Monthly Archives: June 2013

Prince Edward Island, Canada – Anne of Green Gables (1908)

I’m in Halifax, Nova Scotia for a convention, so I’ve decided on a spur of the moment trip to Prince Edward Island. This is one trip that’s been chosen because of a book, rather than the other way around. The book is Anne of Green Gables, by LM Montgomery.

It’s the story of a orphan girl who’s adopted by an elderly couple. They wanted a boy to help work on their farm, but the orphanage sent them a girl by mistake – a redhead, passionate, imaginative and clever. I usually find girls in fiction for children quite irritating, but Anne is really endearing, and always optimistic, no matter what life throws at her. Over the course of six books she develops from a lonely orphan, to a college student, then a teacher, then a mother. Later books take the story up to World War One, and focus less on Anne, and more on her family.

I was ten years old when I was given Anne of Green Gables as a birthday present, and as a little redhead, I loved it. That was when I first decided to go to Canada – but I was ten. The closest I could get to Canada was cutting out maple leaves from Air Canada ads in magazines, and pasting them into a scrapbook (ahh, those scrapbooks – full of things I loved – like After Eight wrappers, and pictures of Kermit the Frog. Even then, I liked setting myself impossible goals. Not only was he the wrong species – but that Miss Piggy’s the jealous type…)

But now I’m finally on my way. I catch a shuttle van from Nova Scotia – which takes about six hours, so it’s an early start. I’m sleepy, and it’s foggy, which gives the trip a dreamlike quality I suspect it wouldn’t normally have. We spend about 20 minutes driving through New Brunswick – I want to visit every province in Canada, and wonder if this counts as visiting, or cheating. We cross the Confederation Bridge (at one point, the longest single span bridge in the world). The fog makes it seem like we’re driving from nothing, into nothing. I can’t see either end, or even the sea on either side.

The van drops everyone off at a drive-through restaurant outside of Charlottetown. I get a cab to the bed and breakfast I’ll be staying at. As we pull up, the cab driver says “Oh dear…”
Oh dear what?
“I probably shouldn’t tell you this” but he does. “That house used to be a funeral parlour – or was it the one next door?”

I check in anyway. I’ve never seen anywhere less like a funeral home. Patchwork creations cover every horizontal surface, and most of the vertical ones as well. It’s a little bit overkill (over frill?) – but very clean and friendly.

I drop off my bags and walk into town. I bump into an English couple – they hear the accent – they’ve been here a fortnight, and they’re missing it. They are checking out B&Bs in the area, as they’re hoping to start one themselves. We end up having the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted. Eventually I decide to head back to the B&B – only to realise I don’t have the address – or a map. Luckily, Charlottetown is small. I manage to retrace my steps before it gets too dark.

When it does get dark – I can’t sleep. The bathroom door clicks, creaks itself open. I shut it – but it does it again. And again. And again. It would be unsettling even without the cabbie’s words. Finally I wedge the door shut with a chair, and sling several patchwork cushions on it. If the dark forces of the undead are trying to come out of my bathroom, I’m sure they’ll think twice when confronted with all this pastel cheerfulness.

Next morning (after a restless night) I take a bus tour of the island. There’s something reassuring about the red soil – but then, I am Irish. I’ll always be glad to know I’m somewhere potatoes can grow – and they certainly grow here. PEI – Potatoes Every Inch.

Not many people on this bus. An American who loves golf. His Korean bride – all smiles for him, all scowls for any woman who looks at him. And there’s a young Japanese girl too. Apparently Anne of Green Gables is big in Japan. It’s fun to bond with someone from another country over a book.

We drive around the island, along the coast – old farms, blue herons, lighthouse – but I’m surprised to find I don’t love PEI as much as I was expecting to. Oh, I do like it – but there isn’t that sense of connection.

But back in Halifax, another surprise. I’ve finished Anne of Green Gables, so I’m working my way through the series. In Anne of the Island, I start to recognise Halifax landmarks – the lion on the war memorial, the lighthouse on the island in the harbour, the bandstand in the public gardens. A quick visit to tourist information, and I find out that although LM Montgomery lived most of her life on PEI, she attended Dalhousie University in Halifax. She loved her time there, and used the city as a model for Kingsport, the town where Anne went to college. LM Montgomery even lived here, on Barrington Street, in a house I walk past every day I’m here. I don’t know whether my love of Halifax was partly because I recognised it on some level.

I was looking for Anne – but I’d already found her.

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Posted by on June 30, 2013 in Prince Edward Island


Venice – The Assassination Bureau Ltd (1910/1963)

It’s a spur of the moment trip, and this time I’m with my sister. It’s the first time we’ve shared a room since we were teenagers – and the first time she’s been out without the kids in years.

It’s November, so not too warm – but it’s bright. The light here is so beautiful, even now, and there are still a lot of tourists. It must be too crowded to move in summer.

We’re staying at a hotel on the Grand Canal. I can’t stop giggling for some reason – I’m alternately stunned I’m actually here, and stunned I’ve never been here before. Eventually I realise the giggling is partly because my brain is trying to make sense of the fact that there are two Venices – one of day, land, business, religion – and one of night, sea, pleasure…

We window-shop like crazy. It’s almost a sensory overload. Venice is packed with things I love – glass, leather, ice cream, amber, beautiful handmade books – and masks, masks, masks. I want to buy them all, but my suitcase is too small. True, a lot of them are cheap foreign tat, but in some of the shops you can watch people making them on the premises. I’m starting to think I will never be able to choose just one, when a little leather mask catches my eye – it’s a fox, the same colour as my hair. Sold.

We were going to have a ride in a gondola, but the water is choppy – very choppy. I’m used to quiet, well-behaved canals – but Venice isn’t like that. This water is too close to the sea – it will never be tame. If I’m going to drown, I want it to be at the end of a holiday, not the beginning. I decide to settle for a photo of a gondolier, in traditional costume – then realise he’s using one hand to push the pole into the water – and the other to text someone on his mobile phone! I giggle so much I forget to take the shot – this happens to me a lot…

We wander ancient alleyways, in shades of ochre and gold, trying to decide where to eat. I want to look at them all, then decide, but my sister is ravenous, so we choose a little place which serves delicious veal. It’s a quiet evening, so, in an attempt to draw in passing trade, the owner send one of the waiters outside – the hottest one, of course – pony tail, leather jacket, tight trousers… I decide to stay for dessert.

Several Bellinis later…

I dream that the sea is roaming the streets, that Venice has floated away. My sister tells me it rained in the night, but I say no, more than that…

Outside, the sea is creeping in, sucking at the edges of the city. Places where we walked yesterday are now submerged, and the water is still rising. It’s acqua alta – ‘high water’.

We head back to St Marks – yesterday we walked across it, but today we have to wade. Luckily, Venetians are ready for this – platforms have been set up across the square, allowing people to walk across the water. We go into the Basilica – and the water is there ahead of us, covering the ancient tiles of the entrance hall floor, making them glisten like seaside pebbles. And still the water is rising.

This is just a weekend break, and I have company, so I only brought one small book with me – The Assassination Bureau. I brought it because I had thought it was set in Venice, but that was based on seeing the movie some years ago, which is quite different.

It’s by Jack London (better known for The Call of the Wild and White Fang) and it’s about an organisation that carries out assassinations – but only if they believe that the targets are bad people, and the contract is only valid for a year. Things get complicated when the leader of the organisation accepts a contract for his own death, then goes on the run from his fellow assassins.

I’m not sure if it’s entirely successful – this may be because it was started by Jack London, but finished by someone else. It does pose some questions about good and evil, but doesn’t seem quite sure how to answer them. But it’s certainly interesting, especially as a change from the ‘man pitted against harsh nature’ type of story that London does so well.

Soon the weekend is over, and we have to go to the airport. But we’re delayed leaving Venice, due to bad weather – which means we’re late for our connecting flight in Paris.

Never again do I want to go to Charles de Gaulle. When we do get there, it’s not clear where we have to go. The signs for connecting flights point left, right, and up?! We have fun and games with security. I manage to set off the metal detector, even though I’m not wearing anything metal at all – shoes off and everything. Perhaps I’ve been abducted by aliens… But they’re even more interested in my sister.

Never pack marzipan in your hand luggage. Apparently, in its foil wrapping, it resembles plastic explosive. The guards don’t look happy, but eventually they let us through. We’re really late now, so I don’t even bother to put my boots back on – I just knot the laces round my neck and go. We then have to go up a level, and the escalator’s out of order. Ever raced up an escalator barefoot? Don’t. Just don’t.

We make it to the departure lounge to see that our gate (the furthest away, of course) is now flashing red, final call. So we sprint like crazy – but it’s not our flight. Our plane hasn’t even landed yet. We have an hour to get our breath back – and put our shoes back on.

But once we’re on the plane – more fun. Two rows in front of us is a baby who won’t stop crying. And directly in front of us is a man who really doesn’t look right – he keeps twitching and muttering. We taxi for what feels like forever – for so long, in fact, that it seems like we are simply going to drive back to England. Would a plane fit through the Channel Tunnel?

Twitchy man is now muttering loudly. It’s starting to rain – hard. For the first time, I’m seriously considering using the emergency exit.

We take off. It gets worse. I thought the baby was already making as much noise as it could, but as soon as the pressure changes, I find out that isn’t the case. The shrieks are unbelievable – the poor thing must be in agony. And this really seems to distress Twitchy, who keeps clutching the headrest in front of him, half getting up, and looking around wildly. Maybe he just really, really needs a cigarette.

What he really doesn’t need is turbulence. So, of course, that’s what we get. I’ve been through worse – but in bigger planes This is one of the smallest planes I’ve ever been in – we are really jostled around, and there’s not even any movie to distract us. I usually travel alone, but at a time like this it’s good to be able to look at my sister and giggle. It’s a huge relief when we finally touch down. For a ninety minute flight, it felt much longer.

Back home, Venice has made the news. Acqua alta was the highest for over twenty years. Just hours after we left, the alarms went off – 75% of the city was under water. I glimpse the hotel we were staying at on the news, boards across the door trying to keep the water out.

I can’t wait to go back.

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Posted by on June 29, 2013 in Europe, Venice


Montreal, Canada – Book of Longing (2007)

Finally, I’m going to Montreal.

I’ve been through it before (but not to it) a few times now – most recently stopping there to pick up a connecting flight – well, that was the plan…

High winds. Exceptionally high winds – and we’re flying against them. There is talk of diverting, but we don’t. We touch down in Montreal an hour late. As I had less than two hours to make my flight, this is not good. I look down into the Arrivals hall – which is full. Absolutely heaving with people. There is no way I’ll be able to get through that queue and through immigration in time. I see a guy in an airport uniform, and head over to him.
It’s daft – I spent five years learning French at school, yet strangely they never taught us the phrase “Help! I have to catch a connecting flight, and the entire population of Quebec is in my way!”
But I must have a very expressive face. The man takes one look at me, and ushers me off through a priority lane – I feel like a VIP! Into departure I go.

And in departure I stay. The wind has disrupted everything. Very few planes are landing, fewer still are taking off. No-one seems to know what’s going on, not even those who can speak French. The hours pass quicker than you’d expect, as I get to play ‘Chase the Gate’ – racing around, only to find the flight’s been moved to yet another gate, then delayed again. Several flights have been cancelled, but not mine – not yet. At one point the same gate is announced for two different flights. Half of us want Nova Scotia, the other half want Manitoba – they’re in different directions, so we can’t all be right.

After four hours, we get a plane. Half an hour later, we get a crew. We take off. It’s bumpy – and gets even bumpier as we come in to land. This is where the winds have been at their worst (over a hundred miles an hour, I find out later) – but we make it. Only five hours late.

And then – the luggage compartment won’t open. The hatch is jammed, and they can’t get our luggage off the plane. It’s midnight now. They say it will probably take an hour, and suggest that we can go to our hotels, and come back to the airport to pick our luggage up in the morning. Knowing my luck, if I do that, I will never see my luggage again. And I’m not paying cab fare to come all the way out here again. I stay.

It takes two hours. As I drag my long-suffering luggage outside to get a taxi, snow begins to fall. It’s 3am by the time I check into my hotel. I think I’m asleep by 3.15.

But that was last time. This time, the flight is uneventful – a rarity for me!

I feel underdressed. That’s a rarity for me too.

When I’m going out, my clothes can tend to be a little dramatic. But Montreal was a spur of the moment trip, and I’m travelling light – really light – hand luggage only. I’ve packed for comfort – and warmth – not style. And the women here are stylish. Even the men here are stylish. I wish I’d brought blouses, rather than jumpers.
But people ask me what make my shoes are – and where I got my hat – my wrap – my bag, necklace, gloves – so I must be doing something right.

Luckily, I do scarves. It’s amazing what a scarf can do – keep you cool, keep you warm. You can tie a knot in one to use it as a makeshift bag. Use one to cover up a stain on a top – or make a top look like a different outfit, if you’ve been a dirty stop-out (wink).

It’s April – not the best time of year to visit Montreal. The bedraggled bits of snow on the ground don’t look pretty, and the trees haven’t got their leaves yet – but the air is almost shiny. I’m staying at a hotel within walking distance of most of the things I want to see. But this being one of my holidays, the walk does involve going through a mini red light district. Even first thing in the morning, guys are standing outside the clubs, shuffling in the cold, beckoning people to come in “pour le sex!”. Yeah – like the picture behind you doesn’t make that clear enough – an eight year old would take one look at this place, and know.

The first morning, I dodge the adult entertainment and go to Reubens for breakfast. I choose French toast – huge slices, soft, and with exactly the right amount of egg – and loads of blueberries, and maple syrup. I spend a delicious hour washing it down with coffee.
Normally I like to try as many new things as possible when I’m on holiday, but I come back here the next day – and the next – and the next.

I often read at breakfast, but this is a spontaneous trip, so I haven’t packed a travel classic. I’m staying close to McGill College, so I decide to treat myself to a book of poetry by one of its more famous alumni – Leonard Cohen. I already have Book of Longing, but I buy it again – justifying it to myself on the grounds that this is the Canadian version, whereas the one I have at home has a different cover. It’s one of my favourite books – one I would almost regard as a friend – and ideal company for this trip. I wonder if it’s like having the man himself as a travelling companion.

For a book with poems about lust, depression, genocide and ageing – it’s a lot of fun. There is a quirky sense of humour here, a great deal of humanity – and a lot about faith. Not surprising, as he was raised Jewish, in a staunchly Catholic city, but spent several years in a Buddhist monastery. And coming from a Buddhist monk, some of his illustrations are… well, “provocative” as one reviewer puts it. I’m not sure if that’s quite the right word – but I’m certainly glad no-one goes through my hand luggage while it’s in there.

First stop – to see some of the Chinese terracotta warriors, who happen to be visiting Montreal at the same time as me. They’re well worth seeing, purely for the strange experience of feeling intimidated by crockery…

Next on my list is the Vieux Ville, the old town – the most French part of Montreal. Being Irish, rather then English, I don’t have that inbuilt suspicion of all things French – just as well, as Montreal is second only to Paris as a Francophone city. But most people are bilingual, and will quickly switch to English if they think you’re struggling. I do speak French – though it’s odd to be told I speak it with a European accent.

The old town (which still has some cobbled streets) really looks French. It’s full of cafes and restaurants, in one of which I have the best French onion soup I’ve ever tasted.
I also visit a cabane à sucre – ‘sugar shack’ – and try tire sur la neige – ‘drawn on the snow’. That’s a beautiful name for maple syrup boiled till it’s thick, poured over crushed ice, then rolled round a stick as it starts to harden. It’s impossible to take life seriously when you’re eating one of these. It’s warm and sticky and goes all over my chin, until I feel like a kid again.

Not all the food I had in Montreal was wonderful (shame on you, Irish pubs!) but it certainly seems to be a place that appreciates good food.

It’s also a place that’s full of art galleries. I love carved stone, so I’m drawn into one with Inuit art. It’s a fascinating place, though possibly not if you’re a vegetarian – polar bear skin on the floor, stuffed bison head, caribou hide, lots and lots of leather.

I’m admiring a dancing bear when an assistant comes over to me, determined to make a sale. He asks if I have a bear already. As it happens, I do – Nanuk, a lovely piece made from anorthosite which I treated myself to years ago in Labrador.
“Ah – then he needs company! Is he standing or walking?”
“Then you will need one that is walking. Look – ”
I tell him up front that I won’t be buying anything today – this trip is my one extravagance for the month – but he unlocks a display case anyway, hands me a cute little bear.
He names a price – it’s the cost of a transatlantic flight! I say no.
He instantly knocks $200 off the price, then tells me how good the exchange rate is right now.
I’m so tempted – it is a beautiful bear – but I cannot afford it. My lovely Nanuk will have to remain single, for now.

And there are so many other shopping opportunities. I pass one shoe shop so glamorous that it looks like somewhere good shoes go when they die! I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many clothes shops – and that’s even before I visit the underground city. I go in through an entrance by a cathedral, which does lend a touch of naughtiness to shopping.

Winter is harsh here, and long, so years ago someone had the bright idea of moving the shops below ground, around the metro stations. It’s as though Lakeside suddenly squeezed itself into the Tube. It goes on for miles and miles, floor after floor of it. You’ll be standing looking into a shop window – and then suddenly surrounded by a flurry of commuters, getting off the latest train – and then they’re gone, absorbed by the shops. The whole thing is almost overwhelming. I was looking at scarves, but by the time I emerge into what’s left of the daylight, I find I’ve bought myself a fur hat – musk rat, very soft and very warm – and ideal for this drizzly evening.

As well as shops, Montreal has churches – lots of churches. I don’t have time to visit them all, but I make a point of visiting Notre Dame Basilica, which is simply beautiful. In style it looks like a Gothic cathedral, but it’s made of wood, which makes it feel warmer, more human – though ‘wood’ doesn’t really begin to do justice to the carving, the painting, the gold… the colours around the altar.

It’s been a long time since I’ve prayed – and I don’t, still – but the atmosphere of this place makes me sit, just sit, for over an hour. On the pillars are small brass plaques, etched with a finger raised to lips, for silence. They work – the only sounds are the whirr of cameras, the whisper of prayers.

On the way back to the airport, I pass a broken bus. The display reads ‘Sorry – out of service’ then ‘Hors de service – désolé’.

I don’t quite feel ‘désolé’ – but I’ll miss this.

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Posted by on June 27, 2013 in Canada, Montreal