F is for Fremlin

What’s the name again?
Fremlin, I repeat. Like gremlin, but with an F.

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That’s how I introduce the street I live on. People seem to understand the name better when it has a reference point.

How does one know a place? I figure you pay attention. In the five years I’ve lived in Marpole, I can’t say I know it well, but I can say with confidence that I know one section of a street well.

Fremlin doesn’t have anything noteworthy from an outsiders’ point of view. Tucked east of Oak and west of Cambie, it sits like a middle child in the centre of the neighbourhood, enjoying a different rhythm. Maybe that’s why I notice it, apart from the fact that it’s home. I’m a middle child and like attracts like. Stick with me and I’ll take you for a walk.

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Fremlin runs north from Southwest Marine Drive, climbing until it reaches 59th Avenue where it forms the vertical line of a T-stop. That’s where I stop too. Fremlin has a trick up its sleeve. After disappearing for a while, it reconvenes from 54th until 43rd Avenues, but I’m not familiar with this northern leg. The heart of Marpole is so far south; I measure everything starting at the Fraser River. A city is a larger version of high school and Marpole is not one of the popular kids. Some people in other parts of Vancouver don’t even know it exists. A friend visiting me from Mount Pleasant once remarked how driving to Marpole felt like going to the suburbs. I had just left real suburbia for city life and was rather offended.

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My favourite part of Fremlin is the beginning where all the apartment buildings are. European hornbeams flank the street, forming a magnificent, dense arch with leaves rustling in the wind, playing hide and seek with the light like a coy lover. I walk under the boughs like Anne of Green Gables passing through the White Way of Delight. Countless birds flitter through the trees. I’ve seen crows, western tanagers, robins, and chickadees. They’ve made a birdwatcher out of me.

Not a single business stands on Fremlin. The street is quiet except where it meets its rowdy cousin—70th Avenue. The intersection is marked by a pedestrian activated traffic signal, the only light along its route. Honks, curses, screech of tires, and the two-toned beep of the walk signal merge into a rush hour cacophony. The road narrows from here, causing a bottleneck when cars are parked on both sides.

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But this stretch wins the prize for most beautiful when March and April arrive. The canopy of cherry blossoms extends for blocks, a long procession up a petal-sprinkled sidewalk like the nave of a cathedral dressed for a wedding. It’s impossible not to be swept away. I wonder if the people in the nearby houses wake up to each year’s bloom like a child on Christmas, the surprise never getting old even though the return is expected.

One of these people has an apple tree in her front lawn. I stopped to admire it on a summer walk and the woman told her husband to go back up the ladder to give me a bagful. She insisted. I had never received apples from someone’s tree before and I took several pictures of their red skin and leafy stems arranged in a glass bowl on my table. Unfortunately the apples looked better than they tasted but that didn’t matter.

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When you reach the house with the vegetable garden in the front yard so big it could feed the community, you’re at the base of Oak Park whose eastern edge borders Fremlin.

For the longest time I didn’t know the name of this park. It was just the big park up the hill I chose to run around when I exercised. Trees line the perimeter and I still jog there even though I’ve been the target of a couple of crow dives.

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There’s a tree that marks the end of the street, hidden in the northeast corner of the park. I always tap it with my right hand to signal the end of my run. It’s a ritual of connecting with what’s around me. No song on an iPod tells me I’m done. It’s the touch of flesh on bark, a greeting to an old friend.

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When you move to a neighbourhood, you look for signs that welcome you, that say you belong. Mine were literally spelled out. First it was a building west of Oak Street named Charlene Apartments. Then it was my dad’s name carved into the sidewalk on Fremlin Street near the park. How many people are named Larry? I chuckled aloud.

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The route down Fremlin is especially fun on a bike. Only a few stop signs to watch out for, gravity propels you back where you started. But the journey is never the same twice. Streets are like rivers. The other day, I noticed more for sale signs cropping up on lawns and wondered which people raking leaves or stroking their cat I won’t see anymore, and which new faces I’ll encounter.

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When I moved to Marpole, my brother and cousin carried my 200-pound bookcase up three flights of stairs, almost putting their backs out. My brother wiped the sweat from his forehead and said, “Charlene, you’re never moving again.”

He doesn’t need to worry. I have no intention to.

 


I’m pleased to announce this piece won Vancouver Public Library‘s Marpole Writing Contest July 2018.

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Hiking the Cinque Terre

This summer weather has got me reminiscing about the summer temperatures we experienced in Italy last October.

The place we soaked up the sun the most was in the ineffable Cinque Terre: five tiny towns built into cliffs along the Italian Riviera, connected by hiking trails and trains.

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Vernazza harbour

We made our home base Vernazza (about 500 residents), the second town from the north. We visited all five towns and agreed with Rick Steves that Vernazza “is the jewel of the Cinque Terre.” My next favourite is Manarola.

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The trail towards Monterosso

From Vernazza, we left before 10am to hit the coastal trail in the Cinque Terre National Park to the largest and northernmost Cinque Terre town, Monterosso. My tip: leave before 10am to avoid all the (mainly senior) hiking groups that come through with walking sticks, and go from Vernazza to Monterosso if possible. There are a lot of steep steps getting out of Monterosso and we were glad we were going downhill rather than uphill for those.

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Looking back at Vernazza

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I could do breakfast with this view every day

It’s a beautiful walk that took about an hour and a half. We timed it to arrive there for lunch and have a swim in the Mediterranean. I loved looking back at Vernazza and picking out where we had enjoyed our breakfast made by our lovely Airbnb host on her balcony below the castle.

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Approaching Monterosso

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A jeweller had hauled this table with all his supplied up the trail to tempt tourists like myself to buy something along the way. Guilty!

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Enjoying the Mediterranean. That’s my hubby all the way out on those rocks.

To make the most of our limited two days in the region, we hopped on a train to Corniglia  to hike back to Vernazza so we didn’t spend any time retracing a route we already walked. You can also take a boat from Monterosso to the other towns but the one town it doesn’t stop in is Corniglia because there’s no harbour there, so that’s why we opted for the train. (At the time we went, the coastal trail between Riomaggiore-Manarola and Manarola-Corniglia was closed).

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It’s a similar one and a half hour walk from Corniglia to Vernazza. Since we did this section in the late afternoon/early evening as the sun was setting, it afforded amazing photo opportunities, and it’s like we had the path to ourselves.

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Corniglia behind me

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Apart from Nice, we spent the least amount of time in the Cinque Terre and yet it was one of our most memorable experiences. My husband and I both talk about going back there in a heartbeat. After the busyness of Paris trying to cram in all the museums and historic sites,  it was a literal breath of fresh air to be outside in the sun, slow down, and enjoy the magic of these crayon-coloured towns.

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Another shot of Vernazza from the castle

 

Our Souls at Night

Some might call it boring. “It’s just two old people talking in the dark,” as one character says.

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I call Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf a quiet book that sneaks up on you with its loveliness.

Two lonely people in their seventies—Addie and Louis—(both widowed) decide to sleep together at night. Addie clarifies her intentions to Louis, her neighbour down the street in their small Colorado town:

No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?

As you read it, you realize it’s about a lot more than two old people talking in the dark. It’s about ordinary, flawed people reflecting on the past and taking a risk to make the most of the present.

Addie and Louis are two characters who make me look forward to growing old. They’ve lived long enough to stop caring what other people will think or say about them, but they each have a child and live in a town who doesn’t share their way of looking at things, which brings tension into their story.

Their simple, routine lives are attractive. They work in their gardens, drive elderly neighbours to the grocery store, go on outings occasionally. Haruf doesn’t cut these ordinary elements out of his fiction. For example, one chapter starts:

The next day he worked in the yard in the morning and mowed the lawn and ate lunch and took a short nap and then went down to the bakery and drank coffee with a group of men he met with every other week.

The way the author tells the story is cinematic, a movie camera following the characters around their small town, paying close attention to the little things brought to life with such love. Waiting at a stoplight. Cooking sloppy joes over a camp stove. Walking a dog. Similar to a scene in the film Lady Bird where a character talks about love as paying attention; paying attention as love.

Haruf’s style of prose mimics his subject matter. The writing is poetic in its spareness. Rhythmic in its brevity. There are no quotation marks around the dialogue, and it would look cumbersome if there were because so much of the novel is dialogue and, for the most part, it’s clear who’s speaking when.

The only other book I could compare it it to is Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a similarly brief yet eloquent portrait of two people exploring the landscape of marriage (with a more devastating tone though).

Our Souls at Night was the author’s last book before he died in 2014 at 71, a similar age to his characters. He based it on his and his wife’s story, two people who found each other later in life. Knowing this makes the reading experience that much more tender. What a gift to leave the world.

In a literary market where the protagonists are typically young, larger than life, and the plot full of action and surprise, this novel landed in my lap like a letter from another world. It was refreshing to know a book like this could be published, and with acclaim! And not just published, but deemed interesting enough to make into a movie, which I think I will watch tonight.

Of Light, Shadow, and Context

I recently read some of my poems at The Writer’s Studio monthly reading series at Cottage Bistro.

One was about an artwork the Artist and I stared at the longest out of all the art we saw on our Europe trip last fall: The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio in San Luigi dei Francesi, a Catholic church in Rome decorated in the ornate Baroque style.

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At the reading, I mentioned how we typically enjoyed the experience of seeing art in churches more than in museums and galleries for a couple reasons: 1) churches were often less crowded 2) there’s something significant about seeing art in the context it was made for.

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Take Caravaggio’s painting above. The Calling of Saint Matthew is one of three paintings Caravaggio was commissioned to make for a chapel, off to the left side of the nave, dedicated to the disciple. A dramatic swath of light cuts across the canvas, mimicking the way the natural light from the chapel falls on his painting—something Caravaggio was aware of as he was making the work.

Caravaggio’s mastery of chiaroscuro (the effect of contrasted light and shadow) got me noticing dramatic plays of light and shadow across the canvas of Rome.

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I’ve begun thinking about other artworks we saw in churches that wouldn’t be the same if we had seen them on the nondescript walls of a museum or gallery.

The photograph above shows a view of St Peter’s Basilica. Bernini’s soaring four-columned bronze canopy (called a baldachin or, as Rick Steves refers to it, “God’s four-poster bed”) that sits above the altar and below the dome is one such example. As soon as you walk into the massive cathedral, there is so much height and width to feel lost in (it covers 6 acres!) But the relentlessly long nave acts like the shaft of light in Caravaggio’s painting, leading your eye to a focal point.

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This seven-story bronze canopy hovers over the Eucharist table, emphasizing the significance of this sacrament and enveloping it in a kind of “holy space” if you will. You get a sense of how big this sculpture is for it not to look dwarfed in the largest church in the world. The canopy connects the congregants gathering around its base to the dome above, lifting your eyes, as cathedrals brilliantly do, towards heaven. The bronze and gold also draw your eye to Bernini’s similarly coloured sculpture in the apse behind, enshrining the chair of St. Peter and the alabaster dove window that turns natural light into artificial rays of gold.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari was a treasure chest of artworks and our favourite place for viewing art in Venice. The heroic-scale Titian painting behind the altar beckons you closer, the light flooding in from the windows amplifying the light of glory the Virgin is ascending to.

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Titled the Assumption of the Virgin, this artwork is infused with energy and motion. All gestures lead your eye up—from the earthbound apostles with reaching hands to the putti’s arms holding the cloud and to Mary’s raised arms. Notice how the colours do this too. Titian forms the base of a triangle out of the red-clothed apostles on the ground (Peter and John), with Mary in red as the apex, emphasizing her translation from earth to heaven.

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Photo by Didier Descouens from Wikipedia.

Even the shape of the painting, with its rounded top, mimics the choir-screen arch you see when standing in the centre of the nave. So much intentionality. I love this consideration between art and space and wish the experience of stepping into modern churches was as inspiring.

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What art have you seen that wouldn’t be the same in any other space? Maybe you’ve come across it in a church, or maybe it was in a gallery or museum. I’d love to hear!

Walking Munich’s Nazi Past

On a grassy lawn in Munich ripe with autumn’s freshness, I stood where the smell of ash and burnt paper once choked the air and learned about the courage of twenty-one-year-old Sophie Scholl.

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Ashamedly and shockingly, I had never met her in a classroom, never read her story in history books. It was at the end of a Third Reich walking tour that introduced me to her and the other members of the White Rose, a non-violent Nazi resistance group of students from the University of Munich.

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Our tour guide Tom, who led the provocative, information-packed three-hour walking tour without once referring to his notes, quoted 19th century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine who predicted:

Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.

He showed us a picture of Sophie, executed by guillotine on February 22, 1943, along with her older brother Hans and another White Rose member, Christoph Probst, after being caught distributing pamphlets at the university.

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Her last words before heading to her death:

Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go. But what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?

A big question Sophie wrestled with (she studied biology and philosophy) was how to live in the face of a dictatorship? 

Her courage is echoed in Müncheners who took a back street (Viscardigasse) nicknamed Dodgers’ Ally to avoid saluting to Hitler when passing the Feldherrnhalle on the Odeonsplatz that commemorated the death of Nazi soldiers during Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. The pedestrian-only street is marked with a meandering trail of bronze bricks to remember these small but significant acts by ordinary people.

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Dodgers’ Ally

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Tom said Munich hasn’t been as active in erecting monuments as the capital Berlin to remember its dark past as the hotbed of Naziism (Hitler even referred to Munich as “The Capital of the Movement”), but that it is making strides to change this.

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In recent years, a Third Reich documentation centre (above) was built on the site of the Brown House, the building that housed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party headquarters in the 1930s, and which was destroyed during the war. Nearby was the Führerbau that contained Hitler’s office, now the site of a music and theatre school. (If you look closely at the image below, you can see marks over the door on the top floor where a Nazi Eagle used to hang.)

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Near the Marienplatz we looked at a controversial plaque to German women and children mourning the loss of their husbands/fathers during WWII that raises the question, Were they victims or accomplices? And is the answer an easy either/or? No.

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Tom challenged our tour group: How would we live in the face of dictatorship? Would we capitulate or resist? And how can we judge others what we know from hindsight when we haven’t walked in their horrific shoes? As I wrote in my journal after the tour, “I think his point was that it takes a people to let something like Naziism take root—not just one man.”

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One German artist, since 1995, has created his own tradition of remembering. Wolfram Kastner burns a black circle into the Königsplatz lawn to commemorate the original Nazi book burning there on May 10, 1933. He says in this article written by Tony Sonneman:

There is so much systematic forgetting. I think it’s necessary to remember without covering history with grass.

Kastner also organizes a day-long “Reading Against Forgetting” event in the same spot where students, professors, actors, writers, politicians, and the public gather to read excerpts from the forbidden “nation-corrupting” books that were burnt, including those of Heinrich Heine.

The walking tour was a sobering experience, but one that impacted me most out of anything my husband and I did on our Europe trip.

This is an unsolicited post but I highly recommend the Sandemans Third Reich Tour  if you’re heading to Munich and want a deeper experience of the city. The cost is well worth what you learn and you don’t have to be a history buff to follow along.

Commonwealth: Coming Together after Breaking Apart

If ever there was a book to convince about why divorce isn’t great (in a non-didactic way), Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth is it.

I don’t posit this as a main theme of the novel or want to reduce a masterpiece of storytelling down to this statement, but it is something that ran through my head while following the lives of ten characters over five decades (6 children, 4 parents), so I want to explore that lens a bit.

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The first chapter takes you into the house of a California couple, Fix and Beverly Keating, who are hosting a christening party for their second daughter Franny. It’s a long scene in which the omniscient narrator weaves in and out of multiple house guests, interactions, and seemingly unimportant observations that set the stage for the rest of the story. It is a kiss between Beverly and a surprise guest, Bert Cousins, that sparks an affair and leads to the eventual dissolution of both Beverly’s and Bert’s marriages.

The scene basically ends with the kiss though. The next chapter picks up with Fix as an old man going to the hospital with Franny for a cancer check-up. We understand Beverly and Fix divorced long ago, and yet the effects of their split and the blended Keating-Cousins children that result from Beverly and Bert’s marriage are very much the thread of this ambitious book. Patchett is concerned with inciting incidents and the long, complicated aftermath.

The two Keating girls, Caroline and Franny, move with their mother and Bert to Virginia. Caroline makes no secret of being mad at her mother and wishes she could have stayed with her dad instead. Teresa keeps her four children (Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie) in California, but all six children come together in Virginia every summer when Bert gets his time with his kids, though ironically he never wants to spend any time with them. Beverly reflects on how all she ever wanted was her two daughters. Patchett’s decision to include the very real and mundane logistics of finding a chaperone for the four kids each summer on a cross-country flight is enough to make you feel sorry for everyone involved.

Sadness, blame, guilt, resignation, and regret all surface through this book, stemming from that one illicit kiss—that one action with a thousand consequences.

In a similar way of “like mother, like daughter,” Franny, as a twenty-something, gets involved with a famous author, Leon Posen, who’s married. Just like the opening scene of the christening party, Patchett vividly shows you that first encounter between Leon and Franny, and that scene is enough to fill-in-the-blanks about where their relationship goes. It goes into Franny recounting her family story to Leon who turns it into a bestseller and forces her family to revisit it all over. Again, an action with a thousand consequences.

Patchett primarily tells the story through the lives of the six children uneasily united in their disillusionment with their parents. The four parents get space too, but the bulk is the children’s stories told non-chronologically. There isn’t an obvious main character, but Franny would be it as Patchett spends more time on her and gives her the last word.

My only disappointment in reading the novel is that it wasn’t longer. I wasn’t ready to move on to what another child was up to in his/her adult life because I wanted to stay with the current character. An author who can create that desire in the reader has achieved something remarkable for a number of reasons:

  1. The reader doesn’t tend to stay with flat or perfect characters. Each of the children are recognizable but not clichés—in other words, human. They surprise you, especially their movement from childhood to adulthood, and they each have a good mix of likeable and unlikeable qualities.
  2. Patchett understands that certain siblings in large, blended families get overlooked, especially in childhood (e.g. Jeannette and Albie). By giving attention to all of them, Patchett shows each person is interesting, even if they’re not all “doing” interesting things.
  3. The reader can witness a tragic incident in all of their lives from multiple perspectives, highlighting the various ways guilt and grief manifest.

In closing, I want to revisit my opening statement about this book showing how messy and unattractive divorce is. The book also shows six children picking up the pieces of their parents’ decisions and finding their way through the brokenness together. If ever there was a book to convince about the benefit of having siblings, Commonwealth is it.

Franny gave her sister a tired smile. “Oh, my love,” she said. “What do the only children do?”

“We’ll never have to know,” Caroline said.