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la Falla: Spanish tradition at the TOHU

Last month while at the TOHU to watch the trapeze artists, I noticed that there were displays in two big tops. At the entrance of the first tent, I saw the sketch (left) of what would be the structures measuring 10 metres upon completion. The theme this year was the 10 works of Alice in Wonderland for the occasion of the TOHU's 6th annual Falla (pronounced Faya).

La Falla originated in Valencia, Spain, in the 15th century to celebrate the feast day of St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters and cabinet makers. As part of the celebration, the people of Valencia burned their wood reserves. At the end of the 19th century, groups in the city fashioned their wood piles into caricatures of their rivals before burning them to the ground.

In the Spanish tradition, the TOHU has created its own Falla with the help of 14 falleros and over 100 volunteers from the St-Michel area. For three months, under the supervision of artistic designers, the falleros, aged 17 to 30, learn skills in woodworking and sculpture to create brightly coloured characters and festive structures. 

I walked around both tents to see all the various work in progress that would eventually become the characters of Alice in Wonderland. I spoke with one of the enthusiastic designers who showed me the scaled blue print of the final product.

On August 29, my family and I attended the celebration on the TOHU grounds. The 10-metre sculptures were burnt to the ground amid hundreds of cheering fans and fireworks. All that remained were the transferable skills that the participants learned. Finally there is a positive project to celebrate the youth of St. Michel.

Stay tuned for my next post for my pictures of the burning of the Falla and find out about some trials and tribulations of night photography without a tripod.

Related posts:

A Must-See: Cirque Éloize's iD
200th Post: the Readers' Choice
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Review: Sonja Ahlers' The Selves

I had the opportunity to review The Selves by Sonja Ahlers for Elevate Difference. Alhers has been described as a pioneer in forging a new genre.

The Selves
Sonja Elizabeth Ahlers
Drawn and Quarterly

Sonja Ahlers’ The Selves is a visual essay that combines collage, poetry, watercolor, calligraphy, prose and lace trimmings. The result is a multi-layered and textured work that reveals something new every time you leaf through it. Although pastiche and mixed media immediately come to mind to describe Ahlers’ work, it may also be considered a new genre or a new way of looking at our lives as women in relation to mass media.

As passive consumers of pop culture, we assimilate the images and narratives that mass media serve us. Unable to discern the promoters from the products and the dreams they’re selling, we model our various “selves” from babyhood to old age around the ideals these promoters project. At least, that’s my interpretation of the book, but yours may be very different. Now imagine someone appropriating these same images and presenting them in a new way as social commentary. For instance, Ahlers presents an intellectual side of Marilyn Monroe using a rare photograph of her reading, next to a text by Gloria Steinem describing how hard it was for men to reconcile Marilyn’s love for books with her physical appearance. We also see repeated images of Princess Diana throughout her life, from a young woman who marries a prince, to a princess who never lives happily ever after. We also see a very young Angelina Jolie in the company of her father, reminding us that beauty and fame do not exempt anyone from pain. The public is indeed very different from the private.

Some serious themes such as suicide, child abuse, self-mutilation, female rivalry and abortion are raised in The Selves, but this book is not without humor. The images Ahlers uses are readily recognizable to any woman born in the 1970s or early 80s, and nostalgia is guaranteed. I enjoyed the author’s unapologetic acceptance of these images into her life and her presenting them in a new light to expose another side or issue.

This visual essay may be hard for some to embrace, but I applaud any artist-cum-author who takes on this challenge and does it well enough to land a publisher. Moving away from the old confines means not letting others define what an acceptable genre is.

Other reviews:
Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber
Book Review: The Next Generation of Women Leaders
Book Review: The Spare Room by Helen Garner
Aya: The Secrets Come Out
Film Review: Mary and Max
Doc Review: Finding Dawn by Christine Welsh
Book Review: Violent Partners by Linda G Mills
Review: Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan
A Review of Montreal's Bixi Rental Bike

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The Montreal Bixi v. the Denver B-Cycle

On the right is a picture of one of Bixi's competitors, the B-Cycle.

As Bixi takes to the streets of London, Melbourne, Minneapolis this year, bike-share programs are springing up throughout North America, and one of Bixi's competitors, the B-Cycle, is now the bike of choice in Denver, Chicago and Des Moines. When looking at the two bikes, one striking difference is the B-Cyle's large roomy basket. You may recall that a year ago, my only criticism of the Bixi was its lack of a basket. My husband checked out the bike and told me that the Bixi designer knew exactly what s/he was doing. He claimed that a basket would have been too easily damaged in addition to adding too much weight to the front of the bike. Well, was he right? And the bigger question: how does Bixi measure up to the B-Cycle? I'd have to ask someone who has used both the Bixi and the B-Cycle to be sure. Enter Lucie.

Lucie test drives a B-Cycle

Friend, fellow translator and regular city cyclist Lucie happened to be visiting Denver last spring, and while she was in the Mile-High city, she paid the flat rate to take a B-Cycle out for the day on the Cherry Creek cycling trail.

She described the bike as heavy and slightly difficult to maneuver. "Heavy" is par for the course as far as public bikes go, as they have to withstand a lot of use and abuse, but maneuverability is something else. Lucie said that the handlebar grips were farther apart than on a standard bike, making it difficult to turn, particularly on and off the ramps to the bike path. She also said that the basket added noticeable weight to the front of the bike, making it front heavy (Shit, I hate when my husband's right!). There was also apparently a lot of clanking noise with the B-Cycle.

Our test driver also encountered a problem when she didn't push the bike into the dock hard enough, and thus, in the system, it was as if the bike had never been returned. Luckily, she learned of her mistake before someone else had taken out the bike on her credit card.

This, however, is the case for all public bikes. Just last week, I did not return my Bixi properly and only discovered the next morning when I couldn't take out another one. By the time, the Bixi team had tracked down it, the bike had already traveled an additional 274 km. After submitting a request pleading my case, I was charged only an additional $1.50. Now, I'm especially careful to wait for the telltale bell that indicates my bike has been safely returned.

Regardless of the B-Cycle's shortcomings, Lucie enjoyed her tour of Denver. In fact, she says that it's the only way to visit a city. As our test driver is too cool for guided group tours, and walking is too slow for our speed demon, she would definitely take out another B-Cycle if she ever returned to Denver.

Lucie test drives a Bixi

Last week, I got Lucie to test drive a Bixi. She took it out for a 10-minute spin in downtown Montreal. For seven months of the year, our test driver rides a light-weight 21-speed. When Lucie returned, she said that the Bixi was heavier than her regular bike, but that it was lighter than the B-Cycle. She added that the Bixi ride was smoother and quieter. She also thought that the first and second gears were great for climbing Montreal's many hills.

The only criticism that she had was the lack of a fourth gear. She said that she could not get to a fast enough cruising speed in third. In other words, she would be unable to get from Place Bonaventure to Place Dupuis for her weekly bridge game in her usual break-neck 12 minutes. I've heard that there is no fourth gear for safety reasons. After all, we all know how dangerously fast some people cycle on the Claire Morissette bike path on De Maisonneuve, and we don't need any more.

However, I was interested in the maneuverability of the Bixi compared with the B-Cycle.

"No comparison," said Lucie. "The Bixi's handlebar grips are not as far apart as those on the B-Cycle, and the front is not nearly as heavy. The more enjoyable ride is definitely the Bixi."

And the basket...

I've been a Bixi subscriber for almost a year and after traveling more than 1,000 kilometres, I must admit that the Bixi rack and bungee cord are far more effective than a basket for transporting bags, groceries, etc. I found the rack much better suited for transporting irregular shaped objects, such as children's toys and my three-year-old's wooden bike. In addition, as most people who have a bike with a basket know, you only have to hit one pothole (No! In Montreal?!) to lose or damage the basket's contents. The bungee cord secures objects in place, so they can't be knocked around.

Reader, would you like a bike-share program in your city?

In the end, whether you prefer one public bike over the other is immaterial. Bike-share programs are win-win situations for everyone, creating healthy and environmentally friendly communities. And like Lucie, I think cycling is the most enjoyable way to visit a new city.

Related posts
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Bixi: Success for All
Fun Way to Track Bike Use and Carbon Foot Print
3 Compelling Reason For A Bike Share Program in Your City
City Cycling: Why Renting Beats Owning
A Review of Montreal's Bixi Rental Bike

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The Mile End Buzz Around Beekeeping

This summer there has been a lot of talk in our neighborhood about beekeeping. Our elected city officials have started an apiculture pilot project, but the actual location has been kept secret.

One sunny Saturday as I cycled past the large poplar trees in the Champ des Possibles, a field at the end of our street, I spotted a small fenced in area with two supers, or the wooden boxes used in beekeeping. Hmmm...was this the borough's pilot project? Or was this some guerrilla beekeeping on the CN-owned field? A small sign had been placed in front with the beekeeper's contact information.

I got in touch and met with our apiculturist, Kathryn Jezer-Morton, at her bee station last Friday morning. The granddaughter of a beekeeper, Jezer-Morton was drawn to apiculture because of her concern for Colony Collapse Disorder, which is killing bee colonies. The disorder has been attributed to many things, such as the widespread use of insecticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified seeds and cellular phones, in addition to viruses and mites, but a consensus among scientists has yet to be reached as to the cause.

Jezer-Morton, who was 8 and a half months pregnant, told me that she had taken a beekeeping course at an agricultural college in Mirabel. She and husband Gray Miles had purchased a queen bee, a 5,000-bee colony, 2 supers and 20 frames, which fit inside the supers, for $260. They had initially planned to set up their station on the roof of a friend's home, but the climb onto the roof would have been too treacherous for a pregnant beekeeper. She and her husband consulted a group that oversees the Champs des Possibles and decided to set up their station there.

"It's the perfect guerrilla activity," I said. "There's no need to worry about vandals."

"So far, we've just had a few stakes removed from our fencing," said Miles, "but in general, the buzz of the bees triggers a flight response in most people."

The couple set up the colony in May of this year, and it has now grown to about 15,000, but apparently this was lower than expected.

"We think that our queen is old and tired," said our beekeeper. "Her pheromones, which attract the male worker bees, are weak."

Their option is to "requeen," which involves finding a replacement. A new queen can be purchased online at retailers like FW Jones in Bedford, Quebec, one of the largest beekeeping suppliers in Canada, but there are risks in retiring the old queen and bringing in a new upstart.

"There's a chance that the colony might reject and kill the newbie," said Jezer-Morton, "We're hoping that the colony might raise its own queen."

How would you feel about having a bee colony close to your home?

Of course, most of you will be wondering about honey. Just how much might an operation this size produce? Our novice beekeepers said that it was difficult to know for certain. They didn't want to take away too much honey, as the bees feed on it throughout the winter. In the coming years, Jezer-Morton and Miles would have a better idea of how much honey they would be able to give away. I'm sure that I will not be alone in wanting to pick up of some of the excess product.

As for this being the borough's beekeeping pilot project, I was sorrily disappointed. Our beekeepers were not involved, but expressed an interest in participating. We discussed how a barter system among city beekeepers would be beneficial, as would a collective for purchasing costly equipment, such as an extractor, which could be shared by everyone. Jezer-Morton also thought that it would be a great idea if the city employed an adviser who could visit the various beekeepers and offer some tips.

The presence of honey bee activity has many benefits for the Champs des Possibles. According to the author of Guide to Urban Flora, Roger Latour, honey bees help our native bees with pollination. Here is what the urban naturalist had to say about bee activity in our immediate area:

There are many apple trees in the Champ des Possibles. Native bees (like the bumblebees) don’t always cut it when it comes to thorough pollination. The honeybee systematically explores all the five corners of every apple blossom. We’ll get far more apples this year. Even more next year.

Although a bee sting is a painful and sometimes a scary experience, we can't forget that we would not have any fruit or other foods if it weren't for the pollination efforts of our busy bees.

For some great pictures of this beekeeping project visit Flora Urbana.

Picture top left by Eloi Champagne 

Other Guerrilla-related posts:
Delinelle Park and Garden: Adjectival Transgression
The Fate of the Delinelle Community Garden and Park
Trespassers in St. Henri Win City Gardening Contest
Liz Christy Seed Bombs and Some Not So Covert Bombing
More on Guerrilla-ing in NYC and St. Henri
Attention Guerrilla Gardeners: the Liz Christy Seed Bomb (a how-to)
What Exactly is Guerrilla Gardening?
Guerrilla Gardening: Tips for the Novice

Read more »
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Blogger of Note

I am the Words of Wisdom (WOW) official Blogger of Note today, and I would like to extend a warm welcome to all WOW readers and invite you to negotiate the Unexpected Twists and Turns with me. As I saunter (but most likely cycle) through my neighborhood and life, I try to look at everything through a non-judgmental lens and report on what I discover. To date, I have never left the house without meeting someone new or uncovering a hidden treasure. As a French-English translator by day, I am very detail-oriented and visual; in other words, I like to see and give a clear visual picture, and I love photography.

Please introduce yourself and follow along, I in turn will follow you and return your visit.

Here are three posts you might enjoy:

My 200th post : I asked my regular readers to tell me what their favourite posts were
For the Love of Vinyl
Freegans, Treasures and a Pot of Gold

I look forward to getting to know you and following your blogs. All the best, Heather
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Iranian Tea and More Anarchy

After reading Death to the Dictator, the story of a 20-year-old Iranian who was involved in the massive demonstrations in Tehran in June 2009, I decided that I had to go out and find some ghormeh sabzi, an herb stew and the main protagonist's favourite dish. I found it at Café Byblos on Laurier East, a pricier section of the Plateau-Mont Royal. The sabzi was excellent, as was our Iranian black tea with cardamon. The man on the teapot is actually the first Shah of Iran, making our tea session that much  funkier. The review of Death to the Dictator will be posted on Feminist Review and here sometime this month.

Upon returning from the Café, I received a very funny e-mail reply from the Chaotic Insurrection Ensemble. I wanted to know where they would be performing next, so that I could interview them. The following is their response:

hey, heather.

honestly, i have no idea, and we don't usually announce them [their gigs] ahead of
time due to some issues with the police. if you know someone in the
band, your best bet would be to bug them. otherwise, just keep going to
demos and other activist events and you'll be sure to see us before

My favourite part was the Chaotic Insurrection's tag line: "They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself." -- Andy Warhol

Stay tuned for my next post on the Guerrilla Beekeepers I discovered in le Champs des possibles, the CN field just down the street from my home. I'll be covering Colony Collapse Disorder and some of the A, Bee, Cs of apiculture.

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The Anarchists' Tuba

The following is based on a true story. Picture on left is part of the New York City Public Library's collection.

On a hot summer's night, Rosa, a double bass and tuba player, received a request. The drummer from the Auroratastiques had asked her to accompany them on the tuba at Park Avenue's Georges Alexandre, a local musician's venue. However, this tall slim blond from the Okanagan could not be expected to cart around both a double bass and a cumbersome brass horn. She would have to borrow one. To hear what a tuba sounds like click here.

The last time Rosa had publicly played the tuba was with a 10- to 15-piece anarchist marching band called the Chaotic Insurrection Ensemble. In late May, the Ensemble had performed as part of the Anarchist Bookfair. Their gig was euphoric and may or may not have resulted in an incident involving a number of elated book lovers and some, ah, fist i cuffs. Police descended on the scene in minutes and were less than pleased with the ruckus and poorly mannered participants. However, when an instigator could not be identified, the finger was apparently pointed at the Chaotic Insurrection. The band members were incredulous. They had not been among the petulant patrons. Just the same, the Ensemble decided to lay low until the forces of order had bigger fish to fry. This was bad news for the burgeoning marching band, but good news for Rosa, as they had an available tuba, which they lent her without reservations.

The Auroratastiques' gig at the Georges Alexandre was exhilarating in the heat of the hot July night. After their final set, Rosa and another musician headed out to the street where they met more people and continued to play. Montreal was a wonderful place to be a musician. They played on, as a few unconventional cigarettes were passed around, and a drink or two was consumed. Someone suggested that they take the party over to St.Urbain. Rosa made her way over, lugging the caseless tuba and her bag. Outside the house, she set down her things, removed the mouth-piece from the tuba, placed it in her bag and went upstairs. The group reclined on the balcony listening to music and talking in raised voices about the city's music scene and past shows. Rosa had already lived in Montreal for four years and enjoyed this type of get-together. It seemed like everywhere she turned in the city, she met musicians.

As their chatter continued below the hazy moon, someone said, "I can't believe it. Look there's another tuba out there." Rosa caught a glimpse of glimmering brass in the moonlight, making a mental note for future reference that someone else in the neighbourhood had a tuba. She tried to take a closer look to see who it was. She saw two women in their early twenties with shoulder-length brown hair walking quickly down the street. It was just like someone had said earlier; there were musicians all over Montreal. The conversation continued for another half-hour, then a lull--the cue to head home. Rosa went to the door, picked up her bag and quickly turned around. Her eyes widened. She had left the tuba downstairs. She ran down and looked around. It was gone....Those girls, they....Oh no!

Rosa had lost the anarchists' tuba. In fact, she and the other party goers had watched the two girls make off with it. Rosa sighed.What would she do? She couldn't go to the police because the tuba didn't belong to her. The Chaotic Insurrection would have to file a police report, but the band was leery of cops, as anarchists are wont to be. But a marching band without a tuba was like pizza without the cheese, and a new tuba costs thousands of dollars. Pacing back and forth on the sidewalk, Rosa panicked a little and thought a lot. She went home, got a pen and drew up posters. Using basic psychology, she assumed that the girls might want to learn to play the tuba, so she offered to teach them in return for the instrument. Posters were put up in the immediate vicinity of the party, and an ad was posted on Craig's list.

She waited and prayed, and prayed and waited. Then she felt inspired, wrote a song set to gospel music pleading with a higher being to bring back the anarchists' tuba. (Hear it on the phonograph below.) An e-mail reply from Craig's list came in, and Rosa jumped for joy. But the respondent had not found Rosa's tuba. Instead he, also a musician, had been so inspired by Rosa's ad that he had composed "the Lost Tuba," and wanted to know if she would accompany him on the brass horn and perform it. She said that she would love to, as she rolled her eyes, that is, if the frickin' frackin' tuba was ever recovered!

(Click play to listen to her song "Lord Tuba")

Wringing her hands, Rosa later walked around the neighbourhood, looking down alleys for the glint of shiny brass. She felt guilty, remorseful and a little bit desperate. How could she face the Chaotic Insurrection Ensemble? Or find a replacement instrument? And how would she pay for it? Musicians are known for their veeery limited budgets. The tuba was nowhere to be seen. Rosa slowly walked home with her head held low. She walked in the door and her two roommates came rushing towards her, jumping up and down. "She called," they yelled. "The tuba's been found," said one. "She's coming over tonight," said the other. Rosa put her hand over her mouth and fell into a chair. Her troubles were apparently over.

She and her friends waited in the living room nervously hypothesizing about how the girls had explained the tuba's presence to their families or roommates. After all, a tuba is a difficult object to conceal. And the girls wouldn't be able to play it because Rosa had removed the mouthpiece, unless, of course, they had their own....But what Rosa and her roommates really wanted to know was what went through their minds when they read the posters on the corner of every street. They talked and waited, and waited...but the girl never materialized.

In the days that followed, Rosa reached out to her network of musician friends in a last ditch effort to locate the instrument, already aware that she would have to face the grim reality: the tuba was either sitting in someone's basement or in a pawn shop somewhere on Ontario Street. Rosa resigned herself to the facts: she'd have to face the Chaotic Insurrection Ensemble and find a way to repay them.

I can commiserate with Rosa. It's a horrible feeling to have something stolen, and it's very rare that things are ever returned. Nevertheless, whenever I walk through the Mile End, I'm always surprised by the number of posters I see for lost items. After all, we live in a city with a lot of people coming and going. But oddly enough, I know of two people who have actually had things returned. Our neighbour put up posters for her lost cat, and after three weeks of nail-biting, kitty was found and returned. And the second was our tuba and double bass player.

Yes, just one week after Rosa had put up her posters, a young woman arrived at her doorstep with her eyes cast downward, holding the tuba. Rosa's roommate took the instrument, and as she looked up to say something, the woman had already left. Unfortunately, we'll never know what possessed the two girls to take the tuba in the first place. Was it motivated by greed or was it the enticing opportunity of finding an odd looking brass instrument left unattended on a hot summer's night in the Mile End?

What do you think reader?

Related post:
A True Cottage Caper 

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From Another Angle

 Here's a 3D rendering of Picasso's Guernica, accompanied by sombre but beautiful music. Don't miss it. Click on the arrows at the bottom to make it full screen.

The mural next door is a new addition to the neighbourhood. I wish I could get a shot of someone sticking his/her head out the door.

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Upcycled Parking Meters Offer Help for the Homeless

In the past, I've reported on vintage candy machines dispensing seed bombs to guerrilla gardeners and cigarette machines dispensing art, now I've discovered that repurposed mechanical parking meters are being used to collect funds for Montreal's 30,000 homeless. What a novel idea! Novel, yes, but new, no. The ParcoDon (don is French for donation) began in 2007.

Three years ago, the City of Montreal donated 70 of its old parking meters to Itinéraire, a community organization that assists the homeless with social and occupational reinsertion programs. The bright green mechanical meters installed at locations with high pedestrian traffic were used to collect $23,000 in the first three years.

"But just a second," I said. "Does the person giving the donation get free parking too?"

"No, that was the problem," said Karoline Bergeron of Itinéraire. "We used to receive calls from motorists who thought that they had paid for parking, unaware that they had just made a donation to help the homeless."

The obsolete green meters had been phased out in favour of the black electronic version several years ago, but they were still evidently part of the collective memory of Montreal drivers. In order to ensure that there was no future confusion, 70 organizations and celebrities were invited to showcase their creativity by customizing a ParcoDon. A star was put at the foot of each hand-painted meter for better visibility, creating a walk of fame on the major arteries of the downtown. Some of the celebrities and organizations that took part include sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, author Dany Laferrière, the Montreal fine arts museum (MBAM), the group Mes Aïeux, the Montreal Opera (OM) and Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay.

Reader would you be more inclined to make a donation via a ParcoDon or give the money to a homeless person directly?

The City of Montreal, the Montreal Parking Authority and Itinéraire held a press conference for all the local media to make sure that the message was clear: this initiative was to raise funds for the homeless, not to provide parking.

I drove around downtown yesterday with my husband to take a look at some of the customized ParcoDons, and some were indeed spectacular.

According to Bergeron, the celebrity walk of fame received extensive media coverage, and the phone calls inquiring about parking have since ceased. She said that the situation has heightened awareness vis-à-vis the homeless and Itinéraire. It has also been great PR for local celebrities and participating organizations.

But has this initiative increased donations?

"Yes, it has," said Bergeron. "Our goal was to match the previous $23,000, and so far, we have collected almost $5,000 or 20% since the launch in May, just three months ago."

To see all the various upcycled meters and their customized new look, view the video below:

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