Tom Simard

Poetry, Music, and Prose

Archive for the category “Non-Fiction”

Sketch 3 (W&S): The Family Cow

Sometimes things take you by surprise. You might have been in a restaurant with a friend and gone to the salad bar only to return to find someone sitting in your spot and wearing your glasses. Or maybe you were traveling and had an unexpected encounter.

I think most people who have done any amount of hitchhiking will tell you that you’re about as unlikely to be picked up by someone who takes their holiday in Martha’s Vineyard as you are by those who spend their summers in the Hamptons. It’s safe to say your rides will come from either the middle or the working classes so it’s probably wise to hide that patrician accent of yours.

We had crossed our way into Wyoming and for the life of us weren’t able to get a ride. When hitchhiking, there are times of scarcity (eight hours and only eight-three miles) and then prosperity (the next ride, one thousand six hundred and sixty-six miles). We’d been on the side of the road for a spell and were just looking to get a little closer to our destination. That is not to say we didn’t periodically slip into the woods for a smoke before returning out again to brave the passing traffic.

When the old school bus pulled over, and the door opened, we were met with a decidedly unpleasant odor. I looked at my cousin with concern. He just said, “We can hardly be turning down rides.”

I took it in all very quickly and this from someone who nearly always take a very long time to register anything. The grinning driver with his Van Dyke. His pregnant wife. The young girl lying on a mattress in a feverish state. Two children playing with toy soldiers. The bus was packed with all of their earthly possessions.

All of us use our experiences to try and make sense of things. That’s why when we heard a sound we thought the kids had one of those toys where after you select the barnyard animal of your choice, you hear a cackle, grunt, or moo as the case may be. However, when we spotted something moving, we realized it was their cow.  To say we were startled would have been an understatement.

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The Neighborhood

The neighborhood where I live isn’t particularly attractive but from my balcony where there are numerous plants and flowers, which should at some point be photographed and shared, there are some quite stunning views. It’s also centrally located, which means my feet do the walking instead of a vehicle, which would just be downright silly. Someone like W. Heath Robinson might have done justice to that. It’s also relatively safe although there have been at least three burglaries too close for comfort, which explains why a few years back we got a security door that will hopefully prevent anyone from breaking in. If burglars were to enter, deceiving what we were told was foolproof technology, they would be sorely disappointed by their inability despite their ransacking to find anything of real material value. However, they would come across shelves and shelves of books of which I expect they would not be tempted.

Vienna

We flew into Vienna a few days before Christmas, and through a complete fluke found ourselves in the best hotel we’ve ever stayed at.

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It was about a minute or two on foot from Belvedere and about a mile and a half from the center. Nearby was a rink where we skated:

sk

Vienna has plazas and stately buildings.

800px-Statue_of_Archduke_Charles_of_Austria_on_the_Heldenplatz_(Heroes'_Square)

(Photographer: Jorge Lascar)

The Kunsthistorisches is one of the best art museums I have ever been to:

Brueghel Tower of BablePieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Tower of Babel

466px-Raffael_030Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow

Arcimboldo,_Giuseppe_SummerGiuseppe Arcimboldo’s Summer

The Albertina is impressive:

Durer_Young_HareDürer’s The Young Hare

510px-Maler_und_KäuferPieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Painter and The Buyer

If you visit Prater, you will no doubt ride the Ferris Wheel made famous in The Third Man. We went on a gloomy day, and our cabin was decidedly rundown, but we still got a good view of the city. No zither music was heard.

In the Sala Terrena we heard a string quartet perform pieces by Mozart, Bach, and Haydn. The latter being a favorite, we made a pilgrimage on 3 separate occasions to his home but each time found it closed. Don’t let anyone tell you there aren’t disadvantages of traveling during the holidays.

800px-Haydn-Haus

A visit to Vienna would not be complete without seeing the Schönbrunn Palace. As palaces go, I invariably find the exterior more appealing than the interior. Enjoy the Christmas markets with their ornaments and knicknacks. Try the hot spiced wine.  While not to our liking, others seemed genuinely enamored by it.

800px-Schloss_Schönbrunn_Wintermarkt

(Photographer: David M. Cerna)

The food we had throughout our stay was good – schnitzel and sausages the basic fare. However, on New Year’s Eve we treated ourselves to a four-course dinner atop the Danube Tower, which while quite a walk from the underground stop did take us through a park with lamp posts that brought to mind Lucy’s first trip to Narnia.

Vienna is well known for its pastry shops. Although Café Sacher is probably the most famous, I would avoid it at all costs. It wasn’t that there was anything terribly wrong with what we had, but neither was it worth waiting in line for an hour only to be served by an overly stuffy waiter and afterwards be given a bill so inflated one could not help but wonder whether the hyperinflation of the 1920s had returned. My willingness to occasionally be drawn into tourist traps no doubt has its origin in the family vacations of my youth.

Please do visit others though as your sweet tooth will be thoroughly satisfied. On our last day, we stumbled upon one whose display window itself was a work of art.  We struggled to make ourselves understood (I’ve forgotten what little German I had.), and then sat in the company of two old women in furs and a man slowly sipping his coffee as he paged through his newspaper.

Vienna is a beautiful city, and is well-worth visiting, but it does have a darker side.  Scroll up to the third photo. It is Heidenplatz where the Anschluss took place. It is also the name of a play by Thomas Bernhard whose Wittengstein’s Nephew should be on everyone’s shelf.

Should you find yourself in Judenplatz, you will come across this:

Rachel_whitereadwien_holocaust_mahnmal_wien_judenplatz

(Photographer: Hans Peter Schaefer)

The inscriptions below the door reads:

Zum Gedenken an die mehr als 65 000 österreichischen Juden,
die in der Zeit von 1938 bis 1945 von den
Nationalsozialisten ermordet wurden.

זכר למעלה מ-65.000 יהודים אוסטריים
שנרצחו בשנים 1945-1938
.ע”י הפושעים הנציונלסוציאליסטיים ימ”ש

In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews
who were killed by the Nazis between
1938 and 1945.

Milan

When people think of Rome, this is what might come to mind:

800px-Colosseum_in_Rome-April_2007-1-_copie_2B

Florence:

David_von_Michelangelo

I’d be the last person to say Milan is Florence or Rome, but that is not to say it doesn’t have its own charm.

Milan_Cathedral_from_Piazza_del_Duomo

The Duomo di Milano is impressive. But perhaps you’re a little like me and wonder whether what Dylan Thomas said of death also holds true of cathedrals.  If so, one can still climb the many steps (think of it as that exercise you’ve been putting off), and you’ll be afforded a wonderful view of the city and the Italian Alps in the distance.  Within the church, I found myself enthralled by the stainglass windows.

Here’s one by Paolo Uccello:

631px-Paolo_uccello,_vetrata_della_resurrezione

I had little expectations for The Last Supper, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. After passing through one hermetically sealed room after another, we arrived in the chapel:

Última_Cena_-_Da_Vinci_5

We had 15 minutes. I could have spent hours.

If you like Italian opera as much as me, a visit to the very inconspicous (from the outside at least) Teatro alla Scala is a must. The likes of Maria Callas sang there.

Part of the enjoyment I find in travel is the unexpected.

Did you know they have a canal in Milan? And did you know it was designed by Leonardo da Vinci?

800px-4024_-_Milano_-_Chiuse_del_Naviglio_pavese_-_Foto_Giovanni_Dall'Orto,_7-July-2007

It is a wonderful spot, and there are places to eat and drink.  We were lost (also a favorite activity of mine) and happened to stumble upon a restaurant where we had a wonderful meal with an excellent Gavi wine.

Gelato has a well-deserved reputation, and when I first tried it in Rome nearly thirty years back it was a revelation worthy of St. John the Divine. You will want to taste the ice-cream here as well.

On the subject of food, risotto is a must. But, of course, some risotto is more equal than others. As always the safest rule for eating while travelling is to avoid the restaurants tourists frequent and try to find a place locals visit.  In Milan you will hear beautiful Italian cadences to which your taste buds will be eternally grateful.

Finally, I would be amiss not to mention that Milan is also the perfect spot to use as a base to travel to other locations nearby.  Our excursions brought us to Lake Como, Lugano, and Verona.

Translation

One of the two mentors I was fortunate to study under was a translator. For a while, I played with the idea of becoming one myself. I’ve always been fascinated by translation – the give and take – something added, something lost – the delicate balance necessary to pull it off.

Why such talk? For those who don’t remember, a number of us agreed to read the new Stephen Mitchell translation of The Iliad. Unfortunately, as fate (that’s what I’m calling it anyway) would have it, I ordered the wrong copy and the right one took forever to arrive in my little neck of the woods. In fact, it just got here. Everyone is so far ahead that even if I decided to stop working, and read night and day I would still not be able to catch up. If I were a speed reader it might help, but I can assure you I’m not, and have, in fact, always found the notion of speed and read in the same sentence let alone combined into one word nothing short of sacrilegious.

I have, however, been keeping myself up to date with their posts, and hopefully, through their insights I’ll be better able to appreciate the work.

But in order to do it justice I’ll first finish the books I’m reading as well as one I haven’t started but have had my eyes on. I also really do need to get working again on my second novel, which possibly might come out this year seeing that it’s about 70% finished – like the last one it was started long, long ago…

The idea is to immerse myself in The Iliad, post on it, and perhaps related subjects – depending on if and when the spirit moves.

I claim absolutely no expertise – just an immense love and respect for the written word.

Vive la France! Vive la République!

America never was America to me. Bear this in mind as you read. Ideals may not always be realized, but few would choose to live in a world where they did not exist.

My paternal grandfather died when my dad was young so he grew up on the farm where his mother had been raised. The Great Depression had just begun, and they were fortunate to have land that gave them all they needed at a time in which so many had so very little. Since my grandmother worked, he was looked after by his French Canadian grandparents.

French was spoken, and on the balcony during the summer, it was sung. My father had a French first name, and the meals served were traditional Quebec cuisine.

His grandfather must have been an important role model for him so it’s easy to understand why it was with such sadness that he told me the story of his death.  Among the many people who came to pay final respects was a French Métis, who worked for him as a handyman. Once he had left, my great-grandfather asked for water to cleanse his hands. He felt defiled.

It’s hard to say how instrumental this experience was in shaping my father’s perceptions of the world. I do know I was fortunate never to have heard a racist comment from him, which was decidedly different from the wider environment where I heard people routinely categorized in ways in which I’m sure you are all too familiar.

As he grew he was fascinated with the French Revolution, whose ideals he admired – before, of course, it started eating its children.  And, of course, as a  young man there was France and the battle in Europe against Nazism.

The only memory I have of him crying is when he heard La Marseillaise.

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