Friday, December 04, 2009

Tricia Goes to the Governor General Awards!

I had a whirlwind 24 hours, starting mid-morning on Thursday, Nov 26 when I boarded a small plane at the Waterloo International Airport (yes, Waterloo has an International airport!!). The plane had one attempt at take-off which the pilot aborted because a flock of Canada Geese landed on the runway. We bumped and swerved and then he taxied back and tried again, successfully. I wondered at the time if this did not bode well for the rest of the day.....

When we landed in Ottawa 65 minutes later I took a taxi to the National Art Gallery where I met my dear friend Sally Melville. We took a quick tour of the Cape Dorset/ Daphne Odjig exhibit, then met her daughter and brand-new beautiful grandaughter. After a delicious lunch in a French bistro we headed back to Sally's for tea and gussied-up time.

Sally drove me through 5pm Ottawa traffic, past the Parliament buildings, past the Chateau Laurier Hotel, past all the wonderful buildings that every Canadian in this country can be proud of, to our destination: #1 Sussex Drive, Rideau Hall. The security guard looked at my invitation, crossed my name off his list and waved us on, bidding me a lovely evening.

Footmen were at the front door of this magnificent home and I was ushered in and directed to the floor below where the "freshening up room" and cloakroom were. You can see from the pictures the one of the yellow circular couch which is in front of the washrooms.

The ladies' room was marble with chandeliers and beside every basin was a stack of heavy linen handtowels with the vice-regal insignia embroidered on them. Ooooh, the temptation to tuck one in my evening bag...but no, bag was too small and I just couldn't do it! I did not want to be removed before the festivities had begun!

I took a picture of the lovely staircase heading to the Grand Ballroom. There are portraits of the wives of the GG's from over the years.
In the main lobby 2 sentries stood guard wearing their huge bearskin hats. They seemed not to move a muscle as people in long gowns and tuxes mingled around them. We were finally ushered into the Grand Ballroom where each of us were helped to our seats. Chairs of blue damask, very comfortable. On the dias stood two wing chairs in the same fabric for Their Excellencies. Behind them was a magnificent original painting by Norval Morriseau, one of my favourite aboriginal artists.

I was amazed that there was around 150 people in attendance. When Chuck and I have been to the Giller Awards there are 450 to 500 people. This was much more intimate. We all stood when the Governor General and her husband entered the room. She is not very tall, around my height and very slim and beautiful. Her face just shone with excitement all evening. As each of the GG award winners (called laureates) stood before her she would take both their hands and speak very enthusiastically to them. One of her assistants told me later that she actually reads all the books once the shortlist is announced so she is well prepared. She was wearing a one shouldered brocade evening gown that seemed to be either A-line or princess line. It was in browns and dark greens and very elegant.

The ceremony itself took almost two hours. Each laureate was introduced by their respective publisher or editor and then given a leather bound copy of their book, then they spoke as well. Six of the twelve winners are in french and I could only understand a few words of each speech.

After that we all stood to sing our national anthem and then followed their excellenciences out of the room into one of several adjoining rooms where drinks tables and several food stations awaited. The Grand Ballroom was reconfigured for dining with many smaller tables that could seat six people.

People from across the country had been invited: I met a woman who had flown in from Newfoundland for this as well as a young writer who had come from 5 hours north of Nelson, British Columbia, and people from everyone in between! I met the Australian High Commissioner (who looked like Russell Crowe) and we chatted for awhile about Australian writers. I met a professor from the University of Mexico who is currently teaching French Literature at the Universitate d'Ottawa. There was only one person I met who has attended this event before and that was the director of the Harbourfront International Writers' Festival in Toronto. He suggested I eat as much as I can because it is our tax dollars paying for it!

In fact, I was too excited to eat much. But what I did eat was delicious: flambeed shrimp with coconut rice, tiny Alberta bison medallions served on a roasted potato and celeriac mash. Seafood dumplings. Everything was bite sized and we could wander from room to room, food station to food station savouring samples.
Her Excellency also went from room to room with her assistants and security guards (they had earphones with squiggly cords disappearing into their suits...the only men who were not in tuxes). She met people and spent time chatting with each person as if they were the only one in the room. What a gift and how do you learn to do that?? Unfortunately for me, I never seemed to be in the same room or at the table where she would sit and chat, although at one point when I was talking to the Australian High Commissioner and the Chief Librarian of the Parliamentary Library, she was standing right beside my table chatting with people. My elbow was touching her gown! (I guess that is as close as I will get!!).

I had the chance to speak to several of the English award winners and talk about their books (which I had made sure to have read beforehand). A
couple of the French books sounded very interesting and I hope they will be translated into English. I especially wanted to ask the winner of the French non-fiction award, Nicole Champeau, because her book is about the flooding of the area around Cornwall to make way for the St Lawrence Seaway. She was in a circle of people all speaking French and I felt too shy to ask in English and to unsure of my French to even attempt it.
We were offered tours of some of the rooms at Rideau Hall and could take pictures of them. But the personal area for Her Excellency was off limits and two men in red uniform stood on either side of that staircase.

I spent the last part of my magical evening speaking with
the CEO of the Ontario Film Development Corporation (we shared a taxi back to her hotel and then on to Sally's condo for me), and a poet who calls herself "Oni, the Haitian Sensation", a big black woman who claims she is the grandmother of slam poetry. I have actually heard her on CBC radio when they have their poetry contests every year. She has teenage sons and when I mentioned how young she looked to be a mother of teens, she turned to me and said, "Honey, y'all should know that black don't crack". Which had me and everyone around us in fits of laughter.

All evening the staff at Rideau Hall mingled with the guests and wanted to make sure we were having fun, we were comfortable, we should get more food, or something to drink. I was told that every year the Canada Council (co-sponsor and administrator of the award) puts forward names to attend the event and they like to have different people across the country attend. They love to see the connections that get made. As far as I could tell I was the only bookseller besides the manager of the Nicholas Hoare bookstore in Ottawa. Michaelle Jean reviews each name and consents to the invitation.

I was hoping to meet her before I left and her staff said they would arrange that but she had a few more people to speak with first. Oni and I stood around a bit talking about finding her a new publisher and then I realized it was time to go: my flight back to Waterloo and reality was early the next morning and it was already 11:30!!
But as I boarded my plane home and in time for a 9am meeting at the bookstore, I had and still have an earworm in my head singing the Eliza Doolittle song from My Fair Lady, "I Could Have Danced All Night"!

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