Mystery tomatoes

For some time now our family has been ordering our groceries online from a local company called “Les Jardins Urbains” (Urban Gardens). At first, the idea was simply to streamline our lives and to save our Saturdays that were getting eaten up by thankless tasks like shopping. We’ve been procuring food like this for well over a year now, and pray that Reza, our friend and proprietor of “Les Jardins Urbains,” will never go out of business, because we could never go back.

Reza’s food is organic and largely local. Our duck, for example, comes from Lac Brome, our carrots from the Saguenay, and our tomatoes from his greenhouses.

I’ve never been a much of a food snob or a big believer in the organic movement (for one thing, I’m suspicious of the ecological argument for organic strawberries that have travelled to Quebec from California), but I have to admit that our new way of accessing food has changed our relationship to it. We now eat more seasonally than ever before — each spring we await the news that the special sweet and spicy lettuce blends are available and that garlic shoots can  be ordered — and food that is grown close by really does taste better.

But tonight, together with my weekly food delivery, came a surprise. I was gardening when Reza announced that he had a gift for me.

A few minutes later he returned from his van bearing four tiny tomato seedlings. He explained that after reading my post about how gardens reflect our lives, he’d been inspired to bring me some plants. There’s a hanging one for our son, one each for my husband and me, and one that I’m symbolically setting aside for our cat Yashka, since we don’t want any orphans or jealousy.

The tomatoes, he said, are a mystery. We don’t know what colour or shape each will bear, but they won’t be conventional.

So what started for me as a purely practical matter — this habit of ordering food every week — has brought unanticipated richness. Friendship, better health, a reader I didn’t even realize I had, and a heartwarming acknowledgment of my work in the form of four mystery tomato plants.

If you live in the Montreal area, check out “Les Jardins Urbains” here.

[Photo: onkel_wart]


On the kindness of strangers

For the past week I’ve been sending badly written Russian emails to strangers all over Siberia. In them I explain that I will be arriving in Tomsk with my cousin in August by train, that we are looking for the village where our grandmother lived and worked for seventeen years, that I am a Canadian writer of English-language books, and that I would appreciate any help they could offer in locating Brovka.

Amazingly, some of these strangers respond.

This is not the first time I’ve imposed myself and my odd sense of what’s worth writing about on people I don’t know. I’ve arrived in small American towns asking strange questions about saints’ relics, place-names and local history and I’ve shown up in French villages inquiring after long-forgotten WWII prison camps.

Perhaps it’s because I’m obviously harmless and seem a bit naive. Or maybe it’s just because I’m genuinely interested in hearing stories about these out-of-the-way places. But strangers tend to be kind and generous to a writer looking for a story, and people from forgotten parts of the world want to share what they know.

So, over the last week I’ve struck up a friendship with a woman in Tomsk who is the president of the region’s Lithuanian friendship society. Her father was a Lithuanian exile who married a Volga German, also exiled to Siberia. Svetlana was born in town on the Mongolian border and moved to Tomsk to study at one of the city’s five universities.

She has already done a great deal of research on my behalf: making phone calls and passing on information to archivists (more kind strangers) who have taken it upon themselves to search for traces of my grandmother amongst old census documents. We write to each other in different languages: I, in Lithuanian, and she, in Russian. We manage to understand one another, and there is a warmth to our communication that I would never have predicted, though perhaps should have, bound as we are by the memory of exile.

For Svetlana, exile has become home. She lives in Siberia not because she must, but because it is where she was born, where she studied, and where she works.

I can’t wait to meet her. I suspect she’ll have a lot of stories to tell.

[Photo: Daniel Gasienica]


On the Value and Meaning of Work

I’ve been reading my friend Margaret Paxson’s book, Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village. Paxson, an anthropologist, watched, interviewed and listened to the villagers of Solovyovo for many months to learn how they related to each other, to their land and to the past.

Yesterday, shortly before going to a dinner party with some other writers, I read a section on currency, debt and exchange.

In a village where people grow their own vegetables, raise animals, keep bees, produce their own alcohol, fetch their own water, and build their own houses, it’s fair to ask what the value of money is. In Solovyovo, one needs money to buy things like grain, heating fuel, radios, televisions, but cash is not the primary, purest or most “comfortable” form of currency. Rather than pay one another in rubles, Solovyovo’s villagers prefer to exchange meat for vodka, honey for cheese, or milk for a few hours of help in the potato field. Debts are settled through deeds and other goods. Money, as much as possible, doesn’t enter the calculation.

So, with my friend’s description of this alternate economy in mind, I set off to my writers’ dinner party.

Over food and wine, shared our stories: we told what had brought us to writing, how we organized our workdays, and we outlined the decisions each of us had made to create room for writing in our lives. Finally, toward the end of the evening, the talk turned to finances and the concept of work. The discussion was sparked by the description of one author as a “working mother,” when she practiced no profession other than writing. Was this a fair description of a woman who writes and raises kids, but who may not earn a whole heck of a lot?

Several questions arose for me as a result of that discussion: Is writing only “real” or “valuable” or even “work” if it pays the rent? Should an author’s work conditions be taken into consideration before we judge a piece of writing? Does it matter, in other words, whether a writer’s life is tough or cushy? (Tolstoy was rich; Kafka was relatively poor. Should we care?) Is the sum of one’s life’s work measured only in dollars, or is there another currency we can use?

What can the villagers of Solovyovo teach us in this regard?

[Photo: napugal]