About Charlene Kwiatkowski

A lover of cities, I write about urban spaces as visual and literary texts

Paris to the Moon

When a friend found out about our first trip to Paris this fall, she said, “You must read Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon.”

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Considering I love the French language (I requested a Collins French dictionary for my 14th birthday) and reading about their culture, I was surprised I hadn’t heard of this collection of essays on Paris. I had read Hemingway’s memoir but not Adam Gopnik‘s, a staff writer for The New York Times who lived in the French capital from 1995-2000 with his wife Martha and their newborn son Luke.

It was a very serendipitous read. Many months before knowing about the book, The Artist and I had booked our accommodation on the Left Bank in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area of the 6th arrondissement. We/I chose it because of its artsy and intellectual heritage. This district had a vibrant café culture in the 20th century where Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and the like would think their thoughts, exchange their thoughts, and write their thoughts.

I wanted to feel a part of that, even if the area is more glam than bohemian now.

Guess where Gopnik and his wife lived during their time there? Saint-Germain-des-Prés, literally just a few blocks from where we’re staying! I basically read this book with a map in my other hand so I could follow his daily visit to the butcher and baker, his favourite walk pushing the stroller across Pont des Arts, his run around Luxembourg Gardens (using the busts of Delacroix as his reference point) and his route to fulfill un café crème or bûches de Noël craving at Gérard Mulot or Ladurée.

After reading so much guidebook-type information on Paris, it was refreshing to vicariously live “ordinary” Paris. When Gopnik mentions iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, he talks about it in the context of something unexpected, like a news story that involved a clash between an American tourist and a French elevator operator. He uses this story as a springboard to philosophize on a key difference between the two cultures (absolute professionalism versus absolute tourism). I’ll leave it to you to guess what ideal goes with what culture.

I love how Gopnik can take the simplest things—for example, an error message on his fax machine (erreur distante)—and find a parallelism with French intellectuals and politicians who flash the same message “whenever they run out of paper or ink or arguments.”

But it is his reflections that come out of raising his son in a new place that stay with me the most (and provided some chuckles).

He swam, I realized, exactly the way that after five years I spoke French, which also involved a lot of clinging to the side of the pool and sudden bravura dashes out to the deep end to impress the girls, or listeners.

Midway through the book, Gopnik confesses the real reason he and Martha packed up their New York life and moved to Paris was to avoid raising their son with Barney and all that that inane purple dinosaur represents in American culture.

‘We want him to grow up someplace where everything he sees is beautiful’ we said, and though we realized that the moment our backs were turned our friends’ eyes were rolling, we didn’t care. We knew that our attempt to insist on a particular set of pleasures for our kid—to impose a childhood on our child—might be silly or inappropriate or even doomed. We couldn’t help it, entirely. The romance of your child’s childhood may be the last romance you can give up.

(spoiler alert: life doesn’t turn out the way you plan, leading to some hilarious moments in the “Barney in Paris” chapter).

Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because I share the author’s romantic inclinations and could picture myself writing a book like this, my own Paris to the moon adventures while sitting in a garden or café. While we’re only there a week and I have a tendency to sightsee ambitiously, this book makes me want to pause long enough to notice the light.

We love Paris not out of ‘nostalgia’ but because we love the look of light on things, as opposed to the look of light from things, the world reduced to images radiating from screens. Paris was the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafés, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards, department stores with skylights, and windows like doors everywhere you look . . . I see the moon these days from Paris because I once saw Paris from the moon.

Happy Campers in Manning

Last weekend, my husband and I camped with my sis and her family for the first time at Manning Park in the Cascade Mountains. From Vancouver, it’s only about a 3 hour drive—not far for a beautiful and, in my opinion, underrated provincial park.

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Gorgeous view of the Cascade Mountains and Lightning Lake

We loved it. We were too late in booking to get the prime camping real estate on Lightning Lake, but we still enjoyed Hampton Campground further east along the highway near the Similkameen River. You hear traffic noise at night but it’s not too bad, and it’s only a few minutes drive to Lightning Lake which is where we spent most of our time.

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Lightning Lakes is a chain of four lakes that comprise the main recreational area of Manning Park. Lightning Lake is the biggest and furthest north, and then the lakes are subsequently named Flash, Strike, and Thunder. Lightning Lake is the most accessible since there’s a parking lot right beside it. The other lakes you have to hike or kayak/canoe into (which I’d love to do one day!)

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We had beautiful weather. The lake was refreshing but a little harder to get into than expected because of the wind. We had heard about a bridge that spans the narrows of Lightning Lake called “Rainbow Bridge” so we walked around searching for it.

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My four-year-old niece’s favourite colour right now is rainbow so it provided extra incentive to find it even though we took the very long way around to get to it (oops!) But we saw some awesome scenery along the way.

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Once at the bridge, many swimmers climbed its wooden rafters to jump off (husband and brother-in-law included).

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We finished the weekend with a long, windy drive up to the Cascade Lookout. Stunning! You can see Lightning Lake in the far distance.

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Pointing out the different peaks

We continued driving even further up the mountain until the trees thinned out and we reached the subalpine meadow. We followed Paintbrush Trail for a bit before descending again.

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It was a fun weekend filled with lots of laughter, water, and family time. I’ll end with a shot of my husband and brother-in-law fishing the Similkameen River, and my niece checking out their catch before falling in!

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Much Ado about Much Ado about Nothing

The Georgia Straight said, “This is Shakespeare at its sharpest and most satisfying.”

Bard on the Beach‘s 2017 production of Much Ado About Nothing is visually spectacular and very well acted. Director John Murphy adapted this 1598 Shakespearean comedy and set it in 1950s Italy where the characters are glamorous film stars wearing tailored suits with skinny neckties or lacy cocktail dresses dangling cigarettes from their lips and riding off on Vespas.

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Waiting for the show to begin

The costumes and setting alone make this play a delight. Daringly minimalist, it features a few director’s chairs, boom mics, movie camera, and a large pair of “Studio B” doors as the backdrop that opens and closes to reveal slices of Vancouver scenery. The first act plays out in black and white, and gradually more colour is introduced “when love enters the picture” according to Pam Johnson, the scenery designer.

As with many of Shakespeare’s comedies, the dialogue is witty and quick, but I particularly found the language harder to follow in this one than other Bard plays. Luckily the visuals largely make up for this, but I still would have liked to catch more than 50-60%!

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Bard on the Beach tents in Vancouver

There are basically two strands to the plot: 1) Beatrice and Benedick, both stubbornly single and opinionated, take every opportunity to insult each other. Their friends hatch an elaborate plan to matchmake them. 2) Benedick’s friend Claudio falls in love with Beatrice’s cousin Hero and the two are set to be married.

Where’s the tension that moves the plot forward? That’s the part that confused me. It comes from the villain Dona Johnna, sister to Don Pedro, a famous film director. The synopsis in the program guide says she is a journalist and wannabe filmmaker, but that doesn’t explain why she devises her own elaborate plan to ruin Hero’s honour and break up her wedding to Claudio. I caught that she is jealous of her brother but how is interfering in Hero and Claudio’s relationship revenge for her brother’s success? Apparently my friend and I aren’t the only ones wondering about her motivation—Marsha Lederman in The Globe and Mail comments on this too. Again, is this because we couldn’t understand the Elizabethan English or because the plot is weak?

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Members of the cast in the Bard on the Beach production of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by David Blue.

While Much Ado About Nothing is a lot of fun, it has more of a darker side to it than I expected from a Shakespearean comedy. A fiance disgraces his lover and a father renounces his daughter. A character is believed to be dead. Another character asks someone to murder a friend.

While all turns to happiness and dancing in the end, it certainly isn’t the uproarious and easily accessible comedy that last year’s Merry Wives of Windsor was.

Much Ado About Nothing is playing at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver until September 23.

The Conditional Figure

I had just heard Said the Whale talk about their new album As Long As Your Eyes Are Wide at CBC’s Musical Nooners. Stephen Quinn asked frontman Tyler Bancroft about the inspiration behind this noticeably darker album that deals with the deaths of friends, neighbours, and babies. Tyler said something like, “After turning 30, life gets a lot more difficult. There are many beautiful things too, but it comes with a bunch of rough stuff.”

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As a recent 30-year-old, this concert me in a contemplative mood as I wandered downtown on my way to the HSBC building to see David Robinson‘s sculptures at the Pendulum Gallery.

I had seen Robinson’s work previously—in his Parker Street studio during the Eastside Culture Crawl and at Regent College.

The works command attention in the high-ceilinged, glass-covered atrium, as if the lines and angles of his sculptures play off the architecture.

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There is usually an element of tension in his works, whether it be balancing precariously while blindfolded, falling out of a safety net, or pushing and pulling against larger-than-life forces.

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David Robinson, Chair (2013), mixed media. 67 x 33 x 74 inches.

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David Robinson, Draped Figure (2009), paper, resin, 31 x 44 x 15 inches.

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David Robinson, Dead Reckoning (2017), ed. 5. Sitka spruce, Baltic birch, polymer-gypsum, bronze, 96 x 64 x 11 inches.

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David Robinson, Departure (2015), bronze/Douglas fir, 27 x 33 x 9 inches.

The way curator Chris Keatley wrote about this exhibit, aptly named The Conditional Figure, seemed to piggyback on what Said the Whale had just talked about.

This exhibition presents large-scale sculptural works that consider the figure as a conditional entity, created to exist in a dynamic, rather than a static state. Figures are split and penetrated, surfaces are textured and rough. The idea of the unassailable body, strong, solid and resolute, is brought into question, bringing forward the view of ourselves as systems in flux, constantly changing and evolving in time and space. In some works, the figures themselves retain a solidity of form, and it is their extended bodies – boats, planes, wings, ladders etc. – that suggest the fragile nature of both structures and beliefs in which we wrap ourselves.

How has my view of self changed as I’ve aged? What do other people see and what do I see when I look in the mirror? Has the blindfold come off? Am I as secure as I think I am? Am I paddling alone? Against the current? What load am I pulling?

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David Robinson, Binary Vision (2003), ed. 6, polymer-gypsum, glass steel, 90.5 x 45 x 20.5 inches.

I view David Robinson’s sculptures as poetry in space. They ask the tough questions about existence. The vast white walls serving as the background to many of the works create breathing room to consider these questions in a gentle, unhurried way that almost feels too bare.

This exhibit complemented the permanent public artwork in the atrium by Alan Storey I’ve been meaning to see for a while now. Talk about balance and tension. This 1600 kg aluminum pendulum swings back and forth from the roof about 6 metres out, aligning with its base briefly before departing again.

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If you’re downtown, I highly recommend you see Robinson’s exhibit before it closes today!

Cycling the Arbutus Greenway

I had seen others doing it and it looked like fun. So today was the day I finally hopped on the Arbutus Greenway for myself.

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This former railway track was recently converted into a paved pathway, connecting Marpole to Granville Island. It provides a designated north-south route for cyclists and walkers to get from one end of the City to another, something sorely lacking up until now.

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I loved it. It was so convenient to hop on 70th Avenue in Marpole and ride to 41st and onto Southwest Marine Drive to meet up with some friends at UBC. On my way home, I took 16th Avenue back to the Greenway so I could cover most of the path. It’s 8.5 km long—here’s a map.

These vibrant poppies and purple wildflowers near 70th were a delight to see as I started out.

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Community gardens line the right side of the path as you’re heading north. Someone had fun with these scarecrows.

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I loved seeing parts of the City I hadn’t seen before. I was riding slowly up Vancouver’s spine, admiring houses that belong in a fairy tale, smiling at strangers standing in gardens with a hose in hand, and breathing in the scent of wildflowers spilling onto the pavement.

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It was a leisurely ride devoid of traffic and steep hills! Most of the intersections had helpful signage that indicated to cross with pedestrians at the light, like you can see these cyclists doing at Arbutus and 16th.

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Benches and portable toilets were available along the way. The biggest hill from this point riding south was winding through the Quilchena neighbourhood. But it provided some fabulous new lookout points, including slices of ocean.

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Something to note is that there aren’t many trees along the trail so shade isn’t an option, which you really notice on hot days like today.

Between Nanton Road and Quilchena Park, these colourful rocks stopped me in my tracks. Their messages and the conversations they inspired were my favourite experiences along the route.

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Painted all colours of the rainbow, they are as diverse as the people I saw using the path: cyclists, walkers, joggers, seniors, kids, families, rollerbladers, people in wheelchairs, skateboarders, you name it.

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“Pretty cool, eh?” An oldish man spoke to me from the walking side of the path and I said, “Totally cool.” He pointed a little further down where a plaque explained this public artwork done by York House Grade 2 students, a Vancouver Biennale project.

I told him this was my first time on the path and he said he walks parts of it almost every day. “So it’s well used?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” he replied. He said it’s packed on the weekends and he’s particularly encouraged to see a lot of seniors walking with canes on it. He said many seniors don’t feel safe navigating heavy intersections, so this designated route gets more people out enjoying nature and the city who wouldn’t otherwise. I completely get that as a cyclist who doesn’t love riding on busy streets!

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Near the sign, I spoke with another man who was admiring the rocks. He said this Greenway really was a case of “build it, and they will come.” Apparently it’s just a temporary path though with plans to make it into “a destination that fosters both movement and rich social interaction – inspired by nature and the stories of the places it connects” (from the City website). I kind of like it just as it is though, with the exception of adding more public art and trees.

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I ended up having a third conversation with someone along the Greenway when I stopped at 57th Avenue to pick up a few things from Choices Markets. One of the Rainbow Rocks said “Make community” and these friendly encounters with strangers seemed to affirm the spirit of that message already, an experience I don’t take for granted in Vancouver.

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Snaps of Summer

A holiday Monday with sunshine like this called me downtown to walk Stanley Park with a friend. The Rose Garden was in bloom so I snapped some pics of that as well.

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Afterwards, I explored Robson Street and enjoyed this patch of public space set up with picnic tables and an outdoor piano at the intersection of Robson and Bute. Great for people watching!

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Here’s a piece of public art at Robson and Jervis called Jasper.

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From the Vancouver Biennale website:

Jasper is a whimsical sculpture by Brooklyn-based artist John Clement. His trademark steel spirals with bold primary colours invite children to touch and play. The turns and loops of Jasper challenge the inherent properties of rigid tubular steel and the result is an implied movement with the sense of twisting right out of the ground.

Whenever I walk by this sculpture it reminds me of balloon animals popular at children’s birthday parties. Or my coil bike lock. No one was playing on it at the time but I like public art you’re invited to touch. If public art is meant to bring art where people are (because not everyone goes to art galleries), I appreciate works that call for different forms of engagement rather than the traditional “looking only”/observer-observed relationship. That being said, some public art provokes more thought than others and while the form is fun, I find the content strongly lacking in this piece. I think good public art brings form and content together in striking ways. What about you?

Hope everyone is enjoying the Canada Day long weekend!