La version française de ces histoires se trouve sur En direct de l'intestin grêle

Wouldn't it be great if these stories were true? Unfortunately (or fortunately) they're not; they are just the product of my overworked mind. All characters and events are fictitious and if you think you recognize yourself or somebody you know in these stories, it was not my purpose and it is purely unintentional. In the meantime, I hope you will enjoy reading this blog. Feel free to link this blog wherever else you hang out on the Internet and to post comments below. I enjoy hearing from you.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Walking in Ernest Hemingway’s Footsteps

My love life was not going well. The woman I was dating had just told me that she was not interested in a serious relationship.

Needing a change of air, I decided to take a trip to Cuba to walk in Ernest Hemingway’s footsteps.

Ernest Hemingway – who spent winters in Cuba from 1939 to 1960 – was a great adventurer, a keen hunter, a war correspondent, an incorrigible drinker and a cultured man. He wrote seemingly simple sentences that kept to the fundamentals, ignored superfluity and let readers decide for themselves what the author meant.

I devoted the first day of my stay to a pilgrimage: I visited La Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s domain in San Francisco de Paula; I went to Cojimar, the village where Santiago, the fisherman of The Old Man and the Sea, lived; and I stopped by the hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana where Hemingway stayed before purchasing a property.

Ernest Hemingway's study in La Finca Vigia, his property in the suburbs of Havana in Cuba. Visitors are not allowed inside the house where some of Hemingway's numerous hunting trophies are kept as well as part of his personal library.

I had six days left to quench my thirst in every (and there were many) drinking hole where the Literature Nobel Prize winner found solace from the hard life he was leading.

At seven o’clock in the morning, the sun would rise suddenly without wasting time with dawn. Exactly twelve hours later, night would fall without waiting for dusk.

After breakfast, I would take a walk on the easterly beach facing Florida. There were old bunkers everywhere. Cuba was still expecting an invasion from the United States: once bitten, twice shy.

One morning, as I was walking on the beach, I saw a group of men dressed in blue overalls gathering seaweed under the surveillance of guards who were sporting machine guns. I kept my distance. However, one of the men in overalls, on seeing that I was smoking, came to ask me for a cigarette. Immediately, I was surrounded by workers, all wanting a smoke. The guards quickly came to disperse them, telling me to continue on my way.

That night at dinner, a hotel employee told me those men were patients from a “psychiatric hospital” doing “community work.”

I never got used to seeing armed soldiers. I was also surprised every time I saw a vulture perched on a fence or a brahma bull grazing, the only bovine that seemed to be raised in Cuba.

A group of tourists are entering La Terraza in Cojimar, the village of Santiago the fisherman of The Old Man and the Sea. In the novel, the owner of this bar-restaurant was feeding Santiago and letting him have day-old newspapers so the old man could read baseball games results from the day before.

The locals I saw were often poor, sometimes dressed in rags. Despite this they had a striking dignity. They did not seem sad nor submissive. On the other hand, several times I was approached by Cubans who, sensing that I was a tourist, offered to buy my jeans or my shoes.

To better blend into the crowd, I started to wear khaki pants, a light white rayon shirt and sandals. This trick worked perfectly until somebody would try to start a conversation; my Spanish has never been very good.

On morning, on the beach, a tall blonde young woman came to ask me for a light for her cigarette. She spoke in Spanish with a strong English accent. I answered in English.

“I’m sorry, I thought you were Cuban,” she said.

“No problem; I see my disguise is effective,” I answered.

She laughed at my remark, took the lighter I handed her and we started to get acquainted while walking on the beach.

Margaret was Canadian from Ukrainian descent. She was a computer programmer, living in Saskatoon who was spending her vacation by herself in Cuba to improve her Spanish.

Although our hotels were only 15 kilometres from Havana, she had never been to the city. I invited her to join me for my daily outing in the afternoon.

We walked for a long time in the streets of La Habana Vieja. We visited small shops where ladies made cigars by rolling them on their thighs. We shopped in a bookstore. In a small record store, we saw the owner wrapping vinyl records in old newspapers to keep the cardboard jacket.

Margaret was a good companion. She was smart and curious about everything. She smiled easily and her laugh was infectious. I would be lying if I said that I did not like it when her hand brushed against mine.

It was a cloudy, hot and humid day. At the end of the afternoon, I suggested going for a daiquiri at El Floridita, one of Hemingway’s hangouts.

El Floridita is a bar-restaurant famous for its daiquiris, at the corner of Calle Obispo and Montserrate in old Havana.

As I opened the door to the bar for Margaret I noticed her giving me an odd look.

We sat side by side on one of the window seats against the wall, admiring the beautiful mahogany woodwork. There were three guitar players on a small stage at the back of the room.

As the waiter was bringing us our daiquiris, Margaret said:

“You are a gentleman. You open the door for me, you stand up to greet me, on the sidewalk you walk on the curb side. I have to say though, that I find it patronizing and a bit annoying after a while.”

I explained to her that in elementary school I had learned good manners. I applied them without thinking and I certainly was not trying to be unpleasant.

“That’s all right, I understand,” she said. “I just needed to let you know how I felt about it.”

“The Will of Woman is the Will of God,” I thought, promising myself not to offend Margaret anymore.

The musicians played well. The daiquiris were good. We lingered in the bar as it filled up with people coming back from work.

Margaret took my hand and laid her head on my shoulder. I felt good. The patrons were looking at us in a friendly way.

We had just finished our daiquiris when the waiter brought us two more. I tried to explain that we did not order any, that it was getting dark and we had to go back to the hotel. The waiter told us that the Cuban couple sitting at the bar was offering us these drinks. I looked up; they were looking at us, raising their glasses and smiling.

Courteously, I also raised my glass, nodding to thank them. After those two daiquiris, there were more; it seemed all the patrons in the bar wanted to buy us a round.

Margaret and I were laughing; the rum was making us tipsy. The guitar players came to play at our table. We danced. Our casual visit to the capital was turning into a joyful party.

Finally we managed to escape our hosts. It was very late and we had to find a cab to drive us back to the hotel.

The City of Havana shrouded in smog. In the background El Capitolio can be seen. The boulevard in the front is the Malecón, an 8 kilometre long esplanade stretching along the coast.

Margaret and I were walking and hugging on the sidewalk. We were quite drunk when I realized that I was walking on the curb side. Playfully, I swung Margaret around and, as she understood what I was trying to do, she burst out laughing.

At that moment, a car with embassy plates came speeding out of nowhere. The passengers were yelling in Spanish and one of them threw out of the window something that landed on Margaret’s blouse.

It was a freshly-used condom... If I had kept walking on the curb side it would have landed on me.

Margaret started crying. I tried to comfort her by holding her in my arms but to no avail.

We found a taxi and during the entire trip Margaret kept silent, sitting apart from me, looking nervously through the window.

She was staying at a cottage in a hotel a few minutes away from mine. I walked her to the door and told her how sorry I was about the incident that had just happened, and that it was a terrible way to end a day that had been otherwise so pleasant. Her wet eyes avoided mine. I took her hand one last time and told her I would stop by in the morning.

There was no answer when I knocked on her door the next morning. The desk clerk told me Margaret had gone out. I left a message saying I would be back later in the afternoon.

Margaret was not there when I returned around 4:00 PM.

The next day, the desk clerk told me Margaret left the hotel.

I never saw her again.
The fishing boats wharf in Cojimar.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Electronic Smoking

Back in 1980, a friend of mine went to France for three weeks to pick grapes. She returned a year and a half later after having travelled throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.

On Friday nights she would come over to visit me and we would play Scrabble and cribbage for hours on end while drinking wine and coffee.

Those are good memories.

One night as we were opening a third bottle of wine, my friend, whom I had never seen smoking, took out of her purse a pack of Egyptian cigarettes which she had brought back from her travels, and lit up a cigarette. I was not a smoker, however for fun I asked her to give me one. I was 25 years old and this was my first smoking experience. I enjoyed it so much that a month later I was smoking a pack a day.

I like the smell and the taste of tobacco. It reminds me of my grandfather who smoked Canadian tobacco that he purchased from farmers. It reminds me of my father, who before my parents’ divorce, when I was a child, would send me to the store to buy Sportsman cigarettes for him.

I like the gestures that come with smoking: opening a pack, taking a cigarette out, lighting it up while protecting the flame of the lighter or the match from the wind, holding a cigarette between my fingers, feeling the cigarette dangling from my lips, deeply breathing in the smoke and enjoying the taste of tobacco.

These feelings are irreplaceable.

At university, I had a non-smoking girlfriend who, when she woke up before me in the morning, would light one of my cigarettes and place it between my lips to awaken me. This is one of the most sensual memories of my youth.

Everybody smoked back then; it was the quintessential social activity. We shared cigarettes to get acquainted, to make a conversation last, to prolong an evening, to muster up courage at work. And drinking coffee or alcohol without smoking is just not the same thing.

In Jim Jarmusch’s excellent movie, Coffee and Cigarettes, Tom Waits manages to convince Iggy Pop that the beauty of quitting is that then you can have a cigarette, because you quit...

Everything is different now. First, governments implemented regulations to make cigarette packages less attractive. Then, they raised the price of tobacco products by applying whopping regressive taxes that sparked contraband and created a new underground cigarette manufacturing industry.

At work, employees were first relegated to smoking in badly ventilated rooms, then forced to smoke outside 30 feet away from the doors. The most basic principles of hospitality and health were ignored. Patrons of bars and restaurants would be subjected to the same predicament a few years later.

Which is the biggest threat? Catching cancer after decades of smoking or catching pneumonia after a few days or weeks of smoking outside in -30 temperatures?

To spare myself from having to smoke outside during the harsh Canadian winter, I decided to try switching to electronic cigarettes.

Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, were patented in the United States in the early 1960’s. At that time, the negative effects of smoking were not generally recognized so the product was a marketing failure.

An e-cig is about the same size and the same weight as a pen. Its components are an LED light to indicate when it is activated, a battery with the relevant electronic circuitry, a vaporizer and a cartridge containing a liquid that produces the taste and mist.

E-cigs are activated by inhaling from a hole at the end of the cartridge containing a liquid after it is screwed to the rest of the contraption.

This liquid contains propylene glycol or glycerin. These chemicals are often found in atomizers used to produce relief from asthma. It also contains food additives or nicotine although the importing of nicotine-based e-cigs is not authorized in Canada. Otherwise, it is fairly easy to find non-nicotine e-cigs.

I spent 10 dollars for a food additive-based e-cig that was supposed to provide me with the same enjoyment I would get from smoking two packs of regular cigarettes.

Unfortunately it was not to be.

While this e-cig gave me the impression that I was smoking “for real”, I was disappointed by the taste and smell of the cigarette. The device produces a sweet, herbal odour and taste that reminded me somewhat of the mixture hookah pipe smokers use: you know, the herbal stuff that tastes like apples or jasmine. I was never fond of flavoured tobacco; I prefer a strong bitter taste.

I also found the weight and size of the e-cig uncomfortable. It is impossible to let the cigarette hang from your lips because it is too heavy. Its length makes it awkward to handle.

Finally, the electronic cigarette produces a “smoke” that is really only a mist. It results from the evaporation of the liquid from the heated cartridge. In public, that mist is conspicuous and it might annoy oversensitive non-smokers or former smokers.

Since we are constantly bombarded with anti-smoking messages, it is hard not to be aware of the negative effects of this habit on the heart and the lungs. However, I am of those who believe that there are two sides to every coin. To every Romulus there is a Remus; to each Cain there is an Abel. If smoking is still popular despite the huge deployment of efforts to eradicate it, tobacco must have some benefits, benefits strong enough to resist advertising campaigns heavily subsidized by governments, the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry.

Maybe we could learn some useful insight into the virtues of smoking from the Natives in America if we cared to listen...

In Canada, an often disgusting photo and a threatening warning about the danger of smoking must be displayed on half the surface of a pack of cigarettes. On the side of a package is a list of toxic products it contains. This kind of warning is likely to appear someday on restaurant menus, entrances to public buildings, cars, etc. Because, let’s face it, about everything we ingest, every location we visit, all consumer products we use and all of our activities constitute a health hazard of some kind.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Heartbreaking News

Thursday morning, I got up, took a shower, got dressed and went to the kitchen to have breakfast. My girlfriend was frowning in front of her bowl of cereal.

I gave her a peck on the cheek and, as I sat across from her, eating my toast, she continued to stare gloomily.

“What’s the matter hon?” I asked.

She did not answer. I picked the paper from the table and then I understood. On the front page, in bold letters, the headline read:
Canada’s Defence Minister Weds Princess of Persia
Apparently, while my girlfriend and I were sleeping, Peter MacKay, a man of action, married his Iranian-born girlfriend, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, in Mexico, land of La Cucaracha.

According to The Hill Times, it is no secret that every woman in Canada, available or not, has been nurturing fantasies about MacKay, the “sexiest male Member of Parliament”. Now their dreams were shattered.

I was aware of my girlfriend’s fantasies but I was not jealous, as long as MacKay did not hang around our house (unless it was to mow the lawn, clean the pool or take out the garbage). Still, because I am a caring man, I felt sorry for my sweetheart.

Peter MacKay, MP for Central-Nova in Nova Scotia, is a man’s man. A lawyer who plays rugby with his buddies, he loves being outdoors and spending time with Jack, his Bernese mountain dog. He hangs out with soldiers who, according to recent news, gladly pick him up with search and rescue helicopters at remote fishing locations in Newfoundland.

As Minister of National Defence and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, two of the most powerful Federal Cabinet positions, Peter MacKay commands respect.

In the past, he was associated with powerful and beautiful women such as the former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Belinda Stronach, daughter of the owner of Canada’s largest automobile parts manufacturer.

Belinda Stronach and Peter MacKay were elected as Conservative Party of Canada candidates. In 2005, just before the Liberal government faced a confidence vote, Stronach defected to the Liberals. This move helped keep the Liberal minority government in power for a few more months. MacKay, a staunch Conservative, had only a few hours notification. He was appalled.

MacKay was left heartbroken and sore after this unforeseen turn of events. The next day, he was photographed at home in Nova Scotia with his dog, his most loyal friend.

But let bygones be bygones. Now Mr. MacKay has a new wife and a smart one at that. Nazanin Afshin-Jam holds a degree in International Relations and Political Science as well as a Master of International Diplomacy. She also has a heart. She is actively involved in human rights issues and successfully campaigned for the release and exoneration of a young Iranian woman accused of stabbing the aggressor who tried to rape her. She is an actress, a model, a singer and, not to forget, a former Miss Canada World.

I am also told that she is a licensed pilot. If she ever learns to fly a Sea King helicopter, all Canadian taxpayers will feel the utmost gratitude towards her.

The Sikorsky S-61 Sea King helicopter was designed in the late 1950's primarily for anti-submarine warfare. It was later found to be quite suitable for Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. Image: Tom Curtis /

My girlfriend was heartbroken and I felt compassion for her as I left for work. She was so devastated that she took the day off.

My office was abuzz with the news of the wedding. Women were mourning or just plain furious while men secretly rejoiced that they would no longer have to wonder if their spouse was fantasizing about a Nova Scotia lawyer while they made love.

I called home a couple of times during the day to try to cheer up my girlfriend. She was laconic at the end of the line.

On my way back from a smoke break, a security guard told me that he thought Peter MacKay was a fake.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“When Belinda dumped him, you remember the photo they published of MacKay with his dog?” he said.

“Of course, who doesn’t?” I replied.

“Well, it wasn’t his dog. It was some dog that he borrowed for the occasion because it would be a good photo-op. The whole thing was staged to attract pity for him!”

I went back to my desk, wondering if this was true and, if so, was amazed that someone could be so devious.

At home, I found my girlfriend red-eyed and still in her housecoat. While I was preparing dinner, I noticed the empty cookie dough ice cream container in the trashcan. My throat tightened and tears welled up in my eyes as I felt the pain my girlfriend was going through.

This could not go on, I had to do something.

After dinner, we watched a Seinfeld rerun. Although she let me cuddle with her, she was unable to pay attention to the show. That’s when I decided to intervene.

“You know the photo of Peter MacKay with his dog they published when Belinda Stronach broke up with him?” I said.

“Uh-huh,” she said absent-mindedly.

“Well, I heard today that it wasn’t his dog but somebody else’s that he borrowed because it would make a good picture,” I continued.

Her cheeks flushed and she reacted instantly:

“How can you say such a nasty thing!”

“No, no, I think that was brilliant! And I think he did the same thing with Nazanin, he did not really marry her, he just borrowed her,” I concluded.

She looked at me, tilting her head, puzzled:

“You really think so?”

“Of course! Politics is like show-business. It’s just to produce an effect, to keep people interested, to entertain them to help them forget about the real issues!”

She swung her arms around me and started kissing me frantically.

“Oh you! You! I should have thought about it before! Of course you’re right! You’re always right! I love you so much! Thank you! Thank you!”

At that moment, I knew I was going to get lucky that night and I couldn’t care less if, during our love-making, she was thinking about a dog-loving Nova Scotian rugby player.

While rugby is a violent contact sport played without any protective equipment, it is not the most injury-prone physical activity. Apparently injuries occur more frequently playing basketball, football or bicycling.

Rola, many thanks for the ideas.