Monthly Archives: May 2012

A Bizarre Museum in Florence Italy

“Ooooooooooooo!”   I heard a chorus of horrified exclamations as a group of Italian school children entered the Zoological Museum in Florence.  It housed one of the most interesting and bizarre assortments of artifacts I’ve ever seen.

Of the museum’s three collections the most fascinating and eerie was one of anatomic waxes created by artists in the 1600’s to help medical students study the human body and learn anatomy without having to actually touch a cadaver. There are ten rooms lined with case after case that display wax bodies and body parts. The bodies have been split open and all the veins, blood vessels and fat are detailed.

Perhaps most intriguing are 38 models showing how a baby develops in a mother’s uterus during each stage of pregnancy. Modern day medical experts are amazed at the accuracy and detail of these models that were made over four hundred years ago.

The nearly two thousand wax pieces painted in bright reds, greens and yellows have a sort of macabre beauty about them. Whether you are walking by a bony hand, its skin torn back so you can see the tendons, muscles and blood vessels; or a model showing in minute detail what a fallopian pregnancy looks like; you can’t help but admire the skillful artist who created these wax works.

It is clear Clemente Susini; the sculptor who molded and painted all the figures is still admired by artists today. On our visit to the Zoological Museum in 2009 we saw numerous art students sitting in front of the various displays of human body parts and trying to do sketches of what they saw. One young artist sat perfectly still staring at a human head. It had been titled sideways and the skin pulled off the skull so all the brain matter spilled out on the table for examination. There were moments in the Zoological Museum when I felt like I was in the middle of a Frankenstein movie set.        

  The second collection of the museum contains thousands of mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, fish and amphibians. The Medicis, Florence’s ruling family in the period between 1360 and 1737 sent explorers all over the world to collect items for this nature museum. Some specimens are stored in formaldehyde but many have been stuffed using what are obviously very old-fashioned and primitive methods of taxidermy. You can see literally every animal species here from the smallest butterfly to a huge sharp toothed grinning hippopotamus.

 The last collection in the museum houses display boxes of fairly gruesome scenes created in the late 1600’s by a wax artist named Gaetano Zumbo. One is entitled The Effects of Syphilis and another The Plague. Each features a multitude of decaying and dismembered corpses. Little babies lie dead beside their mothers whose bodies rest on piles of human skulls. Toothless, white-haired, naked elderly are splayed on the rocks outside a cave. It’s a graphic reminder of the devastation brought about by disease in the time before modern medical technology.          

As I made my way out of the Zoological Museum a busy, bustling crowd of middle school students entered one of the rooms filled with eviscerated wax cadavers.  Oooooooooooo they screamed almost in unison horror. Even though I don’t speak Italian it wasn’t hard to guess what they were probably talking about as they walked beside the display cases.

The Zoological Museum in Florence isn’t the easiest place to find. It’s on a narrow winding street and you have to walk up four flights of stone stairs to reach the floor where the displays are housed. It’s worth the steep climb!

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Fair Trade Coffee and Hope For Laos

“Breaking the cycle of poverty in Laos one family at a time.”  That’s the mission of Bolaven Farms.  Last May my husband Dave spent a week on a fair trade coffee plantation located on 410 acres of fertile land on the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos. 

Child on Bolaven Coffee Plantation Laos

He traveled there with twenty- four of his Hong Kong students to work at digging holes for coffee trees, building sheds and helping care for livestock.

Dave with children on the Bolaven Coffee Plantation

Bolaven Farms is a cooperative that uses farming methods designed to sustain rather than deplete the rich nutrients in the Laotian soil. About 100 acres of the farm are devoted to grasses and legumes to restore nitrogen to the soil and provide fodder for livestock. The remainder is used for coffee growing.    

Bolaven families welcome Dave and his students to the coffee plantation in Laos

Up to fifty families at a time live on the Bolaven Farms coffee plantation and are taught how to grow coffee profitably and organically. They are given housing and earn a fair wage for the work they do.  Medical care is provided and there is a school for the children.  If they ‘graduate’ from the agriculture program at Bolaven, families are eligible for a loan to buy a seven acre coffee farm of their own and can sell their coffee to Bolaven. Workers hand sort the coffee to ensure its quality before the beans are roasted, packaged, shipped and marketed as a fair trade product in other countries. 

Sam Say is the founder of Bolaven Farms. He was born in Laos. He and his family fled the country in 1977 after a decade of heavy bombing by the United States and repeated invasions by the Vietnamese.  The Say family spent two years in a refugee camp before a Mennonite Church in Calgary sponsored their immigration to Canada. Sam eventually moved to Hong Kong and made a fortune as a commodities trader.  He decided he wanted to use his wealth to help his fellow countrymen and women and so Bolaven Farms was born.

The Hong Kong students made friends with the coffee plantation workers

     Sam Say’s son Christian used to be a student at the international school in Hong Kong where Dave and I were teachers.  Christian played on the basketball team Dave coached. 

Riding out to the plantation

Sam approached our school wondering if a group of our students would like to come to Bolaven Farms to work alongside the people there, befriend them, teach them some English and once they returned to Hong Kong spread the word about the project. Dave agreed to lead the trip.       

Building a shed on the coffee plantation

The work on the farm was very hard, and not at all what our well-to-do students are used to.  But they tackled their tasks with determination and energy.

Student housing on the coffee plantation

The students stayed in army barrack type housing and slept on air mattresses under mosquito netting.  They showered communally with the Laotian workers. Every evening they performed plays, dances and songs for the plantation workers and their families. They tried to teach the children English.

Making friends with children on the coffee plantation

Despite the language barrier the high school students developed a warm relationship with the Laotian farm families and Dave said some of the Hong Kong teens were in tears when it came time to say good-bye at the end of the week.  

Students with Bolaven families

Dave found it inspiring to be at Bolaven Farms.  Unlike many places we have visited in the third world where people living in desperate circumstances seem resigned to their lot in life, the people at Bolaven Farms are filled with optimism.  They really believe they have an opportunity to create a better future for their families. 

My thanks to the International Christian school students on the Laos trip who provided the photos for this post. 

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A Roof With A View

I got a chance for a bird’s-eye view of the heart of the city on Saturday!


As part of the Doors Open Winnipeg event the Arts Space venue at 100 Arthur Street allowed access to their roof top. Visitors were free to walk around and take photos of the Exchange District from a very unique point of view. 

This is the Crocus Building which houses the Crocus Investment Company, the Manitoba Conservatory of Music and the Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers. It used to belong to the Ashdown Hardware Company as you can see from the white letters still etched on the brick near the roof top.  Mr. James Ashdown, a former Winnipeg mayor built it in 1905 to use as a hardware store. It replaced an earlier building erected in 1870 which burned down in 1904. 

I live in a condo in the Ashdown Warehouse where Mr. Ashdown stored the goods he sold, not only in Winnipeg but all across western Canada. Here is my building tucked in between two other buildings. 

The Cube is the focal point of the park in Old Market Square a popular venue for outdoor summer concerts in the Exchange District. The Cube is a performance stage that opened in 2010 and was built at a cost of $1.2 million. During the Winnipeg Jazz Festival and the Fringe Festival the park is alive with performers and people. 

The distinctive Confederation Building was built in 1912 in the Chicago style of architecture and was occupied by the Confederation Life Association for over 50 years. 

The popular Kings Head Pub and Eatery is housed in a building erected in 1896 as a trading centre for hides, wool and furs. In 1906 it became home to a German language press which published 20,000 copies of the paper Der Nordwestern weekly. After serving as offices for an airline and a radio and television wholesaler it became a restaurant in 1983.

The new Red River Community College Paterson Global Foods Institute will be housed in the old Union Tower Building which is currently being renovated and added on to. The new facilities will have a student residence and be home to the college’s hospitality and culinary programs. I am looking forward to having the students living in the Exchange District and adding to our resident population. The facility will also house a restaurant that will be open to the public. 

The Travelers Building was constructed in 1907 as a headquarters for a union of traveling salesmen that was founded in 1882.  It housed offices, meeting rooms, lounges and recreation facilities including a Turkish bath. In 1954 it became the home of federal government offices and in 1976 was redeveloped into a shopping center with specialty shops, galleries and a restaurant currently housing the Peasant Cookery. 

I have been doing lots of walking in the Exchange District since moving here in July and have seen much of it from on the ground. Thanks to Arts Space I was able to get a view from above on Saturday that gave me a different perspective on the neighborhood I now call home. 

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Lessons From the Sydney Opera House

“I like to be on the edge of the impossible”, said Jorn Utzon, the Danish architect who was responsible for designing the Sydney Opera House. On my visit to Australia I toured the world- renowned landmark. I learned its construction and design was indeed a story of someone achieving ‘the impossible’, but it is also a story of dreams and relationships broken and restored.

The Sydney Opera House is a World Heritage Site because so many of the architectural methods and engineering techniques used to build it were completely new and were created expressly for its construction. Utzon’s design for the building was chosen from 233 submitted, but no one, including Utzon, was really sure a structure of its kind could be built. The tiles on the outside are just one example of the innovation required. They change color depending on the amount of daylight and the temperature, so they rarely look the same. Most importantly they are self -cleaning. It took Utzon three years to design just the tiles.

Utzon devised and tested sixteen different schemes for making the famous white sails on the building’s roof before he figured out how to cut them from circles of steel. 16,000 workers were required to be on site during the construction of the signature ‘sails’. Utzon by the way did not call them sails. He wanted them to be abstract so each visitor to the opera house could have their own idea what they looked like. Some people say they remind them of waves, a dragon’s back, seashells, or dishes in a dishwasher. I thought they looked like Marilyn Munroe’s white dress in the movie Some Like It Hot when a blast of air from the subway grate blows her skirt up into the air. Whatever they remind you of, those ‘sails’ on the opera house roof took eight years to build.

Ten years after Utzon started work on the opera house a newly elected Australian government gave him an ultimatum. He either had to make concessions in his design and collaborate with government architects so the building could be finished more quickly, or he had to quit. Utzon resigned and the government hired others to complete his work. Utzon never went back to Sydney to see the finished opera house even though he won many of architecture’s most prestigious awards for designing it.

Thirty- three years after he’d resigned someone from the opera house staff approached Utzon to apologize to him and ask for an interview. Would he be willing to let them see all his notes and drawings and would he explain his original ideas so they could be kept for posterity? Utzon accepted the apology and agreed to the interview. Now the Australian government is slowly making changes to the Opera House so that eventually it will look exactly as Utzon planned. They have already replaced concrete outer walls with banks of windows and repainted interior walls with new colors following Utzon’s original plans. Utzon’s son has flown to Sydney to supervise these changes. John Utzon died in 2008 at age 90 but he died knowing that his original ‘dream’ for the Opera House would become a reality in the future.

Seven million people from all over the world visit the opera house each year and 350,000 take a guided tour. They learn all about how the one of kind architectural masterpiece was built. They also hear the story of how the relationship between the opera house designer and the country of Australia was broken and restored because each party was willing to be gracious and forgiving. Both of the stories are inspiring and important.

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Filed under australia, Culture, History, People, Travel

Seeing Royalty

Prince Charles and his wife Camilla were in Regina the last couple days. We drove home from Saskatoon today and stopped at a Perkins restaurant in Regina for lunch. It was hard not to overhear the excited conversation of the two women sitting across the aisle from us.

“So tell me all about it!” , said one woman.

The other replied, “I still can’t believe I met Prince Charles and actually shook his hand and talked to him.”  

Her companion asked, “Did you talk to Camilla too?”  

The woman replied, “I didn’t, but I talked to people who did, and they said she was just so charming and warm and personable.”  

The other woman sniffed. “She might have been nice, but I’ll still always like Lady Di better.” 

The women’s conversation made me think of two experiences my family has had with seeing royalty. 

In 1939 King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth visited Canada. They took a Canadian Pacific Railway train through the Western provinces. In this photo they are greeting the 60,000 people who turned out to see them in Melville, Saskatchewan.

The train also stopped in Watrous, Saskatchewan and it was here my mother saw the royal couple. Here is the story in her own words. 

One of the highlights of my school career was singing for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. In 1939 they were on a coast-to-coast tour of Canada by train and were scheduled to stop in Watrous, Saskatchewan for a few minutes. There were hundreds of children at the train station from many different schools in our area. We were all lined up along the tracks.  Each school was assigned a certain place where we had to stand. There were ropes set up along the track and we had to stay behind them. Our teachers had all taught us the same song to sing for the king and queen. It was a song that had been especially written for that day.  The train stopped and the King and Queen came out on a little porch at the end of the train to wave to us and listen to us sing.  After we finished singing they took away the ropes that had been set up along the track and we all dashed up to the train to get as close as we could to the royal couple. I thought I might be able to touch the Queen’s dress.  I remember I ran up to the train but there were so many people I couldn’t get close to the Queen.  When I turned around I couldn’t see the other kids from my school or my teacher and I thought I was lost.  I was actually quite scared until I finally spied someone I recognized in that big crowd and was able to rejoin my class.  I remember the queen was wearing a blue hat that day

I also saw the Queen once. Our current queen Elizabeth was visiting Winnipeg in 1959. She drove through the city in a motorcade. 
In 1959 I was in grade one and my Dad was an intern at the St. Boniface Hospital. Queen Elizabeth’s motorcade was going to go right past the hospital. The streets were lined with people and it would have been hard for a little girl like me to see with such a crowd all around. So my Dad took me up on the roof of the hospital and from there I had a great birds-eye view of the Queen as she drove by waving her hand.

I’m not really a royal watcher. Personally I think the monarchy should be abolished. But the royal family members are celebrities and there is a certain excitement in having seen one of the famous royals in person. 

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Early Morning Walk in Saskatoon

upside down leaf after the rain

It has been cold and rainy in Saskatoon the last few days, but this morning I woke up at 5:30 and the sun was shining so I decided to go for a walk. Saskatoon is a beautiful city and I tried to capture some of that beauty with my camera lens. 

Affectionately known as ‘The Bez’ or  ‘Saskatoon’s Castle’ the Bessborough Hotel opened in 1935. Named after the Earl of Bessborough, Canada’s 14th Governor General, it is one of the grand railway hotels built to serve Canada’s rail passengers in style as the Canadian Pacific and National Railways expanded across the nation. 

The trees provide a leafy canopy over the brick walkway on Spadina Crescent which winds along beside the river. 

Sculptor Bill Epp’s likeness of Saskatchewan military Metis leader Gabriel Dumont who together with Louis Riel led the 1885 resistance against the Canadian government forces at Batoche. 

Canada goose out for an early morning stroll along the river bank. 

london double decker bus saskatoon

This 1949 Bristol double-decker bus which was in service in London till 1965 is open from April to October. According to a Star Phoenix article it was originally a fish and chip vendor but it now sells a variety of refreshments at the corner of Spadina and 21st street. 

1999 sculpture Musicians on Spadina Cresecent.

Pink blossoms on Broadway Avenue. 

Mural of children on Broadway Avenue by artist Denyse Klette. 

teapot that is a work of art

This funky teapot was in the window of McQuarries Tea and Coffee Merchants on Broadway Avenue. 

Spring tulip in a yard on 13th Street East.

Buskers a 1999 sculpture by Kevin Quinlan on Broadway Avenue.

Steeple of St. John’s Cathedral on the South Saskatchewan River. 

Spirit of Youth is a sculpture created by Bill Epp for the 1989 Canada Summer Games. It is on Spadina Crescent. 

Back home after my walk. 

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I Never Got Used To the Guns in Israel

Armed soldier on the Mount of Olives 

I never got used to the guns.  The one image in Israel that continued to startle me throughout my time there was the sight of so many people carrying weapons. Whether walking through the shopping district of old Jerusalem, standing on the Mount of Olives or attending a rock concert on the waterfront in Tiberius I was sure to see people armed with large guns. In a crowded restaurant where we ate lunch one day the only seat left for me was at a table with ten young people who each had a gun propped up beside them.  “Could you please move your gun?” I had to ask one man so I could slide into the vacant seat.

Armed school field trip guide

        One of my first days in Israel, my high school students and I hiked up to a waterfall in the Golan Heights. Just ahead of us was a group of Israeli school children. Two men and two women each carrying an M16 rifle walked with the Israeli kids flanking them in front, at the back and on the sides.  I asked our guide about this and he said perhaps the children’s teachers were army reserve members. If so they would be encouraged to carry guns even when they were off duty. Our guide also suggested the armed men and women might be special officers hired by the school to guard the children on their field trip.  The school was a private religious institution and the Golan Heights has been an area of conflict in the past. The school probably has a policy of hiring armed security officers for all excursions. I did a little research and learned that in 1974 three Palestinian gunmen attacked a group of Israeli school students and killed sixteen teenagers. Since then Israeli teachers have been allowed to carry guns in order to protect their students.

Soldiers at Wailing Wall

         I saw the largest number of armed officers at the Wailing Wall. We happened to visit this world-famous landmark on May 21st which is a holiday called Jerusalem Day. It celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem after a battle during the six day war in 1967.  Perhaps worried that the Wailing Wall, traditionally swarming with visitors on Jerusalem Day, might make a good target for terrorist actions, the Israeli military was out in full force. Armed guards searched our bags before we approached the wall and we had to walk through a metal detector. Cadres of officers with rifles were posted at various positions in the courtyard approaching the Wailing Wall. So much weaponry seemed sadly out-of-place at a sacred spot where people gather from around the world to pray.     

Armed guard having a nap

   An article in the London Times titled Guns: The Must Have Israel Accessory says there is a “familiarity with guns in Israel that is rare” in most democratic countries. Since Israeli young people must serve a term in the military after high school, virtually all adults in the country have been trained to handle weapons. Apparently gun- carrying citizens have been credited with saving the lives of Israelis under attack on numerous occasions. This has led people to believe only an armed Israeli citizenry can effectively defend itself against Palestinian terrorism.

Weapons check in at Jerusalem museum

My first few days in Israel I took photographs of all the people I saw with guns because it was so startling to me. I soon realized the sight was commonplace and I couldn’t possibly take pictures of everyone I saw with guns.  One tourist who visited Israel says on his blog that seeing so many people carrying guns in Israel made him feel safe.  I didn’t feel that way. I found it frightening.

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Filed under Art, History, Holidays, israel, Politics, Religion, Travel