After a friend asked me for a reminiscence of where I was when Paul Henderson scored that winning goal against Russia back in 1972, I recalled how proud we all were to be Canadians during that memorable hockey series. And that moved me to send a handwritten letter to Stephen Harper. Here’s what I said:

“Mr Harper —

I’ve frequently heard it said that, in order to get a perspective on home, one must leave it. For the last eight months I have been living in Scotland, and I must say that the perspective I’ve gained of home leaves me feeling deeply saddened, ashamed and embarrassed — and I’m sorry to say that you and your government are the cause.

Your contempt for Canada, its democracy and its people is palpable and blatant, as is your complete disregard for the environment. Though Canadians demonstrated the trust for which we are known in the world by electing you to a majority government, you show your true colours in betraying that trust with the shenanigans surrounding the purchase of F-35 jets. You place the burden of financing pensions on the shoulders of our youth, yet still argue for the purchase of jets we neither need nor want.

You have taken a once honourable party — the Progressive Conservatives; two of whose leaders (Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark) were the best PMs Canada never had — and turned it into a facsimile of the US Republican Party, complete with dirty tactics and shady dealings.

I have signed online petitions and sent you emails, copies to the leaders of the other parties. Although they have responded promptly, I’ve never heard from you. Perhaps you prefer to ignore Canadians like me, or perhaps the volume of messages is too great for your staff to keep up with.

This time, I am prompted to send a handwritten letter. I was moved to do so after a friend who is collecting reminiscences of where people were when Paul Henderson scored that winning goal in the 1972 Canada Russia series, asked me for mine. I recalled how proud we were to be Canadians during that series. We felt optimistic and hopeful. Canada was genuinely liked abroad in those days, too. I travelled overseas and proudly wore a Canadian flag on my backpack.

Alas, those times have changed. We have a government that believes we should inspire fear rather than trust and respect in the world. We’ve had governments that have made bad decisions (Trudeau invoking the War Measures Act is top of the list), but never have we had one that has been so consistently bad as yours. Since living in Scotland and feeling such profound embarrassment, I removed all Canadian flags from backpacks and bags — but realise that I did so because I AM proud to be Canadian, so will work even harder when I return to Nova Scotia in June to ensure your government is defeated.”

What is it with political parties once they are in power? We saw it with the Liberals in the “Sponsorship Scandal” over flags. Now, apparently, the Conservatives’ weakness appears to be phones — a “Robocall Scandal”. Little surprise that a party with its roots firmly in the Republican-style Reform Party should resort to dirty tactics that have been honed by the Republican Party in the US to such a degree that they really should carry a little TM symbol! The most cursory review of the election shenanigans south of the 49th illustrates that.

What’s deeply troubling is that, so far, no one seems to be immune from this drift to the Dark Side once they achieve — or, in the case of the Conservatives in the last election, even smell — power. And the longer they’re in power, the less they seem to care about anyone or anything else than maintaining dominance. It’s like watching professional wrestlers, their eyes only on some belt that looks like it was once worn by Wonder Woman, strut their stuff. At least pro wrestlers are honest about their intentions when they say they will stop at nothing to get what they want.

Over the years, Canadians have complained about the lack of decorum in the House of Commons, where it seems that MPs can get away with just about any sort of behaviour except calling another MP a nasty name. You can’t call Stronach a bitch, or Kent a piece of shit — fair enough. But apparently outside those hallowed halls, MPs and their election machines can be involved in questionable behaviour that cannot be debated in said House of Commons because the Prime Minister says so. Frankly, Steve should go fuddle-duddle himself. Hopefully the Speaker of the House has more sense.

But debate in the House of Commons is only the beginning. Let’s see some real democracy at work here. Call by-elections in every one of those ridings and set the dates for, say, 6 months in advance. Then require that every MP and every candidate’s organisers and handlers attend a one-month course on civics, ethics and how to conduct oneself like the sort of human being we would feel proud to have represent us, regardless of political leanings. Then, when we say “May the best person win”, we might actually get what we ask for.

Cafeterria Ranieri

The week in Malta was such a great experience, it’s hard to know where to start the first posting. To keep it simple, let’s start with food. Our first night in Valetta, we found Cafeterria Ranieri on Republic Street (the central route in the walled city). The staff were warm and welcoming, the food was good, the prices very reasonable (especially considering the portions — it was like eating at my paternal grandmother’s!!) and the service excellent. On our daily wanderings, we checked out other places, but didn’t find anything to compare with Ranieri’s, so naturally we kept going back for supper each night. Had we really been paying attention, we would have realised that their full English breakfast was also a super deal at €3.80. as compared to €5.50 at our hotel for the breakfast buffet. When, on our third day, we discovered this was an option, we went to Ranieri’s for our breakfast, too!

Kris is the affable owner — a gentle man who, though he watches over things, remains pretty much in the background except to banter with customers and to lend a helping hand when necessary. Manoel was our principal “caretaker”, as he was there every night but one. And even when he wasn’t there, we were royally taken care of. David, who loves his pasta, was treated to a different dish each night — except the night he decided to try a pizza, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Because of the availability of fish, I tried to have it whenever possible, so the first night’s sea bream, served with a Maltese sauce (tomatoes, olives, capers — does it GET any better??!!) was so good, that I had it a second time — but not the same night, of course. Ron sampled the rabbit stew and we both had the swordfish on another night. Manoel also made sure that we sampled Maltese bruschetta and Maltese sausage — delicious! He also introduced us to Maltese wine — unbelievably good and so reasonably priced. We thought about taking some back with us, but in the end decided to let the wine remain as a strictly Malta experience — something to look forward to the next time we go.

The only dessert I tried (once when I had room, and once just because it had tasted so good the first time) was the Casatella Siciliana. It has found a place in my heart, second only to cannoli (or, as it’s spelled in Malti, kannoli). I’ve long said that we’d have world peace if there was a cannoli stand on every street corner. People would be too busy savouring them to argue — unless, of course, it was the grandmothers arguing over who made the best one. With the discovery of Casatella Siciliana, I’ll venture to say that, by offering this as a second option, those street stalls would come closer to achieving world peace. (And, though Ranieri’s didn’t offer kannoli, I enjoyed a thoroughly delightful kannoli rikotta at the Traffic Lights Cafe near the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Paola.)

Manoel also introduced us to a Maltese pastry, the name of which I unfortunately cannot recall. Take a crepe, still warm, cover it with a thin layer of pureed date or fig; fold it up, dust with fine sugar and serve warm with liqueur. YUM!! And, speaking of liqueurs, Manoel introduced us to two: one orange and much like Cointreau; the other carob, which tasted a bit like sweetened Campari.

Kris, Moira and Manoel (in the foreground) -- and I hate to admit it, but I never got the name of the fellow behind the counter, though he took such good care of us, too!

We can’t say enough about Ranieri’s, so if you find yourself in Valetta, Malta, do look them up. You will feel as though you are among old friends. David — who loves to tease — thoroughly enjoying as good as he dished out, particularly by Kris’ partner, Moira. We’re certainly hoping that these new old friends will come to visit us in Nova Scotia and David in Toronto.


curried fish stew

Ron would be the first to admit that mornings are not his best time. Although I go from sleeping to fully conscious in seconds, I sometimes envy his ability to move from one world to the other gradually, almost intentionally (though to watch the process you might not think intention has much to do with it). We returned from a week’s vacation in Malta early yesterday morning. Today we transition from vacation mode back to daily routine mode. That means I teach tonight, and that he and David will eat long before I get home around 10 p.m. In expectation of that, last night I made Goan — a slightly spicy Indian curried fish stew. Like most stews, it’s better if allowed to sit overnight before being reheated to serve.

Over breakfast, I told Ron that all that needs to be done for their meal tonight is to bring the stew to the bubble, chop up the cilantro and mix most of it into the stew, reserving a bit for the garnish. Most of the fish ingredients — scampi, haddock, squid — were added to the stew last night. We’d also purchased king prawns, which were already cooked, so they couldn’t be added to the stew without them being rendered rubbery. To serve, he’ll have to ladle the stew into bowls, top each with prawns and sprinkle with the remaining cilantro. Pretty straightforward, I thought.

There was a pause when I finished speaking. Ron’s eyelids fluttered, then he said, “I’m sorry… cilantro?” It were as though when he realised the ambient noise in the room (i.e. my talking) ceased, his cognitive centre fired off a message that he might have just missed an important bit of information. Not only that, he needed a strategy that would get him back in the conversation and show that he hadn’t been oblivious to absolutely everything. That he put forth the effort to enter the conversation at this point is of great credit to him. He knew that, normally, if I think he’s not listening, I will lean forward, tug on his earlobe and ask, “Is the record button on?” This time, he didn’t wait, but seized the opportunity, knowing it would probably make me laugh. It did, though he insists he does nothing to ‘make’ me laugh… apparently I’m just entertaining myself. Without him, though, how could I be so entertained so early in the day?

We returned early this morning from Malta — a wonderful place that will be the subject of some other posts. Right now, though, my focus is our carrier, Ryan Air. This was my first experience of flying with this “low cost” airline. My first surprise was learning that there are no pre-assigned seats. I wonder how many pence are saved by having people herd like cattle to get a seat, rather than simply assigning each passenger a seat at time of booking? It comes as no surprise to learn that Messrs. Ryan and Lonergan’s anthropological experiment to see exactly how far people would go to save a few quid had its genesis in the pro-free-market heyday of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. My first experience of Ryan Air was entertaining. To submit to it a second time would verge on masochism.

Our flight was due to leave at 10:20 a.m. — a reasonable time for a flight. No having to get up in the middle of the night to catch a flight. (We’d save that part for the return trip. More of that later.) On reaching the check-in desk, we realised that we were over weight. We thought we were allowed 20 kg in the suitcase, but discovered it was limited to 15 kg. We did a little rearranging and managed to come in at 16.4 kg for our suitcase. David’s came in at 15.9 kg. Our bags were checked through without a problem, and I joked as we walked away from the desk that they would probably let us through, but nail us for the infraction on the way back. At least, I thought was joking…

Neophytes that we were, we grabbed a coffee while waiting for our departure gate to be announced, which I think should be heralded with a trumpeting of the “Call to the Post”. (They actually DID play this on the plane when we landed back in Edinburgh — SERIOUSLY!! It was part of an advert to book a car with their partner, Hertz. Still, they could put it to good use in the departures lounges.) Blissfully ignorant, we were still sipping our coffees when I noticed a small movement that grew rapidly as the herd began to gallop to the other end of the terminal. Glancing up at the board, I saw that we had to move to gate 12, and the urgency of the crowd movement signalled that we should not delay in doing so. Arriving there, we found some seats and sat down to wait, in the way that you do when you’re flying on a regular airline.

About an hour before our flight was due to depart, there was another sudden surge of movement as, like one body, people were on their feet. I’d no idea what was happening or where they were going, but instinct told me I didn’t want to be left behind. The last time I saw something like that was at the movie theatre in CFB Borden about thirty years ago. Cadets, in for a training weekend, were also in the cinema. The first strains of the national anthem were punctuated a split second later by the sound of a couple of hundred pairs of boots hitting the floor as they leapt as one to attention. Unlike those cadets who remained motionless, this group evidently knew that they had to begin to form a huge queue. People began darting between and over seats to join it, realising that if forced to go to the end of the line, they likely wouldn’t be able to travel with their partner or group. The Ryan Air rep, walking the length of the line and using large sweeping motions with her arms, herded us into line. There was a bit of confusion — almost panic — at first, and I wondered if a Border Collie would have been more useful, but things were under control in short order. The attendant then walked the line, which was six to eight people deep, to check our boarding passes and passports. Finishing that task, she walked to the gate… and we waited for forty five minutes. Initial expectancy that boarding the flight was imminent flagged after about twenty minutes, and some people sat down — but only if they’d left someone in the line-up to make sure they didn’t lose their place.

We managed to find three seats together (after I flung my backpack over a row to lay claim to them), and we settled down as quickly as possible, extracting the necessary items (book, newspaper, glasses, water) from carry-on luggage to settle into our seats — only to get there and find that there were no pockets in the seatback in front to stow any of these items. Apparently not having those pockets saves money…? We tucked items between us and in our laps, and the plane was soon ready to depart. I lost myself in a book, and the flight was uneventful. The food was no better than most airline fare and certainly no better priced.

For our 7 a.m. flight this morning, we had to be up to meet our shuttle from the hotel at 4:30. All went smoothly and we arrived at the airport just before 5. Thanks to the little scale that Ron carries, we were able to check the weight of each suitcase. More rearranging was required. David hadn’t taken a carry on for the outward journey, so we were able to shift 10 kg to a spare bag I had in my back pack. When we reached the check-in desk, I heard the agent at the next desk telling a passenger that she was 1 kg over and would be charged, unless she took something out of the case. They really WERE going to nail us on the return journey! Our suitcase was just under 15 kg. David’s came in at 15.1. Nothing was said and we headed to the departure lounge to grab a coffee and perhaps some breakfast. I checked the board every few minutes to see if the gate had been announced. After the third time, I decided I had enough time to visit the toilets. David decided to go for a smoke. As I moved across the terminal, I saw the woman sitting under the board suddenly gesturing frantically to her husband who was browsing in a shop. He broke into a trot as I saw her collecting their bags. Evidently our departure gate had been announced, and there would soon be a gallop to the other end of the terminal. I went back to where Ron was sitting, grabbed my jacket and bag, and told him that I would meet him and David at gate 14, then set off briskly down the terminal. I found two seats together in the lane where we would have to queue up. So far, so good. Ron and David joined me shortly after. Everything was going well.

Shortly after 6 a.m., the Ryan Air rep hove into view and people were on their feet, creating the queue. As before, our boarding passes and passport were checked. I read my book and waited. About 40 minutes later, we began to board. Finding seats was easy, and we settled in quickly. The flight was soon taxiing down the runway. Shortly after we were airborne, menu cards were distributed. Not having had breakfast, I decided to have a sandwich. About twenty minutes later, Ron nudged me and asked if I still wanted a sandwich. By the time I turned to respond, the cart was gone. I hadn’t heard the starter pistol that had sent the attendant sprinting down the plane with the refreshment cart. Evidently the chief steward hadn’t either, because she was long gone when he announced that the cart would be by “shortly”. If there’s an Olympics for flight attendants, she’s a shoe-in for gold in the 100 metre sprint.

The rest of the flight was uneventful, though the cabin temperature had to be close to 30C. I checked the nozzle overhead to see if any air was flowing. There was, but it was imperceptible unless my hand was directly over it. By the time we landed, I was on the verge of nausea, and grateful to have to stand on the tarmac waiting for our shuttle bus to the terminal in temperature that, though 9C, felt like about 4C with the windchill.

We must have been the first flight in, because the passport checkpoint was completely empty — until we began to snake our way along the switchback of metal-lined corridors designed to keep everyone orderly. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, perhaps the heat, but I was positively giddy as I became conscious I was part of a conga line. What made it even funnier was that I seemed to be the only one aware of it. One of the bands that participated in Carnival festivities in Valetta played tunes like “Brazil” and “Quando, Quando, Quando”, and these blasted through my head as I paraded along with the rest, doing my best not to break into a rhumba. Unlike the bright, gay costumes of Carnival, though, we all seemed rather dun. I got through quite quickly, as I managed to be close to the front of the line. Ron and David, however, were delayed because they had to fill in landing cards. I’m not sure why Ryan Air can’t distribute these on the flight as other airlines do. Surely that’s not another cost-cutting measure? After all, they have no problem selling lottery tickets during the flight. Seriously — lottery tickets? On an AIRPLANE?? Most of us don’t want to think of odds and statistics during a flight. Or perhaps, for those of us that do, they might want to sell rosaries, or at the very least benedictions, too…?

Our bags arrived quickly, and we were soon in a taxi heading home. The driver asked if we’d been on vacation, and we told him about our flight. He said that he flies Ryan Air fairly often. He was 6′ tall if he was an inch, so we had to ask whether he found the limited leg room hard on his knees. “Nah!” he said. “Ye didna know you’re supposed to wrap yer legs ’round yer heid?!” He said we shouldn’t be too harsh on the attendants. Apparently, though most people think the airline is Irish, its head office is in Spain so it can pay its employees the minimum wage required under Spanish law, which just happens to be less than the UK or Ireland. Further, it can lay them off to find other work or collect the dole during the quieter travel season — not an unusual measure. But if you’ve been following the news these last few days, you’ll have noticed there have been huge protests in Spain because austerity measures on the table include permitting Spanish companies facing declining revenues to pull out of collective bargaining agreements, to have greater flexibility to adjust employees’ work schedules and remuneration, and to make it easier to fire people. I’m waiting to hear what politicians are doing to curb their expense accounts, travel and other ‘perks’ like luxury hotels and five-star restaurants when travelling on ‘official government business’, as part of their austerity measures. And I’m sure corporate executives will gather their creative teams together to come up with their contribution to austerity. Maybe forego that extra Hugo Boss suit or that darling little must-have Luis Vuitton bag?

I wonder when the airlines will be allowed to charge £5 per oxygen mask and £1 to use the toilet? Suddenly that great little sketch about no-frills airlines that Carol Burnett, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman did back in the 70s seems prescient.

Comedian Danny Bhoy gave a terrific show last night at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. After learning that some audience members were from the States (he didn’t hear me in the second row, when he asked where people were from, calling out “Canada!”), he incorporated into his routine at several points that words have different meanings depending on the speaker’s nationality. For example, if the Scots make the World Cup in 2022, they will have to travel to Qatar, which will be a hardship because one cannot drink alcohol in Qatar. He imagined the Scots players arriving and being warned by government officials that if they drink, they will be lashed — which in Scots slang means “drunk”.
“Oh aye!” says Bhoy in the scenario. “Just like back home.”
“No!” replies the official. “You don’t understand. You will be beaten in the streets by the police.”
“Oh aye! We’re used to that, too. No worries!”
Pondering words and how we use them has emerged as a bit of a theme for me in the past week. I began reading Simon Winchester’s “The Surgeon of Crowthorne”, one of his excellent books on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary — an enormous undertaking that involved hundreds of people in the 19th century and an effort whose discipline and coordination would be difficult to duplicate even in this era of the internet. Add to that the fact that one of the major contributors was criminally insane (possibly, it has to be said, because he suffered PTSD during the American Civil War), and you’ve got a story that reads better than most fiction.
Then, still on the subject of words and their meaning, The Independent ran a couple of excellent opinion pieces on Sunday, February 5. The first involved the activities and actions of a government minister, Chris Huhne and the captain of England’s football team, John Terry. Huhne stepped down after it was revealed that he tried to get his ex-wife to accept demerit points for a traffic offense that he had committed, thereby perverting the course of justice. Terry resigned after a public outcry at blatantly racist slurs he screamed at an opponent during a game. The op ed was about the fact that neither of these men did the ‘honourable’ thing by stepping down when the offenses were committed, favouring instead to hope that no one noticed or cared. The public did, and there was an uproar. The writer went on to talk about the recent fall-out from bank executives forfeiting (again, after much public protest) enormous bonuses that were to be paid out as incentives to continue to do their jobs well, rather than understanding that, given the current economic climate, to refuse would be the honourable thing. Public protest arose because no one could prove these folks had done their jobs particularly well — or at least certainly no better than the average grunt who usually doesn’t even get a ‘thank you’, much less a reasonable standard of living that can come close to that of corporate executives. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with incentives and bonuses, but ensuring they are commensurate with the job done, rather than paying out wads of cash and stocks to the folks who worked diligently to line their pockets while putting most of us (and possibly a couple of generations to come) in the hole is only sensible.
The author ruminated on how the word ‘honour’ has been perverted from something that once connoted “duty and loyalty, trust and taking responsibility, standards and self-discipline” and led people to act out of concern for one’s reputation, “rooted in what Dr. Johnson defined as ‘nobility of soul, magnanimity and a scorn of meanness’,” to something degraded. So-called “honour killings”, for example, have less to do with honour than control and chauvinistic face-saving. In the Army, so-called honour “holds sway… where men’s lives depend more upon friendship and bonding than on conscience or law” — and it is this aspect with which “honour” has become construed in most modern societies. So called “Honours Lists” are more about wealth, acquisition and power among in-groups — honour among thieves — than about social justice or philanthropy.
And on this topic of bonuses, another op ed piece wrote of Ed Milliband, who rose in the British House of Commons last week to propose that banks should be required to disclose the names and earnings of all those who are paid more than £1M, and that a shop-floor employee should be on every pay committee. To the first proposal, David Cameron begged that it would have to happen in every country across the European Union in order to be effective. So much for taking the initiative and showing leadership. To the second, Cameron responded that having shop-floor employees on pay committees would break “an important principle of not having people on a remuneration committee who will have their own pay determined.” So much for openness and accountability. The statement makes Mr. Cameron’s earlier protestations that, with regards to the current economic crisis, we are “all in it together” just a tad hypocritical, so it’s particularly gratifying that Mr. Cameron was forced last week to withdraw charges of hypocrisy against Mr. Milliband.
Still, as politicians use words to parry in the House, with reporters or constituents, we must all remember that actions still speak much louder than words — and in that respect, most politicians are pathetically mute when it comes to addressing greed and the gross inequities it creates. Sadly, that’s true both here in the UK and in Canada.

What a relief to learn that the critical thinking ability of at least one federal Conservative in Canada hasn’t been entirely stifled by Stephen Harper. Doubtless Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost will feel the full force of Harper’s wrath, but he deserves a lot of credit for reminding us about the nature of democracy — and also the problems inherent in political “partythink”. Read Andy Radia’s article about Trost: