A taste of cardamom

It’s been a while, hasn’t it…  Last time I posted, it was one week after I arrived home from my two-week jaunt overseas to Sweden and Ireland with one of my best friends.

And then, suddenly…all quiet on the northern front. 

It’s not that I haven’t tried to write.  I really have.  Feverish scribbles in many notebooks record my efforts.  And it’s not that I haven’t had anything to write about, either.  Indeed, I returned home to the love of my life; I left my second job where I worked en electronics retail; I met my love’s family over Canadian Thanksgiving…oh, and I got engaged just before Christmas!  Personal life events aside, there was always the soapbox of some big current issue:  a Canadian perspective on the US elections; another voice in the protest against the patriarchy; more insights on feminine self-perception and the issues women have with their bodies… You name it, I could have written about it.

But I lost my voice after coming back home in September.  It was as if Angela the Writer was struck speechless by that journey and just felt as if there was nothing to write about on the home front that could hold a candle to the wonders of Sweden and Ireland.  (It certainly didn’t help that before  I left my second job in mid-November, I kept having mini-breakdowns everywhere because of how stressed out, anxious, and over-tired I was.)  And so, as I wound myself into a tighter ball of stress and anxiety and fatigue, the Montreal Autumn waltzed by mostly unnoticed.

And then the Montreal Winter arrived.  Cold and dark as it was, the snow didn’t start coming in earnest until just a few weeks ago.  The past two weeks in particular have been bone-chillingly cold with blustery winds and near-white-out snowfalls.

Memory Lane, or as it’s called in Swedish, Nostalgitripp, beckoned to me and called me back to Sweden in particular when the snow finally hit in earnest.  In the midst of this winter I found myself cocooned in memories of blue skies shining over Stockholm, birch-lined paths through Falun, sun-splashed cobblestones in Gamla Stan, exuberant winds coming off the Baltic…and cardamom buns and coffee enjoyed next to window-baskets full of bright flowers whenever it was time for a fika break.

My fiancé recently let me loose with gift money in the cooking section of Indigo as part of my Valentine’s Day present, and in that particular haul is a book called How To Hygge:  The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life, by Norwegian food writer and chef Signe Johansen.  While it’s more of a lifestyle book than one of cookery, Johansen includes many Nordic recipes in it…and in the chapter on fika, there is a recipe for cardamom buns.

If I ever have to summarize my time in Sweden in terms of food, kardemummabullar from Fabrique Stenugnsbageri is always the first thing I mention.  Kanelbullar, or cinnamon buns, are commonplace enough in North America, and while the kind we get here in abundance is made in the typical American fashion (gigantic, stodgy, and made with too much sugar), their cardamom counterparts are rare treats even in the fanciest boulangeries of my city.  I absolutely love cardamom (many of my favorite tea blends from DavidsTea involve the dried, fragrant green pods) and get noticeably excited when I see it listed on a menu.

Now, hygge (pronounced hoo-ga) is a lifestyle that’s all about cosiness, comfort, companionship, and all the little things in like that bring them to life, and I encountered this concept right in the middle of the time of year that tends to make me feel lethargic, uncomfortable, and lonely.  But as I read the chapter on fika and looked over that recipe for cardamom buns, I remembered not how the Fabrique kardemummabullar tasted but rather how I felt while eating them for the first time.  I’d chosen a rich double espresso to go with it, and as I tucked into this modest little feast I felt all the stiffness, tiredness, and stress of long travel hours melting away.  As I ate I felt ready to take Stockholm head-on like the proper adventurer I wanted to be.

If a cardamom roll could do that once, maybe it could do it again, I thought as I read Johansen’s recipe, curled up on the couch with our British Shorthair purring next to my head while snow fell down outside the window.  We even do have cardamom in the spice cupboard…

I had time this weekend to take on the challenge of home-made bread, and this morning we had a batch of kardemummabullar waiting for us to enjoy in our breakfast.  As I gently tore apart a golden-brown spiral and looked out at the snow that’s piled up on the porch and in the alley below, I felt this long winter brighten a bit with my first taste of the hygge life.

And just as it had done on a side street in Gamla Stan, the taste of fragrant cardamom, fresh bread, and coffee helped me get back on my feet.

“Sophistcated mud pies,” and what they’ve taught me

As a child, I loved getting my hands dirty – literally. When I wasn’t reading (up a tree, under a tree, on the stairs, in my closet…) I was most likely getting dirty. During free afternoons and all summer long, I would stomp around our back yard with the family dog at my heels to turn over rocks and logs and see what was underneath. I had a particular fondness for poking pill-bugs so they would roll up and gathering slimy worms in my hands to gross out my older siblings. After learning about geodes in a Childcraft book, I spent a whole weekend one spring trying to break open rocks that I pried out of the thick clay that lay under our lawn. Not too long after, I tried to make hand-built pottery from that same clay.

Then I watched Art Attack one rainy day, and I discovered a whole new way to get dirty.

Over the next decade or so, and much to the chagrin of my mother, the drab beige carpet in my bedroom became a ten-by-ten low-pile testimonial to my exploration of art. Splotches of paint from dropped brushes and overturned jars of paint, a rainbow of pencil crayon shavings and broken tips, snippets of bright cloth and embroidery thread – no matter how much I cleaned (when I could be convinced, in one way or another, to do so) that carpet was never pristine.

While I profess writing as my main passion – my life’s craft – I’m fond of saying that, “Once, I was an artist.” And that’s true. I drew, painted, sculpted, papier-maché-ed, coloured, doodled, and crafted my way through childhood and adolescence. When I hit university I had to whittle down all those hobbies due to time constraints, and I chose card making and knitting. Being too broke to afford presents and living within walking distance of a Dollarama created an ideal situation to perfect the art of handmade cards, while working with long needles and giant balls of yarn gave long winter nights a warmer, cosier feel. And, of course, I developed my writing skills to the point where I felt comfortable enough to start this blog.

But my hands yearned for more – more than just paper and glue, needles and yarn…more than just typing term papers, opinion pieces, and these blog posts. My inner child was beginning to need more entertainment than I was providing – something dirty and messy, something reminiscent of those afternoons in the backyard.

Being an archaeology student had given me quite the academic insight into ceramics, and once I’d spent a couple of years in the full-on grown-up world of working for The Man instead of sticking it to him, I could no longer ignore what had become a truly visceral need to create things with my own two hands. A Google search led me first to the Montreal Art Centre and then to the Griffintown Art School here in Montreal, and I was soon enrolled in a ceramics class.

A friend of mine recently asked me why I choose to spend so much money on making “sophisticated mud pies.”  The answer is simple:  it brings me joy because it’s two hours a week when I am working on myself while simultaneously creating for others.  It’s two hours a week when learning how to create with my own two hands allows me to learn more about myself and about life.

I’m halfway through my second eight-week course with Nicolas Ouellet, local ceramicist and fantastic instructor, and I have loved every second I’ve spent at the orange wheel in the studio. I have created more than a dozen pieces of ceramic ware under his careful, patient tutelage, learning the process of hand-thrown pottery from start to finish.   From wedging the clay to marvelling at the uniqueness of each glazing job, I have created a handful of pieces that are functional in my daily life and remind me of the life lessons I’ve learned that transcends my “sophisticated mud pies.”

Somebody else will always know something you don’t, so keep quiet and let them teach you. – I think this is pretty self-explanatory in both contexts of pottery class and the rest of life, but it’s still important to remember this every once in a while.

Creating something truly beautiful and unique takes patience and time. – From wedging a lump of clay to the first time you admire a finished piece, the creation of one piece is probably about a week and a half to two weeks. But this is true of anything you create, whether it’s a piece of flatware or the person you were meant to be.

 Never underestimate the effort of any creation process. – I kid you not when I say that after two hours at the wheel, my back and hips are stiff and that my fingers, palms, wrists, arms, and shoulders literally ache with the effort of turning a shapeless handful of clay into something recognizable. But again, whether you’re making a hand-thrown mug or becoming a better person, the amount of effort that goes into that whole process is largely unnoticed by anyone on the outside looking in.  Nobody sees how hard you’ve worked to be kinder, more patient, more loving, or more aware of the world around you if these things don’t come naturally to you, but the see the end product of those struggles to learn and grow.  Nobody outside of the gym will know how hard you’ve worked (even the other regulars at the gym probably don’t see that either) but everyone sees that you’re slimming down and putting on some muscle.  Life itself is a creation process — it is what you make out of what’s been given to you, and turning it all into something beautiful will always take more out of you than you realize.

Close your eyes and feel what’s going on.   — This is how I learned to understand my clay – how to know when it’s stable and centred, when it’s too dry or too wet, when it’s not the right thickness, and when it’s getting loose and tired. This is also how I learned to feel when a dry piece is centred and ready to trim, and during the trimming process how to know when I’ve trimmed off enough excess clay. And yes, this is applicable to the “real world” – when was the last time you just closed your eyes for a second and focused on the feeling of your surroundings or even how you’re really feeling inside?  When was the last time you looked in at yourself and saw what was really there, and then did something about it?  We’re always so concerned with our outward appearances and how we look to the people around us, but why are we so afraid to look inside ourselves and see what’s buried deep inside our hearts and possibly waiting to be let out into the world?

It won’t always work out the way you want it to, and even when it does it will still surprise and maybe even delight you. – I’ve had to turn a butter bell lid into an eggcup (or shot glass) because my clay was too thin. I’ve had to reshape a piece or two because I’ve deformed them while attempting to remove them from the wheel. I’ve experimented with beeswax, slip, and glaze. And every completed piece is a total surprise, regardless of what happened on the journey it took from shapeless clay to ceramic vessel – even the final colour is a surprise, because blue glaze starts out red and red glaze starts out blue. It’s the same with life: it rarely plays out the way we expect or want it to, but we forget that it plays out the way it’s meant to in order for us to become the best possible versions of ourselves. Just like clay, we start out with very little beauty or shape – but as time goes by we are formed, first physically in our mothers’ wombs and after we are born, which is when our emotional, intellectual, and internal formation also begins. Our families, friends, and other influential presences coax us into shape in our lives. Hard times bring us down, and positive times pull us back up. We are thrust into fire and coloured by our experiences…

…and at the end of it all, in the same way that grey shapeless clay becomes a beautifully glazed mug or bowl, we are revealed to be unique, beautiful, and useful in our own ways.

The first day of the rest of my life

“You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.”
— C. S. Lewis

I turned twenty-five on Sunday.

I spent the day before my birthday and the day itself with some of the people I love best, and am looking forward to a few friend-dates in the next week to get together with the ones I couldn’t see this weekend.  When I was growing up my birthdays were almost always exclusively family affairs, as having a summer birthday meant the majority of the few good school friends I had were away on family vacations.

As far as milestones go, it’s the only one I’ve had so far where I’ve felt like I’ve really come a long way from where I was the previous year.  The first half-and-a-bit of 2015 has been all about self-discovery and growing up – about coming to terms with what I’ve experienced in the past and learning to let it go so that I can move forward with my life.  I’ve grown stronger in all aspects of my life, even the ones where I was already doing pretty well…but I think the biggest difference between then and now is that I’m finally starting to be strong for myself.

Going the distance – not just physically but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually – is something I’ve had difficulty with for my whole life.  I’ve got a few victories under my belt, but I’ve never really  been able to say I’ve done everything I’ve set my mind to do.  And something huge that I’ve come to realize in the past couple of months is that truly going the distance really is an issue of mind over matter.  I can set my mind to anything, but I have to keep those goals at the forefront of my focus if I’m going to achieve what I’ve set out to do.

The other thing I’ve realized is that part of keeping presence of mind regarding those goals is doing them every day.  Long-term investments of any kind take time to give you a return, and when it comes to personal goals and personal improvement there are no shortcuts.

Hot damn though…once it starts paying back, it really starts paying back.    

I can’t really quite describe how it feels to wake up, throw off my duvet, and stretch my legs any which way and see muscle lines where there used to be nothing but wobbly flesh.  It’s not just the fact that my legs are actually starting to look good – it’s the fact that now I can run farther and faster on them, and not just because they’re stronger.  I’ve lost enough weight to realize I can run – and, even more surprisingly, that I like running.  In fact, this former borderline high school Phys Ed failure enjoys running so much that she’s decided to train for a half-marathon next June.

But there’s something else that I’ve wanted to do for much longer than running a half-marathon – something else that symbolizes going the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual distance that I see before me.

Montreal is home to Saint Joseph’s Oratory – founded by one of Quebec’s very own saints, Saint Frère André, whose close relationship with Saint Joseph earned him not only the nickname bon ami de Saint Joseph but also the reputation of a miraculous man whose devotion allowed the intercession of Saint Joseph to cure seemingly countless pilgrims seeking relief from various afflictions.  Pilgrimages to the Oratory are still fairly common, and because it is built so high up on the hillside the most direct route upwards is an impressive series of stone steps.  In between the two stone staircases is a wooden one reserved for pilgrims, specifically those who wish to complete their journey to the Oratory on their knees.

I was meeting one of my closest and oldest friends for Mass last night at the Oratory, and the walk there from my new apartment is literally only ten minutes.  As I stood at the bottom of the hill, texting Elizabeth to let her know I was on my way up, I decided to make the kneeling pilgrimage up to the Oratory.   Yeah, I know I’m weird – who wants to celebrate their milestone birthday by getting to church on time by going up a hillside of ninety-nine exposed wooden stairs on their knees when it’s almost thirty degrees outside with the sun on their back?

But that’s what I did.  With a young couple praying the rosary up ahead of me and a young woman behind me making the same pilgrimage in place of her wheelchair-bound mother waiting at the top, I climbed 99 steps on my knees – praying all the while and giving thanks for everything with which I Have been blessed so far in my life.

Just as I can’t quite explain how it feels when I see strong healthy legs in the morning instead of twin cans of Pillsbury biscuit dough, I can’t quite explain how it felt to stand at the top of that staircase, using the last few spare minutes before Mass to see, quite literally, how far I’d come.  After Mass, I stood at the top of them again with Elizabeth, looking at the sky as the last of the light from the sunset faded to the black of night…and as we descended together I passed the memory of myself – and all my past fears, insecurities, failures, and hurts – where I left them on my way up.

I’m pretty sure there’s at least one of each on every last one of those stairs.

I went to bed last night a newly-minted twenty-five-year old who felt, for the first time in her adult life, like she truly was older, wiser, stronger, smarter, and more loved.  And while everyone in my life who celebrated with me, in one way or another, helped make me feel that way I had to make myself believe that by taking the first ninety-nine steps out of my past and into my future.

stjoesThe view of North Montreal from the Basilica level of Saint Joseph’s Oratory at the end of sunset.

A place, under the sun, where hearts of olden glory grow young

This past weekend here in Canada was the Victoria Long Weekend.  Unlike most people I know, who skip town in favor of lakeside cottages or beach houses, I stayed in the city.  With my upcoming move to a new apartment fast approaching, most of my spare time is spent sorting through my worldly possessions and packing those of most use and significance into boxes.

However, yesterday I took a break from all of that to go visit my father’s grave with my mother and oldest sister.  His final earthly resting place is in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery (which, as it so happens, is just across the street from the apartment I’ll be living in come the end of June), which is located on the northwest side of Mount Royal.

An old and beautiful cemetery, its sweeping expanse of manicured slopes is populated by countless gravesites.  The cemetery is so old and so huge that there are countless graves that have been left untended for years – decades, even, in some cases.  There are also various sections of the cemetery dedicated to specific cultures, nationalities, and religions, and there are even numerous famous historical figures laid to rest within these grounds.  To get to my father’s, we drive up the winding asphalt from the main gates and make turns at landmark graves – marked by towering marble sculptures too ornate and monumental to be referred to simply as “tombstones” – before driving by the potter’s field adjacent to the section where we laid my father to rest.

When we visit my father’s grave, we clear away encroaching weeds and crabgrass, and always try to leave some kind of bouquet when we depart.  Most of the time, I end up wandering in between the rows of marble markers, gathering daisies and clovers and other field flowers to bring to him – just as I did when I was a little girl.

Yesterday, I noticed for the first time in three years that, two sections over, there stands a long hedge of lilacs.  We had a light purple lilac in the backyard of the house in which I grew up, and the sight of any lilac, regardless of its colour, reminds me of my childhood.  Upon wandering over to the lilac hedge with my sister to pick a few stems to leave on my father’s stone, we discovered a new section of the cemetery:  a field for military veterans.

A monument stands at the top of the field, rising up over rows of granite plaques bearing names, ranks, and regiments.  Yet for all the glory that might lie at rest in this part of the cemetery, it is a lonely and forgotten place. The lilacs in the hedge and the carpeting of deep purple groundcover flowers are the only blooms to be found in this section of the cemetery.  Walking in between the rows of engraved stone markers, we soon saw that one row on the left side of the monument was almost entirely overgrown.

But the turf was surprisingly easy to pull up off the brass markers, and all it took was a sweep of a hand to brush away any remaining dead foliage and dirt.  When we were done bringing these stones back into the sunshine we laid a small spray of lilac on each one before returning to our father’s tombstone to say a decade of the Rosary with our mother.

You can argue that we had no reason to tend to that row of granite markers, because we have no idea who these men and women were.  We are not related to anyone lying in that small section of the cemetery and we probably don’t know anyone who is, either.  In a cemetery full of hundreds, if not thousands, of untended graves, what difference would it make to clear ten small granite plaques?

The thing is that every life leaves in its wake some kind of legacy.  Some legacies touch only a few people and that is by all means significant.  But the legacy of a soldier touches more than just a few lives, and goes beyond immediate family and close friends.  It’s a legacy that impacts entire nations and their future generations…a legacy of freedom and virtue and the goodness of mankind, a legacy of a good life sacrificed for countless others.

As I walked back to my father’s grave I felt a peace and stillness in my heart that I could not explain.  I still don’t know what it means for me, but it was still there when I woke up this morning.  Maybe it’s because I was able to touch a part of Canada’s history in such unlikely circumstances, or maybe it’s because in a beautifully strange and inexplicable way I am still, deep down, a little girl wandering in sunshine as she gathers flowers for her dad and learns how to love and honour all life as he did.

Whatever the case may be, it is indisputable that in lonely corner of a vast cemetery, picking flowers to lay on my father’s grave, I was surprised by joy…and I cannot wait to see what such joy might illuminate in my future.

Lost and Found in Translation

This particular headline has been popping up on my FaceBook news feed all evening.  And it is why I am still awake at this hour, writing this blog post for all of you.  In the sprit of this post, if you want translations of the paragraphs that are not in your language of preference, let me know.  It might take a couple of days to get it posted, but if I have to make this entire thing totally bilingual for you, I will.

(NB:  No translators, Internet or Human, were used in this blog post.  Any glaring mistakes are mine and mine alone, but please let me know so that I can improve.  Especially since I tend to offer unsolicited corrections to mistakes made in English.)

***

You could probably say I’m used to knowing what it’s like being one of the “others.”  As the youngest child of an immigrant family from Southeast Asia, I grew up as a visible ethnic minority.  I was terribly conscious of the fact that I was not blonde and blue-eyed (and, to add insult to injury, for the longest time I had the Asian-child bowl cut as well).  My daily nourishment was food my schoolmates considered gross and inedible because it wasn’t red meat, two veg, and potatoes, but strange, smelly, saucy concoctions of seafood, pork, and chicken served with mountains of rice.  (Some of you might think that’s actually pretty cool, but most six-year-olds I know wouldn’t agree.  See the problem I had as one?)

And I actually spoke flawless English and read at a higher reading level than what was available in my elementary school’s library – but because I’m a visible minority, it was believed that I ought to be put into ESL classes anyway.  (Luckily, my oldest brother was made the guinea pig for this, and after literally making an afternoon of the entire ESL course, he – and by extension, I too – was deemed to be in good English standing and allowed to remain in the normal curriculum.)  But, little did I know — this was the first of many challenging experiences I would have in my life regarding language.

À huit ans, j’ai eu ma première expérience avec la langue française.  Madame Crockett, ma maîtresse pour la troisième année, était une francophone bilingue qui a eu le désir à amener sa langue maternelle à tous ses étudiants.  Avec elle, j’ai commencé un grand voyage:  d’apprendre une nouvelle langue.  Tout au long de l’école primaire, j’ai pris des cours de francais avec Madame Crockett.

Avant que je continue, je veux vous informer que les cours qui sont disponible pour les écoles primaires à la Colombie-Britannique sont très simple.  En fait, le programme pour les cours au niveau primaire est répétitif et on doit attendre pour l’école secondaire d’apprendre plus que les choses de base (comme les conversations brèves, les chiffres, les couleurs, le calendrier, etc).  Mais tous les écoliers ont l’opportunité à prendre les cours de français à partir de leurs jeunesses.  Donc, mes parents – qui parlent chez nous en anglais et aussi dans la langue philippine – ont pris la décision que ses enfants parlent dans les deux langues officiels du Canada.

Because we were not in Early French Immersion but rather in a totally Anglophone primary school, my brothers and I all had to wait until we were thirteen and in grade eight to begin Late French Immersion.  This program lasted four years, during which we all took at least four of our eight required subjects in French (and in which we all excelled).  After taking an extra regular French course in my senior year to have another Provincial Exam under my belt for university admissions requirements, my classroom education in French was neatly tied up in a final grade of 96% given to me by the provincial government.  I was then accepted to Concordia University in Montréal, and I moved from British Columbia to Québec with a lot of optimism.  I would be going to an English university, but I would be living in a French city.  I would actually get to use the language I’d been learning in school.

However, upon landing here I found a fly in that honey.  You see, Late French Immersion had prepared me best to read, write, and – to a much lesser extent – listen in French..but as far as speaking was concerned, most of what we’d done had been scripted.  That included most of our oral exams, as we were given several questions to prepare ahead of time (and then we’d only have to answer a few of them).  I did not have much by way of ability to speak in French when I arrived in Montréal, and learning to understand it when it was being spoken to me at the speed of an animated chipmunk was a challenge unto itself.  And for the first two years of my life in Montréal, I actually lost more French than I gained simply because most of the Francophones I met would switch to English because “this way, it’s easier for everyone.” (These people then became the ones who would relentlessly rag on me, demanding to know why I “hadn’t yet made an effort.”)

Mais en 2011, une poste dans un environnement francophone m’a donné des nouveaux collègues et amis qui ont remarqué (dans une manière positive) sur mes faiblesses. Malgré la barrière de la langue, ces gens francophones au travail m’ont aidé beaucoup à améliorer mes compétences et à gagner la confiance à communiquer dans une deuxième langue.  Je me souviens une expérience sur la plancher du magasin quand j’ai eu beaucoup des difficultés avec un client qui était un francophone militant (en plus, il était très impatient).  Par miracle, j’ai complété la transaction toute seule avec succès, mais l’expérience m’a laissé découragée et frustrée.

Deux jours plus tard, j’ai pris la bouffe avec un ami, Félix Antoine.  On a discuté la question de la langue pendant qu’on mangé, et quand je lui ai dis de l’expérience que j’ai décrit en haut, il m’arrêté:  “Je t’ai entendu, Angela, quand tu as parlé avec les clients francophones sur le plancher.  Tu as plus des compétences que tu penses.”

So, I hear you ask, what’s my point?

Yes, one culture can point out what’s wrong with the other. Yes, we can all argue that neither side is perfect and that both sides have much room to improve. These are truths about the society in which we, as residents of Québec, live and work and study.  But if we spend all of our time bickering with one another about language and culture, we will all miss the opportunities we have in this unique province to learn and grow together.  It’s the little things that bolster us and motivate us to continue.  There is so much more to be said about acknowledgement of effort and continuous encouragement than of shortcomings and closed-minded criticism.

À tous mes amis francophones qui m’a aident avec l’amélioration en ma deuxième langue:  je vous remercie beaucoup.  C’est grâce à vous que j’étais motivé d’écrire ce blog aujourd’hui.  Et pour ceux d’entre vous qui m’a demandé pour l’aide avec l’anglais, c’est toujours un plaisir.  Quand on partage la connaissance et les compétences, quand on peut reconnaître les opportunités pour l’amitié au milieu des différences — on peut vivre.