Archive | September 2014

Through My Lens: Irish Cow

Irish Cow

Now that I have cows on my mind, I can’t resist posting this photo. This cow was happily munching away when I rode past her, again on a bike, but this time in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland.

(And no, I did not lie on the ground to take this shot — the road and pasture were at slightly different elevations, about four feet apart. At the bottom left of the photo, you can just see the top of the stone wall that lined the road my friend and I were cycling along.)

Echte Nederlandse Koe

Dutch Cows

I’ve taken the train from Paris to Amsterdam many, many times. One of those times, I spent much of the journey eavesdropping on the idle talk of a Dutch couple sitting behind. From the way they spoke to each other, I surmised they might be brother and sister.

I’m by no means fluent in Dutch, so much of their conversation was way over my head. Except for shortly after we crossed the Belgium–Dutch border, when the woman said something I understood perfectly.

Nu is ere en echte Nederlandse koe. (Now there is a real Dutch cow.)

I smiled to myself. Could a cow seen from the window of a high-speed train possibly look more Dutch than Belgium or French? Really?


I knew what she meant. She was home ― back in her own country ― and everything looked familiar again. Oddly enough, I’ve always had the same feeling when travelling to the Netherlands from somewhere else by train ― only because, out of all the countries in western Europe, the Netherlands is the most familiar to me. It’s not my home, but crossing the Dutch border always feels like a home-coming of sorts.

I took the above photo while cycling through the Dutch countryside just outside of the city of Arnhem ― only because these cows struck me as particularly fine-looking specimens of Nederlandse cows.


On my first ever trip to the Netherlands ― the one that instilled in me my rampant travel bug ― our family visited Arnhem, the city where my mother was born and lived for the first ten years of her life before immigrating to Canada.

One morning, we went for a walk in a wooded park known as the Rozendaalse Bos. I noticed many damaged trees and asked Mom what the scars were from.

“Oh, those are probably from the war,” she said. “There was a lot of fighting around here.”

She said it so casually that I was shocked. The war (and by “the” war she meant World War II) was distant history ― so I thought ― and yet here was concrete evidence in trees still living. Maybe not such distant history after all.

That walk in the woods sparked in me a lifelong interest in learning more about World War II and what happened in Holland during those years. But it wasn’t until after my visit to the Normandy beaches with my dad that I began to do some serious research into exactly what happened to my mother’s family during the war.

I began by showing my uncle some letters my grandmother had written to me (at my request) about her childhood and experiences in Holland during the war. To my surprise and delight, he translated them for me (they were written in Dutch). After I read them, he and I spent a sunny, summer afternoon in his backyard, talking about the war and, in particular, his own personal experiences. He was able to fill in a lot of the gaps in the stories my grandmother had written down for me and the others that my mother had told me.

After I had exhausted my uncle with my questions, I began to read books. Many books. Much has been written ― is still being written ― about what happened in Arnhem during the war. Eventually I stopped reading and decided I had to visit Arnhem on my own.

I made several trips, each time exploring the quarter where my mother grew up as well as the rest of the city. I walked some of the streets I had read about in all those books. Much of what my uncle had told me, and much of what I had read about, came alive for me in the way that can only happen when you visit a place in person.

In 1944, Arnhem was the site of a major offensive by the Allied forces called Operation Market Garden. It was the largest airborne operation ever attempted, and was meant to hasten the end of the war by having the Allied forces leapfrog over the German lines into Holland. Once there, they would be in range of the industrial heartland of Germany. Capturing and holding three bridges over the Rhine River ― one at Eindhoven, one at Nijmegen, and one at Arnhem ― was the key to the whole operation. The American 82nd and 101st airborne divisions landed respectively at Nijmegen and Eindhoven and the British 1st Airborne Division landed at Arnhem.


Despite holding the bridge for days longer than planned, the British paratroopers ultimately had to withdraw. The bridge at Arnhem turned out to be “a bridge too far.” (That was the name given to Sir Richard Attenborough’s Hollywood film about Market Garden, which I watched on TV with my mother and grandmother not long after my first visit to Arnhem. And, yes, I peppered them both with questions during the entire movie.)

My mother’s family came through the battle relatively unscathed. Although their house was less than three kilometres from the bridge and they could hear the fighting, they were free to walk through the streets of their neighbourhood even while the centre of the city was under fire.

It was after the battle, when the Nazis evacuated the entire city, that things got rough. My mother remembered living in a barn ― my uncle told me it was only for a week. When the Germans told them to leave the area, they said, “But what about our cows?” The Germans replied, “Oh, you can go live over there,” and waved them off. “Over there” was a neighbourhood near the edge of the city that had already been evacuated.

They lived there, in someone else’s house, for almost a year. Not only did they and all the citizens of Arnhem have to wait for the city to be liberated by the Canadians, but it took months for the soldiers to clear the city and the houses of all the mines and booby traps left behind by the Nazis. My grandparents hid all of their canned goods under the floorboards before they left their home, but none of it was there when they returned. The Nazis had systematically looted most of the city.

My uncle spent most of that winter trying to evade the Nazis who were rounding up boys for the arbeitsdienst. (Military training with a shovel, he called it.) The Nazis took him once while he was taking care of the family’s cows, and another time during a razzia (raid) when he went for a short visit to the house where the rest of the family was living. He escaped both times, the second time by lying down in a ditch and pretending to be dead. He told me he was lucky he wasn’t shot.

And the final, most awful hardship of the war for my mother’s family was losing a son and brother (another of my uncles) who was killed by a piece of shrapnel from a shell that exploded in front of the house where they spent that winter. He was thirteen years old and Arnhem had been liberated just the day before.

It wasn’t until after I wandered through the neighbourhood where my mother’s family spent the winter of 1944 to ’45, on one of my visits to Arnhem, that all the pieces of the stories I had been told by my mother and grandmother and uncle came together for me ― the Rozendaalse Bos, which is the wood where my mother told me was the scene of so much fighting, was only a couple of kilometres distant. It was not hard to imagine how a stray shell ended up in front of their house, killing my uncle.

I’m writing this post because today is the 70th anniversary of the start of Operation Market Garden. Arnhem commemorates the anniversary every year, but it’s not the battle they’re celebrating. They’re celebrating the British paratroopers who tried so hard to end the war early for them. Annual events include a service at the Airborne Cemetery at Oosterbeek and a parachute drop by serving British paratroopers at Ginkel Heath (one of the drop zones during the battle).

I was in Arnhem in 2004 for the 60th anniversary. That year there was also a veterans’ parade across John Frostbrug and a convoy of vintage military vehicles from Oosterbeek to Arnhem. The applause for the soldiers never stopped; watching the Dutch people respond to the British vets, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to watch the Allied soldiers march past at a time when the Dutch were so desperate for the war to be over.

I watched the TV news that evening; one of the vets interviewed talked about what a mess they had made of the city and how it had pretty much been destroyed. “And yet,” he finished, “they love us!” While watching the parade on the bridge, I overheard another vet tell his family how he hadn’t paid for a single meal or drink since his arrival ― the Dutch kept picking up the tab.

And that was the moment. I realized then, finally, while eavesdropping on a vet and his family, that the hardships my mother’s family endured weren’t much different from what a lot of Dutch families ― and the Allied soldiers and their families ― went through during the war.

Each of us travels for a variety of reasons; researching your family’s history can be a powerful one. A walk through a battle-scarred wood set me off on a journey to find out what happened to my mother’s family during the war, culminating in a visit to Arnhem on the 60th anniversary of Operation Market Garden. They’re all gone now ― my mother and her family. But I’m so very glad I thought to ask them so many questions when I had the chance.

Happy Birthday, Bard on the Beach!

Bard on the Beach

A few months ago, I posted a photo in honour of the Bard’s 450th birthday. Today, I’m posting in honour of Bard on the Beach’s 25th season, which concludes this week.

Every spring, the tents go up in Vanier Park at the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge, and every fall, they come down. As far as summer Shakespeare festivals go, Bard on the Beach isn’t bad. It is the most expensive summer Shakespeare festival in Canada after the Stratford Festival in Ontario, but then, with four productions a year from mid-June to mid-September, it’s also the largest Canadian Shakespeare festival after Stratford.

Perhaps it is too large. Three years ago, the popular festival premiered its new, much larger main stage tent, which now has a capacity of almost 750. But the larger canopy was acoustically challenged, and the festival now has its actors wear mics, which irks me to no end. (Maybe it’s just me, but I like to know who is speaking while I’m watching live theatre, and that’s no longer possible when the voices are coming from a speaker above you instead of from the stage in front of you.)

Bard Main Stage Tent

Bard on the Beach used to be general admission, so you had to show up really early to get a decent seat. This was no different from any of Canada’s other summer Shakespeare festivals. What was different is you were always made to stand for a good chunk of time in what’s called the Bard Village ― a lobby area of sorts where vendors are eager to sell you wine or beer, snacks, or merchandise ranging from T-shirts and tote bags to, um, beach towels.

One year I was standing in this line, waiting (waiting, waiting…), when Christopher Gaze, artistic director of the company, stopped to chat to the couple standing right in front of me. He obviously knew them as they talked for a quite while ― I don’t remember what about ― but then the couple asked Christopher why the festival tents didn’t have assigned seating and why we had to wait so long before we were permitted to be seated.

Christopher looked around him, then said thoughtfully, “We want to create atmosphere.” The idea behind the wait, he explained, was to encourage you to chat with the people in front of you, or with the people behind you, and to give you time to make friends.

Balderdash, I thought, grumpily. You just want us to buy stuff.

(What I find particularly galling is that the Bard Village also sells pre-packaged picnics ― aka sandwiches and salads ― which is a total rip-off of Toronto’s Shakespeare in High Park. That festival creates atmosphere by charging pay-what-you-can for its general admission seating on a hillside and by letting you bring your own food. And your own picnic blanket. It’s the perfect venue for a summer picnic.)

But I digress. On this particular evening, I had an entire conversation with Christopher in my head. Maybe he heard me because Bard on the Beach now has reserved seating.

As for its theatre productions, I’ll just say this: I’ve seen some of the worst performances ever at Bard on the Beach, but I have also seen some of the absolute best Shakespeare ― the kind where you want the play to go on and on and on. And it’s the latter productions that keep me coming back. I never know what I’ll get.

Happy birthday, Bard on the Beach. Here’s to another 25 years!

Recipe Box: Sockeye Salmon

A sure sign that summer is morphing into fall is when the salmon start running.

Four years ago, the Fraser River had the salmon run of the century. More than 30 million sockeye swam up river to spawn that year ― the highest number since 1913. This year, their offspring are returning to spawn in spades, and both the commercial and sports fisheries are expected to match their harvest of 2010. (Time for a quick biology lesson ― just in case it’s needed. Salmon are born in freshwater rivers, migrate to the ocean, then return to the rivers to spawn. They always return to the river where they were born; thus, it can be predicted that a good salmon run one year will result in another good run several years later.)

False Creek Fisherman's Wharf

Now, if you live along the West Coast (as I do), you have the good fortune to be able to buy sockeye right off the boat (as they say). I bought a nice four-pounder last weekend. (I asked for the smallest one they had ― most were much bigger.) This year the sockeye are so prolific that the fishmonger up the street is matching the price I paid at the dock, and even my local big-chain grocery store is stocking whole salmon.

Salmons in the Sink

What to do with a whole salmon, you ask? Why, you fillet it. Or you cut it into steaks. (Trust me: YouTube is your friend on days like these.)

And then you grill it, bake it, pan fry it … the options are myriad.

I’ve tried all kinds of recipes, but my favourite way to prepare sockeye salmon is to keep it simple: season with salt and pepper, then pop it into a preheated 450°F oven. Bake for about 12 minutes, no longer. The key when cooking salmon in the oven is to not overbake it or it will be too dry.

And then: enjoy!

Salmon Steaks

Through My Lens: Fishing


Summer may be waning, but there are still photos to post.

I came across this woman fishing in Burrard Inlet early one morning several weeks ago.

Through My Lens: Second Beach Pool

Second Beach Pool

Today is the last day of summer. We might be able to fool ourselves for a few more weeks, weather permitting, but the truth is the days are getting shorter and the leaves are starting to turn.

This is Second Beach Pool in Stanley Park. It’s located at a lovely spot along the seawall overlooking English Bay. Like all of Vancouver’s outdoor pools, today was the last day of its season.

Tomorrow, it will be empty and lonely.