Img_2306Last night Laird and I wandered around Marienplatz, watching the last-minute preparations before the opening of the Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) today. I ate roasted chestnuts for the first time in my life, and consequently had to endure that song repeating in my head ("Chestnuts roasting o’er an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at my nose…")

Img_2310Not just my nose, as you can see from the picture — before I undertook the age-old ritual of scraping the frost off my vehicle in the morning.

Anyway, back to Marienplatz. I took Laird into Ludwig Beck department store to show him their fantastic selection of gorgeous, hand-made glass Christmas ornaments, things of amazing delicacy and beauty. As we left, we caught sight of a Hudson Bay blanket and Canadian flag on display near the door. Curious, we stopped to investigate, and to our delight found that an entire section of the store had been transformed into a shrine dedicated to kitschy Canadiana. Maple syrup, Moosehead beer, sweatshirts with Haida designs, fringy and and beaded creations made out of moose-hide… I spotted a bleary-eyed fellow in a scarlet Mountie uniform, sporting a long black ponytail underneath the hat.

"Psst. Are you a real Mountie?"
"Yes", he replied. "I’m from Canada", he replied, stating the obvious. I grinned and flashed the little Canadian flag pinned to my coat.
"Oh yeah?" He brightened up. "Where are you from?"
"Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver…. you?", I replied.
"Northern Alberta. There is a group of us here from all over Canada. We’re here for three weeks". He pointed at the kiosks and their wares.
"Nice! So, how’d you land this gig?"
He smiled. "It’s sponsored by Air Canada and the government to promote Canada and its cultural diversity.".

I looked around, and thought to myself that there wasn’t a whole lot of Canada’s cultural diversity on display here. Unless you were only taking into account the various tribes of the First Nations people.

"Do you have to sit here all day? Or do you catch shoplifters too?"
He laughed, and told me that he puts on talks and answers questions, but was grateful for a chair at the moment because he was exhausted from jet lag. We chatted some more, and as we left, Laird and I mused on our tax dollars being spent to promote stereotypical views of Canada. I mean, if they were really trying to push a stereotype, where was the spicy clamato juice for the Bloody Caesar tastings? Tim Horton’s donuts and the rrroll up the rrrrim cups? The 2-4’s of Keith’s beer and I AM Canadian rants? Hockey sticks? Snowmobiles? THIS is the stuff that Canada is made of. At the very least they should have had a stack of Douglas Copeland’s classic book, "Souvenir of Canada" for sale.

I suppose if they were to put a more honest version of Canadian culture on display, it would only confuse people. It would contain all the cultures of the world with samples of an international fusion of food, and music.

Later, outside in the square, we joined a laughing crowd of people who were gathered in a tight circle around an animated busker with a guitar. A comedian. We stayed for a long time, laughing at him take the piss out of just about every nationality represented in the crowd. He spared no-one, but reserved his sharpest barbs for fellow Germans.

A Mountie and a German comedian all in one evening; with respect to stereotypes, one hand giveth and the other taketh away.

Missing that Blaze of Glory

fallFriends here just returned from Canada, a marathon road trip from Ontario to the east coast in just five days — through the land of fall colours. It’s mid-October, and the trees are at the height of their glory in eastern Canada, and I have to admit — I miss being there to see it. My friends very thoughtfully brought me home a handful of crimson maple leaves, which I promptly arranged in a quirky display around a tin of maple syrup at the centre of the dining room table.

The landscape here, both natural and human, is gloriously beautiful in many respects, but there really doesn’t seem to be much in the way of fall colour. Yesterday, I noticed to my surprise that the trees along the boulevard on my street are maple trees. Leaves are starting to fall, but they’re not red, or yellow, or orange… the leaves sort of turn brown and fall off, as though they just got tired and gave up. Why is that, I wondered? What’s the difference?

This article in today’s Toronto Star (“The Hues, The Hows, and The Whys”) helps explain the phenomenon, though scientists admit that there hasn’t been much research into the subject. Bavaria’s fall weather — grey skies and relatively mild temperatures — seems to be the culprit.

“ALGONQUIN PARK—First clue. On one side of the road through Algonquin Park the maples glow red. On the other, they’re on fire. The blazing side is the north, which gets more rays from a southward-creeping sun.

Second clue. Algonquin, one of the first spots in the province for the yearly transformation of fall foliage, is an elevated region often hit by the earliest cold snaps.

Third clue. Peel apart any two fallen red maple leaves that are stuck together. If one leaf shows green where it was attached, then the other shielded it from the sun.

The picture is Lake Massawipi in the Eastern Townships (“l’Estrie”) in Quebec, near the place I spent my summers as a child.

Continue reading “Missing that Blaze of Glory”


I had an interesting conversation with my neighbour, Ursula, the other day. She’s an older woman who has lived in this building for many years, and who tends to the gorgeous perennial gardens outside our doors. I frequently encounter her as I head out to take Jake for a walk, with her pruners and basket in hand and her head tucked into the flowers.

Her English is somewhat broken, but she’s friendly and eager to practice, and we’ve been drawn together by our mutual love of gardening and dogs. Her elderly dog passed away last fall, and she always greets Jake with such… longing.

I don’t know how we got on to the topic, but apparently Ursula nurses a strong desire to visit Canada. It’s a primal urge shared by many of the German people I’ve met, almost as though Canada, and its wilderness, is a modern-day Avalon across the sea.

As she waved her hand around in the air, encompassing the gardens, the grounds, the trees surrounding us, she said,

“You must really miss all the open spaces. Europe is so crowded with people.”

I thought back to my days in Toronto. To the inner city apartment, to High Park — crowded and definitely not big enough for the throngs of people seeking nature and green space on a warm summer day — to the Beach, wall-to-wall people on the seawall and sidewalks. I thought about how a one hour drive here lands you smack in the alps; a similar journey out of Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal would land you in suburbia. I looked around me, at the trees, the quiet, and thought about how I could actually bicycle to the country in an hour without ever touching a road.

“Well”, I replied, “most people live in cities in Canada. This is a lot nicer than Toronto.”

“Yes”, she said, “but you live in a very nice area of Munich.”

I conceded, but privately thought that perhaps Ursula was romanticising things a bit. As far as the human environment and lifestyle is concerned, I don’t think there’s much to compare. City life is a quieter, slower pace here, almost old-fashioned in a way. Peple buy their food at vegetable stalls and farmer’s markets, and tiny grocery stores that I haven’t seen in Canada since the 60’s. If you live in town, there’s no need for a car; bicycles and subways and trolleys and wonderful regional train systems take care of transportation. Department stores still dominate; there is a mall, somewhere “out” there in the boonies, but there is really no need to visit; everything you need to buy is close at hand, including stylish clothing that would make any fashionista drool. On Sundays, everything closes but the museums and art galleries. The population heads to the mountains, to nearby lakes, to parks and beer gardens. No one is left out.

My perspective shifted slightly the following weekend, when we visited the alps with a group of friends. We had just finished a cable car ride to the top of Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitz, and were enjoying a late afternoon beer beside a quiet lake. I looked around and was reminded of the landscape outside of Vancouver, and somehow we got on to the topic of wildlife. Laird told the story of how we once encountered a bear in our campsite, and I talked about the cougars that would come down from the mountains in Deep Cove and chase and eat the neighbourhood cats. Raccoons, coyotes… humdrum and ordinary co-habitants. Our friends listened intently, their eyes bugging out. Cougars? Bears? They could not imagine. Western Europe has long been a human and domesticated landscape. There are no wild tracts of forest left. Big predators were hunted out long ago.

And I suddenly saw, with their eyes, Canada. A lingering frontier of wildness, one of the few places left in the world where, even though humans crowd defensively in their towns and suburbia and cities, there are still wild animals and wild spaces left relatively untouched. I believe they think of Canada the way we think of Africa… or perhaps the Galapagos. I don’t think we Canadians really appreciate the depth of our treasure and our responsibility — we are stewards of an untouched wild landscape that is increasingly rare and threatened on a small planet. For those in Canada who believe that our old-growth forests are a renewable commodity, I suggest they get out and see the world. What we have in our care is among the last of its kind.

And we sure could use some lessons from the Munchners when it comes to urban lifestyle.