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.