True Stories

Of Great Aunts and Moss Gardens

The combination of a summer cottage by a lake and a couple of elderly and eccentric great aunts has an irresistible appeal to any child born and brought up in the city.

My own particular great aunts were two spinsters, Olive and Francis, born at the end of the 19th century in Jersey, Channel Islands, the children of immigrants who arrived with their family in 1903. They lived for the winter months in an apartment in Montreal that had been their home since their arrival, but they left for “The Lake” as soon as the weather began to smell of spring. They loved the primitive log cabin they had and the forest with its many and varied inhabitants that surrounded them there. Our rare visits to them changed our lives.

The Lake *

The drive from Montreal to this remote lake seemed to take all day. The car would finally pull up at a basic wharf – nothing more than a dirt parking area really – with a public telephone box for the use of any island or lakeshore inhabitants and a couple of posts to which a boat could be tied.

The car would be parked and we would all pile out to be with our father as he would stand on the shore, cup his hands around his mouth and shout “Woyup! Woyup!”, several times, across the still water.

Lake at sunset- Ellie Kennard 2015
Lake at sunset- Ellie Kennard 2015

This call must have been a special signal for some waiting ear, as after about 15 minutes, a small motor boat could be seen heading across the lake in our direction . We would be greeted by one of the aunts who would bustle us and our belongings on board. We would then chug our way back across the lake to their cabin. There was no other way to get there in the early ’60’s and this was for us a great part of the adventure of the visit.

We didn’t go to the lake often, but these visits fostered a deep love for the simple joys of the country. As we sat in the single log room in the house whose interior walls were covered with brown craft paper, or lay on the canopied swing in the screened off porch at the top of the long wide flight of wooden steps, smelling the forest all around us, we city children learned the value of silence and what it can bring in the way of gentle visitors – squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, birds, snakes, frogs and the occasional deer. There was no electricity in the cottage so the soft glow of the oil lamp would cast just enough light for us to work at our drawings or crafts, or read our books.

The girls’ bedroom, whose walls were also covered with brown paper, relieved only by a single framed display of pressed flowers, had one high double bed with a lumpy mattress. This bed was covered with a puffy eiderdown filled with feathers and we girls piled into it together, giggling as the downy feathers in the cover puffed up around us deliciously warm and occasionally escaped through a hole in a seam, to float around the room. The boys had a similar room and bed for themselves. Along one wall was a dresser with a large porcelain ewer and basin which had a matching soap dish beside it. This had fresh, cold water put in it each day and we used the basin to wash our hands and faces.

Short tailed weasel pup ©Ellie Kennard
Short tailed weasel pup – who posed very nicely for my camera.

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A Story of Golden Horses and Friendship

Golden China Horse of the Story
Golden China Horse of the Story

What kind of friend…?

Once there was a young girl who had a very lonely existence. She had no real friends and her family was not close. This meant that she spent much of her time in her room alone, reading and dreaming. Her great love was her collection of china horses. She dreamed of having a real horse one day and would carefully arrange the horses on the home made shelves, made by her industrious great aunt with autumn forest wallpaper as a background. The shelves were rustic and she could almost believe that they looked like real horses in the woods. Some of the horses got broken in time, as the shelves were not very sturdy. Many legs and tails had glued on bits, but that made them all the more precious.

This little girl had one very good friend that she had met in grade 6. The happiest times for her was when she and her friend would cycle from her street in Montreal, all the way up the mountain to the very top. They would sneak into the stables of the horses that belonged to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and just sit there with the horses. She planned to get one of the horses for herself when it was retired from the police force. One day. Sometimes she would go alone to sit and dream in the dim warm quiet stables, but it was always better with her friend. Sometimes they would go to Blue Bonnets Race Track and sit and watch the horses training. This was probably a very unsafe place for two young teenage girls to be, but as no one knew they were there, no one told them that it was dangerous.

George - Hafflinger colt we bred, Laubrecourt, Dordogne, 1995 - © Steven Kennard
George, Hafflinger colt, France. Photo © Steven Kennard

The two girls grew up. The young girl was so unhappy at home that in the end she had to leave. She knew that it might be a long time before she ever got back to her home and she also knew that she couldn’t take anything with her. She took her favourite horse, a golden one with white mane and tail over to her friend’s house and asked her to look after this horse for her. She asked her to keep it safe until she could come back for it. Then she went away.

The young girl travelled far and wide. She moved to 3 different countries and had adventures and even, when she was much older, had some wonderful horses of her own. Real horses. They had golden coats and long white manes and tails. One day this girl decided that it was time to go home. She had been away for over 30 years, so was no longer a young girl. She had lost track of her old friend and, though she tried and tried to find her, she never had been able to. Many people had left Montreal in those years and had scattered around the country and around the world.

Ellie with Flicka, Friston and pigs. Morina in the background.
Ellie with Flicka, Friston and pigs. Morina in the background. Photo © Steven Kennard

One day, when she was back in Canada, she decided to have one last attempt to find her friend. She called a CBC radio announcer and dedicated a song to this long lost friend, whom, she said, she was missing and would love to find. A few days later, the radio announcer, Bill Richardson, called her and told her that he had found her friend, Janet.

A few weeks later, they were able to meet again. It was an emotional reunion and there was a lot to find out about each other’s lives. Much time had passed since those days of cycling up to the mountain in Montreal. They had both grown up. But, amazingly, they were still friends. And Janet brought a box with her. In the box was the golden china horse with a white mane and tail.

Flicka, newly born, sticking close to her mother, Morina Photo © Steven Kennard
Flicka, newly born, sticking close to her mother, Morina Photo © Steven Kennard

So the answer to the question “What Kind of Friend was She?” is…. the Best Friend. Thanks for keeping the faith and the horse Janet. The featured photo at the top of this post is that horse.








Of Outhouses and Fried Egg Sandwiches

Attitudes to food and eating influence the quality of life wherever you live. The people of Finland lived through a terrible time during the 2nd World War that is only dimly understood by those of us born and raised in North America. The lasting legacy of this was brought home to me when I lived in Finland for a period in the early seventies. I was visiting an elderly couple who had known my then boyfriend since he was a child.

Our visit to their simple country home was unannounced and greeted with unintelligible cries of joy and great excitement. We were seated in places of honour in the parlour and invited to have a few refreshments with them. The wife had fond memories of my friend’s childhood love of fried egg sandwiches and she announced that she would prepare this treat for us. I understood little Finnish and my friend understood only a little more, so the conversation was pretty much one sided, accompanied by beaming faces and much bustling of food preparation.

Family Outhouse

While this was going on my friend invited me outside to view the outhouse – partly for entertainment and partly so that if the need arose, I would be aware of the location of the facilities. This building was truly a marvel as it was much larger than the conventional outhouses of my experience which were built for single occupancy. It was octagonal in shape and clearly designed for a large family. here were 8 stations in the plain smooth wood platform, each provided with its pile of farming magazines and sheets of newspaper on a string for purposes of hygiene. Two of the places had a raised step in front to accommodate smaller children. Beside every hole was a tin can of lime for sprinkling through the opening after a visit.

The walls were decorated with magazine pages lovingly pinned onto the simple wooden structure. I imagine that in the frigid Finnish winter the experience would have been breathtaking and as brief as nature would allow, as in the summer when the smell generated by the heat would have provided the disincentive to linger.

Finnish Hospitality

The aroma of frying butter greeted us as we sat down in our places and were presented with plates to hold on our lap. There was no place for us at the table as it was completely covered with food. Before we could proceed to the groaning buffet spread before us (and we were expected to move on to this feast) we first had to eat the fried egg sandwiches.

Basket of eggs ©Steven Kennard

These were made over the open fire using a metal device with a hinged cup held by two long metal rods with a wooden handle on each. The two slices of white bread (buttered sides against the metal cup sides) were placed one in each half of the cup, with an egg on one half. When the second half was closed over the first, the sharp metal sides of the device cut off the crusts and enclosed the buttered bread and egg making a perfect round which cooked to golden perfection on the wood stove.

This kind and gentle farmer’s wife had prepared 28 of these for the two of us.

As I recall, I managed to eat no more than about 4 and my friend packed away a respectable 10 or more. We were forced to eat from the savory goodies on the table and then to proceed to eat sweet pastries. Before the afternoon was out I was glad that I knew the way to the privy.

During the war the Finnish people had suffered through a period of devastating hardship and had faced starvation on many occasions. After the war the country had struggled to repay a large war debt and rebuild their industry and infrastructure. This time of deprivation and shame had an effect that lingered long after the country had been restored to the place of respect and dignity that it deserved.

Every time any visitor came, hospitality had to be extended that showed that there was no longer any shortage of food. The fried egg sandwiches and groaning table laid for 2 young people were a symbol that demonstrated the overcoming of such formidable obstacles by this proud people. This same attitude is evident in the wonderful hospitality of all Finnish people, even today.

Images ©Steven Kennard

Maggots and Gourmet Cheeses

We lived for a number of years in the Perigord Noir, a region of France renowned for its gastronomy. The residents pride themselves on eating pretty much everything that can be made vaguely edible, even if at times the results defy both good taste and common sense, at least from an outsider’s perspective.

Gourmet Cheese - photo by NJGJ
Gourmet Cheese – photo by NJGJ

From the time we first moved to France we had heard about older country people who would enjoy a special delicacy with their camembert, brie or similar soft rind cheeses. We heard how they would leave the cheese on the window ledge in the sun so that the flies were attracted to it and would lay eggs on it. With time the eggs would produce maggots and shortly after that the cheese was considered good to eat. The maggots were considered to be quite clean, as all they had eaten was cheese. The best way to enjoy this delicacy was to put it on your bread and dip the lot into your bowl of coffee, eating the whole dripping mess for breakfast. Of course some of the maggots would fall off into the coffee so they would then be scooped up with a spoon and eaten at the end of the meal as a special treat.

Although we lived in a very rural area of France, this story did appear to be anecdotal as for many years we never actually met anyone who enjoyed their cheese ‘ripened’ in this unique fashion. Everyone who told of it knew of an old friend of a family member who….

French Squatter toilet as in Claude's house
French Squatter toilet as in Claude’s house

One evening we had been invited to dinner at the home of an older bachelor friend, Claude who was not regarded as a gifted housekeeper. He had restored the old property himself with extraordinary patience and skill, incorporating such features as a beautiful enormous carved sandstone scallop shell forming part of an exterior wall – the interior portion was an alcove type seat in the main room and on the other side it was a fountain in the courtyard. He had also installed a shiny new porcelain footprint type squatter toilet because he preferred them. The interior of the home was dark (which was probably a good thing in view of the rudimentary cleaning that had taken place before our arrival) but had a comfortable timelessness about it. As in so many French homes there was no living room. The main room was the room where you ate and socialized around the table for hours before, during and after a good meal, taken at a leisurely pace.

Old Mimolette cheese whose rind is pocked by cheese mites photo by Jastrow
Old Mimolette cheese whose rind is pocked by cheese mites photo by Jastrow

Claude raised and grew his own food and so we were looking forward to a good evening. It was a meal lacking pretension, beginning with a plate of his own foie gras de canard (not a paté as some think, but the actual livers, preserved) as an appetizer with white French bread. This was followed by roasted chickens from his flock accompanied by fried potatoes and a bowl of lettuce leaves as a concession to those with health concerns. He served this with a good local red wine. It was simple but delicious. We sat around the solid table made from Perigord walnut on traditional wooden upright high backed chairs with woven rush seats. The floors were the original flagstones worn smooth over centuries of use.

As in so many French meals, we finished with a cheese selection. When the board of cheeses arrived it was passed to me and I was absolutely delighted to see large plump white maggots crawling across the board from one of them. We had heard about this for so many years but I had given up hoping to see the real thing. It was just the sort of local delicacy I would have expected to find being served at the table of our host. Intrigued as I was by the thought of the experience – the flavour, the texture, the sensation – I lacked the necessary spirit of adventure and contented myself with more commonplace varieties without livestock in residence.

Casu Marzu cheese with maggots photo by Shardan
Casu Marzu cheese with maggots photo by Shardan

I was very impressed with Steven who reached across the table to help himself to a healthy serving, maggots dripping off his knife onto the table as he did so. As he was about to start eating however he glanced down at the plate and suddenly one of the other guests began to shriek and jumped up from the table. My husband had, at that instant realized what I thought he had known all along, which was that part of his meal was beginning to make its way across the table in the form of the maggots. He didn’t know what to do. He hesitated just long enough for our host to see the cause of the commotion at that same moment and to snatch up the squirming plateful. He ran quickly to the door, opened it and threw the cheese, maggots and all outside into the courtyard. He then rushed back to the table, seized the cheese board and deftly disposed of the maggoty remains in the same way.

When he came back to the table he was absolutely mortified at what had happened. He assured us that he had bought the cheese in the market only that very morning and it had appeared to be completely normal – that is to say without maggots. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to hear that.

As we left to go home that night and turned to say a final goodbye to Claude, we felt a strange softly crunching sensation under our feet on the flagstones. It was the maggots that had spread all over the courtyard as they moved off in search of new adventures.

I like to think that  somewhere in country kitchens in rural France there are lone camemberts ripening on sunny windowsills, creamy nurseries for delectable maggots destined to be savoured with morning coffee.

*There are cheeses that incorporate maggots and mites in their manufacture as can be seen in the images above.

No Signs Forward

Northern Lapland Tundra © Gary Wornell
Northern Lapland Tundra © Gary Wornell

There are no public toilets in Kongsfjord in Northern Norway. At least there were none in the late 1960’s or early 70’s. At about the same time as I discovered that interesting piece of trivia I also learned that there are main roads you can travel on where the few road signs only have place names for towns in the opposite direction to which you are travelling. You gradually realize that that the nearest place with a name is getting farther and farther from you as you go. Common sense tells you that where there is a road, there must be a reason at the end of it, but it is hard to fight the evidence of the signs on this lonely highway in the Arctic Circle on the way to the shores of the Barents Sea.

Not long after my experience with the lemmings in Northern Lapland I found myself on just such a road, in a transport truck, hitching a ride to one of the the northernmost points of Norway, a small fishing town, Kongsfjord. The truck driver was on his way to this lonely outpost to pick up a cargo of frozen fish skins and waste for transport to the mink farms in the South of Finland.

On this journey I finally made first hand acquaintance with a school geography lesson phenomenon – the ‘Tree Line’. That expression is bandied about in geography class and was familiar to me as a Canadian school child. Somehow I imagined that it was a term that described an area of few trees, or low trees over a stretch of land, or even a particular delineation that marked some boundary in the Northern regions.

As the truck drove us further into the Arctic circle, I realised that the tree line is all of those. At a distance it is a clearly defined line of trees that marches across the terrain before starkly disrobing to reveal the barren tundra. Closer up you see that the progression is mostly gradual, from normal to stunted and weathered through to the point where they simply stop growing. The line it makes gives an unexpected strong sense of finality. From this point on there will be no more trees. I was astonished at the literal view of what had been to me a mythical term.

Kongsfjord is over 300 kms from Ivalo, Finnish Lapland. At that time of year the whole trip took place in daylight and with no logical progression of light to dark, time on the journey had a surreal sense of standing still.

Suojapaikkaan mškki, AmmarnŠs Ruotsi 2008 # Refuge hut, AmmarnŠs Sweden 2008
Lonely Building on the Tundra © Gary Wornell. The wood in this wilderness hut has been flown in by helicopter.

The starkly beautiful tundra landscape spread all around and before us as far as we could see broken only by the occasional stream or lake and, now and again, a lonely wooden building.

We pulled into Kongsfjord and the truck driver parked in the dark loading bay of the fish packing plant on the wharf. As he opened his door he was instantly surrounded by coated, furtive figures who thrust out their fists towards him, waving wads of bills. Little was said (I’m not sure any of them understood Finnish) but their meaning was unmistakable.

You could not buy alcohol in this town. I can’t recall the reason (no state licensed liquor store perhaps?) but the fact made the commodity more valuable than gold. The driver had a nice little sideline in bootleg alcohol sales and he was for that short time the most popular man in that part of the world.

While the truck was loaded with the huge blocks of frozen fish skins I walked around the little town and sat on the rocks overlooking Kongsfjord bay. A single horse wandered freely through the streets and around the houses. There were no fences. Why would there be? Where would he possibly want to go? The first impression was one of a wonderful sense of freedom but at the same time the overwhelming knowledge that he would not have survived for long in that wilderness. His fence was everywhere.

Courtesy of Google Maps
Kongsfjord, Northern Norway, Image courtesy of Google Maps

I knew that we would be heading back down the road again soon, so began to look for a public toilet. There were none. What was I to do? There were obviously no trees or bushes so that was out. Everywhere was horribly exposed to view. I decided that I would have to approach one of the houses and ask if I could use theirs.

My first few knocks went unanswered. Finally at the 4th house a lady in a dressing gown came to the door. Too late I realized that it was the middle of the night. (Curse the eternal daylight and lack of a watch.) She smiled at me however and I asked in my clearest English if I could use her washroom. She kept smiling. How stupid of me to think she would understand me. Now what? It was getting more urgent by the minute. I tried all expressions I could think of: WC, VC (Finnish language does not use the W but substitutes a V), toilet, toiletten. Nothing meant anything to her. Finally in desperation I mimed what it was I needed to do. Her face lit up and the smile widened and I was invited inside to use her facilities. Without being able to understand a thing I said, she insisted on making me a sandwich and coffee that I was grateful to eat before I left.

I see now from Google Maps images (how is that possible?) that there is a small museum cafe in the town. Clearly there are now more reasons to visit this remote corner of the world than to collect fish skins or sell whisky. Maybe there are now some public toilets. Remember to take your watch in case there are none.

Lemmings and the Midnight Sun

Listen: “Lemmings and the Midnight Sun” read by the author is also available to download from the Podcast page

Summer nights in Lapland have a peaceful, still quality lent to them by the magic of the midnight sun. The light, so bright at such a late hour alters your sense of time and place. Is it 10 am? 10 pm? It’s hard to tell.

It was 1970 and I was staying with a Lapp family in a remote cottage near the village of Ivalo, in Finnish Lapland. Vaula, the daughter of the house was a girl about my own age, who had been living in England as an au pair and who invited me to come home for a visit with her family when she returned. She was an usually quiet, moon faced, serious girl, who rarely spoke, and seemed to be totally lacking a sense of humour, except when on rare occasions she would suddenly beam with delight when she understood a joke or found something amusing. She had been completely out of her environment on the outskirts of London and was obviously pining to return to her family in the Northern parts of Lapland. We had journeyed to her home first on a 4 day trip on a very basic Russian boat that had two grades of accommodation – crew and third class (which we were), then taking a long train journey from Helsinki to Ivalo before making our way to her cottage. As soon as the train began to leave civilization behind, Vaula began to relax visibly and as we got near her home, she became almost bubbly with excitement. Her family warmly welcomed us and Vaula invited me right away to have a sauna with her to clean off the dust of the journey. I had never experienced a Sauna before, but it seemed to be a wonderful way to get clean and relax.

Ellie Kennard in Finnish wilderness
Ellie Kennard in the Finnish wilderness
The heat was intense, but just when I felt I could stand it no longer, there was a freezing cold lake to jump into and the feeling was exhilarating. We returned to the dark wood heated sauna and I had just got settled on the bench again when suddenly Vaula seemed to have gone completely mad. This taciturn, reserved, almost sullen girl suddenly turned into a giggling lunatic who began hitting at me with a bunch of thin twigs with leaves on them. At first I was so shocked I just jumped back to get out of the way, but then Vaula explained that this was a ‘vasta’ –  birch twigs that are a traditional part of a sauna, the gentle beating of the body apparently helping to relax the muscles and calm mosquito bites. Vaula was finally in her element and happy in a way I had never seen her in the sophistication of an English home.

Many of the creatures that live in that area have a special quality about them, like the environment. They have a short time in which to breed, raise their young and then migrate or bear the brunt of the long dark winter as best they can.

After a good night’s sleep following the sauna and a lazy day spent helping her mother around the cottage, the next evening I found myself in a little boat with Vaula and her father. We were on our way to check their fish trap.

As we made our way across the calm lake the air suddenly became filled with the screaming cries of  Arctic Tern. These beautiful, delicate looking, acrobatic birds have the longest migration of any creature, averaging more than 70-90,000 kms annually, many of them living over 30 years. It seems that we were coming too close to their nests, hidden nearby in the grassy tundra and they began to dive bomb us, coming so near that we had to duck and cover our heads to avoid being struck as they’re quite capable of drawing blood. Once we began to leave the immediate area of their nests they left us in peace and we continued up a small river until we came to the basket-like trap. (See the kind of fish trap here.)

This device rested under the surface of the water amongst the tangled reeds. It was made from willow twigs woven into a long, conical shape with the wide opening positioned so that the fish would swim into it and then be unable to exit or turn around. This one contained an ugly big pike at least three feet long, which would be our evening meal. We landed on the shore with our catch and Vaula and her father went back to the cottage to prepare it. I wanted to stay and sat down at the edge of the still water, on the rocks.

Lake in Lapland, Summer Night
Lake in Lapland, Summer Night 3 am © Gary Wornell

The sun was bright, but everything was eerily quiet. The birds were not singing as they would normally, which was the only real clue that it was night. Though I didn’t have my guitar with me, I began to sing some of the folk songs I knew, quietly to myself at first, sitting all alone on the edge of the water, then a little louder as I knew that no one was nearby to hear. Gradually as I sang song after song, I became aware of little rustlings around me and I saw small furry creatures, about 4 inches long, scurrying up to me and around me. They looked almost like hamsters, but wild, not captive to a cage and exercise wheel. Their bodies seemed to flow over the rocks and tufts of grasses at the edge of the water. As I watched them it dawned on me that they must be lemmings – sopuli in Finnish.

Some of the little animals came quite close and seemed curious, as if they were listening to my songs. They showed no fear at all as I imagine that they had not had contact with people and had so far no reason to fear them. Or perhaps it was that they sensed that I wasn’t a threat to anything as I sat still, just singing my tunes, the water of the lake lapping at my feet. One or two climbed over my feet and legs and sat there for a short while. It was a wonderful moment and I felt that I should stop singing and hold my breath, but was afraid that this would break the mood and scare them, so I continued. In fact I was just a temporary diversion for them and after a while they joined their companions that were continuing on their journey to the edge of the water. They began swimming, striking out for the opposite shore and I realised that the lake had hundreds of these little creatures, moving smoothly in the water, some aimlessly swimming in circles, but most keeping a true direction to cross the lake.

Lemming image © Frode Inge Helland.

Every story I had heard about lemmings described them as crazed little animals that throw themselves off cliffs and into the sea and drown. The ones that I saw seemed not in the least crazed and to have a sense of purpose in their trek. It seemed likely that many would actually make it across the small lake and be able to climb out on the far bank, to scurry off on their journey. There were obviously a few for whom the swim had proved to be too much as I became aware of some bodies lying at different spots on the shore. Were they the weak or the old? I have learned since that this strange migration, believed to be caused by overcrowding and shortages of food happens only once in about every 25 years and I just happened to be there in that special time and in that special place.

Sometimes, in your travels, it’s a distinctive feel of the place more from the landscape and its creatures than from the culture that comes back to haunt you, many years later. Northern Lapland is just such a place and leaves a memory of peace and calm that is all too rare in the world and one that I shall never forget.