Books and Reading

The Little French Bistro

On Thursday, I dashed off to Paris in the spring, prior to lunch. By early afternoon, I had arrived in Brittany for the summer.

I discovered Nina George in February of last year. The Little Paris Bookshop was my introduction and I had found a new friend. I insisted my husband read the book! Imagine…a book apothecary…one I would love to have as a dinner guest and friend.

Last week, I was delighted to have found another Nina George novel, originally written in 2010 in German, the translation came out earlier this year. The Little French Bistro gave me a host of other names to add to my dinner guest list.

The characters in these two novels weren’t characters, they were real. They are real and they are authentic. She has portrayed her characters with warts, birthmarks, flaws and indecisions. They make mistakes. Yet despite, or maybe because of their flaws, they are likeable. You get the feeling the lady smelling the melon for freshness at the market could be one of Nina George’s characters. They are tangible.

Her story-line flows naturally and does not feel contrived. In The Little French Bistro we are taken on a journey of growth with the main character, Marianne, a sixty-year old woman. It is Marianne’s journey of self-discovery and self-determination which we follow from the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris to the Ar Mor restaurant on the Breton coast. On the way, she heals and becomes healed, by helping others, she helps herself. Marianne is human and her humanity touches the reader making us believe new beginnings are possible.

The land and culture of the Breton coast is also a very important character in the novel. Mythology, feminism and witchcraft all present themselves to the reader, waxing and waning with the moon, rising and falling with the tide.

After closing the back cover, I wanted to pack my bag and go to “…Armorica! …where the land meets the sea; …the end of the world, as old as death itself.” I know the company would be fine and the food good. What more could a literary traveller want?



Loose Ends

Loose ends are the dangling participles and unrelated pronouns of everyday life. They hang about, waiting for classification. In knitting or quilting, loose ends have to be woven into the knit sock or quilt and then trimmed. Loose ends are the difference between being finished and being completed. “I’ve knit ten pairs of socks, but still have to weave in the ends.” vs. “I’ve completed ten pairs of socks, already to be wrapped!” And we all know the potential disaster of pulling on a loose thread – if we are lucky, only the hem falls; if unlucky we can create an avalanche.

These loose ends fly around us like pesky flies. We return to conversations and think of rebuffs (too late) or great ideas (also, too late). Just after the moment of hitting send, an anecdote you should have included in the e-mail dangles before you; you seal the envelope, and a bit of news you should have shared gets spotted in your peripheral vision; and after pressing the publish button a great insight pops up in front of you. Gather up the loose ends, trim them and let them go.

Recipes get clipped, a magazine article needs closer attention, this small little do-dad may come in handy some day. Will it ever? There are two scenarios to play out in that case a) you forget you have the handy little so-and-so or b) you remember keeping it for just such an occasion, but can’t find it. Piles grow, storage containers get purchased, cupboards get filled and the space under the bed collects more than just dust-bunnies. Suddenly, all these loose ends have joined into a large mass of overwhelming stuff you need to deal with. Weave in only the essential threads, let the rest be trimmed. Be honest, if you haven’t touched it in…you can’t remember when…are you going to ever use it?

Sentimentality is a very dangerous loose end. One keeps tugging on the thread, undoing, unpicking, unraveling. Those threads get gathered up in a ball (they might come in handy) and put away again. Finished, but not completed, and now possibly tangled as well. And close on the heels of sentiment are the regrets. Those words we didn’t say, conversations and actions finished, but not completed. One can pull them out, flip through them, weave in a few ends, but ultimately (if one isn’t careful) the pile becomes too overwhelming, just too many to complete.

I have been sorting this week, inspired by a call for donations on Monday. My husband and I (usually this is a solo endeavour) went through Christmas decorations, rearranged cupboards and drawers. Finished. The truck came and picked up the boxes and bags. Completed.




The Calm Before the Storm

On Sunday, while browsing through a local floral/gift shop and admiring the beautifully decorated trees, an overwhelming sense of sadness crept over me. It was a foreshadowing of the nearing storm – akin to the hairs on your arms standing on end prior to an electrical storm.

At midnight, tonight, the calendar page turns. Little cardboard doors will be flipped open for the chocolate hiding inside, beginning tomorrow. Everything will be taken up a notch – louder, brighter, bigger, sweeter and space will become tighter.

December has to be the most difficult month to live simply and to live small in. Commercials tug at heart-strings and (impossible to meet) expectations greet us around every corner. All our usual responsibilities get buried beneath extra seasonal responsibilities; something must give – sleep? sanity? patience?

We suddenly have to rush about completing never-ending lists of things to do, buy, etc. and any beauty that’s present gets lost in all the bustle. There are tunes playing in the background, but they’re rarely heard.

It isn’t too late. Sit down with your family and figure out what you really want to do over the holidays. We sit down in mid-November and each of us makes a wish list of events to attend, traditions to repeat. Some overlap – no negotiation necessary – others we consider carefully. We have school related events which are not holiday related; there are appointments to be kept; and we have tickets already purchased for the symphony’s holiday concert; and there are only so many hours in any given day.

Some of our wishes are based on tradition, but most importantly, they are still enjoyable. {Tip: If a tradition is only a tradition because it has “always been done,” consider eliminating it or changing it. You can always come back to it the following year.} You’ll be surprised at some of the wishes which appear on the lists – a family walk to look at the light displays in the neighbourhood appeared on my son’s list – no cost, no work, no plan needed.

So you can batten down the hatches and brace yourself, or you can keep it simple, keep it small and keep it special. Trust me, it’s not as hard as it seems.



By The Numbers, 4

  • 26 days of blog posts…need I say more?!?!
  • 1 gift certificate won…that’s unusual (see Luck of the Draw)
  • 15 raffle tickets in one day
  • 1 PD day
  • 75 plus decorated Christmas trees for charitable raffles between two different venues and causes
  • 30 minutes of one-man circus show
  • 2 tubs gluten-free snowballs
  • 1 new instrument to add to repertoire
  • 7 bazaars/craft shows
  • 1 shawl knit with 1 crocheted flower
  • 15 buds on Christmas cactus, 3 blooms
  • 1 mitten finished
  • 16 ginger cookies baked
  • 12 gingerbread and apple muffins
  • 1 Christmas murder mystery read (an annual tradition)
  • 3 magazines
  • 2 evenings just reading
  • 3 days of stiff neck
  • 1 documentary with film maker taking questions
  • 1 pot of mineral paint

And a running list in my head of things to do in December!


26 Days of Home · Life

Z is for…

“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?” (Ernest Hemingway)

Z is for Zzzz’s…It is time to catch some sleep, especially with the approaching season. We can’t do it all (despite what the commercials may be telling us) and if we are sleep deprived, chances are pretty good we won’t enjoy anything we’ve managed to do (assuming you haven’t come down with a cold due to a lack of sleep).

Did you know humans are the only mammals who willingly delay sleep? Maybe we need to take a page from our animal friends! A cat sleeps 2/3 of the day, our cat wakes up in order to move to her next sleeping spot. We can tell the time of day by the location of her sleeping spot.

On average, one needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. This number differs with age, but it is a good starting point for comparison. If you don’t get the sleep you need, you become irritable and your ability to cope with stress decreases. It can become a vicious cycle then, as being irritable is likely to cause you some stress! It is more than just our moods which take a beating when we are lacking sleep. Sleep is a necessary component of our health; the body uses this time to heal and repair, and the brain has a chance to catch up on a day’s worth of information. Our immune systems can become weakened with sleep deprivation. Sleep is as important to our overall health as food, hydration and exercise.

There is still much to learn about the brain and its activities during sleep, especially when it comes to dreams. The dreaming brain is believed to be as active as the waking brain. There are two cycles which we slip in and out of throughout the night, REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep. Generally, there are 3 to 5 REM (dreaming) cycles per night. Scientists, still are theorizing on the roles of the dream cycles.

Some people insist they do not dream, but they do progress through the cycles of REM sleep. A more interesting question is the colour of the dreamer’s visions. About 12% of people dream in black and white, the number was higher prior to the introduction of colour television (a strange, but true fact). A friend of mine, learning English, felt he was getting a good grip on the language when his dreams changed from French to English. But if you are going to question your family members about their dreams, you have to be quick about it, within five minutes of waking, 50% of the dream is forgotten, another five minutes and very little recollection is left.

We spend 1/3 of our lives asleep. We should be falling asleep within 10 to 15 minutes of laying down. If you fall asleep before your head hits the pillow (less than five minutes) you are sleep deprived. If it takes longer, well, you already know about that and I’m not going to give you anything else to think about – chances are you are already thinking too much!?!?

As they say in the newspaper business, it is time to put this series of 26 Days of Home to bed. I will give the final word to Homer, who I think says it best, “There is a time for many words, and there is also time for sleep.”

Sweet dreams.


26 Days of Home · Handmade

Y is for…

The toy yo-yo is thought to be 2500 years old; in fact it is second only to the doll as the oldest toy. It became popular in North America in the 1920s.

Y is for yo-yo. It is reasonable to assume the sewn yo-yos (a popular sewing project in the 1920s and 1940s) took its name from the toy. If you take two completed yo-yos and hold them together, gathered sides facing, you have what looks like a toy yo-yo (or a French macaron cookie). They are also known as Suffolk puffs.

To make a yo-yo, a round of fabric is first cut twice the diameter of the finished yo-yo; the raw edge is turned under (about 1/4 inch) and held in place with basting stitches. Once the round is completely stitched, the basting stitches are pulled tight and the yo-yo folds in on itself, the gathers are arranged to lay evenly. A couple of tacking stitches hold the stitches in place. Yo-yos are becoming popular again and tool manufacturers are making yo-yo makers to make the process even quicker. In addition to the various round sizes available, I noticed square, butterfly and heart-shaped yo-yo makers on a recent quilt shop visit.

Yo-yo bed covers – technically not quilts, as there is no batting or quilting – were and continue to be a great way to use up scraps of fabric. They are very similar to crocheted medallions. Yo-yos were made into runners, doilies and bedspreads, just like the crocheted medallions.

Making yo-yos is a great portable scrap busting activity, but be warned they are addictive. The assembling of them is not as addictive, nor as portable, but if you plan accordingly – making the yo-yos in the warmer weather and assembling them in the colder months – you have a lap warmer while you work. It takes only a few whipstitches to join the yo-yos and the pattern possibilities are endless.

I am stitching my 2009 (41×49) yo-yos in a concentric rectangle, working from the lightest to the darkest of colours. They can just as easily be assembled in ‘blocks’ and then stitched together as units. Since I like the era of the yo-yos, I am knitting a vintage lace trim for three sides of the cover. Hopefully, when the Spring blooms begin to poke up from the newly thawed ground, my yo-yo bed cover will be complete and ready to take its place of honour on my bed.

You can make a start with yo-yos by using them as appliques to add some dimension to your quilt. They make good flowers. How about arranging some green yo-yos in a triangular shape for a tree? Stitching some in a line makes a garland to decorate with, or hang them as a mobile.

Once you start using yo-yos in your projects, you will keep thinking of new ways to use them. And, like the toy, they will keep yo-yoing back into your repertoire.


26 Days of Home · Life

X is for…

I was a very picky eater as a child. Looking back, I was probably a super-taster, either that or very fearful of trying something new. In school, I once wrote I was allergic to carrots. When we had a snack of ants on a log (celery filled with peanut butter and topped with raisins) I would scoop out the peanut butter and raisins and only eat them. The celery would be wrapped in paper towel and hidden in my desk. I’d take the dried out celery home for Dad. He would eat anything, so why would I have to.

X is for xenophobia. Loosely defined, xenophobia is a fear or dislike of anything foreign. Carrots and celery were foreign to my taste. I liked corn, in all of its incarnations, creamed, canned, on the cob, even popped. A Brussel sprout wasn’t even on my radar, artichoke, the same. If these had ever appeared on my plate I would have run out of the room screaming. Salads, forget it, who knew what was hiding in there?!?!

A market shop from the summer…corn included.

As I matured, my tastes developed. It started slowly with shredded lettuce on submarine sandwiches. Next, a Caesar salad, no foreign vegetables hiding amongst the romaine lettuce. And my tastes just kept expanding. I no longer require cheese sauce on my broccoli and cauliflower has become a favourite roasted vegetable. I have yet to try a Brussel sprout, but the recipes appear tempting – I would try one if it appeared on my plate.

There are still some foods I may not like – peaches for example. But I accept that others in the house enjoy a juicy peach, so I bring them home from the market for them. And, if a grilled peach did happen to find its way onto my plate I might be tempted to taste the carmelized fruit.

Most of the food aversions I had as a child probably stemmed from unfamiliarity, or unusual appearance, maybe even the opinions of others prejudiced me; alternately, maybe I just liked corn, it was familiar and safe, and it required little from me.


26 Days of Home · Life

W is for…

In elementary school, I remember being taught about the five w’s as a writing and analysis tool. And they have remained with me.

W is for who, what, when, where, why (and how). These few words represent curiosity and inquisitiveness. They pull back the curtain to reveal the truth. We should ask ourselves these same questions when we read a news story, or hear a rumour, or are being “sold” an item. There is very little one can take at face-value these days, so it seems. Anecdote is not evidence, hearsay is not fact. Dig a little deeper and you find an answer you may not have expected.

It is not to say we should all become skeptics, instead we should all become investigators, and ponderers. How many adults do you see getting down on their hands and knees to further investigate ant hills? How many children? We all grow up, and maybe our knees make getting down on the ground more difficult, but we should hold onto the inquisitiveness of childhood. Look at something through the eyes of the child you once were.

Add another “W” to the list – wonder. Wonder and let that wonder create awe. Yes, there is much to question which in turn creates doubt, mistrust and even fear. Take a step back from some of the fear and doubt, give your youthful curiosity room to stretch. Allow the awe to unfold. Doesn’t it feel wonderful?


26 Days of Home

V is for…

It can be used in your sweet and sour sauce, on your French fries, and when you are finished eating you can wash the windows with it. After that, it can be a school science project.

V is for vinegar. It originates with “vin aigre” or sour wine in French. It is created when yeast ferments sugar into alcohol and then bacteria moves in to convert the alcohol into acetic acid (the reason for the tart taste). Just about any food with natural sugars can be made into vinegar, resulting in dozens of varieties.

The two most popular vinegar varieties are white and apple cider. White vinegar can be made using lab produced acetic acid or grain based ethanol. It is best used in pickling and cleaning. Apple cider vinegar is good for dressings and marinades; and if you bake gluten-free, it will make an appearance in many bread recipes (remember the baking soda and vinegar eruption in science class…it can give baked goods a lift too); and you can rinse your hair in it! Apple cider vinegar has been used as a tonic for years.

Other varieties include wine, balsamic, rice and malt (made from barley so it is not gluten-free) and the less well known beer, coconut and raisin.

White vinegar is a great green cleaner. It is inexpensive and non-toxic. Mixing 1 part vinegar to 4 parts water in a spray bottle makes a good window cleaner. It can deodorize the washing machine, be added to the rinse cycle to soften cloths, it can be used to clean the bathtub, it works as a facial toner and can be applied to insect bites to stop the itch. There is a stronger “cleaning” vinegar with a higher percentage of acetic acid if regular white vinegar doesn’t give you enough sparkle.

I keep a spray bottle of 100% white vinegar in the kitchen cupboard and spray it on my frying pan to ease cleaning, it is great at cutting grease. It works wonders to deglaze a pan when included in a recipe, especially in a stir-fry.

You will also find balsamic and red wine vinegar in my pantry. Balsamic vinegar can be simmered down into a glaze for meat. Either balsamic or red wine vinegar tossed with olive oil, chopped vegetables and thyme creates a nicely flavoured side dish.

It may be tart on the surface, but vinegar is a real versatile household superhero!


26 Days of Home

U is for…

Useful utensils.

This letter has left me utterly uninspired. A sense of urgency has arisen; I need to finish up this unconventional series. My initial plan was for something unique, but now I find myself leaning towards the undervalued instead.

Without further ado…and prior to my unraveling…I give you the utilitarian letter “U.”

U is for usefulness. To quote William Morris who said it best, “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”