Opening Statement

Saturday 27 August 2011

Jack's Last Street Party!

Whew! Janet and I flew out of New York City just as the hurricane evacuation started. We had seats all ready booked, and aside from a few delays and waiting awhile in a long line up of jets out on the tarmac, we were home by Friday midnight only a few hours late! That was good luck!

It was a whirlwind week. I've been far too busy living it to write much. If you've been keeping track, I posted my daily itineraries in the News Flash box, and posted the photos in my slide show. There will be more to follow. It was quite a blast! An earthquake, a hurricane warning, and sunset's spent at the 9/11 site, watching everyone busy as bees fixing it up for next month's tenth anniversary. Then there was our art deco hotel and diner, the New Yorker, the Tic Toc and and and......

Despite being pretty tired Janet and I were up and out early this morning making our way downtown Toronto for Jack Layton's state funeral at Roy Thompson Hall. Actually we were at the unofficial peoples street party outside the hall, where it was quite an affair of a different kind. No tickets. No reservations either. Sometimes these are the best parties of all!

As the official guests arrived Janet and I were lined up front against the fence in the entrance way watching the ceremonies unfold. It was excellent to see so many guests of all political stripes. Jack's NDP's caucus arrived, many of them francophone. They came over to greet us all, a very nice touch. We watched Conservative Prime Minster Harper, looking very relaxed and at ease, greeting the Governor General, and other dignitaries. It was a very decent gesture to offer Jack the honour of a state funeral. He can now afford to be nice I suppose with his majority Conservative government safely esconed in Ottawa for the next four years and the leader of the opposition laid out in a casket. But this was no time for acrimony.

I counted two former Liberal Prime Minsters; Paul Martin and Jean Chretien. Provincial Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty arrived by foot on his own, without an escort, as did Conservative Opposition Leader Tim Hudak, and provincial NDP Party leader Andrea Horwath. Ed Broadbent walked by too! We are still very small scale local and provincial here in Canada. It shows. This was a moment of reconciliation without the usual political rancor. True, Mayor Ford arrived with his entourage. He might need protection. I don't know. Ford's a pretty strange cookie. He makes jokes about ridding the city of "pinkos" and can be a pretty nasty piece of work, just ask the city workers and folks in subsidized housing. There were undercover cops spread throughout the crowd. I spotted quite a few. Still it was just a nice summer day, and overall a very laid back affair.

Jack Layton's hearse arrived escorted by bagpipers and a marching police brigade. It was a real tear jerker! Jack's wife NDP MP Olivia Chow lead the family on the route from city hall by foot. She looked very graceful, in a simple black dress, obviously quite sad but with head held high. Strident. Sort of like a Jacqueline Kennedy of the Canadian left in her darkest hour before the eyes of our nation. The crowd called out "We love you Olivia." She seemed to look over at us briefly and cock an ear but otherwise kept her good poise. She would receive many such cheers whenever she was seen outside in person or on the big screen throughout the day.

After the official motorcade had arrived there was an unofficial street marching band joined by hundreds if not thousands of cyclists, citizens and friends. Onlookers joined in. Labour flags waved in the breeze. Dancers in top hats and black suits with big red hearts pinned to their chest walked about on stilts miming our sense of despair and grief with the sweeping motions of their hands and their sad facial expressions. Very moving! At the head of the march were a crying husband and wife clown team. Every hard core lefty from Toronto, and perhaps even across the province must've been out in force marching down King Street to Roy Thompson Hall to say good bye to Jack. 

An exaggeration? Perhaps, but it sure felt like it. It was informal and very Canadian; a big outside party for Jack. Lots of folk who just respected him, even if they disagreed with his politics mingled amongst an inclusive crowd of every political stripe and orientation. The gathering had a certain sense of decency which has been lacking for far too long in Canadian politics. It was a moment of unity. Everything just seemed to stop for an afternoon as everyone came together to say good bye to Jack. In the park out front of the hall we joined in a heart rendering version of Oh Canada. Then we watched the funeral on the huge big screen t.v., a shared experience of laughter and tears, and lots and lots of spontaneous outbursts of cheers for Jack and Olivia.

Prime Minister Harper looked very awkward on the outdoor screen when everybody rose for a standing ovation. Former Federal NDP Leader Steven Lewis' eloquent eulogy urged us all to follow Jack's example and fight for "social democracy". Of course Harper had to get up and clap too, Mr. Conservative or not. The crowd outside roared with laughter. It was too funny. The expression on his face was to die for. Even if it was just for now, he was letting the Canadian left have it's day in the sun, no doubt before the long political winter ahead.

After the funeral, Jack's motorcade and hearse sped off. Olivia got another standing ovation or two outside. Then the real fun began, for me anyway. It was meet and greet time! Janet and I wiggled behind the media stands to watch. A spry Jean Chretien leapt over the barriers, despite his considerable age, to meet with the press for the first time in ages. The former Prime Minister and Trudeaucrat was quite laid back and good humoured, a little odd at first perhaps, because we know he could be a real political scrapper. I called out from behind the cameras for him to please come over and speak to the people and he did, shaking hands and engaging in light banter with the crowd that gathered all around the stage. I decided to go for it and got up there with him, shook his hand and asked for a photo. He good naturedly agreed. I told him he was still badly needed in Ottawa, and he joked that he had been there for forty years, and that was enough. Still, I doubt Harper would be Prime Minster if Jean Chretien were still around today! Or maybe four years from now if Jack was still around. Now, we will just have to wait to see what happens for a bit.

All the police barriers soon came down and the crowds began to mingle with the dignitaries. It was very relaxed and informal. I wished Provincial NDP leader Andrea Horwath good luck in the upcoming election, and got a photo with her. I gave the Federal interim NDP leader best wishes and got a photo too. Then there was former Liberal Party leaders Stephan Dion and Michael Ignatieff. More photos again. I made my way over to greet my TSU political archnemisis [or maybe I am his, I'm not sure] Don Schmidt. I saw Mayorial candidate Andrew Gambione and his girlfriend and told him he shouldn't have dropped out of the race. He seemed ambivalent. I asked if we had seen the last of him and he said no. There was another photo. Same with City Councillor Adam Vaughan. I reminded him that we desperately need him now at city hall and urged him to kick Mayor Rob Ford's butt. He laughed and nodded. Only in Canada eh?

You may or may not know about my photo collection. Since I have been doing union political advisory work for over ten years now I often meet quite a few different public figures, usually in the political backrooms, or lobbying them at public events. Then there was the teacher protest strike in the late nineties when I ended up a lot in the news pictures even if I wasn't identified, usually not. Still we yakked a lot and Janet suggested I ask them for a photo. It's become sort of a game to see how many I can get, perhaps more so a political inside joke now; they can't very well be famous if they haven't had their photo with me. Crazy I know but a lot of fun and my photo album has become quite infamous. I've got them from all the political parties, even the ones I can't stand until it's gotten to the point where I'm unsure whether to call it a book of fame or shame. There's some pretty good stories I could tell too, but that will have to wait. Suffice to say I added quite a few more photos to my collection today, and will be sharing them on this blogsite, something I haven't been ever been able to do before. Ha ha.

Well, I'm off to Buffalo New York for a baseball game tomorrow with a group of my TSU union executive buddies, past and present, so I think I will end my blog here for now. Please stay tuned. I've still got some pretty good New York Diary stuff you might like, and of course this week we get the new union executive up and running, more on that later too.

Monday 22 August 2011

Good Bye to Jack Layton -A Great Canadian!

                "Courage my friends! It's never too late to build a better world." [Tommy Douglas]

As most of my Canadian readers will know, Canadian NDP [New Democratic Party] opposition leader Jack Layton died of cancer at age 61 this morning. His strong beliefs, character, and sunny disposition will be sorely missed in Canadian politics. Jack stood up for the average Canadian, working families, political progressives and the cause of social justice. In the spring federal election he took us to the brink of a new Canada, that others will now have to bridge in his wake. He leaves some very big shoes to fill!

I first met Jack Layton in the eighties when I lived on Queen St West in Toronto. He was a city alderman at the time. We saw him riding his bike down the busy street, his carrier full of groceries and called out "Hey Jack!" He eagerly pulled over quick for a lively political debate on the city issues of the day. Certainly here was a man after my own heart!

Over the past ten years or so in my roles as committee chair and executive liaison for TSU PAC [Toronto Secondary Unity Political Advisory Committee] I've had the honour of meeting Jack on numerous occasions. As federal NDP leader, he was a constant presence at any and all conferences and rallies where folk were fighting the good fight. That was Jack. 

Each year Jack would wait at the end of the Labour Day Parade to greet and shake our hands. This spring he enthusiastically crossed Canada on the federal election trail warmly waving his cane in the air to greet everybody despite his previous painful bout with cancer. We all took notice. Had the election lasted another week or so, it might possibly had turned out quite differently. Jack was truly onto something great. I believe his strength and passion for Canada and social justice earned the respect of our nation. God bless you Jack!

RIP Jack Layton
August 22, 2011

Jack Layton addresses Canadians in a letter he prepared just two days before his death;

"My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than  fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world."
All my very best,
Jack Layton

Sunday 21 August 2011

Off To New York City + Other Updates

The excitement builds! Janet and I are going to NYC for our anniversary! She will shop til she drops, and I will take lots of photographs, and probably buy out most of the music store stuff too! I suppose New York isn't any big deal for most of my Canadian and US readers but stay tuned for my "Canucks in NYC" diaries, and I'll see what I can do!

School isn't too far off but if you are like me you aren't thinking about that yet. Plenty of time later, like for the rest of the year! TSU executive meets the week before classes to finalize the committee lists and executive liaisons, so stay tuned for more school and union news and views in the near future!

Since I got back from Cuba I've mostly stayed home enjoying our condo. It's finally all paid off! Just the maintenance fees now, but we were always paying for that sort of stuff with a house too, and had to pay for or do it ourselves. This way, we just basically fix up the interior design as we like. We've done a lot but I'd still like to put in some mirrored sliding doors for the triple closets, otherwise too many friggin' doors. Maybe this fall!

I 've slept a lot since I've been back. I still like to relax on our balcony and go sit at Second Cup. Other than that? I listen to music, and read. I am lazy and I just enjoy being in an air conditioned world! So you think Toronto is hot these days?!? In Santiago it hit mid-forty degrees Celsius plus. With the humidity factor it felt like a lot more! So for now I just need to relax. Yup.

TSU members! Remember: we will land in September both feet running with not only school but the Ontario provincial election too! It looks like a real nail biter, and we have a lot at stake as teachers. Please see my "Who Speaks for Children?" blog and Youtube link in my April or May Archives [links are below the centre blog column]. I am surprised! This continues to be my most read blog! The "TSU PAC's Rocks the Madison Pub" is my second most read post. I'd like to do an encore pub night and maybe invite the MPP candidates too. Just a thought. Anyhow, both posts are pretty short and straight forward, please check them out.

My "Santiago de Cuba Diaries" and the "Cuban School Project" pieces follow today's blog. They still seem to be getting a fair number of reader visits so you might want to check the last two blogs for that too if you haven't all ready. I've am also updating a lot of the dive photos and other artwork on the side columns and bottom section of my blogsite.

See below:

Thursday 18 August 2011

CSP: Cuban School Projects 2011-12

Thursday August 18th

Your response to my Cuban Schools Project [CSP] trip to Santiago de Cuba has been very inspiring. Many of our teachers are travelling around the globe, and are involved in other special projects too.  I’ve often said that I believe as educators we do make a difference! It’s true!
I was also touched by those of you who wrote to say you recall when I started the project back in 1992. The CSP has been reported on from time to time in TSU Highlights since then, and I have personally told many of you about what we do. In the past other TSU [Toronto Secondary Unit] teachers have even volunteered to go down themselves to help out the Cuban Schools.  However, without much word as of late it also seems that a lot of you are surprised, if not pleasantly so, that the project is still going strong, and has been such a success.
Perhaps I don’t promote the CSP as much as I should so others know we are still here. Political work during the Harris years  and my TSU work on the executive for the past five years have often placed a lot of practical time restraints on me. Still through thick and thin our work has continued in Cuba with educational development and solidarity grants from OTF [Ontario Federation of Teachers], OECTA Provincial [Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association] and our own TSU [Toronto Secondary Unit].
CSP’s support for the Cuban Schools is non-denominational and is done by any and all who believe in social justice. OSSTF [Ontario Secondary School Teacher Federation] and the FWTOA [Federation of Women Teachers of Ontario Association -not around anymore. Por que no?]  have also provided financial assistance and helped out in various ways. Mostly it’s been individual teachers but sometimes by financial donations as well.
In the early 1990’s a lot of teacher s regardless of their affiliation helped bring aid and packages directly to the schools in the form of medicine, clothing and supplies. Since then that has proved impractical. The Cuban government began heavily taxing these donations. They  also want to distribute this type of aid according to their needs without any direct accountability. We don’t do that.
Instead I have been focusing the CSP’s efforts on a few sustainable projects through my own direct personal contact with the schools. Please know that the CSP always provides aid directly to the students and teachers at the Cuban Schools, not the Cuban government or any other third party.
The two big Cuban school projects are the Toronto Friendship Community English School and the Ingles Para Ti [English for You], a made in Cuba teacher/ student instruction program. I am pleased to report that the English school we helped build and provide supplies for continues to draw about 300 adult and teenage students a year, who are keen to learn our language on their own outside of the regular school program. Ingles Para Ti is now in its 5th edition on CD Rom and is informally used  most notably at the college and university level, where each limited run of one or two hundred copies must circulate and be shared to meet the demand.
So where does this leave us? This year I will again apply for CSP funding from OTF, OECTA Provincial and TSU. This trip I provided most of our remaining donations for the start up costs of developing three big projects, which will need more help to succeed. They  are;
Ingles Para Ti 6th Edition: The Cuban teachers want to work on making the computer version more interactive, especially with the oral speaking and conversational components. We have also provided funding for an updated print version of the 2nd or 3rd edition, since access to computers can be a big problem, especially  at the Toronto Friendship School. They will be receiving the first batch before the end of  this calendar year. Ingles Para Ti will supplement their Spectrum workbook program with more Cuban specific references and examples, and an additional whole language approach.
A new English Business Program supplement for Ingles Para Ti. With the new reforms many Cubans are now going into business for themselves, with small family run enterprises. Others want to know how to engage in simple conversation with the many English speaking tourists who visit Cuba each year. Perhaps they  just wish to be friendly and learn more about the outside world. Maybe they would like to know how to greet customers and provide helpful customer service in selling their legitimate business goods and services, be it a bed and breakfast, a family run restaurant or even their arts and crafts. This would be a simple starter program which would also introduce some basic business skills, for example in greeting customers, selling goods and services  and in advertising their small businesses. We might find it odd, but now that Cuba is moving towards a mixed economy many of these skills have to be learnt all over again, especially for the younger generation, to whom this is all totally new.
New Technology: We want to focus on providing our teacher counterparts in Cuba with computers, preferably notebook or netbook in size, scanners, printers and CD/DVD burners to cut their production costs of our CSP programs when they have to outsource their work. CD/DVD players, especially the small portable ones are needed so the instructional materials produced can be viewed, heard and used more widely. Also music, movies and other popular media help create further understanding and interest in our English language, culture and the arts in the wider world offshore their own often isolated island.
I hope my Santiago de Cuba Diary blogs this month have shown that Cubans are warm, friendly and genuine people with strong family values, perhaps even more so than us nowadays. Unfortunately they have fallen between the cracks of Cold War politics and our new technological era. Cuba is also a predominantly Catholic country. Many of us will remember when PJ2 visited there.  In short, the average Cubans are just plain and principled good folk who desperately need our help.
Also, I cannot emphasize this enough; The Cuban Schools Project is a non profit group providing direct practical assistance in planning, implementing and providing accountability for the use of our funding and aid to the Cuban teachers and students, most notably in Santiago de Cuba. I believe the small steps we are taking will make a much bigger difference than all the political rhetoric that usually flies. We are helping the Cuban people through educational aid. That is what teaching and our CSP teacher group is all about!
It is for these reasons that I am using the Summer Edition of my blogsite to make an appeal. If you or anyone else knows where we might find more funding and support for the project please let me know. If you would like to go down and visit the teachers and schools we are working with at the Cuban schools let me know. Our various expertise and skills are often much appreciated down there, be it in the form of language, pedagogy and technical help.
You can contact me at the Gmail address above the header of this site, or in the comment section below each blog. Many of you will also see me around a lot in the course of my TSU 3rd VP work at school and at meetings. If you can get us any help for the Cuban teachers and students, let’s talk about the CSP too.
A Su Saud!/ To Your Health!

Sunday 14 August 2011

Santiago de Cuba Diary 3

Saturday Friday August 13th:  Guadalavaca Beach Cuba [Followed by Sunday August 14th]

6am Saturday morning, it’s still dark here in the shadow of the Sierra Maestra mountains, but our group of eight is gathered on time at the hotel for the mini bus I got to take us to Guadalavaca Beach.  It’s about a three hour drive on a very bumpy pot holed road up through the mountains and across Holguin Province to the seashore. We each had a day pass at the Breezes Guadalavaca Hotel so we had full run of the place including the snack bar, buffet and bars. There was Josefa and Luis, I’ve mentioned them before. I have often stayed at their home and they are like an extended family to me. Of course I invited the big three professors working with me now on the Cuban School Project [CSP] initiatives through Oriente University; Jose Luis, Marta, and Guillermo. Guillermo’s wife was invited along and we brought José’s eight year old grandson Ernesto [he’s named after Che] too.
I paid for the trip, just to thank them for all they have done and to build upon our team spirit as part of the CSP. They wouldn’t be able to afford it themselves, which is ironic because if they taught in Canada, they would be earning a lot more than me. It was a real pleasure, and they seemed quite happy. I think they liked the buffet best. It was quite excellent even by Canadian standards and the endless helpings quite enticing when like them you are depending on rations a lot of the time. It was too hot on the beach for Josefa and Luis, who are getting on in years, but they enjoyed the breeze up in the shaded area by the snack and drinks bar. The rest came down to the far end of the beach with me where we found some lounge chairs under a sprawling tree. I took off snorkelling for about two hours, and then rendezvoused with them back with Josefa and Luis imbibing and having fun.
It was a vigorous dive. I had to swim out about 200 meters past an underwater field of sea grass to reach a very nice coral garden. It was quite magnificent and I counted up to six different types, plus scores of colourful sea fans gently swaying with the light current. The water was warm and quite still. The sun was beating down overhead, making for a perfect summer day. I swam down along the coastline a ways until making landfall on a deserted white sand beach where I just lay a bit and rested, basking in the sun, the water lapping up against me. I was in sheer bliss.
On my way back I swam along a rock escarpment for awhile. There were millions of minnows, little tiny silver streaks everywhere, I’ve never seen so many before. It was quite incredible! Other fish were swimming in to feed on them; nature was just taking its course. Back further out to sea I followed a school of Blue Tang and saw a fair number of smaller very colourful tropical fish. The Mexican Mayan Riviera really outdid Guadalavaca in the fish department, but the coral and sea fans here were very well worth the snorkel dive!
I landed near the main section of the resort beach and joined up with the others. We visited a statue of John Lennon in the resort garden and took pictures. Apparently it’s a mecca now where once a week folks meet to sing and read poems. There is another such Beatle shrine in Habana too. Now in Cuba there are also many Beatle themed bars where Cuban musicians come to play Beatle music and the Castro brothers have even given the band the official stamp of approval.  Beatlemania is in full swing here!
There’s a rumour Paul McCartney has been invited to come play a concert in Cuba and has so far been non-committal, perhaps because of the US embargo?  It’s a little known fact that he has visited Santiago de Cuba unofficially and unannounced some time ago. He visited Moro Castillo and had dinner at the restaurant looking out to sea. His chair is now also much honoured and has an autographed plaque on it. I’ve got pictures of Jose, Guillermo and myself at the Santiago and in Guadalavaca sites which I will post.
Paul McCartney also attended an afternoon performance at the Casa de Trova. He didn’t play and didn’t want his picture taken either though a few enterprising Cubanos hiding in the clothes racks at the Trova gift shop, managed to get them anyway. I believe there is also another of him outside the Casa de Trova walking down Heredia Calle/ street.
Anyway, we relaxed in the shade for an hour or two until five pm rolled around and it was time to drive back to Santiago de Cuba. The gang sat in the back of the bus singing Beatle songs. I joined in then got lost in the splendour of sitting up front in the bus and just watching the majestic countryside roll by. The rolling farm fields and roadside stands selling vegetables and fresh fruit are very picturesque.  The Cuban Campaneros [farm people] were riding along the highway on horseback and in, bikes, the odd motorcycle and old beaten up vintage American car from the 1950’s. Many of their simple country homes still have thatched roofs. It was incredibly rustic, an era gone by back home in Canada where farming is more so big business I fear than anything else.
So here I am back at the hotel ready for a good nights sleep.
Sunday August 14th
I slept in a bit after doing my packing last night. I usually leave a lot of stuff here if my colleagues and friends can use it; toiletries, clothes and medicine. Before breakfast I did the last of my banking. The teachers will come over tonight. Jose Luis is the CSP’s managing director here. He will have costed a few of the projects we’ve discussed. Then I will leave the current donations with him to distribute as planned. I’m keen to get as much up and running, and to keep building on our success, so it takes some careful planning, and of course accountability. I am very satisfied and pleased with our results to date.
This afternoon I invited the Guardiolas to the hotel for the pool and lunch. The Toronto Friendship School is on the roof of their house and they manage it for us, aside from the teaching part. I have stayed many times at their home or in the little teacher’s room behind the classroom since the 1990’s. They long ago welcomed me into their family and I wanted to thank them on a personal note.  From a CSP perspective.  I am getting the new set of workbooks and some other materials to enhance the school programs as per my discussions with the teacher and students. A computer would be very useful. Of course a lot will depend on getting on funding for this and any future projects and I will really have to get working on that early this school year.
The Guardiolas have never been inside the Melia Santiago Hotel before, even though they have lived in Santiago all their lives. The ten CUC cover charge for the pool, not to mention the price of lunch and drinks would be way beyond their means, even though overall it’s a pretty good deal if you are a tourist. Grand Papa Guardiola was hesitant to come. He was adamant he couldn’t because of his heart and the heat, but I think he’s enjoyed it the most.
Little Cari, who I knew as a small child, has grown up to be a beautiful senorita and is here now as a young adult with her mama. It is cute how they hold hands as they walked in, Cari trying to look very international, a real Cuban beauty. Her mama is just happy to be here and make sure nothing happens to her. You hear lot’s of stories about young Cuban jinetera [prostitutes] but there is another side to life here in Cuba. It is also a very Catholic country, with strong family values.
Grand Papa is in and out of the pool, the sun, and the shade; he’s got more energy than any of us. You won’t meet more natural, genuine, and warmer people than the Cubans. It makes me happy just to see them happy, I don’t think I could want for much more than to just be here and share some good times with them, and help out with the schools
I fly back to Toronto tomorrow, and will no doubt have more pictures and photos to share.

Friday 12 August 2011

Santiago de Cuba Diary 2

Thursday  August 12
I did some banking this morning and looked over the funding proposals I have received. They are relatively modest in price, pretty innovative and well thought out. I will still be talking to the teachers some more about them.
Today I went with Professor Jose Luis to the Casa Trova and we enjoyed some very good traditional Santiago de Cuba music, vocal with light instrumental accompaniment on guitar and claves. It was very relaxing and pleasant. Everybody, and I think they were all Cubans except for myself, were just there for the music, listening intently, and talking to the band on stage between songs. Outside I tipped an older gentleman sitting on a ledge at the Casagrande Hotel. A leathery weather beaten face, old straw hat, shirt, pants and worn running shoes, cigar and guitar. He sang with a powerful voice, and though it cracked at times, he had such emotion; it was very forceful and moving, one from the heart. In Cespedes Parque a lively combo was shilling for CUC’s, and had their wives, girlfriends and children sitting with them, on a bench under the trees. I videotaped a few songs, which they all wanted to see, and laughed and laughed. I don’t know of anywhere else where folks have such simple charm and are so warm and inviting too. The musicians will play for you hoping for a tip, and it is always well worth it to hear and lots of fun too.
Jose and I took a cab up to Morro Castle, overlooking the entrance to the harbour. It’s a huge Spanish battlement with spectacular views of the city, the harbour and the open sea. The sun was beating down very hot; I drank near half a litre of water on our way back home. My IPhone accidently fell out and got lost as I was getting out of the cab. I panicked. It’s easily worth about a year’s salary here. I called Jose. He called the taxi driver, who found it between the front seat and the door on the passenger side, and promptly drove over to give it back to me. There are still a lot of people here with strong character. I don’t know what the chances would be for that in happening in Toronto, but I don’t think they are good.
Tonight some teachers are coming over for a meeting, and tomorrow we are going to Guadalavaca beach where I hear the snorkelling is excellent, and we are all looking very forward to the excursion, even though the bus picks us up at 6 am. Tonight won’t be a late one and I am pretty pooped anyay from a great day just enjoying the city.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Santiago de Cuba Diary 1

My posts now appear here in descnding chronological order. I posted about August 11 today, and it now appears at the bottom of this post as it should. I also began posting my Santiago De Cuba Diary 2 above. I'm afraid I've been a little late in keeping up with posting my blogs but life is happening here faster than I can do so and I'm pretty much always doing something or other all the time! I hope the new chronological order makes it easier to read.

Tuesday August 9
Day two in Santiago de Cuba. I arrived at lunch and had to wait about an hour for my room which was okay. I got an internet card and made sure the Wi-Fi works here in the lobby of the Melia Santiago Hotel. It does, but it is pretty slow. This is still something new down here, two years ago when I visited nada.
So I unpacked and had a wonderful siesta in my 8th floor room. What a view! I can look out my window at the Sierra Madre mountain range surrounding the city. Below is Reparto Sueno, the neighbourhood of dreams. It's a sleepy older part of town that dates back centuries with its stone houses, tiled rooftops and sprawling tropical vegetation; quite a few varieties of palm trees, ferns and more.
There is a buzz in the air, barking dogs, honking car horns, the rumble of traffic and voices. A chorus of roosters greets the dawn in the morning across the city, and it still not uncommon to see a goat tethered out front many homes. In the back they may even have a chicken coup, or even raise a pig, for the meat. Besides providing milk and cheese, the goats also serve as a lawnmower keeping the grass short and trimmed. Pretty neat.
Of course I can close my window and just enjoy the air-conditioning. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I quite love the natural charm of this city.
That first evening Professor Jose Luis joined me here at the hotel for a café and to begin discussing our business, and planning an itinerary. He too is a music aficionado, so I brought him an IPod Classic packed with Beatles tunes. He also especially likes Paul Anka, many of the Cubans do, I don`t quite understand the fixation but I am happy to load all his albums on too. I brought a small portable dvd player and a stack of movies. He will share these at school with the English students. It creates great interest in his classes.
I slept in this morning before going to the breakfast buffet. The food has been good. Later I made my way over to his home in the centre of the city, a leisurely half hour walk at most. His wife Marta served us a home cooked meal for lunch, very Cuban style; rice and beans, pork, avocado. I`ve been drinking gallons of fresh tropical juice; orange, mango etc. It is so good and natural, nothing like we get at home. The taste literally explodes in your mouth. It`s indescribable.
I returned to my hotel room late afternoon, walking back through the busy streets during rush hour just enjoying being there and tasting everyday life. There are more vehicles, especially motorcycles, less horse drawn carts. There is a lot of new construction and family run shops, usually a street side table with an awning selling their services or wares.  Lots of fruit markets and carts. I stopped in Delores Park to listen to the street musicians play some musica Cubano traditional style. Everybody sitting about listening was very nice, and even wanted their picture taken. I tipped the band a peso and waved good bye to everyone as I made my way home for my siesta.
I had a great swim in the pool, then enjoyed the dinner buffet. Afterwards I made some business calls to set up my meetings. Jose and I will be visiting a few places tomorrow and I am planning a small conference with the group working on the Ingles Para Ti workbook at the rooftop café here at the hotel later in the evening. The workbook is now in its fifth edition, the last three on dvd, with a sixth in the planning and they would also like to use it to set up an E course in English.

August 10
I was up till midnight in the hotel lobby uploading photos and a post for my blog site. It is very slow. I hope everything posted, especially the photographs. I have taken so many. Today I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast buffet, toast, eggs, tropical fruit, coffee and juice. I happily sat alone reading a book and just enjoying my unhurried solitude. I am reading Pepys Diaries, always a pleasant diversion. His personal reflections and insights on 16th century life in London England are quite enjoyable and not without their comical asides about many of the cultural and political intrigues  of the day. I quite like his style.
Afterwards, I enjoyed a nice walk downtown to the city centre taking lots of photos along the way. I’ve been here a dozen times at least so I pretty much know what to look out for. The amount of new construction, the busy stores, and multitude of street side merchants stands is a pleasant surprise. This is definitely the best I’ve seen it since 1992.
Jose’s nephew Ernesto was watching the local t.v. channel when I arrived at Jose’s house. In the morning are the children’s shows.  All very upbeat with positive messaging on safety, manners, the history and culture of the island with lots of dancing, singing and animation. There was none of the sex or violence or blatant commerciality we see at home, and it is all very well done.  I’ve noticed the young people seem very polite, respectful and quite frankly a delight to have around. We could learn something here from the Cubans.
Jose and I went down the street to visit Josefa and Luis. I have stayed many times at their bed and breakfast, and they too are like family to me. We were asking them about their part in the 1959 revolution. Their home was a safe house for the rebels when they came down from the mountains and were hiding in the city. They stored guns there too, and had a police radio so they could let the rebels know when there was a raid, capture or an attack pending. Many of the locals can tell such stories; it was a very local affair. Cold War history blew the revolution up into some catastrophic event but one could well argue that at the local level it was not a communist plot but rather a nationalist struggle, and most everybody I’ve met takes great pride in having done their part. We recorded some of the discussion using my iPhone movie camera. Jose would like to record everyone’s stories before they get too old and they are lost forever. Josefa and Luis are in their seventies and eighties now and quite established and respected in their own little community. Hardly communist rebels. It is amazing to consider.
Jose and I went to the travel office to look into arranging a trip to the beach, possibly for this weekend, then took a walk downtown and back towards my hotel, stopping at the Moncado barracks. A yellow fortress and armoury of sorts it is considered the birthplace of the revolution. Fidel lead an unsuccessful attack on the barracks in 1953, while still just a law student. Most of the force was killed or tortured to death. He went on trial and gave his famous “History will absolve me” speech. It is now like a shrine. You can see the bullet holes on the façade of the main building, and inside are many displays telling the history of the revolution, especially the attack on Moncado. There are guns and artillery. You see the bloodied uniforms, torture tools, graphic photos, historical documents  and the like. I’ve been here before, but wanted to take some photos and just wander around awhile. Quite interesting, and they spare no punches with the graphic details.
Afterwards Jose and I parted ways. I’m back at the hotel for my siesta, a swim in the pool and then dinner. The pool is as warm as a bathtub but compared to the outdoor sun and heat it is still very refreshing.  I cannot emphasize too much how hot it is here especially during the day, when even the tar on the street gets soft.
A group of the teachers are meeting with me tonight about Ingles Para Ti. I am entertaining them here. The hotel is air conditioned and it is still blistering hot outside, hot even for Santiago de Cuba, plus we have internet access in case we need to use it.

Later Tuesday August 10

Our meeting on the rooftop deck of the Melia Santiago Hotel last night was fantastic. We watched a very traditional, if not rather risque group of Cuban dancers put on a show over a cold drink in the cabaret then stepped outside to sit and talk business.

Ingles Para Ti has been very successful and is being used for teacher instruction at the Oriente Pedagogical Institute, and in the Hospitality training schools. The workbook is now in it's 3rd edition on dvd with about 200 of them making the rounds, to be shared at the schools. Another more interactive version is in the planning stages, and I will be seeking funding for it when I return to Canada. I have asked for a full acounting of how the previous donations from OECTA/TSU and the OTF has been used, and a proposal for the next edition. I will use that, along with a dvd copy of the program to make the case.

The teachers are also keen on setting up an E program for conversational English to help Cubans better understand foreigners and exchange simple greetings and engage in simple conversations with us. There is still a lot of logistics to work out on this, and I have asked for their proposal, perhaps for a prototype version first, before I leave on Monday. It's a very interesting and exciting possibility.

It was a productive evening, sitting 15 stories up, looking out at the city lights. Nothing like Toronto, there's fewer street lights and few brightly lit commercial establishments, no business towers, mostly just some apartments and house lights. Still it was quite magical, like stars in the pitch black night and there was a very pleasant sea breeze, as pleasant as my discussions with our Cuban colleagues. And with that I will go to bed.

Wednesday August 11

I had a busy morning at the hotel doing some banking and booking an air conditioned  bus trip for myself, the teachers, and a few other locals who have just been very helpful to me over the years. We will go across the mountains to Guadalavca on Saturday. There is a beautiful white sand beach which is excellent for snorkelling, and of course we can sun, talk, and I am sure they will enjoy the buffet.

Guillermo is new to our Ingles Para Ti writing team. He teaches English to a government hospitality class for students seeking employment with an English company or to work in tourism and at the resorts. His good command of the language and strong pedagogical skills will be a big help. Jose Luis’ wife Marta is helping now too. She teaches art and culture at the university and is very well versed in the history of the island. The work so far has been beyond my wildest expectations. I’m pleased to take them out to the beach for a little mini holiday to celebrate theirs commitment to the project and all their hard work. It’s not something they could afford on their own but it’s pretty cheap by our standards.
After I booked the trip I took a taxi downtown to Cespedes Parque, and walked from there to the Toronto Friendship Community School out in the barrios. I relaxed over a glass or two of ice cold Guava juice with the Guardiola family who run the school for us; it’s on the rooftop of their casa, and by all accounts doing quite well. I decided I will come back tonight and sit in on a few classes and have a talk with the teacher and students about what they need for their studies.
Coming back to the hotel mid afternoon was incredibly hot. There was live music in every doorway, and in the parks. I stopped to enjoy a woman’s group which sang very beautiful and with great rhythm and also a children’s group which is learning the traditional musical styles of Santiago de Cuba. I also bought a very nice hand made straw hat for three convertible pesos from a street vendor.
The CUC acronym for the convertible peso, which is artificially pegged to the dollar, at about par with our own right now, has become pronounced and known as the “kook”. In Canada we have “loonies” and “toonies”, and now in Cuba they have the “kook”. Fitting in that its real value is very questionable. The National Peso used by most citizens here is worth about 25 pesos to the dollar. Still there isn’t a whole lot to buy with a “kook”. Most of the services, restaraunts and trips are so reasonably priced it really doesn’t matter much.  It’s an interesting footnote, as the Cubans seem to be weaning themselves off dependency on the US dollar. Their mixed economy has pretty much recovered from the Soviet collapse, and even seem poised to be take off now on their own  accord, with the recent reforms, petrol  from Venezula and tourism from most everywhere it seems but the US.
Later August 11
This evening I sat in on the classes at the Toronto Friendship Community School. It is still going strong! They are on reduced summer hours with four beginner classes a day until September, then they will once again offer all four levels required for the diploma. The fans we bought for the school and installed two years ago help when the doors are also left open. The school can’t afford to use the air conditioners we also provided long ago. Although they work fine the cost of electricity is too high! In the small single room concrete class we built the teacher and students are still using the old spectrum workbooks, which surprised me. They don’t have any computers but perhaps another paperbound edition might be in order. They could also use a new white board and markers. As a sign of the new prosperity, the students now can afford their own pencils and notebooks unlike in years past where these were very hard to come by indeed. I can even recall bring down suitcases full of these.
The teacher will be visiting me tomorrow night at the Melia, where it is much cooler and we will narrow down the schools needs for my next funding request in Canada, from OECTA and OTF. He has been providing ten years of hard work and dedicated service and is making excellent progress with the English language program. I can recall in 1992 when the Toronto Friendship School began as a small loose brick, wood plank and sheet metal roof shanty. I am glad he has helped us carry on so well in establishing and maintaining the schools good name, so invited he and his wife to come visit the cabaret here tomorrow night for the floor show. Then we can sit outside on the 15th floor deck to enjoy the breeze and talk business. It’s a small price for me but a pretty big deal for the teachers to visit the hotel or go anywhere on their 3-400 National Peso salary which is worth about $12 to $16.. I want to find out how much we are paying him because this just isn’t right.
Please see my blogs below for more info on Santiago de Cuba and the Cuban Schools Project.

Monday 8 August 2011

The CSP: Cuba School Project Story

My flight left early Monday morning without incident, as did my arrival. I'm waiting to check into my room after having slept most of the trip. Good news: The Melia Santiago Hotel has Wi-fi. Not so good news: it's slow and kind of expensive, but no matter. Posts will be forthcoming once I settle in! In the meantime....

The last day or two before any trip is always a nail bitter for me. The first day is usually spent settling in. With a ittle luck I will be posting shortly from Santiago de Cuba. This posting and the last two, along with the slideshow of photos from my previous trips will hopefully hold you for now, and provide some good background info until I am back up and running again from down there.

This will be at least my fifteenth or so visit to Santiago de Cuba, there may be a lot more, I lost count long ago. In 1992 I first visited on a class trip with my politics students. It was fascinating that all the band members a the hotel were teachers like myself, probably earning more in tips than the approximately ten to twenty dollars a month they would've earned in pesos teaching at school. On the sly they would slip in the odd Beatles song, much to my delight. They had to be careful. Beatles music was still illegal in Cuba! One night I sat in on a jam with them at their school, helping them out with the lyrics. The window shutters were closed tight. Nobody knew we were there in case they got caught. I instantly fell in love with the place.

Since then there have been many changes. Beatles music is quite legal now and perhaps more popular in Cuba than anywhere else. At anyrate, it sure has caught on, and also sparked a lot of interest in the English language and the outside world. It is strange and a lot of fun to go into a local Cuban night club for folks our age and live the sixties all over again as they now enjoy what was long denied to them.

Over the years the Cubans have also been able to go into business for themselves. Some of the teachers opened an independent community English instruction school under one such reform in the early nineties, as Cuba re-opened it's doors in earnest to tourists and foreign trade, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and it's satellite states. Everybody wanted to learn English now to take advantage of the new opportunities this presented.
In Santiago few people at the schools I visited had ever met a foreigner. I was quite a celebrity of sorts on my many visits back then, often staying in the teacher's room at the back of the school, where I would teach and help out with developing the English instruction program. Back home in Canada I would solicit educational aid grants from both OECTA; the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, and OTF; the Ontario Teachers Federation to help pay for the school supplies and construction of the new rooftop Toronto Friendship School English Community School in the innercity barrios of Santiago de Cuba.

Later I worked with my Cuban colleagues at the Oriente University Pedagocal Institute and the Jose Marti Society to develop the "Ingles Para Ti/ English for You" teacher and student instruction workbook. Recently a more practicable DVD interactive version has also proven quite useful and popular at the local schools. The project still continues, with an updated version being planned, and will indeed be a main focus of my trip.

There's a saying that you can give someone a fish and they won't be hungry for a day. Or you can give him a fishing rod and they don't need to ever be hungry again. I like to think the CSP is more a case of the later. Good jobs are opening up in Cuba if one can speak English, in tourism and business with many of the western countries besides the US. Their economic embargo still remains in place since shortly after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. It seems ironic that there is little consternation about trade with other previous Cold War foe in Russia, China, and Vietnam, with Cuba still being the exception. It is not important to beleager the politics of commerce here now except to say it's home grown Revolution with a salsa beat, despite whatever mistakes have been made, remains a relatively innoculous Utopian brand of mixed socialist and open market ideologies, in no way comparable to what we see in North Korea or any of the other few remaing Communist hold out states. It is only through education and interaction with the outside world that I believe any real change can continue to take hold in Cuba today.

My international readers might be interested to know that Canada has never been a part of the US embargo. Cuba remains a trade partner but mostly a very popular tourist destination, as it is for many other European  and Latin and South American countries. It is well known for it's friendly people, great pristine beaches and incredible vistas. It is a very safe country to travel about unlike most every other Caribbean destinations. It also has universal medicare and education up to and including university, with one of the highest literacy rates in the Americas, even surpassing the US. It can be a very pleasant and interesting place to go!

I was once puzzled while teaching a conversational English lesson with the students blank stares as I tried to have them practice a telephone conversation in English. When I asked them if they had a phone at home only one or two put up their hand! I was also struck by the awkwardness of the class while we read  a story about a man who found a nice apartment for the reasonable price of $800. Then I realized most of them earned the equivalent of $10-20 a month! They right to housing, and monthly food rations is guaranteed, but of course a lot more than that is needed. However to make use of another phrase, the educational materials available were as useful to them as giving a bicycle to a fish, and one out of water at that!

With "Ingles Para Te" we began including local contexts, references and life styles to come up with something more useful and recognizable to somebody living in Cuba in a "Made in and for Cuba" workbook. It seemed a far cry better than the outside Spectrum Series or the government provided program of learning how to translate Che's speechs to entice visitors to socialism. While these have long since fallen by the wayside, "Ingles Para Ti" continues to grow. I look very foward to both discussing with Professor Jose Luis his plans for the next edition and revisiting the Toronto Friendship school to help the teachers and see what they need to continue their good work during my visit there this week!

PS: See my postings below for more information on Santiago de Cuba and my CSP trip.....

Saturday 6 August 2011

Santiago de Cuba: Faded Glory, Lost in Time!

Ahh -the anticipation of travel! This weekend I finish packing. My flight leaves Monday, and with a little luck I'll be in Santiago de Cuba by lunch for this summer's Cuban Schools Project trip. Professor Jose Luis and I plan to meet later on in the day to catch up on old times. He can update me on the situation at the Cuban schools. We will make the rounds for a week.Then I hop a jet back to Toronto. It's a short three to four hour ride each way. I can hardly wait!

The whole world seems to slow down under the hot tropical sun beating down on Santiago de Cuba. From the Sierra Madre mountain tops towering over the city you can see Jamaica on a clear day. Santiago was one of the first Spanish settlements and sea ports in the Americas. Over the last five hundred years or so it has evolved into a mad backwash of history, a city time seemingly forgot. The Spanish, French, American and Soviets have come and gone, the cities mix of architectural styles reflecting the decaying and faded glory of it's colonial past. It is also considered the birthplace of the Cuban Revolution where Fidel Castro and the Heroes of the Revolution waged guerrilla war against all odds and won. Far to the south of Habana, Cuba's political capital, Cuba's second largest city is a curious world of it's own most tourists to Cuba never see.

There are a few resorts doting the coast a distance from the city, which itself has few of the modern amenities we might expect, usually making it a day trip at best to view it's historical buildings. That would include the Cathedral outside Cespedes Parque, the architypical Spanish church and central park or "plaza" to be found at the heart of every great Spanish city. There's the Casagrande Hotel from Graham Greene's "Our Man In Habana", as comically mysterious and insane as ever. The crumbling five hundred year old Castillo and Spanish battlements, all but empty now, still guard the harbour entrance to the sea.

At the site of San Juan Hill the ghosts of Teddy Roosevelt and Antonio Maceo still duke it out over the victory claim for the decisive battle in the War of Spanish Independence, amongst the aging cannon placements and overgrown trenches. The bustling Casa De Trova is where generations of musicians preserve and pass on the  traditional "son montano" musica as it evolves over the centuries, strumming their tres guitars during the busy matinees. The timeless and constant beat of AfroCuban drums in the city doorways and streets bang an irresistible hypnotic beat rising and falling with the sun and the heat, and every so often erupting into a mad dance of conga lines snaking up and down the hilly streets.

Thick lush tropic vegetation, huge sprawling ferns and towering palms surround and interweave some of the oldest stone European buildings in the Americas. There are still cigar factories where they are rolled by hand. Cafe counters on the street corners serve endless cups of steaming hot expresso. Late 1950's classic American cars from before the revolution still drive the city streets. The dilapidated though still busy downtown shopping street is without any brand name stores or restaurants. Whatever overpriced goods slip through the US embargo sell for local and convertible pesos though there's a good music store. The local ceramics and abstract paintings are quite cheap, very artistic and well made.

Huge rooftop tiled barrios of rickety home built atop home upon home spread out endlessly down the foothills of the city.Smoking old industrial factories and rundown warehouses can be seen along the harbour front in which ancient rusted tramp steamers lazily sleep at anchor under the intense tropical sun and heat against a majestic mountain backdrop.

Santiago de Cuba has many very reasonably priced bed and breakfasts and small family run "palladar" restaurants, or on occasion I have just stayed in the teacher room at the Toronto Friendship Community School  atop the Guardiola's home, who have become like family to me. Other times I have stayed in an air conditioned room at Josefa y Louis's huge grandly tiled downtown casa where I have always been likewise welcomed. Then there's the towering Santiago Melia hotel, one of the few newer buildings in the city, in this case an oddly placed post modern construct, and perhaps monument to Santiago's late, in fact not way too late twentieth century period. Last visit it had a truly 5 star buffet and accommodations. Since it is only a short walk or cheap taxi ride from the city centre, it is near to all my teacher friends, the school and places I wish to visit. In my graying middle age, I've booked a room there for this short one week trip, unlike in years past.

If any of you are familiar with my CSP postings on the ENO/REO website in the 1990's you will be familiar with my many adventures "going local", so to speak, when I never would've even considered this, but times change, and the Melia also has a wonderful outdoor swimming pool. I look forward to some sun and water sport during my off times, maybe also to just lie there and read a good book under the palm trees, as this is both a work and vacation trip. The Internet service should also be a big plus if it's working, the dial-up service elsewhere is tenuous at best. With a little luck I will also arrange a day trip with a group from the school to go out snorkeling on one of the beaches further down along the coast. All work and no play can makes for sad boys and girls when September once again rolls around!

Well, I should get back to packing and so on for my trip. Busy, busy, busy. I know I said I don't work summers, but I think this is different. Despite the tasks I wish to accomplish, and it would be great to also teach class a bit, this work, if we can call it that, is very pleasurable. I can't quite consider it work as such. It's more so service perhaps. I believe that as a Catholic teacher we do have a duty to provide service to others. It's especially important here in Santiago de Cuba.

On my next posting I will explain more about my Cuban Schools Project, and what we do. Please stay tuned.


Thursday 4 August 2011

Off To Cuba!

It's official! I've booked a trip to Santiago de Cuba. I will be staying at the Melia Santago Hotel. I will be visiting my teacher friends at the Cuban schools as a part of my Cuban Schools Project [CSP], in particular at the Toronto Friendship School, the Oriente Pedagical and the Jose Marti Institutes. Professor Jose Luis Tejaro and I will make the rounds. I began the CSP in 1992 to provide direct educational aid to the Cuban schools for developing the English programs at the schools, and the work continues!

Some of you will be familiar with my project, but mostly not. I hope to post live blogs from Cuba, as well as photos, and will bring my camcorder as I take this trip on the road, more details to follow. Stay tuned! This trip should be very interesting and a lot of fun!

Funding for the CSP comes from OECTA/ TSU [Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association/ Toronto Secondary Unit] and the OTF [Ontario Teachers Federation].

Monday 1 August 2011

Good Toronto Boy!

A good Toronto boy? Yup! That's me. Once a University of Toronto professor asked our huge politics class to put up our hand if we were actually born in Toronto, as he made some academic point. There was only myself and maybe one or two other people. To bolster my Torontonian claim, I still even live in the part of the city where I was born; Weston. That's what it says on my birth certificate and here I now sit on my balcony overlooking Weston Road, in what was once known as Weston, before the whole of the Greater Toronto Area [GTA] was amalgamated into one big city back in the 1990's.

At one time or another I have lived all across the city, always except once in the west end. There's an important city distinction here; if you are Toronto born and bred you pretty much stay in either the east or the west end, Yonge Street being the dividing line. There are parts of Toronto east of Yonge Street where I can still get lost and have no idea where I am unless I use my GPS for directions.

My wife Janet is also Toronto born and bred, raised downtown in Little Italy and later out near Weston in Downsview, where the old military airfield base was once located. She's third generation Canadian, I'm second but neither of us consider ourselves hyphenated Canadians. Contrary to another old norm, I don't think of myself as being Italian-Canadian, although my last name is definitely Italian. It comes from my grandfather on my dad's side of our family. Nor does Janet consider herself Japanese-Canadian, even though her great grandfather Fujiwara came here from Japan.

I've got plenty of Italian relatives in Woodbridge [not to be confused with Woodsbridge], and Maple, north of the city. This is the new "Little Italy". Everybody made their money and moved out of the city proper. Many are still  unilingually Italian, but that's mostly the old folk, truth be known. We'd see and visit them when I was growing up, but nowadays it's mostly at weddings and funerals. My family were Ottawa Valley Chiarellis, from Renfrew a small town along the Ottawa River between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Then there are the Toronto Chiarellis; they came from Italy and stayed here.

I suppose in that sense I'm a first generation Torontonian. I can still wax nostalgically about the Ottawa Valley where we often visited and even lived later on for a bit in the Chalk River Atomic Energy bedroom community of Deep Diver. That's a lot of river names I know, but I digress. For now let's just say my family always considered Ottawa Valley's rolling hills, farmlands and thick forests to be God's Country, and indeed my father and grandparents are buried there on a hill side overlooking the river.

My grandfather Toby came from Italy to Montreal Quebec to seek his fortune as a young boy at age twelve, staying with family friends and learning his trade as a cobbler. He then moved to Renfrew Ontario to set up a little shoe shop, buy a small house and raise his family. There were two Italian stores, the Italian fruit, vegetable and grocery mart and the shoe shop both within the same street block. Renfrew had a small Italian community which was considered quite ethnic at the time what with our strange accent and Mediterranean skin tone. By the time World War Two broke out, my grandfather had lived and raised his family for most of his life in Renfrew. Still he was pretty badly treated. He hadn't done poorly during the Great Depression. Everybody of course needed shoes and would go to him to get them made and then repaired time and again, back when they were still solid leather. You'd think he'd have been well known and considered a good, long standing member of the community. By all accounts he'd been very helpful and decent to everyone during the hard times with his modest good fortune. Still, when Canada joined Great Britain to declare war on Germany and the Axis Powers of Italy and Japan at the outset of World War Two, you would never have known it.

Because of his Italian heritage a mob marched on his shoe shop and smashed the windows, vandalizing the walls with war slogans. Then they marched on the family homestead and trashed it looking for the "secret radio transmitter" which they figured he must have to send Renfrew's no-where-ville's secret war information to Benito Mussolini back in Italy. Afterwards he had to report to city hall once a week for questioning, for the duration of the war. Since he'd fixed the shoe shop folks began coming back again to get their shoes repaired, but were watching him very carefully. Totally absurd.

My grandfather had few ties with the homeland, communications not being what they are today, except for the steady stream of Chiarelli's who immigrated to Canada from Italy especially after the war. They mostly settled in Toronto. He remained stoic about his lot, and was always able to support his family. He remained a part of the small Italian community who's life was all pretty much bound, as per tradition, around the local Catholic church. The mark of respect was to live an upright life and put your kids through school so they could do better. The boys became teachers, and the girls nurses, in our families case with the added bonus that neither had any shoe shops to be attacked should European troubles ever again threaten our shores. My aunt became a nurse, my dad and his brother teachers. Although I rebelled against it at first I later became a teacher too. My niece Katie worked a short time at a shoe store without much grief but is now entering teacher's college, and so the family tradition continues.

As for my father? Growing up we did not speak Italian. We made raviolis but ordered pizza. My last name Chiarelli begins with the Canadianized Sh not Ke pronunciation, unlike the traditional Woodbridge and Maple Chiarelli's. I have the blustery Italian characteristics of talking loud and gesturing alot with my hands. I can be known to make jokes about being part Italian but not saying what part. But other than that?

I was born in Toronto, I live in Toronto, but I do teach at a Catholic school. I order pizza sometimes on t.v. night, but quite frankly prefer going out to a Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, Mexican  or Japanese Restaurant. Give me super spiced curry, a roti, taco or falafel any day! I don't particularly care for soccer, nor do I hang a set of Boccie balls or furry dice from the rear view mirror in my car. I do have my scuba licence. I love to travel around Canada, the US, and Mexico, Cuba and the Caribbean but I have never been to Italy. We do still own the family homestead there, outside Roma, which we can all visit, but most all of our family lives somewhere in Canada or the United States now.

Janet and I recently bought a condo in a two hundred and something unit high rise on Weston Rd. It's a very ethnically diverse building where most everyone is quite friendly and works, though not everyone speaks English, and I doubt if some of them have been in Canada for more than a few years. We all get along fine. The Hindu family even puts up a Christmas tree. The tiny little Asian girls are closely supervised and very polite and sweet. The little old Italian guy always winks and whispers "Don't worry, we've got you covered!". He and the two or three other Italians in our building always come out to vote for me every year at the condo board election, otherwise I never see them except on the elevator. I think the others vote for me because they like that I am a teacher, which often seems to be very well respected, perhaps a lot more so than here, in the many countries they come from. And on Canada Day the middle eastern family proudly hangs a huge Canadian flag from their balcony.

Toronto nowadays is one of, if not the most culturally diverse city in the world. We see it at school a lot with the constantly changing immigration waves from around the world. It seems to me that as each new group arrives they become like the new kid on the block. Are we prejudiced to strangers? I once saw a Muslim family having their car torn apart while each of them was thoroughly searched at the Canadian border. I was waved through with but a friendly nod. Perhaps this is a far cry from what happened to our families, but really isn't it very prejudiced all the same?

There are still predominantly ethic neighbourhoods across our city, from the Greek Danforth, to Chinatown, Little Italy, the Jane-Finch Corridor and the so called Jungle. We know Spadina Avenue use to be the Jewish ghetto before it became predominantly Asian. However, I suspect any prejudice is relatively minimal considering the incredible diversity of people here now. As each new group arrives, they eventually establish themselves, and then spread out across town, for the most part joining into the mix, or buying up new suburbs which inevitably end up becoming mixed too. 

The student body at my school at Finch and Keele has changed many, many times since I first arrived there in 1992. First it was predominantly Italian, then Polish, Latin American, Middle Eastern, African, Caribbean, Asian, and now Philippine. During periods of rapid influx, it has been incredibly mixed. I once polled a social science class on our family origins. In our class of 28 students, we could colour in 26 countries on the world map. That included both the mother and fathers sides of their family of course.

Like many Torontonians I am in a mixed marriage, if we can call it that. My wife Janet is third generation Canadian. Her family came over long before WW2 as well. In their case they fared a lot worse. All their property in British Columbia, including a lot of farmland and a hotel in downtown Vancouver was seized after the attack on Pearl Harbour when the Japanese-Canadians were rounded up and put into internment camps. After the war, they were given a choice. They could go back to Japan but hardly knew anyone there. The country had also basically been destroyed. Or they could come east to Toronto and work as domestics until they could establish themselves all over again. Unlike in the US, they were not given back their property nor compensated for its value. Few would hire or even rent a home to them, except the Jewish and the Italians, because of the war. Now Toronto has a large Asian, if not Japanese population, and it seems a moot point. Like myself Janet would hardly stand out and I am not aware of either of us being called racial names or otherwise denigrated for a good many years.

Other than her pure Asian features, which I find quite alluring, I can't say Janet is outwardly very Japanese, no more so than I am Italian. We do eat more rice than potatoes, drive a Honda and a Toyota, avoid mentioning Pearl Harbour at her family gatherings or telling anybody her Japanese name. We like going out for sushi or some spiced dishes in Chinatown if we are down that way. She has big Fujiwara family gatherings [though not as large as on the Toyota side] where nobody except the elderly who often live to ninety speak Japanese, and then only very rarely at that. Most everybody has good jobs and nice homes across the city and out in the suburbs.

Perhaps WW2 had a big effect on both our families which we indirectly feel today, with an emphasis on mixing and fitting in. If so it is fairly subtle. Neither of us particularly stand out anyway in the very diverse mix of Toronto today.This could well have become ingrained for our generation, our children perhaps less so. As they grow older they show an increasing interest in learning more about their heritage, something we have often seemingly neglected or forgotten for more or less two generations now.

Mixed cultures, neighbourhoods, marriages and schools are perhaps a very Torontonian characteristic, in a city were their is no distinct identity except in our diversity. I suppose someday it may gel into a hybrid all it's own. When we were born Toronto was a small very English city of five hundred thousand people tops, compared to the two and a half million living here today. I've noticed some local traits, and have mentioned them in my blogs on occasion. I wouldn't be surprised if this new hybrid identity is starting to emerge all ready.

It's sort of like having an accent. We might not recognize it as being different because we live here. Other folk from elsewhere have an accent it seems but not us! In fact, our English is more curt like Queens English perhaps due to our provincial heritage, but with a fair mix of American slang and euphemisms due to our proximity with the US border. While we usually don't seem to have the same drawl, if you listen carefully over time you might hear locals pronounce our city name as "Tarawna", not Toronto, although I think folks have become a lot more self conscious of that and less likely to speak so nowadays.There is a distinct propensity to end our sentences with "eh?" and I don't mind being referred to as a "Canuck" when we are travelling abroad since we are from Canada eh?

I suppose this posting is more interesting to my readers from outside Toronto or for that matter Canada. I'd be interested to hear from any local readers about their spin on this, as I can only speak from my own life experience. This is the Summer Edition of my blogspot, so I find it rather interesting to tackle such topics and provide more background info on where I am coming from, and where I am at. It's not directly school or union related, not here and now anyways, but we do teach in Toronto.

I sometimes wonder how the Italian angle plays out for me in our TSU teacher union political activities. I know that at the executive table others have sometimes born the brunt of the loud bluster from my odd Italian moment when the old arms get waving in the air, and my words can be quite blunt. I am not sure, in the political sense, whether that is necessarily good or bad. I can certainly make my point known in no uncertain terms, even if it is lacking in a calm polite tone. That is considered more socially acceptable, especially here in Toronto, Canada, where nobody likes to ruffle any feathers even though they sometimes desperately need a ruffling. It can be considered unsettling and rude. It can also well emphasis, if not overtly so, an important point that needs to be made, as my gruff Italiano side rises to the surface. Some folks will tell me, "Well thank God, it had to be said!!", while others will say, "But not like that!" Anyway, it gets the job done.

When it comes election time, I know the Toronto side of my identity will not be a big draw for those who will always vote for the Italian candidate just because they are Italian too. One can, and many candidates do play the Italian card. Look around and you might see some Bella Donna's or would be godfathers running around appealing to these sentiments, which can be a significant vote. Hey, I can say this, I am Italian too, but I don't think many voters check off my name just because it's Italian, since I don't play it up. Likewise since most voters aren't Italian, that probably doesn't seem to hurt me either.

For the last five years I've mostly been on an election winning streak. Maybe to be a hyphenated Italian would boost my margin? On the other hand, maybe our ethnic backgrounds aren't necessarily either a big draw or a hindrance in our changing Toronto cultural landscape anymore. I like to think there are more progressive and metropolitan teachers such as myself who would much rather look beyond these limited interests and considerations. We want to better reflect and represent the diverse and inclusive interests of our teacher's union and schools. After all we are first and foremost Canadians in Toronto, not Italy, Japan, Europe, Asia, Africa, the middle east or where have you. Certainly our teaching world in Toronto has become a lot more wider and all encompassing than that!

Communist Girls ARE More Fun!

Communist Girls ARE More Fun!
See below ...

Communist Girls Are More Fun #1

Communist Girls Are More Fun #1

Communist Grrrls are More Fun #2

Communist Grrrls are More Fun #2

Communist Grrrls Are More Fun #3

Communist Grrrls Are More Fun #3

Communist Girls Are More Fun #4

Communist Girls Are More Fun #4

Art at the Paris Louvre: What does it mean?!?

Art at the Paris Louvre: What does it mean?!?
A careful analytical study!

Help! I Have No Arms!

Help! I Have No Arms!
Please scratch my back.

I can't find my underwear!.

I can't find my underwear!.
Have you seen them!

Weee! I can fly!

Weee! I can fly!
Look! I can crawl thru walls!

I have a headache!

I have a headache!
And a broken nose.

I have a square hole in my bum!

I have a square hole in my bum!

Here try this, it's very good!

Here try this, it's very good!
No. You have a bird face.

I have an ugly baby!

I have an ugly baby!
No I'm not!

Let's save all our money + buy pants!

Let's save all our money + buy pants!
OK but I need a new hand too!

Oh no! I got something in my eye!

Oh no! I got something in my eye!

You don't look well.

You don't look well.
No. My head hurts +I have a sore chest.

Would you like a bun?

Would you like a bun?

Chichen-Itza: Lost Maya City of Ruins!

Chichen-Itza: Lost Maya City of Ruins!
The Temple of Kukulkan!

Gotta love it!

Gotta love it!
Truly amazing!

Under Reconstruction!

Under Reconstruction!

Temples + Snakes!

Temples + Snakes!

The Snake!

The Snake!
It runs the length of the ball field!