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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