About yvonne ayoub

Free lance artist based in London and Skiathos, with a passion for travel.

Florida – Forty Years On

It’s hard to believe that more than 40 years have passed since I last visited Florida.

Back then, still a teenager and as one of a 4-girl dancer/backing singer troupe to the then popular and rising star, Peter Gordeno, I arrived in Miami; the second stop of our first USA tour.img_2091 For the duration, we were lodged with a wonderfully hospitable and protective family in the leafy suburb of West Palm beach:

img_2083while performing each evening at the impressive Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood Florida –

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img_2075alongside fellow entertainers such as Paul Anka, Bobby Vinton and Englebert Humperdinck. It was a thrilling and glamorous time.

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First impressions then were of ones of awe, filled as we were with eager excitement to experience first hand the America we’d only seen in movies; skyscrapers, drive in movies, huge everything (cars, roads, T bone steaks, pancake stacks with maple syrup, cheesecakes, etc) and sunshine! To get to the white sandy beaches as often as possible, to soak up the sun and enjoy, even in January, the balmy semi tropical weather, was paramount.

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Tall swaying palms, reaching up into the impossibly blue unbroken skies, danced gently above the seemingly endless strip of ice-ream coloured art deco hotels and resorts that lined the shores, completing the perfect picture of paradise.

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If there was any disappointment it was simply that there were so few people of our own age around.  Florida, I soon realised was the winter playground of wealthy, ageing mostly New-York retirees. A whole generation of hard-working World War II (and even WWI!) survivors whom, almost without exception, sported leathery, deeply wrinkled sagging skin; the result of years of austerity, excessive smoking and relentless sun-worshipping (this was long before the days of health warnings, Botox and fillers or plastic surgeons on every corner). The balding, hairy-chested and medallion-ed men were constantly enveloped in clouds of black acrid smoke from their fat cigars held by even fatter heavily be-ringed fingers –  each sporting over-generous waistlines that bulged over their gaudy, crimpelene golf shorts. While their skinny, elegant, over-coiffured, blue-rinsed and scarlet-taloned wives (or widows) wafted about in gaudy flowing kaftans and jangled heavy gold charm bracelets that weighted down their mahogany-coloured and crepe-y, bony arms.

That said, everyone we met was incredibly kind and friendly and seemingly appreciative of our show, particularly the hotels helpful ‘hospitality’ officers, with names like ‘Sugar’ and ‘Honey’, who spent much of the day ginning vacuous smiles while insisting everyone  ‘Have a nice day” through brilliant white and even teeth. For a 19-year-old, optimistic and full of the joys of life:

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well, it was all rather depressing really…..

So it was with some reservation this January that my husband and I accepted a long-standing invitation to visit our Canadian relatives who, now retired themselves, swap their cold, snowy Montreal winters for sunnier, healthier climes and their fabulous Condo. on Florida’s western shores .

Weary from the long (10 hour) flight, arriving at, processing through (the most frustrating border control!), and finally getting out of Miami Int. Airport (over 3 hours later!) was an experience I hope I never have to repeat! Likewise, collecting the rental car (unbelievably sans sat. nav!) and finding myself hurtling along a six lane, poorly lit and badly sign-posted freeway in driving rain, heading for 45 minutes in totally the wrong direction, is something I never hope to experience ever again! If it wasn’t for the fabulously kind lady we met, once we could pull over and ask directions, who lead us all the way back to our hotel in her own car,  we’d probably still be trying to navigate the fast and furious spaghetti junctions even now! Thankfully, a comfortable night’s sleep followed by a huge American breakfast cleared the air which had become decidedly heated and blue both inside and outside of the car! The comfortable hotel (just moments from the airport as it turned out)img_1128 is about to undergo a complete refurbishment and having admired the stunning artwork in the lobby, I was sad to hear it too would be disposed of shortly so I thought I’d post some of it here for others to enjoy before it disappears. (If anyone knows the artist please drop me a line.)

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A new day, a new start. Under blue skies we hit the (correct, this time) freeway bright and early and headed west, all the way across the flat Florida heartland to Naples on the Gulf Coast.

img_1133We followed the Everglades route –  but alas, with high protective fences on either side, alligators were nowhere to be seen.

img_2086We arrived in the comparatively new and exclusive gated community of Pelican Bay, nestling gently behind the mangroves and shoreline, just over 2 hours later.thumb_img_1358_1024

Aptly named for there are certainly plenty of Pelicans – manatees, alligators and dolphins too but they’re more camera-shy!

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Most noticeably there was not a fat cigar or blue rinse in sight!. Instead, we saw incredibly fit, slim, healthy and lightly glowing (but suspiciously taut and youthful!) 60+ year olds, cycling, jogging, swimming, playing tennis, driving golf carts and briskly walking their dogs along the wide avenues of beautifully manicured gardens of what is arguably a picture perfect paradise for retirees. – well for those lucky enough to afford it, that is.

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This part of Florida, with its exclusive tax breaks, boasts some of the most wealthy residents and expensive real estate in the country. Days of leisurely boating around the network of canals around Naples and Marco Island revealed the many multi-million-dollar, water-frontage homes owned by the rich and famous.

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thumb_img_1324_1024Then there were the mostly private, talcum-powder-soft and sandy beaches:

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and sunsets which were simply spectacular:

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thumb_img_1572_1024 thumb_img_1561_1024as was the abundance of seafood:

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img_1589and fresh, organic, locally grown produce. No excuse for not following a healthy lifestyle and diet here!

On first impression was it was all just a bit too perfect  and, like the shallow, precarious, floating terrain that makes up most of Florida and is susceptible to sudden sink holes, I feared it might be lacking any real cultural depth too.  Imagine my surprise then when on our first evening we were whisked off to watch the entire New York cast of the show-stopping, foot-tapping musical, ’42nd Street’, performing at Artis Naples; the impressive new local theatre/concert hall/cultural centre.  We also visited the adjoining museum which,  overlooked by a fabulous piece by the celebrated Seattle glass artist, Dale Chihuly:

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housed an exhibition of origami-inspired metal sculptures by Kevin Boximg_1214

Later in the week a night visit to Naples’ botanical gardens showed even more of Kevin Box’s work, strategically placed amongst the beautifully lit exhibition of exotic plants and foliage. A wonderful initiative that certainly drew the crowds in to see the stunning gardens.

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Our amazingly generous hosts, Maureen and Alain, had gone over and above to make our stay magical and indeed it was. Every day they treated us to new delights and surprises and we were genuinely sorry and sad when the time came to offer our thanks and begin packing.

thumb_img_1594_1024We waved our goodbyes and retraced our route to Miami,  to catch a flight to San Diego (our next destination which I’ll write about after this).

A week or so later though we returned to Miami and had a whole day free to lose ourselves in the city before boarding our night flight home. So we took a cab over the causeway to Miami’s South Beach. On the way, we stopped off briefly to tick another item off my bucket list; paying my respects to Bee Gee, Maurice Gibb (my first serious schoolgirl crush!) at the peaceful Memorial Park laid out in his name.

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That done, it was on to the famous Ocean Drive to enjoy a kerbside lunch while toe -tapping to the Latino, Jamaican, Cuban and Haitian street rhythms that engulfed us and the cacophony of all those spoken languages too, as we watched the fascinating mix of people – of all colour and ages – who now call Miami home – parading past.

Fast and furious, yet chilled and laid back, Miami has become a city of marked contrasts. The ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ co-existing side by side – but not with without the inevitable tensions. With the tragic shootings at Fort Lauderdale Airport less than a week previously and the street riots that broke out in Miami just after we left, not to mention the fact that probably everyone we saw was carrying weapon of some sort, a constant tension in the air was certainly palpable; I never really felt completely at ease anywhere in this city….

However, its elegant retro architecture;

img_1892 img_1890 img_1876the cruising stretch limo’s, Mustangs and vintage cars on every street corner;

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the outrageous, unapologetic statements of ‘bling’ adorning the swaggering, beautiful bodies;

img_1915thumb_img_1883_1024the fine dining and ridiculously enormous Happy Hour cocktails (this was HALF a mango Mohito!):

img_1904the cultural mix and of course the perfect weather, all combined, make Miami a seriously cool and vibrant place.

Returning here after 40 years, I thought it would be an indulgence in nostalgia; I was fully prepared to come face to face with yet another brutal reminder of my long-lost youth. It turned out instead to be a totally rejuvenating and invigorating experience. I was indeed reminded of that young, naive 19-year-old girl –  but also of her still ‘as yet’ unfulfilled dreams and aspirations….

As a result any thoughts on our own impending retirement have been put firmly on the back burner.  Florida has, undeniably some fabulous retirement communities and its becoming an increasingly popular destination of choice for many over 50’s from the UK where, sadly, the healthy lifestyle, high standard of living and Floridian  weather just simply can’t  compare (BBC ‘s documentary, ‘The Real Marigold Hotel – on tour’ episode 1 in Florida, captured the pro’s and cons of retiring in Florida perfectly). But for me, being neither particularly slim, sporty or hell-bent on disguising my age surgically at any cost, settling into what would be my penultimate resting place, is not one that appeals –  on either side of the pond. Perhaps that’s because I’ve lived like a nomad most of my life or, more probably because having regularly frequented elderly people’s facilities for the past 6 years (while caring for both of my parents before they passed away) I feel I’m ready to give facing inevitable decline and death on a daily basis a bit of a break…..moreover, I’ve never really had any desire to live in the US so no, Florida is certainly fabulous but definitely not for me, not just yet anyway.

Instead, while I still can, I’ll forge ahead,  onwards and upwards to embrace each next new adventure …… wherever it beckons – wobbly bits, wrinkles and all!

 

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Brocante, Baguettes, Bonnard et BB

An invitation, out of the blue, to revisit Gassin, near St. Tropez, in the South of France was too good an opportunity to pass up! I had painted this Provençal house after a previous visit, back in 2011 and I’ve always been keen to return:

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I took off into the early morning dull, grey skies over London and landed a couple of hours later in a very bright and sunny Nice. By lunchtime I was sitting at Key West, on St Tropez’ famous Pampelonne beach, staring out at the rolling surf of the Cote d’Azur

IMG_2297and soaking up the sun with a glass of crisp white wine in one hand and a selection of freshly caught seafood to choose from

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– wondering all the while what on earth I’d done to be so fortunate!!

Once back at the house, after settling in and a good night’s sleep (despite the army of frogs er… ‘calling for company’…. from an adjoining neighbours swimming pool!) I awoke at first light, threw open my window and gasped at the idyllic peaceful, Provencal scene that stretched before me.

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I filled my lungs with the fresh country air, sweetly scented with Mimosa, Rosemary, olive wood smoke and salt from the sea….and, after a breakfast of fresh croissants and strong coffee:

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made the ten minute drive, through the vineyards into the colourful port of St Tropez:

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IMG_2458I passed the artists busily setting up their easels for the day:IMG_2313  IMG_2370as I made my way to the twice-weekly market at the Place des Lices. IMG_2317 No one does markets quite like the French!

IMG_6380 IMG_6381 IMG_6468The abundance of fresh produce; fruit, flowers cheeses, herbs, salamis and baked goods on display, not to mention the fine linens, scented soaps and brightly glazed pottery, is quite simply breathtaking!

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And no one lives quite like the French either! To me, they have their priorities right too: Come 1 o’clock, no matter what, everything stops for lunch. They work to live not live to work! Shops are closed, and for a couple of hours, over a leisurely meal and a glass or two, neighbours and fellow shop keepers meet in a local eatery to sit together, enjoy each other’s company and put the world to rights. The art of conversation, face to face communication, is alive and well in France (and much of the rest of the Mediterranean too, I’m sure) – but it’s something I’m afraid we’ve all but lost, on our own shores…..

Laden with goodies I set off to explore the maze of brightly painted, narrow streets:IMG_2330 IMG_2331 IMG_2333 IMG_2336 IMG_2338 IMG_2339 IMG_2346 IMG_2358 IMG_2361 IMG_2365before stopping for lunch at the famous red-painted ‘Sennequier’ cafe on the port. Facing the impressive line up of luxury yachts, I joined in the national leisurely pastime of people-watching and sipping endless cups of cafe –  all to the gentle strains of a passing busker (who just happened to sound exactly like Charles Aznavour!) and, with her image appearing and her presence felt on virtually every corner, I almost expected the legendary BB to appear at any moment!

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Before heading home, I stopped to buy a famous ‘Tarte Tropezienne’ (a delicious sweet custard sponge) for tea:

IMG_2465but simply couldn’t resist a few more delicacies (Macarons and Florentines) from this delightful shop too:

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IMG_2468IMG_2469and assuaged any guilt by walking around the local gallery, housing an important collection of impressionist paintings, for a few hours:

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The current exhibition is of several of Bonnard’s sketches of his muse, Marthe de Meligny:

do you fgeeeling urewjrBonnard Sketch from http://thisrecording.com/today/2011/1/14/in-which-bonnard-and-vuillard-create-unfamiliar-masterpieces.html

The following days of the week rolled into one, filled as they were filled with excursions to the nearby medieval hilltop villages such as Ramatuelle, Gassin and Grimaud.

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and, at every opportunity, indulging in my favourite pastime of all, rummaging around a local Brocante/ Antiques/Flea market.

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IMG_2489 IMG_2488IMG_2380Inspired by Bonnard, I spent many hours sketching too:

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image.aspxand soaking up the warm spring sun in the peace of the beautiful garden,

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There is no doubt that this is an expensive part of the world but the good things in life, the important things; good, simple food, good wine, quality family/ friendship time and plain old fresh air, fresh flowers and sunshine are all relatively inexpensive or free…..and can be appreciated and enjoyed by all…..Yes, the French have definitely got the work/play balance just about right. IMHO anyway……They’re an example to us all….

Lebanon Revisited….

IMG_2091I wrote extensively about Lebanon after my last trip to this beautiful country, back in 2011 (see: ‘On The Road to Damascus’) and after returning again last month, three years on and the first time since the start of the Syrian crisis, I thought it was worth a mention again.

I discovered not much has really changed apart from areas that have now become strictly ‘no go’; i.e. Baalbek, in the Bekaa Vally, which, alongside the fabulous classical ruins,

IMG_8067 acres of white tents now temporarily houses the millions of displaced Syrian refugees:

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(For a greater understanding see: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2013/10/30/comment-mutual-misery-syrian-refugee-crisis-lebanon-and-australia)

They are gradually being processed and trickling onto the streets in search for the limited available work opportunities;  Tripoli in the northern regions bordering Syria and, as I arrived just a few days after yet another devastating suicide bombing in Beirut city itself, the fashionable ‘Downtown’ area. Avoiding it altogether, although as it turned out was unnecessary, seemed the most sensible action to take at the time.

As through all its many years of conflict and turmoil, Lebanon and its people carry on with their daily lives, regardless. If there was any notable difference, the lack of tourists was probably the most obvious. The tourist industry, sadly but not surprisingly, is all but dead. The many luxury hotels, both on the sea and up in the ski resorts, may stand empty but they are not yet totally abandoned. Foreign investment may have slowed down but beautiful modern high rises continue to alter the skyline; the infrastructure may be seriously damaged but regular power cuts have become an accepted way of life. Shopping trips and visits to friends and family are arranged around elevator operating times. IMG_2114

Streets are unusually empty and quiet. Highways, for once, are free-flowing and un-congested and, 3000 feet above the city, at the Monastery of St. Cherbel

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where we made a pilgrimage to offer prayers for the lost generations caught up in the conflict (and to give thanks for our forthcoming first grandchild!)

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it was as quiet on the way up, outside, as it is was deep within its cold stone walls.

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Without the customary frenzy, its hustle and bustle, Beirut is almost unrecognisable. An air of calm, almost complacency, prevails, replacing the erratic excitement and vibrant energy normally associated with it.

That said, the many fabulous restaurants continue to open their doors daily and lay their tables with crisp linen and gleaming silverware, in expectation.

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One of the greatest qualities of this resilient people (their generous hospitality aside) is their eternal optimism. They simply never give up hope….and while the tourists (and now substantial number of expat Lebanese) may be giving all this wonderful country has to offer a wide berth, the dwindling number of inhabitants who do remain (but would probably leave, given half a chance) continue to enjoy Life and live it to the full, as best they can – perhaps even more so, now that they have the place virtually to themselves.

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So, for the moment, Peace reigns but there’s an uneasy stillness knowing the horrors that are taking place just the other side of the mountains; the raging war, the brutal, senseless killings and the millions of starving and homeless – children especially. It’s too close for comfort and impossible not to think of when presented with the incredible feasts placed before us in every restaurant we visited. One, certainly worth a mention was the glamorous new seafood restaurant Babel al Bahr – complete with its own tower of Babel:

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and chic interior:

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The bread:

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and selection of ‘Mezze’ dishes were spectacular:

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but it was the glorious display of seafood that stole the show:

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with the fabulous desserts, a close second:

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Delicious as it all was, for the first time ever, with thoughts of all the starving children not a million miles away, I found the abundant and delicious Lebanese food almost too difficult to swallow….and the unusual silence that enveloped us almost everywhere we went, filled us with uneasy foreboding and trepidation….The lull before the storm perhaps?

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Whatever’s in store for Lebanon, one thing is sure, its cities and people will survive and thrive.  Lebanon, like Beirut and Byblos, the world’s oldest, continually inhabited city, still stands, tall, defiant and proud –  just as it always has done since the dawn of civilisation……and long, LONG may it continue to do so!

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Quebec, Oui! (had a ‘whale’ of a time!)

IMG_2404An invitation to a family wedding in Canada, mid-September, provided not only a welcome opportunity to catch up with dear relatives but a new adventure too including a chance to re-discover Montreal, a city we’d last visited more than thirty years ago, shortly after it had hosted the 1976 Summer Olympics and, before that, Expo 67, the world trade fair. I was happy to see the futuristic architecture of those days had remained intact; from the innovative, award-winning, concrete apartment blocks:

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IMG_2515to the exhibition stands:IMG_2501including the olympic stadium (now Montreal’s state run casino)IMG_2500

Spread over a series of islands in the St Lawrence river, an impressive skyline has risen up in our absence and today, from a distance, downtown Montreal looks much like any other prosperous north American city:IMG_2127

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where old classical buildings stand dwarfed by the tall new shiny glass and steel tower blocks:

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and monuments stand loyal to the memory of a once glorious British colonial past:

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IMG_1408But that’s where any similarity ends. For Montreal is very much a french city and a continental influence is apparent on every corner, not only in the spoken word and on every street sign but in its cultural heritage

IMG_1372 its Arts

IMG_1505and seat of learning; McGill universityIMG_1398 and nowhere is it more strongly apparent than in the old quarter of the city (despite Lord Nelson presiding over all)

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where the old stone buildings, cobbled streets and horse-drawn fiacres:

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serve as a reminder of the days when pioneer explorer, Jacques Cartier, landed upon these shores and established Montreal as an important trading post and port.

IMG_2521Many of the colourful old warehouses, paper mills and grain stores of bygone days remain, some as is but many now converted into slick city loft apartments:

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IMG_1409Today, Montreal enjoys a broad cultural mix and this is reflected in the wide variety of food, from all around the globe, that is readily available.The famous Atwater market

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Crab legs:

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oysters:

IMG_2143 fresh produce including pumpkins of every size and description:

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delicious french cheeses, chocolates and patisserie:IMG_2478

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Canada’s famous ‘Ice wine’

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IMG_2807We also enjoyed food with an international flavour. Fresh sushi:

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IMG_2204IMG_2193 salt beef sandwiches:

IMG_2461and a Montreal speciality ‘Poutine’ (french fries with gravy and melted cheese!)

IMG_2460After days of pure indulgence, a fabulous wedding

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(and yes, I wore a hat!)

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and after seeing the lovely young couple off on their Italian honeymoon,

IMG_2308together, with our wonderful hosts, we planned to venture further afield and explore some more of the Quebec Province from the pretty countryside setting of the town of Hudson, on the banks of the Lake of Two Mountains, where the wedding reception had been held.

Hudson, nestling among the trees has both old farmhouses and traditional rustic barns

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IMG_2337 interspersed with picturesque homes and brightly painted wooden holiday cottages:

IMG_2353IMG_2357It is technically a suburb of Montreal – a popular weekend escape for city dwellers. We’d stayed overnight at the quaint ‘Willow Inn’:

IMG_2293a comfortable and peaceful waterside retreat complete with wrap-around veranda

IMG_2298 delightful gardens

IMG_2317and far reaching views across the lake:

IMG_2283As this old church shows, there is definitely more of an english influence here.

IMG_2382 From Hudson, our Quebec adventure began as we crossed over the lake to the town of Oka

IMG_2406and visited a popular apple farm where ‘pick your own’ was the order of the day:

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IMG_2420IMG_2440Horse-drawn carts led us through the apple and plum orchards IMG_2431and the farm shop offered all kinds of fresh produce

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IMG_2455Next day, we travelled further north, alongside the St Lawrence river to Old Quebec city, entering the walled fortress through the ancient stone gate:

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to find Frontenac Castle standing tall and proud:

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a fortress situated high above the the river and the maze of colourful cobbled streets of the old town below:

IMG_2580IMG_2609IMG_2608IMG_2590IMG_2601IMG_2588where there was much evidence of Quebec’s indigenous, ‘First Nation’, inhabitants; Mi’kmaq and Iroquoians and, from further north, the Inuit tribes.

IMG_1406IMG_2614 IMG_2592IMG_2615 IMG_2616and those who fought the battle for independence from the Crown IMG_2576After a delicious al fresco lunch, basking in glorious sunshine and entertained by a variety of colourful street performers:

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it was time to head north yet again, once more following the river.

We visited the  Montmorency Falls (taller than Niagra!):

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IMG_2632IMG_1465and found the end of the rainbowIMG_2636on our way to the quaint artist colony of Baie St Paul, where we spent the afternoon visiting the many art galleries filled with traditional and contemporary art by some of Canada’s leading painters past and present.

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We stopped for the night at the picturesque town of La MalBaie, arriving at the beautiful ‘Auberge les Falaises’ inn just before sundown

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A spectacular sunset was seen from our room with a glorious view:IMG_1472 Next morning we set off bright and early for our final destination, the Sanguenay Marine park, excited at the prospect of some serious whale-spotting. We journeyed on up through the wild terrain of lakes and pine forests

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before, finally, reaching the end of the road (literally!) we made the crossing over the Fjord du Saguenay to Baie St. Catherine and the tiny village of Tadoussec.

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Sadly, the boats that had left at dawn’s first light were forced to return back early, due to the sudden high winds and choppy seas further north and, much to our dismay, we were informed all further whale-spotting expeditions that day, were cancelled.
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We made up for our disappointment with a visit to the local whale museum instead,
IMG_2750 IMG_2752  a stroll around the pretty, sleepy townIMG_2753IMG_2718 IMG_2738 IMG_2740IMG_2739and a leisurely walk around the boardwalk of the rocky headland, IMG_2755IMG_2763well stocked with tourist information boards
IMG_2757 IMG_2765IMG_2764Back in the port, another highlight was meeting a beautiful young Husky called Shana:
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That afternoon we retraced our steps back across the fjord and headed back to St. Simeon, in time to catch the ferry across the St Lawrence to Riviere du Loup on the eastern shore, where we would join the motorway than would eventually lead us home to Montreal.
IMG_2800 As luck would have it, no sooner had we embarked on the 1 & 12 hour crossing, when a huge whale rose up majestically through the waves alongside us – but disappeared back into the icy depths before I could get to my camera. Our journey had not been wasted after all!IMG_2801 With such a busy week there was little time for sketching but I have more than enough inspiration to begin a whole new series of paintings  – and I did treat myself to a beautiful water colour print of Montreal:
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a souvenir of a beautiful, colourful country, steeped in history and natural beauty and its wonderfully diverse, hospitable people – not least our wonderful Canadian cousins:
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Alain & Maureen who, gave us such wonderful memories to treasure for many years to come…….Merci Beaucoup! A Bientot!
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and, until the next time….Au Revoir Quebec!

Onwards and Upwards…..in Old Dubai.

There can be few more iconic and instantly recognisable buildings in the world than the Burj Al Arab in Dubai:

(photo: Joi Ito)

A global hub with a futuristic cityscape:

(image: www.flight2dubai.com)

This fantastical city that has risen up so meteorically out of a barren wasteland is very different to the Dubai I once knew:

Back then it was just a small bustling sea port with a reputation for gold smuggling. It had a tiny population and was a relatively unimportant (but strategically necessary) outpost to the  British interest in the area. It was place the world seemed to have forgotten, struggling for survival the on the edge of a vast empty desert:

No giant high rises in glass and steel at that time and, mosque minarets aside,

with a few exceptions, the tallest buildings were the abandoned portuguese forts dotted along the coast; relics from the days of piracy and pillaging that had plagued the Gulf for centuries:

At the heart of the Dubai side of the creek stood the old Al Fahidi Fort:

Built over 180 years previously, it had only recently become a museum (in 1971) and its few cannons and ancient dhows on display, ‘moored’ alongside a wooden platform, provided a fitting backdrop for an open air production of Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ in its central courtyard. My role in the masked ball scene was my first of many appearances with the recently formed ‘Dubai Theatre Group’, who regularly entertained the small but enthusiastic expat. community:

and provided the inspiration for this sketch:

(‘Tarantella’, pen & ink drawing © Yvonne Ayoub)

At the approach to Deira side stood a hint of what was to come: a daringly modern new clock tower (which I believe is still there):

But mostly Dubai retained an air of a busy backwater. Having grown up in Bahrain, the way of life, the familiar sounds of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, the hot desert winds and the lingering smell of crude oil in the salty air were not unfamiliar to me.

In the old traditional stone houses of the wealthier merchants:

in the Bastakia area of Old Dubai side, air-conditioning was provided naturally by ancient wind towers ( ‘badgeer’)  a Persian invention. They effectively harnessed any passing sea breeze, channelling it down through the dark interiors. Water would be sprinkled on the floor beneath the towers and its evaporation, as the air was sucked back up and out, would create a cooling draught throughout the house.

High-built ‘purdah’ walls surrounded each house, providing much-needed shade but also ensuring the privacy of those within (namely the women folk) allowing them to view the world outside, yet remain unseen:

And everywhere bare-footed children played freely in the dusty streets:

along with the freely roaming sheep and goats:

Low built villas housed much of the population but many still lived in the traditional ‘barasti’ (palm frond huts) whose high hand-woven walls, battened together, also allowed for a degree of air circulation. But, being open to the elements from above, they must have provided little respite from the scorching desert heat, high humidity and temperatures that regularly soared well over 40 degrees. Huddled together for shade they were little more than shanty towns devoid of basic utilities – and quite a fire hazard! Once connected to mains electricity, a network of overhead cables appeared, providing power for electric light and air-conditioners and a sea of TV aerials suddenly protruded skywards above them.  it wasn’t uncommon to see a few smart Mercedes’ and Datsun trucks parked outside too – along with the tethered camels!.

(drawing by Lee Steen)

This was a world that was about to change – radically.  Independence and the discovery of Gulf oil would propel the Emiratis from a humble, harsh existence steeped in time- honoured Bedouin tradition (in one of the most barren and inhospitable places on earth) to the very forefront of the 21st century, bringing with it the excesses of consumerism, capitalism, modern technology and unimaginable luxury. From a single seed to a world-class thriving metropolis – and all within just a few decades!

When I arrived to join my family who had settled there, The U.A.E was barely a year old.

HRH Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi III, Ruler of Sharjah

(with my brother and father far right)

Each state had its strong ruler and a proud, clearly defined tribal identity – and although now ‘united’ they were still fiercely competitive with one another! Perhaps they are still….When Dubai constructed its first state-of-the-art international airport, Sharjah, only a few miles away and not to be outdone,  promptly built one of its own!

There was a growing community of mixed origin: Arabs from neighbouring countries, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Iranians and Iraqis.  Each brought their skills in education, shipping and trade. Among them were many Lebanese who, anxious to escape the early rumblings of the impending civil war back home, brought not only their professional skills (law, civil engineering and construction) but a touch of Beirut’s glamour and good life too, in the form of good restaurants, stylish boutiques and nightclubs.

In addition were many from the Indian subcontinent whose roles were often in medicine, book-keeping and accountancy as well as trade and commerce. Pakistanis, Baluchis and Bangladeshis provided much of the labour force at that time.

A small American community (oil related) lived quite far out of town further up the coast in Jumeirah (where the Burj Al Arab Hotel now stands) as did a handful of Dutch and French whose primary interests lay across the Gulf in Iran (or Persia as we knew it, as this was still pre-revolution).

There was small British presence too: a handful of Trucial Oman Scouts, left behind to oversee a smooth transition to independence and train the newly formed local defence and police forces, a team from the BBC (to set up the new TV & Radio stations), business consultants and financiers (The British Bank of the Middle East) and the British Council.

The latter employed me to teach English to the wives (Sheikhas) and daughters of two of the ruling families and after mornings spent teaching ballet at the British and American schools, I spent many hours driving through the lonely desert, up and down the empty stretches of the single lane road (newly constructed to link the states) to and from their english lessons.

These were conducted in their newly built palaces:

and gave me a unique insight to the Arab way of life – especially from a woman’s perspective. The women I taught varied in age and education but they were all very gracious and hospitable and, surprisingly given their life of seclusion, extremely savvy and worldly-wise! They were keen to know more of and understand the ways of the west – but understandably wary of embracing them.

Within the indigenous population, the main occupations were in trade:

particularly gold. No sprawling, multi-storey, glitzy shopping malls then! The original old palm-covered souks were a maze of dark narrow alleys, filled with dappled light;  lively, aromatic and mysterious places filled with all manner of goods and exotic treasures from the East.  Just as they had done for centuries, copper beaters noisily hammering competed with the grain, spice, textile and live-stock traders all shouting their wares, and haggling for the best deals.

(Bedouin, pen & ink drawing © Yvonne Ayoub)

Fishing was also a traditional occupation, providing virtually the only source of locally produced fresh food (the Gulf was rich with fish and seafood) and as a result,  boat building was a necessary and still thriving business. Ajman State was where many of the elegant wooden dhows were constructed:

each section of hardwood, African teak, sawn by hand just as they always had been for centuries:

Dubai creek was filled with these graceful vessels constantly to-ing and fro-ing, transporting bundles of goods and the rapidly growing population of migrant workers from side to side:

There was always an energetic buzz about the city but nothing compared to when the huge cranes, heavy plant machinery and miles of pipeline began to move in;

Things were changing before our eyes. Dubai was turning into a giant construction site. Its transformation had begun…..

I watched it grow for four more years before I eventually left,  to continue my Arabian adventure in Saudi – and I’ve never returned since. Awesome and breathtaking as know it is today, I want to hold on to my memory of those special early years when, just like the Old Dubai,

I too was young, ambitious, ready to move on…… embrace the future….and fly…..

onwards and upwards………

Before the earth reclaims what she inevitably will….

“Venezia, La Luna E Tu”

Many years ago, back in my early dancing days, I was contracted to appear in Italy, firstly at the prestigious annual Song Festival in San Remo:

and then, afterwards,  in a TV Spectacular, ‘Penso, Corrido e Canto’ which was to filmed at Cinecittà Studios in Rome.

But that was during another period of strikes and austerity and we arrived in the Eternal City only to discover all TV studios and theatres were ‘dark’. Stars of the show included the renowned dancers Renato Greco and his wife, Maria Theresa dal Medico, the singing group ‘Ricchi e Poveri’ and the host was the (still!) ever popular TV personality: Pippo Baudo. So the decision was taken to take the show on the road and to the people instead. For this, a huge circus tent was commandeered (minus the acts and performing animals, I hasten to add!) and the entire cast and crew, plus a full orchestra, spent the next few months travelling around the country, pitching up and entertaining the masses as we went.

Our  adventure began in the eastern seaside resort of Pescara and from there we slowly made our way south, through the ports of Bari, Barletta, Brindisi etc and occasionally venturing inland to towns such as Manfredonia, San Severo, Lecce etc.

Mostly we followed the coastline around the heel of Italy and we ended the first tour in Taranto, which is where I eventually left the company.

It was a magical time and provided a wonderful opportunity to see a side of Italy that few tourists, at the time, had ventured anywhere near. We stayed no more than 2 or 3 nights in each town, in decent but basic accommodation (mostly provided by the ‘Hotel Jolly’  chain – a name which continually reduced us to giggles, for ‘jolly’ they certainly were not! Apart from the wonderful reception we received wherever we went, the camaraderie – not to mention the  occasional disaster  – all added to the wonderful over all experience.

One such ‘disaster’ was also as a result of the austerity measures. Some evenings. without warning, the hotel’s water supply would be temporarily disconnected  (usually just as we were about to take our showers and get ready for the evening show!) One memorable night I was rudely awoken at 5.00 am by my room-mate sitting crossed legged on her bed, mimicking a gondolier rowing and singing at the top of her voice: Venezia, La luna E Tu!”

“What on earth are you doing?” I screeched, frantically scrambling out of bed, only to step straight into 3 feet of ice cold water which was racing like a torrent around the room,  carrying all our possessions; shoes, make up, music cassettes, books etc like flotsam and jetsam, along with it.

Panicking, we raced to open the door and found a river gushing down the stairwell from above, gathering momentum (and water!) from each floor as it went. It seems the water had been turned back on while we slept but we (and most of the company too) had inadvertently forgotten to turn off our ‘dry’ bathroom taps……

Apart from the actual show, my happiest memories are of the ‘after show’ meals; each small local Trattoria would welcome the entire company, bustling us into a large rear room where blinds would be lowered  and we’d be ‘locked’ in for the duration. Between midnight and 3 or 4 am, course after course of delicious homemade Italian food would appear in front of us on a large communal table, always beginning with an amazing pasta dish and ending with a giant bowl of oranges. The wine flowed freely and much laughter, animated conversation and heated debate was conducted throughout the meal – and over many a card game  of ‘scala quaranta’ which lasted long into the night. Ah, Happy Days…….

I was sorry I was unable to continue with the second tour which was to cover the north of Italy; Milan and most especially Venice.

It was to be many years before I got to realise that particular dream but when I did, it lived up to every expectation!

Films such as the eerie  thriller ‘Don’t Look Now’ (with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) and ‘Death in Venice’ (with Dirk Bogarde) had both left indelible impressions on my young mind (I still feel incredibly moved by Mahler’s 5th Symphony, the soundtrack to the latter) and they accompanied me, enveloping me in a deep sadness, as I explored the narrow streets and canals.

Majestic as the great Venetian palaces are, their faded grandeur, peeling facades and rising waterline emit a tangible sense of lost days of glory – it pervades the whole city …..

Perhaps this was more pronounced because we visited in a dark and gloomy November (a wonderful anniversary surprise from my husband) but despite the bitter cold and damp, we were thankful that it meant we had the city almost entirely to ourselves (I dread to think how it must be with the crowds and heat during the summer!)

Especially in the normally packed St Mark’s Square.

The Doges Palace was simply magnificent and, as an artist, I was in awe of the sheer beauty that confronted us at every turn:

It was a totally unforgettable experience which, even years later,  inspired me to paint this:

and to pen these few words:

‘Venezia’

Instantly recognisable, your famous skyline majestically rises

Above the misty lagoon. Strangely, it holds no surprises:

But to recall how Turner saw you, I must look inside my head

To see beyond the crass commercialism that confronts us now instead.

Yes there’s St. Marks, the Doge’s Palace, the Rialto and Bridge of Sighs,

But with stucco peeling, tho’ your lofty palaces appear to rise,

With dignity not defiance, above the singing gondoliers

 All along the Grand Canal, there flows your salty tears:

 

For, all the while, deep down, you are silently drowning, drowning…..

—…— 

With dogged desperation, you cling to beauty that’s fast fading

And although, as you’ve always done, you’re still proudly trading.

Alas, it’s no longer in exotic silks and spices from the East.

No, now you trade on the grandeur of glorious days, long since ceased.

Where once, behind proud merchants’ doors, your coffers were filled with gold

Today, only worthless trinkets lie, begging to be sold,

To  ‘keep your head above water’ (literally!) in order to survive,

You’re selling your soul, your integrity, just to stay alive:

 

For, all the while, you are slowly sinking, sinking….. 

—…— 

You mesmerize us still,   fascinating each new generation

That treads your ancient mosaics while unwittingly wearing away

Yet another layer of your proud history that’s sinking into the clay.

A culture so richly embedded in an Empire  long past,

You’re slowly being eroded and, like your beautiful Murano glass;

Those multi-faceted jewels, that dazzle in the light,

You’re profoundly complex and fragile  – and no less sparkling in the night

 

Yet, all the while from within, you are quietly cracking, cracking…. 

—…— 

I should have never seen you in this state. l try to hold on somehow

To your image  in films like ‘Death in Venice’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’.

But like the masques of the Commedia dell ‘Arte, grotesquely evil in a way,

Which are sold on every corner, of every crisscrossed water-way,

However grandly embellished with feathers, faded velvet and gaudy gold leaf,

They are just a façade. Foolish, they fool no-one. They don’t command belief.

So too you continue to smile your broad, vacant, papier-mache grin.

and while no tears breach the gaping holes where bright eyes were once set within:

 

All the while, inside, your soul is hopelessly crying, crying…… 

—…— 

Now, seeing you at last, through older experienced eyes,

I see only a life that’s built on a raft of lies.

I’ve tried to live my life, with honesty, truth and pride,

to avoid such compromise and inevitable emptiness inside.

 I’ve refused to sell my soul for superficial gain,

For drowning in a salty sea is no honourable type of pain.

Have you no regard for the others that will come after?

Can you find no other way to ensure their love and laughter?

Than hiding from the truth and persistently lying about the fact you’re dying… 

—…— 

We’ll all succumb to age, despite preserving as best we may

The lives we invest so much in,  to see another day.

It’s hard to face the truth head-on and watch life slip away

When the heart still quickens and  yearns for the youth of yesterday.

I look to you, dear Venice, filled with sadness and decay

And think perhaps, that after all, yours is not the way.

And so from now I will endeavour to find the strength inside 

To age,  if I can, more gracefully and hope I’m not denied. 


 

Even though I know, like you, one day we’ll all be dying, dying……..

—…—

 I came away with a beautiful 18th century water-colour which hangs in pride of place in the stairwell at home. I pass it every day and  it serves as a constant reminder of a truly beautiful city, a wonderful occasion and another dream fulfilled.