Northwest by Middle East,
"if you don't know where you're going
any road will take you there..."
The World is Flat
So what happens when we get to the end?
Hanson Hosein, Foreign Correspondent May 2005
My three new friends call me Mr. Hanson - a sure sign that they're communicating with me from another hemisphere. They could have easily found my last name on the online order form they had in front of them, or in the e-mail I had sent them. But Jatinder, Sandeep and Pooja were probably more comfortable resorting to that old-world-third-world formality of Mr. "First Name."
That's one of the reasons why I didn't call Dell directly about my product complaint. I knew that when I would eventually get someone on the phone, that person would speak to me with a barely concealed Indian accent, much like Apu from "The Simpsons" - trying so hard to make it sound like he was from North America even though I knew it was a lie. And I really didn't want him pulling up my local weather forecast on a computer in Bangalore as he engaged in some well-rehearsed small talk about whether the Mariners were going to go all the way this year.
Why pretend? Our 21st century reality includes unabashed outsourcing. Our proudly patriotic corporations have no problem with sharing the spoils of commerce with the talented, lesser-paid masses of Asia.
A century and a half ago, the imperial powers were all about colonial plunder and in-sourcing. My great-great grandparents were part of that great import-export trend as they left their illiteracy behind and made the reverse commute from India to the Caribbean island of Trinidad. There they went to work for the Brits as indentured workers on the sugar plantations.
English Speakers of the Developing World, vengeance is sweet. Global efficiencies and broadband Internet have suddenly made you a hot commodity as call centers and software developers are farmed out to places where cigar-chomping Empire chieftains swore the "sun would never set."
You're making more money than your forefathers ever did, working in air-conditioned corporate towers that sprouted up overnight as IBM, Dell and GE all figured out that North America had just gotten too expensive. Like science fiction's robots who were given the menial tasks that humans didn't want to do but then got too smart to follow orders any longer, you too may have the power to assume control as we grow ever dependent on your expanding skill-set. And low salary.
Christopher Columbus set out from Spain in search of a straighter line to India's spice riches. He knew the world was round despite what everyone else was saying at the time. He just didn't know he'd run into another land mass on the way to the subcontinent.
We now know Columbus to be geographically correct. Metaphorically, apparently, he was wrong.
"The World Is Flat", points out famed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in his latest book of the same name (humorously subtitled, "A Brief History of the 21st Century"). And it's the culmination of a process that began with Mr. Columbus.
Phase One: The Earth started shrinking after 1492 once imperial powers got to work carving up the planet for themselves.
The Industrial Revolution then took hold from 1800-2000 as manufacturing technology and big business made it a much smaller world in Version 2.0.
And now, Friedman argues that it is the individual who is in the eye of Globalization 3.0's maelstrom thanks to information technology and disappearing borders.
Time and distance no longer matter. The whole world is apparently at our fingertips and no one ever need again suffer the vagaries of seasickness or the threat of mutiny on any Nina, Pinta, or Santa Maria.
Funnily enough, India's greatest gift to the world (other than yoga and the Kama Sutra) said "local" trumped "global"…in spades. Mahatma Gandhi's "swadeshi" dictated that whatever was made or produced in the village must be used first and foremost by the members of the village - that home economy is crucial for our community's self-sufficiency and security.
In other words, don't sell the family farm thinking you'll be better off with that new golf course, because you may regret it some day when some disaster cuts off the supply lines (Friedman did not neglect to point out that with Globalization 3.0 comes 9.11.2001 and Osama 1.Of.Many - meaning global opportunity brings global vulnerability). And we might be better off if we knew how to grow potatoes instead of green, green turf.
Of course for all our good intentions, we let our demand for exotic and inexpensive goods largely shape how we do business. Because we've outsourced so much of the work related to that, many of China and India's two billion people can finally dream of owning their own cars -- one reason why gas prices now resemble basketball scores.
When it's said that the average forkful of food must travel 1,500 miles to reach a person's lips (on gas-powered planes, trains and trucks), then there's something to be said to making sure we keep the necessities firmly within reach.
So Globalization 3.0 certainly means I can order the best value from Dell Wherever. It means I can do business out of the middle of nowhere with America and the rest of the world (I'm writing this article on the road in Washington State).
And it means that I can acquire a new S.U.V. - essential to my work I swear -- designed in Japan, assembled in Tennessee and guaranteed to contribute to keeping gas prices sky-high in the Okanagan (a captive market with reportedly the highest per capita car ownership in the country).
Yet, I'm relieved that the B.C Interior still retains such an abundance of homegrown riches. Like food, water and shelter. Because I'll want the basics close at hand should the world of Globalization 3.0 skip a rotation or two.
Freedom Fries - A Recipe for Responsibility
by Hanson Hosein
Am I the only one who expects George W. to crack open the blue greasepaint and give himself an Extreme Mel Makeover? And I'm talking about Extreme Gibson circa the "Braveheart" Era, not the Extremist "Passion of the Christ" promoter who appeared ready to celebrate The Inquisition's auto-da-fe as a succulent barbeque of roasted heretics.
The Big Guy to the South has found the theme for his presidential legacy and he ain't letting go. Inauguration, State of the Union, and his release of the hounds (in the guise of one powerfully persuasive Condaleeza Rice) upon the Middle East - they all point to one indomitable fact: Freedom (as marketing campaign) is On The March in March. And W will make history like his predecessor Bill and his father never will, #41 and #42 relegated to tsunami relief cocktail parties and Superbowl appearances, while #43 scouts out space at Mount Rushmore.
Laugh as much as we middling Canadians are wont to do at Superpower Buffonery, a growing handful are beginning to ask a terrifying question to which we really don't want to hear the answer: what if Curious George was curiously right all along?
Okay, I'll answer it in typical journalistic style. He was right. And he was wrong.
He was right to push for a democratic beachhead in the growth stunted Middle East. He was wrong to go about it so dishonestly. America's inability to come clean about its unequivocal support of nasty friends who wake up one fine day and discover they're Public Enemies Number One (wither Saddam and Manuel) makes it hard for those of us at the back of the bus to cheer them on.
This is what concerns me most about this newfound commitment to freedom. Will the President pressure his Allies to surrender to the will of the great unwashed as much as he's pushing the Axis? We're talking about China as Most Favoured Trading Nation with Unregulated Labour. Egypt as Most Favoured Handout at nearly $3 billion a year. And Saudi Arabia as Most Favoured Fundamentalists With Oil (municipal elections there are a good start, now if women were allowed to vote...). Dictatorships all.
Here's a potentially more explosive issue: what if everyone votes, but no one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue likes the outcome? It's one thing for a Shiite, America-tolerant regime to come to gain power in Iraq. It's another if they end up making kissy-face with their Iranian brothers across the border. And then denounce their former benefactors as the Great Satan. It makes Bush's serving of freedom nothing more than a fast-food dish -- a craving of quick-fried convenience followed by the indigestion of regret.
Algeria's hardline Muslim fundamentalists were about to win fair and square in 1992 before the results were brutally quashed by the military, and a terrible civil war raged for years. This is the big problem with elections in the Arab world: their secular governments tend to be corrupt and ineffective, driving popular support into the relatively clean hands of intolerant religious politicians who furiously salivate at the mere sight of a woman's ankle. And then what?
America must own up to the fact that like any empire, it is compelled to act more in its interests (i.e. friends), than on its purported principles (i.e. freedom). Why else did the CIA orchestrate the overthrow of Chile's democratically-elected left wing president on September 11, 1973? And why does it continue to sing the praises of General Pervez Musharraf who gained control of Pakistan through the decidedly undemocratic tool of a coup d'état (answer: because he's extremely accommodating to the U.S. exercise of muscle in that corner of the world).
Conversely and perversely, truth is overrated. Had Iraq's insurgents not engaged in their headline-grabbing terror tactics, we may have all been content to declare the war an overwhelming success, "WMD" a mere historical footnote.
That could still happen. For the solution to Iraq's woes is not in the might of an overburdened U.S. occupying force. It lies in every responsible Iraqi's claim of ownership over their nation's destiny.
The elections of January 30th gave them that first taste of self-determination. Arab societies are close-knit. If people suddenly realize it's in their best interest to denounce their suicide bomber neighbors in the name of peace, they will. (Colleagues of mine who were taken captive by Al-Qaeda types last spring in Iraq were quickly released when the town threatened to kill the militants if they hurt the journalists - local leaders were afraid of another punishing American military invasion.)
Forget about "freedom" then. Let's all adopt a new, more useful, wholesome mantra: "be responsible."
Arabs. Yanks. Canucks too.
We in the Great White North are not left unsullied by the machinations of the U.S. Empire. Us supernatural British Columbians recently woke up to the very real threat that our private medical records could fall into the hands of a torture-loving lawyer who's now the top Attorney in the Land of the Free.
We can bitch and moan all we want about the Patriot Act. Or we can ask why our glorious universal medical system has become so rickety that we even have to outsource the safekeeping of our documents to an American company. I hoped this would finally convince my brother (who's a privacy advocate in the U.K.) to move to the Okanagan and do business here. He pointed out that Canada's security powers can be just as invasive as those bequeathed by the American Patriot Act. So he'll stay in London for now, thank you very much. He also noted that British taxes are lower.
Wouldn't it be great - wouldn't we be great (again) -- if we put our money and minds to better use instead of blaming our woes on the Yankee Bogeyman? I may like to pontificate about America, but I wish we could get our own act together so we could have credibility as a voice of reason instead being marginalized as a whiny finger-pointer (smaller, successful Australia has accomplished this to great effect, from disproportionately generous tsunami aid to influential American ally).
Levy a nominal medical user fee to take stress off of our overwhelmed health system. Find a way to actually win gold medals for the winter sports that we learned to play as infants. Invest properly in our military so we can be the proud force for good in this world that we once were when Lester B. Pearson was the name of a powerful mediator, not an airport. Be productive without the crutch of a crippled Canadian dollar.
Instead of feeding off the crumbs of the same empire that we malign, let's bake our own cake with appetite and pride. Then maybe we can share it with friends and family, so wonderful and nutritious a creation that they might one day even ask us for the recipe.
by Hanson R. Hosein
Tsunami. There. That was deliberate.
I was raised as a breaking news kind of guy. So monthly columns in this esteemed publication are challenging. You want to be topical, but you're writing weeks before your rant is exposed to the light of day.
From December 26th 2004 to this moment of creation (some time in early 2005 is all I shall confess to), we have been consumed with how nature went nuclear over the coastlines lining the Indian Ocean.
Now I project my curiosity a few weeks into the future and wonder whether you're still thinking about the wreckage wrought by the tsunami. Are we still doing the benefit concerts? Are local restaurants still offering their special menus? Did all that aid money actually make it to the victims? Have CNN's ratings receded?
Don't worry. I'm not going write cynically about the tidal wave of interest we've all expressed in the hardship experienced half a world away. I think our collective call to arms (and wallets) is wonderful and inspiring. It's the kind of positive energy we need on this planet; the perfect antidote to the world of fear we have created due to war, terrorism and war against terrorism.
I'm simply wondering about this: What moves us during these times of massive crisis and television news ratings? And do we stay committed when the last of the camera crews have pulled out?
Let's put it another way. How will this disaster end?
We live in an age of instant history, where we're quick to declare everything the "[fill in the blank] of The Century" seconds after it happens. In this world of superlative headlines and "24-hour live-on-the-scene," it helps us put everything in perspective. We need to understand how to prioritize our attention span.
So what will it be? Pompeii or Bam? No. Not cartoon characters. But datelines for other devastating Acts of God. Two thousand years ago a volcano killed, then preserved, 16,000 people in a place near Naples, Italy. Almost everyone knows the story of Vesuvius. We remember.
Exactly a year before this last tsunami, 26,000 Iranians died in an earthquake in the ancient town of Bam. We pounded our chests in anguish, dozens of nations pledged aid in the hot glare of camera lights. Today, 150,000 people are still homeless and struggle to find clean drinking water. A lot of the money and aid never showed up. We have forgotten.
I believe in the goodness of humanity. We just get easily distracted. Sometimes we look for quick fixes. We can be lazy. And we're ruled by our senses. Those same senses that allow us recall the story of a volcano from antiquity, but handily dispense with the much more recent memory of an earthquake.
So I must wonder, will southeast Asia's disaster qualify as an unforgettably historical catastrophe (Pompeii)? Or will it just be one for the archives (Bam)?
What opened our hearts and minds to the victims of the tsunami? Was it the plethora of awesome home video? (Bam: a remote corner of an Islamic dictatorship, Pompeii: anguish frozen in time by hardened lava, a train-ride away from the former apex of Western civilization.)
The easy emotional connection to Western tourists? (Bam: Farsi-speaking folks, Pompeii: wealthy citizens of the Roman Empire on holiday.)
The slow news period? (A tie here. Pompeii: the dying days of summer vacation, Bam: the day after Christmas).
There's this running theory among us news junkies that our level of interest in an event is directly proportional to the number of people who have died. Here are a few less than politically-correct sayings from our colonial heritage: "A hundred Pakistanis going off a mountain in a bus makes less of a story than three Englishmen drowning in the Thames"; "One dead fireman in Brooklyn is worth five English bobbies, who are worth 50 Arabs, who are worth 500 Africans"; "One thousand wogs, fifty frogs, and one Briton".
Why do numbers matter so much to us? Does it help us to grasp the scale of the disaster? Or if we can't relate to the hardship of others so far away and so different from us, is it the magnitude of shock required to inspire us into action?
Nearly a million Rwandans would have benefited if we had gotten an earlier wake-up call before racial violence turned into genocide in 1994. Last year, two million people died of AIDS in southern Africa - 25 million are HIV-positive. Governments are acting, but richly paid basketball players aren't donating a thousand dollars per point to combat this modern-day plague, as they have for tsunami recovery. Those other kinds of catastrophes do not move the masses.
Natural disaster, like war, gives survivors a sense of unity and greater purpose: The need to overcome and rise above our petty differences. But there's a huge difference when it is God, not Man, who's doing the killing.
Perhaps it's easier for us to open our hearts when those who suffer are blameless victims of Nature's indiscriminate, amoral ways. Compare that to our perception of frisky Africans having too much unprotected sex. Or the inept Indian multitude that just can't maintain the railroad network their British overlords so generously bequeathed upon them. Innocence comes in shades of gray, so it's easy to be blinded when it's snow white (one reason why we are so drawn to the plights of helpless children and domestic animals).
As a journalist, I don't like covering natural disasters. Reporting on widespread death is depressing. It feels exploitative. And yes, there's no one to blame (except the engineers or stingy donor countries or the early warning system). The narrative arc of the story is predictable and proven: shocking pictures of the devastation, the victims, the rescue effort, the clean-up, the giving-up, the miracle survivor, the pledges of aid, the gradual recession of the images in our collective memory as another crisis demands our attention. Compassion fatigue kicks in.
Ultimately, we must be careful how we flex our muscles of goodwill. It would be ideal if we could help everyone in need, evenly and fairly, whenever we're called upon. But this does not happen in our media-drenched world, where governments and aid agencies must follow the money. And if millions of us are grieving and demanding action, caught up in the moment, these institutions must respond.
I will never forget when the plight of the refugees of Kosovo filled our television screens. Everyone wanted to help. The NGO's scrambled over each other to get in on the action. On one of my many trips to cover that story, I sat next to a United Nations official who shook his head in frustration.
"We're taking blankets from people in Africa to keep the refugees in Macedonia warm," he told me.
Clearly, we have our limits. A finite supply of resources, sympathy and attention dictate that we will do what we can, when we can. When we feel like it.
It's not perfect. We're not perfect. This world doesn't make much sense. So I'll just overlook my own questions and conclude that I'm grateful that we remain capable of such generosity -- whatever our motivation. But as for history's verdict? Only time will tell.
Foreign Correspondent, Published in Off-Centre Magazine January 2005
Render Unto Mullah
by Hanson R. Hosein
Everyone wanted to know. Where were the prophets? The ones brave enough to lead Muslims into a peaceful, prosperous future?
I looked at my audience at the Okanagan Jewish Centre helplessly. I didn't really have a good answer. Last year had been easier. Back then, everyone wanted to ask me about Israel and the rise of anti-Semitism around the world.
But this time, they steered my presentation to Iraq and the ongoing march of militant Islam through the Middle East and onwards to the gates of Vienna - not so much the armies of Allah as it was centuries ago as the growing numbers of radicalized immigrants today. And only half of this crowd was Jewish.
We generally accept that it's only the lunatic Islamic fringe that is committing the beheadings, suicide attacks and spewing vitriol. So it begs the question: where are the moderate masses prepared to denounce the extremists to steal back the righteous banner of the crescent moon?
Certainly, they are out there, but they are muted. Last fall, a handful of Islamic scholars called for reform of a faith that has been hijacked by the militants. They were quickly denounced by a loud minority as "Zionists." To most Islamic clerics, the Koran is a closed book - all that has to be said, has been said. In this, the Muslim calendar year of 1425 there is no need to move forward to Pope Gregory's 2005.
Last month, when Colin Powell was still U.S. Secretary of State, he traveled to Morocco to push the virtues of democracy and human rights to the delegates of Arab countries.
George Bush's left hand man should have found a better way to ride out the remaining few days of his muddled tenure. Everyone turned up for his command performance, but no one listened. Eat your couscous and go home, they effectively told him. They weren't about to take orders from the fallen emissary of a superpower that supported Israel right or wrong, and had so badly botched the disastrous campaign in Iraq.
Ah, it's always been about misguided American foreign policy, hasn't it? That's what Osama diplomatically and gently submitted to the world just before the U.S. elections in November. That his cavalier slaughter of innocents was merely a response to America's in-kind treatment of Muslims, and if Uncle Sam stopped, so would he.
We shall not let the bloody-minded extremists off so easily. Theirs is not merely a war on policies.
Certainly, a bunch of students took Americans hostage in 1979 Iran to protest Washington's support of the corrupt and brutal Shah. But it went hand-in-hand with the Ayahtollah Khomeini's triumphant ascent to power as he created a theocracy fueled by the convenient hatred of America as Satan. So it was that Muslim fundamentalism had its first beachhead.
The clash of values, the clash of civilizations then. Secular and egalitarian versus religious and patriarchal. East beats West and so on.
That's how a large number of "foreign fighters" who have flooded into Iraq to take on the Infidel might see it. Donald Rumsfeld, king of rhetorical balderdash, begs them to bring it on. He wants to fight all the Bad Guys in one place, preferably far from the shores of America The Blissful - that's what the war in Iraq was all about after all (in the fifth revision of the Bush Administration's bible of justifications).
If it only were so simple. If these young men with the fiery eyes were born with evil in their hearts it would all make sense. But to them, Iraq is a provocation. They must make a stand against the advancing armies of western decadence determined to steal away their holy sites. Motivated by their values but called to action by U.S. policy. And come they do -- in nearly infinite supply.
Their ruthless leaders cannot afford to see America proclaim victory with the creation of a democratic, free Arab state. This would belie everything Islam stands for.
For there is the rub. We have built Western civilization on the shoulders of the morality of Moses and Jesus, supplemented by the clear-eyed principles of European philosophers. Christ himself said we could. "Render unto Caesar" he told his disciples in a very clear statement on the separation of Church and State.
No such statement exists for the followers of Mohammed, even as they accept Moses and Christ as prophets within their own faith. Quite to the contrary, God's law and state law are one and the same in the Koran.
Fundamentally, an orthodox Muslim cannot in good conscience support a democratic, secular Iraq. Or a secular, democratic anything. This is Islam's immutable roadblock. And it explains this clash with the Freedom Train of democracy. As long as fundamentalism continues to grow, the West either has to blast right on through down the tracks, or Islam has to rebuild and reform. Or not. Thus the conflict persists.
I'm all for a secular, democratic Middle East, from Israel, Palestine and Iraq to Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. I'm a Trekkie, so for that matter, I've always liked the idea of a secular, democratic Federation of Planets.
With the Prime Directive in mind, I worry that our growing fear of Islamic fundamentalism may lead us to backslide on our own old principles of the role of faith in our daily lives. The rise of Christian conservatism in the United States has the faint whiff of intolerance and missionary work as they reverse the course of our social evolution (which explains why Darwinism is under attack in lesson plans and the fight is on to bring back school prayer). Then there was that tempest in the Victorian teapot this Christmas in Kelowna, when the folks at City Hall put up a manger scene on the front lawn. Letters to the editor defending this action mostly declared Canada to be a "Christian" nation, so this act was entirely acceptable.
Not quite. Many people who live here are Christian. Our head of state (for now) happens to be in charge of the Anglican Church. So I can understand the confusion, for certainly Christian principles infuse our democracy. But some of the strongest tenets of human rights and equality also define our nation. And to apply them would mean either no manger scene at all in front of a public institution, or a similar nod to other religions. This is not political correctness run amok. It's who we are, a sign of how far we have traveled together (a good friend recently joked that peaceful, fair-minded Canada "should take over the world"). It's also what scares the extremists so badly on the other side of the planet.
Alas, this creeping fundamentalism from the Okanagan to Alabama to Albania symbolizes an increasingly polarized planet looking to our beliefs for solace as our confusion and fear mount. That leads me to believe that we may have agreed upon separation of Church and State here in the West, but we haven't quite come to terms on a similar deal as to the role of faith in our public policy.
This may well be impossible. Most of us define ourselves as much by where we were born as what we believe in. Which is why we continually swing back and forth, from Temperance to the Torrid 60's. Sometimes I wonder if we ever learned to handle the wisdom of the Age of Enlightenment: the same conclusions that we adopted to build our nations. (We should look to Pakistan and Israel as cautionary tales: two states founded by agnostics at best, who could not help but inherently contradict their own principles by resorting to religion to inspire support for their creations - hence the inevitable spin-offs of political instability, sectarian violence, and the proud fathers of the Jewish and Islamic nuclear bombs.)
With that, let us return to the place where millions of gallons of blood have been shed over the centuries in the name of gods and monsters: Christendom, a.k.a. The Old World.
Deeply scarred by experience, countries like France and Germany have established a firm separation of Church and State, almost to extremes (hence the recent controversy over banning Muslim garb in French schools). As the specter of extremist Islam grows from within their own borders, the Europeans have decidedly kept religious beliefs out of their public affairs.
Yet, one day the former seat of the expansionist Islamic Empire, Turkey, will join the European Union. This is a nation of Muslims that some may argue has "over"-secularized. But so far, the resurgence of Islam in private life there has been moderate. To many, Turkey represents the promise of a Muslim population that accepts its place in the modernized world. Still, the rigid believers who call themselves true followers of Islam are unlikely make such hard, but necessary compromises anytime soon.
Foreign Correspondent, Published in Off-Centre maginze, November 2004
Absolutely Everything! What War's Good For
by Hanson Hosein
Lately, I've been unable to avoid the stark message of two books that lie side by side on my shelf. Perhaps they reflect my own shift in perspective since spending my summer in Baghdad.
Viktor Frankl wrote "Man's Search For Meaning" after he lost his entire family in the Nazi death camps. The psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz informed us that humanity's fundamental motivation was not a quest for power or pleasure but the quest for meaning in our lives. This probably explains why people who seemingly have all the money and power in the world continue to make movies, speeches and computers - so that they continue to matter.
"War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning" declares veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges. He turns Frankl's conclusion on its head as he reflects upon all the horrors he has seen. That too much pleasure makes existence meaningless (like the life of the Okanagan early-retiree who tumbles into depression with too much free time and too much golf). But too much meaning can lead to fanaticism, as we believe that our God-given purpose is the only way to live.
And fanaticism can lead to war, that unfortunate super-meaning to our lives for which we may be developing a bad habit - whether in name only, or sadder still, through our actions. Hedges observed that we vacillate between our need for love and our love of death: "[War] can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble."
Yes, it's true that America changed on September 11th, 2001. The country united in purpose. There were no Democrats or Republicans for at least a couple of weeks. The wishy-washy Clintonian 90's that followed the Cold War suddenly disintegrated as an enemy finally reappeared just in time to save us all from White House interns, Dot Coms, and fugitive sports celebrities (but not soon enough to spare us Reality TV).
In this 9/12 world, a certain society we all know, love and sometimes dread, has become addicted to the motivational power of defeating the shadowy terrorist enemy. The War on Terror gave a soothing purpose to why thousands of ordinary people died on 9/11. But it also allowed some of our leaders to simplify the world for us - to take out those necessary nuances so our purpose became deadly clear.
If you're not with us, you're against us. Suddenly, this world of grays was perfectly clear in black and white. And just like in Orwell's 1984, war made the world understandable again. We permitted ourselves to suspend critical thinking as we bowed before the collective will to victory.
And so it is that the seemingly meaningful War of Terror gave us the meaningless War on Iraq. Or as comedian Jon Stewart puts it, the moral vacuum of "Mess O' Potamia." Don't forget the War on Drugs. And the War on Poverty. And what it means to be a "War Time President."
So how about the War on Wars? Okay, I'm not pacifist, so let's just declare this a War on jingoism, political campaigns, and yes "War"-time presidents. Sadly however, this particular "W" word has received so much overuse lately precisely because it has the power to rivet our unfocused gaze.
During my three-year Middle East posting, I forever struggled with why we gave so much attention to every nuance and casualty in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict (it must be said that both sides have found terrible purpose from this war for different reasons). Yes, what's happening there is horrific, but if we can even begin to compare such things, there are worse atrocities taking place unnoticed everyday on those other three continents we typically ignore.
Maybe it's because we recall the biblical tales. Or perhaps we just can't turn away from the unwavering focus of America's foreign policy (i.e. the defense of Israel and need for oil). More plausibly, it could be the pornography of violence that attracts us all as we watch people just like us (for the most part) suffer and die. When things were quiet in Israel, so were the network airwaves. For better or for worse, the new Mideast victims are American soldiers in Iraq, where we are more likely to count the casualties of those with whom we can identify, rather than of the civilians who continue to perish in far greater numbers.
For many years, war gave me my own purpose. Journalists who cover death and destruction can also get hooked as we find meaning and inspiration in the struggle and suffering of others. So much so that a return to "normal" life in North America can be downright impossible as we grapple with the banality and ease of an existence that does not pit life against death at every moment.
But on this most recent assignment to Iraq, everything changed for me. Inadvertently, thanks to the guidance of my friend Jeff at Kelowna's Trinity Yoga Center, I found a way out of this vicious cycle. In between the beheadings, car bombs and kidnappings, I discovered my own meaning in the war zone. I practiced a gentle form of yoga that forced me to pay attention to my breathing (have you ever noticed how little you breathe when you're tense or afraid? It's as if you're telling the rest of your body that something wicked this way comes) and become aware of my present. When I realized that so little was within my control, I suddenly let go of everything. In Mess O' Potamia, death could come at any second, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Suddenly, through this "War Zone Yoga," I had found flexibility and faith, my own brand of wellbeing under fire. Deep breath. Deep understanding. I now knew what I wanted more than ever: to survive this assignment and be with my loved ones again. Nothing else mattered. It's a perspective that I've brought home with me, and it continually helps me cope with being in the war zone - and almost more importantly, with not being there as well.
Another well-known psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud said our human nature constantly struggles between our instinct to create and preserve, and our instinct to annihilate. Indeed, our entire history is about the incessant struggle between love and war. As Chris Hedges wrote, when we go to war, the emotion that comes with common purpose and selflessness at least initially feels very much like love. But it can't be. Because love is war's first casualty. Such is the tragedy of our ongoing self-destruction.
OKANAPOLIS: SHAKING THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE CAPITAL OF CONTENT
by Hanson Hosein, Off-Centre Magazine May 2004
Winter turns into instant summer and our fair-weathered friends and residents return to the Okanagan for another round of light-hearted Interior living. With a bulletproof economy that thrives off booming real-estate, good-time living and seniors who are forced to spend their nest eggs on essential services, satisfaction and joy flood the valley anew. Money flows because the spigot cannot be turned off, no matter how mediocre the goods and services. Tee-off time is at 10 a.m., and work is merely an afterthought here in Okanapolis, the Capital of Content. So it is that the ambition friction begins for another year as lifestyle trumps the search for excellence far from the uptight boardrooms Back East.
Thank goodness for the French then. If every country was associated with a medical affliction, the United Kingdom would be cirrhosis, the Balkans would claim brain damage, and the French an ulcer (America: heart disease, Canada: whatever it was that Dustin Hoffman had in "The Rainman"). Because despite having penned the wonderful term "bon vivant" and initiated the quest for the thirty-five hour work week, nos amis across the Pond and the Channel are nose-to-the-grindstone businesspeople.
So when a gaggle of them from Bordeaux descend upon the Okanagan to promote their new joint venture with Vincor - the multimillion-dollar Osoyoos Larose winery -- it's hard not to experience a frisson at the thought of our shallow valley on the verge of a lift. They speak of our wonderful terroir, a fabulous French viniculturalist's term I have never heard associated with British Columbia. It suddenly makes me feel like we're living on the same planet as the rest of the world.
Even better, Monsieur Merlaut, the Bordeaux wine magnate goes as far as to praise Kelowna's Fresco restaurant, which catered the lunch at their inaugural event in Oliver. Our very own homegrown ingredients, expertly molded into a five-star meal by a genius of a chef, who doesn't even speak French! Sacré bleu!
And then Don Triggs, the south end of the hyphen of that famous wine label Jackson-Triggs gets up in front of Stockwell Day and a few well-fed MLA's to declare that Osoyoos Larose will raise the bar of wines in Canada, just as Fresco has done for food in the Okanagan. Feel the slight tremors as Okanapolis gets shaken down by those who come here with the need to succeed rather than a mere yearn to avoid a mid-afternoon sunburn.
But change comes hard and slow to this valley that was created by ice formations that receded literally at a glacial pace. Witness the ongoing hangover to the UBC anchluss in March (that's Hitlerspeak for "annexation") of Okanagan University College. Oh the tearing of hair, rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth because the province consulted no one before going ahead. Myself, I jumped for joy at this hijacking of Canada's overdemocratic tendencies. That the UBC blitzkrieg might finally give substance to our little city of Kelowna with its peroxided, electrolysisized Big City attitude. Like Fresco and Osoyoos Larose, UBC Okanagan will raise the bar so high, that we will finally be able to walk towards our bright future without bowing our heads.
I foresee great things for Okanapolis as it can now contemplate a stature as great of a Waterloo (Ontario -- not Napoleon's last stand) or San Jose. And how things must change to meet this brave new world! Because it may actually give the young people of this valley who have survived the baby boom holocaust, a reason to stay and make a living in this most beautiful place.
Yet, increasingly sophisticated residents will demand sophisticated things, including a well-bred media. So allow me to expand on this subject near and dear to my heart.
May this revolution be televised. For Okanapolis has the largest television audience in the province outside of Vancouver. How about a little bit of competition in the local TV news market? CHBC has done the valley well in the past, but the Okanagan's Very Own needs an update and an upgrade to meet the demands of a changing viewership. More live news, more investigation and a fresher look will help it keep pace.
From the first day I moved here, I've heard rumors of parent company CanWest wanting to outsource much of this feisty little station's news operations to the lower mainland and BCTV. They'd be less likely to do such a dastardly thing if another organization was giving them a run for their money. So how about it UBC Okanagan? With your adventurous, clever students and the latest in digital technology why don't you give us another way to gather video in this valley of 300,000 inquisitive souls? Run a daily newscast for broadband Internet users, share it with the rest of the planet, put together twenty-minute features about our underground drug economy and submit it to Sundance while you're at it.
Last year's fires taught us the value of multiple news sources, as we discovered the best place for information was not radio, television or newspaper, but the all-day, all-night, always on Castanet.net. More choices and high tech solutions benefit everyone, especially when you're trying to figure out at three in the morning if your neighborhood is on fire.
Five hundred graduate students, a research park, 250 new faculty, relationships with international universities, an emphasis on arts and science - the world is coming to our door and we need strong local media to help us understand the consequences. Capital of Content, open your gates, for these barbarians come bearing great gifts.
FIRST WE TAKE MANHATTAN, THEN WE TAKE…K-TOWN
by Hanson Hosein, January 2004 (published in February 2004 edition of "Off-Centre")
I felt guilty. Not because Kamel was telling me story of how he once spent a few weeks in solitary confinement in a Syrian jail despite his Canadian passport. Nor because I wondered why I was spending so much time living the "civilized" life in the Okanagan when I should be back "out there" tempting fate and the policemen of totalitarian regimes like all good brave foreign correspondents.
No. I felt bad because for over two years, I had been walking and driving by "The Grateful Fed" deli on Bernard Street in Kelowna and had never dared take a step inside. That despite my affinity for Montreal-styled smoked meat -- which would bring back fond memories of youth when I was a hapless law student at McGill without a car.
How good could smoked meat be in Kelowna of all places? I had been burned enough by mediocre restaurants in this town to not want to try yet another eating establishment that would most surely disappoint. Especially my desire for "authentic" smoked meat.
But there are days when I find the courage to bypass the strip mall holocaust of Harvey, and that awful alliteration of Big Boxes, Super Stores and Fast Food -- truly accessible only to those who cherish their cars. The day I met Kamel inside his deli was one such moment. Then, I am reminded that it takes an effort to support the long-suffering downtown cores of small city North America. My guilt was further compounded by Off-Centre's January issue rightfully harping about the sad state of municipal affairs in the Okanagan's largest towns.
On this day, I drove my wife to work, and parked the car on Bernard (apologies to readers who live elsewhere in the Okanagan - I do believe Salmon Arm, Vernon, Osoyoos and Penticton all have more viable town centres than Kelowna). And then I hit the sidewalk. I walked to the library. I walked to A&B Sound. And it felt good. To experience life at street level again, no longer insulated by safety glass, speed and an airbag. And to set foot inside the Grateful Fed is to imagine what it would be like to step onto the set of that 80's sitcom "Cheers." Where everybody knows your name.
This is not meant to be an ad for the deli. I didn't even try the smoked meat because I left before noon. But it was impossible not to have a conversation with almost everyone in this cozy restaurant, regulars and strangers alike who didn't feel the need to lose themselves in the anonymous comfort of social distance of the strip mall. One woman commented on the svelte laptop computer I had in front of me while I sipped my coffee. So we talked technology for a while. The young cook recognized me from a talk I had given a while back at the Kelowna synagogue, and I quickly found out he was the cousin of the excellent chef at the Laughing Moon restaurant in the Mission. All this while I was waiting to meet a friend who worked downtown and had coffee nearly everyday at the deli. Everything just felt right.
And then I fell into conversation with The Grateful Fed's Kamel Abougoush about Syria and his childhood Lebanon. His genetic programming makes him hospitable by nature. I shouldn't have been too surprised then, when he offered me a sample of his absolutely delicious falafel (fried, pureed chickpeas). This after I had told him the last time I had enjoyed the Middle Eastern treat was in the Old City of Jerusalem many months ago.
Entrepreneurs like Kamel make for a vibrant downtown. And that kind of civic environment is a privilege. Use it or lose it.
Local businesses that aren't corporate chains are more likely to be downtown then off the highway, and they need your business more than Tim Horton's does. And we need them to preserve the special qualities that make our town and region different from other places. Who needs "nationalized" shopping that gives you the same tasting Starbucks latte whether you're in Vernon or Halifax?
Really, appreciating our local flavour is no different than all those sensible people who avoid Big Macs while in Paris, Rome and Tokyo. We miss out on so much when we don't appreciate the best of what's homegrown. And those brave businesses downtown promote foot traffic and energy in a part of the city that needs it most.
I can't tell whether Kelowna's is getting better or worse. Yes, there's the so-called "cultural district" that has more art supplies than street artists and buskers. Yes, downtown positively hums with tourists in summer because they certainly don't want to hang around Wal-Mart.
But I think a lot of us prefer to get into our car and run our errands off Highway 97 than to brave the fresh air and random encounters of the city centre. The only people who actually walk around the city centre seem to be those who work and live close by. A good friend of mine told me how he hates going downtown because he doesn't want his kids to see all the homeless people and hookers hanging around.
I had to take him to task on that: what does it say about our quality of life when we treasure the antiseptic social bubble of house/car/office/small talk with the cashier over the human ecology of downtown, which harbors the good and the bad?
I believe in long-standing relationships with business owners, not vacuous chatter with teenagers who have one eye on the next person in line. That's why, wherever we live, we become "regulars" ourselves with butchers, bakers and quality food makers.
In Tel Aviv, I went to the Jewish butcher near my apartment for hormone-free chicken and locally-raised pork (a secular surprise -- but it was excellent, and the owner said she liked my smile). Then, once a week, I'd head down to nearby Jaffa and visit the Arab meat market where I could get non-kosher steak and ground beef from the Hinnawi family. It made shopping a social experience rather than a boring errand.
When I go to New York, my dormant pedestrian instincts kick in, because they have to. How else are you going to get around in a city where it makes no sense to drive? Manhattan itself is an amalgamation of neighborhoods - every few blocks you can find a grocery store, a dry cleaner and a coffee shop, because it has to be walking distance from your apartment. And so it is that the streets teem with life and the city hums with energy. On my most recent trip back to the Big Apple, I loved how I was able to attend a party in TriBeCa at a photographer's loft, a few stories above the world-famous Nobu restaurant. And then I could walk out into the late night air and still spot people enjoying themselves in the cafes and bars.
A few days later I stopped in to see my family just north of Toronto. I had some shopping to do, but I couldn't stomach the idea of making the five-minute drive to the mall. So I walked. It was a long, cold, boring trudge past houses that all looked the same. Frankly, I wished I had driven. Much like it would not make any esthetic sense to walk along Highway 97 in Kelowna. There's nothing to see, nothing to absorb.
Then it dawned on me. Here in the fast-growing Okanagan, we are on the fast-track to creating a suburban hell of impersonal cookie-cutter retail if we don't get out of our cars and start walking the streets of the city. Funny how it is that Manhattan can feel more like a small town than our very own Kelowna.
I'm suddenly reminded of one of my favourite quotes from an Israeli historian uttered about his own country. Paraphrased, I'm afraid it may soon apply to fast-growing urban centres in the Okanagan. It goes something like this: the now shopping-mall infested, highway-congested, materially-minded Israel transformed overnight from "primitive" to "decadent" without first passing through "civilization."
Since my visit to the Grateful Fed, I have made a more deliberate attempt to do business downtown. I've discovered another wonderful new restaurant, the Siam Orchid, owned by a young couple who treasure wholesome ingredients and top quality cooking as much as I do. I try to go to movies next door to the Siam at the old-fashioned Paramount on Bernard. And very soon, I am determined to pass judgment on Kamel's smoked meat. For in downtown Kelowna, I have found a pocket of civilization.
Orange Alert: A New Year of Traveling Dangerously, by Hanson Hosein
December 24, 2003
(published in January 2004 edition of "Off-Centre")
It is 6:30 on a dark winter morning. A powerful floodlight illuminates the road. Cars snake past the police officer on their way into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He quickly peers into each vehicle, and then waves the driver through. We don't know exactly what will trigger his suspicion. But today, it isn't us.
America is on alert once again. Orange this time. The barbarians are at the airport gate - the same ones who woke the Giant two years ago and pushed it into a fit of righteous anger and violence. And when America sneezes, the entire planet catches a cold. Welcome to travel in the 21st century, where security clips the wings of the freedom to fly. Enough so that you wish you would have just stayed home. And enough to remind me of the days that I lived in another country under siege, thousands of kilometers away.
This was my second trip through Sea-Tac in 48 hours. I had just returned home via Seattle from New York. On that journey, I had mistakenly gone the wrong way during my connection at the terminal, and got stuck in an interminable line, waiting for security so I could make it to my next gate. It took an hour to pass through, shoes and outerwear off as we all passed through the metal detectors. One savvy businesswoman told the agent that she would keep her shoes on, since she traveled enough to have acquired the kind of footwear that wouldn't trigger the alarm. The rest of us trundled through in our heavy winter socks, arms folded, feeling insecure with our toes exposed, hardly playing the barefoot Bruce Willis who fought off the terrorists in an L.A. skyscraper in Die Hard.
Alas, I was forced to travel through the U.S. so soon again, thanks to Air Canada. My wife and I had decided to take a relatively last minute trip to visit my family in Toronto. As we all know, it's never cheap to go "back east" from the Okanagan. But without a Saturday-night stay, it was insanely expensive. Even those blessed upstarts, West Jet, were pricey. So I found a fare from Seattle to Toronto - one that was cheap, and with Air Canada. I even had the choice to fly non-stop, or through Vancouver. And there was the irony. My research had revealed that a return ticket, just from Vancouver to Toronto, with Air Canada, would have cost us $4000 more than the Seattle ticket. I traveled enough to know the rules of the game: I couldn't just buy the ticket via Vancouver and throw away the Seattle portion. This was the ridiculous shell game the great Canadian airline monopoly forced us to play. And pay. Obviously, Air Canada had to compete with other airlines in the States, which was why it was so much cheaper to fly from Seattle than from a western Canadian city.
Although it also gave us the chance to visit my wife's family in "Jet City," it was a mixed blessing. Because of the Orange alert. We sat on the tarmac for forty-five minutes that morning. Security removed a passenger from our plane. And then his spouse. And then they had to find their luggage in the hold below. And then the flight attendant kindly explained to us that the passenger's name was frighteningly similar to one on Homeland Security's "No Fly" list. Similar. But not the same. Unfortunately for him, even when he got the green light to return to the plane, Air Canada's policy was such that he would require FBI clearance beforehand. And since there were no FBI agents present that morning at the airport, he would just have to stay behind so the rest of us could get on our merry way to land of freedom: Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Apparently this happens a lot these days. Mistaken identity, similar names. One passenger joked, mimicking what the security agents were probably saying in the terminal, "Oh, your name is BinLAYDEN. We thought it was BinLADIN!" I thanked my lucky stars that Saddam Hussein had already been captured, otherwise it could have been me taken off that flight, given my suspicious-sounding family name.
Then I realized: every day America was becoming more like my former place of residence, Israel. Security was tight, the government was suspicious, an occupying army was killing innocent people in the name of national security, and terrorists were pricking the superpower's sensitive skin.
I remember when North America was booming in the late 90's where my friends and family were safe and secure, while I lived in a Jewish state under the gun. There, checkpoints on the road to the airport are permanent. Until I learned to look like an indifferent local, keeping my window up and blasting an Israeli radio station as I drove by the Uzi-toting policeman, I would regularly get stopped for further questioning. Once, they looked at my Canadian passport and saw my last name. That was enough to pull me aside and get my entire rental car searched for explosives. Of course, I exercised my North American self-righteous anger and sense of noblesse oblige. How could I be a terrorist? I had lived in Tel Aviv for three years. They had to know I wasn't a threat by now. None of it helped, and I nearly missed my flight.
So in revenge, I grew a beard. If I were going to be seen as a terrorist, I would try and appear like one too. Except the next time I flew out of Israel, everybody thought I looked far too respectable to be a threat. Someone asked me if I were Italian, the next one thought I was British. I had passed the threshold somewhere along the way from young, single male threat to over-the-hill distinguished pansy. I don't know what was more insulting.
Today, I wouldn't take things so lightly, nor be so "holier than thou." This is a deadly business, even if I sometimes believe I'm being set aside for further examination for cosmetic reasons. Except it now seems that even young men of fair complexion and Anglo-Saxon names are even getting thrown off Air Canada flights these days.
And you know what? Even though America is looking more and more liked the besieged state that is Israel, that is no reason to glorify the security measures of a Middle Eastern country that has seen it all before. I leave you with this last anecdote to prove my point.
A year ago, I flew out of Ben Gurion Airport in Israel after a fairly standard security interview and passport check (six years later, they must know me by now). Upon arrival at Pearson International, I had to go through security to transfer from one terminal to another. That's when they easily spotted the huge Leatherman knife that I had in my carry-on. I had not even been aware that I had it with me. And the Israeli x-ray machine attendant had obviously not spotted it.
So when I went to the Air Canada counter to check it in, I explained how it had not been found upon my departure. The agent started to laugh uncontrollably when he saw "Tel Aviv" on my ticket.
"I'm going to tell everyone about this," he said. "So much for Israeli security!"
I detected a faint Middle-Eastern accent. I asked him where he was from.
"Lebanon," he said. It was a country that had suffered through decades of civil war and Israeli occupation in the south.
We both agreed that it was funny, and comforting, that Canadian authorities had been more vigilant than the professionals from Israel. And now, on this trip, it makes me think that had it not been for Air Canada's predatory pricing policies at home, we would have been much better off sticking to travel north of the border. O Canada, We stand on guard for Thee.
The Cost of Good Journalism by Hanson Hosein, November 2003
(published in December 2003 edition of "Off-Centre")
The latest issue of that great glossy advertising supplement, Okanagan Life, recently arrived at my doorstep. Once again, it purported to list the “Best” of the Okanagan. I'm just glad it admits that the restaurants it lists in its “Dining Out” section actually pay for that privilege. For a publication that is searching out the “best,” I'm surprised it has never featured Kelowna's Fresco Restaurant, recognized last year as B.C's “Best Fine Dining” restaurant, and the Okanagan's only AAA four diamond recipient. Maybe Signor Fresco should buy an ad.
So I'm relieved that Off-Centre has launched its own “Reader's Choice Awards.” It's true that all free media is in one way or another, an advertising supplement. You can't get something for nothing. But if you can make money and have journalistic independence, then everyone wins. And the stories might actually be readable and of value. Sometimes, enough money is what guarantees journalistic independence. Either way, much of that is lacking in the Okanagan, which explains much of the mediocre journalism we see here.
But that shouldn't be taken as some chauvinistic slight against our lovely region. First, my own “Best of” list of local reporters would include the Kelowna Daily Courier's Don Plant, CBC Radio's Gary Symons and CKOV's Kim Calloway. These three understand the value of shoe leather journalism, and rank up there with the best I have met anywhere. If all politics is local, so is all good reporting. That explains why my international reporting class in journalism school stressed city beat tactics. If you can't do local news - the most vital and relevant news there is - then don't even bother with international reporting.
Second, you can argue that journalism everywhere has taken a nosedive in quality. Recently, I was leafing through my autographed copy of Arthur Kent's Risk and Redemption (side note: beware all books - and articles! -- written by journalists about themselves: the “self” is well served). I met the former “Scud Stud” for a drink before I moved to Israel for my overseas assignment, and a couple of years after he had successfully settled with NBC for millions of dollars in a breach of contract and defamation lawsuit. He was lamenting how the networks had slashed overseas coverage, and pumped up celebrity tabloid stories. Hardly an encouraging pep talk prior to my big move to the Middle East. And that was in the 1990's, in the era of OJ, Tonya Harding and Joey Buttfucco.
Today, the bean counters have ravaged mainstream journalism. Overseas bureaus have been shuttered by TV networks. Now reporters are “parachuted” in to shoot their standup, get a bit of local color and mix that together with third-party images collected by network partnerships and news agencies. Israel, Iraq, and London are the common denominators among network overseas bureaus - gone are Moscow, Rome, Paris, Tokyo, Johannesburg. And did South America fall off the globe? A telltale sign of a “cut-and-paste” hatchet job foreign TV story is when a network correspondent signs off on a Turkey earthquake story from London, or not at all. Hardly trustworthy reporting when you're not even there to report. They file from London, mostly because “London” is a bit more exotic-sounding that “Toronto” (Canadian networks might have better intentions, but they are just as guilty as, and poorer than the American ones) or “New York.” Call it the window dressing of international datelines.
But is it the accountants' fault? Only partially. The reality is, our media is fractured and segmented. There are hundreds of other sources of news now, from cable to the Internet. That means less eyeballs than before, which means less advertising.
Case in point: CHBC-TV did a good job of covering the forest fires this summer (full disclosure, my wife is a CHBC employee) - given its resources. I qualify my statement because the community would have been better served with twenty-four hour coverage, and more on-location live reporting. But that's not an easy thing to accomplish in a market where many people don't even watch the station regularly, or have opted for satellite TV. The latter couldn't tune into CHBC if they wanted to. Lower viewership means lower advertising revenues - less money for quality reporting, for overtime and for crucial equipment like live trucks. So when the big story strikes, we all pay for it.
Foreign coverage is astronomically expensive for television networks. I remember pricing out a trip to Sierra Leone to do a story about child soldiers during that country's brutal civil war. For a four-person team, with excess luggage, airfare, food and accommodation, we were looking at a minimum of $35,000 for an assignment that would last less than a week - all for a three-minute story.
The truth is, international news was at its most excessive during the Cold War. This was when foreign correspondents behaved like rock stars. Even the television camera had its own first class seat on board an international flight. It wasn't like that in the days of Hearst and yellow journalism -- before reporting became holy with Vietnam, Watergate and Woodward and Bernstein -- and it isn't like that now.
Salvation may lie in technology. The laptop computer, the cellular and satellite phone, digital cameras and camcorders have made journalism cheaper and more accessible. In TV, networks have to think twice about sending a full team to cover a story. But a “SoJo” - the independent Solo Journalist - can produce, shoot, report, edit and even feed the story from location with a minimum of muss and fuss. It's not a perfect solution. That's a lot of things for one person to think about, and something's bound to get lost in the translation. Then again, who says the translation has to be the way it has been for the last thirty years? I've done it myself. I know I'm being taken advantage of by doing the work of four. But I also know I'm taking advantage of a new world that can't afford proper international reporting. I'd rather cover the story than not at all. And if I can turn around a faster, less produced, more informal story than the traditional fare, so much the better. Yes, it's a compromise (it's also dangerous in a war zone). But a worthwhile one.
Uncompromising journalism? The toughest standards I've ever been held to, sadly, was at journalism school. There, we had the luxury of time, unlimited self-examination, a non-existent audience and a complete disregard for ratings and the advertisers. Which could lead this chastened reporter to conclude that true excellence in journalism -- might be largely academic.
Best Clubs on the Road
originally published in Off-Centre Magazine, November 2003 issue
by Hanson Hosein
The best lesson I ever had during my time in journalism school in New York was: "eat when you can, pee when you can." Because when you're chasing a story in motion, you just never know when you'll be able to give yourself a break to take care of the daily essentials.
As a male, I never found that I had to plan my bathroom breaks (when nature calls, there's always…nature, even if it's near a minefield). But meals in a land foreign or familiar, are crucial.
During the war in Kosovo, we imported a truckload of U.S. Army "Meals-Ready-to-Eat," only to discover that the Kosovar Albanians had already taken control of the Serbian-dominated kitchens of Prizren to at least throw together some fried eggs and stale bread for the hordes of hungry news teams who had walked across the border with the NATO convoys.
I was ill-prepared when I hopped an overnight flight with an Israeli Army rescue team into the earthquake-ravaged region of Turkey in 1999. Sure, I got a Coke and a kosher sandwich on the flight there, but we had landed, I was left to fend for myself. With a natural disaster that had left tens of thousands of people dead and buried under rubble, the last thing anyone was going to do was provide water, food or transportation to a lost foreigner. So after I had filed for the evening news and evaded arrest by a Turkish police force in disarray, I spent four hours to hunt down a taxi that would drive me back to the hotel in Istanbul. But once safely enveloped in the womb of four-star luxury, I only felt slightly guilty about enjoying what I declared to myself to be the best steak and beer I had ever consumed after twenty-four hours of desperate, hungry work under a relentless Levant sun.
Good food is probably one of the few benefits and solace of being on the road so long. And certainly, I enjoy the local delights as much as I can. However, globalization is so pervasive, that I can find a few creature comforts wherever I go (Mexican food in Macedonia, steak frites in Lebanon, the best bacon in the world in Tel Aviv). And wherever I find myself, I'm bound to automatically order a few choice items on a menu should I be fortunate enough to be in the right place, and have enough cash.
And that would include: chicken wings, escargots, mussels, rice pudding, chicken noodle or beef barley soup, cheesesteak, duck breast, fish (halibut) and chips, coconut milk curry, foie gras, old-fashioned chocolate cake…and The Club Sandwich.
I use The definite article for this miraculous creation between three slices of bread because the club provides me the ultimate refuge, the most efficient, action-packed serving of food on the road. I get fowl, bacon, bread, vegetables, and sometimes a few surprises in between.
During this lull where I can enjoy being at home a little while longer, I think back with delight on the three places on this planet where I've enjoyed the most superlative of triple-deckers. And I do believe it's worth sharing.
#3: The American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem is a true sanctuary in the hottest of the world's hot spots. Spies, journalists, aid workers, diplomats and top-secret negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians all converge in this gorgeous old-world hotel. The delectable Persian lentil soup is a meal onto itself. But after a long day of contending with tear gas, checkpoints or intractable opinions, there's nothing more soothing than a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and the Colony's famous club. This being the Arab side of town, the sandwich is stuffed with beef bacon and a few other modifications:fresh chicken breast substituted for turkey and a hard-boiled egg. This dish melts the cares of the day away and is a wonderful change from the usual hummus and pita.
#2: The Park Café on Seventh Avenue in midtown Manhattan offers a different kind of calm in the eye of the story from the Colony. If nearly every restaurant outing while on business in New York City is a schmooze-fest and a violent assault on the pocketbook, then the Park Café is a welcome change of pace. It's your classic diner with a "War and Peace"-length menu. Here, I'll bring in a free copy of the Village Voice that I picked up from a street corner box and take a seat at one of the Formica tables (there's always room here, despite the fact that many tourists come here to escape their tiny hotel rooms and outrageously-priced breakfasts at the nearby Sheraton and Hilton). Don't ask me for recommendations here though, I've never ordered anything but the club sandwich. It's the kind they serve nearly instantly, quartered in triangles and held together with toothpicks - it's that meticulously built. The turkey breast is thick, albeit a bit dry. The real challenge is trying to slather on the mayonnaise they provide in the tiny Dixie cups without toppling the sandwich over. And if you've got room, there's the beefsteak fries on the side. All for $11.95.
#1: Home in Hope, B.C.. "Home in Hope." Could there be a better-paired restaurant name and town for the correspondent on the road? For there's no place like home. Especially after having tackled the challenging curves of the Coquihalla, or having just escaped the damp madness of the narrow Vancouver streets? This is the obligatory restroom-and-restaurant break in this most beautiful part of the world. When I'm overseas and hungry, I sometimes daydream about the beautiful club sandwich at Home. Because it's perfect. Crisp bacon, moist, thick, freshly-cooked turkey breast, cole slaw on the side. I can do without the funny-tasting fries, but the side salad is a worthy substitute. The service is friendly, but slow because the restaurant is always full. I love it there. I speak the language, my cellphone isn't on "roam" and it's all in Canadian dollars. And there's always room for carrot cake. I'm still waiting for Home to come to Kelowna, because I have yet to find anything comparable in my own hometown. It almost makes the trip to Vancouver worthwhile.
Okay, now I'm hungry. Soon, it'll be time to hit the road again.
From the Frying Pan into the Fire, Hanson Hosein, August 26, 2003
When we moved to Kelowna nearly two years ago, I'd tell people that I had become a foreign correspondent in my own country. I had grown up in the big city, then studied and worked around the world. Now I was a repatriate who had to learn how to live in what they called the “B.C. Interior” - a place as interesting, challenging and different as any other I may have visited as an adult.
I decided that if I were to live in Canada again, I'd rather it be here than in familiar, predictable cities like Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto. After Israel, New York and Paris, I felt that the Okanagan Valley retained the edge and exoticism of those places. And it was conveniently located deep within my home and native land.
The “edge” came from its cohabitation with Mother Nature: that esthetician, creator, terrorist, destroyer and great equalizer. I spent six months this year reporting from war zones, prime “Axis of Evil” candidates, and places of occupation and murderous attacks. Then I was hit by culture shock when I returned to Kelowna via New York and Toronto. North American living was so much more sedate and easy (besides the odd blackout and terrorist attack).
I said to my friends in the big city that was why I looked forward to my return to British Columbia: my wife and home were in a beautiful, relaxing region that retained a hint of natural danger. It helped to create a great sense of community. Maybe I really meant that I enjoyed the “frisson” I got when I drove over the Coquihalla during the winter. And feared the violent anger I felt on some backwoods road when I got stuck behind another 88-year old RV driver who had retained his Alberta license two decades too long.
I had forgotten one thing. I had vowed when I had moved from Israel after three and a half years there, that I would report on the worst the world had to offer, but I'd never like to have it in my backyard again.
The Okanagan Mountain Park fires put the headlines of the world squarely in my front yard.
I got calls from friends from around the world. You know things are bad when Martin in violence-prone Israel called me to see if we were okay. “I can't believe you actually live in Kelowna,” others would say. No one thought you could work for an American network and actually live somewhere nice and unlocatable on most large-scale world maps.
“Just curious, was NBC interested in this fire because you're there, or would they normally dispatch a crew to disasters like this in Canada?” a friend of mine e-mailed me during the height of the fires.
It was a good question. My worlds had suddenly collided. Everyone I knew was suddenly joking that I had left one war zone, only to come home to another. I could hardly believe that I was reporting live from a few hundred meters from my own home, in Kelowna, for NBC. Even my previous employer, CBC asked me to contribute.
Yes, I was back home with my wife, but she was busy anchoring for hours on end on CHBC TV. I got a chance to walk my dog again, but I had to cut them short because smoke and ash filled the air and made it uncomfortable to be outdoors.
We were on the edge of the evacuation area. When the fires appeared closest to our neighborhood, when every tree looked like a potential miniature volcano - I got Heather to take a break for a few minutes so we could pack. I didn't want her worrying if she suddenly had to report that our street was on evacuation order.
It's strange. But I lived for six months out of a suitcase, and I had forgotten about all my other material possessions at home. So it was easy to decide what to take. We really don't need as much as we own to get by. Enough clothes for a couple of weeks, toiletries, wedding pictures, computer (all my music and photos are stored on it anyway), dog food, guitar (my sentimental favourite), and video equipment. Everything else was not needed on the voyage.
Suddenly, I had entered war zone mode. I went to Canadian Tire and bought electrical power supplies that could be charged in the car. I filled up with gas and took out the maximum amount of cash from the ATM. And, I finally got a roof rack installed on our car. There just wasn't enough room for dog and luggage otherwise.
I went live from familiar locations: Lakeshore and Mission Creek, Dilworth Mountain, and Enterprise Way. I worried about everyone I knew in the line of fire. And the answer to my friend's question was this: I believe NBC would have covered this story anyway. It was the classic tale of Man against Nature. And if this was happening in Kelowna, couldn't it happen in Aspen?
Still, it certainly helped that one of its foreign correspondents actually lived in a place they had never heard of until now - you know, the fellow who had appeared from nearly every hot spot in the Middle East for the last six months and now couldn't even find peace and quiet in his own home. The anchors made a point of asking me about this. I was “personalizing” the story just by being a resident and potential victim. And suddenly, the two biggest headlines for them were the Israeli attacks against Hamas…and the Kelowna fires. Thus was the delicious irony of the News Gods. I could almost see them laughing at me through the smoke above.
Prevailing Winds November 30, 2002, Pincher Creek, AB
This is my third dinner here in southwest Alberta. And I'm determined not to have beef this time, or at least a whole slice of red meat, for dinner.
This time, just lasagna with meat sauce. Last time, two thick slices of Barry's famous slow-cooked prime rib nearly did me in at the Pincher Station auction house. Barry makes it once a week, for $15 a pop, and that includes all dessert and all the fixings. And you've got to figure the beef has come from somewhere close by. They auction nothing but cattle there.
I come to rural Alberta hoping I can nearly pass as one of the locals. Well, alright, I know I can't. This is cattle and oil country. It's sparsely populated along the grasslands that abut the Rocky Mountains.
Still, I'm almost proud when I can declare that I don't come from any big city “back east.”
Nope. I'm from just over those mountains. The ones that divide Alberta's plains from British Columbia's valleys and mines. Yes, I too, am a Westerner. I have driven by my share of “Chinese and Western Canadian” restaurants that every town seems to have. I've seen the pain of the people who live here as the provincial and federal governments cut jobs and spending. I wear Caterpillar boots on nearly all occasions because they're big, they're black, and they can handle factory floors, craggy hiking trails or cow manure in the fields.
It's just as well.
Because I need to have something in common with the people I have come to profile for my documentary on the “Wild West's” sentiment towards the greenhouse gas limiting Kyoto Protocol - a treaty that Ottawa (yes, the Ottawa “back east”) wants to ratify very soon.
When I stepped into the Pincher Station cattle auction, it was like I had entered another world. Justin, the auction manager, knew I was coming. Still, when I got there, I stood outside the glass doors for a few minutes, unable to enter. I looked into the “auditorium” almost trying to acclimatize myself before taking the plunge. Because I knew I would immediately turn heads.
Partly because everyone in this town of 3,500 would see me as a stranger.
Partly because the room was filled with about a hundred cowboys, all dressed in jeans in boots, some wearing western hats. Without exception, every vehicle parked outside was a pickup truck.
Partly because I'm probably the only-non-white guy within a 100-mile radius (with the exception of the Pikani Indian band, part of the Blackfoot tribe, that has a reserve east of Pincher Creek).
Partly because when I did walk in, I began shooting immediately with my video camera as the groups of cattle were herded onto center-stage.
“Come on folks, this is a good cow,” Justin would call out as he danced around taking bids from people who made the most minute gestures, imperceptible to me. (I would meet Bob Jenkins, the motormouth, rapping, jiving auctioneer the next day at the United Church, and he would explain to me that someone might bid with a wink of an eye, or the raise of a finger. He knew how to look for the signs, and he knew everyone in the room.)
But mostly because I was clearly signposted by the CBC logo on my microphone. That meant I was an employee of that oft-resented Liberal, government-funded, redneck-baiting elitist organization, based in the foreign land of Toronto. I almost felt like an FBI agent hanging out with a militia in Montana. Happily, I descended upon this town in a white 4x4, and not a black helicopter (or a Volvo).
I can be a Muslim in Israel, a pampered first-worlder marked for swindling on the subcontinent, even a Canadian at the Pentagon, but I never felt more like an outsider as I did when I walked into that cattle auction.
“I wasn't sure whether to expect a huge, strapping blonde Dane,” Pincher Creek maven, Sue Aris had told me. But she got over my appearance quickly. She had lived a few years in Saudi Arabia. And she and her husband Terry invited me to dinner one evening at their house on a small acreage (800 - apparently that's small by Albertan standards…who says Texas has a stranglehold on all big-related superlatives?), where I enjoyed their wonderful company and a yak steak (delicious).
“To tell you the truth, when I heard you were from the CBC, I thought it would be just another reporter from the city, coming to do a story about the rednecks,” Sue said.
But after we spoke for a while, she realized I was trying to debunk the myth of small town Albertan wanting to destroy the environment and hating the Kyoto protocol. And that was just fine.
On the three separate speaking engagements I have had in Kelowna, my audience has laughed each time when I suggested that the work I do now is not much different from being an overseas journalist. How could that be, these fellow Canadians would wonder.
It's quite simple.
Rural Canada is a different place from the Canada where I grew up. Sure, I went camping “up north,” and did wilderness survival training when I was younger. But when you actually live and report in the B.C. Interior, you come to understand that there's a whole different sensibility, and sensitivities. Outside of the medium-sized cities of Kamloops, Lethbridge and Kelowna, there are people who are far less sheltered from the extremes and vagaries of life. It's a struggle there to avoid being screwed by the government, by a mining company that's shutting its doors for good, or most worryingly, by Mother Nature. I love meeting the people who have chosen to live here.
When I went to interview her husband Wayne, Eleanor Hawthorne told me that it was so nice now not to have to worry about whether the well was going to freeze, or the power was going to go, or when she would have to wake in the dark to go and take care of the animals, now that she lived in Lethbridge and not on a farm.
As in all foreign reporting, there's the incredible benefit of having the ability to learn more about another culture, and explore a part of the planet you thought you'd never see. In high school, I had studied Canada's prevailing winds from the west, and the kind of weather they deposited as they came off the Pacific, hit the Coastal mountains, then the Rockies, then came screaming across the flatlands of the West. I never truly grasped the meteorological concept. Now, I was experiencing it firsthand.
In my never-ending search for evidence of a Higher Power, I thought I caught a glimpse of Something at sunrise over the dozens of mammoth wind turbines on the Albertan plains. As the sun rose over the eastern horizon, it illuminated these graceful propellers atop skyscraper-height towers, bathing them in a golden glow.
The early light quickly set the grasses ablaze, and then transformed the wall of mountains to the west from gray to mauve in mere minutes.
The turbines generate electricity, but they hardly make a sound as they gently push through the air, propelled by the prevailing wind in this self-proclaimed Wind Capital of Canada. And when the wind really blows, and you're up alone among these giants and a wall of sky, you can get overwhelmed by a sense of immense fragility and want to go cower somewhere confined.
There's a Shell gas plant out here, but many people in Pincher Creek think their future is in clean, renewable energy. Call these people rednecks if you will, but admire them for their enterprising spirit.
“My father hated the wind,” Allan Kettles told me as he took me along the ridges and wind farms in the area. His grandfather helped settle Pincher Creek, they even named a street after him. “But I've learned to embrace it.”
Kettles is a wind prospector. He hopes to find a financial partner so he can put up 35 wind turbines on farmland that used to belong to his family. He's 61, and confesses his working days are nearly over. It'll take a hundred million dollars to realize his dream, one that he calls the legacy that he wants to give to his children.
Even better, Kettles used to ride his horse all over this land as a child. So he was able to indulge me in a another of my favorite foreign reporting pastimes: off-road driving. In one day, we managed to drive over a hundred kilometers on dirt roads, and even better, up high on the ridges of grass, where we joined herds of deer who had been trying to mate in private.
But back to the cattle auction.
As I was leaving, a few kids spotted me and my camera.
“What channel do you work for?” one boy asked.
“CBC Television,” I said.
“Lucky duck,” he said. Then he walked away.
I was so surprised, I had to go after the boy. And I got him to repeat what he had just said.
HOME LEAVE/LEAVE HOME, Vancouver November 1, 2002
When you live in isolation, you look forward to an occasional return to the "civilization" that you know and love.
When I resided in Israel, I returned to North American at least once a year. It was a chance to see friends and family, do some shopping, stock up on creature comforts that were unavailable in the Middle East, renew contacts at the home office in New York City and enjoy being around more polite but often commensurately, more boring people.
I could draw a limited parallel to my recent two-week stint in Vancouver. Except, I don't know Vancouver all that well. And I certainly don't love it. My first negative thoughts of Canada's 2nd city (Anglophonically speaking) are of its awful traffic patterns, probably because they're the first thing I have to contend with upon entering the metropolitan area.
It's the only major city I know of that doesn't have a highway to take people to and from its stunningly beautiful airport (my first positive thought if I'm flying in). Instead, you're subjected to a three-lane road that must have had two lanes at one time in history, and then some brilliant person drew another line to squeeze in more cars traveling each way, without thinking that perhaps the odd left-hand turn lane might be have been a useful addition. Driving in from Seattle? The highway peters out in Richmond, twenty minutes south of the Vancouver's downtown core. So now I must add that it's the only major Western city I know of that doesn't have a highway to take people to and from its downtown. Who do you blame? The environmentalists? The land developers? The chauvinists who try to deter more people from taking refuge in their beautiful city (bad roads be damned, they lost the battle over thirty years ago)?
The shopping is not as good as it is in Toronto, and culturally, many might argue that Vancouver is a small town in big city's clothing. Parking is cheaper but Vancouver's Surrey suburb is the country's car theft capital. And Vancouver has the most expensive real estate in the country. Most people dress like they're ready to hit the ski hill or the hiking trail as soon as work lets out at 4 p.m. The city's infamous "downtown east side" festers with drug addicts and resembles some of the worst horrors I've only witnessed in the developing world and always makes me beg the question, why here? Is it the warmer weather that allows more homeless people to live on the street. The proliferation of gangs who bring the destructive habit-forming product into the country through this Pacific coast port? The permissive politics?
The downtown East Side is like Canada's very own Interzone, a lawless city-state within a state. Walk one block from Chinatown or Gastown, and you may notice an attractive woman or man, relatively well dressed, usually white, coming your way. And then as you get within staring distance, you notice something isn't quite right. There are scars, a wayward look, a desperation, or a demand. And you have to wonder, how did it get so bad?
Apparently, I nearly won the right to a new Sony video camera after a colleague of mine borrowed mine (it's smaller, and usually less conspicuous) and considered shooting a drug deal in the works, raising the dealers' (yes, plural) ire and a vehement request to hand over the camera.
But on a sunny day, when the mountains aren't obscured by fog and clouds, it's hard not to think that Vancouver is one of the most gorgeous places replete with positive energy on the planet. Call it part-time city Zen. And regardless of what I think of it, it's one of Heather's favorite destinations.
And because we get paid in Canadian pesos, making it difficult to travel affordably to the places we once loved to explore, we like to make the best of our short jaunts outside of Kelowna. As the bon vivant couple that we are, with our strange set of priorities and without kids, that can only mean one thing: good food. If we can't travel, we can at least be taken away from the daily routine for an evening or two at a spectacular restaurant.
Of which, Vancouver, unlike Kelowna, has plenty to offer. As I used to stock up on clothing and cheap compact discs in Toronto after Tel Aviv, now I gorge on sushi, because frankly, Kelowna is just too far inland to really boast any level of seafood freshness. And some say that Vancouver is to sushi what London is to curry -- these "ethnic" delights are actually better there than they are in their countries of origin.
Still this time, when Heather joined me for a weekend, I decided to forgo what's supposed to be the best sushi in the universe (Tojo's), and hit two of the other top five in Zagats' "Most Popular" Vancouver list. That's all we had time, and money for.
Vij's is the ultimate in Indian-influenced democracy. They refuse to take reservations there, which is insane, because it's so popular. So like they do at the New Delhi train station, crowds gather early, each person hoping to get a table. There's no preferential seating, no cash under the table. Just patience.
Still, this was the first restaurant I've ever been to that I didn't flinch when I was told there'd be a 45-minute wait. Zagats' said the "wait was worth it." And the spartan restaurant had such a good, energetic vibe, I really had no problem with heading off to the back to share a drink with my lovely partner. Even when we realized we got the last two seats as the 7 p.m. crowd converged, making that back bar area feel like the hottest place in town, or the reservations line-up for a sleeper car on Indian Railways. Happily, Vikram Vij is a super cool guy who's not about to make people suffer for his art (he actually calls it "curry art"). Every ten minutes, he, or his staff would circulate among the desperate diner wanna-be's with hors d'oeuvres like cassava fries and parata. We ordered a bottle of Alsatian Pfaffenheim Pinot Gris (every bottle on the restaurant's list is a democratic $32 each -- see the menu ) and forgot we were waiting for a table.
When we finally got one, it felt like we had just won an Oscar. It seemed like hundreds of others were hoping for the same thing, and we just happened to get it. Vikram made me feel even more like a winner when he somehow found out that I had ordered the braised goat as my appetizer and curried duck breast for my main course.
"Those are both excellent dishes" he told me as he passed by. Vikram looks a bit like Zakir Hussein, a man in his forties with curly hair and joy in his eyes.
"How long have you been doing this?" I asked him later, wondering how he kept such a frenetic pace among such demanding gourmet mayhem.
"Six years," Vikram said.
"How do you put up with it?" I said.
"I love it!" Vikram said with a broad smile. "I absolutely love it."
The method to his non-preferential madness soon became clear as two black leather-clad men got out of a car and entered the restaurant. I immediately recognized one of them.
"They look famous," Heather said. "But I don't know who they are."
"That's Peter Buck," I said. "He's the guitarist from R.E.M."
Earlier that day, I had read in the entertainment section of The Province that Michael Stipe was in town shooting a movie. And so enamored had he become with Vancouver, that he summoned the rest of his bandmates in for a bit of inspired jamming in some local studio. So it made sense to see Buck here at Vij's, one of the hottest restaurants in town.
But there was no VIP table here. The millionaire guitarist was forced to join the masses at the bar and wait his turn. I was tempted to get up and tell him to be patient, that it was worth the wait. It was not to be. Ten minutes later, a star was gone.
"Suddenly I have 'Daysleeper' in my head," Heather said.
After our successful visit to Vij's, I was really excited to hit Zagats' number one, Lumière. It's nestled in our favorite Vancouver neighborhood, Kitsilano. Near the University of British Columbia, this part of town reminds me of a cross between Montreal and a livable corner of Manhattan, with the right mix of residential, retail and restaurants.
Lumière is an up-up-up scale European/Northwestern restaurant. It's prix fixe. We opted not to have the $120 super-duper menu, and did what everyone else in the restaurant seemed to choose: one of each from the $90 chef's and seafood tasting menus.
That meant Heather had Albacore Tuna Carpaccio with green papaya salad and a chili and lime dressing, Butter-Braised Lobster with mascarpone risotto, horseradish sauce and fresh herbs, Sake & Maple Syrup Marinated Sablefish with sautéed potatoes and leeks, shimji mushrooms, and soy & hijiki froth, and Halibut Casserole with fall vegetables and black truffle broth.
[take a breath]
And I had Hot and Cold Foie Gras (fabulous stuff from Quebec) with caramelized vanilla quince, citrus and cognac poached prunes, and tasted brioche, "Le Poisson" with preserved lemon, tomato, spot-prawn salsa, and light tapenade jus, Veal Saltimbocca with Argentinean prawns, shitake mushrooms in a cabernet reduction and aged balsamic, and a Roasted Lamb Chop (the best I've ever had) with mango curry and a spicy tomato & mint cocktail.
Okay, so maybe it was the mood I was in. Maybe I'm just ungrateful. But this meal that we had was surely excellent, but it wasn't magical. I guess we expected that for the price, the reputation and the chef, we would be captivated. That's what happened at Toqué in Montreal, our best restaurant experience ever. And we're enchanted each time we visit our friends at Fresco in Kelowna (which just won "best fine dining restaurant" in BC, the first time an establishment outside of the Vancouver/Victoria region has been so honored), and when we can see Rod Butters hard at work in the open kitchen.
At Lumière, the friendly staff were better dressed than the clientele, which in casual B.C., no longer surprises me. Unfortunately, the tables were close enough that I could hear our server repeat the exact same lines to others that he had rendered onto us upon presenting our dishes, or taking them away. Most ubiquitous: "I can tell that's another one that you didn't like," -- a stab a humor and a plate picked clean.
From what I could tell, we were one of the few tables to actually order a bottle of wine with our meal. Maybe that had something with the restaurant's Wine Spectator-like list, that had a few wines under a hundred dollars, but quickly reached for the stars all the way up to $1,500. After our loyal support of the Okanagan wine industry, we decided it was time to reacquaint ourselves with the wines of the world. So we opted for the Chateau St-Germain Coteau de Languedoc, a nice full-bodied Cote de Rhone that went very well with our meals, and didn't break the bank at $60.
Most memorable was the cheese plate we shared, not because of the minute slivers we spread on the few pieces of bread they gave us (the French would be ashamed by this frugality, but the restaurant inexplicably made up for its Nouvelle Cuisine tasting menu portions at the tail end when we each had two desserts), but because of the incredible quality of many of these non-pasteurized cheeses that mainly hailed from Quebec, and not France. Our favorite, the Pied du Vent from the Magdalene Islands, "bien fait" and pungent. Bottom line: the restaurant was good, but overpriced and I believe, overrated.
And with that, we made our eventual return Kelowna's fast food joints along Harvey, Ajo (one of our sympathetic favorites, unfortunately located in a strip mall between Futureshop and the Overwaitea grocery store), the new Bonfire Bistro, The Laughing Moon, and the seasonal death of fruit and vegetable stands in the Okanagan. Organic produce is now triple the summer prices and all imported from California. Winter is upon us, and the bright lights and warm restaurants of Vancouver are once again a difficult drive through the snowy mountain passes away. Next up here in the hinterland, record cold weather and an early ice wine harvest. The Grizzly Adams of television news has returned to his outpost in the hills where, for the most part, you eat what you can find.
Life in Wine Time, Kelowna October 13, 2002
Now it all makes sense.
Our being here I mean. Everything else is still confusing.
Today, we slept in. And then woke up to a crisp but sunny, autumn morning.
We drove a few minutes from our home to Pinot Reach, our neighborhood winery up the hill. Our friend, Sue Dulik met us at the entrance. We were late for the fifth annual Vineyard Trek and Treasure Hunt - kind of like an Easter egg hunt in a winery. Parents brought their kids who searched for toys hidden throughout the vines of the 50-acre vineyard. Adults were also rewarded with sips from Sue's finest wines at various stations - as well as a nibble on some Cabernet and Gewürztraminer grapes that were still on the vine (the rest had been picked).
The autumnal vine leaves were golden in the sunlight. Pinot Reach is on the valley's ledge, so we had a clear view of Kelowna and Okanagan Lake below.
Everyone was happy. Miles, our winery dog, loves traipsing through farmland. And he was even more thrilled when every kid decided they had to pet him. One child wanted to give him a “banger.” I thought it was a candy, until he took it out of his loot bag and I realized it was a spent firecracker. Sue's affable and talented winemaker, Roger Wong, immediately saw the danger, and confiscated the banger. Crisis in the vines averted.
The whole event could have well been compared to Bilbo Baggins' eleventy-first birthday in “The Lord of the Rings” with everyone drinking, receiving presents, and an anti-bird cannon occasionally firing plumes of smoke into the air to scare of the winged scavengers of Sue and Roger's livelihood.
Perhaps no one was happier on that day - the final one of the 10-day 22nd annual Okanagan Wine Festival - than Sue herself. The evening prior, she received a Gold Medal for her “Old Vines Riesling” from the festival judges. It's a superb, dry white, grown on vines that will turn 25 years-old next year (another cause for celebration, especially because most vines in the Okanagan are far younger).
It's not the first gold medal for “Old Vines.” Earlier this year, a huge competition in Paris awarded it, and seven other Rieslings from around the world, top prize.
“I don't understand,” Roger told me. “That's a bigger deal to me than the Okanagan gold. But not for Sue.”
Perhaps as a child of the Okanagan, Sue was thrilled to get recognition for her five year-old winery (her family has owned the vineyard for over sixty years, but she was the first to start making wines). Or maybe it was because she knew the story behind the gold medal - and that I had played a small part in her winning.
Because I was one of the five wine judges for this year's festival.
How could that be, most of you might ask. What does he know about wine?
Well, not enough to be a full-fledged judge, whose vote actually counted. That was left to the four other renowned experts who sat in the same room as I did last week and tasted three hundred local wines in three days.
But I did know enough to decide to move to a wine region with my bon vivant wife. And as one of the judges so affably put it, moving from “war to wines” was a good story - good enough for Sue Dulik from Pinot Reach, also on the festival's board, to suggest that I should fill the seat of the “celebrity judge” this year.
So was Pinot Reach's gold payback for the plush assignment?
Absolutely not. I'm a lawyer, an ethical journalist, and now, an impartial wine judge. But to understand how it all came to be, read on.
Up to now, the festival has employed five wine judges from outside the Valley to choose the best wines. It's a big deal - the quality of judging is such that the wineries take this competition very seriously. A medal could dictate the success or failure of one of their wines. Especially with a hundred thousand visitors to the festival this year (apparently the American Bus Association has deemed it to be one of the top 100 events in North America).
But this year, the organizers decided to go with four. By doing so, there would be no tiebreaker. The judges would have to reach some consensus before deciding on each wine. However, so as to not let that fifth position go to waste, they thought it'd be a good idea to have a media personality as a “silent judge” - someone to enjoy the process and to spread the good work about Okanagan wines far and wide.
And I was not the first choice. CBC national commentator, Rex Murphy was at the top of the list. When he said he couldn't make it, Barenaked Ladies' singer Stephen Paige was next. But he said no, too busy campaigning for a socialist politician in Toronto and performing for a benefit concert for breast cancer in Vancouver.
So the organizers lowered their sights and expectations considerably, and decided to go more local. And that's when Sue piped in and said, what about Hanson? He's new to the Okanagan, likes our wines, and might be able to give us national exposure. And thus a wine judge was born.
Of course I accepted (with CBC's blessing). Then I got to work.
I recruited Mark Filatow, sommelier and sous-chef from Fresco restaurant. He offered to give me a crash-course in wine tasting one Saturday afternoon. We both knew I wasn't going to become a wine master in two hours.
“We're going to try and prepare you as best we can for your coming judgment,” Mark said, hamming it up for my camera which was rolling to record my training for the blessed event. “Which will lay a heavy hand on the entire industry.”
He laid seven wines before me - every glass a quarter full. I knew the basics. You had to tilt the glass first against a white backdrop to examine its color. And then swirl it to release the flavor, which you breathe in deeply. Mark taught me to identify the scents (“oak,” “black current,” “cherry,” “pear,” “apple,” “citrus,” “candied,” “peppermint”). We then took a mouthful of wine and let in some air through our front teeth, making an unappetizing gargling noise (according to Jancis Robinson in her book “How to Taste:” this “encourage[s] the wine's volatile elements to vaporize and pass up the retro-nasal passage to the olfactory center - thereby maximizing the impact any wine can make on you at any one time.”).
Then, as any professional taster knows, you're supposed to spit the wine out into a classy-looking silver spittoon. Which Mark did. I just swallowed. Try that with 300 wines in three days and contemplate a happy, hazy demise through consumption (although even if you spit, alcohol fumes still make their way into your body -- then consider it one wine drank for every thirty spat).
“Spitting is highly recommended,” Mark told me. “But not on yourself.”
“I'll get a bib,” I promised him.
I didn't. And I paid for it later.
However, one other crucial lesson I drew from my cram session with Mark was to learn how to appreciate the “length” of the wine. The longer the taste lingers in the mouth after you swallow (or spit), then technically, the better made it was. When all else failed me in the days to come, I tried to measure that element.
A few days later, I was sitting in the same room as four distinguished wine experts. It was a sunny day. We were in a historic house on a hill, overlooking the lake, in the appropriately named town of Summerland. And I was nervous.
Across from me and beside me were:
Alan Goldfarb, the enthusiastic wine journalist from San Francisco - the Napa Valley is his backyard.
Memory Walsh the discerning, demanding columnist from Vancouver who is loyal to the Okanagan, but expects the absolute best from its wineries.
Sid Cross, the retired Vancouver lawyer who spent every available leisure dollar and day on wine courses and wine tourism to become a wine master and assemble a huge international cellar of the best the world has to offer (so good he gave Mark from Fresco wine-tasting lessons).
Steve Brunnell, former Seattle restaurateur, husband of Chris who owns the closest wine shop in Redmond to Microsoft's headquarters, and purchaser for the Washington State Liquor Board. Their seven year-old son Andrew enjoys ice wine.
With little ado, but a few warm introductions we were off. We were given a test flight of assorted wines. They all started sipping and spitting. I followed suit, making notes on the scoresheets as I went along. It felt like university exams all over again. I peered over at my colleagues, concerned I was going to slowly, not tasting properly, or not writing enough.
Incredibly, in the discussion that followed, I hit the mark with most of the wines, both in terms of scores (out of 20) and observations.
“It's young and fresh, but it's a little bit simple,” Sid said with casual brutality.
“It's totally correct and fun,” Memory said.
“I give it a 16,” Steve said.
“It's a very pretty, agreeable wine,” Alan said.
I just nodded each time they said something that jibed with what I had written. I was stunned at my own accuracy, and at the enthusiasm of the American judges for the Canadian wines. The wines of Washington and California were more developed and mature than those of the Okanagan. But pandering to every Canadian's inferiority complex, they liked them, they really really liked them.
In fact, in the days to come, Alan would end up being the most generous of the four, awarding gold medals to wines that the others would hardly even count as medal-worthy. In many ways, the old stereotype of Canadians being harder on themselves than anyone else, would arise again.
“Wine” and “snob” are four-letter words, and for many of us, the two go hand-in-hand. But there was nothing snobby about these judges. They all clearly loved wine, and knew exactly how to appreciate it. And they were happy to take me along for the ride, educating me along the way.
They were all effusive on one of the rare unanimous gold medal winners, a Gewurztraminer (we later found out it was made by Wild Goose Winery):
“This is the most Alsatian wine of the flight,” Alan said.
“I agree,” Memory said.
“Yeah, a gorgeous wine,” Sid piped in.
“What makes it so much better than the other wines?” I asked, concerned that I had only awarded it a bronze.
“The density of the fruit,” Sid said. “And lower yield and ripe picking.”
“The concentration is just amazing,” Memory added.
“Yeah, that was brilliant,” Sid said.
“It's got everything you want in a Gewürztraminer,” Alan said. “It's got the lychees, the bright fruit. A little bit of lime peel bitterness that you look for, which is very Alsatian.”
Despite my deviation from their scores on that one, I would say that I was in line with their scores about eighty percent of the time - so much so, that Blair Baldwin, one of the festival's organizers later joked that he would have to invite me back next year as a real judge.
And although I was a “silent” judge this time around, I did throw my opinion in from time to time to help dislodge the occasional impasse…especially during the Riesling round when the scores were high, but not high enough to give a particular wine a gold. I loved the wine, and said I had given it a gold. That seemed to have tipped the balance, and they ultimately decided on giving it a gold. We later found out it was Pinot Reach's “Old Vines Riesling.” In the most arbitrary, fair way possible, Sue Dulik had benefited from having nominated me as a judge.
Eventually, the judges would call on me in jest to get me to support their individual positions on a particular wine.
“Come on Hanson, where are you?” Sid called out during the merlot round.
“I gave it the same score,” I said. “But I don't count!”
Despite my fluke successes, I was far from becoming a wine master. Early on, I supported a wine that everyone else immediately agreed was corked.
“Forgive my great ignorance, but what do you smell in this that makes it corked,” I asked. I had liked the musty, camembert-like scent.
“Well, I first said, barnyardy, horsey,” Alan said.
“Musty,” Memory said.
After that, I tried to be first off the mark to declare any musty-smelling wine corked.
I was also trying to shoot the competition for a CBC television story, which was a challenge while I was tasting at the same time. But I couldn't use that as an excuse when I had to change my shirt on the second day. That's because I had recruited Robert, a fourth-year college student to shoot that day instead. Obviously, I had never learned to spit properly. Merlot didn't go too well with a light-blue shirt.
“Time to change my shirt,” I said sheepishly. “I've got to learn how to spit.”
“You could call it a badge of honor,” someone called out.
Memory said that's why she encourages her students to do their first tasting “topless.”
We all ended up getting our teeth blackened by Merlot residue and extra-sensitized by the acids - I couldn't eat anything for three hours after that, every chew was a lancing pain. I wondered how the tree out back was faring. Its roots were the lucky recipient of all the left-over wines and contents of the spittoons…
By the time we had gotten to the final day, I felt as if I had lived through an episode of “Survivor,” with each round of decision-making a more sophisticated version of tribal council. But the five of us bonded along the way, taking in a few of the festival's events together and sharing a number of meals.
One evening, we had dinner at Wild Goose owner's Fritz Krieger's home (I know it sounds like we were close with two gold medallists, but all the tastings were blind - with sometimes dozens of numbered glasses in front of us). When I got to the door, with nothing to offer as a guest, I joked that I forgot to bring a bottle of wine with me.
Fritz didn't miss a beat.
“That would be like bringing ice to the Eskimos,” he said.
And living here, in the Great White North of Wine, why would I want to do that?
Dessert in the Desert, Osoyoos September 15, 2002
If according to my favorite band, time be a “bird in flight, endlessly mocking,” then quail be my “bird in sight, endless stalking”. The one that wakes me in the morning. The ones that consume the grass seed I have laid in our backyard. I am seriously considering looking into the purchase of one of those propane air cannons the wineries use to scare the birds away from their grapes. But that's the other thing that wakes me up: the cannon up the hill, who's once-a-minute blasts echo through the valley. So I resort to throwing fragments of Miles' bones at them. No wonder my new grass looks so hen-pecked.
It's obviously fall in the Okanagan and everyone turns their attention away from the lake and the sun towards wine. The days are hot and sunny this month, the nights cool. Perfect weather for the final days in the lives of the millions of grapes in the valley, as their juice gets even sweeter. Yes, 2002 will be a very good year for the region.
As if to compound our fall into Fall, we had our first meal with a native band since moving here, and yes, it felt like the First Thanksgiving. The Osoyoos Indian Band was celebrating the opening of its new Nk'Mip winery in the south of the Valley. More business than band, these 370 members are building a $25 million resort in Canada's only desert - complete with winery, hotel, golf course, and desert heritage centre. But they're no neophytes, their vines are 30 years old, some of the oldest in the valley. And a quarter of the grapes grown here are on Osoyoos land. It helps that they're in partnership with Vincor, a wine behemoth that owns Iniskillen, Sumac Ridge, Jackson-Triggs and a couple of wineries in California and France.
So 250 people were invited to the big Osoyoos bash. They flew in entertainment from across the country. They gave out carved arrowheads hand-painted with the band's insignia. And they had several wine stations throughout their property so their guests could taste their first batch, accompanied by smoked venison and terrine of quail hors d'oeuvres. The menus were finely printed on rice paper, affixed to a thicker piece of paper by a rawhide string.
Get a load of the menu for the “Grand Feast:”
Foraged mixed greens and edible flowers
with an Okanagan Pear vinaigrette topped with cracked walnuts
Applewood smoked infused BBQ salmon fillets drizzled with
Tarragon lemon butter served on a cedar plank.
Grilled herb-seasoned Yukon Gold,
Pontiac and purple nugget potatoes
Skewers of Osoyoos Fire Roasted Root Vegetables
Fresh parsley buttered corn on the cob
Medley of fresh seasonal berries served with
shortcake biscuits and cream
and of course…wine.
Clarence Louie is the band's chief and visionary. He's been chief for 18 years but he looks like he's really 18 years-old. He told me he admires the “big hitters,” - Trump, Pattison, Iacocca. When I asked him whether he saw himself more as “chief” or “chief executive officer,” he paused for a few seconds.
“I'd say I'm a business-oriented chief,” he said, with a mischievous smile.
Louie is quite amazing. He balances business acumen with his deep understanding of native history (no surprise then that his education was in native studies and business management). Louie equates economic development with getting his people on their feet.
“You have got to get off your rear end and get to work,” Louie said. “Our ancestors didn't take handouts. They never depended on anyone for their basic needs. That's the problem some of our people have.”
The Osoyoos Band is evidently making the best of a beautiful situation. Unlike other bands whose members individually own land, the Osoyoos territory is community property. So they've gotten together to take advantage of their location in one of the country's most beautiful - and viniculturally advantageous - settings. They own real estate developments, a cement factory, a gas station, a golf course and now a winery.
I love driving down to Osoyoos. Once I cross that invisible line into the northern end of the Sonora Desert (conveniently signposted “Welcome to Desert Country”), I feel as if I've left Canada.
If I focus on the scrub brush and the sun-baked tawny hills, I could imagine being back in the Middle East. Driving to the Osoyoos Reserve reminded me of taking a trip into the West Bank to visit the Palestinians - a journey to another indigenous culture, another world.
But that's just one layer of the South Okanagan.
If I turn to look at the beautifully-cultivated orchards and vineyards on the hills, Portugal, Provence and Tuscany come to mind. Especially because the quality of light is so similar to those other corners of paradise - due to the hot sun that travels through an azure sky and bathes the valley in warm, golden light.
Still, one person's southern Europe is another's northwestern India. A drive down highway 97 here will inevitably reveal the hundreds of Punjabi farmers who live and work in this part of the valley. Many of them wear turbans, the older among them still wear the traditional flowing garb and happily saunter along the emergency lane of the highway, unperturbed by cars speeding by them at 80 km/h or more. Apparently the physical geography of the south Okanagan is very similar to that of the Punjab. And their place in society here must surely be recognized if they've built a magnificent Sikh temple in no time at all, and Punjabi is taught in the high school in Oliver. So no need to ask, “what are they doing here?”
As I did ask in a speech I delivered at a United Way benefit breakfast in Kelowna last week.
“What are we doing here?” was my opening line and premise. If you read to the end (or beginning) of this account of our time in the Okanagan, you may recognize it as the opening line on November 18, 2001.
In this speech, I pointed out that there's a magic to small-town living, especially in a place as geographically-blessed as this one. And there's a responsibility to life here as well, in a place that doesn't have the same elaborate safety nets as the big city.
After much to-and-fro'ing through many of my overseas adventures for the benefit (or bemusement) of my audience, I concluded this:
“I'm not one to cite pithy quotes, but I came across this one last week
that I found particularly relevant to the topic at this breakfast.
Mahatma Gandhi said this.
`As human beings
our greatness lies
NOT so much
in being able
to remake the world
-- for that is the myth
of the Atomic age -
[our greatness] lies more
in our being able
to remake ourselves.'
And that's what we're doing here.”
Hitting the Road, March 26, 2002
The directions were Old World simple.
“Take the ferry to the other side [of Kootenay Lake]. Stay on the main road until you come to the village of Procter (there's no sign but it's the only village you will come to). Turn right at the General Store and go uphill. Until you come to the Old Schoolhouse on your left. The Village Bakery is on the ground level.”
Perhaps Mark Twain would have written it with more panache. But despite the Huck Finn feel of those landmarks, they were 21st century directions that had been e-mailed to me - with a very 21st century purpose. Get the TV journalist to the War Room where the seeds of a grassroots protest were sprouting; a mere few hours prior to a demonstration against the provincial government's cuts to local residents' beloved lifeline: the ferry.
But if these transit radicals believed that they were luring me to Procter to do their own bidding as I am the self-declared national eyes and ears of the British Columbia Interior, they could not know of my own ulterior motive.
In locked-down Israel, the four-hour highway drive from Tel Aviv to the border with Egypt's Sinai Desert was considered an arduous journey. I always enjoyed the scenery: as green farm fields quickly turned to dust and desert. If you took the right road, you could perform the tri-desert trek: Judean, Negev, Sinai. And at the same time, cross the ecological divide (but not geographic) from Asia into Africa as I straddled the Great Rift Valley.
In mammoth British Columbia, the four-hour (minimum) trip from Kelowna to the Kootenay region is nearly literally perceived as a walk in the park. And that's taking into account the single-lane highways, avalanche zones, flash snow storms at the high mountain passes, and ferry crossings.
I was surprisingly enthusiastic about making this journey for the second time in two weeks. It was a good cause, and a good story - another ferry protest by people who felt the government was out to stamp out rural life as they lived it. But it may be possible that I was even more interested because it's a fabulous part of the province…nay continent…to visit.
Because when I drive through towns and villages like Nelson, Nakusp and Procter, I too must protest…about my present hometown of Kelowna.
No big city person (I can call them that now) could understand the distinction. Mountains, valleys, wineries, fresh air, and no traffic jams - it was life in a city with a small town feel. Where if you walked down a main street at lunch you could be compelled to wave to at least five people you knew, not unlike Sheriff Andy of Mayberry. And that's a wonderful way to live. Even if your new favorite salesman from family-owned Robertsons (a store for the working man) said he saw you talking to the quirky wood furniture design-maker across the street and concluded that you had to be doing a story because you couldn't possibly be interested in his whacked-out designs.
Kelowna is connected…to Vancouver, Seattle and Calgary. By air, by highway, and by the origin of the lifestyle refugees who descend upon it in ever-greater numbers. And some of these people wish to re-create what they once had: garish suburban homes, strip malls and bulk shopping at Costco, the stench of grease and french fries on Harvey Avenue (a street that within two kilometers, has two Burger Kings and two MacDonald's - so you could have your choice of either depending on what direction you were traveling along this six-lane road).
However, drive across the Monashee Mountains and it's if you've gone from Kansas to Oz. You'll pass by cafes - no diners - with thoughtful names like “The Hungry Wolf,” “The Lost Lemon” and “The Copper Eagle Café.” In these small towns, there are few multinational franchises to be found. Either Home Depot and Wendy's don't think population centers of ten thousand or less are viable markets - or they've been run out of town by locals who just don't want to give their money to businesses that will siphon it out of the community.
At best (or worst), every town has a Home Hardware and Radio Shack. When it comes to fast food, Subway is as bad as it gets. For burgers and fries, there are a few A&W's, but that's only because that chain has a half-a-century long history in the Kootenay Region.
If you pull into the stunning town of Nakusp (I was somewhat grateful that clouds enveloped the nearby Selkirk Mountains, or we would have purchased property in this amazing place immediately), you may happen upon the Broadway Deli. Anita may serve you her special oatmeal - a seven-grain cereal, to which she adds another two to give us this day our daily fiber. She may force a few strips of fresh bacon upon you, and that would be difficult to refuse. You would leave feeling satisfied, healthy and happy, content that you had just ingested local, whole ingredients, and the money you paid for your meal would help keep this business, and perhaps this magical town, viable.
Which brings us back to Procter, and the Village Bakery, site of the uprising-in-the-making. Susan bakes awesome cinnamon buns that stick to your fingers, and not to your ribs. Her dog Susie is happy and fat: victim of too many dozens of Susan's vegetarian canine treats.
Picture this. I'm interviewing the leaders of the uprising inside the bakery. I'm wearing cheap, plastic behind-the-head headphones and am occasionally looking through the view screen of my camera while I ask questions. Susan is half-listening, half-baking. Heather, who also temporarily abandoned Kelowna to savor the Kootenays with me, is trying to stay out of the shot, and helping me by handling the microphone as each person takes his and her turn at venting frustration.
“They're taking us out at our knees,” said Penny Balance.
“This is a long established community,” said Emory Wilson, a long-time resident.
“People who have lived here and have fought for and finally obtained ferry service, are being threatened to have that taken away. People here put their whole lives around having twenty-four hour service.”
“I'll probably have to give up my job and go back into the casual list in the laboratory,” said Dawn Cooper, who works in Nelson, across the lake. For her, as everyone else affected by the cutbacks to the thirteen routes, the ferry is her highway, a daily commute to work, not some free ride across a scenic body of water. If bridges were cheaper, there'd have been one where the ferry now operates.
Meanwhile, outside, our puppy Miles, who had come along for the ride and suffers from an acute case of separation anxiety, began to occasionally leap up at the bakery window, and try to hold himself up by the paws as he peered in at our very serious discussion. Everyone saw him, but no one bore the dog any ill will except for his master who began to silently wish that Miles would (not fatally) choke on one of Susan's veggie treats. Happily, Heather was a consummate professional and her expert sound engineering didn't pick up any of the puppy's protestations.
A couple of hours later, we were in Nelson, the major population center for the area. It's a colorful, vibrant town built on an incline. The one shopping mall is hidden away on reclaimed land on the lake. Kelowna is replete with wizened golden-agers who get around with walkers and battery-powered golf carts. Nelson is for mountain bikers, vegetarians, artists and scruffy young men who all look like they stepped out of Palestine circa 32 A.D.. The shops on Baker Street are filled with the wares of local artisans.
When we told the owner of Stanley's restaurant (who was wearing an Islamic skullcap but served great bacon and organic egg omelettes) that we were from Kelowna, he said, “There's still hope.”
Which is why I was incredulous when I heard a mother tell her young daughter in one store, “Let's wait until we go shopping in Kelowna.” To buy what exactly?
Nelson is a quintessential cool town that to me, with its escarpment, bridges and river, physically resembles Porto, Portugal. The fundamental difference? Porto is the home of port, that sophisticated after-dinner drink the British so love. Some Nelsonites get their kicks from their greatest export: “Nelson Gold” - a high-class marijuana that is seriously revered south of the border.
And that is the fundamental problem with life in the Kootenays. While Kelowna thrives with newcomers, the second-best health care in the country, the eleventh-busiest airport and a real estate market that is up 80% from the same time last year, the only thing really keeping Nelson in business now is tourism, memories of Steve Martin (who shot the movie “Roxanne” there) and good grass. House prices are plummeting, the population has decreased 3% since the last census, and now with cuts to health care, education and the ferries, it'll be harder to maintain a decent standard of living in the middle of paradise.
How ironic that my claim to fame at NBC in New York was my work on big government's wasteful spending in the “Fleecing of America,” and now I am consumed by stories of anger and fear as social programs are chopped in the “Cutting of Canada.”
But these people shall not go gentle into that good night. This is a province of firebrands, radicals, 60's American draft-dodgers and frontier folks. A population that likes a good fight, and better yet, a loud demonstration.
Like those four hundred people who took over the Nelson Bridge in that protest organized by the kindly customers of the Village Bakery in Procter. I had to turn the volume down on my camera, it got to be so loud.
They sang on the Needles Ferry near Nakusp during an earlier demonstration a few weeks ago, danced, played the bongos, and jeered their local politician. Clearly, a good time was had by all.
As I was leaving that event, an old man waved to me from the window of his pickup truck in the parking lot near the ferry.
“Have a good day,” I said, trying to be sociable.
He responded with a mischievous grin. As if life didn't get any better than today.
“I already did.”
January 17, 2002
How We Work
With gratitude and first hand experience, I declare Ernie Sheridan to have The Best Seats in Town. I Capitalize because this is the name of the Penticton businessman's furniture shop - one that I had stumbled across last month. As a token of our growing friendship, Ernie immediately agreed today to allow me to use his store to write my script and edit my story-of-the-day there. Had I still been with my big-pocketed previous employer ($60 million for Katie Couric?), I would have taken a hotel room. But this was the People's Network and every possible economy would be appreciated by my constituents, and by management.
So it was that I found myself this afternoon in the back corner of Ernie's dining table section. Like a spider quickly spinning a web, my setup expanded on the $1,200 dollar dining set. Ernie is so cool he invited me to set up anywhere. I was reluctant to be so obvious to his customers. But my forty-six year old conspirator (and probably the nattiest dresser in this town of 40,000 retirees, civil servants and lifestyle refugees) was king of his castle, and what he decreed was law.
First I opened up my Dell Latitude laptop. Then I produced a power bar and the one electrical socket suddenly begat six. The Sony DV deck emerged next, and I connected it via the firewire PCMCIA card to the computer. I plugged in my headphones and then started digitizing the 35 minutes of tape I had shot so far onto my Avid editing system. I must have looked like some old-time short-wave radio operator trying to contact the Resistance from some innocuous location in the Occupied Okanagan. But the polite citizens of the quiet town studiously ignored me - even when I cheekily pointed out to one woman that I was not for sale, but the table was.
At 1:00 p.m., it had already been a long day. It had also been a long night. Miles (as in “Davis”) our seven-month old puppy had craftily lured us into the solarium by creating an “incident.” A little bit angry with him, I refused to let him back into the rest of the house, and slammed the French doors shut, thereby locking Heather and I out…I dressed in pyjamas and slippers, Heather not wearing any shoes. For those who have McGyver tendencies, we were equipped with a cordless phone, a flashlight, a dog who couldn't control his kidneys and a hot tub. After a few moment of violent contemplation (strangling the dog, breaking the glass on the French doors), we grew sensible. Using the flashlight and the telephone, we called information and got the number for a locksmith, who would rescue us in about 20 minutes. Then I turned up the heat on the hot tub, took off the cover and waited for it to warm us up in our drafty solarium. The kind locksmith (alarmingly) broke through our front door in about two and a half minutes. We had mastered our situation.
And so it was that I went to bed far later than I wanted to, because I had to wake early the next morning for the drive to Penticton. For this was to be Black Thursday - the day the B.C. provincial government was set to get rid of 11,000 plus civil servants in its attempts to manage its deficit. It was to be the greatest bureaucratic blood-letting in Canadian history. And the rural areas would be hardest hit, and as far as national television news was concerned, I was “it” to get the story.
I arrived at the district office of the Ministry of Forests at 8 a.m.. There was no media frenzy to be found here - that was in the capital city of Victoria four hours west. This was the B.C. Interior, and the only press hounds to be found in the parking lot were the solo practitioners of Gary Symons, CBC Radio and yours truly, CBC Television. No satellite truck, no boom microphones, no clamouring questions and jockeying for position with the “photogs.” We, were cheap and easy. Gary, with his encyclopedic knowledge of his hometown of Penticton, and myself, with my 3-CCD mini DV camera and lightweight tripod - a one-man-band news festival or a two-ring circus depending on your point of view.
In sensitive stories, radio can always get the interview. A television camera can attract people too, but when it came to a dark day like Black Thursday, the employees who knew the end was near, were in no mood to be caught on videotape, and instinctively shied away from the windows. I tried hard to point my camera in another direction and not make them feel like carrion.
There was a “lock-up” in effect - a prison-like metaphor employed by the government to describe how they were going to give the bad news to the employees around the province. They were to remain inside their office until 2 p.m., and sometime during that period of time, they would be informed of their fate in one collective swipe of the figurative layoff guillotine.
So no one was going to speak to me and I had a story to file. Which meant I was forced to shoot exteriors because I knew I would have few pictures to tell this story. Exteriors of the Minstry of Forests, the Ministry of Highways, downtown Penticton, the lake, city hall, the courthouse. I envied my colleague who only had to collect sound - he the butterfly collector to me the one-armed lion-tamer. While outside the courthouse, someone commented that the CBC had to be suffering from their own cutbacks for me to perform the role of cameraman, soundman, producer and reporter at the same time.
I tried to give him the same stock explanation I have given to everyone else to justify my lonely occupation. That there had never been a national TV presence in this part of the world because no network could ever justify the cost - until now because technology had grown small enough and cheap enough, and the world had finally produced enough poor saps willing to perform the necessary magic tricks to pull off a solo story. And it should be no surprise that someone would actually want to move here and do this job. To quote my own standup, brilliantly conceived in my second unsuccessful stake-out of the Forests office (the cowering employees must have had a momentary lapse of humour observing me trying to shoot myself talking to the camera):
“They call it the sunshine tax. It's the price you pay to live in the beautiful B.C. interior. If you move to a town like Penticton [or Kelowna], you should expect a cut in salary - unless you have a government job [or you work for a Toronto-based TV network]. They pay better, and they were supposed to be secure.”
I interviewed the mayor who also worked as a lawyer because he probably didn't earn enough in public office to survive. Charitably, he said that he recognized me from television. I barely recognize me from TV (some of my stories aren't seen in this network-challenged part of the country), but I smiled and said he probably had. This is a nice town.
At the behest of the Okanagan Valley union rep, I returned at 2 p.m. to Forests for my final try at finally speaking to someone who might be affected by these cutbacks. Most of my video had been dumped onto the hard-drive of my laptop, and I had sketched out a script. It was getting late. I would need to write a final script, get approval from Vancouver, edit the story, and feed it (i.e. send it by satellite, an apt term to metaphorize the notion of “feeding the monster of television”) - all before 6 p.m.
Gary joined me for the final stake-out. We got the word from the union around 2:30 p.m.. The entire office would be closed, and everyone would be let go. Yes, there would be severance packages, but no one would be placed elsewhere in the civil service, and there would be no contracting out. The services these people performed would either be phased out, or transferred to Vernon two hours away. It was cold and the pale winter sun had once again been obscured by the perpetual Okanagan season cloud cover. I was depressed.
One woman came out, crying, and quickly walked to her car and drove away. I didn't have the heart to stop her to ask her what had happened for the sake of tape. But I did have the camera rolling, and I tried to look elsewhere when she came out, so I got that bit.
And then some brave souls emerged and agreed to talk to us. They were stoic in their emotions and gracious with their time. Forty-three jobs, salaries totalling $2.6 million a year would be lost forever to the economy of Penticton.
“There basically aren't any jobs here for us,” Larry Martin told me. “We'll be moving elsewhere if we can find work.”
I took this final bit of tape back to “The Best Seats in Town,” got one of Ernie's saleswoman to turn down the country-and-western music and got to work. An hour and a half and many swanky video dissolves (anathema to the CBC videotelligentsia) later, I packed up all my gear, thanked Ernie quickly, and raced off to the feed point.
In Kosovo or earthquake-devasted Turkey, “feed-point” meant some cheerful gathering of young people from the Associated Press or Reuters, manning a big satellite dish attached to a huge generator putting up with pushy international TV reporters in every language. In a hostile environment, a feed-point can be a friendly, temporary sanctuary.
In one-man band rural British Columbia, “feed point” is a locked metal box attached to some utility shed on an abandoned road that is impossible to find when the sun goes down at 4 p.m.. Every “Beng Box” as the phone company calls it, has the same combination - except for the one at Whistler because apparently ski-bums who own three-million dollar chalets are more likely to want to vandalize a makeshift little bit of telecommunications technology.
I've come to master the “feed.” I attach an earpiece to the jack of my cellphone so I can operate the feed “hands-free” while speaking to Vancouver or Toronto. I bought a fourteen dollar wooden foldup “TV table” from Canadian Tire so I can have a place to rest my DV deck and used audio amplifier. And then I take the five audio and video cables and attach box to box to box and pray the master control room sees the fruit of my labours on time. From story inception to feed, no one has laid eyes on my production except for me, which is incredibly liberating from an artistic point of view, and exceptionally terrifying from a “I can't possibly know what I'm doing” point of view. It's all incredibly romantic and entirely unglamorous. But I should be soon going “high tech.” CBC is going to fix me up with “Telestreaming.” That's a high-end term for “e-mailing an incredibly large video file in hopefully less than an hour.”
But working as a solo TV reporter means more intimacy and less intimidation. It encourages a doctor from a small hospital about to be shut down to allow me to roam around and speak to someone like a disturbingly coherent and eloquent 103-year-old patient about how crucial the hospital is to the community. I can ride on the back of a snowmobile at high speeds and shoot a great point-of-view shot without falling off from the weight of my camera. And I can write the story in my head as I'm capturing the images that I hope will help people understand and appreciate how others live, work and survive.
November 18, 2001 Kelowna
“What are you doing here?”
What are we doing here?
How can that most frequently asked question not prompt frequently sparked introspection as we struggle with the typical ravages of change and transition of establishing a new home -- here in the heartland of British Columbia?
Many people whom we've met in this town of 90,000 want to know how we could have left the bright lights of a big city and a big network, and arrive here: on the shores of the magnificent Lake Okanagan nestled in a valley surrounded by orchards, ski hills and wineries.
And with that guidebook information - lake, ski hills, wineries -- you can now understand that their question may be a little disingenuous, perhaps even a bit mischievous. They know what they're doing here. If they're not natives who couldn't find a better place on the planet to occupy, they're lifestyle refugees who laid down temporary stakes and ended up planting roots.
Honestly, there's no clear explanation. Something drew us here: the challenge of the job, the mother lode of compelling stories, the landscape, the proximity to Vancouver and Seattle and our families, the people, a magic spell… or maybe just the inescapable lure of something new.
There's certainly something new to me about Canada's federal police. Here in the hinterland, there's no local law enforcement. The Mounties are in charge. And the RCMP has been ferocious in handing out speeding tickets - to me. For nearly ten years, I had sped down the roads of the West Bank, North Africa, the Balkans, southern France and the American southwest, with nary an infraction. But here, I'm a marked man. My most recent involved a cruiser driving in the opposite direction up a mountain. I saw it turn on its flashers, scamper quickly through the grassy ditch, and begin to head downhill. To be polite, I pulled over. And so did the cruiser, right behind me.
There's no way my temporary clunker of a company van could be doing 129 km, even down a mountainside. The nice officer kindly pointed out that Ford Aerostars are notorious for faulty speedometers. He gave me the minimum and now-customary fine: $115.
”Welcome to B.C.,” he said. There would be no leniency for being a reporter working on behalf of the nation's public broadcaster, nor for being new to the province.. “Please drive safely.”
Where was the lèse-majesté I had known before? So far, there was little to be found in egalitarian, dressed-down Canada.
That was abundantly clear to me when I spent a few hours with the embattled leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day. He was home in Kelowna visiting his riding, as a Member of Parliament should do from time-to-time.
But was he flanked by the entourage of an American politician? Or the phalanx of a security detail of an Israeli public official?
Stockwell Day emerged from a green minivan, accompanied by his local office administrator. He walked unfettered across the parking lot of the strip mall. I accosted him before he could enter a door. We chatted amiably for a few minutes. I recorded the conversation on my new, compact professional grade video camera. The leader of the opposition was quite taken with this newest bit of media technology.
“Must be easier on the shoulders,” he said with a smile.
“And easier on the taxpayer's bill too,” I said, hoping to put in a good word for the new efficiencies of the federally-funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Right-wing folks don't have much patience for the People's Network.
I then accompanied him to the office of a lumber industry representative. The receptionist asked one of the country's best known public figures if he would mind waiting for a few minutes until her boss was ready to meet with him.
“No, not at all,” Stockwell Day said, as he looked around to take a seat.
Maybe there's a problem with authority, I thought, as I slowly become reacquainted with my home and native land. That's certainly part of the impetus for the Neskonlith band's struggle with a local ski resort. In a conflict nearly worthy of the Palestinian-Israeli Gordian knot, this First Nations tribe says it wants to stop further expansion of the Sun Peaks resort near Kamloops. The elusive answer lies in that age-old question: “who owns the land?” The Neskonlith say it's their traditional territory, because they never lost it and there's a century-old agreement - one that was never written down. The resort and the province say it's crown land and commercial contracts must be honoured.
I almost felt as if I were back in my former Middle Eastern home when I got out of the van - my camera in hand. I, one-man TV band, to meet with the Neskonlith band of elders. They had set up a protest tent in the mud, just yards away from a quaint row of recently-constructed gingerbread houses. Earlier that day, the RCMP had arrested three younger members. They were branded “militants” by the locals for dressing up in camouflage, harassing tour operators and setting up roadblocks in the area.
“No expansion, no development. No, no, no.” band elder Irene Billy said. “This is a protection center. We want to protect the land they want to gouge.”
We were sitting inside the tent, wood-burning stove blazing, vegetable soup boiling. Irene was planning to spend the night there. Someone always did. They knew that the resort wouldn't expand as long as they remained in their protest tents. It's all escalating towards a huge battle - in the courts, everyone hopes.
Attachment to the land is not hard to find here. While trying to sell us some wood laminate for the floors of our new home, Phil Taneda told me the story of his family. How they arrived in the region in 1905 as Asian immigrants and never left. Phil still commutes to Vancouver to work as a stock broker (his wife owns the flooring business). But he keeps his home on the 80 acres upon which his father grew apples until plummeting prices dictated it was no longer worth his while. And an agricultural land preservation law prevents Phil from selling the land to developers for a profit. So almost by default, they are forced to own what most people fantasize about.
Those fruit farmers who are lucky sell out to wanna-be vintners. Like Mission Hill wines, the Okanagan's 500-pound grape gorilla. The winery probably isn't too far from Phil's property. The Romanesque compound is on a peaceful hill overlooking the lake and the valley. A tower houses four bells recently custom-ordered from France by owner Anthony Von Mandl who is building a wine tradition from the ground up. Mission Hill's Chardonnay won a prestigious contest in Europe in 1992. That a Canadian wine could take top honours was such a surprise to the judges, they insisted on re-tasting the 220 contenders - believing they had got it wrong. It was no mistake, and the Okanagan's best known winery got its claim to fame. There are now 80 wine producers in the valley.
Build it and they will come. With good wine and fresh local produce, gourmet food must be close by. Rod Butters and his wife Audrey Surrao opened Fresco last May to great acclaim. They've gotten rave reviews nationally, and in the United States. It took us a few days to get a reservation, which is astonishing given there's one eating establishment for every 250 people in the region. Rich retirees, tourists with American dollar salaries, and pharmaceutical companies throwing private parties make it tough to compete for a table.
The relaxed open-kitchen atmosphere made us feel like we were eating in our own dining room than in a first class restaurant. Most of what we ordered was local: duck breast, breaded arctic char, fresh west coast mussels and of course, the wines. Audrey came over and explained how they used to work as restaurant consultants in Vancouver. They took a year off to travel and figure out what they wanted to do next, and decided that Kelowna was the place to be. She introduced us to her husband who was still working away in his kitchen and I was amazed at how young they both were. Like us, former big city dwellers and cosmopolitan couple, they had deliberately chosen Kelowna.
It's still a small town with a large community of retirees. I'm often racing to work on the 50 km/h roads, flanked by bike paths and senior citizens in high gear, driving their electric buggies with orange safety pennants flying over their heads. My office at the CBC is on a minor downtown street with not one, but two strip joints within a stone's throw. And I keep hearing stories about how British Columbia's interior is not unlike the nearby states of Oregon and Idaho: a safe haven for extremist groups and white supremacists.
So what exactly are we doing here? There are enough journalists around to keep an eye on the hot spots of the world for a while. There are stories to be told and lives to be lived, right here and now. And that's what we aim to do.