Canada

Le Patinage

My son skated for the first time last week. It was not his first time on the ice. I had dragged him once as a little guy, and then brought him to the Yerba Buena rink in San Francisco three times and even got him a private lesson there in preparation for our holiday travels. (I even had a moment of complete parent failure when I realized that somehow allowed my kid to reach ten without learning how to skate. What kind of raised-in-Minnesotan was I?) But the first time he really skated – which, during his many protests that he’d already gone and didn’t like it when I was saying that since he hadn’t actually skated yet he had no idea if he liked it or not, I described as gliding on the ice with alternating feet – was on December 30 in the Parc La Fontaine in Montréal.

A pretty damn magical place to skate.

It’s a huge long rink that snakes a bit around and past the rec center-cum-warming hut. Unlike the previous rinks he’d been on – including the giant and beautiful one at the Plaines d’Abraham in Québec City – it is just open ice. People generally go to the right of each other, but there is no dizzying circle for counter-clockwise skaters to follow. No place I ever skated was quite as gloriously perfect in setting, but it was, in other ways, like the rinks I grew up skating on. No fees, no lines, so start times. People from the neighborhood just walk over to the park where the baseball fields were flooded, put on their blades, and skate around – some seeing how much speed they could work up or practicing their spins, but most just gliding on ice, turning the freezing cold into something fun.

After we finally left to eat lunch, he asked to go back. As I taught him how to do a simple spin he said “Mama, you should get skates so you can skate whenever you want.”

Which was funny, because two days before that, as I was gliding around the rink in the Plains of Abraham in Québec City, I had thought that it was funny that when I was, say, 11 and 12 there were three things I really really liked to do besides read: Ice skate and speak French. At that point I was just learning French, but I loved it. It felt like a secret code and it was somewhat difficult so when things clicked it felt like it mattered. I have, as with my skating, let it fall to the wayside. I don’t use it, so I’m losing it. Sure, I can still get through commercial transactions and read okay, just like I can still whiz around the ice, but I have completely lost the ease and fluency I had in my late teens. I also have some work to do before I land a toe loop.

I have, I am happy to report, changed a lot since I was 12. But this Winter Wonderland tour we’ve taken (Minneapolis-Québec City-Montréal) has shown me that it ends up I still like ice skating and I still like speaking French. In 2014 I’m going to do both. I am going to get skates and go skating, even if the rinks near me are tiny and I have to pay to spin. And I’m somehow going to recapture some of my facility with French. I have a podcast of a decent radio show to get started and a book in French I’ve been meaning to read and a neighbor who would, I’m betting, be willing to correct my bad grammar once in awhile.

Canada
French
New Year
Quebec
ice skating

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New world

When I opened my eyes on Sunday morning there were snow flakes floating past the window. I lay in bed, trying to savor the extra hour at my disposal as much as I had savored the craft beers and fine company the night before. I was in Montreal, a guest of the tourism board, there to eat in general (I did) and experience their brand spanking new restaurant week called Montréal à Table (ditto). Friday and Saturday had been cold, windy, and drizzling at times, but the charm of the city shone bright in the gray depressing weather. I put on the heaviest clothes I brought, layered up, and ventured outside just as the snow stopped. As I walked the four kilometers to meet an old college friend for breakfast I stopped a few times to check the street signs and twice pulled out a map – my fancy-pants phone refused to roam – to make sure I was still heading the right way in an efficient fashion as I meandered a bit. Each time a fellow pedestrian or two would stop, ask if I needed help, and wish me a bonne journée.

My friend and I caught up, toured his neighborhood (he thoughtfully took me to his favorite food shops – all I can say is why doesn’t my neighborhood market have house made jars of cassoulet and choucroute in the fridge? why, it’s almost enough to make a girl pull up stakes and move like les filles du roi in the 1660s, so called because Louis XIV gave the poor, often orphaned or otherwise unprotected women trousseaux and dowries if they agreed to go marry settlers along the St. Lawrence, have as many French babies as possible, and generally act as a civilizing influence on the young colony), and I peppered him with questions about his adopted city. I asked if he had noticed the uniquely, to my mind, Quebecer habit of referring to North America as “the New World.” He had, and found it equally striking. In the way of a history professor and former historian, we batted around ideas about why that might be, all while tucking into plates of lost bread – French toast to you and me (so called either because it is made with bread that would otherwise go to waste or because to make it properly you need to let the bread really get lost down in the egg and milk mixture, depending on who you ask, and the restaurant‘s namesake). Mine all simple with plenty of maple syrup and his a savory version with cheese, topped with a poached egg, and served with a big pot of beer-braised ham and potatoes.

And before I knew it, it was time to grab my suitcase and hop in a cab to Pierre Trudeau airport to head west. I forewent my usual habit of decidedly not speaking to cab drivers in favor of getting in a last bit of French. He immigrated from Lebanon, loves Montréal, and seemed truly delighted that I – an American! – was so interested in food. He gave me his card. I am to call next I am in town. He knows some restaurants he thinks I would like.

In exchange for breakfast and a walking tour of the Plateau, I paid the price of an end-of-the-day flight home from parts east. I’ve done it before and I always manage to forget that particularly icky film that covers one after a long flight at the end of the day that lands late. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself until I walked into the gate area and saw the throngs of people waiting to get on the next flight, a red-eye to Guadalajara. From French-speaking Canada to Spanish-speaking California with U.S. customs in the Québec airport and a lay-over in Chicago in between; it was all very NAFTA.

I took a cab home. I was in no mood to talk about either the Giants or Sandy. But my cabbie was having none of my anti-social behavior. He started on the subject of the unseasonably warm weather and quickly shifted to politics, particularly the various “props” on the ballot in California. We agreed yes on 37 (labels those GMOs!) and that taking one’s absentee ballot to the polling place on Election Day makes it seem like more of an event. He and I moved to the same neighborhood at about the same time. I came to California to go to grad school. A Palestinian, he came to escape violence and oppression and make a better life for his family. He told me he enjoyed talking to me; I said I did too and wished him luck with the rest of his shift.

Montréal is a place where people will put rosemary in beer (bad idea Dieu de Ciel, although your trappist ale was fabuloso), pour warm maple syrup over creamy brie (Le Saint Bock you are clever!), and serve lamb tartare (Chez Victoire, vous me manquez déjà!). We may lack the obsession with maple syrup that our neighbors to the north embrace with such fervor, but Californians have, I’m quite sure, done all of those things at some point. We are a continent of immigration and invention, at our best when questioning tradition, not falling for “that’s how it’s always been” as a reason for anything, and open-minded about what else could be. The tour guide’s explanation of how French-Canadian sugar shacks are amalgams of Gallic, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon traditions doesn’t capture it in any way that makes the phrase useful in a contemporary context, but two cabbies, three thousand miles and eleven hours apart, with their love of their new world and their desire to talk with a stranger about the things they love best about it sure did.

I know too much about history not to appreciate the right to vote. Ladies: it hasn’t even been a 100 years since our kind have had that right throughout the U.S. I’m going to be casting my ballot with the new world in mind: a place, slowly but surely, of opportunity and civil rights for everyone.

Then I’m going to come home and douse some cheese in maple syrup.

Canada
maple syrup

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Rhubarb coffee cake, bran muffins, and strippers

I’ve been meaning to bake bran muffins. Not of course, because I like bran muffins but because I’ve been wanting to write about them.

That is the life of a food writer — or at least this food writer – in a nutshell.

I wanted to bake bran muffins so I could write about strip clubs. Canadian strip clubs; or, to be fair and accurate, a Canadian strip club. So after procrastinating on the bran muffins for weeks because, honestly, no one in this house really likes muffins all that much, if at all, I figured I’d bake rhubarb coffee cake that everyone in this house wanted to eat and just tell you the bran muffin story.

I suppose you could bake the batter in muffin format and have a rhubarb-moistened crumb-laden muffin (cue Betty White joke here), but for the recipe to really segue into the story, the rhubarb cake would need to somehow morph into a bran muffin, which it just isn’t going to do in my hands, so I’ll need you to forgive and indulge me.

If it weren’t for the fact that I was carried down a mountain, the most interesting thing about my last trip to Canada would have been the fact that I went to a strip club. With my cousin. And a couple of French dudes (yes, they were total dudes). And a former member of the U.S. ski team. And an amazingly tall lady from Boston.

So I went to the strip club in a small town in the middle of nowhere British Columbia. Seriously. It was half way between Vancouver and Calgary. Check out a map. Go ahead, I’ll wait. See? Middle of nowhere.

The former U.S. ski team member and the amazingly tall lady from Boston were most persuasive. Just one beer, they said. It’s too early, they cajoled. You can’t even ski tomorrow, they pointed out. Don’t you want to drown your sorrows, they asked.

So I hobbled around the corner on my bum knee, watched with awe and amazement as my cousin talked the doorman out of making us pay the cover charge (he’s a charmer, my cousin), took the beer the amazingly tall lady from Boston handed me, and looked around.

There were videos of snow-mobile jumps and tricks projected on walls and a small square stage in the corner, but no dancing and most certainly no stripping. It seemed like a regular bar, and I’m going to guess that the male-female ratio of patrons was 60-40.

After about 10 minutes someone took the mic and announced that I-couldn’t-make-out-the-name was going to take the stage. Then a glittery-bikini-clad young lady emerged from the door behind the bar and made her way through the crowd to the stage. She started her sexy dance, up and down and around the pole, taking off her bikini top at some point along the way, and the mood in the room… well, the best way to describe it is like she was the wild neighborhood girl who’d gotten drunk at the block party and started taking her clothes off and no one quite knew what to do so they pretended it wasn’t happening and tried not to stare and kept watching the snow-mobile video playing on the opposite wall. Seriously. It was all so very Canadian, in ways admirable and troubling.

Of course, for all I know she was the nice neighborhood girl and the crowd was slightly embarrassed. What I know for sure is that no one was tipping her, which seemed really out of the purpose and principle of a strip club as far as a dancer would be concerned, so my cousin took up a collection and brought it up to her.

It was all very much not what it’s like in the movies, that’s for sure.

Since I was in said small British Columbia town for several days with nothing to do but nurse my injured knee, I made some friends at the hotel and at the public pool and at the corner café. I asked about the strip club, if the vibe was always like that, if anything about the place seemed odd.

No, people said as they looked at me like I was the crazy one, it’s always like that.

In the course of my investigations I then learned this fascinating fact: the club was fined last year. They are a bar without license to serve food and it seems the strippers baked bran muffins which they held between their legs and sold onstage, so the place was fined. For serving food.

Yes, you heard me right. Not cupcakes, not even sugar-topped blueberry muffins. The strippers baked bran muffins and sold them during their show.

The strippers held a bake sale.

I can’t help but think they would have fared better if they’d baked up a heavily crumbed rhubarb coffee cake, but that’s just me.

Canada
cake
coffee
rhubarb

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Kimchi, a torn knee, and being a koala bear

I started this batch of kimchi – spicy, fermented cabbage (or other vegetable) that supposedly wards off colds and flu if only because it contains so much vitamin C – with high hopes. I was itching to go on my trip and would be gone just long enough – 6 days – for the kimchi to ferment in my absence. So I coarsely chopped 2 pounds of napa cabbage, put it in a large bowl, covered it with a brine of 3 tablespoons of kosher salt dissolved in 6 cups of water, and let it sit overnight. I then drained it (keeping the brine), and tossed the cabbage with 6 julienned green onions, about 2 tablespoons of finely grated ginger, and 2 dried red New Mexican chiles that I had stemmed, seeded, and ground in a clean coffee grinder. I packed that whole mess into a pitcher my adviser from grad school gave me as part of a wedding present, covered it with the brine, and sealed it shut with a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the mixture and the sealable lid.

I set it on the bookshelf in my cool, dark study and headed up in British Columbia to ski with my dad, my brother, my Very Tall Cousin Sam, and two of my uncles.

To be a bit more specific, to heli-ski.

We are not insane. We do not, as one friend of mine thought, jump out of helicopters. Helicopters fly us to the tops of mountains and, with a guide who knows a thing or two about mountains and snow and skiing, we ski down glaciers and through forest glades. It is insane and fabulous and I’m eternally grateful that my dad is crazy enough about skiing that he thanks me for tagging along on such adventures.

As I glided down the mountain on the last run of the first day in snow the guys kept talking about being crotch-level but was up past my waist in spots, I turned around a tree and felt my right ski hit something deep under the snow – A rock? A tree branch hidden in all that snow pack? A snow gnome?

My ski twisted around, pulling first my knee  – pop! – and then my whole body down with it. I couldn’t stand, much less ski. The pity party was brief, but it was intense. My goggles – clear all day despite the falling snow – fogged up from the hot, concentrated tears.

“Do you think if we braced it you could just slide down on your left ski?” Todd, our guide, asked me. “We’d have someone ski right with you.”

“I think so,” I said as I packed snow around my knee to try and numb it as my eyes darted back and forth trying to make sense of this horror. I thought of telling everyone to ski ahead, not to worry about me, but I realized that it was completely and utterly out of the question. Not just this group, but all three groups of skiers out that day would now have their schedules re-arranged around my blown knee. We shared a helicopter.

Before long another guide, Jeff, skied up and unstrapped the leg brace from his backpack.

“So, Molly” he said in his Canadian accent, with that long “o” sound emphasized and my name pronounced with a slight, melodic lilt, “have you ever hurt this knee before?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

He looked at me quizzically.

“Not enough to remember,” I clarified. I had hurt a knee five or six years ago, but it healed and I still can’t remember which one it was.

In several inches of fresh snow he tried to arrange a brace made for a large man so it would fit onto my 29-inch-inseam leg.

“I’m afraid this is one size fits all,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, “they never actually do.”

After a false start during which snow kept the straps from sticking, he secured the bottom end around my ankle and strapped the section around my knee as tightly as possible. He then lifted me out of the snow and reached for my skis, which my brother had dug out of the snow.

“Just grab onto my back,” he said, “and lift your foot up as much as you can.”

My family jokes about skiers who don’t carry their own skis. We scuff at those who can’t tighten their own boots. We mock people who don’t seem to know how to put on their skis. And here I was, clutching onto a man highly trained in all things mountaineering as he bent over in the snow not just helping me get my skis on properly, but actually holding my leg in one hand and my ski in the other as he literally snapped my boot into the ski for me as I winced in fear of the possible pain.

To top it all off, this graceless snow-encrusted ballet was performed while 10 pairs of male eyes – I was the only woman in the group that afternoon – watched. I was embarrassed and grateful and resentful. Just when I thought I might burst into tears from the bitter combination of pain and shame, I found myself sort-of standing, skis on, poles in hand.

“So,” Jeff said, as though neither one of us should be contrite or bitter even though I was pretty sure we each should be both, “what we’re going to do is I’m going to slide down and you’re just going to follow me, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, ever the good student.

“Don’t worry about turning or anything,” he explained, “we’re just heading down and across. Just keep all your weight on that left leg, eh?”

We slowly went across and a little bit down. My heart breaking as we ruined a perfectly good line of fresh powder.

“You’re doing great, Molly,” he said as I stopped myself from running into him by angling uphill into the untracked snow around us. “That’s just what you want to do.”

After another across-and-a-little-down move he said, “You’re doing awesome.”

“Jeff,” I said, laughing, “your strategy is working. I respond very well to positive reinforcement and compliments of all kinds.”

He turned around and smiled.

“Most people do.”

We slowly continued across and down through and between the trees until we got to the bottom of the glade. Straight ahead was the long, bumpy traverse to the helicopter landing that we had been skiing to from different parts of the mountain most of the day. It included a few tricky turns to avoid a creek bed and ended with more trees to ski through but with much less snow left between them.

Jeff slid down a bit to talk to Todd.

I heard Todd say, “You’re going to do what?”

And Jeff say, “mumble mumble something something.”

“What are you guys talking about?” I asked. It was bad enough being a problem and knowing that I couldn’t offer much in way of a solution, but being talked about as I struggled to awkwardly balance a few feet uphill made me acutely aware of the burden I was.

“We’re just figuring out how to get you to the helicopter,” Todd said.

“I thought I was going to just keep doing this,” I said.

“You can’t,” Todd said, shaking his head with a bit of disappointment, probably having noted the grimaces and sharp inhales I’d taken every time my right leg had come into play as I made my oafish way down the hill, “not if you can’t put weight on that leg. You’ll never get across the traverse.”

“You remember what it’s like, La” said my brother, standing beside me like a mother hen. “You really have to make those turns.”

“Oh,” I said, looking at the guides, waiting for further info, picturing some crazy situation where I balanced against a fellow skier’s shoulder or was pathetically guided down between someone’s skis like a child learning to snowplow.

“So,” said Todd, “Jeff here is going to carry you.”

I looked around at my family and fellow skiers and noted, “Well, that’s not humiliating.”

They laughed. I then waited a moment, hoping they would tell me the real plan, the plan that didn’t play up what a feeble hurt girl I was at that exact moment. The plan – now sounding really good – that involved skiing me down the hill like a child.

“Even getting a toboggan in here is a real hassle and will take forever,” Todd said, sensing my doubt, “plus, it would be really uncomfortable for you on all this stuff coming up. This will just be easier and faster.”

I had hoped they were kidding.

“So, just slide down to me if you can, Molly,” said Jeff.

They weren’t kidding. They were handling the whole situation in a calm and humorous manner, but they weren’t kidding. As guides they had seen some serious shit. My knee was nothing compared to the injuries and accidents they had handled and trained for, but it was still their job to get me safely back to the lodge.

So slide I did. Jeff and I then engaged in the artless reverse snow wrestle of getting my skis off.

As Jeff took off his backpack I tried to figure out how on earth I was going to jump onto his back with the leg brace on. What with him still on his skis and me now sunk down into the snow without mine, he stood about 20 feet taller than I did. I realized someone would probably need to lift me up and I died a teeny bit inside. This was going to be really, truly, embarrassing. And awkward. And difficult.

“So,” he said, “how we’re going to do this is I’m going to carry you in front,” he patted the bottom of his rib cage with both hands, “facing me.”

I stared at him blankly. It ends up that I hadn’t really explored how humiliating things could get.

“With your legs around my waist,” he said.

“You’re kidding,” I said, because, well, that was simply insane.

“It’s way easier for me to balance that way,” he said, “trust me.”

When a Canadian with a big smile and a kind voice who has already shepherded you down through a forest you couldn’t imagine getting out of tells you to trust him, you do.

“So I’ll just hold you by your legs,” he said holding his hands out in front of him, “and you’ll hold on up top,” and he gestured around his neck.

I nodded meekly and said, with more than a touch of resignation, “Okay.”

“Okay,” he said, “so here we go. Ready?”

Like a sick and tired child, I reached my arms up and around the neck he bent down to offer me, hopped up as best I could, and I clung to him for dear life.

He started into the traverse. To the degree that I had been able to think about it, I had figured the ride down was going to suck. I assumed it would be jarring and jerky, as he struggled to maneuver on difficult terrain while loaded down with an entire extra person outfitted in full ski gear and, fearing low blood sugar above all else, with a fair number of dense snacks in her pockets. I figured he would strain and pant and I would generally feel guilty about making him suffer. But, in the words uttered with awe and a touch of envy by my brother that night at dinner, “that guy can ski.” I felt like I was floating. It was all the motion of skiing with none of the impact. It was, quite simply, awesome.

Perhaps he was trained to keep people calm or maybe you just can’t overestimate the polite in a Canadian or possibly he is just a nice guy who wanted to normalize the crazy vertical lap dance we had going on, but after we were a few yards down the hill, once it became clear to all that this crazy plan was going to work, Jeff asked, “So, Molly, where are you from?”

We engaged in cocktail party chit chat about hometowns and work as I looked up at the tree-covered mountain and gray, snowy sky behind us.

“I’m sorry I keep grabbing your ass, eh” he said, “but it’s the only way I can keep steady.”

“That’s okay,” I said, thinking that it was amazing how a perfectly placed Canadian “eh” could really lessen the pervy implications of that statement, “I have a kid. I know how hard it is to carry someone. Whatever you need to grab is fine by me.”

After I made it into the helicopter and out of the helicopter, into the van and out of the van, into the lodge and up to my room, into clean clothes and down to the bar – all on crutches as outsized for me as was the leg brace – the skiers in the other groups all wanted to hear what had happened. I took the beer someone ordered me, turned down the shocking plethora of painkillers that were generously offered up, and told my tale of the snow gnome and the collapsed knee. The men tried to deduce what my injury actually was: A torn ACL? Perhaps the meniscus was damaged? The women wanted to know if, as they had heard tell, Jeff had really carried me down the mountain.

“He did,” I said.

“Well,” one of the women said, “I wouldn’t mind being carried by Jeff.”

“Me neither,” said another, “he’s hot.”

The fact of the matter is that all heli-ski guides are hot. Male, female, young, old, they all have a general air of hotness about them. They are fit and really good skiers and have secret mountain knowledge and, at least to me, that makes them pretty hot. Is Jeff hotter than the other guides? Isn’t the firefighter who carries you out of the burning building by definition hotter than the other firefighters? I could have simply thought to myself, yeah, and he smells like skiing all day in the cold snow, too. But both the pot-stirrer and the story-teller in me kicked in.

“Yeah,” I said, “plus, he smells like pine trees and he likes to talk about feelings.”

The ladies howled.

“Seriously though you guys,” I said, back-tracking a bit, “he’s a really nice guy. He’s so polite that he actually apologized for grabbing my ass.”

A universal “he grabbed your ass?!?” was shouted through the bar and the die was cast.

Ass-grabbing jokes proliferated and I heard that at lunch on the mountain the next day Todd tried to auction off an afternoon ride with Jeff. I was happy to play things out that way because the damsel-in-distress role is not one I relish. I like to imagine that I can take care of myself, or at least put on my own skis and get down a hill. So I let the jokes hinting that the whole thing was hot or lewd carry on because it deflected attention away from me and onto him, and because that was the funny part.

The obviously true part is that I did need rescuing. I was hurt and slightly panicked as I waited for that leg brace. I may be more dame than damsel, but I was definitely in distress. I suppose that if I had been all alone I could have found a way to get down the mountain. I could have removed a layer of clothing and wrapped my knee up tight. I could have slid down, partly on my left ski and partly on my grab-able ass. It would have been slow and painful but possible. Yet whether carried like a koala bear or dragged out on a toboggan, I wasn’t getting to the helicopter on my own in any timely or graceful fashion.

The also true part is it wasn’t just my small stature, but the fact that I’m a woman that made carrying me both physically and culturally possible. I’m not so sure the plan to carry the injured party would have been floated had I been a man, even a small man. I’m also pretty sure that were I a man I wouldn’t have accepted the plan quite so quickly, if at all. Having been there and knowing my injury and seeing the terrain, carrying me really was the quickest way out. Being a small lady hasn’t always been the greatest when skiing, but this time it worked out in my favor.

The more true part is that when my son was a baby I became obsessed with the fact that I couldn’t remember being a baby. It wasn’t that I wanted anyone to push me around in a stroller or carry me in a Baby Bjorn, but I wished I could remember what it was like. Now I know. It feels like a layer of gravity has been removed. You’re not in control and you need to hang on and trust you won’t be dropped or thrown or fallen upon. It is oddly intimate. It is very sweet. And it is wonderfully, touchingly human.

But no one wants to hear about any of that over beers.

My ACL is torn, my meniscus wasn’t left completely out of the picture, and I’m looking down the nose of surgery and months of physical therapy. In the meantime ice and ibuprofren are my constant companions. That’s the cloud. The silver lining – and it’s not as inconsequential as I would have guessed if I’d ever thought about it – is that I know what it’s like to be carried down a mountain.

Plus, after all that, I came home to find a batch of perfectly fermented kimchi waiting for me. It was as if my pre-koala self had known my post-koala self would need something bright, something spicy, something full of magical, curative powers.

Canada
cabbage
korean food

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