We have a gorgeous new Prime Minister and even though I no longer live in Canada, I have a sudden urge to show him off.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

He’s young (43) and he’s inexperienced, but that shouldn’t be held against him.  We have known older, experienced world leaders who have proved themselves to be utterly inept while leading their countries to ruin.  It’s imperative, of course, that Trudeau surrounds himself with mandarins, the more brilliant and visionary the better.  It’ll be interesting to see how he handles himself on the world stage.  He has already called President Obama to confirm his decision to pull Canada out of the U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq.  He’ll be leading the Canadian delegation to Paris for the World Climate Summit starting November 30th and I assume he’ll be reversing Stephen Harper’s damaging decision to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2011.  By the way, Justin Trudeau speaks beautiful fluent French, I listened to his bilingual acceptance speech on YouTube.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

When Trudeau, his wife and children move into the prime minister’s official residence in Ottawa, it will, in a way, be like coming home because he was born there on Christmas Day in 1971.  For those who don’t know, his flamboyant father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was Canada’s Prime Minister twice from 1968 to 1979 and then from 1980 to 1984.  Here are two iconic photos of him, one doing a naughty pirouette behind the Queen of England and the other sliding down the banister of Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier Hotel.

PET piroutte

Buckingham Palace, May 7, 1977. Known for his cavalier flamboyance, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau drove sport cars, dated celebrities and was also accused of using an obscenity during debate in the Canadian House of Commons. But his most controversial moment was when the photographer Doug Ball caught him spinning a pirouette behind an oblivious Queen Elizabeth during a G7 summit Conference in London, England. The picture expresses his maverick anti-conformism and his democratic disdain for aristocratic pomp.

PET slide

A lot has been printed about the demise of ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his 9 years of destructive Conservative rule.  Destructive because Harper, schooled in right-wing philosophy and neo-liberalism at the University of Calgary, is a Neoconservative.  Canada doesn’t sit well under Neoconservative rule. 

I think Beth Kaplan summed up Trudeau’s victory best on her blog –

“I think of those movies where a subjugated people are freed from tyranny and emerge, dazed and disbelieving – are we actually free? And then – were we actually prisoners that long? That’s how Canada feels to me today. I think of Narnia under the spell of the ice queen, and how, when she was finally vanquished, spring returned. I know, Justin Trudeau as Aslan is a stretch … but you get the idea. We live in a different Canada today.

It was not just any victory – it was a monumental victory by a party that had been completely undone. But more importantly, the victorious leader is someone we have known all his life – at least, those of us old enough to remember his birth on Christmas Day 1971. We remember the love affair of his parents and its painful dissolution; we remember his father’s canoe trips and overseas junkets with Justin and his brothers. We remember, with great pain, the tragic death of his brother Michel and the subsequent death of his devastated father. If I ever want to conjure up a portrait of grief, I need only think of Pierre Trudeau’s drawn and haunted face the day of Michel’s funeral, and I weep.

We Canadians have watched this man grow up, and now I feel a maternal pride at what a fine upstanding man he has turned out to be. And – to tell you the truth – I feel something more than maternal, because he’s a treat to look at. But so are his gorgeous wife and their children. It’s like the early days of Barack Obama’s administration, when we felt liberated from the ugly shroud of the Bush years and rejoiced to look at idealism and beauty, intelligence and accomplishment.

I wrote once here about seeing a photo of Harper with his mother – he was trying to hug her, but he couldn’t actually touch her, his arms were sort of hanging nearby uselessly. There’s something seriously wrong with that man’s heart. But not with this man’s.”

Justin and his mother last night –

justin and mom

“I know there are tough days ahead, and that a certain disillusionment – as with Obama – is inevitable. But right now, we Canadians have our version of Camelot. And as the days grow cold and dark, that sunny face is a most welcome sight.”

why do we travel?

I had an existential moment as I stood for 3 hours on the train from Naples to Rome.  Why do we travel?, I asked myself.  The train was packed solid, but for only 12 euros I could buy a ticket that allowed me to stand with others in the standing area.  The 3 hours passed a lot faster than I thought they would.  I chatted with a nice man from Atlanta and his wife.  I self-consciously ate two slices of pizza while eight pairs of eyes stared at me.  I witnessed an angry exchange between two Italian women and didn’t have a clue what it was about.  I stared out the window and watched the changing landscape. And I watched as two policemen boarded the train and accosted two black men.  It turned out they were African boat migrants who, no doubt, had paid a smuggler to break into Fortress Europe.  At the next station they were escorted off the train.  What awaited them?, I wondered.  A detention camp, no doubt, and probable deportation.  I felt sorry for them.

And I guess that’s one of the reasons why we travel – to see the world, in all its splendor and misery. To see how other people live. To step out of our lives – for some people, their ivory towers – and observe the diversity and destiny and danger of our fellow humans, even if that view is voyeuristic or from a privileged perch.

Other reasons to travel – to unstick oneself from routine (I hate routine).  It’s good to change our daily habits and shake things up.  Or, as the French say, “changer les idées”.

To step out of our comfort zone, to test and challenge ourselves, to not stand still, to feel inspired.  To connect with humanity.  To see great art and taste gorgeous foods that we wouldn’t see or eat at home.  To extend our boundaries and stretch our minds.  To feel the sea wind in our face and hear a foreign, lyrical language in our ears. To unplug from our computers and our hard drives and see things from another perspective because there are, in this world, differing points of view.

I like what Jonah Lehrer, a British journalist, wrote –

We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity.  When we get home, home is still the same.  But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.

see Naples and die….


Naples is a slap in the face.  A hard slap.  Within 5 minutes of my arrival – in plain daylight and in the middle of a street – I was attacked by a purse-snatcher and found myself tussling with him over my handbag.  I won and he lost, but more on that in a minute.

My arrival into Naples was as inauspicious as my (shortened) stay there.  As the Air France jet started its descent, we flew into thick black cloud that hovered menacingly over the city.  An omen?  I found the presence of the clouds odd because the two hour flight from Paris had been sunny and uneventful all the way down.  Suddenly a rainstorm of biblical proportions broke out. Turbulence ensued and we landed, rather rockily.  The taxi ride to the hotel was even worse.  We descended a slippery hill (in the pouring rain) with such velocity that I found myself sliding across the back seat from one side of the car to the other.  I groped for the seatbelt.  It was broken.  To make matters worse, every time we passed a roadside shrine to the Virgin Mary – of which there were many and had been erected for each fatal road accident that had occurred there – my pious taxi driver made the sign of the cross, not once or twice but three times.  He kissed the side of his index finger then touched his fingers to his forehead, chest and two shoulders.  Three times.  All without lifting his foot from the gas pedal.

Not knowing how to say “Slow down!” in Italian, I think I invented a word. “Tranquillo!” I squeaked, now clutching a shred of leather strap that dangled from the ceiling.  My taxi driver laughed.  “Calmo! Calmo!” he said, then slowed a little bit.  The phrase “See Naples and die” ran through my head.  Only I hadn’t seen Naples yet…only the airport, black cloud, rain and a portion of shrine-studded road.

Then his cell phone rang and he launched into a lengthy and animated discussion with his mother.  I know this because every sentence was punctuated with “Mamma”.  “Oh dear God, if there is one,” I muttered to myself, “Must he speak with his mother now??”  With the phone clamped to his ear, he spoke and made gestures with his one free hand – all the while reaffirming the Holy Trinity every time a roadside shrine appeared.  We continued our descent into Dante’s inferno, or rather, the city.

We finally reached the hotel.  I staggered out of the car, checked in, dumped my bag in my room and went out again (it had just stopped raining).  And was immediately attacked by a purse snatcher.

And it’s funny because just as I entered the road marked Via Alessandro, a mere 4 minutes from the hotel, I had a flash like a premonition.  A voice in my head said “What if something should befall you in this street?  Like a car running you over or a flower pot landing on your head from an above balcony?”  And it was while I was looking up that a motorcycle drove by, driven by a male whose face was covered like a jihadist.  Slowing down, he grabbed the strap of my handbag which was wrapped around my torso, causing me to spin around.  I remember standing there, visibly shaken, and staring at the back of this cowardly brute with disbelief and defiance as he drove away.  I couldn’t believe his audacity!   Cowardly because he covers his face and his targets are single women.  The next day my torso would be black and blue.

But he had failed to snatch my bag, so he turned around and came back.  By this time I was walking quickly back to the hotel.  He reached out and grabbed the strap of my bag again which broke.  I was now holding the bag with all my might while he was pulling on the strap which broke again.  He was babbling unintelligible words to me in Italian; I was shrieking intelligible words to him in English.

There was NO WAY he was going to get his hands on that bag.  Everything essential was in it – my passport, my bank cards, my phone, my brand new YSL fuschia lipstick…..My determination was greater than his and in the end he drove off, bagless.  Vigliacco!  That’s “coward” in Italian (I looked it up).  And it’s too bad I didn’t know this word at the time because when you say it with force and accompanied by a flamboyant hand gesture, it comes out as a guttural rasping utterance which is very satisfying.


Marching into the hotel, broken handbag dangling from my hand, I recounted my street scuffle incident to the two men at reception. They looked embarrassed because only ten minutes earlier they had been greeting me with a hearty “Welcome to Naples!  We hope you’ll enjoy your stay in our fine city!”  They apologized profusely.  “We are very sorry, Signora,” they said.  They then instructed me to leave everything in the safe in my room and to go out with nothing.  “Nothing?” I said.  “But I need to take some cash, at least. And a map.”  They told me to put a few things in zippered pockets or in a secure money belt hidden under my coat.

And so I went out again, rather unhappily, sans camera, sans handbag.  But for someone such as me who lives and breathes freedom, I found this restriction on my personal liberté very depressing.

Photos taken from my hotel balcony.  I only took two photos the whole time I was there.


The lovely Loire

Loire Valley October 2011 105

Two years ago I spent a long and lovely weekend in the Loire Valley, home of chateaux, vineyards, fruit orchards.  From Paris I took the train to Amboise where my friend Andrew, an Englishman who lives in the region, met me.  Amboise is a pretty riverside town with its own chateau. Here’s how UNESCO describes the Loire region: “an exceptional cultural landscape, of great beauty, comprised of historic cities, villages and great architectural monuments.”  And it’s true.  There’s a softness in the landscape: the rolling of its gentle hills, the meandering of its rivers and the richness of its fertile soil that all converges into one glorious package that’s called the garden of France.  And home of Kings since the 10th century.

From Amboise we drove to the nearby village of Loches where Andrew knew the owners of a bed and breakfast establishment.  It was an excellent recommendation.  Below you’ll find the link.

I stayed in the Sforza room and had the whole upper floor to myself.  There was a sloping roof and dormer window that opened onto the river and a park beyond.  The clean air and nocturnal silence that pervades the village Loches was like manna from heaven.  I couldn’t get enough of the fresh country air nor the gentle burbling sound of the stream that flowed beneath my window, stark contrast to the metallic whine of scooters and cars that flow beneath my window in Paris.  Even though the nights were cold, I slept with the window wide open.  It was the long weekend of November 1st. Here’s the view from the Sforza room –

Loire Valley October 2011 014

The two gentlemen who run the B&B couldn’t have been more charming and hospitable. Jean-Claude is originally from Paris and his business associate, Moha, from Morocco. Every morning I’d come downstairs and a smiling Moha would greet me with “Bonjour Mademoiselle!  Avez-vous bien dormi?”

“Did I sleep well?” I replied, “I think I died and went to heaven!”  A generous continental breakfast was laid out on the table: yoghurts and jams home-made by Moha; croissants, breads and lots of good coffee.  We were only three guests that weekend, so Jean-Claude and Moha (and their little black dog) joined us at the large table.  We engaged in lively conversation.  It’s rare that innkeepers in France sit down and join their guests at table, so I appreciated their warmth and company.

As you probably already know, the Loire Valley is known for several gorgeous wine regions: Muscadet, Sancerre, Vouvray and Pouilly-Fumé to name a few.  Loire wines tend to have a characteristic fruitiness with fresh, crisp flavours.  My favourite red wine from the Loire is Chinon, so Andrew kindly drove me to the town of Chinon, an unassuming place located on the banks of the Vienne river.  What a treat!  I was determined to unearth some exceptional (but reasonably-priced) bottles of wine to take back to Paris with me.  In the center of town we found a caviste, an independant wine merchant, with a tasting room.  Sitting at a long, hand-hewed wooden table, we proceeded to sample glass after glass of Cabernet Franc, a black grape variety for which Chinon wines are known.

Loire Valley October 2011 059

Because there are so many chateaux in this region, it’s a good idea to do your research before going so as to not waste time wondering which one to visit. The weather being beautiful, we wanted to stay outdoors so decided on the Château de Villandry, famous for its amazing gardens that comprise an ornamental garden, a water garden, a medieval herb garden, a vegetable garden and a maze.  For two hours we wandered in the sunshine, marvelling at the landscape design and the history of the place. We’re talking 16th-century and this is what I love about France (and Europe in general): the commingling of past and present, modern and ancient.  Here’s what the brochure blurb says – The Chateau of Villandry is the last of the great chateaux built during the Renaissance in the Loire Valley. The sober elegance of its architecture combined with the charm of its outstanding gardens illustrate the ideals of the Renaissance and the Age of the Enlightenment on western European thought and design.

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The next day we drove to Tours to lunch in a lively bistro named Le Chien Jaune (The Yellow Dog.)  The food was good, but nothing to rave about.  This place is more for atmosphere and decent wine.  Tours, the principal city of the Loire Valley, makes a good base from which to visit the surrounding chateaux and vineyards.  From Paris Montparnasse train station, it’s only one hour and 12 minutes on the TGV fast train.
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All in all, a terrific weekend.  I’m eager to return.

Air France fury

photo credit Kenzo Tribouillard, Agence France Presse

all photo credits Kenzo Tribouillard, Agence France Presse

Who is this man and what is he doing?  He’s the Deputy Director of Human Resources and Labour Relations at Air France.  Why is he shirtless?  Because his shirt was ripped off this morning by furious Air France employees.  Why is he climbing a fence?  Because he’s desperately trying to escape an angry mob.

AF put this in

This morning, at 9:30 am, an Air France central committee meeting was held at its headquarters near Charles de Gaulle airport.  Executives met to finalize the latest restructuring plan involving the loss of 1,700 ground staff, 900 cabin crew and 300 pilots between now and 2017.  It was reported that several hundred employees, furious upon learning of the loss of of 2,900 jobs, stormed the meeting.  Senior managers were attacked and forced to flee.  This man below is the Vice-President of the Air France hub at Orly airport.

AF troisAF cinqAF quatreAF six

Air France, who merged with KLM in 2004, has been hard hit by the deregulation of the industry and the popularity of low-cost airlines. Increased competition from Middle Eastern rivals and budget airlines led the loss-making group to seek €1.8bn (£1.3bn) in savings. The company is also looking to close five long-haul routes and sell off 14 of its larger long-distance aircraft.

Sympathetic analysts pointed out that the physical violence, shocking and inexcusable as it was, paled in comparison to the psychological violence of being thrown out of work in a deep economic crisis by well-paid men in suits.

Drouot auction house


Decades ago I had a Parisian boyfriend named Raoul.  Raoul was a snob and a sophisticate and on Saturday afternoons he liked to meet up with his equally snobbish friends at Drouot  (like him, his friends were journalists at Reuters or AFP – Agence France Presse.)  I was invited to tag along.

I was far from being a sophisticate in those days.  Before Drouot, the only auctions I had attended were in country barns in rural Ontario (growing up, my family had a weekend farm east of Toronto.)

Raoul had a penchant for Persian and Oriental rugs.  These rugs below reminded me of him.

IMG_5106IMG_5108IMG_5107Look at these beautiful pressed flowers that are over a hundred years old.IMG_5112

Drouot is fun because anyone can just walk on in and attend the sales.  Entrance is free.  There are several rooms upstairs and sales occur simultaneously.  There’s a lot of activity and people milling around.  If you like beautiful, eclectic things and objects of historical value, I suggest that you go.  Sales usually start at 2 p.m.  Here below is the sale of postcards.  A few years ago, a postcard dated October 1899 and signed Guillaume Apollinaire sold for 8,000 euros.


You can also bid via telephone and internet.  Closest metro stop is Richelieu-Drouot on lines 8 and 9.