They also take a ham

“When I get up in the morning, a lot of the time, someone’s just coming home.”

We were having tapas in Madrid with one of my best friends from high school, who has lived in Spain since 1988, when she crossed the Atlantic to teach English for a year or so and ended up marrying a Spanish man. She had three kids in quick succession and now they’re almost grown.

“Your kids are coming home at 6 in the morning?”

“Sometimes, sometimes it’s Alberto. He’s having some kind of mid-life crisis. He’s found some high school friends and they’re sort of … hooligans.” She laughed the easy laugh she’s always had, just going with the flow.


“Well, you know we live in a small town. One of his friends keeps a horse in his back yard. The horse is named Luther. They have a horsecart, and they take it out on the town. So they can drink and not drive. And they dress up.”


“It depends — matadors, flamenco dancers, once like Romans. They decorated the horsecart like a chariot that time. The kids know that if the horsecart is in front of one of the bars, they can avoid that one.”

We utter the kinds of syllables that mean please don’t stop telling me this story, stab at our gambas al ajillo.

“Oh, sometimes they also take a ham. And a big knife.” She pushed her glasses back up on her nose. “I guess in Canada you couldn’t take a big knife into a bar. They cut off slices of ham and give them to people.”

“In the bar?”

“Sometimes from the horsecart. Just in the town. Oh, and there’s a dog. Named Odie. They dress him up too. They’re trying to teach him how to drive the cart.”

The shrimps are gone, along with the asparagus with coarse salt, as I try to digest a life where this is the form a male midlife crisis takes.

J has an afterthought. “Sometimes they skinnydip. The kids won’t go to the pool anymore.”


I learned how to ride a bike by learning how to yank myself out of a free fall onto gravel. I was 7 and we had just moved to a small town near the military base in Germany my dad was going to teach on for two years. My parents bought me a blue folding bicycle and we went camping with the Stolzes. Sandra was my age, and Blair was a year younger.

Our dads positioned us on our bikes at the top of a hill, on a small gravel road, steadied us, then sent us down. My memory puts Rothmans in their mouths and bottles of beer in their hands, young men free and heady in Europe in 1972.

By the end of the weekend, knees embedded with bruises and gravel, grunting through tears and pedalling furiously when I started to fall over, I could ride a bike.

(I learned how to swim in Germany too, in a military pool where a man with a big belly and a speedo yelled and poked me with a stick if I reached for the edge of the pool. There’s a theme here).

The 70s were the days of free range parenting, and my bike and I quickly fell in love. I would hang a little plastic bottle of apple juice around my neck and roll away from the grey white apartment building with the strange metal blinds and five other Canadian families, down a little trail along the tiny river a block away. I’d ride to the next town, look at sheep and perfect, cosy community gardens, beg samples from the carpet store for my dolls, learned how to buy gummi bears. Then the next town, finding the world on my wheels. Later, when my parents’ marriage started unraveling, listening to the wind and the steadiness of my pedalling.

Over two years, we threaded across every country in Europe in our orange VW camper van with the pop up top, Fjords and farmers and small icy streams I fell in. My father pretending to see the Loch Ness monster before throwing a beer can out the window in the green hills, accidentally camping on a wasp’s nest the summer my uncle traveled with us in Denmark, sending him screaming out of the tent in his yellow pyjama suit.

We camped in Rotterdam beside the water one summer, and a guy pulled in on his bicycle, and swiftly unpacked khaki panniers, made a tent, took a tomato out of his bag and cut off a slice with a red Swiss Army knife. I watched in awe — just him, his bike, a tent, a tomato. Self-contained, completely free, independent, alone.

“I want to do that,” I said to my mother.

“You don’t even like tomatoes,” she said.

Like my parents, the Stolz parents broke up in Europe, and my mother got sad wet Christmas cards from Mrs Stolz for years. She finally met a nice man and married him and he died quickly. Blair became the youngest mayor of a town in Alberta. Sideburns and dads with cigarettes and beer while driving disappeared. I rode four decades in my bike seat, always exploring.


But until this week, I never pulled into a campsite along a European river on my bicycle. The universe opened up to put me on a bike route through Bavaria, starting in Rothenburg and following the Altmuhr river to where it meets the Danube. Two friends, a cruiser bike, panniers, no helmet, towns that look exactly the same as they did 40 years ago. A few words of German returning to my lips. Freedom and strength in my legs. Tomatoes — which I now love — and gummi bears in my backpack.


Sentences you never thought you’d utter (1)

“Those weren’t my foreskins.”

(At dinner with an immmunologist who is researching why circumcision seems to help in preventing HIV transmission, by studying the cells of foreskins she collects from a public health program promoting circumcision… in Uganda… where the boys in the Niki program were circumcised last year. But it turns out Jen’s foreskins are from a different part of Uganda. Therefore, not foreskins with which I am, however peripherally, acquainted).

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In the waiting room

There was a mom with a toddler who was walking around, named Alexander, an old fashioned sturdy name, an old fashioned sturdy child. I was waiting for a doctor’s appointment, and I crouched down and talked to him, and when he wandered over to the other side of the room, another woman leaned down and sort of hummed a song at him.

Alexander’s mom said, “I bet you don’t even know it but that song is from one of my favorite shows!”

At the same time, both women said “Treme!”

“I know where it’s from,” the singer said. “I lived in New Orleans for a while. Pre-Katrina. I sing it all the time in my shows.”

“Where do you gig?”

“Different places. A bar on Roncy, on Sunday afternoons.”

They chatted more about music, and Alexander’s mother tried to manoeuvre the stroller out the door, fix the brake that had applied itself for no reason. I held the door, and she left, and I asked the singer the name of the bar on Roncy.

She gave me her card. There was a line drawing on it, a silk screen of a girl with a guitar shot from the back. She’s wearing a dress and little socks and the guitar is jaunty, a coat slung over her shoulder. A grainy pebbled image.

“That’s me, when I was in New Orleans. It was the best time. I lived in the Ninth Ward. That’s where Katrina hit the hardest.”

I looked at her, no trace of that girl in the socks with the guitar. Weary.

“My father is dying.” Her eyes wavered with tears.

“I’m sorry… I think it’s hard whenever you lose your parents. My dad died when I was in my 20s, and I’m 49 now, and sometimes I think it would be even harder to lose a parent at my age, someone you’ve come to take for granted, think is always going to be here.”

“You’re turning 50 this year? Me too.”

“Next February.”

“It’s hard isn’t it?”

“I got divorced the year I turned 40. I think I thought 50 would be easier. It isn’t, somehow.”

“I turn 50 in September. I’ve lined up gigs for the whole month. I need to get through that time singing. When I turned 30, I was in New Orleans. I was wearing gold lamé onstage, and had a 25 year old lover and thought I had the whole world.”

“The thing is, you know the other side will be just FINE — but getting through the turning point is a squeeze. It’s like… there just isn’t an endless array of possibilities any more. You have to get serious about saving money, people around you get sick, some paths are closed. It’s not bad, it’s not dire, it just is.”

She nodded, close to tears. We looked at each other, recognizing.

“I’m sorry about your dad.”

I folded her card, the girl with the guitar, into my wallet. “I’m going to come and hear you sing.”

Rain in portland

The garden behind the tiny perfect studio I’m staying in for a week in Portland Oregon.


So nourishing after our grey winter.


It’s the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda Genocide, and there is a lot of good, thoughtful coverage in the media this week.

This series in the Guardian for example

Or this piece on CBC about the forever imprints on Canadian soldiers who were there.

About a third of the kids in the Nikibasika project are Rwandan, and two of them were born during the genocide. Rebecca’s father was killed as he tried to get to her mother as she was giving birth to her at a refugee camp at the Ugandan border. She just finished high school, and she is the most compassionate human being I know.


I went to Rwanda in 2010 with some of our kids, to visit their home village. I stayed for a few days afterwards by myself. I blogged a fair bit about how safe but muted the country feels, with a lot of thoughts about how that happened and what that means, how different it is from Uganda at first impression. But I thought today it would be good to repost what I wrote about my experience of one of the starkest genocide memorials.

On my last full day in Rwanda, I hired a driver and went on a pilgrimage to Murambi, possibly the most horrifying memorial in history.

Murambi was a technical school in the south of Rwanda, where thousands of people sheltered during the genocide, and something like 50,000 were ultimately murdered. Chickens in a cage. It sits starkly on a hill, gaping holes still in the walls of the buildings where grenades landed, a tattered flag in the middle of a dozen deeply verdant hills.

The memorial is simple. A few months after the genocide ended, the mass graves were exhumed to give the corpses a decent burial. They decided to preserve about 1800 of them in lime, and laid them in the classrooms. That’s the memorial. More than two dozen classrooms, with bodies laid on simple wooden frames in each.

No one should see this. Everyone should see this.

What follows is upsetting.

Most of the corpses are, by now, faded negatives of themselves, bone coloured and close to bone, shriveled. But here and there, gut wrenching signifiers of individuality remain. Tufts of hair. Clothing made of fabrics that didn’t compost — sagging and set on the flattened frames.

A tiny figure in the arms of a larger one.

I’m trying to describe the indescribable. Door after door of this. The guide, alone and weary, in a suit and pumps completely out of context, has dark circles under her eyes. “And here are more bodies.” She’s very persistent on the topic of the volleyball court the French troops supposedly constructed over the mass graves after the massacre, when they were posted here to “protect the community” and supposedly protected the Interahamwe. I’ve heard about the volleyball courts before. It’s one of the only “exhibits” here, actually — signs that say “Here is where the French soldiers played volley.”

The official genocide memorial in Kigali lush and thoughtful, considered, a carefully tended headstone. Murambi is the worms and maggots under the overturned rock. Just… corpses, and a weary guide. The small exhibit is closed, with no explanation. There’s a visitors’ book to sign, and toilets that have no running water in the sinks. Tile floors that were laid for the feet of schoolchildren.

At first, my driver and I are the only ones here, then a pair of uncomfortable Swedes show up. They can barely bring themselves to glance into the rooms, and the male of the pair asks me “do you want to see more rooms?” when the guide takes us up the hill. His wife chastizes him in Swedish, and he’s silent.

My camera bangs against my waist, useless. My driver whispers that he will shield me if I want to take a photo. I flick my hand toward my camera automatically, but realize I can’t imagine who I would show such an image.

There is no fence around this horrifying space, the classrooms typical of Rwandan architecture, a long outdoor row, open to the air. There is a tiny farm about 20 metres from the end, where a child stands calling mzungu! mzungu! to me. She and her brother are digging. I hold out my hand and she comes forward to take it, and the guide yells at her to get away. As she admonishes the two boys making an incursion to do something vaguely like gardening on the other side of the building.

Her job: pointing out corpses, telling the volleyball story, chasing away children. Sitting alone in this enormous silent building on top of the hill, with 1800 corpses.

As we drive down the winding road away from Murambi, I pull out two nut bars from my bag. I offer one to Régis, my driver. He has been here before, but stayed with me through the whole thing, muttering. “Les bébés.” We speak in French, his fluid, mine primitive. “Après avoir voir qu’el que chose comme ca, on doit manger et reclaimer notre humanité.” “Oui.” We eat in silence.