Artist’s Talk at Plymouth University 17 October 2017

I’m giving an artist’s talk at Plymouth University on Tuesday 17 October 2017 at 16.00 in the Jill Craigie Lecture Theatre, Roland Levinsky Building, Plymouth University. I’ll be speaking on confusing and confounding boundaries between physical and digital, code and narrative, home and away. I’ll show some old work, some new work, some collage, and some zines. The talk is free and open to the public.

a sleep I fell || J. R. Carpenter
a sleep I fell || J. R. Carpenter

This talk is part of the Atlantic Dialogues series, which are organized jointly by Plymouth University Fine Art and the Atlantic Project – hosted by Pen Arts, as a partnership between Plymouth University and the History Centre (PHC). All talks are open to all students and the general public, held at 16.00 in the Jill Craigie Lecture Theatre, Roland Levinsky Building, Plymouth University [unless otherwise stated].

Atlantic Dialogues Program (PDF).

a list long as my arm of places travelled to this past year, arranged chronologically by name

This is a list of names of places travelled to this past year. Places which took more than half an hour to get to by car or by train, or more than an hour to walk to. Places in which a day was spent, or a night, or a meal. Places involving a strange bed, a map, a menu pondered over, a view contemplated, a waterfront walked along, a walk of any kind, a bookshop, a library, a companion, a conversation, a conference, a performance, a spot of shopping, or any combination there of. Places I remember.

This list does not include the names of airports or ferry terminals or motorway service stations or other such in between places. Nor does it include the names of all the places that travelled to me, via visitors, phone calls, postcards, packages, skype, the interweb, books and films. It doesn’t bother with the countless trips into Dartington or Totnes to purchase provisions and no doubt forgets about a few of the impromptu excursions further afield to South Devon beaches, pubs, and dear friends’ homes.

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Though this list begins at home at Sharpham House, and ends at home at Sharpham House, with no other instances of Sharpham House listed, there were certainly stretches of home in between, spent doing pretty much what Elizabeth Bishop imagines herself doing in the “crypto-dream-house,” she longs to walk as far as in The End of March. Which is to say, despite, or perhaps because of all the travel this past year, and though Sharpham is the antithesis of a “sort of artichoke of a house,” there were also many days in which I did nothing but:

look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.

Sharpham House
Falmouth
Exeter
London
Naples
Pompeii
Rome
Montreal
Banff
Oxford
Falmouth
London
Bantham
Start Point
Penzance
Mousehole
Porthcurno
Sennen Cove
Bude
Banff
Montreal
Toronto
Buffalo
Sackville
Wolfville
Falmouth
Peggy’s Cove
Halifax
Sackville
Halifax
Sackville
Falmouth
Lime Regis
Burgh Island
La Rochelle
Temple sur Lot
Cahors
Frontignan
Sète
Montpelier
Nîmes
Argentat
Saumur
Rennes
Bath
Ljubljana
London
Bristol
London
Paris
Falmouth
Bristol
Oxford
St. Ives
Mousehole
Lizard
Poldhu
Falmouth
St. Austell
Teignmouth
Bournemouth
Barcelona
Bath
Amsterdam
Dartmoor
Bath
Sharpham House

I’m in Karlsokrona, Sweden.

It’s dark at the moment, and very far from Montreal. It took one taxi, two planes, two passport controls, two trains, eighteen hours and six time zones to get here. The taxi took the best route to the airport. The first plane was empty. It took me to Washington DC. The second plane was full. It took me to Copenhagen. It took eight hours. A long-haul red-eye spent in seat 46B – on the isle in the last row. Right next to the toilet. Which is right next to where the food comes out. I was enraged about this arrangement until I met my seatmate. 46A happened to be a Norwegian novelist named Astrid, a woman around my age who was on her way back from Mexico City. We instantly became Team Last Row and determined to make the best of it. We talked for hours about books and writing, socialism and publishing, travel and translation. I got the low down on the lay of the Scandinavian literary landscape. And an invitation to write an article for a Norwegian authors’ website that Astrid edits. Astrid got a copy of my novel. She is going to be the first person in Norway to read Words the Dog Knows. Sadly, none of her three novels have been translated into English yet. We wrote reading recommendations for each other in our matching black notebooks and got extra free wine because we were in such good spirits despite how hard our seats sucked. The flight crew knew enough to be grateful for our good humour.

We parted ways in Copenhagen. I followed my Swedish host Talan’s Map and How to Catch a Train instructions to the letter. They were excellent instructions, which included such all important details as which ticket booth will take Canadian cash and the amazing (to someone from Quebec) fact that the conductors on Swedish trains are required by law to speak English. The instructions sort of fell apart when none of the automated ticket machines were working and long lines formed at the ticket booths. I eventually managed to procure a ticket to Karlskrona and soon I was on a train speeding through the Swedish countryside. Technically the train was going to Karlskrona, but not all the way. I wound up waiting for an hour in a freezing cold station somewhere half way between Copenhagen and Karlskrona for another train to take me the rest of the way. Once I figured out where the one hot water heater was hiding in the cavernous cold, and huddled up to it, I was free to be amused by the waiting room cast of small town characters culled from the casts of My Life as a Dog and Mon Uncle. An old man spent the entire hour meticulously washing the flagstone floor by pushing a rag mop along with his boot, for example.

On the second train, a man came by interviewing passengers about their use of the train system. The whole car listened with attention as the questions were translated into English for me. I’m sure I skewed the survey’s demographic considerably. Where did you board the train? Copenhagen. What was your point of origin? Montreal. What is your final destination? Karlskrona. What is the purpose of your travel to Karlskrona? To give a lecture. And how often do you use this train service? This is my first time. By this time the whole train car was listening. Soon a second interview ensued, this one from my Swedish seatmate, a gap-toothed affable chap, who found it incredible that I would travel all this way to give one lecture and then go home. Well, I’m giving a workshop too, I explained. He apologized for the cold, lifted my suitcase into the overhead rack for me, lowered the blind so the sun wouldn’t blind me, let me sleep for a while, then tapped my knee to say good bye when he got up to leave. Because we were old friends by then I guess.

Speaking of friends, my friend Talan met me at the Karlskrona train station and walked me too my hotel. I have Talan to thank for being here. When he first invited me, over a single malt scotch in a hotel bar in the small town of Vancouver, Washington, I never thought it would actually happen. And then there we were walking through the streets of cold Karlskrona. Once I was checked into my hotel, Talan left me alone to recuperate from my travels. He ran off to a meeting and then home to prepare a welcoming reception for me set to take place at his place later this evening. Which is almost now.

Now I’ve had a nap and my brain is clearer, though body has no idea what time it is. I’m starving. I’m sucking on a cough drop trying to stay alive the next 50 minutes until Lissa comes to pick me up to take me to the reception at Talan’s, being thrown in honour of my having come all this way. Rumor has it there will be smoked baltic salmon and caviar and cheese and crackers and single malt scotch! Come on cough drop, keep me in this thing!
. . . . .

a ten letter word for fun

I’ve been spending a lot of time with the dictionary lately. Either I’m getting smarter or my Collins Concise is woefully out of date. We’ve been on-again off-again since high school. Seen some rough patches. My mother said I’d never get anywhere in life because I can’t spell. How can you look up a word if you can’t spell it? So the Collins got shelved. I mostly just talked my way through art school. And then spellcheck came along. So many obstacles between the dictionary and me. But we’ve always pulled through.
it's all greek to me
This may seem like a digression, but bear with me. Last month Stéphane and I went to a dinner party. We were all quite drunk by the time we noticed the three saris hanging overhead. We fell into a “how to wrap a sari” discussion with two French philosophers, three new media artists, a documentary filmmaker and a translator. Do they wear underwear underneath? We all wanted to know. Do they use pins? They must use pins. I said: The ancient Romans pinned their togas at the shoulder. Oh what is that word? The translator exclaimed! When she was a child her favourite dictionary had a picture of a toga pin in it. She’d memorized the word. Now here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use it in public and she couldn’t remember it. I said: Who cares if you don’t remember it, I’ve just fallen in love with you for falling in love with the word for a toga pin! That’s when Stéphane piped up. Fibula, he said. The word is fibula. Needless to say I went home with him.

We walked the translator part of the way home. She said: You know when people say: If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one book? Well I’d want it to be a dictionary. If I were stranded on a desert island and could only have one translator I’d want it to be her. Or my brave friend Daniel Canty. He translated the text of Les huit quartiers du sommeil this summer. Pauvre lui. But that’s what he gets for getting me started writing on the theme of sleep in the first place. Somehow when he invited me to submit something to Le Livre du chevete, the third anthology in the La table des matières series published by Quartanier, it didn’t sink in that whatever I wrote would only appear in print in French. I have no idea how long it took Daniel to translate les huit quartiers. It took me six hours to learn how to read, in French, what I had written in English. And that was with the aide of a gigantic Le Robert & Collins French-English dictionary left over from the decades when my French Canadian mother-in-law was an English teacher at Ecole Secondaire Paul-Gérin-Lajoie. I made copious notes on possible replacements for all kinds of words that I thought were errors until Stéphane explained that in most cases they were in fact such brilliant translations that they went right over my head. When I went to meet with Daniel to discuss the text you better believe the Robert & Collins came with me. When he saw it he said: That’s a big dictionary. But it won’t help you.

The next week I handed in an essay for a publication commemorating the tenth anniversary of Studio XX, a feminist art centre in Montréal dedicated to providing women access to technology. Given how complicated the translation of les huit quartiers du sommeil had been, I thought I’d keep this essay simple. It turns out that simple English is the hardest thing to translate into French. I wrote a light-hearted third-person-plural pre-history called: Getting in on the Ground Floor: A Hazy History of How and Why We Banded Together. The first thing I realized when I got the text back from the translator was that that whimsical title is utterly untranslatable. Something else was wrong too, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Le Robert & Collins was no help. Finally I got Stéphane to look at it. He pointed out that although it is perfectly correct for the third person plural to default to masculine subject-verb agreement in French, in this case, because Studio XX is a feminist organization, all the people in the “we” are women so everything has to agree with the feminine. In my humble opinion, even if Studio XX were a centre dedicated to providing men access to technology, like all the other centres, the translation was still a little flat. As Dr. Michael J. Boyce later pointed out: “The piece is a very good example of the difficulty involved in any translation of any sort of writing that is indelibly stamped with the personality of the writer. The difficulty is not registered in the machinery of transliteration, but rather with the task of capturing its authorship. In this respect, the translator’s failure to capture voice in the grammatical sense is only symptomatic, I am sure, of his inability to grasp the spirit, the soul, the personality – in sooth, the voice – of the writing. To coin a phrase, he just didn’t get it.” Fortunately a second translator was called it and once the gender issues were cleared up I was able to see ways to reinsert my voice. As in writing, as in life.

In the midst of all this translating, I mentioned to my mother-in-law that I was using the hell out of her old dictionary – though not quite in those words. She said she had an extra French-only dictionary if I wanted it and I said: Yes! Absolutely. Then she said she had an English-only dictionary that had the meanings in it, did I want that? I said: But I already know what the words mean in English!

Now I regret that hasty decision. Over the weekend the spine of my geriatric Collins Concise cracked in half at ke: keel over, to collapse suddenly. Now it’s very hard to flip through. Which is really too bad because I’ve recently become addicted to Scrabble – a game I swore I’d never play. Sure I’m witty with words in a cutting cocktail chatter kind of way. And I do write for a living. So you’d think I’d just love Scrabble. But if you had descended from the long line of grammar snobs, spelling fascists and cryptic crossword puzzle fanatics that I did, I assure you, you’d rather chew your own arm off than play Scrabble. So what gives? For one thing I’m not really addicted to Scrabble but rather to Scrabulous, a far superior game. First off all, it’s online. We as a society are no longer limited to playing board games with whomever we happen to be stuck spending the holiday long weekend with. Now we can play long tedious drawn out board games with people we actually like. And we can eat and drink and walk the dog and talk on the phone and maybe even get some work done in between moves. If that’s not progress I don’t know what is. Our chances of sustaining out friendships with our favourite opponents in real life are greatly improved now that we don’t have to endure the sight of their smug scheming or listen to their clucking with triple word score delight. My favourite thing about Scrabulous – you get to use the dictionary! This is great opportunity for Collins Concise and I to spend some quality time together before it falls apart altogether and I trade up to Oxford English. So please don’t tell the old dogeared dear that there’s dictionary built into the Scrabulous application. And a list of two-letter words. Finally, world domination is within my reach! Um, well, word domination at least.
. . . . .

Who is this girl in the auburn locks?

Who is this girl in the auburn locks? Does anyone know?

I met her at a party the other night. We had a long conversation about the power ballad. But my attention was divided. Patti Smith was in town. And every time the doorbell rang I got my hopes up just a tiny bit. Auburn locks sat on a sofa next to a tiger calm as could be, beneath a seahorse lamp across the room from a rack of records next to a rack of antlers. There were at least four record players in the room. They played early Led Zeppelin and early George Michael, but wisely not at the same time.

The hostess was a leggy redhead with a way words and closet full of dresses. Guest girls came and went in them, passing each other with bare-armed polyester swishes up and down the not-quite-spiral night-blue stairs. In the kitchen canapés were served: swordfish squares and sliced duck skewers. I met this blond on the way to the bathroom who didn’t seem to know anyone. Then what are you doing here? There was a Pop Montreal poster on the doorway. So you just wandered in? Patti never wandered in. By the time I made my way back from the bathroom the girl with the auburn locks had up and disappeared. I’m fairly sure the tiger on the sofa was to blame.


. . . . .

Night & Day: Two Views of Montreal

I started off the evening in clogs and super skinny jeans, a hotter look than you might think, at least according to the catcalling population of Little Burgundy. I was propositioned three times between the Metro and the Canal.

I was on my way to a 5 à 7 at the new loft of an old friend from back in the days when I worked in the corporate world. The party had a class reunion feel, aided and abetted by the retro look of the place. I wouldn’t have thought that an almost empty loft could look so eighties, but this one really did. That’s why my friend bought it. She’s going to renovate. And then she’s going to flip it, or so she says. The second story bedroom has cathedral ceilings and a 280-degree wrap-around deck. I might have a hard time selling such a stellar view.

The 5 à 7 turned into a 6 à 9. The blue sky turned grey, the wind came up and it started raining as I made my way up from the Canal to the Metro again. Clogs are really comfortable but super skinny jeans are only good for standing up in. I spent three hours on my feet talking to people I’d only just met or that I hadn’t seen in years, and occasionally confusing the two. By the time got home I was beat. But home was just a pit stop. I had to come up with a whole new outfit for my friend Sherwin’s birthday and head out again.

The outfit pressure was considerable. Dress up, Sherwin said. Wear something you wouldn’t normally wear. What wouldn’t I wear to a transvestite’s birthday party? I settled on motorcycle boots and a silver tube dress. On the 55 Bus back downtown there were a bunch of huge guys making a lot of noise. When I got up to get off one of them said: I wish this were our stop. It sounds dumb now but at the time I thought it was kind of sweet, a demure send off into the Saint-Laurent at Sainte-Catherine sleaze.

The only thing Sherwin’s birthday party had in common with the loft warming party was the eighties feel. Quite a few people took the dress-up theme down a sequined beaded fluorescent route. Not Sherwin though, he wisely stuck to a svelte little spaghetti-strapped black dress. I love it when the birthday boy has more cleavage than I do.

Oh, and it’s possible that both parties had glass coffee tables in the living room. At Sherwin’s, every now and then you’d hear the loud glass-on-glass smack of a very drunk person misjudging just where the glass might be and putting their beer bottle down way too hard, like a bird flying into a plate glass window.

There was a crazy view out the rear window. I’ve never seen those buildings out anyone’s window before, I said to a woman I’d just met. Oh they look all right from here, she replied. But up close? Whoa. Mexico City.

Waiting for the bathroom I met a girl who’d only been in Montreal for two weeks. She and her friends had just been walking down the street and someone invited them up. That keeps happening, she said. She looked all of 15 years old but somehow fit right into the eighties dance floor scene. I’ve been in Montreal for 17 years now and I sure am glad to have friends in high and low places. I’m not always sure which is which. Both have such great views.
. . . . .

updates are now available

or, the path to the twentieth century via the kicking and screaming route

believe it or not, until last Monday morning we still had a dial-up Internet connection. and me, a web artist and all. we suffered these retrograde conditions for as long as we did in part because until recently we had plenty of neighbours with unauthenticated high-speed wireless routers spewing out connection left right and centre. as I explained to a friend last winter: our neighbours stomp up and down the stairs and walking around with boots on over our heads at all hours – so we clog up their internet connection with as much high-bandwidth data transfer as possible. my friend said: well, that’s showing them. ha. this past July first moving day the last of these unauthenticated hosts moved out and left us signal-less and oh so slow.

another reason it took us so long to make this transition was we were looking for the perfect solution and we were looking to pay less. we wasted months comparison shopping for bundles, packages, deals. now we know. there is no perfection solution and everything costs a lot. the best we could do was to get a lot more bang for our buck. after months of saying we have to do something about this soon, and then weeks of grumbling about how we haven’t done anything about it yet and more weeks of comparing notes about all the things we hadn’t thought of yet and then more hours online (on dial-up), and more hours on the phone (and so, therefore, with no internet access), and without endorsing any brand names or companies (because really, they’re all charlatans), here’s what we came up with:

we now have cable internet. it isn’t high-speed exactly, it’s intermediate speed. maybe eventually we’ll think it’s too slow, but right now we’re pretty darn happy with ten times faster than dial-up at four dollars a month more than dial-up. we also have cable telephone. it costs ten dollars less than what we were paying and instead of being forced to pay for call waiting even though we didn’t want it, we now have call display, which is a miraculous invention and a huge load off our minds. we can now not answer the phone in peace. we can also talk on the phone and use the internet at the same time. we have an encrypted connection, so forget about it neighbours, just back off.

we were on a roll so we decided we’d better consolidate our cell phone spending too. this was rather difficult as we were both already on the cheapest plans possible. we found a couples plan that worked out to a few dollars less per month and offered us more minutes than what we had and free incoming calls and unlimited calls between us, and all those things couples plans figure couples need. we’d have to sign a contract of course, but we were willing to do it – mostly because I needed a new phone. my old phone was so old it was made of metal. the display was black and green. there was no camera, no mp3 player, no internet, nothing. not that I minded so much, having plenty of other devices capable of these fulfilling functions. the real problem was that I’d stepped on the recharger cable thingy one too many times and was having an increasingly difficult time getting it to stay plugged into the phone. eventually the ability to charge the phone supersedes the phone charges, and I had reached that point.

so there we were on the phone the other night with a cell phone company we’ve been clients off for years, armed with an absurd arsenal of couples plan and phone feature trivia. things started off alright but soon became irritating. the couples package comes with two new phones, but all the good phones cost money and staring down the barrel of a two to three year contract, I did not want to get stuck with a piece of crap phone. now, in all our years of giving this company money we’d accumulated a fair amount of “reward dollars”, but we were not aloud to apply these dollars to purchasing the new phones that come with the package because they were already being offered at a reduced rate. fine. and the couples plan price originally quoted to us does not include call display – an absolute must have – for which we will both have to pay and additional six bucks extra. whatever. then they put us both through credit checks, even though we were already paying customers in good standing, and THEN they refused us a special reduced rate on the first three months because we were already clients. by this time it was nine thirty at night and my zucchini flower risotto was languishing on the back burner and we were about to die of starvation. and we were pissed off. I said: you know what, forget it. we’re not saving any money here and we’re not agreeing to a contract while we’re pissed off. so forget about it, we’ll stick with the plans we have. would that it were that easy. we were so far along in the process that we were already on the couples plan. the sales guys was almost as miserable as we were. he kept saying: I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do. finally he gave me a 1-800 number to call in the morning and we hung up. the zucchini flower risotto was awesome, which was of some consolation, but I didn’t sleep well that night, worried about the 1800 phone call in the morning. it felt like we’d somehow stumbled into a Las Vegas wedding – seedy and schmaltzy but still legal and not so easily annulled.

this story may be long and tedious and all too familiar to some, but it does have a happy ending. it turns out that that sales guy did do one great thing for us. the 1-800 number he gave us was magic. it led to a whole other plane of existence. I called in the morning to file for a divorce from the couples plan. I quickly realized that I was speaking to someone with real power. suddenly call display was free for both of us for the duration of our contract, which finally made it cheaper for us to be on the couples plan than to have two separate plans. when I told the Wizard of the 1-800 number that last night we hadn’t even got to the part where we order new phones, she asked if we had any reward dollars. yes, I said, but we were told we couldn’t use them for the phones that come with a package. she said, they couldn’t do that for you in that office, but here we can. my god! it was like getting out of high school and into university and suddenly you get to pick what courses you take and you’re legal drinking age too! I quickly called up the web page detailing all the phone options so as to pick out way better phones than what we were going to settle for when we though we were paying cash (good thing we’d taken care of that pesky not being about to talk on the phone and browse the internet at the same time problem a few days before) because now that we were paying in magical “reward dollar” money we were in a whole new playing field, phone-wise.

Stéphane didn’t even need a new phone. he was going to take whatever phone they’d give him for free and give it to a friend of his who’s old phone was even older than my old phone. the magic 1-800 allowed him to use his points to get her a way nicer new phone – with a camera and an mp3 player and everything. on the card we wrote: you have no idea what we went through to get you this phone!!

my new phone is slimmer and more sophisticated than I am but we get along great. I still dress up a bit when we go out together. I’m sure I’ll get over it eventually. it helps that new-phone has a metal casing just like its prehistoric predecessor did – one does need some thread of continuity amidst all this change.

we put it off for as long as possible and once we decided to do it, it took quite a bit of doing, but I do believe we have now irrevocably entered the twenty-first century.
. . . . .

the world’s most impractical cake plates

One vacation leads to another. It took a lot of doing to get us to Toronto in June. But then, on the train back to Montréal, we read an article about 1001 Pots in the Via Rail magazine and since we were feeling pretty brazen after pulling off a week away together that we thought – How hard could a day trip up to Val-David be? So we decided we’d find a way to go check it out and finally we did.

1001 Pots is a huge outdoor ceramics festival/exhibition/sale – the largest in North America according to the brochure. It’s in its 19th year now. It costs all of two bucks to get in and it lasts a whole month. And Val David is only a little over an hour out of the city. So really, the odds of getting up to check it out are pretty good.

By the time we got to 1001 Pots we’d already visited two fromageries and had a picnic beside a river. It was hot and sunny and we were a little out of it. 1001 Pots is all outdoors, which is lovely in the shade. The first thing we figured out was that there were many more that 1001 pots. We wandered around in a daze trying not to break anything. The second thing we figured out was that everything was extremely expensive and the third, that a lot of it looked the same. No harm done, we thought. It got us out of the city, we thought.

And then we came upon this one table that totally blew our minds. Thankfully I took pictures; otherwise I’d be hard pressed to describe these amazing oddball over-the-top eccentric bright chunky wonky wonderful totally unique pieces. We soon discovered that they were the creations of special-needs kids from Maison Emmanuel, a community centre in Val-Morin. We went to sit in the shade and have a little think.

What we decided was, we were in need of cake plates and who better to buy them from than the kids of Maison Emmanuel. We ventured out into the sun again to make some tough decisions. Each plate was a work of art. How to choose? None of them matched. Not that any of our dishes match. None of them were the least bit practical. But all of them would look awesome on our yellow Formica table. Finally a lady came over to where we were clutching teetering stacks of highly irregular plates and asked if we needed any help. Do you have any more of these hidden away somewhere? We wanted to know. The woman beamed: Do you know who made these plates? Yes, the kids from Maison Emmanuel – we pointed to the prominently displayed sign over the table. And do you know that I’m their ceramic teacher? Well! We all got really excited. She went off to find us more plates while we contemplate possible uses for the ones we had already fallen in love with and in the end we wound up with quite a discount on two of the world’s most impractical cake plates and a cheese plate that doesn’t wobble at all if you put a folded tea towel under it.

All three are works of art. We can’t stop looking at them. This picture doesn’t do them justice at all. They do indeed look awesome on our yellow kitchen table. None are likely to see the inside of a cupboard anytime soon.

In a postscript: We realized when we got home and consulted the catalogue that the only other stuff we admired at 1001 Pots was made by the kids’ ceramic instructor, Maggie Roddan. Thanks Maggie Roddan, thanks 1001 Pots, thanks Maison Emmanuel.

More information: Maison Emmanuel

More information: 1001 Pots
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Quebec Cheese

We’ve walked up to the Jean Talon Market just about every weekend this summer. We’ve been buying whatever’s in season and planning our meals for the week around that. We’ve also been trying a new Québec cheese every week. I don’t know when this started but all of a sudden we have some amazing artisanal lait cru fromageries in Québec and the Fromagerie Hamel at the Jean Talon Market is a museum of them.

Back in June a number of regional cheese producers schlepped into town to offer tastings in front of Hamel. We’d already bought a semi-firm from Iberville, but we proceeded from table to table tasting cheeses for next time. At the last table we came to we met two goats, skittish ambassadors of some great chèvres, and we were blown away by a vache called le Rassembleu. The woman at the Rassembleu table invited us to visit their farm. We decided on the spot that we would.

Last week we rented a car for a day and headed up to Sainte-Sophie to visit Les Fromagiers de la Table Ronde. We had no idea what to expect. We’ve never set off in search of a food item in quite this way before. We’re not galloping gourmands booking truffle-hunting excursions and then smuggling home crates of wine from France or anything. Generally we eat what we can buy within walking distance of our apartment. Whatever expectations we had of Les Fromagiers de la Table Ronde they were well exceeded. We called ahead and had been advised to arrive before 11AM at which time a tour bus would descend. We didn’t want to be there when that happened! We arrived well in advance of the bus and had the place to ourselves. M. Alary, head of this family run operation, greeted us. Through a huge plate glass window we watched a woman dressed in white was mixing this mornings milk – already forming into curds – in a giant stainless steel tub. We offered out rapt attention to M. Alary who quietly explained everything we ever thought we wanted to know but didn’t know whom to ask about how they make cheese. I don’t’ want to spoil the tour for you, but here are some facts that really everyone should know: All the different cheeses come from the same cows. They make a different kind each day. It takes ten litres of milk to make one of cheese. You have to poke holes in blue cheese to get the blue into it. Les Fromagiers de la Table Ronde has been producing organic raw cows milk cheeses for over four years now, but the farm has been in the family for generations. Artisanal cheeses cost less on site than in stores in Montréal. After our window tour we had a tasting and made our selections. We bought le Rassembleu, of course; le Fleurdelysé, a much younger softer bleu half of which we promptly devoured an hour later picnicking beside le Petit Rivier du Nord; le Fou du Roy, a young semi-firm with a pale orange rind; and le Pavé, which we later put on the most incredible pizza – le Pavé is like the Fou du Roy only the rind is washed off every day so they can age it longer so it’s firmer and more intense. M. Alary seemed impressed that we’d come prepared with ice packs and coolers. At any rate, he gathered that we were serious about cheese and gave us directions to a chèvre fromagerie a little further down the road. Our selection of cheeses, safely stowed in the cooler, the tour bus looming on the horizon, we walked across the field to say hi to the Alary cows and soon were on our way. Thanks cows.

Les Fromagiers de la Table Ronde
317, route 158, Sainte-Sophie (Québec)
http://www.fromagiersdelatableronde.qc.ca

Fromagerie La Suisse Normande makes vache and chèvre cheeses; we were already stocked up on vache so we concentrated on the chèvre. We bought a semi-firm called le Capra, half of which disappeared during the afore mentioned picnic; two small dried Crottin, one of which we crumbled onto a zucchini flour fresh pasta last week that was so good we could have cried; a pyramid of le Sabot Blanchette; and two fresh Caprice that we put in a jar with herbs and oil to save for some dark gloomy winter day. It turns out that the goats we met at the market were from La Suisse Normande. When we asked the charming proprietor if we could meet them she said yes of course but she couldn’t promise that we’d find the same two that were at the market. We walked across the road and into the barn. The goats seemed excited to have company – they came running ove to check us out. They’re kind of like dogs – dog size and dog friendly – but instead of trying to sniff your crotch they try to eat your watch. Thanks goats.

Fromagerie La Suisse Normande
985, Rivière Nord, St-Roch de l’Achigan (Québec)
http://fromageduquebec.qc.ca/suissenormande
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One-Day Vacation

How to turn “One day we’ll take a vacation…” into a One-Day Vacation: Admitting that you need a vacation is the first step. Don’t think about all the places you can’t afford to go to. Think about all the places you CAN afford to go to. There are the Laurentians. There are the Eastern Townships. There are parks and lakes and hiking trails and festivals galore. And food! There’s lots of food to go visit. Got a favourite fruit? Find a place to pick it yourself. Got a favourite Quebec cheese? Go visit the creamery, go visit the goats. Whatever you do pick a destination that will get you out of the city. Don’t stay in the city. That’s not a vacation, that’s just a day off. And don’t do it on the weekend. That’s not even a day off, that’s just less time for laundry and groceries and giving the dog a bath. If you have a job, tell them you need to take a personal day. Don’t say it’s a sick day; tell them you have some family emergency you need to attend to. That’s no lie. Being in desperate need of a vacation totally counts as a family emergency. That’s one of the advantages of the one-day vacation – no one really needs to know where you are. Other advantages include: you don’t need a dog sitter and you don’t need to pack a change of clothes. Rent a car. Go on, you can do it. You can afford to rent a car for just one day. Forty-two dollars plus twenty bucks of gas. Split between two people. You could go alone, but don’t go in a group – group decision-making slows everything down. To offset costs, pack a picnic lunch, especially if you’re planning an out-doors-y and/or food-related vacation. If you’re going to pick berries, cream is in order. If you’re going to visit a creamery to buy cheese, you’d better bring a baguette. Either way, ice-packs and a cooler are a must. A picnic basket is not absolutely necessary, but sure helps get you into the spirit of the thing. As do sun hats. And shorts. And anything else you’d never wear in the city. Be sure to bring multiple contradictory road maps. You have to get a little bit lost, it adds to the adventure. But don’t get too lost – you only have a day. Don’t over-schedule – you’ll just get irritated. Don’t under-schedule – you’ll never get anywhere. Schedule one or two activities and add one or two more along the way. Start with a scheduled activity. See if you like it. If you do, see if they have any pamphlets on-site or ask them what they recommend you do next. Follow any hand-painted signs on the side of the road. Hand-painted signs lead to things like flea markets and home made pies and horse carrots (whatever they are) and sweet corn. Take pictures of silly brightly coloured things. Don’t tire yourself out. Have your fun then head for home. Hit the road earlier than you might think necessary. It’s a weekday; there’s going to be rush-hour traffic. And it’s summer; there’re going to be construction delays. If there’s too much construction on the highway, take a byway. Back roads are slower. But that’s okay. You’re on vacation. The car’s not due back until morning. So you might as well drive the hell out of it. When you do get home the dog will be so happy to see you you’ll feel like you were gone all week. And it you don’t answer the phone or the email for a few days after, then, when people ask: Where have you been? You can tell them: We were on vacation! See how easy it is? Go on. Have a great day.


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