Although I've been back since last Monday, I still haven't fully acclimatized to the 6-hour time difference between here and France. But beyond that, there were very few real down-sides to my week-long trip that was part business, part pleasure. France, somewhat to my surprise, welcomed me with open arms!

The reason for going to France this year was to attend the annual meeting of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), held this year in Lyon (next year it will be in Capetown, South Africa; I don't plan to go). After my experience being scrunched up on an Air Transat flight from Toronto to Glasgow a couple of years ago, I decided with this Air Canada flight (Montreal to Paris) to treat myself to something called "Premium Economy" class. You're still in an economy class cabin, but near the front. You get priority boarding along with the Business Class folks, more leg room and space generally, 2 free checked bags (though I managed with just one carry-on), free newspapers, a slightly nicer meal (including free wine), and a little takeaway care package including earphones, toothbrush and toothpaste and a couple of other goodies I can't recall). The trip back home was even nicer. I had checked in from my hotel room and although they preassigned me a seat for the very short Montreal to Ottawa leg of my trip, they indicated that my seat for Paris to Montreal would be assigned at the gate. When I arrived, they said I would be paged before boarding to get my seat assignment, but that never happened. So when priority boarding time rolled around, I presented my boarding pass at the gate, the nice flight attendant took it to her desk, returning seconds later with a new one, complete with seat assignment - in Business Class.

It was quite the experience. Tons of room. Sparkling wine prior to takeoff and plenty of food and drink throughout the flight. An upgraded care package including a very nice pair of socks. Very attentive service. I could get used to this!

But back to when I arrived in France, on the morning of August 19. I was amazed at how easy it was to get into the country. When I've visited the U.K. or the U.S., the border guards usually ask the purpose of my visit, how long I plan to stay, whether I packed my own luggage, whether I'm bringing certain things into the country ... well, you get the idea. All of which can make for long lineups and long waits. But with France, there was none of that. The "border police" took a cursory look at my passport photo, a cursory look at me, then stamped my passport and I was on my way. To the airport's train station where I was able to get a train directly to Lyon's Part Dieu railway station. Unfortunately, I had not pre-booked a ticket so the economy or second-class was full. So I splurged on a first-class ticket for the two-hour journey to Lyon.

That's actually one area where I think Via Rail Canada in many ways has the edge over French trains. Admittedly, the French train was modern and spacious and had a nice smooth ride. But they don't have service to your seat, they don't give you a free meal even in first class, and... well, I guess it was just different. I did the return journey from Lyon to central Paris via regular coach class and concluded it's not really worthwhile getting a first-class ticket if you have the choice.

On arrival in Lyon, I didn't have to go far before seeing huge posters welcoming IFLA delegates to Lyon in all five official conference languages and informing us of exactly which buses would take us directly to the convention centre. Without luggage it probably would have been quite walkable, but since we got free transit passes as part of our conference package, and since I was still very jet-lagged from having been awake all night, the short bus trip and chance to see Lyon at street-level was welcome. Our conference materials were packaged in classy navy-blue laptop bags - something I can definitely reuse, unlike a lot of the bags I've brought home from similar conferences.

It was around 2 PM by this time. I was glad to be staying at Residence Temporim, a kind of self-contained apartment-with-maid-service, just steps away from where the conference sessions were being held. Only problem was that there weren't too many places nearby stocking basic groceries to bring up to my home-away-from-home. Plenty of restaurants but nothing like a corner-store or supermarket. But I did manage to take out some supplies from a coffee-shop/deli type of place in the vicinity.

That first day, I managed just one session, from 4:00 to 6:00, on library services to LGBT (etc.) populations called "Addressing the Silence", a panel with a variety of interesting speakers from diverse countries with diverse cultures and degrees of diversity-friendliness - Sweden, Hungary, Bible-belt USA, Brazil, U.K., Canada... Some important issues came up and I wish I'd been a little more awake and alert for it! Afterwards, I went back to my digs, had a light supper and slept for over 11 gloriously unbroken hours!

What with attending conference sessions on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I didn't really see as much of Lyon as I would have liked. We were, for example, practically on the doorstep of the huge, beautiful and tranquil Tete d'Or Park and I could easily have spent a day just exploring that! I did get to see a very interesting exhibit of Treasures from the Lyon Public Library.

Friday was the day we got to do full-day tours of out-of-town libraries and I had opted for the Bibliotheque national de la France (two of its larger branches), in Paris. I had also decided to extend my stay there and spend the entire weekend in Paris before flying home on Monday.

Ah, Paris! My hotel was on rue Jacob in the 6e arrondissement, the St-Germain des Pres area, where you can't walk two steps without stumbling upon history and the spirits of famous people who have called Paris home. Hemingway. Gertrude Stein. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Richard Wagner. I was steps away from the Cafe aux Deux Magots and the Cafe Flore. When I got up to my room, via the minuscule elevator, there was a 375 ml (or 37.5 cl, come disent les Francais) bottle of Mouton Cadet awaiting me, with a note from the hotel management urging me to enjoy my stay. On my final day there, they left me a plate of macarons, those wonderful sandwich biscuits that are native to the area.

Since my time there was fairly limited, I generally avoided very touristy places like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre (though we did walk through the grounds and gardens en route to the Richelieu site of the national library) which can be a bit overwhelming. On the Saturday, I made use of my 3-day Metro pass to visit Pere Lachaise Cemetery, while Sunday was devoted to exploring on foot the area around my hotel. This included visits to the Eugene Delacroix Museum which has a wonderful garden and at the moment a special exhibit called "Eugene Delacroix, le plus legitime des fils de Shakespeare", and the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. In addition to letters of famous figures in French literature, this museum also included: a letter from John Lennon to someone called Christine, an impassioned plea to end world hunger; and a storyboard for the Orson Welles film The Trial (based on Kafka's famous novel) which, coincidentally, I had just recently watched on the Turner Classic Movies channel.

There were some surprises. The first related to language: the number of people who spoke English and the number of signs in English, as well as the country's hospitable-ness to people speaking other languages: for instance, you could buy a Metro-Pass or withdraw money from a machine in any of five or six different languages at the touch of a button. After being used to Quebec with its language laws that was a welcome surprise. The second related to the hours kept by French shops and other businesses. I suppose I had thought Paris was too far north to be in a siesta-oriented locale but in fact, many places did close between about 1 and 3 or 4 PM and then remain open till at least 7 PM. Moreover, if I had the choice, I would not visit France in August again, simply because that's when the French take THEIR holidays. Of course, the touristy places were open, but the smaller (and often more distinctive and interesting-looking) places were often closed for the entire month, or at least the middle two weeks of August. The notable exception was the Bibliotheque national, which apparently has its BUSIEST time in August, as many French folk apparently consider the library an ideal place to spend their vacation!

The third surprise related to rituals associated with food and drink. Of course, I had to experience sidewalk cafe culture. But at most of these establishments, the chairs (two or three rows of them) were turned OUTWARDS towards the sidewalk, the clear message being that you're not looking at your dining companion, you're looking at the people walking past! Smoking is still very much in evidence there too, at least at the outdoor tables. And the coffee itself? Well, if you order a coffee in France, you shouldn't automatically assume you'll be brought milk or cream with it. You'll get plenty of sugar and often a biscuit too, but in terms of coffee, you'll probably get a tiny cup of espresso and your cup will not automatically be refilled, either. To my surprise as well, a "cafe au lait" request does not typically yield one of those large white bols like you get here but merely coffee with milk on the side. I learned to request "cafe creme" to get it to my taste.
Seated out on the patio enjoying "le brunch" at Cafe Bonaparte on Sunday, I watched the flaneurs of Paris flane by - the man on his bike flogging Sunday papers, the organ-grinder with a little dog instead of a monkey... it was wonderful!

Still on the theme of food and drink, you shouldn't assume when they bring bread to your table that they will also bring butter. Or, for that matter, margarine or oil or any of the other things they might serve here. Now, one thing I DID discover while browsing the Marche St-Germain on Sunday was "pineau", a mixture of cognac and red grape juice. Quite tasty!

I wonder when (or if) I'll have an excuse to go back?
When I was a kid, I didn't like history much, at least as it was taught in school. We always seemed to be having to memorize dates of boring battles in boring wars - like, say, the War of 1812. But when it came to learning about ANCIENT history and SOCIAL history - Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Babylonian, Norse - I was fascinated. Learning about the origins and evolution of the arts, and religion and philosophy, and scientific and medical thought and inventions - that was stuff I could relate to. I could see myself (or at least my ancestors) in there and understand how it related to my life in the present day. In short, I was more interested in "civilization" than in what I had come to think of as "history". That's in large part why I was dismayed to learn that the Canadian Museum of Civilization is to become the Canadian Museum of HISTORY. I guess the good news is that it will not officially be the Canadian Museum of CANADIAN History, although the public announcements leave no doubt in my mind that that's what the politicians have in mind.

I no longer consider Canadian history or Canadian politics to be unambiguously boring. But I suspect a lot of children do. If we want our kids to be excited about their heritage and involved in the world at large, we have to show them why it matters. To do this, we should be embracing history in the broadest sense of the word, as well as demonstrating or suggesting how it informs our present and speculating about - or inviting speculation upon - how it may inform our future. A great way to begin the process would be with our network of museums, since museums can engage all the senses and ignite learning and imagination.

Luckily, the Children's Museum portion is to remain - for now. But the Postal Museum is to be disbanded which to me, defies logic. Surely postal service - at least in terms of regular letter-mail - is one facet of our lives that is in danger of BECOMING history!

As it is, most museums in Canada are able to display only a tiny portion of their permanent collections at any one time - I believe ten to fifteen percent may be fairly typical. And some room has to be set aside for the travelling exhibitions, which is where the museums make most of their money. When a museum restricts its mandate, some of the permanent collection will inevitably be deemed to be no longer within its purview. What will happen to the artefacts then?

We've already witnessed the abortive attempt to get a portrait gallery on Wellington Street, at the site of the old US Embassy. There's also an impressive array of art from the Art Bank languishing in the vaults of the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Preservation Centre in Gatineau. How long it can continue to be preserved there is anyone's guess, with the draconian cuts being made to the LAC and for that matter, the public service at large (including national museums)!

Remember when there was to be an exhibit of Arabic art at the Museum of Civilization and it was initially to be deferred because the powers that be decided they needed to "add context" in light of recent political events in the arab countries? Well, the public actually won that battle, insisting they could perfectly well draw their own conclusions, thank you, and the exhibit opened as originally scheduled. But these days, it seems that the government wants to put "context", or more accurately, interpretation, front and centre, while the artefacts are trotted out almost as an afterthought to support the party line!

Context is certainly important. But what is particularly disturbing to me is that research is frequently not done thoroughly enough (Do they just look at Google and Wikipedia and call it a day?) and accompanying "information" may be just plain wrong! For example, at an exhibition of Karsh photographs at the Museum of Science and Technology, the birth and death dates for some of the photographic subjects (including Helen Keller and Ravi Shankar) were completely wrong. I don't mean just a year one way or another, I mean wrong by around ten to fifteen years! When I sent an e-mail to the museum to inform them of this, I never even got the courtesy of a reply. Not even an instant robotic comeback like "Thank you for your feedback. We read all messages and reply if appropriate." I later learned that that particular exhibit (which admittedly was very interesting in other respects) had won some sort of major award. Did they correct the misinformation before (or for that matter, after) they won the award? I don't know. Go figure.

In the Vancouver area, there's a very interesting museum of anthropology and aboriginal art on one of the university campuses (apparently near to the nude beach, which I didn't visit). Some of the museum is fairly traditional in the way the exhibits are laid out, but there are also sections which simply display artefacts from their vast collections, in some sort of logical or functional order but without any commentary. I did find it got a bit overwhelming after a while but I nevertheless commend the museum management for daring to do this - it's a wonderful way to ensure that their collections can be viewed and appreciated rather than languishing unloved and unmaintained in dusty vaults, even if the curators don't have the time to mount a full-fledged exhibition.

When I was in Scotland, I noticed that all their national museums are open to the public free of charge. As ours used to be at one time. They do invite donations, but through the Scottish National Trust, they are committed to allowing residents and visitors alike to view the outward manifestations of Scottish heritage. Edinburgh is a paradise for museum-goers. As is Glasgow. I was particularly taken with the Kelvingrove Museum. Imagine a museum of civilization, museum of natural history, art gallery, hall of fame, library, medical museum... and more, all rolled into one. It even has its own organ, and offers daily organ recitals between 1:00 and 2:00 PM in the atrium area, which also includes a couple of wonderful places to eat lunch!

Why can't we be more imaginative with our museums here in Canada?
So apparently "Sex: A Tell-all Exhibition" is a little too racy for Ottawa audiences. It's already travelled to Montreal and Regina, where it barely evoked a murmur of protest but here in Ottawa, the minimum age for attending it solo was raised from 12 to 16 - this before the exhibition even opened! Heritage Minister James Moore considers it an insult to taxpayers that our money is being used in this way (though he later very carefully said he respected the independence of the museum) - heaven forbid that our young people should be better informed and maybe even get the impression that ordinary people are engaging in sexual acts! But then, it's pretty much what I've come to expect from him. He objected to the Sixties exhibit at the art gallery a couple of years ago and has yet to respond to the letter sent back in February by the president of Ex Libris (a group of retired librarians) protesting the recent drastic cuts to the Library and Archives Canada and other government libraries. I think the only kind of culture he understands is the variety you get in a pot of yogurt. Or maybe real men don't eat yogurt.

I do recall many, many years ago, when the mosaic of a moose (definitely a bull-moose) on the floor of the Museum of Nature (then known, ironically enough, as the Museum of Man, and encompassing the exhibits now housed in the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau), was covered over with a large carpet, because it was deemed just a wee bit too educational for all those school groups that regularly took field trips to the museum. But that was a couple of generations ago. I find it disturbing to see that mentality persisting to this day. Most evidence seems to suggest that the better informed our young people are, the less likely they are to suffer from unwarranted guilt, loneliness and despair, or to find themselves surprised by an unanticipated pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease.

Are there legitimate objections to this exhibition? To be honest, I don't know. I haven't yet seen it myself, and can only go on the basis of second- and third-hand anecdotal evidence. I do find it interesting that a few parents who've commented in the media actually said they were all set to petition against it until they went and saw it for themselves - whereupon they promptly changed their minds! I suppose some adults who were there to explore the exhibition might find it off-putting to find prepubescent young people making sarcastic comments and giggling or snickering over particular exhibits, or taunting those who seemed to be genuinely interested. Teachers, clergy and people who were just plain shy, I suppose, might hesitate to go to the exhibition because, well, what if their neighbours saw them? What if they were reported to their bosses as being dirty old men and women? If that were to become a problem, though, surely there are some measures that could be taken. For example, they could perhaps have specific hours when it was to be viewed only by school groups or only by adults.

In today's Citizen, long-time columnist Dave Brown lamented the modern-day tendency to separate sex and love. It's an age-old argument, of course, and one which I believe has some merit. But does the exhibition do this? The abovementioned parents who changed their minds seemed to do so partly on the basis that it seemed to present all sides of the issues and inform young people that they have options (amongst others, presumably, that the right to say yes does not preclude the right to say no). Mind you, this is the Museum of Science and Technology that is hosting the exhibit - so isn't it only to be expected that it would be the scientific and medical aspects of sex that would be the focus, rather than the emotional, commercial, spiritual, or artistic ones?

It will be interesting to see what unfolds as more people view the exhibition - as they no doubt will in droves now that it has given birth to so much controversy! I plan to be among those going to see it, and may devote a future blog to my first-hand impressions.



October 2017



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