Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

To End All Wars

Today is a day to reflect on the meaning of World War I and to make sense of the lives lost in the horror that was supposed to end all wars. When I was younger I rebelled against the words "hero," "service" and "sacrifice" in a context where people - and animals used in war - had no choice in the matter. I was enraged by the arrogance that permitted humans to drag innocent animals into a carnage of their making. Now that I'm getting old(er), I have come to realize that a sacrifice need not be voluntary; most, in fact, are not. But I still insist that it must not be wasted, and today I have been reflecting on what this means.

At this point it is customary to show your credentials. Russia pulled out of WWI to attack itself and thereby made it much easier on Germany (a bad thing to do), but my grandfather served in the Soviet air force during WWII (a good thing to do), so these contributions even themselves out. This says absolutely nothing about my own virtue or glory. My grandfather taught me how to be systematic and not make empty promises, but I did not defend Moscow in December 1941. My husband, born and raised in Germany, had no hand in starting WWII. We both left behind the countries of our birth because of irreconcilable differences with them, and because Canada really is unique in its benevolence and capacity to bring out the best in people. Still, I don't wear a poppy on this day: as the literal-minded person I am, I must first figure out exactly what it means.

It is common knowledge that as a Russian in WWII my grandfather fought for freedom and against evil. Interestingly enough, so did my husband's grandfather, a fighter pilot with the Wehrmacht - so he was told, so he believed. Everyone wants freedom, everyone knows it's a good thing. The word works miracles, for better and for worse. This magic word is indispensable if you're going to put the burden of an emperor's wayward madness on working grunts and have them destroy working grunts of a different nationality. If your emperor won't give you freedom while you live, you can at least die wishing for it and blaming a foreign land for taking it away. Those other guys had it right: World War I was supposed to end all wars. It didn't, and there will likely be more. The best I can wish for is that we stop dragging freedom into this sordid affair to make it look prettier than it is.

The nature of today's wars is already very different. We may not be dying for our country or even someone else's, but a distant war is never entirely foreign to us. What worries me is the carelessness with which Canada is extending its naive benevolence to victims of the war in Syria. Such promises are not to be made lightly; these people are not an opportunity for us to feel pleased with ourselves. I am afraid Canada is unprepared for such a commitment because I see on each volunteer trip to a First Nations reserve how badly it has failed to understand a different culture already living here, and to coexist with it into the present day. To this day the white man is simply afraid to speak to native folk as to grown people, preferring to treat them as perpetual children to be placated rather than taken seriously. To assume that the newcomers will just melt with gratitude in the warm glow of our benevolence is nothing short of arrogance, a 21st century version of the white man's superiority. I do not know what the practical solution to this is, but I firmly believe that charity begins at home, and must be our priority until the very word "charity" becomes obsolete.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Darla of the Foggy Raincoast

On a November morning in the Pacific Northwest Darla wakes to pouring rain. At least it’s dry where she’s taking shelter, and the three children who are with her are warm and well fed. But carrying and raising them is draining her strength, and Darla cannot live such a life for much longer. With some persuasion from a friend she trusts, she has come today to the clinic where her life will be changed.

Darla has the most beautiful eyes, and a quiet dignity about her which some might call shyness. She is gentle and loving, and her many children have grown up to be like her. Perhaps this is why they are so highly prized and why she was left to have many litters of puppies until her owner made the decision to have her spayed. She lives on the Ahousaht First Nations reserve on Flores island off the Pacific coast, a place of rare and wild natural beauty. The very idea of owning and keeping animals is alien to people who had a deep bond with nature before the advent of the white man, but it is here to stay, and the way the Ahousaht community relate to the animals in their care is changing. There is a growing understanding that dogs and cats are as vulnerable as people, not part of wild nature that must be left alone to follow its wisdom. Only a few days before the Canadian Animal Assistance Team arrived in Ahousaht for its fourth makeshift clinic here, Darla’s owner was one of the first to come to the rescue of the passengers and crew of the whale watching boat “Leviathan” that capsized not far from Flores island. The community felt deep grief for those who perished and joy for the lives saved. Life here is tough, and precious.

Darla’s day at the clinic begins with an exam to make sure she is healthy enough to undergo surgery. Next she is given an injection to make her drowsy and prevent pain before it is sparked off, but as the vigilant mother she is, she resists going to sleep. The drugs win, and sleep gets the better of her. A swatch on her arm is shaved to put in an intravenous catheter, a portal through which she will receive fluids to keep her blood pressure from dropping during surgery. But first it is used for induction, an injection that makes her completely unconscious and unable to feel my instruments and hands as I operate. A tube is placed in her windpipe to make sure she has an airway and to deliver oxygen should she need it. I make a cut in her belly, as small as I can, and remove her ovaries and uterus after tying off the blood vessels that feed them. I close her up, and she is taken to the recovery area where she will be watched as she slowly comes awake. An injection of pain medication is given to keep her comfortable for the next 24 hours, after which she will take this medicine in her food. Her puppies, the last of the children she will raise, were napping blissfully while she went through her transformation. As soon as she is able to get up, she is reunited with them, and her relief is obvious. She stands while they nurse, then watches over them as they eat solid food with ravenous gusto. All four settle into a siesta, the pups to sleep off their lunch and Darla to sleep off her anesthetic. Her remarkably loud snoring is her only unladylike quality.

Late in the afternoon Darla and her pups are taken to the home where she will recover and continue to raise them in warmth of every kind. The first part of her life was spent caring for her children and trusting people to do right by her. People have come through for her, and it is her turn to be loved.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Scaredy Cats and the People Who Love Them

One feature of Halloween will always be lost on me: I am incapable of being frightened by animals. Naturally existing animals or their fictional derivatives, it doesn't matter. Spiders, bats, toads and snakes are all invaluable sources of that burst of adrenalin that sends normal people running and shrieking, but I'm afraid all they do for me is send me into a frenzy of dotage: "Oh, look at that cute little spider/snakey/[insert name of hideous and repulsive animal of your choice]." If the animal is not downright venomous or obviously rabid, I will try to pick up and cuddle it. As for mythical creatures like werewolves, well, those are really just people pretending to be animals. What self-respecting wolf goes around grunting and slobbering like that? We know that animals are simply more competent and effective than we are - we know, because we used to be them, - and on Halloween we express our admiration and nostalgia in clumsy and roundabout ways.

Last week I was awakened in the middle of the night by a shaking and quaking of my pillow. My first thought was that I must have imagined it. (We have no pets because we both travel too often.) When the quaking repeated itself, my next thought was that it must be an animal, because my husband was right there and sleeping. It had to be. A normal person would have been scared out of their wits. I know this because everyone I'd told the story assumed that I was scared (which also means I've been mistaken for a normal person). All I thought was, "Cool: an animal. Touching me. Way cool! Let's see who it is." Never mind that it was impossible for an animal to be there. Suspension of disbelief works much better when you're only half awake. I turned around and saw a cat on the windowsill. A fully-grown cat had materialized inside a closed room. I stretched out my hand to let him sniff, and we made contact. I patted the mosquito net to evaluate the size of the hole he'd torn to get inside. But of course there was no hole, and he'd never got in through the window. He wanted out, not in. By now I was awake enough to realize he'd got in through the open balcony door during the daytime, had hidden under the bed as we walked into the apartment, and had lain in wait until the middle of the night. Maybe he was scared, or maybe he'd fallen asleep. Until he decided it was time to pee or eat or return home. I let him out on the balcony and he went back down the way he'd come. One cool cat.

So the stories I find scary never contain animals. And here is the next installment of this week's Halloween Reads from Angela Kulig: www.angelakulig.com/2015/10/halloween-reads-2015-day-two.html

My "Day of the Dead" is among them. Enjoy!


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Be Very Afraid - or as Much as You'd Like to Be

I don't know what it is about the appeal of Halloween, and that's a good thing: If I knew, it might not work. Which would be a bad thing because I love Halloween, I love to be scared. It seems that we have an organic need for fear as much as for air and water and you-know-what. (Of course I'm talking about coffee, you dirty people!) Our modern lives are built on a foundation of safety. Safety is an expectation, an entitlement, and a cult. But as creatures who evolved by surviving and overcoming danger, it's in our blood to take perverse pleasure in fear. Fear is our friend and our saviour. And in a culture sanitized by safety, we turn to movies and books for our daily allowance of fear.

Especially books, and especially this week. My "Day of the Dead" (appearing tomorrow) is among a number of books featured by the lovely Angela Kulig on her blog. Do check them out. And next time you clean, don't be too pleased about killing the 99.9% of germs. It's the surviving 0.01% you might want to be worried about. Very, very worried... www.angelakulig.com/2015/10/halloween-reads-2015-day-one.html

Friday, October 2, 2015

If I May Ride into the Sunset

Before a difficult surgery yesterday I was fortunate to spend some quiet moments alone with a cat. He snuggled up to me for security and warmth, I snuggled up to him for primal peace that only an animal can give. His purring radiated through me in soft waves and melted away my worries and my very thoughts. There was only the cat and myself in the universe, the two of us oscillating with dumb gratitude for our lives. But since I can't banish thoughts for very long, they came back soon enough. I though about the less healthy animals I had held like this, some on their way to recovery and others at the end of their life's journey. I thought about who would be with me when my turn came to say goodbye to life, and for the first time I gave it serious thought. I knew it would not be my dear husband - I hope not, as he is incapable of being alone. I hope he precedes me, but not because I want to live longer. While I would be devastated to lose him, I have a feral and solitary self I can revert to. He does not. We have no children, and I do not wish to be comforted by strangers. Right then I knew that I wanted to hug an animal close to me as I made my exit. If I am fortunate enough to plan this moment and lucid enough to make this request, if I have enough feeling in my shrivelled skin to delight in the softness of fur, the warmth of a sniffing nose and a tongue grooming my face, I will go out with this kind of flourish. I would like to hope I have earned this privilege.

The surgery went well, and for that I am thankful to the cat. He made my hands steady and cautious, and my purpose bold and brazen. He reminded me that the rest of the world is none of my concern at such moments.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


My new husband and I are back from our European odyssey that included stays at our childhood homes, a wedding and a family reunion, a honeymoon, and making memories that will take many years to process and fully appreciate. Our wedding was on the 70th anniversary of the end of a war in which our grandfathers were tasked with destroying each other by two homicidal madmen playing with tin soldiers. As we are both first-generation Canadians, our visits to the countries of our birth can be a walk through a minefield overgrown with wildflowers. In Germany, I was an enchanted traveller who saw and felt only the beauty and magic of a newly-discovered place. I often felt guilty, and still do, because I will never fully understand my husband's anxiety and sadness over visiting his home village and his relatives. For me it was a place of profound peace among rolling green hills that happened to be blessed with sunny weather during my entire stay. For him, it is the place where he spent his youth watching his mother die slowly of cancer, was plagued for years by a debilitating and painful injury, and fought many battles to acquire an education and a solid job. Maybe one day we will go to Russia together and he will give me a purely lighthearted view of my home; it would be interesting and useful to get such a perspective. There is value in such second-hand innocence.

The London where I grew up and that was the first stop on our journey has changed very little in 37 years; it was probably designed to require little or no change. The streets of London now have chain coffee shops, but the row house where we lived and St Mary Abbots school where I went look about the same; so does Holland Park. Also unchanged are the double-decker buses, and the nuclear simplicity of the British call to order: “Good dog owners pick up after their pet. Bad dog owners don’t.”

In Moscow people are getting less irritable and more attentive to creature comforts, bureaucracy is becoming simplified, and cars stop at designated crossings to give way to pedestrians. In the twelve days I spent in my childhood home visiting my mother and keeping either the radio or the TV turned on, the US was mentioned maybe twice, maybe three times. Canada, not once. Most political attention was divided between two topics. The first was Iran, its likely already developed nuclear weapons, its once and future empire, and what Russia should do about all this. The other topic was the sanctions imposed by the EU and how they’re pushing Russia to become self-sufficient. Cheese was a particularly hot topic. Russians are only beginning to master the production of fine cheeses that are no longer coming from France or Holland or Italy. A radio program invited callers to share their opinions about the cheese embargo. Most callers were patriots who agreed that they could survive without fine imported cheeses, which Europe could take and stuff you-know-where. One man called in and said, “I don’t really care for cheese, but I have to eat it, because I like wine, and there are certain kinds of wine that must be accompanied by cheese.” Many Russians disapprove of Putin, but not all for the same reason. Some disapprove of him because they think he’s cowardly, indecisive, and trying too hard to please the West. These people wish he’d sent real troops into the Ukraine for real, thereby preventing the bloodbath and the flack Russia is getting for it. A propos freedom of speech, I watched a movie named “Leviathan” that was released in cinemas in Russia last year with the abundant swearing bleeped out but otherwise uncensored. Filming was funded partly by the Russian Ministry of Culture. It’s somewhat like a French existentialist movie except that the existentialism is of the glum and despondent Russian variety. What amazed me was how the movie took a swipe at corruption and hypocrisy inside the Russian Orthodox Church. This would be like getting away with a swipe at the Communist Party during, say, the 70s.

Then it was on to Germany for me, starting with a tour of Köln, then visits to some towns on the Rhine and Mosel prior to our wedding in my husband’s home village. The castles and wines of the Rhine get plenty of coverage, but the smaller and slower river Mosel that meets the Rhine at the "German Corner" does not get many visitors any more. Most of them were Germans to begin with, and now they have less money for travel. Poor people are not readily obvious, they tend to hide from sight because poverty is embarrassing. However, camping in RVs on riverbanks is becoming popular, so a segment of people do have money. Of the castles we saw, Burg Eltz stands out in my memory (as well as on its rocky hill) for its harmony with nature. It is a fairytale vision reached after a walk through a forest that starts in the town of Moselkern. We met all of two people on our walk through this town from the train station, although there were several guesthouses, suggesting that this was once a tourist destination. This is not a ghost town, but a town of ghost guesthouses. We met Moritz and Paulchen, two solid cats cherished by their owner if not by each other. (We did see one or two raggedy feral cats in Germany; in Italy there were many more.) In Moselkern there is an abandoned 19th century wool mill by the stream, and an organization with enough money wants to restore it rather than letting it get torn down. I hope they succeed; an old factory is very romantic. Their endeavour is helped by the fact that real estate here is not worth very much. In this little haven on Mosel only tourists can be truly free of cares; the place is romantic only for them. We visited a winery and bought some lovely wine we meant to keep for the wedding but consumed much sooner, and learned from the owner about the heavy bureaucratic and tax burdens carried by small business owners. Waiting for the train and watching the sunset, we met two enormous swans and two impossibly cute Egyptian geese grazing on the lush grass on the bank of the river, the old and the new inhabitants of Moselkern. Globalization is hard at work in the animal kingdom.

Each castle in Germany is unique, but they all have one thing in common. A walk through the chambers (for "rooms" seems too modern a word) of any castle puts a chill into the core of your being that stays there for the rest of the day. Bring something warm even on a summer day. These places were once alive, and never thought they would become museums. The wood did not smell of dry rot as it does now, nor the stones of dust. People who lived here put up with much of what we consider unacceptable. They slept in sitting positions, afraid to resemble corpses if they lay down, or unable to pull enough air into their frail lungs in this position, and died from illness and wars in numbers that were often very high for their time. It takes quite a bit of arrogance topped with quite a bit of ignorance to claim that before our century no war had swept and decimated the entire known world. (Consider The Thirty Years’ War.) But that's all over now, and we know better. We have reached the pinnacle of civilization after a very long climb; some of the terrain was so shitty we wonder how people could live there. We are the party of climbers that made it, through no virtue of our own, only because we were born at the right time. We are the incredibly lucky, the redeemed, the washed every day with warm water and soap, the entitled to safety and happiness, and these castles are part of our heritage.

After the wedding we flew to Italy to imbue the lightness and warmth. Creative people go to Italy because the country is supposed to inspire them to create. I have no idea how writers manage to write there. In all my time in Italy I was hard-pressed to come up with words for so much as a journal, never mind ideas or sketches for a new story. The place took me over. It made me look, listen, smell and taste, but wouldn’t let me talk back. The scent of white acacia followed us from Liguria where we worked on a farm tending grapes and olive trees, to the island of Elba self-exiled from the mainstream tourist circuit, then to the gardens on the outskirts of Florence, and finally back to northwestern Germany where spring arrived after two months of our travels. In Pisa we took refuge from the heat and crowds in a botanical garden where pond turtles flocked to us in expectation of food. Not far from Cinque Terre in Liguria is the little town of Montemarcello on top of a hill overlooking the Gulf of Poets. (Ha ha, very funny. You’re supposed to write poetry as well as prose.) Montemarcello does not have world heritage status (that part of Italy has run out of quotas), so its narrow streets are empty of tourists. The hillside is covered by a forest of umbrella pines, chestnuts, and white acacias, the ground bulldozed by boars who root for nuts and wild onion bulbs by night and sleep in the thicket by day. In places there are mud puddles with imprints of fur from the boars’ bellies where they lay to cool off. At the foot of this hill the river Magra meets the sea, and in the distance, behind the heat and dust rising from the fields, the Apuan Alps rise like petrified clouds of gray and pink. The white patches on their slopes are not snow but the marble quarries of Carrara. The river valley is prone to flooding and drained by a system of channels straight as runways; swallows whistle the call of summer as they swoop back and forth along the channels in their hunt for insects. The banks are overgrown with wild yellow irises, and the water is home to a strange species that look for all the world like flying fish. They move in perfect wedge formations, skimming the surface of the water for food which they slurp up with their gaping mouths; you hear them before you see them. We watched two such formations work their way from opposite directions and meet head-on. They startled themselves terribly, all fish jolting in unison and producing a rustle and shimmer in the water. Not a moment later they re-grouped and swam off in one large flotilla. I don’t know if this is a native or a so-called invasive species, and if the latter, how it came to be here. The canals are also home to many coypu, animals that look like large guinea pigs with full white mustaches and penguin feet. These are definitely immigrants from South America. Despite their decent number, they are not hunted here. The cuteness factor is too strong, and the harm they do, if any, is not yet perceptible.

On Elba we stayed in a little house in a village with a meadow nearby, and after dark we listened to nightingales and walked through galaxies of tiny stars coming into being and fading in momentary bursts of white light: fireflies. These fireflies are different from the ones on the mainland; those have smaller and greener lights with a steady glow. The water that washes Elba is cold and very clean, but not too cold to swim in even in mid-May. A jellyfish stung my arm during one such swim; at first it felt like the sting of a wasp, but the salty water soon pulled out the venom. The mark it left was the shape of a large plump strawberry with the “seeds” being red spots from the jelly’s tentacles; they welted up right away and stayed red for a few days, but caused little bother. I have since googled this out and found that only a fried egg jellyfish could make such a sting pattern. Funny how I didn’t see this creature in the water; it is not as transparent as other jellies. Unfortunately, the mark it made on me has almost faded now. I would have liked to keep this accidental tattoo.

There is a great variety of coastal terrains on Elba. Behind Portoferraio the banks of the island are very steep, with a beach of dazzling white pebbles below. In Sant’Andrea fantastical rock formations make up moonscapes on the shore of the sea. The stone looks as if it’s made of crushed granite, with little perfectly rectangular inclusions that sparkle in the sun. Much tectonic grinding and mixing must have gone into the making of these rockscapes. Their surface is so smooth you could roll a ball over it, but not for any distance: they are arranged like whalebacks, with multiple chasms between the undulations. The cliffs that tower above are overgrown with hanging vines of bright magenta flowers. On the opposite side of the island, between Rio Marina and Cavo, there is a beach of shimmering black sand that ends in an outcropping of plum-purple rocks and the remains of a smeltery that could be very old. The mouth of an abandoned mine shaft looks like a small cave, and the rocks near it are frosted with sulphur-yellow and lime-green. We could find no seaweed or animals in the water off this beach; maybe the metals that make its rocks so beautiful are leaching into the sea and keeping living things away.

After Elba we came to Florence which I am hard-pressed to describe because of the multitudes of people it hosts even during “low” season. I am too easily distracted by people, by their appearance and their voices and by what they might be saying in languages I don’t understand. Their presence takes priority, and I am unable to tune it out even in the face of the most magnificent works of the Renaissance. But I will not forget the evening on the river Arno when the sun’s rays poured from under a solid gray cloud whose lower border was a perfectly straight line. And I will not forget our walk along Guelfa street (the name delighted me with its resemblance to my alma mater) when the buildings ahead of us became steeped in severe orange light. We turned around and saw the setting sun touching down on the road in the distance - at the vanishing point. We had found ourselves on this street unimportant by Florentine standards (although we seek out just such streets) in the year and on the day and at the moment the sun was to set in the narrow gully between the houses.

After Florence our paths diverged for a week. My husband flew back to Germany to spend more time with family and childhood friends while I (who speak hardly any German and feel like a deaf-mute if smiling idiot at such gatherings) did the slow crawl northward by train. I stayed at places he’d been to before, but that were new to me. There is a region of Italy around Lago Maggiore and to the east that, together with the Alps and the south of Bavaria, makes up the land of Rhaetia. This was once sort of a country, and it sort of still is. Here the deepest past, or what we call pre-history, lies closer to the surface than in other parts of Europe. Bicycling through a chestnut forest outside the town of Arona on Lago Maggiore, I came upon a lake that must be very old indeed. Now it is overgrowing with rushes and water lilies. Near this lake archaeologists found remains of the Golasecca culture: a boat made of a hollowed-out tree, pots, and cart wheels. The time interval indicated on the plaque was XV-VIII century B.C. What’s a mere seven hundred years’ difference, if history hasn’t yet started? As a linguist and a writer I wished these people could have left more written records of their lives. Why didn’t they describe themselves, draw attention to themselves? Well, they did. “For Latumaros and for Sapsuta, Naxian wine.” It doesn’t get more specific than that. No carrying on about feelings here.

My journey on the red train over the Bernina Pass was for the most part shrouded in fog; only toward Chur did the sky become clear and the sun come out. I never saw more than a small corner of Lake Poschiavo from the wuthering heights of the railway above it, and I saw nothing at all of the Alpine peaks and glaciers. I didn’t mind. There could have been anything in that mist. Fog conceals infinite possibilities, including another pilgrimage to this place sometime in the future. Out of the fog emerged names of stations, primal and feral names that sent a shiver down my spine. Scuol-Tarasp. Morteratsch. Bonaduz. Filisur. They are not pretty names, not the champagne-and-roses kind of romantic. They are almost menacing in their indifference to being admired, approved of. Maybe so were the people who once lived here. Mountains put a limit on silliness, gratuitous change, and the kind of ambition and indulgence you can get away with on the plains.

On the other side of the Alps my journey along the Romantic Street began in the unannounced and uncelebrated little town of Feldkirch. Inside the city walls is a building with a fresco of the founding and ruling fathers of the town, and the date 1218. Next to this building is a jewelry/curiosity shop displaying a fossilized sea lilly about 420 million years old. On a hilltop above the town is a wildlife park where I saw my first wild boars. Two of these proud and highly intelligent animals lay side by side on straw; they have nothing to do but lie about and eat. On the next morning I took a rather smelly diesel train named alex across Bavaria. In Landsberg I watched a trout propel itself into the air out of the swift river Lech, and wiggle frantically before flopping back into the water. He must have been doing it for sheer fun; there were no insects above the water to catch. A side channel of the Lech runs through the old city and washes the foundations of its houses much like a canal in Venice. That evening I arrived in the little town of Harburg after a thunderstorm that had driven people indoors. It was strange, in a brothers Grimm fairytale sort of way, to walk through an empty medieval town with a robust stone bridge over the quiet river. A multitude of snails had crawled out onto the paths, the large fat variety of edible snails once brought from France and accidentally set free. People slowly re-emerged from their houses as the evening sun came out, and on a walk to the other side of the Wörnitz river in search of sustenance I discovered a milk pavilion. A local farmer leaves fresh milk in the refrigerator, and a coin-operated dispensing machine pours out as much or as little as you pay for, into a bottle you bring with you. It tasted much like milk did in my childhood; but that was still warm from the cow. Rothenburg ob der Tauber, my next stop, gifted me with two surprises bordering on miracles. Although it is a large and very well-advertised city on the Romantic Street, the tourists on that day had all gravitated to the centre with its gingerbread houses and gilded shop signs, leaving the walkways along the walls and the spacious circular hospital tower empty. The next wonder was ten minutes of alone time with the Holy Blood altar by Tilman Riemenschneider, a story carved from lime wood that glows golden. Rothenburg is surrounded by forests and meadows, steeped in rural peace that begins right outside the city walls. In Ochsenfurt, a much smaller town and not on the official Romantic map, I got locked inside the City Hall after following the tourist brochure’s advice to look at the rooms. Most of the rooms have been modernized, but two looked like they haven’t changed in a few hundred years. The building is secular and mischievous. The painting on one of the ceiling beams shows a plump cherub peeing into a pot that a nymph is holding up for him. The front door was unlocked for me by a friendly clerk who was the second person to ask if I had an appointment with the mayor. Even with my broken German, that scenario must have seemed more likely than simply going in to gawk. From Ochsenfurt I travelled to my husband’s home village for a final stopover before our flight back to Canada. My last swim in Europe was in the chilly river Ruhr at the spot where my husband and his brother learned to swim some forty years ago. Downstream from a threshold of rocks the river deepens and the current quickens, bouncing you along for a few giddy seconds.

Many national stereotypes hold true, others are melting away together with borders. Both in Germany and in Italy people are under considerable strain to find work, pay taxes, and navigate an increasingly elaborate bureaucracy. England is part of the EU, but somehow also apart, somehow above it all. Russia is not part of anything and does not aspire to be, but its citizens are becoming 1920s’ Europeans in their tastes and expectations, and their TV programs are carbon copies of American reality TV. A lot of Europeans smoke a lot. Italians can be very passionate in their speech, but otherwise they are not easily rattled. Most are friendly and helpful if laconic, but the occasional few are capable of glacial indifference if they don’t have an answer to your question or don’t wish to give one. Germans, by contrast, vibrate with a sense of duty to respond to a traveller’s needs, and seem deeply if silently bothered if they are unable to do so to their own satisfaction. In this they are by far the more emotional nation. Of course there are regional differences. Bavarians, who were already gathering strawberries in late May, are prosperous, relaxed, and seem happy. Sauerlanders (my husband’s tribe) are sour from the cold foggy weather and from interaction with bureaucrats who are themselves sour because the government sent them here. Two thousand years ago these folk got sour enough to destroy three Roman legions, all of twenty thousand men, stumbling through the dense forest under a pouring rain to spread the empire eastward. Rome was never the same after that. And who knows what the rest of Europe, including Russia, would be like without that battle.

If Germans take comfort in duty, Italians place great trust in reflexes, theirs and yours. Car drivers trust other car drivers, bicyclists trust car drivers. Miraculously, this works more often than not. Oncoming drivers trust that you will react when their car comes round the bend with half of its ass in your lane. And, you do react. You discover in yourself neuronal agility that lies dormant and unused in more civilized driving conditions. This is absolutely unacceptable, exasperating, it will make you sweat proverbial bullets, and at the end of the day (or the month, or the year) you might just love these people for forcing you into excellence bordering on heroism. The only unbreakable traffic rule in Italy is, Can the Other Driver See You? If they can, proceed with whatever you must do. Because if you don’t, someone else will, and so on until the second coming, or until you’re honked and jostled into proceeding. Italians adore their vintage Fiat 500s, and well they should. If you think the new Fiat is small, take a look at one sitting beside the original model. There is a vintage Fiat 500 club on Elba, and well there should be: the lovable little buggers were made for just such terrain. These “antique” cars are super-lightweight and innocent in both appearance and function. Unlike the modern computers on wheels whose mission is to render their drivers coddled and helpless, these machines can be opened up, studied, understood, loved, cared for, and repaired. A 50 year-old Fiat station wagon put our brand-new rental Chevy Spark to shame on a descent of an Elban mountain road. But why should that be surprising? We’re the ones who demand constant re-invention of the wheel.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

How I Nearly Died, And What I'm Probably Supposed to Learn from This.

This post, albeit mostly about me, has direct relevance to my practice of veterinary medicine. Please bear with me.

Last September, on the day following my birthday, I was driving to Vancouver to work along the Sea to Sky highway. After a few weeks of draught (sic! in the Pacific Northwest) it was raining for the first time. I lost control of my car, slid across the oncoming lane, and plowed through the ditch with a towering rockface to my left and inches away. I still don’t understand how I didn’t crash into the rock. By Hollywood movie standards I felt embarrassingly, disappointingly little. My life did not flash before my eyes, because that’s complete and total bullshit. Do you realize how much time it would take for your life to "flash" before your eyes? I'm guessing no less than ten minutes, by a very generous estimate of an average life. Here is what did happen. The picture of the world ahead of me, what small piece of it I needed to see, became blurred as from a very quick and very close zoom-in, with no time to sharpen the focus. Through a slight haze I saw the rockface coming at me, and I expected to hit it. There was no fear; I guess there was no time for that, and no room. My thoughts were blurred just like my vision; there was so little I needed to think about, but that too was magnified, almost as if the letters of those wordless words were bigger than usual. And this is what they read: Everything Has Changed. I was equally ready to live or to die or to get crushed and mutilated but remain alive; I deserved either of these in equal measure, and nothing depended on me any more. And when I found myself not only alive but utterly unharmed inside a dead and mutilated car that had rolled out of the ditch back onto the highway and had come to a stop at a perfect 90 degree angle to traffic, I was not surprised, because nothing was surprising, and anything was fair game. I remember the smell and spatter of coffee on everything, and I remember feeling embarrassed that people would find me in this pitiful and slovenly state. Before anyone arrived, I already felt squeamish on their behalf. I will never again sneer at a person who asks for a nail trim for their dying dog or cat. These priorities get fucked up for a good reason. We cannot fathom death any more than we can fathom the infinity of the universe. In the presence of death, the only recourse available to us is the ritual and decorum of living, nail trims and all.

Days later, when I crept in my new used car past that cursed turn and studied it, I was surprised to see a signpost only two or three metres across the ditch from the rockface; I don’t remember seeing it as I hurtled through that ditch and have no idea how I avoided crashing into it as I was trying avoid the rock. I say “trying” because I’m guessing that my body was taking measures: my hands must have been steering the wheel, my right foot must have been braking, or staying the hell away from the brake - I’ll never know which one. My body knew what to do. Maybe my eyes did see the signpost and told my hands and feet to avoid it. My left hand was holding a cup of Timmie’s coffee as I went into that turn and lost control, and the hand must have thrown the cup away from me to grab the wheel because that cup ended up on a soaked jumble of papers and a sweater at the foot of the passenger seat. I don’t remember doing any of this, and never will. It’s none of the mind’s business what the body does in such moments. Presence of mind, my ass. If my jittery and meddlesome little mind were allowed to be present, I am quite sure I would be dead.

The wisdom of the animals whose lives I strive to prolong and often carry the burden and honour of ending, is in living by their senses. They are not tormented by the knowledge that they have this disease or that, and as long as they are free from pain and able to enjoy their food and repose, they are happy. We the oh-so fortunate sons and daughters of Western Civilization have been taught by Socrates to despise this unexamined life. But might it not be time to revise that cumbersome and complicated lesson, to learn from our animal companions how to be grateful for the mere absence of pain? Because it takes so little, so wonderfully little to take pleasure in life. After my accident on the highway I have felt the duty to derive some sort of learning from it, but I have yet to figure out what it is I'm supposed to learn. I am fairly certain that an animal would not "think" twice about such an experience, because for them dodging death is business as usual. But I cannot claim the simplicity and innocence of an animal. For a short while it pleased me to think that providence (or God) had spared me so I could go on to achieve something or other. But my temperament is not well suited to religion. In these past weeks I have often felt as if I'm watching a movie about someone who lived and loved and worked and was happy, but is now dead. That someone is, of course, myself. Lately, after years of peaceful sleep, I have found it hard to sleep through the night. It feels exactly like jet lag because that is exactly what it is. I have been catapulted through time to the final moments of my life, and I have felt them without seeing them. I have been released on parole, but the sentence stands. At any moment I can be summoned to finish serving that sentence of mortality. Up until that accident I had lived the naive and blissful illusion that my life would never end. The shattering of that illusion has marked the beginning of the second half of my life. In chronological terms I do not know how long that second "half" will be, but every morning I still enjoy my coffee and I am happy to resume my place among the living. It is not my intention to wallow in maudlin sentimentality but to move past it to a new appreciation of life that no longer rests on the illusion of immortality. A few minutes before the end of 2014 my partner asked me to marry him. I was blissfully happy, and I remain so every day. Every day it is still a wonder to me that another life out there has noticed me and found me to be singificant. This is nothing to sneeze at, because evolution has not prepared us for this. In terms of evolution, one person and all their aspirations mean nothing. But if only one other person in this crazy world of ours thinks we amount to a hill of beans, that is quite something, that is reason enough to celebrate. While I cannot claim the simplicity and innocence of animals, I have experienced the miracle of lighting up the life of other humans. I am amazed that people thank me for nothing more than relating lab results for their ailing cats and suggesting a plan of action. I am amazed and slightly embarrassed by how little it really takes to make a difference in someone's life. All it takes is listening and a kind word, I kid you not. I owe it to my fiancé, to myself, and to the world around me to take my life seriously, and with time I shall find a way to do so.