am I kidding, I don’t draw. The books can’t be too thick either because I like giving myself the chance to switch them up without leaving them unfinished. Also, the thinner it is, the likelier I am to carry it around with me (see: laziness.) I average one notebook per season.

For awhile I was using these Moleskines that are sold in packs of three and have a nice pocket in the back for stuffing random bits of paper, but these days I have a 2 notebook system, which sounds complicated, but I swear it’s not.

First there’s the small notebook I have for day to day journal purposes, which I use for whatever minor joy or drama I feel is worthy of recording. It’s mostly a brain dump, and I rarely go back and reread an entry – I’m just comforted having it there, exisiting. For reference, this is how big the notebook is compared to my cat. Also note the polka dots. I like polkadots:

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And then there’s my new favourite notebook, which I bought for $2.99 from Muji at the JFK Airport back in December when I wanted to use up my excess US change (ETA: Just realized that the link isn’t for the type of notebook I have, but it’s close. Mine is lined, naturally.) It was either the notebook or a bottle of Coke. The size of the notebook was appealing and I liked the spiral binding to bend it back – it looked like a winner. Muji excels at perfectly simple aesthetics. (You’d think it would be hard to fuck up a black notebook, but you’d be surprised.) I use this notebook for all writing related things: ideas, quotations, snippets of first drafts, a place to keep miscellaneous post-it’s. It’s bigger than my other notebook, but both of them are so light that I don’t mind carrying both around with me.

There aren’t any Muji stores in Canada, and I’m afraid that when I’m finished with it, I’ll have to go back to New York City. I don’t think I’m being too unreasonable.

Scrapbook #9: Repetition

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My birthday is coming up, and the week around it is all flooded with music. I’ve already spent one evening watching Marie Chouinard’s bizarre and amazing modern dance interpretation of Orpheus and Eurydice – all half naked, gyrating bodies and music composed more of singular sounds than songs – wails and bells and distorted lyre strums (thank you, Caro, for the ticket!). I’ll spend another night watching Anton Kuerti play songs on the piano (thank you, Andrew!) , and then another with the Pixies making their way through Surfer Rosa (thank you um, me!).

So I’m thinking about music and about getting older.

The other day I went searching for some songs I thought I’d lost on an old hard drive, but found other mp3s instead, these little, teeny tiny songs I wrote at the height of a time where I felt most serious about making music, not just listening to it, around 2001/2002. Listening to these songs was a like meeting an old friend I used to know well, but lost touch with for awhile.

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These songs are so strange to me! And embarrassing! I apologize for the painful hissiness of them, like they were recorded in a room with a tin roof on the rainiest day of the year. This was before the ease of digital recording, recorded on two-track cassette player and then painstakingly wired to a computer. Lo-fi still felt kind of charming back then.

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I wanted to write songs like Lee Hazlewood, full of heartbreak and regret and swagger, but these songs are nothing like Lee Hazlewood. I never really had the stamina or music vocabulary for songwriting, either – these barely scratch the 2 minute mark.

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But I’m grateful to that younger version of myself who had the arrogance and the ego to commit these half-formed songs to tape. It’s a nice reminder from my 22 year old self to my (almost, practically) 32 year old self to do these kinds of things, even if they’re a little raw and out of tune. Also useful: my 30-something self plagiarized the lyrics from one of the songs in the novel I’m working on.

I remember learning how to play the guitar when I was 16, before I took any lessons or knew how to form chords, just sitting with a nylon stringed classical guitar and plucking out songs I knew note by note. The same songs, the same notes, repeated. And then I learned chords and soon my parents got a dial up connection and I would print out pages and pages of guitar tablature, punch holes in them and keep them in a fat green binder. All these songs I could play, a new kind of freedom.

There is something about playing music that feels, for me, like the most tangible expression of learning, like I can feel my brain processing, chugging along while I do it. I think this is one of the reasons why I’ve never been a brilliant musician – it’s too clunkily attached to my physical self; I can’t really noodle around or god forbid, jam. (Unless you need someone to play G and C chords over and over? Then I’m your girl.) Writing, on the other hand, is more mysterious. It comes from somewhere I don’t understand. For me music is comforting because it’s nice to know that dogged repetition is how I go from not being able to do something to being able to do it.

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I try to apply that principle to writing: repetition works. (I try to think this when I psych myself up about jogging too, but I’m still not there yet, probably because I can sit at home in my PJ’s to play the guitar, but have to get dressed, wear running shoes, go out into the world, etc. if I want to run. Laziness sometimes trumps other pleasures, and the older I get the more I’m okay with that.) But still, the act of doing the same thing over and over makes that thing, whatever it is, easier, and I also know that the more I remind myself of that, the more I’m likely to believe it.

Scrapbook #8: Auspicious

Towards the end of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, the word “auspicious” starts popping up a lot.* The main character, who spends the first half of the book living a much too fabulous life at the Biennale in Venice, starts disappearing into himself while he’s in Varanasi. He invents his own kangaroo god; he baptizes himself in the Ganges. He notices auspicious signs. I like the word auspicious. I like auspicious things; I collect them. Early spring is an especially good time for looking for them, something about the light and the way the air smells. More looking up, less huddling inwards.

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One day you’re in a bookstore in Athens and you buy the collected poetry of a famous Greek poet. You pick poems at random to read, which is usually how you tackle big collections, by introducing this element of chance. It’s admittedly not the most intellectually rigorous approach. You find a poem you like a lot, dog ear the page, forget about it. A few years later you pick up the book again and reread that poem, and it makes reference to mythological characters you’ve never heard of before. You look them up and think, huh, they kind of fit with the writing thing you’re working on. Actually, they give you a lot of clarity on the writing thing you’re working on. You keep writing. You think about the poem more, and start looking for analyses of it to understand it better. You find some; they’re interesting enough. But then you find something lovelier: an essay written by the poet himself, explaining that exact poem. It’s written as a letter to a friend, and it’s chatty and informative and circuitous and when you read it, it’s kind of like you got the chance to meet this dead, Greek poet for coffee.** You keep working on your writing thing.


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Villa de Souvlaki is on Sherbrooke just before the Decarie, on a dreary stretch that also includes a store specializing in Swedish fur hats. It looks particularly dingy from the outside – good Greek places are generally holes in the wall, anyway. It had been recommended a few times, but we only recently got around to trying it out. We ordered food and it looked promising, but what really sealed the deal was the faded poster on the wall featuring the obscure beach we went to last year with our friend Tassos, the beach where we saw dolphins, where we went swimming in cold, clear water, where we watched kids jumping off the big rock into the sea. I took a photo of the poster, emailed Tassos to let him know, and he replied right away with a Will you ever believe I was just talking about you… And if there’s someone who would believe that? Me.

* And with that book I’m official out-Dyered for the moment.

** He also says, bluntly, “It seems to me that any explanation of a poem is absurd.”

Scrapbook #7: North Country

When we woke up this morning it was sunny and the roads were clear. The car had just gotten an oil change and we had coupons for $2.99 sausage McMuffin breakfasts. All of this combined made our decision for the day clear: it was time to hit the road.

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We picked upstate New York. Customs officers always look so confused when we roll up to the booth and tell them our plans. “You’re going to Lake Placid for a drive?” the officer asked today. “And have lunch,” Andrew added helpfully.

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Scrapbook #6: A Quick Trip

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My dear friend Soraya was celebrating her birthday in Toronto this weekend, so Andrew and I seized the opportunity to see her and her boyfriend, Chris, and drove from Montreal for a quick Friday – Sunday visit . When we pulled into my parents’ driveway late on Friday night, it felt like spring, and smelled like it too – moist and loamy and dark green. Saturday it rained non-stop and melted all the leftover snow banks. When I woke up on Sunday morning, however, I looked out the window and everything was white. By the time we made it back to Montreal, a winter storm warning was in effect, and then this Monday morning a huge storm raged outside. All within 36 hours.

But the trip to Toronto was wonderful, even if it was too short. We hid from the rain in Chris’ cozy apartment and while the guys caught up on photography talk, Soraya and I caught up on feelings. We ate warm bowls of pasta at an Italian restaurant and had the fudgiest Nutella cake for desert. On Sunday Andrew and I managed to have brunch with my mother and then squeeze in a date with Samantha and Jason at a cute café near Trinity Bellwoods park. We drank warm pots of tea, I ate an amazing chocolate chip cookie, and we launched right into always inspiring conversations about writing and making things. It may have been a quick weekend, but it was so good for the soul.

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Before leaving my parents’ house, I found this picture of me as a 3 day old baby, chubby, blotchy and red-faced. I have a freakish amount of hair and I’m looking up at my mom, slightly puzzled about the world I’ve been thrust into. More than thirty years later, I recognize that look; I still feel it from time to time, but hopefully less so than I did back then.

Scrapbook #5: Souvenirs

I’ve been thinking a lot about Greece these days. I will admit: I miss it. The nice thing is that we were good at bringing back souvenirs – thoughtful, lasting ones – and seeing them strewn about our home in Montreal puts me in a good (although sometimes wistful) mood.

Visiting the Atelier of Spiros Vassiliou(Posters hanging up at the Spyros Vassiliou Atelier, which also doubles as a museum for his life.)

We visited the Spyros Vassiliou Atelier one afternoon early into our stay, and fell in love with Vassiliou’s bold, striking style. Vassiliou, who died in 1985, was a painter/printmaker who liked to paint modern Athens in all of its ugly, beautiful sprawl, often weaving in religious icon imagery which is also so prevalent in Greek art. We told ourselves we would buy one of his prints and returned a few months later to select the one we wanted. (Actually, we wanted one so badly that we had to make three return trips. The first two didn’t work out because the studio was closed and in typical Greek fashion, we had no way of knowing until we showed up and saw the sign taped to the door.)

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We liked this print for its vivid sea blue and the small ferry boat in the corner. It reminds me of one of my favourite things about flying into Greece – there’s this point where you’re close enough to landing that you can start making out details below and one of the first things I always notice are the ships. They look so small compared to the huge, blue sea surrounding them. The print is now hanging up in our staircase. Continue reading