The United Nations

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” — Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Today is about some significant anniversaries.

For one, 70 years ago today the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. One of the authors of that declaration was a Canadian lawyer and diplomat named John Humphries, who was Director of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from 1946 until 1966.

For another, 61 years ago today Lester B. Pearson accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. It was awarded to him in recognition of his work at the UN, including his 1956 resolution that an international United Nations force be sent to the Suez Canal to deal with the crisis there. At the time, Pearson was the UN General Assembly President and Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs. He later served as Canada’s fourteenth Prime Minister.

The UN General Assembly Chamber

The international force Pearson envisioned is today known as the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces. Seventy peacekeeping operations have been deployed since 1957, and 14 are currently still underway.

The phrase “United Nations” was first used by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 as a term for the 26 nations who came together to fight Germany, Italy, and Japan during World War II. These Allied Powers, along with 24 additional countries, met in San Francisco in June 1945 at what was called the United Nations Conference on International Organization. They drafted the United Nations Charter, which was signed by 51 countries and ratified in October of that year.

Today, the UN has 193 members.

Given that I’ve been to New York City four times before my most recent visit, I’d already ticked off most of the “Top Ten Things to Do in NYC” a long time ago. Except for one.

I had never been to the United Nations Headquarters.

Here’s a pro-tip from me: Don’t wait until your fifth visit New York to go to the UN. It’s far too important an institution for any citizen of this planet to ignore.

The UN has offices in Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi, but its headquarters are in New York. The UN General Assembly meets here once a year. The UN Security Council also meets here, as often as necessary. Its five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) were all members of the Allied Powers during World War II. The Security Council also has ten non-permanent members, who are elected for two-year terms. Canada has served on the Security Council six times since 1945, the last term being from 1999 to 2000.

The UN Security Council Chamber

I learned all this from our Austrian guide. She also told us how the UN Headquarters is designated as international territory. You can feel that, actually, the minute you walk into the building.

The chairperson of the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. I’m going to finish this post by quoting what she said on the tenth anniversary of the declaration. Her words are ever so powerful and, given the current inclination towards ultranationalism that seems to be blanketing the globe, they are words we should all strive to live by.

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

The United Nations Headquarters

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Recipe Box: Ratatouille

When I was flying back from New York the other month, I watched a couple of episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown on the plane, including the episode he shot in Newfoundland. (If you haven’t seen it, do. It’s hilarious and oh-so-Canadian.)

A world without Anthony Bourdain is all the poorer, I thought as I looked out my window somewhere over the American Midwest. The celebrity chef, travel writer, and TV personality died six months ago today. I had this sad anniversary in mind while working on my last post about Le Bernardin. Eric Ripert was a close friend of Anthony’s, and he appeared on his shows many, many times. They were together in France, filming an upcoming episode of Parts Unknown, when Anthony died.

The first Anthony Bourdain show I ever watched was an episode he filmed in Provence for No Reservations. My sister had recommended his show to me; I had never heard of the guy and had absolutely no expectations. But I went to YouTube, clicked on the episode — and have been a fan every since.

One line of dialogue in the episode about Provence always stuck in my memory. Anthony was preparing a meal for his new Provençal friends and he was quite nervous about messing it up. He set his dish of ratatouille down in front of them, they tasted it, nodded politely, and then said, “It’s true that your ratatouille is very handsome.” After much laughter, Anthony asked what he got wrong. They replied, “You didn’t miss anything. It’s just … not a ratatouille.”

I remember laughing out loud at that point. Food is so much a part of the travel experience, and we try our best to replicate what we eat elsewhere when we are back home again, but most of the time we fail. It’s never quite the same. Rewatching the episode now, after the dozens of Anthony Bourdain TV shows I’ve watched since, I marvel at his self-awareness. It’s a rare quality that few celebrities (and, to be honest, men) possess.

A traditional dish from the south of France, ratatouille is essentially stewed vegetables. Like many French dishes, its origins are simple: it was a way for peasants to use what they had readily available in their gardens.

Last summer, I made a lot of ratatouille. It was a very good year for zucchini at my local farmers market and every weekend, I came home with bags of the stuff — all shapes and all sizes. And whenever I saw my sister, I was given bowls of tomatoes and handfuls of basil and thyme from her garden. What better dish to make than ratatouille when you have more fresh vegetables and herbs than you know what to do with?

This recipe is based on several versions, including Anthony’s. Vary the quantities according to your own preferences. I like to use cherry tomatoes, but if you use full-size tomatoes, you probably want to peel and seed them. If your squash are on the larger size, quarter the slices. Make sure your eggplant is on the smaller side as you want each cube to have a bit of the skin. And, most importantly, cook each vegetable separately to help retain their shape and texture.

I’m sure what follows is also “not a ratatouille,” but in my humble opinion it tasted all right.

Bon appétit!

Ratatouille

olive oil
1 medium red onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 medium eggplant, cubed
1 large red pepper, seeded and diced
2 medium zucchini, sliced
1 yellow zucchini, sliced
several sprigs fresh thyme
one handful fresh basil, shredded
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

1. In a large, high-sided frying pan, heat several splashes of olive oil over medium to medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic. Cook until soft, then remove from the pan and spread out on a cookie sheet to cool.
2. Wipe out the pan and repeat with the cherry tomatoes. When they are beginning to soften, smush them with the back of a wooden spoon to release their juices. Cook a little bit longer, then season with salt and pepper. Transfer them to the cookie sheet, keeping them separate from the onions and garlic.
3. Repeat with the remaining vegetables, wiping out the pan, seasoning with salt and pepper, and transferring to the cookie sheet each time.
4. When all the vegetables have cooled to room temperature, combine them in a large mixing bowl. Add the thyme, basil, and balsamic vinegar, and adjust seasoning if necessary. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 3 or 4 hours before serving to let the flavours blend. Serve reheated or at room temperature.

Dishing: Le Bernardin

While in New York the other month, my sister and I treated ourselves to lunch at Le Bernardin. This New York institution has maintained its three Michelin stars for the past 14 years and, just last week, it was named the world’s best restaurant by La Liste, a Paris-based ratings organization.

The world’s best.

Hee. It was quite the lunch.

Le Bernardin specializes in seafood, which seems like a natural choice given that the restaurant’s founders, Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze, grew up in Brittany, on the French coast. This brother and sister opened their first restaurant in Paris in 1972, calling it Les Moines de St. Bernardin after a song their restaurateur father used to sing about an order of monks who loved to eat and drink. When Gilbert and Maguy moved to New York in 1986, they simplified the name of their new restaurant to Le Bernardin.

Eric Ripert, who was only 26 when he joined the restaurant in 1991 as Chef de Cuisine, took over as Executive Chef after Gilbert’s sudden death in 1994. He is now a partner in the restaurant. When I got home from New York, I read Eric Ripert’s book, On the Line, which describes the inner workings of the restaurant. Want to know what I learned?

Le Bernardin is a machine.

In order to serve some 1200 dishes every day, 800 pounds of fish are delivered first thing in the morning. All of it is butchered on site — a process that takes six hours. To make 240 sauces each week, the restaurant goes through, per day, 10 pounds of shallots, 5 pounds of garlic, 10 pounds of ginger, and 30 pounds of butter.

(Thirty pounds of butter!?!!)

One neat thing about Le Bernardin, by the way, is that the day’s leftover food is donated to City Harvest, an organization that feeds one million New Yorkers each year.

Le Bernardin is on the ground level of a non-descript office building in Midtown Manhattan with screens hiding the interior from the street. If you didn’t know where to go, you wouldn’t know it was there. But once you are inside, it’s as if you’ve entered another world.

The service was seamless. We lost count, but my sister and I think there were at least seven people waiting on us. And because all staff are full-time, there are no actors moonlighting as servers at Le Bernardin. Instead, you are surrounded by professionals.

The menu consists of three parts: Almost Raw, Barely Touched, and Lightly Cooked. For the three-course prix fixe that my sister and I ordered, we were instructed to order one dish from the left side of the menu (Almost Raw and Barely Touched) and one dish from the right side of the menu (Lightly Cooked). I had Barely Cooked Scallop with Sea Beans and Bonito Butter Sauce and Pan Roasted Merluza with Stuffed Zucchini Flowers and Brazilian Shrimp Moqueca Sauce.

I apologize for the lack of photos. I was too overwhelmed with what I was seeing and tasting to pull out my camera.

When it came to my third course, however, there was no question that I had to document the moment. This is a Golden Hazelnut Sphere with Frangelico Mousse and Praline Ice Cream.

Yes, that is gold leaf on the hazelnut sphere.

I don’t know if New York’s streets are paved with gold, but this I do know: its pastries sure are.

Christmas at the Met

It’s December tomorrow.

Already.

Seriously, how is it possible that Christmas is just around the corner??

My last post was about New York, so today I’m posting again about that city. Here is a photo I took when I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art two years ago to check out their Christmas tree. This is an annual display in the Met’s Medieval Sculpture Hall. Surrounding the tree are figurines from a Neapolitan Crèche dating from the Baroque era. The detail of these figurines is exquisite.

New York at Christmas time is magical — almost (but not quite!) as magical as Paris. Two of my closest friends are in New York this weekend, taking in the Christmas spirit, and I’m so pleased they get to experience the magic for themselves.

Everybody should, at least once.

Through My Lens: Empire State Building From the High Line

A month ago today (a month? already??), I flew home from New York City. Here’s a photo I took from the High Line while I was there.

I love visiting New York. It’s one of those cities I return to every chance I get because there’s just no place like it. New York has all the energy. All the energy.

I was surprised when I stopped to count and realized this last visit was my fifth time in the Big Apple. What was also a bit of a surprise — when I stopped to think about it — was that it took five visits to make me realize that New York is not an easy place to live.

I guess I’ve never stopped to think about how, in New York, you do the kind of things that make up a life. Like where you buy your groceries. Where you walk your dog. How you cope with a minuscule apartment (because apartments in Manhattan are ti-neeee!). Or how far you might have to commute when you work in Manhattan but can’t afford to live there.

That’s not to say the Canadian cities I know best (namely, Vancouver and Toronto) don’t have their problems. But as I rode the A train all the way from Manhattan to JFK to catch my flight home, it hit me that all those exhausted faces I was looking at had to ride that overcrowded train every single day.

I won’t describe my week in New York as relaxing — New York is never relaxing when you’re trying to squeeze in as many museums and performances and restaurants as possible. But it was a good break from my work and my life.

As all weeks away should be.

The Last Greyhound

It’s the end of an era today. At midnight tonight, Greyhound is suspending all services in Northern Ontario and Western Canada. The decision is justified, says the American-owned company, by a 41 percent drop in ridership since 2010.

Greyhound moves millions of Canadians every year, and has done so in British Columbia and Alberta since 1929. For those rural Canadians who don’t or can’t drive, losing the Greyhound means losing their ability to get to larger centres for services not available in their communities, like specialist medical appointments. It also prevents them from connecting with friends or family. And during our snowy, icy winters, travelling through mountainous BC is far safer by bus than by car.

It’s already being reported that 87 percent of Greyhound’s routes will be covered by smaller, private operators — including Indigenous-owned companies — which are ramping up as we speak. This morning the federal government announced funding to help fill the gaps and that it is working on a long-term national transport solution.

My student days of 18-hour Greyhound treks between Edmonton and Vancouver are (thankfully) long behind me. (I assure you, there is little that is more depressing than a 3 a.m. rest stop at Blue River in the dead of winter.) But I still regularly take the Greyhound for short hops between Calgary, Red Deer, and Edmonton. I typically take it during non-peak hours and the buses are always full. My fellow passengers are people of all ages and social classes. Many are tourists. Some of us choose to take the bus, while others don’t have a choice, In a country like Canada, with too much geography, public transit is not just a service. It’s a right.

This photograph is of the last Greyhound I will ever take in Canada, which I rode from Calgary to Red Deer last month.

Vansterdam

O Cannabis!

Recreational marijuana, as of this month, is now legal in Canada. This has caused a flurry of media attention and a raft of bad puns.

The sentiment in Vancouver seems to be that October 17, 2018, was a non-event. Because, well, this is Vansterdam, after all.

It took a mix-up about a long-haul flight from Amsterdam to wake me up to the fact that Vancouver has a thriving underground drug scene. The mix-up started with me wandering up and down Schiphol’s cavernous terminal one morning, many years ago, looking in vain for the Air Canada check-in counter. As I retraced my steps, I noticed an information desk with a small Air Canada sign above it in an out-of-the-way corner.

“Hi,” I said, handing the agent my ticket. “I’m booked to fly to Vancouver today through Toronto. Where do I check in?”

The agent looked at my ticket, then he looked at me, then he looked again at my ticket.

“We don’t fly to Toronto today,” he said. “Weren’t you contacted about the new timetable?”

“No…,” I said, slowly. “Nor did anyone say anything about a timetable change when I checked in for my outbound flight two weeks ago.”

He started tapping his keyboard.

“I need to get back to Canada today,” I added. “I have to be at work tomorrow.”

“We’ll get you on another flight,” he said as he typed.

True to his word, in no time at all, he handed me a new ticket and a boarding pass. I was now booked on a KLM flight direct to Vancouver. And by the time he was finished with me, there was a line-up of people behind me, no doubt all of them wondering what had happened to their flights back to Canada.

Some ten hours later, I was going through the usual routine that seems to take forever when you’re jet-lagged: the long walk through the international terminal, the long wait at customs, the brief chat with the customs officer, the long wait at the baggage carousel, the handing of my customs form to the customs officer at the exit doors….

Which is exactly where the routine stopped being routine.

“Please go through there,” he said. That woke me up. He was pointing to the room where they send you when they want to search your luggage. Groan. Why me?

A customs officer waved me over and told me to set my suitcase on the table in front of her. She looked at my customs form and asked to see my plane ticket, then opened my suitcase and proceeded to look through my belongings.

She looked at my ticket again.

“You bought this ticket this morning?” she said.

“No,” I said. “I bought it months ago.”

She continued looking through my suitcase and asked me about every non-clothing item.

She’s being awfully thorough, I thought.

“You bought a one-way ticket this morning?” she asked me again.

And then the penny dropped. She was looking for drugs.

“Oh!” I said. “No! I bought the ticket months ago, but Air Canada changed its timetable and didn’t think to let me know, so they booked me on the KLM flight to get me home,” I explained. “There were a whole bunch of us.” (Except it wasn’t until later that I remembered the “whole bunch” was put on a flight to Toronto, whereas I was likely the only traveller flying all the way to Vancouver.)

My story seemed to satisfy the customs officer. She told me I could close up my suitcase and go on my way.

(As an aside: I don’t know how Canada Customs knew that my ticket had been issued only that morning — this was pre-9/11 — but that incident made realize that my government watches me in many more ways than I will ever know.)

Back to the beginning of my post. Pot is simply so not part of my world. Yes, I occasionally notice a pungent odour when walking along one of the beaches in this city. Sometimes I see people smoking up on the street. Whatever. But for me to be suspected of being a drug courier? That’s a laugh.

However, in the past few years, Vancouver’s status as the Cannabis Capital of Canada has become too obvious for even head-in-the-clouds me to not notice. That’s because of a federal program allowing the production and sale of marijuana for medical use that went into effect in 2013. The number of pot dispensaries in Vancouver jumped from about a dozen to almost a hundred. But only a quarter of them were approved by Health Canada and so, in 2015, the city council passed a bylaw to regulate and license the dispensaries, much to the disapproval of our beloved federal government. The city’s response was that it was taking action because the federal government had failed to do so.

The bylaw requires dispensaries to pay $30,000 for a business licence, and they are not allowed to operate within 300 metres of a school or community centre or another marijuana dispensary. And so, Vancouver became the first city in Canada to regulate the sale and distribution of a drug that was illegal under federal law except for medicinal use.

Fast forward to this month. Canada is only the second country in the world to legalize marijuana for recreational use. (The other is Uruguay. Contrary to popular belief, marijuana consumption in the Netherlands is tolerated, but not legal. Kinda like Vancouver before now.) Smoking laws must still be obeyed, so you can only smoke up where it’s legal to smoke cigarettes. In Vancouver, that rules out the beaches and parks. And, erm, the building I currently live in.

As of today, 19 of Vancouver’s medical marijuana dispensaries are licensed, 46 have land-use approval but no licence, and 75 are operating illegally. The illegal ones have been advised to shut down until they are provincially licensed to avoid prosecution — and I noticed the other day that my closest medical pot dispensary is shuttered.

Incidentally, I went through customs at Vancouver Airport on October 17, exactly an hour after recreational pot became legal in the province of British Columbia. Lo and behold, there was a new question on the declaration form: Was I bringing cannabis into Canada?

Nope.

Just as I wasn’t all those years ago when I flew from Amsterdam to Vancouver.

I can’t imagine pot tourism coming to Vancouver anytime soon, but with recreational marijuana still a budding industry, who knows what the future holds? The tourists might come for our scenery, but stick around for the unnatural high.

The New Amsterdam Cafe advertises itself as “North America’s premier smoke friendly cafe.” It has been operating on Vancouver’s Pot Block since 2000.

Munro’s Books

Today is International Literacy Day so I am going to make a plug for reading while also posting about the last island I hopped to this summer.

That would be Vancouver Island. I finished off my visit with a day in Victoria, and I spent a good part of that day browsing in what I consider to be two of the best bookstores in Western Canada.

Maybe all of Canada.

One of those stores, Munro’s Books, is celebrating its 55th birthday this year. If you love books, this store alone is worth the trek to BC’s capital city.

Munro’s was founded by Jim Munro, former husband of Alice Munro. As the store’s own website puts it, that would be that Alice Munro. It’s in an exquisite setting — a stunning heritage building built in 1909 to house a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada. Jim Munro bought the building in 1984. When he retired in 2014, he sold the business to four long-time staff members.

The story has a loyal clientele. As you can see, I went home happy.

Through My Lens: Salt Spring Island Cat

This is a travel blog, yes, but who doesn’t run into a cat or three while on her travels?

This is Amy. She was keeping me company while I enjoyed myself in my friend’s garden on Salt Spring Island the other weekend.

The best travel days always include gardens. And cats. Truly.

Through My Lens: Highland Cows at Ruckle Farm

Another island I hopped to this summer was Salt Spring Island. I go here often, thanks to the hospitality of one of my dearest friends.

These Highland cows are at Ruckle Farm on Salt Spring’s South End. Salt Spring has a long agricultural history and Ruckle Farm — founded in 1872 — is one of the oldest farms in the province. It is still being farmed by the Ruckle family.

Fun fact: Highland cows are a Scottish breed of cattle and my friend who lives on Salt Spring Island is a proud Scottish-Canadian.

Just though I’d mention that.

One more note: The haze in this photo is due to the smoke from BC’s wildfires, which blanketed the southern coast of the province the weekend I was on Salt Spring Island.