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Choosing cheese easier when choices limited

Many years ago, when Chris and I lived in Toronto, a relative in the Maritimes asked a favour. A friend was visiting Canada from Poland and would dearly like to spend a few days in Canada's largest city.

Many years ago, when Chris and I lived in Toronto, a relative in the Maritimes asked a favour. A friend was visiting Canada from Poland and would dearly like to spend a few days in Canada's largest city. Could we accommodate him and perhaps show him the sights?

Remembering that the ballet dancer Baryshnikov had defected to the West on a visit to Toronto a few years previously, we asked questions: Was their friend active in the Polish theatre? Did he wear tights to work? Had he been taking English lessons recently? Was the visit officially sanctioned, or was he, too, smuggling himself into a new country?

The answers were all reassuring. We would not be involved in an international incident. The Iron Curtain would be raised slightly to let him out and welcome him back.

He was an official delegate to a conference of publishers; and he was devoted to the wife and children who awaited his return, behind the curtain.

I wish I could remember his name.

Let's call him Feliks. He was a serious person, but a happy one, and happy to be in Canada. He spoke English as well as we did, though slightly old-fashioned. We showed him the sights - Niagara Falls, Maple Leaf Gardens, I forget what else. Maybe George's Spaghetti House for the jazz.

He showed us photos of his family.

He carried just one change of clothing, featuring a pair of ill-fitting blue jeans and a jacket of real leather, worn at the seams. We suggested he could buy himself smarter clothes in Canada, but he had next to no dollars, and would not accept any.

Feliks's visit took place in early December, and the day before he left Toronto for the conference, in Halifax, he asked if we could show him a good place to buy toys for his kids.

"Sure," we said, took him downtown, and at the Eaton Centre we showed him the riches of Eaton's Christmas Toy Floor, much as in the wilderness Satan showed Christ the riches of the world.

But he, like Christ, rejected it all. After walking around for the longest time, picking up a doll here and a train set there, then putting them back carefully in place, he asked us whether there was an Eaton's in Halifax.

We assured him that there was. Was it as big as the Toronto Eaton's? No way, we said, their selection of toys would be nothing compared to the abundance offered by Toronto Eaton's.

His face lit up, his smile returned. "Well then," he said, "I'll choose my toys in Halifax." Recently, I was reminded of Feliks and his touching inability to choose in the face of too much choice. I was visiting Vancouver from my home on Galiano, and found myself paralyzed in front of the cheese display at a high-end food store.

I love cheese, I know the difference between Chaource, Cheddar, Cheshire and Chevre, and am usually ready for a new experience. But, like Feliks, I was overwhelmed. I paced up and down the display with my empty basket, calculating that there was about a square metre each of soft cheeses, blue cheeses, goat cheeses and cave-aged cheeses trying to catch my eye.

The longer I worried over the cheeses, the better I liked Feliks's solution. I have no idea what toys he finally bought for his children; he may have been equally overwhelmed by the toy displays in Halifax. In which case, he could well have gone back to Poland and bought the usual toys from the usual stores, and the kids would have loved them as much as they usually did.

So that's what I did. I turned my back on the city's overloaded shelves and next day, back on Galiano, I enjoyed a relaxed cheese shopping experience at island stores.

I arrived home with St. Andre from France, Cambozola from Germany, Camembert from Quebec and Chevre from Saltspring.

And I don't think I could have done better than that in any city.

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