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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Closed for the season

Time is a wonderfully malleable thing. We think that have just 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute – and while we do, how we use that time can make it stretch interminably or just fly by. Nova Scotians manage to stretch time beyond endurance. They never seem to be in a hurry and yet find a multitude of ways to cut corners, reallocating time they might spend (read: waste) doing one thing to doing another.

IMG_5088 (800x600)The drive to Baddeck could have been done by road, but we were reliably informed that by driving 7 km out of our way (anti-intuitively), we could catch a ferry that would take 25 minutes off our total trip. So we did. And it worked. We  didn’t even have to brake before rolling onto the ferry – perfect timing – and barely had time to cut the engine before it was time to roll off again.

IMG_5098 (800x600)Baddeck is a lovely little town on the edge of the Bras d’Or lake (try as I might, my tongue refuses to budge from a Brass Door pronunciation). Known by the Mi’kmaq Indians as Petoo’bok – a long dish of salt water, the French preferred the more arty Bras d’Or – arm of gold. At first we thought it was as series of lakes but no – apparently it’s Canada’s largest inland sea – of sorts. It’s both saltwater and freshwater (as in both species live in it) with five rivers and two ocean channels feeding into it. UNESCO has named it a biosphere reserve (a new one on me – apparently a place where people live in harmony with nature; I have to wonder whether it was the people or the nature that won the appellation).

IMG_5099 (800x600) (2)IMG_5096 (600x800)Apart from being known for its yacht club and the start and finish of the Cabot Trail, Baddeck was also the summer home of Alexander Graham Bell – and it makes the most of it. We resisted the urge to visit the interactive Bell museum, and instead spent the time debating whether he or Marconi could lawfully claim the telephone as their own. But we debated over coffee in full view of the lighthouse with the sun reflecting on the water – as good a place as any to have a friendly bargy in the early hours of  Thursday morning.

We were heading to Prince Edward Island via Pictou, the birthplace of Nova Scotia. On a search for a particular type of jam (an unsolicited bring-back) I asked in one shop and came up empty. But the woman of the house directed us to the waterfront, telling us to take a left by the boat. mmm… a harbour with one boat? If only I’d studied my North American history…

IMG_5131 (800x600)IMG_5122 (800x600)It was here, in Pictou, back in 1773 that 200 Highland Scots disembarked from the good ship Hector and went about making the town their home. So successful were they that others followed in their wake and pretty soon this wave of migration gave rise to the birth of New Scotland. A replica of the ship is docked in the harbour today and it’s generally assumed that if you visit Pictou, that’s why you’re here. But, needless to say, if you visit in October, the museum and the heritage site will have closed for the season – like most of the town.

IMG_5130 (800x600)Perhaps it was the Scots that set the tone for firsts in this town – they’re not exactly short on temerity – but it was here, too, that Canada’s first and only black battalion was born. The boys fought in WWI, forming their own segregated unit when they’d been turned away time and time again from recruitment centres. Although based in Pictou, they included men from Ontario, too, and the  Honorable Captain William Andrew White – the only Black Commissioned Officer in the British Army in WWI. Not bad for a small town.
IMG_5123 (600x800)While the Pictou Academy was the first school in Nova Scotia that any student could attend, regardless of their religion, men were also put in the pillory for three hours for kissing their wives on a Sunday. One has to wonder at religion and its motives. The old post office is apparently the only building in the world (the world, imagine) with a window in its chimney. And before it got the name it has today, the town was at various stages known as Coleraine, Alexandria, Donegal, Teignmouth, Southhampton, Wamsley, New Edinburgh and New Paisley. That in itself tells a story.
IMG_5140 (800x600)What I liked best about it though was the display of black-and-white photos on the walls of a side street detailing its history. From these, like the one above, where a bunch of lads with nothing better to do bought a bag of hats and decorated them with lilac, it’s clear that Pictou is a community in the truest sense – one that hasn’t time for pretentiousness as it’s too busy being itself. That said, I think I’d go stir crazy had I to live there. Lovely to visit, but…
IMG_5146 (800x600) (2)From there we headed to Caribou to catch the ferry to P.E.I. (aka Prince Edward Island, home of the spuds) at Wood Island. It was time to leave Nova Scotia and venture into Canada’s smallest province. As we sailed out of the harbour, the gulls lined up to watch. An amazing send-off, almost like a guard of honour, that did Cape Breton proud. The journey would take 90 minutes and although parked in line for nearly 45 minutes before departure, we were one of the last to board. Of course, we’d forgotten it was Thanksgiving weekend in Canada and the world and her mother were either going home or going to PEI for the long weekend.

I popped by the Ferry’s information desk and asked for a map of the island – just to be prepared. The ever-s0-helpful Margaret asked me where I wanted to go on P.E.I. I said I wanted to see Pugwash. ‘Oh dear’, says she, ‘that’s in Nova Scotia’. Okay, I thought, once again cursing my geography (or the lack thereof), what about Green Gables? She thought for a while before dropping the bombshell – ‘It’s not a great time to visit, dear, as the whole place practically closes after the season. Best stick to Charlottetown – it’s sure to still have some places open.’ With a vague stirring of disquiet, I went out to the viewing deck and shared the good news. Still, at least the world that was passing us by was worth looking at. IMG_5150








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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Moving cities???

If I were in the mood to relocate, or was even contemplating a life outside of Budapest, I may well have found my city. In the past few years, when I travel, I have found myself looking at a city’s livability… would I move there? I first noticed it in Riga (possibly) and Geneva (no). Perhaps it’s a testament to how much I love living in Budapest that nowhere has gotten an affirmative thumbs up. Until now. Until Halifax.

I know little of the city – we landed downtown at the hotel about 7 pm and left the following day around 1pm. Not a huge amount of time on which to base a potentially life-changing decision, admittedly, but I’ve made life-changing decisions overnight before and have no regrets. I’m all for that ’empty-handed leap into the void’, for it is often in that void that true potential is realised.

20141007_203908_resizedIt’s the capital of Nova Scotia, Canada, is closer to Dublin than it is to Vancouver BC, and has a population of just over 400 000. It has to be one of the friendliest places I’ve been to. Everyone, from Hilary, the receptionist at the Four Points Sheraton, to Victoria, our waitress at the Old Triangle, to Emily at the airport’s Alamo car-rental desk who dealt so professionally with my mini, bordering-on-tears rant at the Internet company who blatantly lied about the size of a compact boot, to the lovely pilot who so helpfully directed us to the black phone when we sauntered through customs without picking up our luggage – oh, wait, no. That was Montreal. Perhaps all Canadians are friendly and helpful and nice. Or is that too dangerous an extrapolation? Of course, it could also have something to do with the fact that it has more pubs per capita than any other city in Canada. [But back to the Old Triangle for a minute – it was hopping on a Tuesday night, with great food, and a clientele that was on the right side of 37. Given a few more days, I reckon the lovely Ms G and myself could have wreaked some havoc. Mind you, we’d need seed money; the city isn’t cheap and the wine (how knew NS produced wine?) though excellent, is a tad expensive.]

IMG_4898 (800x600)IMG_4899 (800x600)The Citadel is the main attraction (the most visited historic site in the country apparently) with museums detailing Canada’s military history, something I’d never given much thought to. But they seem
to have been everywhere of any importance and places, too, that I’d never heard of. The death of 24 Canadians on 9/11 at the Twin Towers took them to Afghanistan. And I’m still trying to figure out what went on in 1812. It reminded me a lot of KomIMG_4888 (2) (800x600)árom – except for it is round and this was star-shaped; and it is much bigger; and it has an indoor railroad. Apart from that though, they’re quite similar. This is the fourth (I think) to be built in Halifax and interestingly, though build to defend the city, it has never seen battle. It took all of 26 years to complete (compared to the six envisaged) and today provides employment for some keen young people who don’t mind having their photos taken by a regiment of random strangers. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse – but every crumb to its cookie. You can actually enlist to be a ‘soldier’ for a day and get your own uniform. As I said – cooks and crumbs.

IMG_4913 (800x600)IMG_4910 (800x600)Just below the Citadel is the famous clock tower, supposedly commissioned by Prince Edward back in 1803 to help cure the garrison of its lack of punctuality. It’s been keeping time ever since. Trivia question: did you ever notice that most clocks with Roman numerals use IIII for four and not IV? I certainly hadn’t… but apparently that’s the case. What struck me though was when viewed face on, it looks rather sweet. And when viewed from the citadel itself, it seems to be struggling a little to hold its own.  Perhaps I was letting my imagination run away with me and empathising a little too much with something that seemed a tad out of sync with the world around it.

IMG_4930 (2)IMG_4924 (800x600)The waterfront is slightly twee but still lovely. It’s off-season and what few tourists were around far outnumbered the shops and restaurants that were actually open. It would seem that during the week there’s not a lot going on in city but yet it has a wonderfully warm feel to it. There seems to be unlimited potential bubbling away just waiting to be discovered. It’s avidly anti-smoking, with smoking banned even on outside terraces. I think I saw three people smoking in the whole time we were there. But back to the waterfont, and Pier 21, where more than one million immigrants disembarked for a new life in Canada. It has the oldest continuously operating farmers market in North America, and a host of maritime exhibitions involving boats from WWII, schooners, and all sorts. I can only imagine how thronged it gets in the summer months – and I can well imagine being a regular down there for a morning coffee.

IMG_4949 (800x600)IMG_4945 (600x800)Next up was the cemetery – the one where 150 of those who died on the Titanic are buried. Surprisingly, I had to ask five people before one could tell me where it was, and he had to Google it. What was interesting is that many were buried and then later identified, their names added to their tombstones after the fact. And many more are still known by  their numbers rather than their names. I find that incredibly sad. How ever anonymous we might be in life, we should at least be named at our death.

I was struck, too, by the marker of a man from Clones, in Ireland. Of course there were plenty of Irish aboard, but what got me thinking was the idea of a priest (or vicar, as it’s a rectory) being on duty – and ergo, off duty. I’d somehow thought of religious life as a 24/7 calling rather than a profession.

IMG_4936 (800x600)IMG_4933 (800x600)We did get a little lost on our search for Fairview Cemetery. But that is only to be expected when I’m driving. The silver lining was that we got to see local neighbourhoods with their colourful wooden houses (does this style have an architectural label?). One in particular caught my eye, or rather the inscription beneath its window. Perhaps because it embodied what for me has become something I’ll forever associate with the city – its honesty and its openness.

While I don’t think Budapest is in any danger of getting rid of me anytime soon, it’s good to know that there is somewhere I wouldn’t mind spending a couple of years. Definitely worth a visit.