Reading at the Library

I’ve spent many hours reading at the library. I’d say that reading in the library has very much informed the person I am today. The habit was formed early: Winnie the Pooh and Dr. Seuss followed by fairy tales then Greek myths and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In high school, the books were more Oscar Wilde and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Those turbulent years of my teenage life were often spent at a library carrel, where I’d anchor myself after school to study and then study again: Books being my salvation, my escape route from all that tormented me at the time, my home life in particular. The library felt often like my true home, and as I’d wander the aisles after-dark, I’d discover new lives and new adventures, if not new cuisines in exotic cookbooks, all lined up of the shelves, inviting me in.

When I got to university I was already well-practiced in being a library habitue, which is likely why didn’t flounder in first year as many of my peers did. All this goes to say that I didn’t have much of a social life. Books were my main companions. At one point I realized that it wasn’t a good way to be. I tried branching out, meaning going to the library less, and trying out the campus pubs more. But at the time, I found real life less safe and reassuring (and inspiring) than my books at the library, so back I went, into my solitude.

In Paris, I even went so far as to live in a library: Shakespeare & Co., on the Left Bank, opposite Notre Dame, where Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Joyce used to go to read and borrow their books. I lived upstairs, sleeping among books by authors whose surnames began with the letter B. I write about that experience in my book, Paris Times Eight. Which brings me back to libraries again.

Recently, as a result of my book, I was a guest author as part of the Keep Toronto Reading Festival sponsored by the Toronto Public Library. I read earlier this month at the TPL’s Morningside branch, before an attentive crowd. All were library regulars and some arrived late to the reading because they had been busy borrowing books of their own.

Librarian Sheila Yates had decorated the meeting room to resemble a french cafe. It was beautiful, touching and charming.

I read from the chapter detailing my intimate encounter with the late, great dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and also from an earlier one in which I described my first impressions of the city that would eventually inform me, much the way libraries have: From the inside out, inspiring in me a desire for learning, for reaching after knowledge and wisdom and beauty, such as are often described in books.

Campari Consciousness

A drink to remember

As The Globe and Mail’s new cocktail columnist — a major vote of confidence on the paper’s part considering I’m such a lightweight when it comes to drinking — I’m starting to revisit tastes from my more alcohol-prone youth. Among them is Campari, a bitter Italian spirit that I had last week in a cocktail whipped up for me by Moses McIntee at Toronto’s new Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He made it with sparkling wine that he froze with liquid nitrogen (that be dry ice to the rest of us) and served it in a grappa glass with a spoon: A Slushie, Italian-style.  One slurp and I Was instantly transported back in time to when I first sampled the aperitivo.

It was in Siena, where in 1983 I was a summer student, studying art history. An exam was coming up and my friend, Susan Walker, whom I had known since grade seven, a sophisticate beyond her years, invited me to study with her in the Italianate gardens of a villa overlooking the Tuscan hills. It was a pensione run by a couple of old sisters I recall. The name of the place was Piazza Ravizza, the ravishing piazza, and one look at the views and you knew why.

Sue and I sat side-by-side, looking at our images of Giotto: Lots of Christs on the cross, and weeping Marys. The sun beat hot upon our bare legs. Sue suggested we get some refreshment. She called over the white-coat waiter and ordered two Campari, with aqua minerale, sparkling water, on the side. He soon re-appeared with the blood-red drink in two tumblers filled partially with ice, small bottles of water at the side, and a dish of orange slices. One sip of the Campari and I almost spat. It tasted not unlike Lavoris. 

Sue realized it was my first time, and patiently told me to follow her example. She poured a bit of water in, to dilute and then just wet her lips. I did the same. We repeated the ritual again and again over the next hour, or was that two, or three. I lost track of time with the lengthening of that Campari drink. The gradual addition of water seemed to stretch that cocktail indefinitely.

Eventually, we weren’t talking about Giotto any more, but about the colour of the sunset, the elegant sculpted shape of the cypress trees and our dreams for the future.

I remember a guest inside the villa started to play Chopin on the piano inside an ornate drawing room, just before the dinner hour. As we sat there outside on an ancient stone bench, nursing our Campari, listening to that divine gift of music most sublime, we both fell in love with the moment: Tuscany at dusk, the skies as red and glowing as the drink in our hands, two young women on the cusp of adulthood, their friendship sealed wi the clinking of the glasses.