The other morning, on my way downtown on the AMT commuter train (which stands for Association Métropolitaine de Transport), I looked up from the novel I was reading and scanned the passengers in my car.

If you take the train regularly, you get to know people’s faces and even some of their habits : He goes in earlier on Tuesdays and Thursdays ; she usually has a neck pillow stashed in her bag—she must live near the end of the line.

In the Bombardier-made cars, some seats face frontward and some, backward. People have preferences about this too. My husband likes to face the direction the train is traveling in. I like to switch.

Looking ahead and to the left, my eyes settled on a man leaning his head against the window. Like me, he had chosen a backward facing seat. If you look at anything or anyone long enough, you begin to notice all kinds of things as your brain scans for patterns.

This was the head of an early middle-aged man. It had the polished, overgroomed look favoured by business people. His hair, though cut conventionally short, was slick from having been tamed by some product. He had a balding spot at the back of his head. Maybe he doesn’t know that yet. The flesh of his neck curved softly over the collar of his overcoat in a way that suggested that he’s looked like a stalky grown-up for a very long time, and is used to the tighter fit of his clothing. I imagined, too, that his body’s natural smells had been washed away in the shower that morning and replaced by the scent of designer cologne.

Then, as we fast approached the train line’s second to last stop, he woke from his snooze (I can only guess this as I couldn’t see his face) and got up. And there, where his head had been, was a smudge the size of a big man’s fist. A greasy hair stain.

His seat was now empty and I couldn’t help but stare at that jarring stain. He didn’t notice it. He just walked to the exit. But if he had, would he have felt a bit embarrassed? Would he have wiped the window a few times to minimize it? Maybe he wouldn’t have given a damn.

It was the strangest thing. I took my phone out and photographed it. If you look carefully, you can see it, dead centre.


On trains and buses, you expect the odd food wrapper or abandoned newspaper, but this was a breach of commuter protocol.

We’re meant to glide back and forth in this life, on public transit or through other public spaces, without leaving a trace.

I’ve been thinking about this for the past several days.

During my recent trip to London, I stayed with my son Christian in a small room, in an old building. It was warm and it was safe, but, like many of the buildings in Europe’s older cities, it had seen better days and was no longer getting much love. Just the minimal maintenance required to keep it standing. Enough to rent its rooms out for an exorbitant amount.

Many flatshares on North End Road, West Kensington, London, have rear entrances only.

There was a smell of decay everywhere. The drains of the bathrooms (shared by ten people) were slow, and body hair, head hair and scum built up all the time and quickly. The floors were always soaked because the shower door leaked.

During our last few days in London, we moved into a room at the Holiday Inn around the corner, in a newly constructed wing. The contrast between the place that had been Christian’s nest for a year and the gleaming bathrooms and impeccable bedroom we found at the hotel was so startling it made us giddy. It had the chemical smell of newness. We couldn’t wait to use the shower.

The truth is, of course, that hotel rooms are carefully constructed deceptions. Behind the illusion of pristine freshness is the reality of the carefully hidden traces that I was there; that hundreds like me were there. Traces scrubbed away or carefully camouflaged by maintenance staff.

But I WAS there. As were so many before me. There’s no altering this fact.

No matter how many hand sanitizer dispensers are placed all over our shared spaces; no matter how shiny and impervious food court furniture and office equipment might seem; no matter how clean elevator control panels and waiting rooms of every sort might appear to be, the truth is that we leave traces of ourselves everywhere we go, and the physical world absorbs them.

It’s true that some of these traces—microscopic, microbial leavings—can spell disaster to many of us. But it’s also true that the traces we leave behind mean everything.

This is so on a historical scale, of course. The recent destruction of Palmyra by ISIS—an obliteration of massive and tragic proportions—reminded me how important what we leave behind really is.

I think that we have to look more often and more closely at the traces we leave behind.

They are everywhere and on everything. They connect us to each other and to our human-made and natural worlds. They ground us. They ward off isolation. They are the marks that trigger our compassion.

We are—we were—after all, here.

Lucien-L’Allier Metro station. Downtown Montreal. My photo.

I was mindful of this when I went downtown this week. And so I noticed things.

It’s a long walk from the Lucien-L’Allier train station—which brings you right into the heart of Montreal—down into the bowels of the metro hidden below. During peak hours, people stream down the cement passageway like quiet drones. But there are many stories etched into the floors and walls.

There’s the graffiti I saw. One graffito is outside the plexiglass above-ground tunnel, on a stone wall. Its faded colours seem to have sunk into the surface like the cave paintings at Lascaux. It looks like it’s been buffeted by many cold winds. I had seen it before, for sure, but hadn’t ever really looked closely at it. How long has it been there? Who drew it? It has been softened by time, but what of the emotion of the artist who created it one day?

Graffiti seen from the tunnel at Lucien-Lallier station, Montreal.
Graffito seen from the tunnel at Lucien-L’Allier station, Montreal. 19-11-2015

Close by is a second graffito. In spite of its small size, this one pops. It’s just under a NO SMOKING sign with a heart drawn on it.


It’s in-your-face. An upbeat pink taunt. I think the artist is Rosy. It seems logical. I like the asterisk on the right. I wonder why Rosy added it. That’s what you write when there’s more to tell.

There are several human stories here. Clearly, the no smoking sign came before Rosy’s graffito. But I’m not sure when the smoking editorialist added his/her two-cents-worth, with «I heart».

I don’t consider either of these vandalism. It isn’t possible to make that concrete space uglier, and neither artist was trying to. But each left their mark.

Walkway at Lucien-L’Allier metro station, Montreal. My photo. 19-11-2015

Part of this same walkway has been closed off with metal fencing. That’s pretty recent and it upsets me, because I know why it was done.

The walkway is so damp that the wood is already becoming discoloured and the fencing is starting to corrode. It gives ever passerby a feeling of being penned in, and it’s morose.

It was done to ward off the homeless people (usually men at this tunnel) and other itinerants, who liked it here because they could sit on the ledge by the window and see the sunlight and watch people, cap-in-hand, in relative warmth and comfort.

IMG_2238It was meant to erase every trace of them. It’s ugly and it’s mean-spirited.

But their spirits are still there.

This week, I spotted a gap between the wall supports and a window in the tunnel. It’s been stuffed with garbage—mostly paper cups. Maybe these were once filled with beer and dumped there by Montreal Canadiens’ hockey fans after a game (the Bell Centre, where games are played, is also at Lucien-L’Allier).

 But I’m hoping that they were left there by the same men who were pushed out of the tunnel, so that we don’t forget them.

Closer to home, the marks left by the change of seasons, and the interaction between nature and human beings, are evident everywhere.

IMG_2275        IMG_2278

In late November in Montreal, the trees have been silenced by the stripping of their leaves. But there are always a few hangers-on—dry, discoloured and lonesome—to remind us of what, just a month ago, was a glorious multicolored show of foliage.

On my walk to and from the train station, I’ve observed that in a special act of resistance, the leaves have also left their imprint on the sidewalks, refusing to be erased altogether. There is, however, a rub: it’s only on the freshly laid sections of sidewalk that the reddish brown leaf shapes are visible. The newness of the cement absorbed the decaying pigments, creating impermanent works of art (I don’t expect them to survive the ritual salting of the sidewalks this winter).

Leaf patterns on a freshly poured cement sidewalk
Leaf patterns on a freshly poured cement sidewalk.




Older sidewalk.
Older, adjacent sidewalk.

I love this notion that the new surfaces were more receptive and more absorbant. Less hardened, able to let the imprints fade and capable of forming new ones.

About a year and a half ago, when she was about two, my beautiful granddaughter Penelope came to visit. We went through some of our girlie rituals, including applying an abundance of hand cream, which she loved, sniffing deeply as she rubbed her small hands together.

A day or two later, as I stepped out of the shower on a cold morning, I noticed a small shape on the bottom right corner of the steamed-up full-sized mirror on the wall. As I got closer, I realized with a pang of pure love that it was Penelope’s creamy, tiny handprint.

Of course, from that moment on, I made sure never to wash that part of the mirror. I had a perfect artefact of Penelope’s toddlerhood right there in my bedroom, and I looked for it every time I stepped out of the shower.

And then one day, it wasn’t there anymore. It’s been reabsorbed.

But that’s okay. As she grows and changes, Penelope continues to leave her mark on the world. And I curate new artefacts, such as the logo of this blog, which is a painting made by her as a gift for me, last summer.

Abstract, by Penelope Hildebrand Daoust
by Penelope Hildebrand Daoust





BEAUTIFUL LOOPS: a narrative in three parts

Part One

With my friend Louise, rue Mouffetard, Paris, 2012
With my friend Louise, rue Mouffetard, Paris, 2012

I sat down to write this blog post in the afternoon of Friday the 13th.  I meant it to be uplifting. I meant it to say something about cyclical patterns that we all can observe as we live; about how rather than unfolding, time creates loops. I meant to talk about some of the beautiful loops; the ones that carry lessons learned and passed along.

But I was interrupted by the nightmarish carnage that tore into the social fabric of Paris yesterday. Which sickens me and which is an example of the other kind of loops. The kind that are amplified by their diffusion around the planet in a matter of minutes by this century’s information technology. The loops that fuel our predisposition to mistrust, to paranoia, and to knee-jerk reactions.  The kind that make the world instantly small, but in the worst possible way because they bring a feeling of menace to our doorstep. Because they nestle right inside our minds.

I’ve spent the first couple of hours of this quiet Saturday morning browsing online, looking for confirmation of what seemed likely last night, and searching out measured and thoughtful written responses that I’ll carry with me throughout the days to come.

They’ll feed my own meditation on the cyclical patterns that I wish we could destroy once and for all, but that instead fill so much of the space and time we occupy. On the heels of November 11th—Remembrance Day to some, Veterans’ Day to others—we seem to have learned nothing. We have so far to go and so many lessons to repeat and repeat and repeat before we have learned to live as one.

The Parisians and tourists who were at the Stade de France, the Petit Cambodge restaurant, or at the Bataclan watching Eagles of Death Metal (a group from California) perform, didn’t know that they would soon be caught in something bigger and more terrifying than they could possibly imagine. They were, instead, doing what humans do best—coming together to celebrate and share with others. In the huge and diverse city of Paris, they had likely experienced many moments of peaceful and trusting human interaction that day; evolutionary evidence that we are capable of learning better ways of living in community.

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Part two

Maybe it’s the right moment to tell you about one of life’s beautiful loops after all.

I’ve spent most of the past month traveling to different companies throughout Montreal to evaluate employees interested in taking French classes, supported by their employer

Icelandic passport
Icelandic passport

and sponsored by the Quebec government—my employer.

Ninety-five percent of them are immigrants. Most arrived recently, but some have been here ten years or more.

This week alone, I interviewed more that 70 people. They are, of course, as individual as their fingerprints. I met people from Iran, Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong; from Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Britain, The United States, India, Israel, Israel by way of Eritrea, Romania, Russia and Bulgaria. I know I’ve forgotten a few.

It’s a counter-intuitive exercise.

A list of names is drawn up and handed to me when I arrive on site. I’m ushered to an empty conference room where I settle in with my stack of evaluation forms—one question grid per person.

I position myself facing the door, so that I can greet each of them with a smile.

Within minutes, the first candidate arrives. I have 10 minutes on average to assess their competency in French. The objective is to make sure they’re placed in the right group level so that they’ll learn, have a good time and won’t quit, and then go out into the office and the city and be able to live in French.

200px-Indian_PassportTen minutes is awfully short. You would think that it’s impossible to greet a stranger, make them feel welcome, put them at ease, create a line of comfortable communication, evaluate their linguistic ability and even give them a sense of excitement about learning a new language… in 600 seconds.

Amazingly, it happens almost every time.  We’re hardwired to connect, and in favourable circumstances, it’s almost as effortless as breathing.

One company stood out this week. It was the hardest destination to drive to, in a part of the city where the main arteries are a tangle of dead ends and strange exits. I was pulled over by a cop for driving in a lane reserved for buses (I was trying to read the addresses on the recessed buildings). He felt bad for me and tried to find the place I was looking for on his hand set. He couldn’t find it either.

I finally arrived, a little frayed, and was met by the company’s Accounts Payable Specialist who was visibly at least ten years younger than I had imagined him to be in our email exchanges. He greeted me with a warm handshake, a smile, and an offer of a cup of coffee or tea or water (many more offers followed during the three and a half hours I spent there).

Usually, I am then left to my own devices and simply wait for each candidate to show up. A system that often includes lulls.

But this time, my host took it upon himself to accompany each person to the door of my conference room as soon as the previous evaluation was done. This made things seamless and also invested the proceedings with a sense of solidarity and of importance.

When I was finally done, he of course appeared at the door, and we began to chat. It turns out that he arrived in Montreal as an eight-year-old child and found himself in Classes d’Accueil, the welcoming classes that help immigrant children transition into the regular French language school system here in Quebec, and the place where I began my career as teacher.

Once his French was good enough, he breezed through high school and college and university. I say breezed, but I know, of course, that he did this in his third language (he also speaks English and claims it’s better than his French, which is terrific!). I don’t know the circumstances that brought his family to Montreal, but I know that there was a period of culture shock and struggle.

And yet here he was: a perfect immigrant success story. In his mid-twenties and already managing a group of people a full generation older. Fulfilled in his Montreal life and fully integrated into Québécois society.

And eager to help the wheel make one more full turn for his colleagues.


Part three


Soon, as many as 25 000 Syrian refugees will arrive in Canada. Our newly elected federal government has made it a priority. Six thousand of these are expected in Quebec. Seventy percent of them are likely to settle in Montreal.

May they be part of a new cycle of community-building and acceptance; may they create a new and beautiful loop.

A shareable truth

BBC News recently posted a piece on Facebook by picture editor Phil Coomes titled : «The Beauty of the Montreal Metro». The shots are dazzling and Chris Forsyth, the photographer who took them, is described as being «in one of the best places on earth as the Canadian city’s subway is known for its modernist architecture, with each station on the original network – now nearly 50 years old – designed by a different architect ».

I clicked on the piece because the chauvinist Montrealer in me couldn’t resist something that casts my home town in a favourable light.

Phil Coomes is right. There’s nothing like fresh eyes to see what you were once blind to.

I’m aware of having been altered by two things in the past year: the first is the IPhone I got for Christmas 2014 (clearly, I’m not an early adopter), and the other is my trip to London.

Having my own camera for the first time in years changed the way I experienced London. I’m very easily distracted by sounds and by people, but with my IPhone in hand, I was looking at my surroundings with more active eyes, in search of evocative sights: images designed for sharing on my Facebook page. Not selfies. Moments.

Fog over Mount Royal, Sherbrooke St., Montreal Photo taken by me
Fog over Mount Royal, Sherbrooke St., Montreal
Photo taken by me

For a while after I got back home, my vision was still very active. I was seeing my own city with tourists’ eyes.

Phil Coomes’ piece reminds me why recorded images matter.

When my firstborn twin sons were babies, I pointed my husband’s brand new Minolta 35 mm camera at them and shot rolls and rolls of film. It was that first documentary rush new parents experience; a strong desire to capture and preserve time itself, I think.

But my relationship with documentary photography and video changed as I changed. A series of personal losses, one deeply traumatic, led me to redefine my relationship with time. With the meaning of my lifetime.

My twin sons at 2 1/2. Halloween. Photo taken by me
My twin sons at 2 1/2.
Photo taken by me

I remember especially one day when my mum brought over a video she had taken of my twins when they were about 5. We popped the cassette into the VCR and suddenly there they were, these two chubby little boys with lovely faces. Hearing their soft high voices and distinctive way of speaking, and seeing them move and walk was like being transpierced. I remember gasping and bursting into tears. The overwhelming emotion I felt in that moment was of pain and loss. It was the feeling that no matter how wonderful they were in the present, those two incarnations of them were gone forever.

There was such clarity in that moment.

What followed was a period of letting go. Photos of Christian, my third son, remain carefully stored in boxes, but I have lost my zeal to curate every memory and identify every signpost. It’s enough for me to know that they’re there and that images of who he was—that boy who still lives inside my memory—exist.

Today, with my IPhone, shooting moving and still  images has become a way of occupying the moment so that I can then document it with words, and the subtle remove that they afford.

In the space my words create, my experiences live and speak a different, though still shareable  truth.

«Whether he is an artist or not, the photographer is a joyous sensualist, for the simple reason that the eye traffics in feelings, not in thoughts. »—Walker Evans

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” —Anaïs Nin


Taking a Q

We’ve all seen–in real life or on screen–a small child peppering a wilting parent with the question: Why? But why, Mummy? Why daddy? Why do….? Why is….?

For the most part, parents keep their cool. Some—the really attentive ones—listen carefully and try to come up with an answer that’s in some way informative or at least one that will satisfy the child and put out the fire for a while. But some children have serious stamina, which wears their parents down to defeated shrugs and sometimes a state of exasperation.

Buried somewhere in every parent’s psyche is a fear of the questions themselves. Of not being able to answer them. Of not wanting to answer them. Of being exposed as an imposter (parents are supposed to know everything). Or, finally, of being asked the sort of profound philosophical questions that children are capable of throwing into a simple conversation, like: What is heaven, mum? What do you think it’s like?

Here’s the story behind those last two questions:

On a steamy summer afternoon when they were maybe 8 or 9 years old, I took my twin sons out for a drive. We were chasing a thunderstorm, which was my idea. We were following the lightning along the lakeshore (you could get a good clear view of it from there) because they were afraid of it, and I didn’t want them to be afraid. So we hopped into the car (a very safe place to be when there’s lightning!) and storm-chased.

WOW! Look at that one!

Oh! There’s another one!

It was so exhilarating. The wind blew and the darkened sky was lit up by bolts and sheets of lightning, with very little rain. The thunder rumbled and they kept pointing at new flashes. In a very short time, their feelings of uncertainty evaporated and were replaced by joy, and a happiness of the purest, simplest kind.

And that’s when those questions came up. What is heaven, mum? What do you think it’s like?

They now hung in the air. What could I answer?

IMG_1230Maybe it was because of the wondrous sky. Maybe it was because they felt, as I did, that this was a rare moment. What I remember most is that we were connected in that instant by a feeling of transcendence. All I know is that my answer came rather easily, and I still feel that I got it right (or at least, I can live with it).

What I answered was something like: «Well, I don’t know. No one really knows until they die. But here’s what I think maybe it is. How do you feel right now? »

They answered: «Great! Happy! Really happy! »

And I said: «Do you feel like being mean? Like saying something that could hurt someone? Do you feel jealous or angry or frustrated? »

They answered: «NO! NOT AT ALL!!»


And I answered: «Well, I think heaven must be like that. I think that when you’re in heaven, you always feel happy like that; you feel full of love. »

My twin sons, age 7
My twin sons, age 7

And to my tremendous relief, that was enough for them, and they just smiled, and we made our way home.

I think that our questions say a lot about us. They provide a window into our

preoccupations, our fears, our passions and our interests. They’re indicators of our inquisitiveness and of the life of our mind’s imagination and appetite for input.

Asking a question is always, in part, opening yourself to another—and perhaps even leaving yourself exposed. Which is why I think that our questions say something about the trust and confidence we have in each other.

Which is my long-winded way of introducing a new category on REEF. A new place to visit I named CHRISTIAN’S Q & A.

Some people never stop asking questions. My son Christian is one of them, and he can be relentless. You see, the gears of his creative brain never stop whirring and apparently, he has freakish recall (which serves him well as an actor!) and a capacity to store almost limitless amounts of information, factoids and esoterica. He’s also a cinema, comic book and graphic novel aficionado.

And so, just for fun, just to make conversation or just to watch me squirm, he throws these questions at me, when the mood strikes him.

Sometimes he gives me a headache, but mostly, he makes me feel good because he genuinely appears interested to know my answer.

The coolest thing about Christian’s questions is that under their geek culture cover, they’re actually challenging and expansive. Sometimes, they are so much so that I flip the question back at him so that he has to answer it first, just to give myself some time to think or in the hope that his answer will spark my own imagination.

I’ll end this post with a question Christian asked me yesterday. See what you’d answer, and then come back to REEF, and leave your answer in a Comment.  I’ll post my own answers…in time (maybe I’ll wait for yours, first).

QUESTION 1: If you had the ability to teleport, how would it change your life?

Teleport = to cause to travel by an imaginary very fast form of transport that uses special technology or special mental powers

For example, the character of Nightcrawler, in the X-Men comic series.

In the Aftermath

It’s November 1st. We’ve pushed the clocks back to where the earth says they should be. Enough messing around with the parameters of daylight.

What was once All Saints’ Day to many—or All Hallows, or Hallowmas in Shakespeare’s lifetime, or Samhain in pre-Christian time—is for most of us here above the 49th parallel the beginning of a slow slide into dark and cold and days that get shorter and shorter till it seems like the sun shows up only long enough to prevent us from sleeping 24 hours a day.

That’s pretty much what the aftermath of Halloween is all about.

IMG_2132I woke up this morning and looked outside. There’s a gorgeous carpet of leaves on the ground, but the trees, well, they’ve been stripped almost bare and are shivering in the damp.

I went to check the pumpkin I carved yesterday afternoon. The big candle inside isn’t burning anymore. I don’t know what time it went out but I hope it lasted through most of the night.

Some people blow theirs out before retiring to their TV rooms once the trick-or-treating is over and the doorbell has gone silent. But I’ve never been able to.


Some people start decorating their places for Halloween weeks in advance. A few days ago, I watched a documentary called The American Scream, about three families in Fairhaven, Massachusetts who redefine what it means to get into the spirit of Halloween, and whose preparations for it consume them year-round.

It’s a sweet and memorable movie about four men, really : two dads and a father-son team. They’re basically Halloween geeks. It’s their speciality. They pour their hearts and souls into the making of a Halloween so big and over-the-top that it dwarfs their everyday lives. They do this for reasons that are deeply personal but that we intuitively understand and empathise with almost from the first frame.

They’re trying to create the brightest possible light in their darkness.

I thought of them this morning. I thought about what’s left of last night’s magic and mystery and goosebumps. The ghoul and ghost and witch decorations that swung in the breeze last night, lit by black light, look more ordinary and plasticky; and the singed pumpkins will soon be scavenged by squirrels and birds.

MV5BMjA1MDUwODQ4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzc3MTc1OA@@._V1_SX214_AL_ (1)The men of The American Scream and their families will have to begin disassembling the spectacles of light, smoke and mirrors they created. Just like the rest of us.

I’ve always hated this : the aftermath. It’s the same with Christmas. When my sons were young, I made sure to take down the Christmas tree while they were asleep or else at school.

In a culture that has such an uncomfortable and fearful relationship with death, why do North Americans go so batshit crazy about Halloween (pardon the pun) ?

Why do people like the men in The American Scream—or like my sons and their friends who always dive into Halloween with such gusto and joy—go to such trouble?

It’s an interesting question. One of the cooler Montrealers (and frankly, there are lots of them), conductor Kent Nagano (well, we’ve adopted each other), who has been the musical director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra since 2006, presented a series of three Halloween concerts with the MSO on October 29th and 30th. In an interview he gave to promote this event, Nagano reminisced about growing up on a farm in California, and about how Halloween meant putting on costumes and getting together to tell ghost stories and play together. For him, beyond the candy and the costumes, Halloween was and is about community.

This is true of the folks in Fairhaven, Massachusetts in The American Scream, and it’s certainly true of my family, friends and neighbours.

In the dark of night, our ancestors huddled around a flame for safety and the comfort of community, and it appears that we feel this need too. Usually, its just the light of a TV (or a lonely computer screen), but sometimes, it’s a more special kind of illumination from which each of us carries away a spark. To light us in the aftermath.


Our Jack-o-lantern Halloween 2015 Photo by me
Our jack-o-lantern, the day after Halloween 2015


The Reef

Facebook post, September 29th, 2015:

Though I was in London 16 days, I feel as though I barely scratched the surface of it.

That’s in part because of the role I was there to play in Christian’s life, but mostly it’s because you have to live in London as Christian did to begin to grasp the magnitude of it and the way it draws people to itself.

I think Christian found the best metaphor to describe London.

He said that to him, it’s like a choral reef.

The more I thought about that image, the truer I found it to be. Choral reefs take ages to grow and to find an equilibrium. They are vast and varied, offering shelter to multiple living layers that learn to live in balance with each other and even to offer protection to each other.

London is an ancient city built layer upon layer, attracting life from the vast ocean of human populations. Life within it is multicoloured, stratified, fluid and fragile, and circulates through its Tube network.

Its most colourful spots are its gathering places, like Portobello Road, Borough Market, and all of its theatres and pubs.

Thank you Christian for showing me YOUR London. xoxoxoxo


beautiful_coral_reef_fish_wallpaper_3_nature  images

(Images: Coral Reef and Portobello Road, London, UK)

The Stage is a Magic Circle

“Act well your part; there all the honour lies.”
― Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

The best and most avid travellers plan meticulously, spending hours online doing the research that pays off once their destination is reached. I know many people like this, and I understand that built into it is the pleasure of anticipation.

I needed none of this. The prospect of meeting up with Christian in England kept me going for months leading up to September. He was to be my guide; all I had to do was follow along.

You can’t visit London with a drama school graduate without immersing yourself in its theatre culture. And you shouldn’t. Because New York City notwithstanding, London is the greatest theatre city in the world, with hundreds of theatres operating year-round. 

To a Montrealer, that seems fantastic,  even unbelievable, because it’s tough going for most theatre companies in the city, and next to impossible to live from full-time work on the stage.

I’m no expert, but I’ve learned a lot trailing in Christian’s wake, including the fact that the word play means what it ought to: enjoyment, entertainment, amusement, pleasure.

Londoners know this. They understand their cultural history, and in true Shakespearian tradition expect to be engaged—directly— by what’s unfolding on stage. Few subscribe to the notion of the theatre as two separate spaces: one for the players and one for the audience. Instead, English audiences react more like participants in the event. They also expect to be able to do this with a drink in one hand and a snack in the other. They shuffle, rustle ice cream wrappers, and generally make themselves at home.

For example, in The Play That Goes Wrong, there is no fourth wall. Instead, the characters occasionally speak directly to the audience, and circulate in the house throughout.

All of which is fantastic, and was a revelation for me.

During my two weeks with Christian, I saw eight theatrical productions: four at LAMDA’s Linbury Studio Theatre, and four in theatres throughout London. Christian also took me to The Electric Cinema, on Portobello Road: like dying and going to movie heaven.

The stage is a magic circle, and I have a lot of catching up to do.

September 23rd Facebook post:

The Electric Cinema, Portobello Road.
I mean: come on!
It comes with leather armchairs, foot rests, cashmere blankets, individual side tables, and a restaurant-bar at the back.
It’s almost reason enough to fly to London. xoxoxo
Oh! And the movie was Everest.

The Electric Cinema, Portobello Road, London, UK
The Electric Cinema, Portobello Road, London, UK


September 25th Facebook post:

Christian and I finished this sunny day by heading to Westminster to see The Oresteia.
When we were advised that it was a 3 1/2 hour show with small strictly controlled breaks, our resolve didn’t waver: such are the reviews of this fabulous adaptation of the Aeschylus trilogy (yes! 3 plays presented in one evening’s performance), that nothing was going to put us off.

It was bloody brilliant! Robert Icke’s daring adaptation had me hanging onto every word.


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September 27th, 2015: Day 15, The End.

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Christian took us to see The Mousetrap, the longest running show in the world.
How cool is that?!

A classic locked room mystery, and the root of every spoof and eccentric murder mystery since then, I think (such as Hot Fuzz and The Play that Goes Wrong and Midsomer Murders and…)

We were in the nosebleed section, in wooden board-seats that seemed designed for people with no legs (translation: in old theatres like St-Martin’s, the less affluent were short and able to put up with a lot of discomfort in exchange for the pleasure of seeing live theatre).

Still, we could hear every whisper and see every face.

There is a code of silence which every audience member must respect, so I can reveal NOTHING about the dénouement, except to say that I had it figured out at the interval.



Facebook post: Day 16. Last Day in London

Today’s great thrill was once again made possible by Christian who took me to the Globe Theatre to see Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Imagine this:

You’re standing in an OPEN AIR theatre that is a replica of a circular venue of late 16th century England.

You have a ticket that gives you the status of “groundling”: the cheapest seat in the house, but, unlike St-Martin’s theatre where you were wedged into a cheap, tiny seat, this ticket is for standing only, but standing right next to the stage; so close that you can reach out and touch the actors if you so choose. So close that you feel that you are part of the performance.

It is an astonishing experience.

The Globe is a huge success. The audience was made up of people of ALL ages. From the first sounds made by the horn players, the audience hushed…and then became spellbound.

I return home tomorrow having seen 8 live theatrical productions, and feeling almost as lucky as Christian, who has lived in this fantastic city for a year.

Now, it’s time for us to go home.

“The stage is a magic circle where only the most real things happen, a neutral territory outside the jurisdiction of Fate where stars may be crossed with impunity. A truer and more real place does not exist in all the universe.” 

― P.S. Baber, Cassie Draws the Universe