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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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