night writing

sweet peas

These days it’s too hot to do much but keep up with the watering, the general chores around the house, some reading in the afternoon when the sun is right overhead and everything outside is quietly frying. Radio news always ends with heat warnings, how important it is to stay hydrated, and updates about fires. Last year we lost many young cedars. It took 6 months for it to be clear they were dead—they lost fronds last summer and then seemed a bit more lively in the fall. But now we can see they’re dead and we’re waiting for B.C. Hydro crews to clear the ones close to the power lines (a guy came and identified 7 that he said were a potential hazard and those were ones Hydro crews would cut down because of their proximity to wires). Some of the others are more difficult. And right now we wouldn’t use a chain saw in the dry woods in any case.

What is lovely though: the small hours of coolness, after midnight but before dawn. I’ve been getting up most nights to make use of them. I come down the dark stairs, feeling my way with my toes. There’s moonlight in the living room, enough to help me find my way to my study without turning on any lights. By feel again, I turn the switch on my little desk lamp. Cool air comes in the big window that my desk faces.

I have two works-in-progress: my [unpublishable] novella about a young woman looking for traces of Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson in the dry Interior of B.C., mapping their works in an attempt to create a feminine (or feminist) cartography; and a sequence of linked essays exploring (again) family history. I am trying to figure out stuff about my grandfather’s early years in Bukovina and in North America, reading social histories of Ukrainian immigrants as well as Anne Applebaum’s extraordinary Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, to understand something of the place he left and what might have been the fate of those family members who remained.

In the night, so much seems possible. That knowing a few names and a place of origin might miraculously produce a long-lost family or that following a young woman in her beat-up truck along the road up the Deadman River or north-west of Clinton to Dog Creek will reveal contours and wildflowers equivalent to a woman’s body, her apprehension of a landscape both peopled and barren.

And what I also do in the night is remember wonderful meals and how the details of a dinner in Prague are also the details of family history. By writing the table, I hope to find everything.

What wine would you recommend, we asked the waiter, who was friendly, using American idioms in his greeting (“How you guys doing? Take a load off, my friend.”) which fooled us into thinking his English was better than it was. Wine, he answered (or echoed), and brought us a bottle of Modry Portugal, pouring it with a flourish as we ordered our meal. The delicious česnečka for me –garlic broth, soft potato, with cubes of fried bread and grated cheese. John ordered chicken livers with almonds and was surprised to be presented with a plate of prawns. The waiter’s obvious pride in the dish and our growing suspicion that his English was illusory (as indeed was our Czech, and we were in his city after all) stopped John from making any fuss, though we were so far from any ocean. And then a wonderful gulas, which reminded me of an aunt’s recipe passed along to my mother, one I always assumed was Hungarian, from my uncle’s side of the family, not realizing that it probably came from my grandmother. (Those porous borders, that history.)The guláš was served with houskový knedlik, bread dumplings that soaked up the copious gravy.

And the wine? Beautiful. Ruby coloured, light, and perfect with the food. Later, in Brno, we were told that “modry” means blue. And Portugal, I asked? Well, just Portugal. (There’s a story that an Austrian brought the grape from Oporto to his estate near Vienna in the late-18th century but ampelographers, who use genetic fingerprinting to pinpoint the identity and origins of vines, dispute this provenance.)

I think now of the difficulties in my search for my own origins – the pruned shoots of my mother’s family tree, the tangled roots of my father’s, with grafts and sports on every limb. And drinking a wine like Blue Portugal seems the perfect accompaniment to both the search and the failure.

—from “Blue Portugal”, an essay-in-progressN

5 thoughts on “night writing”

  1. I can’t always sleep when it’s hot at night but I’m loathe to get up and work in the night (sometimes, but only very rarely, I get up to read), because I know it would take so little for me to get up every night and sleep till noon or later, and before long that would become my routine and I wouldn’t be fit for human company. But yes, I do see the attraction of finding one’s desk in the wee hours while the world sleeps and… how did you put it? So much seems possible.
    Do you have a recipe for bread dumplings? I do. A whole section in my Austrian cookbook. You know how those countries overlap. Their conflicted history.
    I’m wondering if your Blue Portugal is what I had in Austria–Blaufränkisch. There’s a Hungarian and probably also a Czech name. It can be bought in Canada because we’ve had it. In the event that you want to coax that essay along with taste memories.

    1. Alice, I’ve checked online and in Austria, the Blue Portugal is Blauer Portugieser. The one you mention has a Czech equivalent, too, a Blue Frankish, though the Czech name escapes me and I don’t have time to look it up just now.My personal favourite was Veltlinske Zelene, which is Gruner Veltliner in Austria, I think. We can get the Austrian one here sometimes but never the Czech one, which was slightly animated (because it’s “green”, I guess; the Zelene…), and so easy to drink. There was a cafe across from the university where we taught a week-long course on the literature of the west coast and you could get the most delicious sandwiches there, and a glass of green wine for about 2 dollars. That was lunch, every day for a week!
      And no, I don’t have a recipe for the dumplings but would love one. Thank you!

  2. I like Gruner Veltliner too. Don’t know that I’ve had green wine, though I’ve had vin nouveau in the Alsace. Slightly animated as you say. (And you’ve made me remember the low-ceilinged room and a bowl of fresh walnuts we had with it.) I’ll send you a bread dumpling recipe–when the weather’s cooler. A winter meal.

    1. Alice, I’m no linguist but I know that zelene means green in Czech and doesn’t gruner mean green? The wines are made from a lovely green grape and I remember the flavour as tart and kind of citrusy.

      1. I didn’t know zelene was green in Czech. it makes gruner/green look like a no-brainer. But yes, tart and kind of citrusy. Exactly how I like wine.

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