Pics of Last Year

The World Press Photo exhibition is on display at Canadian War Museum these days. You see such pictures sometimes on the internet, in presentations you skim through. Colourful or toned-down, beautiful or horrific, telling of ordinary or amazing moments. In exquisite captures of life glimpses, death is many times featured as a reminder that we are only given one limited chance to make it right.

I felt just that as I was strolling through the labyrinth of panels. There were fires, and guns, and gangs of South America; Russian university graduates, now prostitutes, exposed through almost Romantic-like nudes; refugees crying for help; the inevitable discourse of pollution and deforestation; abused women of Africa; abused-otherwise North Koreans; terrorism, the new type of war… Whether human red, forest green, water blue, blood was there in the photos, pulsating under live skins or wasted on the ground.

With every picture left behind, my sense of gratitude grew. Clean water, safe home, the end of communism in the Soviet block, my decision – then constant determination – to get over abuse and toxic relationships, civilization (whatever whoever says, that is a Western invention), friendship, love, family, care…

I did not speak much this evening. We ate a rather ready-made dinner, the five of us – I must admit there have been better family portraits. My teenage daughter disappeared shortly afterwards, anger still on her face. It has been a hard year for her, the last few months in particular. But hey, wounded pride keeps her from saying sorry and start anew – for now. I exchanged a few more positive thoughts with my son and marveled quietly at his change of attitude lately; he’s also been a great help around the house. I glanced outside the window at the beautiful garden my husband and I managed to put together this past spring and summer – was it proof that our marriage works? Night slowly settled in. I held my little one as she went to sleep and I cried for forgiveness.

Indeed, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. Only love and faith last. Love cures prostitution, hunger, violence, greed, pride, indifference. Love is our humanly attribute which makes us in God’s likeness. Life is love. Even The Beatles were right: all you need is love. And every picture, sad or happy, beautiful or terrifying, darkened or hallowed, one way or another is about love.

As I said my prayers, I looked up at the icons on the wall, straight into the eyes of Jesus and His Mother. Infinite calm, unbound steadfastness. Always there for us. No need to worry. Just believe.

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Colour

Life happens. What a truism. My only excuse for not keeping up with this blog. Joy… Oh well, it sometimes vanishes in thin air, don’t we all know the tune. Yes, but if you care to look for it, it’s painted here and there on the canvas.

I find joy in many things – which is a blessing and a curse at times, as blessings and curses have a way of working, in pairs. I wanted to draw today in preparation for an exhibition I was invited to put up later this year. Of course I got caught up in reorganizing the many papers and stuff where I keep the drawing tools etc. and then I started to look through some architecture books about Romania. There is one in my library about traditional houses in the Danube Delta. I knew about the vivid colours they use there for decoration – but this time I came across a lovely pattern of blues and greens which tell stories of life under a clear sky, close to the water, embraced by leaves.

Enjoy and maybe go visit the area!

(Photos from Stuf: Traditional Houses from the Danube Delta, Igloo 2008)

The Image of Smell

I discovered Pierre Dinand today, quite by chance. Ma prodigue fille parisiene called to ask for suggestions as to where she could spend a couple of hours in the neighborhood of Les Galeries Lafayette (she had strolled through Les Marais all day and it didn’t make much sense to head back to the hotel before meeting her dad back downtown). So, the good efficient secretary that I am, I appealed quickly to Google, maps and all, and said on the phone:

“There is a nice small museum of perfume right near the Opera Garnier, Musee Fragonard. This one is free and they give tours. Looks fun. There is another one called Le Grand Musee du Parfum a little further by that one is 25 euros. Looks more promising.”

“OK, I’ll go to the free one” – she said and asked for the address.

After disconnecting, I continued to browse rather absent-mindedly the Grand Musee website. Under temporary exhibitions, there was one on a certain Pierre Dinand. Never heard, probably someone in the perfume world. Indeed, a designer of perfume bottles, as I found out.

And then I browsed his name and came across his website with a condensed story about his beginnings in the industry. He had spent some time in Asia in his youth combining military service and studying fine arts (??), then came back to France and got hired by a chemical company (???) where he was appalled by some hideous packaging, so he decided to create another packaging – you guessed, it was such a success that later on, he got contacted by a creative agency asking for a design for a perfume bottles for no more no less than Madame Rochas. Another success which opened Dinand the doors to fashion and perfume designers, both literally and figuratively. His life became a chain of anecdotes about this and that famous bottle and I encourage you to read the links I inserted above.

Now, my take on all this:

You can come across very interesting information quite by chance. I didn’t know about these perfume museums and when I’m next in Paris I’ll definitely check them out.

You can use moments in life to your (immense) benefit if you’re open and willing to cooperate and contribute. See my daughter who is now thoroughly enjoying Paris and trusting her mom for instant advice (haha!) At a grander scale, see Monsieur Dinand who probably didn’t plan to become famous on perfume bottles when drinking tea or what-not while digging archeological sites in Cambodia (yep, he did that too).

You can choose to share such gems or dismiss them as maybe-not-so-interesting-to-others. Well, I hope you learned something today. I certainly did.

NO to Paris

6:45 am Phone call before my wake-up time. I glance at the screen, it’s my daughter calling from Paris. I quickly compute: she should be out and about, is she having trouble?

“Hi, sweetie. What’s up?”

Devastated voice at the other end, crying big tears.

“I wanna come hooooome… I don’t want to beeee heeeeere…”

Oh. The fit. First time in Paris and the image doesn’t correspond. She’s been there only two days, it’s been raining, the boutique hotel is not up to her high standards, nothing works the way it should (lovely word!) etc. etc. At 19 years old, she has acted like an entitled brat for some time – Paris is the perfect place to graduate to kindergarten. What are you, 3?

“You can’t come home. You’re in Paris. Make the most of it.”

Silence.

“Have you just woken up?”

“No, I woke up really early and I was out walking for two hours, but it’s cold and people are rude and I don’t wanna be here. I’m sorry I woke you up…”

She didn’t want to take warmer clothes and the good fancy jacket is hanging in our closet at home. Oh well. Mom’s usually wrong, right?

“Baby, it’s OK. Come on, it’s gonna be good. You know what you can do? Go get something nice to eat, a croissant and a coffee, then head to the Lafayette Department Store. It’s beautiful, smells good, it’s inside, so you won’t be cold. And then you can stroll through the covered passages, they’re nearby – Panoramas, Jouffroy… Perfect for a day like this.”

“Oooo..key…”

Galeries La Fayette 2 (Large).jpg

I spent a few more minutes of encouragement, then went back to bed to cuddle a few more minutes with my younger one before actually getting up for the day. I stifled the thoughts of worrying needlessly for my little teenager and I found myself laughing at how God puts us in quite amusing situations to guide us back into reality-check. Of course, it’s amusing for Him and others noticing it from the outside. It’s not exactly amusing on the inside. It feels stupid and annoying on the inside.

As I write this, I’m having my coffee before starting my day and week. Outside, it’s colder yet sunnier than in Paris, and there’s nothing particularly exciting in my weekly plan, just daily life in a rather boring Canadian city. My coffee is warm and I got kisses and hugs from my other two kids before they left for school earlier. The feeling still lingers – it’s very, very nice to be loved. Yes, I could have been in Paris with my husband now if I hadn’t chosen to give our daughter the opportunity to accompany her dad to see Ville Lumiere. Am I sorry having given up my place to someone who doesn’t even appreciate it? No. She’s that part of recalcitrant me who needs to learn one or two things about how changing viewpoints has an impact on the whole perspective. I can draw in perspective and I know how viewpoints work – but man, did I have to practice it literally and figuratively to actually get it! She’s gonna get it too. We all can, if we want to try.

I have faith in her. She’s gonna come back from Paris with a new appreciation of things. And if she doesn’t get that, well, that just means she’s in for a longer ride. It’s gonna take more Parises, more rains, more love, more trials. How many times do we say NO to things before we say yes? People who care for us would try their best to make us feel better, but it really is up to us to truly feel better.

Hey, guess what – she just wrote to me to say she’s heading out. Can’t wait to hear how she enjoyed it. Now, how good are you going to make your life today? Find your Paris, let me know.

 

Enough

What a funny little word, isn’t it? A word that expands into a whole universe of stars and black holes. Especially dark ones.

You’ve had enough to drink. She doesn’t know when enough is enough. There isn’t enough money to do this. Love isn’t enough.

Or in disguise: You can never be too kind. Never say never. You could do this better. Can you stop? (please)

It started with the day I came back from getting the results to a difficult exam. Back in those days, in the country I grew up in, compulsory public education finished with grade 10: that meant kids had to take an exam to prove their worth right in the middle of high-school. Ridiculous, if you asked me then – and I still think so. One had to pass a couple of entry exams to go to high-school anyway, and there would be another series at the end of it to get the “baccalaureat” (very much in the French tradition). That middle-exam series only added extra pressure and, in truth, it was one of the mechanisms which the communist regime used to ensure people didn’t have much time for free thinking (’cause they would start getting ideas that the system was not quite right, right?) There were two such exams scheduled at the end of grade 10, and they were specific to the program of the respective high-school (some schools focused on sciences, other on languages, or arts, or medicine… very regimented to being with). At my school, I had to do a math exam and a physics exam. My grandfather was a well-known tutor of math who gave excellent instruction to countless kids grade 5-12. I was his only (and quite favourite) granddaughter. I owe him every bit of math that I know – and I know a lot! Throughout the year, we’d had our lessons in a group and all of us were doing well.

The exams were difficult, as they usually were at that stage. Only 60 would be able to promote to grade 11 – those who didn’t… well, they’d have to get a job (which was almost impossible without connections) and try again next time, and ONLY for evening classes. I was good at physics though not excelling: still, I got a 7.5 or so (out of 10). The math exam, I had taken extra care with: not only I was confident I did everything well, but I provided a double way of solving some of the exercises, and my writing was organized and truly impeccable. I was not surprised to see I got a full 10. Altogether, my over 8 average mark pushed me into the successful candidates. I was proud of myself and for no small reason.

So, big smile on my lips, I went to my grandfather and I announced my victory. He looked at me and said: Daniela did better. (Daniela was another student from our math lesson group) I said: what? What do you mean? He said: Daniela got over 9 average. I said: that’s irrelevant. Daniela is not in the same high-school; and by the way, how much did Daniela got in math? 9.4, he said. Well, I got a 10 in math AND I made it to grade 11 – shouldn’t this be enough for you?

He never answered that question. The smile faded from my lips gradually, my self-confidence stood fighting. In two years time, I would flunk the very difficult entry exam for the Architecture School: not the preliminary drawing exams (in spite of my Dad telling me I can’t draw well enough), but the geometry exam – my best subject. Both Dad and Granddad told me openly they were ashamed with me. I waited another year, tried again: guess what, I flunked the drawing. And then I did something they thought was crazy. I registered for the entry exam of the Math course at the University. Those were the hardest math exams ever. Dad and Granddad felt funnily proud I’d choose that, but they didn’t get me at all. I couldn’t care less if I made it into that program, I didn’t want to be a math teacher, just wanted to see if I could get a passing mark: and I did. I got over 5 average for math international Olympics questions. Right that moment, I knew I would pass the entry exam for the architecture school the following year.

Long story short, I finished architecture school and went on to Cambridge for my Masters degree. My grandfather had died in the meanwhile, but my father was secretly delighted. After immigrating to Canada later on, I spent another seven years over a doctorate only to see my academic teaching dream dripping like sand through my fingers as I sat down to write my thesis: at 40, I had become pregnant with my third child. I gave birth to the child and raised her along with my other two teenagers, while crying my head off and writing the doctorate. I was made to feel a not good-enough mother for crying over such a pathetic career meltdown. PhD under my belt, I accepted to teach drawing and geometry to college students who wouldn’t come to class and who wouldn’t do their homework, despite my best efforts to engage them. I was sacked when I refused to pass those students.

Nothing I’ve done was considered enough. They planted this idea in my head at a time when I was young, happy and confident. They did not celebrate my successes. They made me feel little and insignificant. They told me it’s my fault for this and this and this. I had to take the blame, whether it was my owning or theirs. They trapped me in this funny game and, ever so slowly, I became “they”. My self-confidence was nowhere in sight. I started to tell myself my dreams don’t matter; what use is to try this, I don’t know enough to make it work; I started to feel guilty when thinking of celebrating me simply because some of them thought that’s selfish. When I came to the full realization of this, I was (might I dare say, rightfully) angry. My love turned to hate. I wanted them gone, out of my life, but some just wouldn’t disappear. It was as if invisible murky threads made them cling to me, and I was trying in vain to clip and cut and push aside. Nightmarish, really.

Eventually, I took on a minimum wage job as an assistant in a Kumon centre where the enthusiastic and actually lovely owner would gently prevent me to teach – I was there only to welcome students and to grade their papers, not to instruct them: that was her job. I felt not good enough. Everything was pointing to giving up, so I willingly gave up that job too. “The kids will miss you…”

Days came and went, as I tried to fight my returning depression. Something very deep inside, in the dark hole of my guts, said you’re not a total quitter. Luckily, I had learned to notice the colours around me, the light, the music, and every now and then a ding of a text from good friends asking how I am. “You’re the best mom in the entire world, I can’t stop loving you!!!” And those diplomas on the wall in our home-office… tacky, I know. I have a more than patient editor at a famous university press waiting for me to finish the manuscript of a book from my thesis. Why would I do it when there’s no academic career at the end of it? Or is it… could it be? Does it matter.

And one day… I understood. Out of the blue. That happy, confident girl is still alive in me – maybe not kicking much, as she’s felt down lately… well, for about 30 years, on and off. She is not that young, but man, does she have some other good stuff up her sleeve. She’s used her time well. She has accomplished many things just by forging on. She’s raised three great kids, she’s taught some others, she’s cooked a few good meals, she’s been a friend. She has a good group of “they” who love her truly. When she wants to, she’s fantastic! It really isn’t all the work of her dear magic wand…

OK, enough with this! Did you get the message?

Math Expression

Friday mind stretch!

Apologies for not posting anything in this category for FOUR months (my mind was simply stretched in other directions! 🙂

First, the answer I owe you for the last challenge, the Quickest Descent: the cycloidal path is the quickest descent as the ball reaches a high speed earlier and uses it to race ahead of the other balls on the shorter paths.

Now, the next challenge is to reduce a mathematical expression to its simplest form. I took it from a book filled with such exercises, a book well-known to Romanians growing up in 20th century Romania. The exercises were made by Grigore Gheba, one of the great mathematical minds in a long line of Romanian professors. The book belonged to my grandfather, himself a fantastic math teacher who taught many students, myself included.

This expression is one of the easy ones and it has a neat answer. Check it out next week! Here’s the exercise:

Happy Friday mind stretch!

Tradition

St Nicholas has come to our house for about 20 years, always on the morning of his feast day, December 6. Before that, he came to my parents house, even in the communist times – then, it was quite a treat to find oranges and bananas in our boots which had been nicely polished and placed by the door the previous evening. Chocolate was rare, candies even more so. My mom baked cakes but not gingerbread.

I learned though, the gingerbread craft, I taught myself. After my first one was born, I came across a magazine which had what looked like a good recipe, along with instructions on how to make a gingerbread house. The first was rather simple and it managed to produce some sort of effect.

The many others which followed were variations on the theme during the years our first batch of kids – as we like to call them affectionately – were small enough to believe the old saint brought the treat. And then I stopped making the house, and only baked gingerbread cookies. The dough though I’ve made every year since December 2000.

When the daughter of the second batch arrived, the older children said: so you’re gonna do a house again, right? Nooo, I groaned, too complicated. What? – they said – there’s no way you’re going to deprive our sis of the experience! So I was forced back into the game somewhat. 

And then I got mad. Well, to put it mildly, it wasn’t the best time of my life – in order to fight depression, I took up watercolour and drawing again, learned relaxation techniques, and generally started to take care of myself, more or less. The afore-mentioned madness was specifically about starting to make gingerbread models of actual architectural buildings. A few years ago I did a small development of three one-and-a-half story houses, as a memento of managing to finish my doctoral thesis on Canadian postwar housing. Another year I chose the Vanna Venturi house – now that was quite ridiculous, it took me ages to make. Last year, I did row housing in Amsterdam, since we had visited the city the previous year and absolutely loved it.

And this year, it is a “Painted Lady” of the San Francisco, CA. The first batch had accompanied me on a West coast tour in August and I had many photos to choose from. But before I load the finished look, allow me to explain the process.

I start with making scaled sketches of the facades. This time when I cut them to assemble into a rough model, I realized the house would possibly be too big for the amount of dough I had, so I scaled the facades down on my photocopier.

I cut the papers and laid them into the baking trays to figure out how they’d fit – efficiency is key, trust me on this. Then I rolled the dough directly onto the parchment paper (outside the tray, duh…), placed the papers on top and cut on the perimeter of each shape.

Not a good idea to cut the openings (windows, doors) as during baking the dough puffs up a bit and, if completely cut, the holes would become smaller. Mark them with the knife before baking, so they show when the pieces are taken out of the oven. Work quickly to cut the openings and remove shortly after baking, while gingerbread is still warm – as soon as it cools down, it becomes very hard and breaks easily.

Now the fun part: decorate pieces! Get out all the hundreds and thousands and stick them with a “glue” made of icing sugar and lemon juice. Not only terrribly sturdy, but also gives gingerbread a very yummy final taste.

Perform a bit of archaeological work and dig the contour of the house in the gingerbread base, so the walls would be stuck into it and will thus have more stability when glued.

And… voila! Finished re-creation of an architectural heritage piece.

That was two days ago. 

This morning: back to square one 17 years later. The baby in the first photo is all grown up and shows that photo to the present “baby” of the family. As for the house… you must know that earthquakes are quite likely in the San Francisco bay area. Well, today was one of those days, damaged heritage. 

Tradition is good. Tradition grounds you. It inspires in the good days, it comforts in the down times. Tradition is the stone upon which kids are raised to believe that miracles do happen, even when you are likely to stop believing because, well, it’s hard in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get world. Tradition is about passing on skills, loving your folks and land, cherish your good memories. Tradition is about the important stuff in life.

Tradition is good. Make yourself at least one if you don’t have it – and start now!