May 31, 2015

Bonne fête des mères

We have just returned from a month in Paris. While there we celebrated Mother's Day, or at least the Canadian version in early May. In France, Mother's Day, or the  fête des mères falls on the last Sunday in May. That being today. We should celebrate this day again don't you think? Isn't it a great idea to celebrate mothers, and women, more than just once a year?

The flowers are from Van Dusen Garden in Vancouver. The goslings and ducklings are from the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

Bonne fête des mères!

Photos by Jeem. Copyright 2015 by Jim Murray.

May 30, 2015

Rhododendrons at Van Dusen Garden

We came back from Paris just in time to see the laburnum and rhododendrons at Van Dusen Gardens. From the crowded streets of Paris to the tree-lined streets of Vancouver was an adjustment. There is something wonderful about a city that celebrates trees, on nearly every street, the way Vancouver does. It's that luxury, and abundance, of nature we in Vancouver might take for granted in our quest to become someone's vision of a world class city.

And on our first full day back we visited Van Dusen. The blooms and blossoms, the colours and the fragrance were amazing.

Photos by Jeem. Copyright 2015 by Jim Murray.

May 28, 2015

Robert Fisk on Tony Blair

I follow the rants and writings of Robert Fisk. Fisk is a multiple award-winning Middle East correspondent, based in Beirut and he writes for the wonderful British paper, The Independent. Mr Fisk calls it as he sees it and he sees more than most. He is informed, thoughtful, objective and opinionated. The truth matters to Robert Fisk, as it should to all of us.

His latest commentary appeared in The Independent today, 28 May 2015, and features the a man I've been calling a war criminal for years: Tony Blair. Fisk's piece is called: Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him:

 Tony Blair’s time as Middle East envoy representing the US, Russia, the UN and the EU has finally come to an end. Eight years after he took up the role, Blair tendered his resignation and left one question: how come a war criminal ever became a "peace envoy" in the first place?

The people of the Middle East – and much of the world – have been asking this question ever since Blair was appointed the Quartet’s man in Jerusalem, solemnly and hopelessly tasked to bring “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians. Was his new mission supposed to wash the blood from his hands after the catastrophe of the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq and the hundreds of thousands of innocents who died as a result?

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – Blair’s appointment was an insult. The man who never said he was sorry for his political disaster simply turned up in Jerusalem four years later and, with a team which spent millions in accommodation and air fares, managed to accomplish absolutely nothing in the near-decade that followed.

Blair appeared indifferent to the massive suffering of the Palestinians – he was clearly impotent in preventing it – and spent much of his time away from the tragedy of the Middle East, advising the great and the good and a clutch of Muslim dictators, and telling the world – to Israel’s satisfaction – of the dangers represented by Iran.

The more prescient he thought he was, the more irrelevant he became in the eyes of the region he was sent to protect. A Blair supporter once defended him on Channel 4 by recalling how he had travelled to the Middle East almost 100 times – without realising the essential irony: that Blair abandoned the region almost 100 times for more rewarding destinations.

Blair was supposed to produce more than the easy panaceas that slipped from his lips, the most outrageous of which was his contention that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be easier than ending the Northern Ireland crisis. But the Palestinians have much more in common with the Irish Catholics cleansed from their lands by the Protestant planters of the 17th century than with the pitiful historical battle in the province, whose resolution proved to be Blair’s only lasting accomplishment.
If only he had resigned more than two years ago, after Palestinian leaders had themselves characterised his job as "useless, useless, useless."   Israel, of course, would never have described him as this. Stoutly condemning the campaign for Israel’s "delegitimisation," Blair talked about this as a form of bias which was "an affront to humanity" – a choice of words he never used about the massive civilian casualties inflicted by Israel on the Palestinians of Gaza.
The Arabs will now wait to see if the Quartet will repeat its folly by appointing an even more unsuitable candidate – a truly difficult task – although many in the region think the whole panjandrum must be abandoned. Eight years ago, there just might have been the slimmest chance of bringing a Palestinian state into being. Today there is none.

And doesn't that say it all? Good riddance Tony Blair.

May 22, 2015

Selling of illegal trinkets is exploitation of the sellers

Today, in a rare occurrence, the Eiffel Tower was closed to the public for seven hours because workers went on strike to complain about the scourge of pickpocket-gangs at the site. Normally the tower is open every day of the year, except in cases where police receive information about potential threats.

Our experience at the Eiffel Tower, and at other major attractions in Paris, does not offer much; we were wary of the potential of pickpockets, but never saw anything to concern us beyond taking precautions that would apply in any city.

What we did see at various sites, including the Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Cœur, were tens and tens of men selling trinkets, baubles and beads. That they might be involved as pickpockets is unknown to me; that they are part of a larger problem of exploitation and criminal activity is much clearer.

According to a Reuters report, Chinese gangs import trinkets from China and then sell them to other groups who control the sellers. The sellers are usually migrants from India and parts of Africa and they work without proper licenses and certainly without proper pay, selling knock-off merchandise that undercuts legitimate business operators who sell licensed merchandise, pay taxes and wages.

According to Reuters, up to 400 black-market sellers hawk their wares around the Eiffel Tower during the height of the summer season. Hundreds more operate at the Louvre and Sacré-Cœur. In the past the police would show up and the sellers would scatter; now it seems as though they are allowed to stay as long as they don't become overly zealous in selling their knock-off trinkets. Police have been hindered by the inability of over-stretched courts to prosecute the wave of illegal sellers. When sellers are caught, their goods are confiscated but they are usually released because most are unable to pay their fine (which could be as much as 3750 euros). Even fewer are sent back to their home country.

These men are victims of others higher up. There is money to be made selling this merchandise for the gangs that control the sellers, yet it is the sellers who take the greatest risk. There is something wrong with this picture. France and the EU have dragged their heels on dealing with the issue of economic migrants. Nearly always exploited along the way, they face a difficult time transitioning into Europe without being further exploited and discriminated against once they land in an EU state. 

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.

Another orange wave?

Jeffrey Simpson writing in today's Globe and Mail asks, "Can a third orange wave splash across Canada?"

After what happened in Quebec in the last federal election and in Alberta's recent provincial election, it is a valid question and Simpson goes on to come up with the answer:

A lot of voters dislike the Harper Conservatives and will vote in a fury to rid the country of them. When voters passionately dislike someone, they will search for the best available means of change, assuming the alternative is marginally capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair is more than capable of meeting the lowest tests of leadership. Maybe he’s not a touchy-feely kind of guy, but then neither is the Prime Minister...
Simpson makes note of the problem we face by voting Liberal in an effort to oust the Tories; the two parties really aren't much different:
The Liberals suggest that they will do some things differently – but not too many. They will be "nicer" in government than the Conservatives or, to use a frightful buzzword much favoured by the politically correct and linguistically challenged, more "inclusive."
On the issue of Justin Trudeau:
Then there is Mr. Trudeau himself, the question being: Will he wear well in the rough-and-tumble of sustained debate and constant media coverage?
A lot of voters want passionately to get rid of the Conservatives, but when they look at Mr. Trudeau they ask: Has he got what it takes? 
Can another orange wave come to Canada in five months? Simpson thinks, maybe yes:
The failure of the Conservatives to grow and the Liberals' failure to seem like the inevitable alternative give the NDP a chance for a surprise.

Quotes from The Globe and Mail, Friday 22 May 2015.
Jeffrey Simpson; Can a third orange wave splash across Canada?

May 21, 2015

Odette for coffee and choux à la crème

In the Latin Quarter, around the corner from the bookstore Shakespeare and Company, and in view of Notre Dame, is a wonderful little coffee shop called Odette.

Odette is more than just a coffee shop. The coffee is great mind you, sweet and served perfectly. The real reason for coming to Odette is the choux à la crème.  They are irresistible.

The view from Odette.

Simple, elegant little cream puff creations in a variety of wonderful flavours, including pistachio, caramel, lavender, chocolate and even champagne. These things are delightful.

In Paris, Odette is not to be missed.
Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.

May 12, 2015

A father's charter need not be a son's charter

I'm not sure where this image originated. It's a useful image especially
after Trudeau's Liberals (that would be the Trudeau on the right) 
supported Stephen Harper's Conservatives in passing Bill  C-51.
Trudeau (the one on the left) must be very discouraged indeed.

May 08, 2015

Density in Paris

In our travels through this wonderful city, we remark at the number of cafés and restaurants, green grocers and bakeries, we find everywhere. How do all these little cafés and stores survive?

Paris, apart from all the fantastic stuff, is a city of apartments. There is an endless rotation of six floor buildings throughout the city, usually with office or retail space on the main level and apartments above. The population density is significant.

In fact, through the 20 arrondissements that make up central Paris, or Paris proper, there are over 2.2 million people, in an area of 105 square kilometres.

To compare, the City of Vancouver, or Vancouver proper, is slightly larger at 115 square kilometres and boasts a grand population of nearly 605,000.

Paris has a population density over 21,000 per square kilometre. Vancouver has only 5,250 per square kilometre. Density varies through the arrondissements of course, with some of the central districts having as few a 8,000 per square kilometre while the 18e, where we reside, has 32,000. The district with the highest density is the 11e which is centred around the Bastille as a visible marker. It has over 42,000 people per square kilometre.

As another comparison, New York City's population density only approaches half  that in Paris. The borough of Manhattan, New York's most crowded, has a density approaching 27.000 per square kilometre.

With this kind of population density, having cafés, bars, convenience stores and green grocers on almost every corner becomes easier to understand. The fact that Paris has little room for big-box stores, unlike the wide open spaces of Canadian cities, means it's easier for smaller chains, and even independents, to operate.

Density also creates a sense of neighbourhood as people don't have to get in their cars in order to do their marketing. In fact, "buying groceries" is more likely to become a daily routine, and it takes place at small businesses where people get to know each other.

Paris is home to a varied population, and like Vancouver, finding people originally from Paris is relatively rare. Most Paris residents were not born in the city. It is a surprisingly young city with lower death rates than the rest of France. Upon reaching retirement age, many leave the city to retire to the provinces, especially the south.

Another fact of life in Paris is that there are a large number of single-person family units in this city. In fact, the average size of a household in Paris is only 1.75; many households are home to one person, and they tend to be either old or young. Younger families, while they are on the increase in the city, tend to move to the ring around Paris, where rents, or home ownership costs, are lower. And where the giant stores exist along with the motorways.

And with all those singe-person apartments filling the city, cafés, bars, and stores selling convenient single-use sizes of everything from yogurt to soups, meat and fish to desserts and pastries, can exist, and hopefully, flourish. Because a large number of apartments don't have en suitelaundry (ours a washing machine but doesn't have a drier), neighbourhood dry cleaners and laundries abound.

It is difficult to compare European cities with those in Canada or the US. Our cities, perhaps apart from New York, evolved in a different way. The automobile and lack of public transit played a big part in the way cities like Vancouver and Calgary developed. The absence of political leadership and a avoidance of any sort of planning allowed private interests to seize the civic agenda.

Part of the success of Paris as a world class city, and a city that actually functions properly, is the reality of higher densities of population and the limits of entry imposed upon developers and large big-box retailers. We would be wise to demand the same from our political leaders.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015. 

May 06, 2015

"Don't let them tell you it can't be done."

A year ago, would any of us have imagined, even in our wildest dreams, that the New Democrats of Alberta would win a provincial election? I have crazed dreams but nothing as strange as Rachel Notley winning a majority government in a province that has kept the Conservatives in power for over forty years.

Back in 2011, no one gave the NDP any thought of electing MPs in Quebec. Yet the NDP did.

Now the Liberals and Conservatives will tell us, the NDP has no hope at winning a national election; that becoming Canada's Official Opposition was just a fluke, a one-time event that won't happen again. Liberals, and their friends in the media, will remind us that they are the natural governing party; that they are entitled to govern. Again.

There are several things to remember with last night's election in Alberta:

First: it can be done, if we work together. Rachel Notley didn't make last night happen all by herself. Albertans came together to create change.

Second: only New Democrats defeat Conservatives, even in Stephen Harper's heartland. And let's be honest about the two parties on the right: Liberals and Conservatives are both parties on the right.
It was the Liberal Party that cut funding to the CBC.
It was the Liberal Party that signed the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, then did nothing. Absolutely nothing.
It is the Liberal Party of Justin Trudeau that voted for Stephen Harper's  Bill C-51.


"Don't let them tell you it can't be done."  Jack Layton, 20 August 2011.

We're all in this together. For what matters.

by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.

Sherry MacDonald appears at The Flame

Before we left for our Sojourn in Paris, Sherry appeared at The Flame in Vancouver.  In this case, the event took place on April 1st and featured eight storytellers.

The Flame is an almost-monthly event that features storytellers telling stories. The stories have to be true, personal and have some sort of consequence for the teller. And, they have to be told without any notes. Storytellers are given from 8 to 12 minutes to tell their tales.

About 150 people attended the Cottage Bistro on Main Street where this event, and others like it, happen throughout most months. The Cottage Bistro features an eclectic mix of menu items, and the usual refreshments. It's always best to arrive early for The Flame as standing-room-only often happens before the stories begin.

The Flame is open to the public though many friends and family come to support their storyteller. Others attend because it supports the art of storytelling, and is great entertainment too. Sherry had a wide swath of friends and family attending on this night too.

The genial host for the April 1st Flame was Joel Wirkkunen. He gets to refer to, and even read from, his notes.

Sherry's story was about the events around the birth of her second second Adam. It is called "Are we like the video yet?" and is from a series of stories Sherry is writing about being a single mom raising three boys.

And when your storytelling time is finished, the applause has drifted into silence and your breathing has become normal again, it is time to relax and enjoy the storytellers who follow.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.