Live free or die

I’ve never quite known what to make of New Hampshire’s state motto but have concluded, on my own, without asking anyone, not even Google, that it has something to do with the fact that the state doesn’t have any sales tax – the live free thing has to be tax related. It’s an improvement on that I thought the first time I was there many years ago. Then I was sure it referred to guns and radicals and anti-everythings. It was, after all, the first state to declare its independence six months before the Declaration was signed. [Turns out my initial opinion is closer to the mark.] I was ambivalent about going back but I am glad I did.

It was here that the first potato ever was planted in the USA, back in 1719. It’s also home to the first free public library in the country. And it was where the first legal lottery was adopted in the 1960s. In 1828, it saw the first American women’s strike in the country. And perhaps, most endearingly, it’s the birthplace of Sarah Josepha Hale, she who penned ‘Mary had a little lamb’ (which, incidentally, was what Bono wrote on a scrap of paper back in 1983 when he gave me his autograph in the TV Club in Harcourt St., in Dublin; that I hadn’t a clue who he was is neither here nor there).

IMG_5464 (800x600) (2)Having woefully overestimated the size of New England, we decided to stay two consecutive nights in the suspiciously named Swiss Chalets. It is owned and operated by a native of Mumbai who had arrived in the States 23 years ago and, via Texas, had made it to the back end of North Conway – the embodiment of the American dream. And it worked.

IMG_5459 (800x600) (2)IMG_5470 (800x600)Our plan was to spend a day driving through White Mountain National Forest and its 48 mountains which are at least 4000 feet high – the tallest being Mount Washington. It was here that New England in the Fall demystified itself and after the somewhat IMG_5436 (800x597)wishy-washy experience that was Maine, it felt like we were driving through God’s own country. Having failed spectacularly, through no fault of our own, to sit in a room where political history had been made, we decided to try once more.  This time, we were headed for Dixville Notch, where, on the eve of each US election, 100% of the town’s electorate gathers in the Balsams (a hotel) to cast their vote. We drove for hours to have  coffee in this ballroom and when we got there, it was closed for renovation – by a business man from Maine. And not just the room – but the entire hotel.

IMG_5430 (800x575)IMG_5451 (800x600)Undaunted, we continued on our way, heading towards the Vermont border where the map promised a Marian Shrine. And I was in need of some prayer and devotion to lighten my soul. But would you believe, it too was closed. For good. We could still visit but the Oblate Fathers are no longer maintaining it and the hundreds of bikers who used to come here every June to have their bikes blessed will have to look for another venue.

The Canterbury Shaker Village was open though – but on a day, the only day, where we had torrential rain. And not even my innate curiosity could make me brave the floods and risk having to drive while drenched. I had met the Shakers before while in Kentucky last year with the late, great RB. And though they’re dying out, too, with very few remaining, their skill with wood is still something to behold.

It was North Conway though that got my vote. If circumstance dictated that I had to live in New Hampshire, that’s where I’d choose. A mountain resort town with good restaurants, a thriving antique trade, not one but two theatres, and an interesting looking main street. It has quite an arty feel to it and is busy enough to satisfy my temporary need for people and yet remote enough for me to be on my own. Perfect.

 

 

One tree too many?

Em…. how many states make up New England again? I can’t believe I had to ask that question. I suppose I didn’t HAVE to ask it. Knowing the answer didn’t immeasurably change my life in any deep and meaningful way, but there’s a curious streak in me that has to know the facts, even if I rarely retain them. For a few minutes, or hours, or sometimes even a day, I feel as if I’m in the know.

IMG_5376 (800x600)Maine is definitely in New England. That much I knew. Driving across the Canadian border was quite the experience and this was even before the current low in US/Hungarian relations. The immigration guys weren’t interested in me – even though I’d handed them the wrong passport and there was no evidence of my ever having entered Canada on the one I showed them, but they didn’t seem at all concerned. They were more bothered with visa waivers. It could have been worse. Six dollars and 30 minutes, we were on our way.

IMG_5340 (800x289)I’d wanted to go on this trip to see New England in the fall, something that’s been on my bucket list forever. But I think I picked up an acute case of Stendhal syndrome in Cape Breton. There’s only so much beauty I can marvel at without lapsing into a sort of vague acceptance of it all. I swear I lost millimeters from my chin given the number of times my jaw dropped open in awe, but by the time we got to Maine, I was as full as I’d ever be with leaves.

IMG_5358 (800x600)We overnighted outside Bangor in a place called Brewer and the next day headed off to see Bar Harbor. Back in its day, it was the holiday choice of gentry and today, it’s still pretty, in a twee’ish sort of way. TripAdvisor says there are 102 things to do there… IMG_5373 (800x597)alongside the 102 000 other people visiting for the day, most of whom were either shopping or sitting. Soon after, though, we discovered one of Maine’s delights – the names it has chosen for its towns. Having failed spectacularly to find Belfast on PEI, we just had to detour to see what Maine had to offer in its version. A lovely spot, notable for its marked absence of pubs. But it did have its own brewing company and a very impressive two-storey bridge.

IMG_5374 (800x600)IMG_5395 (800x600)On the road again, we passed through towns with all sorts of associations. We’d been through Mexico before we realised it and the anticipated shot of tequila never came to pass. Massive wooden houses set off against a backdrop of mountain ridges and fall IMG_5403 (800x600) (2)foliage did their best to blend in and not for the first time I found myself wondering what everyone does for a living in this part of the world. The few people we did see seemed to spend their time watching the world go by from the vantage point of their front porch. I think we might have been the first foreigners ever to stop at the River Valley diner – but it made my day to see a typically southern chicken-fried steak on the menu so I didn’t mind the looks. I think that if I lived in the state long enough, I’d become paranoid.

IMG_5481 (800x600)We made it as far as Kennebunkport (only 35 things to do!), too, not to pay tribute to George W., but to find some reference to Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote fame. Jessica lives in a fictitious town of Cabot Cove which, we thought, was in Kennebunkport. And it sort of is… [there are many theories as to where it might be] but no one in the town realises it. Not usually shy about cashing in on tenuous links to international TV, this was more than surprising. But perhaps, with George W. paraphernalia on sale, the down doesn’t have room for another hero. But it was the price of seafood that nearly brought on the heart-attack. Outrageous.

IMG_5409 (800x600) (800x600)I struggled for a day or so to figure out why I wasn’t getting that nice, homely feeling I normally have in the US of A. I’d been to Maine before, briefly, to shop, and perhaps I’d been too concerned with testing the limits of my credit card to pay much attention to how I felt about the state, but I simply wasn’t doing it for me. And then I realised … there was very little red. No maple trees. Lots of yellows and greens but none of the richness I’d grown used to over the past week and that had somehow upset my kilter.

That said, our best hotel of the trip, the Senator Inn in Augusta [the state capitol, settled by the English in 1607], also had a great little restaurant and a fantastic bathroom. Getting excited about the size of a bathroom is a sure sign that I’ve been on the road too long. Changing hotel rooms every night can take its toll. And as I said, there’s only so much leaves a gal can swoon over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2014 Grateful 10

When it comes to stereotyping, Americans get a bad rap. YouTube has plenty of videoed anecdotes about what has become an almost legendary insularity. Some of my nearest and dearest American friends (you know who you are) have been known to excuse their wrong answers in quizzes by claims like  ‘I’m just a stoopid American’ or ‘I’m just a dumb American’. The laugh they get is fine; but the knowing nods? ‘Cmon, people!

IMG_5764 (800x600) (2)IMG_5767 (600x800)Hungarian/American relations are at a particularly low low right now.  The railings around the US Embassy don’t help, but they’re nothing new. The part Reagan played in ending Communism seems to have been forgotten. There’s lots of anti-American sentiment in the corridors of power in Budapest and pages are being written about some political reactions to US reactions to what Hungary is doing and the more I read, the more disturbed I get. Earlier this week, I read a blog entitled: After some hesitation, Hungary declares war on the U.S. and the E.U. (America is in good company).

Politics aside, though, let’s get back to those stereotypes.

I grew up hearing Paddy Irishman, Paddy Englishman, Paddy Scotsman jokes in which the Irish Paddy was invariably the stewpidest of them all. Then there were the Kerryman jokes in which the rest of Ireland poked fun at those who lived in Kerry. An example: What are Kerry nurses famous for? Waking up patients to take their sleeping pills. And we had our fair share of jokes about Americans, too.

A Texan rancher comes to Ireland and meets a Kerry farmer. The Texan says: Takes me a whole goddam day to drive from one side of my ranch to the other. The Kerry farmer replies: Ah sure, I know. We have tractors like that over here, too.

When my first American visitors visited me in Ireland, they were a little taken aback. I’d told them that I believed that the Americans we got as tourists were bred for export on a ranch in Wyoming, and kept separate from the rest of the world because I’d never met the like of them in America. After two weeks of touring Ireland and running into busloads of their shamrock-jumpered compatriots, they tended saw where I was coming from. #

I can still picture my petite, feisty, Washingtonian friend reaching up to tap a big, tall, strapping Texan on the shoulder in a hotel lobby as they were queuing up to check out. He’d been complaining about everything from a taxi not arriving to missing a tee time on the golf course to the water pressure in the shower being too weak.  She told him in no uncertain terms that if he had that much to complain about, he should go home and stop giving her and other Americans a bad name. In case he hadn’t noticed, he wasn’t in America any more – he was in 1990s Ireland where he was lucky to have as shower at all!

Americans are easily stereotyped. Yes, large groups of Americans are loud, but they’d fight to be heard if in competition with a similar sized group of Spanish students. Yes, you can almost always hear the American in the room, but I am convinced this has something to do with their speaking on a different frequency. Yes, Americans can be boisterous but think of it, in the history of it all, as a nation they’re babes.

I’m a card-carrying American. I was one of the tens of thousands who benefited from the Green Card Lotteries of the late 1980s, early 1990s. When I moved there in 1990, my first time ever living abroad, it took time to adjust but adjust I did and now each time I go back, I look forward to it. America is a great country. Like any other, it has its moments but is that a reason to diss a nation? In the years that have passed I have discovered that there is no shortage of stupid, insular people everywhere; the world simply chooses to pick on the American version. I guess political and economic might comes with a price.

This week, I’d like to preface the next few posts on America by saying, hand on my heart, that I’m grateful that the Americans I know are in no way stoopid. They know as much if not heaps more than I do about the world. And far from being generic carbon copies of each other, they have their individual quirks and zaniness that make them the interesting people that they are.

As a country, it’s vast and varied and rife with complete and separate subcultures that are as different as Germany and Italy or Poland and the Netherlands. I am  grateful that I have so many second homes there where I am welcomed with a warmth and hospitality that are as generous and as genuine as I’ve ever known. Just back from the good ole US of A, I’m already thinking about when I can go back next…  and I’m grateful that I can, and will, make this happen.

 


Art of the Underground

JZI have a fondness for statues. I can talk to them for hours. I used to visit József Attila quite often a few years ago when life took me back and forth through Kossuth Lajos tér on a regular basis. I would sit with him a while and chat away about life in general and relationships in particular. He’s a great listener and perhaps that’s where the attraction lies – having someone to listen, without interruption, someone with no great desire to find a solution to my problem or to fix whatever ails me. Sometimes I just want to vent, to be heard.

LPOf course, with Jószef Attila, there was the added attraction that I knew the hand and mind that created the sculpture ‒ the late, great Marton László (who also created the Little Princess statue that sits on a railing by the Danube). I sat with him a couple of times, smoking cigarettes and drinking palinka, neither of us understanding what the other was saying; his English was on par with my Hungarian. He made me chicken soup once, too, when I was sick – the best chicken soup I’ve ever had. He was a lovely, lovely man whose genius is immortalised in his work in cities and towns around the country and much farther afield than Hungary. I thought of him this week when I passed by the Four Seasons and saw the new installation in the grass outside. I wondered what he’d make of it.

RI This giant statue ‒ Feltépve (Ripped up) ‒ a temporary exhibition as part of Art Market Budapest, shows a man crawling out from underneath a carpet of grass as if he’d come from the bowels of the Earth. His eyes shut, his mouth open, he looks as if he’s trying to break free. The polystyrene sculpture by artist Hervé-Loránth Ervin is something to behold. I have no idea what he had in mind but can well imagine that given whatever particular humour I’m in, this work could keep me awake at night (being the stuff that nightmares are made of) or could inspire me on to greater things, were I to think a little more about what escape and freedom could mean.

SoupThat’s the beauty of art, isn’t it? It’s all about perception. Aristotle said that ‘the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.’ Try as I might, though, the inward significance of some art eludes me. The success of Andy Warhol is, for me, one of the great mysteries of the modern age. I remember seeing his soup thingy at MOMA in San Francisco and wondering what all the hullabaloo was about. I simply didn’t (and still don’t) get it.

Picasso was of the mind that the purpose of art is to wash ‘the dust of daily life off our souls’. And this I can relate to. I couldn’t tell a Monet from a Manet and while I have occasionally given thought to taking an art appreciation class, I wonder if it can really be taught. I know what I like and what I don’t like; it’s more about what the piece says to me than what I see. And I suppose I could apply that to Warhol’s can of soup which might well be the embodiment of home and comfort and nourishment. But does art need an explanation?

This latest addition (albeit a temporary one) to Budapest’s vast array of statues and sculptures is a welcome one, as is anything that gets me thinking. Catch it while you can.

First published in the Budapest Times 24 October 2014

Being taught how to sit…

Working for the corporate world ruined my ability to sit comfortably at my non-corporate desk. I had been spoiled. One of the first things that would happen in a new job is that I’d have a visit from HR or Occupational Health or Health and Safety (depending on the country) to check out my workstation. They’d measure me against my chair and my desk and my keyboard and my computer monitor to ensure that I was sitting correctly. For them it was important – their way of avoiding my going sick with back pain or neck strain or eye strain. As for me, I took it for granted.

gyógytorna-budapest-300x300Six years of sitting at my desk in Budapest took its toll. My shoulders and neck were killing me. My lower back was practically shouting at me.  I felt as if some sadistic fiend was driving hot swords between my shoulder blades on a daily basis. My neck screamed in agony so much so that I went off turkey as I had some idea of how the poor blighters feel when their necks are wrung. Masseurs despaired of my knots and my humour suffered accordingly. I was a moaning mess.

I mentioned the term ‘ergonomic screening’ to anyone and everyone I thought might be able to help. I Googled research articles by Hungarians on the topic and contacted the authors at their respective universities but got no reply. I was given a Hungarian book, complete with diagrams, and had a friend translate. But all to nothing. This wasn’t something I could fix by following instructions and diagrams. I needed someone to come into my office and assess my seating and then adjust if necessary.

e2logoI finally tracked down  Miasnikov Tímea and E-Négyzet Wellness Szolgáltató Bt and made an appointment. After some to’ing and fro’ing we eventually found a date that suited. Tími arrived bright and early one morning to assess the situation and (I hoped) to put an end to my pain for good – or at least my work-related pain.

I’ve been through this loads of times and knew (or thought I knew) what to expect but she was far more technical than others I’ve been screened by in the UK, the USA, and Ireland. She stood me on a computerised plate of sorts and it checked my foot pressure, and hip and skull position. It told me that I have one leg shorter than the other (I knew that) and that my hips aren’t aligned (I knew that, too). She then sat me at my desk, measured me up, and adjusted my monitor, chair, desk, and keyboard accordingly. She told me how to sit and took me through me a series of exercises that I could do regularly to ease the discomfort. And then she sent me a five-page report with findings and instructions. In English.

That was in May. I still have the occasional twinge if I insist on sitting for 10 hours at a time at my computer, but it’s nothing like the pain I used to have. This time it’s my own fault. I know that I should take regular breaks (every 45 mins at least) and get up an walk around and stretch. I know that I should sit back in my chair and not try to crawl into my laptop. And I know that now I have only myself to blame if I start to ache.

The entire experience took about 90 minutes and was pleasant, professional, and worth every forint. If you’re feeling the pain of working from home, give her a call: timi@e-negyzet.com +36 209 65 88 40. Be sure to tell her I said hello 🙂

 

 

Backstreets wanderer

‘So’, I said, ‘what do you want to do?’ My visitor technically wasn’t my visitor at all. I’d borrowed him for the afternoon from a friend who had to work and couldn’t entertain.

‘I need a coffee.’ It was one o’clock in the afternoon. We’d stayed out a little late the night before so coffee was also high on my agenda. After a quick think I settled on a tiny café/bakery on Hunyadi tér – ChocoDeli – that I am particularly fond of. I had hoped that the market would be in full swing but it doesn’t happen on a Sunday. Hunyadi tér market is one of the nicest in the city (and its market hall is the only one in the city that hasn’t yet been renovated). It has lots of great produce (particularly its herbs, its cheeses, and its flowers) and ChocoDeli has the best croissants in Budapest. But it, too, was closed.

It was one of those blue-skied sunshine Budapest days that come in spring and autumn – perfect for walking. So we walked. We followed Csengery to Almássy to Hársfa and down to Rákóczi, taking time along the way to look at some of the old buildings which though in dire need of a facelit, are still very beautiful. I was aiming for Bezerédi utca where the bullet holes from 1956 are still clearly visible. One top-floor window seems to have come under particularly heavy fire and when I look up, I have little difficulty imagining a sniper’s silhouette. I am fascinated by these remnants of times gone and never pass a bullet-ridden facade without stopping briefly to think a little and wonder.

Onwards then to the former Koztarsasag tér (now János Pál Pápa tér) where I noticed that the old Erkel theatre has reopened after many years of standingly idly by; it looks impressive. We stopped at the plaque commemorating the only foreign press casualty of 1956, French photographer Jean-Pierre Pedrazzini. He was 29. As always when I call on him, I was moved by the passion with which some people live their lives.

I was also hungry and wanted food and more particularly I wanted goose leg and red cabbage. And I wanted it from Huszár, one of my favourite restaurants in the city that sits on the Berzényi Daniel utca side of the square. But it, too, was closed – or closed to us at least – for a private function. I wasn’t doing very well at all.

With thoughts of food temporarily shelved (I’d called the lads at Kómpót on Corvin Sétány to make sure it was open so was happy enough), we strolled down to Kerepesi cemetery. It was a glorious day to commune with the dead and wander through monuments to the likes of Antall József, Kossuth Lajos, and Blaha Lujza. To the left of the main entrance, the Russian quarter had undergone a major renovation. It was a little surreal. More thinking is required on that one.

We caught the tram to Nagyvarad tér and walked down to check out the renovation of the old military school at Ludovika tér. Now the Nemzeti Közszolgálati Egyetemet (National Public Service University – a joint cooperation between the National Defence Academy, the Police Academy, and the Public Administration Faculty at Corvinus) it’s a wonderful example of what money can do for old builings. Truly stunning.

IMG_7750 (800x599)Finally, after a little detour up Leonardo Da Vinci utca to see the urban garden in full bloom, we ate. Not exactly your typical tourist trail admittedly, but sometimes venturing off the beaten track is a little more rewarding. Next week I might borrow a dog… or a toddler… and see where that takes me.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 October 2014

2014 Grateful 11

I’m fortunate in that I have few things to be anxious about. Gone are the days when I’d fret over the fact that I had nothing to fret about. There was a stage when I had worrying down to a fine art, but no more. Somewhere along the way, that permanent worry gene was replaced by a sporadic one that now only engages when my mouth runs away with me and opinions best kept to myself are  vented or purged. Thankfully, the venting and purging are directly proportionate to my excess energy levels so they happen rarely enough for me to declare my life a relatively anxiety-free zone … except when it comes to baggage carousels and luggage.

luggageIt’s a first world problem, I know. And despite the fact that 99 times out of a 100 my luggage travels on the same plane as I do, that anxious gene kicks in when my suitcase doesn’t arrive in the first 17 on the conveyor belt. I have no idea why I count the pieces of luggage as they appear and can’t explain the increasing heart rate as I approach the magic number, or why it even is the magic number  – but I’m a counter.

If I’ve had to change planes, my anxiety is particularly acute. By my own peculiar logic, transferred luggage should be loaded last (all other passengers having checked in much earlier) and therefore unloaded first. If the stopover time is around the one-h0ur mark and the gates are far apart, then as I’m waiting at my final destination for my suitcase to appear, I expect it to be one of the first off and if it isn’t, it’s brown-paper-bag time: I have to consciously stop myself from hyperventilating.

It’s ridiculous really. I’m only a few miles from home where I have a change of clothes, toiletries, and food and if I don’t get my case for another day or two, it’s not the end of the world. I know this. I’m not stupid. But this doesn’t stop the anxiety.

luggage2Every suitcase I have has a little orange seed stuck to the inner lining – a seed blessed by the Dali Lama given to me years ago by a mate who spent some time in Tibet. But even with this added insurance, I can’t stop the mounting feeling of disquiet as I pass by 17 and 27 and 37 and 47 and 57. The relief as a familiar blue case peeps through the rubber slats is replaced by despondency when I realise that it’s not my blue case – and this oscillation in mood only adds to the tension. I watch with something approaching an irrational envy as others who disembarked after me pick up their bags and move towards the green nothing-to-declare (but a self-satisfied smugness) channel. And yes, I know that the seating order on a plane has nothing to do with the order luggage loaded or unloaded but by this stage logic has flown out the window and I begin to slowly, but steadily morph into bag of cats. It’s not pretty.

And when, as has happened a couple of times lately, my blue case is first off, I see it as an omen – a good omen. And if in Ireland, I play the lotto. [And some people think I’m intelligent!]

This week, with 2400 miles of Canadian and American road behind me, I’m back in Budapest. We had a short stopover in Munich and our luggage was amongst the last off the carousel in Liszt Ferenc. But it arrived. And for that I’m truly grateful.

 

 

Into the unknown on wings of imagination

You would think that after seven years in a sometimes volatile but never boring relationship, I would have glimpsed, even if not fully understood, most facets of Budapest life. Seven years is long enough to get to know a city, its museums, its theatres, its bars and restaurants, its cafés, its libraries. Of course, some of the latter three often change their names and offers; that’s to be expected. But when it comes to the more established establishments, even if I’ve not set foot in every one of them, their names should register if mentioned.

I thought I was particularly up to date on my markets, having been to all I’d heard of at least once, if not repeatedly. So it was with some surprise that I learned of one I had missed: Bakancsos Utcai piac in the XVIIth district.

I have been to Örs vezér tere, the terminus of the No. 2 metro line, on numerous occasions. I’ve been mildly curious about the buses that leave from there, too, but I’ve never had reason to get on one. Any place past Örs vezér was a mystery, a part of the city that I’d never seen. Last weekend though, I ventured forth. The instructions were clear: Örs Vezér térről 67-es busz Szürkebegy utcai megálló (uszoda utáni 2. megálló) – get the 67 bus and get off two stops after the swimming pool.

The 25-minute trip threw up some wonderful place names that both simplified and confused. Uszoda (swimming pool) said it all, but what of 513 utca? What’s that about? What’s so significant about the number 513? I checked on Google maps and see there is a large square area in the XVIIth where all the streets are numbered in the 500s (from 500 to 545) and at its centre sits 525 tér. There’s a near-perfect symmetry in the layout of the streets which suggests that it’s a planned neighbourhood and if viewed from the air, I imagine it would look quite impressive. I now want to go see for myself.

The market itself is set in what for all the world looks like a piece of wasteland in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. We didn’t have to worry about finding our way: it seemed like everyone on the bus was heading in the same direction. Inside a walled area, hundreds of vendors had laid blankets on the ground or set up tables and were selling their wares.

Clothes, shoes, china, cutlery, books, records, photographs, pictures, vases, statues, lightbulbs – anything and everything you might ever want or need was there for the finding. And, unlike the city-centre markets such as Petőfi Csarnok or the better known suburban market Esceri piac, both of which are common tourist haunts, the prices in Bakancsos were reasonable. Very reasonable.

Flea markets like this are wonderful places to take a trip into a parallel universe. I lost some time looking at framed portraits, so engaged was I in imagining the lives of those in the pictures. Leafing through autograph books I was struck again by the stories that lay behind each and every item on sale. If only they could talk. It’s a mecca for anyone with an imagination. The old adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure is so true. People were buying the most unlikely things: why would you buy a wedding photo of total strangers? Trying to figure out why others had bought what they had was nearly as much fun as sifting through the remnants of bygone eras in search of something I didn’t know that I couldn’t live without myself. Open Friday to Sunday 6am-1pm, it’s a grand way to pass a Saturday morning.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 October 2014

Cold war, warm heart

I’m not a planner. The sole plan I have in life is to have no plan. Planning has a way of, well, getting in the way – we’re so fixed on goals and objectives that we don’t see the opportunities that present themselves because they don’t fit. This applies to everything from people to places, from travel to travail. Road trips are made for me. I like the freedom to be able to detour, yet it’s always good for me to have a slight focus, too. Even if it’s only one place. The rest can fall in around it.

 

IMG_5265 (800x600)Off the Confederation Bridge from PEI, we landed in a swamp. New Brunswick (the source of a third of the world’s French fries) is marshy land – lots of water and lots of grass. We drove the back roads to loop into Nova Scotia on a premeditated quest to visit the Thinkers’ Lodge in Pugwash, home of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1957, at the height of the Cold War, the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs took place in this serene setting. Hosted by philanthropist Cyrus Eaton, top-level scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain met to discuss the threat of nuclear weapons and the responsibility of scientists to work for their eradication. This courageous and groundbreaking meeting launched the Pugwash Movement, an influential transnational organization for nuclear disarmament. A place of inspiration and reflection, Thinkers’ Lodge remains a symbol for the Pugwash Movement and a beacon for world peace.

But it was closed. And it was miles out of our way. I had grand notions of sitting in the same chair as some of the finest minds known to man in the hope that some of their braininess might seep into me by osmosis. Instead, like a bad burglar casing a joint in broad daylight, I just got to peep in the windows.

IMG_5268 (800x600)IMG_5267 (800x600)En route, however, the countryside was beautiful even if the towns and villages we passed through were a tad strange. The province is home to about three-quarters of a million people and we may have seen three. It’s Canada’s only official bilingual province with 33% of the people speaking French. And it has lots of dead people. I can’t think of anywhere I’ve been where I’ve seen so many cemeteries, most of them unfenced on the edge of the road. For someone who regularly communes with the dead, I found this very interesting if not a tad strange. I can’t think where the dead might wander to, but I prefer to have a clear division between their houses and mine.

IMG_5282 (800x600)IMG_5278 (800x600)We overnighted in Moncton and tired enough after a day in PEI and a less than fruitful trip to Pugwash, were happy enough to dine locally and hit the hay. Next morning though, we set off on a day that can only be marked as peculiar. First up was Magnetic Hill, an optical illusion that makes you think your car is being pulled uphill while in neutral by some magnetic force or other. I don’t quite get the science but it’s impressive. The instructions are clear – drive to the bottom of a hill, turn around at the white post, put your car in neutral, and steer as it is pulled up the hill. I was there and I’d swear on a stack of spare tyres that I was climbing a hill but apparently, I was going down one. Most peculiar.

IMG_5280 (800x600)IMG_5284 (800x600)From there it was on to the US border via a series of saintly towns – St George, St John, St Andrews – and ne’er a sign of a St Mary, St Ann, or St Margaret. Not impressed, lads. We stopped in St John at what is a North American institution – a diner. I love these places with a passion I usually reserve for lángos. They’re at the hub of so many local communities where, in their faux leather booths, the world is repeatedly set to rights alongside healthy doses of gossip and friendly interference.

IMG_5293 (800x600)IMG_5292 (800x600)It was in St John’s that we came across the Reversing Falls – another peculiar phenomenon native to New Brunswick. Water flows from under the bridge to the right and does a U-turn and flows back to the left. Amazing to watch. Again, I don’t get the explanation – or rather, I’m not interested enough in the detail to devote any brain power to trying to understand it. It was enough to see it happen. Perhaps that’s one of the side-effects of being raised Catholic – not everything needs an explanation.

IMG_5313 (800x600)IMG_5311 (600x800)Next up in the series of saintly towns, laid out like knots on a piece of convoluted string, was St George, a curious place that was in the middle of commemorating its fallen heroes. The streets were lined with banners depicting photos of veterans and the place had a slightly funereal sense to it until I got used to them. The more  I saw of them, the more I liked the idea.

Back in its day, St George had a lot going on, and was perhaps most famous for its granite. Today it would seem that it depends a lot on tourism but obviously in season; we were on our own that day.

IMG_5321 (800x600)IMG_5324 (600x800)St Andrews was next. Quaint, on the verge of being twee but thankfully not making it, and very liveable, if you don’t mind tourists on your doorstep every day. It’s a town that doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously and is in no rush to go anywhere. It must have taken 20 minutes to get two cups of filtered coffee – no exaggeration. [And while I’m on the subject, Canada doesn’t do coffee… I don’t think I had a decent cup all the time I was there – wine over.] Probably best known as the home of the Algonquin Resort and its Room 473, said to be haunted by a jilted bride who died there in the early 1900s, the town has more churches than any I’ve seen. I counted five (all different religions) in the space a minute – and these were the ones we drove by, not the spires we could see in the distance.

IMG_5325 (800x600)From there it was a clear sailing to the border. It was Sunday, the day before Canadian Thanksgiving and far from the queues I’d expected, we were third in line. Forced to do a rather suspicious turnaround on approach (thanks to my forgetfulness, chronic sense of direction, and complete lack of spatial judgement) we returned ten minutes later to queue. It was a slow day for the boys and we must have presented them with some diversion. Hauled in, nicely questioned, and duly stamped, we just lost 30 minutes and $6 to the wheels of US bureaucracy.

Three provinces in five days and some gobsmackingly gorgeous scenery. Thank you, Canada. It’s been a pleasure. Particularly Nova Scotia. The tourist slogan for Cape Breton Island has it nailed – once you visit, your heart will never leave.

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When the light's on and nobody's home…

IMG_5203 (800x600)Put a bunch of Irish, American Loyalists, and Scottish Highlanders on an island and a couple of centuries later, you can have your own Heritage Village celebrating the fact that they all got on so well and lived and prospered. Who’d have thought it? Orwell Corner on PEI (Prince Edward Island) was closed for the season (nothing new there) but we shamelessly drove in anyway and had a look around. It’s all quite nicely done and had it been open, we might even have been tempted to pay to have a proper look-see. As it was, we were grateful that there was something to see at all.

We got a tad excited at the thoughts of visiting a Belfast that didn’t have black cabs and murals on the wall, but when we drove through it (twice) without realising, we reined in our expectations. PEI certainly isn’t Nova Scotia. That said, its capital Charlottetown, a city that bills itself as a walkable one, is rather sweet. We slept well, ate well, and managed to see something of the place before moving more north in search of Anne Shirley and the lovely Gilbert Blythe.

IMG_5206 (800x600)While in Charlottetown, I went to see a memorial exhibition for Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. I had a long chat with Sargent P, a short, stocky man with military bearing whose punctuated speech sounded remarkably like a machine gun in semi-auto mode. He’d been home on leave on Easter Sunday 2007 when he saw on the news that six of his mates had been blown up. He’d wanted to stay in Canada to meet their bodies and pay his respects but he had to go back. They crossed in the air. Seven years later, he was still remembering. I asked him why he’d signed up. Why the military? He said that he didn’t have what it took to be a policeman, but he had two kids. I didn’t get the connection and said as much. I got that look – one I’ve had many times before – the one that says if you don’t have kids, you won’t understand. Quite simply, he wanted his kids to be proud of him. I was struck by the honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth simplicity of his thought. Why do we make life so complicated for ourselves?

IMG_5209 (800x600)There were 190 plaques for 201 dead. And there was a bowl of poppies. Visitors could stick the poppy pins next to those they knew or would like to have known. I got a little carried away as some had so many, and others so few. The exhibition is touring Canada and has to have an impact. I was moved. Very moved. It was staged in the Confederation Center of the Arts, built to commemorate  the Canadian Confederacy. Back in 1964, every single Canadian donated 30 cents to build it – let’s think of that the next time we say we’re powerless to effect change or that tiny random acts of kindness are not worth the effort. It was built to mark the centenary of the 1 September 1864 meeting convened in Charlottetown that would lead to the Dominion of Canada coming into being in 1867. Perhaps particularly poignant, given the juxtaposing of birth and death in the city for me that day, was a large blackboard across the street enticing people to write about what they wanted to do before they died. It got me thinking.

IMG_5225 (800x600)IMG_5229 (800x600)IMG_5231 (800x600)IMG_5242 (800x600)With little to choose from in the line of what was open to be seen, we headed up towards New London, the birthplace of L.M. Montgomery, creator of the much-loved Anne of Green Gables. While PEI doesn’t have much in the way of trees and leaves and such it does have a lot of red clay and water. Spoiled for choice at which half-shut village we should stop at, we chose North Rustico because of the lobster pots and fishing boats. From there we finally got to Green Gables itself where we walked around and through the house that inspired the book. We took a few steps into the famous haunted woods and had a peak at Lovers Lane, bumping into many of our fellow ferry passengers from the day before. Did I mention that PEI is Canada’s smallest province with a population of about 140 000 in total … when everyone is home… and that it closes once the season is over.

IMG_5249 (800x600)IMG_5251 (800x600)Anyway, back to Maud herself. Although she moved away when she got married, she was brought back to PEI, the setting for 22 of her 23 books, when she died. The local cemetery makes no bones about claiming her for its own and were I buried there, I might be a tad peeved that  I didn’t get equal post-mortem billing. But then I saw her tombstone and mentally congratulated whoever had the idea of emblazoning her name over the entrance. Although internationally acclaimed as an author and loved by millions, the sole achievement mentioned on her headstone is that she was some man’s wife (a man, who apparently, suffered from what was then known as ‘ religious melancholia’,  said to be the rapturous transports of prophecy and inspiration experienced by hermit saints and prophets). I ask you! And she died first but gets second billing. Honestly.

It has always seemed to me, ever since early childhood, amid all the commonplaces of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty. Between it and me hung only a thin a veil. I could never draw it quite aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realms beyond – only a glimpse – but those glimpses have always made life worthwhile.

IMG_5252 (800x600)Th town of Green Gables itself was closed – mercifully. It’s morphed into a theme town built around a book. It must be horrendous in the summer – oops – in the season – with its fast-food joints, ice-cream parlours, and crazy golf. Just up the road in New London, stands another house – the one in which Maud was born, but we didn’t venture in. We had a bridge to cross and an appointment with New Brunswick. The journey to the south of the island was slightly more colourful;  it was lovely – in places – really lovely.

IMG_5253 (800x600)But after Cape Breton and Nova Scotia, PEI just didn’t do it for me. It seemed like its get-up-and-go and got up and gone. Yes, it had its moments. And yes, I’m glad I visited. And yes, it was nice to pay my respects to Maud, but no – I’d not be in a hurry back – except perhaps to cross the Confederation Bridge again – now there’s a piece of engineering. At 8 miles (12.9 km), it’s the longest in the world crossing ice-covered water. It doesn’t even make the list of the top 15 longest bridges (much to my surprise… but then, my world trivia is nearly as bad as my geography….).  In operation since 1997, it caused some degree of uproar when the idea of a fixed, year-round link to New Brunswick was mooted. When it went to the polls, just under 60% of the islanders voted in favour and there ya have it. You can take the ferry over to the island (as we did) and ferry back, or take the bridge. Whichever way you do it, you pay CAD45 when you leave – that would certainly add to the expense of a daily commute.

IMG_5260 (800x600)Margaret, you were right. PEI does close for the season. But to be honest, dear, as we were already en route, ’twas a little late to be telling us.  Were I to go back, I’d be sure to get tickets to the Anne of Green Gables musical in Charlottetown. I’d definitely have scallops wrapped in bacon at the Gahan House again. And this time I’d try to get a tour of a few lighthouses. That’s now what I want to be when I grow up – a lighthouse keeper.

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