Thursday, May 24, 2007

Lesley Blanch

I just read of the death of an excellent travel writer whom I had recently discovered, Lesely Blanch. At the end of April I picked up her book Journey into the Mind's Eye, an account of her early fascination with Russia and travels to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, at a used book sale. I have not yet finished it, but find it an extremely romantic account of an obsession with a country, which like many obsessions originated with an obsession with a man. The man was a Russian friend of her parents who became her lover when she was only 17. The man's son also later became her lover.

Blanch wrote very well, recreating for the reader the long vanished Russia of the Czars and the 19th century writers. She clearly felt a kinship for that land and way of life that even when she was a child before World War I was very close to vanishing. She was far more interested in that than in modern Russia under Stalin, but she had the romantic's ability to see what she wanted to see rather than what was actually there.

Her first successful book, which I must find, is an account of four European women who left convention behind and found love in the Arab world, which Blanch herself also visited frequently and admired. Clearly she herself must have resembled one of the characters, Lady Jane Digby, in many ways. It is called The Wilder Shores of Love. Another book that sounds like a must read is The Sabres of Paradise, an account of the Russian struggles against Chechnya in the 19th century.

Blanch, who died earlier this month at 102, was married three times and spent her later years in Menton, France. She is a writer well worth reading.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Montreal transit strike, Free Museums Day

The good news in Montreal is that Free Museums Day is next Sunday, May 27. Most of the cities museums are open to the public all day for free, and shuttle buses operate to carry visitors between the various museums. The bad news is that those may be the only buses operating in the city next Sunday outside of rush hour service. Maintenance workers for the MUCTC which operates Montreal's buses and Metros are scheduled to begin a strike this Tuesday, May 22.

I am suggesting in a letter to The Gazette that Montrealers adopt the system for getting around cities that Russians use --informal taxis. You stand on the street with a bill folded in your hand with part of it sticking out and hold out your hand. Drivers who want to pick up a little extra cash stop and ask where you are going. If it is on their way, they take you and you hand over the bill, usually 100 rubles, when you arrive safely. I noticed when I did this a couple of years ago in St. Petersburg that only the battered older cars stopped, never the SUVs or limos, but the system worked fine.

If you are planning a visit to Montreal, it might be better to wait for a while. The province's essential services council is ordering that service be maintained during rush hours and late at night, but whether this will actually happen is open to question. Traffic is going to be even more chaotic than usual during the strike. While I generally support unions and the right to strike, I believe exceptions should be made in the case of essential public services like transit.

If you are already in Montreal, there is another great free event scheduled this coming week, the Montreal International Music Competition. It's all about voice, it lasts from May 22 to June 1 and many of the events are free. I'm especially looking forward to the master class to be given by baritone Sherrill Milnes next Sunday at 2 p.m. at Salle Claude Champagne of the University of Montreal. I heard Carlo Bergonzi give a similar class two years ago and it was amazing. It's a wonderful opportunity to hear these now retired opera singers who are trying to pass on their love of music and opera to young singers.