Remind me where I am again

In a world of constant change, it’s almost gratifying to know that my abysmal sense of geography is still matched by my equally pathetic knowledge of history. It’s always been the case, despite getting an honour in both in my Leaving Cert. Driving north from Halifax up to Cape Breton had me questioning both.

IMG_4952 (800x600)I knew we were heading north-ish – I could see as much on the map. But I wasn’t prepared for the Scottishness of it all. Duh. Nova Scotia – New Scotland, Canada’s second-smallest province. So why then was the chap on the radio speaking French while the signs showing names of rivers, mountains, lakes, and towns had a peculiar Gaelic translation? And what was with the fall colours – that wasn’t supposed to happen until we hit New England!

People from this province are known as Bluenosers and not, as I thought, because it can get cold in winter – I honestly believed that to be true) but because of a ship – a fishing and racing schooner built in 1921. Store that one up for your next pub quiz. And they’re incredibly friendly. Talkative enough to be Irish and inquisitive enough to want to know what you had for breakfast, they’re not at all backward about coming forward. The banter is great. My mother would be quite at home and I was feeling like I’d lived here before myself.

IMG_4955 (800x600)IMG_4956 (800x600) (2)I’ve seen some horrendous house colours in my day and the colour combinations here border on being Csontváry Kosztka Tivadar like (which works on canvas rather well, but not on walls). We passed one café painted in mauve, lilac, and yellow but was a good mile beyond it before I recovered from the shock. Trust me. You didn’t want to see it anyway. But in the tiny towns that mark the route, once you get off the main drag, some of the houses are really gorgeous, even if they’re in the middle of nowhere. The one thing they all have in common is a spectacular view, particularly the more north you go. It is gobsmackingly gorgeous.

We saw towns like New Glasgow and Inverness. And others like Antigonish (remember the poem?) and Tatamagouche (Mi’kmaq Indian names). We saw signs for Gaelic lessons, ceilidhs, and tin whistles. We saw names like New Dublin Road, Money Point, and Grafton Street. And the country music station had songs in French. I was finding it difficult to remember where I was, particularly when we happened across a distillery.

IMG_4983 (800x600)We got there too late for a tour and at about $120 (€85, US$108) a bottle for the single malt, perhaps it was just as well that we didn’t get to taste it. Had we to do it again, we might well cough up for a bed in the inn itself and then sit and sample to our hearts content. Mind you, I’m not sure they’d appreciate me diluting mine with ginger ale. The Glenora is North America’s first single-malt distillery and has been distilling since 1990 and throwing ceilidhs every afternoon and evening, too. Still, it all adds to the New Scottishness of the place.

IMG_4971 (2)There’s a oldie worldy feel to the region, particularly when you cross the Canso Causeway into Cape Breton, travelling on the Trans-Canadian Highway. Built back in 1955, the causeway is something to behold. Linking Cape Breton to the mainland, it’s quite a testament to man’s building prowess. But as you cross it, and miss the turn you need, make an illegal left, and realise that in two days you’d hadn’t seen anything resembling a police car or a Mountie, you pass into another world. A more mystical one, more sublime. One of colour, romance, and … peace.

About 350 km after breakfast, we arrived at Margaree Harbour and the Duck Cove Inn just in time for dinner. Welcomed by name (cue theme music from Cheers!), I was more than compensated for the fact that there was no bar and we had 30 minutes before the kitchen shut (it was just 7pm – things close early in this part of the world). Everything here works to its own time and once you accept the fact that no one is in a hurry to do anything and multi-tasking isn’t on the menu, then it’s lovely – truly lovely.

Gordon, the owner/receptionist promised that next time I came, he’d rally all the Murphys in the area and we’d have a hooley. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one in the vicinity that night.

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The sum of the parts is greater than the sum of the whole

Chişinău was never on my list of capital cities just begging to be paid a visit. Truth be told, until a few months ago, I didn’t know it existed and until a few days ago, I didn’t know how to pronounce it. But I’m here and I’m strangely fascinated. It has none of the gobsmacking beauty of Budapest or the exotic extremes of Baku – but is has a certain something that I can’t quite put my finger on…and it’s home to the country’s rugby team (who, apparently, are rather good – watch this space!)

I’ve been wandering up and down the main street – Stefan
cel Mare – for the last few days and am still seeing things I never noticed before. Like the chap who sits with a bathroom scales and charges 1 lei (about 6 cents) a weigh. mmmm… forgot to weigh myself this morning … oh good, there’s a scales! Or the plethora of xerox shops with one printer, one copier, and one computer – all with queues. Or the series of posters encouraging people to emigrate to Canada. With the average wage in Moldova coming in at €170 per month (that’s about $250), life in Whitehorse might be a viable option.

The second-smallest of the former Soviet republics and the most densely populated, Moldova is 96% orthodox so I wasn’t holding out much hope of finding a Catholic church – but I did and it served up a fine 20-minute mass to 13 of us this evening – in English. Two Americans, a family of Hungarians, one Maltese and the rest of unknown origin fitted neatly in the capela just around the corner from Embassy row.

Dinner afterwards in the Vatra Neamului on Puskin St was quite the treat. I ordered fried lamb – mocănească – and what turned up? The omnipotent mămăligă. Turns out that mămăligă refers to the polenta. Ah well, fourth time in as many days and it’s still good. And it came with a complimentary sparkling wine and a complimentary liquer – why didn’t I venture beyond the Christmas tree before now I wonder?

Perhaps one of the strangest sights in Chişinău though, are the phone boxes. There are banks of them, everywhere. It’s like stepping back in to the past a little – to the days before mobile phones, when we could remember phone numbers.

The Moldovans I have met in the past week have all, without exception, been extremely welcoming and open and friendly – and so what if they keep chatting away in Moldovan even after it’s clear that I’ve no clue what they’re talking about… they seem to get a kick out of it. And hey – twice already I’ve been stopped and asked directions  – by goodlooking men. Well, at least, that’s what I think they wanted…


A series of firsts

Belgrade. 10.23 pm. Minibus finally arrives. The journey back to Budapest begins. I’m tired, cranky, and still plagued by stomach cramps. It’s going to be a long night. My corner of the back seat is vacant. It’s cold. Not three minutes into the journey, the rather large chap in the other corner of the back seat starts talking to me… in Serbian. Intuitively I know that he’s apologising for the ring tone on his phone. It’s an annoying chirping that at first sounds like a bird, then grows into a frog and finally matures into a cricket. I know that’s what he’s saying, but I don’t have the Serbian to respond. I apologise in English. Then he apologises for assuming I was Serbian. The sms’s chirp every five minutes, punctuating the conversation that has  just begun.

It’s his first time on the minibus to Budapest. He’s going to Ferihegy airport. He’s 34. A former professional waterpolo player who is, by his own admission, sadly out of shape. He did his National Service in Montenegro so that he could stay in training. He is married – has been for eight years. He has two kids – 4 and 7.

He holds his passport in his hands somewhat reverently. It looks brand new. It is. This will be his first time on an airplane. He has never flown before. Other than Montenegro, he has never been outside Serbia. He talks of Serbians in the third person plural as if he isn’t one. Although he has lived all his life in Belgrade, he says he never really felt as if he belonged and this feeling has been getting stronger and stonger recently. He doesn’t say why. I don’t ask.

This is the first opportunity he has had to get out of Serbia. It is time. He’s emigrating. To Canada. To work as a truck driver. He will have to study and take his driving HazMat test. It’s expensive and will take a few months.

This is the first time he has left his family. He doesn’t know when he will see them again. He already has a job lined up. He is leaving his family behind him and charting the way. I think that leaving them must be hard. He says that Balkan people are funny that way. At each others throats if together for too long and yet, just two days apart sees them madly in love – absence, he hopes, will make the heart grow fonder.

This is the first time he has spoken to real Irish person. He asks if I have heard the Orthodox Celts – a Serbian band who play traditional Irish music with some rock – He is worried that his English isn’t good enough. He learned it from TV. Apart from a couple of bad pronounciations, it’s better than a lot of native speakers I know. I tell him so. He is pleased. He asks if I know Canada. I say not really. Just the Yukon. He asks if he can have a good life, as a workingclass man – do the Canadians respect foreigners? I tell him that the Canadians I know do. Do I think Canada is a good place to go? I say yes. I think so. It’s avoided the financial crises that have plagued the rest of the world. It’s healthy. It’s a good country. He nods.

He is flying to Warsaw and then to Toronto and then to Edmonton. He could have flown to London and then direct to Edmonton but it was €500 dearer and he has to watch him money. He is 34. Leaving his family behind him. Leaving home for the first time in his life. Nervous. Sad. Anxious. Excited. The sms’s keep coming. He eventually falls asleep. He is woken several times by his phone – but then it quietens and I imagine his children finally going to sleep. Exhausted. Confused. Already asking when Daddy will be home.

I stay awake. I give silent thanks for the life I have and those who are in it.