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I have a confession to make. I cannot stick to deadlines. Maybe you’ve noticed?

This summer we split our vacation time between Canada and England. Family celebrations were on the agenda: the marriage of my niece at a country wedding on an Ontario farm and the 90th birthday of my husband’s aunt on the Isle of Wight. We stayed for two weeks in Ontario and spent the entire time with family. This post is about the Canadian part.

Everything in Canada is bigger – the cars, the houses, the people. Both of my sons (now 14 and 19 years old) enjoy the Canadian side of their heritage and love spending time in Canada. Of  Canada my youngest says, “It is open, not cramped. The nature is wicked, people are friendly.”

So it was no surprise that this mega truck, owned and driven by Jesse, a young man who is dating my sister’s daughter, was the source of much admiration. The couple are in their early twenties, both over six feet tall, handsome and fit. The truck is a GMC Sierra with 450 HP and has enough room in the back seat, as my son says, “For me and two ogres.” It is impossible for Jesse to pick up or drop off his girlfriend quietly; the entire house rattles when the booming engine of the GMC announces its approach. Jesse listens to country music in his truck. For a summer outing, he took my son to a demolition derby. He also took part in a “Tough Mudder” event this summer. This truck is  his pride and glory:

We also visited a summer house on Ahmic Lake, owned by my brother-in-law’s brother. (This is as complicated as the family gets – promise). The original cottage was set on a beautiful spot, a point, surrounded on three sides by the lake. Since it was falling apart, the owners eventually had it torn down and replaced with their current home, a 3,500 square foot summer house with master bedroom and ensuite bath, a similar suite for their daughter, five additional bedrooms (20 people were staying there the weekend we dropped by), poker table, three fireplaces, hot tub, two refrigerators, two dishwashers, ATVs in the four-car garage and even a tennis court. Next year an outdoor pool will be added.

The lake boasts one of the oldest summer camps for kids in Canada, the girls’ camp separated from the boys’ on opposite sides of the lake. The camp is known far and wide for its swimming program. I wished my son could attend. I learned to swim in a lake (and am a good strong swimmer) and still love to swim in the cold lakes of Ontario. A kid we met said, “Up here, you just get thrown in the water when you’re litle. Everybody learns to swim.”

Here are some of their neighbours’ houses:

 

A number of American families have their summer homes on the lake.

 

This is the filling station at Ahmic Harbour:

Some families live on the lake the whole year round, skidoo-ing across the frozen expanse of white ice in the winter. I met one of those families, a young, good-looking family of athletic, outdoor thoroughbreds. The husband’s brother is the author of a brilliant novel I read while there.  Joseph Boyden‘s novel, “Through Black Spruce” explores an aspect of Ontario life that has oddly been neglected in literature – the experience of native Canadians. Much of the story is set in the area north of Ahmic Lake, making it very easy to imagine – even in summer -the trapping and hunting, the pickups and skidoos, depicted in the novel.  This interview with the dashing writer, though not recent, provides insight into his background and sensitivity to the native experience. The author has received high honours for his novels; I’m just new to them.

In the past months I have had the pleasure and the privilege of travelling to a number of places and I wanted to document the highlights in a photo essay. Not all of my destinations were exotic or far-flung. In fact, some of the most memorable were visits to flea markets, or to the neighbourhood nursury for geraniums, or to the nearby town of Schwetzingen.

Here we go:

Summers begin with the purchase of flowering plants for my garden. I always visit a local nursery where a sturdy woman of retirement age called Frau Stroh (Mrs Straw) serves us.

Often on Saturdays I will visit a local flea market in search of handbags to supplement my growing collection. This year I found a classic 50′s basket bag with a leather lid, similar to a fishing kit, but with a lot of Prada pizzaz.

 

In June I visited Brussels on business for a two-day conference for communications professionals. Unfortunately my camera battery died after taking this photo from my hotel room. This isn’t a particularly brilliant shot but I like the contrast between the crumbling church and the lively cafe street scene. Brussels is a beautiful city – I’ll be back!

In July I was invited to an internal business meeting in Lisbon, Portugal. Unfortunately, I did not see much of Lisbon itself, which by all reports, is one of the most exciting cities in Europe. The only proof I have of being there is this photo of our driver.  My colleague discovered as we met to leave the hotel that our airport shuttle was a chauffeur-driven Mercedes S class limousine:

Earlier this summer, we took a Sunday walk at a nature reserve not far from Schwetzingen, Germany, bordered by an estuary of the Rhine River. It was a lovely and relaxing day trip, in a very quiet place.

Just a few days ago I returned home from a trip to Canada and England. The next post will be devoted to those three weeks, and my husband’s infatutuation with his Fuji X100.

Some years ago one of my six sisters decided the family should preserve its best recipes in a Dunn Family Cookbook. To be honest, it should have been called the Dunn Baking Book. The main dishes section is a bit thin, but the sections for cookies, breads, squares, muffins and pancakes are well padded, and mine are well used. We come from a long line of avid bakers. My grandmother and her sisters, as well as my mother and aunts, were all excellent bakers. We fondly remember Grandma’s thin and crunchy oatmeal cookies and her sugar cookies. Or Aunt Clare’s Angel Cookies. Mom’s comment in the cookbook reads: “Not many people make old-fashioned cookies anymore, but Aunt Clare always had some on hand for visiting nieces and nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. A good choice for a rather formal occasion or an afternoon tea or reception – very light and buttery.”

It was my generation that introduced brownies. My mother – can you believe this – doesn’t like chocolate. Although she often baked to feed the hordes when we were growing up, she never made brownies. This recipe comes from my sister Catherine. When she worked at a private school in southern Ontario, she often took baking to work to share with her fellow teachers. Catherine’s comment to her submission for Staffroom Brownies in the Dunn Family Cookbook reads: “These win rave reviews from the staff at The Pines and are often gone before the 9:00 a.m. bell goes. A nice chewy, but still cake-like texture.”

I have been asked so often for the recipe that I decided to lift the family secret and post it here. If you need to convert the measurements, I recommend Donna Hay’s website.

Staffroom Brownies

1 cup butter or margarine (I use 250 g)

1 cup white sugar

1 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla sugar or 1 ½ tsps. vanilla

3 large eggs

¾ cup of cocoa (I use dark Dutch cocoa)

1 cup flour

1 ½ tsp baking powder

1 cup chopped nuts (I use walnuts or for an amazing taste, salted macadamia nuts)

Melt the butter. Allow to cool, then beat in eggs one by one. Slowly pour in the white, vanilla, and brown sugar, beating constantly. Beat for 8 minutes until the consistency is smooth and foamy and the crunch of sugar is gone. Then sift in flour and cocoa and beat in with a spoon or spatula until just mixed. Stir in nuts, if desired.

Bake in a 9” x 13” pan lined with baking paper at 170 degrees C (350 degrees F) for 25 – 30 minutes.

Once the brownies are completely cooled, sift powdered sugar on top for a pretty effect. Cut into bite sized squares. These are so delicious, they should be offered like tiny handmade gateaux, arranged on a silver tray.

Last Saturday some friends suggested we go for a long walk in the country. Our kids – the youngest are 14 – are too cool to go for walks with their parents so it was just us adults. We found a new route that took us through freshly ploughed fields, small woods, and across the village of Ochsenbach.

It was a warm afternoon and we left home early so as to catch as much of the sun as possible. My husband took one of his many cameras along and captured the day for us in a few images.

We allowed a tractor to pass and watched as it entered a field just ahead of us and proceeded to spray manure on the field, letting off a right stink. I have no photos to document this activity, so you’ll have to imagine it for yourselves. I actually wanted to turn back at that point but felt that was sissy behavior. So we kept on and eventually found ourselves, two hours later, back at the same place. It was then that we spotted the same tractor approaching us, liberated of its load.

It was a bright green tractor and my husband raised his lens to get his shot as I stepped off the path. Instead of passing, the farmer choked the engine and halted, opening the door of the tractor, and inviting me up into the cab. He’d had a little wine, he admitted, with his lunch, and was on his way home. Yes, these were his fields.

He patted the seat, nudging his own backside to the edge, making room for me to join him behind the wheel. I love how he puts his hands on full display for the camera in this photo. Seconds later, he put his arm around me in a familiar way, reaching around for a good feel.

There’s a great German word for men like Heinz that my husband reminded me of, adding that Heinz was probably notorious in his village for being one: Schürzenjäger. Apron-chaser. We are putting prints of the photos in the mail for Heinz, as requested.

My friend and colleague C. over at Bei Rot Stehen (Stop at the Red Light) writes about foreigners in Germany, usually asking them for their opinions of the Germans and their strange habits. He has a cute series called 7 + 1. In it, he asks foreigners in Germany to list seven things they like about the country and to name one thing they miss about their own country. I like his approach. He deliberately avoids the trap of asking people what they dislike. That would get repetitive and therefore dull. Adding what you miss about your country gives people the opportunity to get sentimental and show pride.

Here is my list of seven things I like about Germany (translated for you):

  1. The proximity to France.
  2. The proximity to Italy.
  3. That chocolate is a food staple.
  4. The precision of the language.
  5. That my employer gives me a company car and that I now drive a super sexy Audi A5, triggering envious looks from men in my neighbourhood.
  6. Müsli and whole grain bread from our local bakery.
  7. That the newspapers print long essays and opinion pieces.

And one thing I miss about Canada:

  1. Maple syrup in five liter containers.

What do you like about Germany? And what do you miss about your home country?

In honor of St. Valentine’s Day, I decided to write a note today about perhaps my most memorable February 14 ever.

To do so, I have to go back in time. I grew up in a small town in the Ottawa  Valley, situated about 50 kilometers south of Canada’s capital city. My family was well established in Almonte. My father and his many brothers and sisters were born there in a big square stone house where my grandfather had established his medical practice.

Almonte is blessed with water. A river runs through it and the town features two sets of dramatic falls. It has good feng shui. My father would have referred instead to the genus loci, the spirit of the place.

In the late 1960s and 70s, Almonte started to attract a number of artists, draft dodgers, and people seeking a simple country life. They bought farmhouses, stone mills, one-room schoolhouses, and farm properties. They were wood workers, sculptors, teachers, stained glass artists, bakers, and Buddhists.

One of the people attracted to Almonte was also attracted to me. Or I to him. A carpenter, he bought up a rundown house in town and renovated it room by room by himself. I fondly remember a Valentine’s Day when he and I and many other artists crowded into the home of the couple who were living in the former schoolhouse in the country, for an evening of erotic and love poetry. It was grand. The women dressed up in red and black velvet dresses at a time before secondhand was called vintage, when it was born of necessity rather than coolness. (Jean, our hostess, eventually developed a thriving business in vintage clothing). We took turns reading Leonard Cohen, Emily Dickinson, Pablo Neruda, and Walt Whitman. Some guests read their own verse. It was a tradition I have long wanted to revive. Perhaps next year.

What are your favorite love or erotic poems?

*Sylvia Plath, Nick and the Candlestick

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