Category Archives: Canada

Cullercoats – Limerick Nation: The UK in Verse

One of my poems has been included in an anthology by Iron Press. I’m quite chuffed by this, as their Haiku Hundred was the very first book of haiku I bought. I’ve been asked to read at the book launch at the Eclectic Iron Festival, which is in Cullercoats, Northumberland – basically, head north until you reach Newcastle-upon-Tyne, then head east until you reach the North Sea. It’s quite a distance, so instead of going for the day, I decide to go by coach, stay in Newcastle and have a weekend of it – slower than the train, but cheaper and less hassle. Well, that’s the plan…

My lift to the coach station falls through at the last minute, so I have to race out for a bus at 8am. Foolishly, I skip coffee…

My first coach is late. However the driver seems confident we’ll make up the time, and catch the connecting coach in London. But there are roadworks. Lots and lots of roadworks. Despite having an hour in hand, we miss the coach by ten minutes. At Victoria, I join a long queue of cranky people who’ve also missed connections due to roadworks, and get booked onto the next coach to Newcastle – which isn’t for another three hours. I consider having a coffee, but it’s the hottest day of the year so far, and it’s absolutely sweltering in the coach station. I ring the hotel to confirm my reservation (as now I should be arriving at 11pm). The place is too packed with people for me to sit and read comfortably, but somehow I find myself working on a poem, and three hours pass surprisingly quickly.

The second coach also struggles with roadworks. I’m struggling too – with caffeine withdrawal – but we’re running so late that by the time we stop for a break, the coffee shop at the station has closed. I get out to stretch my legs, and find myself swaying slightly, trying to adjust from the motion of the coach.

By the time we reach Newcastle-upon-Tyne, it’s after midnight. The taxi rank by the coach station is deserted, except for a large rat. It looks at me dismissively before scampering off behind a nightclub. But this sort of thing happens to me a lot, so when I rang the hotel earlier I asked for the number of a cab company. Soon, I’m on my way to the hotel.

Unfortunately when I try to check in it turns out there’s been a glitch with the hotel booking system, and it’s completely full – of hen nights, if the drunk lady in the bar clutching a giant inflatable penis is anything to go by…

The receptionist is clearly having a chaotic evening, but asks me to take a seat in the bar while they arrange something with a nearby hotel for me and the other people who are also room-less. When I’m offered a drink, even I’m surprised how quickly I say “Coffee! Sweet, sweet caffeine!”

By the time a taxi drops me off at hotel number 2, I’m really tired – I’ve been travelling for 17 hours, and I’m still in the same country! I black out as soon as my head hits the pillow.

Next morning I have a swift breakfast in hotel number 2 (nice hotel, incredibly bitter coffee), then go back to hotel number 1 to see what’s happening with my room. They tell me check-in is at 2pm. I point out that I really need a room, as I’m supposed to be at Cullercoats for 3pm, and it’s going to take me at least half an hour to get there – plus, I’d really like to get changed first. They agree to let me have the first room that becomes available.

So – back to hotel number 2! Check out, lug my stuff to hotel number 1, and wait in the bar, again. I’m not expecting there to be a lot of early risers, but it’s 11:30 before I can finally check in.

I change quickly, then head back down to the lobby, and ask where the nearest Metro station is. “Well, first you have to get to the city centre…” I am, of course, in Newcastle Gateshead – the wrong side of the river Tyne. Never trust Expedia SuperSaver’s definition of city centre…

I ask them to call me a cab, and I go back to wait in the bar – for what seems like quite a while. I go back to reception to check, and they say that the cab came, but someone else took it, so they’ve called another. Back to the bar I go. By now, the hen night crowd is leaving – to be replaced by an incoming crowd wearing stag night T-shirts! Are there a lot of weddings in Newcastle this weekend? Does this hotel offer some kind of special rate if you book an entire floor? Am I still asleep on the coach, dreaming the whole thing?

I check again on the status of my cab, to be told the second one was also poached by someone else, so they’ve ordered a third. By now I’ve had enough of the bar so I go outside, determined to grab the next vehicle that arrives. It turns out to be a 12-seater booked for a hen night – luckily I don’t have to hijack it, as my cab is immediately behind it.

Into the cab – and into more roadworks. Apparently there are five major projects taking place in Newcastle at the moment – great news for the infrastructure long-term, a pain in the derriere right now. After crawling for a while, the driver asks where I need to go to, then offers to drive me all the way to Cullercoats. It’ll be quicker than driving into the city centre, then getting the Metro out again. I agree, and we head off, leaving the city and its roadworks behind.

Finally – Cullercoats! It’s a fishing village, with picturesque ruins, sandy beach and rocky shore, cottages with old rowing boats filled with flowers in their gardens.
In Victorian times it became very popular with day-trippers and artists, including American artist Winslow Homer.

It’s a sunny day, but it’s breezy walking along the sea front above the beach. I usually wear something long and flowing for readings, and my skirt has decided it’s time for a Marilyn Monroe impression (I apologise to any Cullercoats residents who got an inadvertent eyeful!)

I make my way to the venue for the book launch – a  fisherman’s mission, easily the prettiest place I’ve ever read in. I’m surprised how many people there have a ukulele with them, but it turns out there’ll be a band playing before and after the readings.

The book, Limerick Nation, contains limericks from all around the country, and one of the rules was that the last word of the first line had to be a part of your postal address – so no cheating! Readers have been organised geographically, so it’s interesting hearing how accents change as we read from north to south and back up again. It’s fun – the venue is full and we get a lot of laughs from the audience.

Afterwards I go to the book fair – a community centre that’s been taken over for the day by independent publishers. I’ve never seen so many lovely little poetry books in one place before, and I want to take all of them home with me, but I restrain myself and just buy what I can fit in my handbag. Luckily, books of haiku tend to be tiny.

Elsewhere, live bands are playing in the garden of a house on the sea front. Cyclists are trying to compose haiku about a bike ride. A writer is sitting out on the rocks trying to compose a poem before the tide comes in. This festival even has its own specially brewed pale ale – but I manage to catch the last train back into Newcastle.

I’m back again the next day – this time wearing more practical shoes and jeans, so I can walk on the sand,  gathering sea glass, watching swallows. I attend another launch, for two poetry books – this time in a lifeboat station, again with musical accompaniment (guitar). I particularly like the readings from The She Chronicles (poems about women from history).

On the sea front, there’s an ice-cream parlour selling some unusual flavours, like Horlicks with Maltesers, and Turkish Delight. I can’t choose, so have both –  both delicious, but eating them together does taste a little peculiar.

In the evening there’s a talk by Ann Cleeves – author of the series of novels televised as ‘Shetland’ and ‘Vera’ – a very interesting lady. Someone else beats me to it asking her what she thought of the casting of Douglas Henshall (good, but blond) as Jimmy Perez (dark, and of Spanish descent). She said there are going to be eight Shetland books in total, so that’s a few more to look forward to. This time the accompaniment is a traditional Shetland fiddler, with a beautiful instrument.

Easily the best literary festival I’ve been to – I wish I’d seen more of it, including the play about fracking – but next time I’ll go by train, not coach! As I leave Newcastle, I catch sight of that massive sculpture, the Angel of the North. I hope it will watch over my journey home…


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Halifax, Nova Scotia – Dracula (1897)

Possibly something spooky was not the best choice of reading material…

I’m reading Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Re-reading it, in fact – it’s a favourite of mine. I first read it when I was thirteen, and on a family holiday in Wales. We were staying in a little fishing village, close enough to the sea that I could hear boats creaking – which really added to the atmosphere. I stayed up all night to finish reading it, and had to leave the light on, which seemed to attract seagulls – well, something was tapping at my window all night – I hope it was gulls…

Another weird experience this time. I’m in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and once more I’m at the Waverley Inn. Usually I love the atmosphere in this place – though I’ve never stayed in this room before. It’s very pretty, a picture hanging over the fireplace – but I’ve not been in the room long before I start feeling uncomfortable – very uncomfortable. I feel like I’m being watched, like there’s someone behind me – that horrible hairs on the back of your neck feeling. I realise that the lights are starting to flicker – then they start flickering wildly. As I look up at the lights, there’s a frighteningly loud BANG! I jump, and turn to find that the picture above the fireplace is now on the floor. It’s landed hard enough to break a chunk of plaster out of the frame – and it’s knocked over a vase of flowers, so there’s a puddle of water on the floor.

I head down to the lobby, and tell the guy on the front desk. He says they’ll send someone to tidy up, and asks for my room number. When I give it, his face freezes.
“We’ll give you a different room.”
A different room? Because a picture came off the wall?

Then I remember the atmosphere, and the lights – and a tour of Halifax I once went on, the tour guide saying this place was haunted – although as he said it was the ghost of Oscar Wilde, who’d had his head cut off in Paris for being homosexual(?!), I didn’t take that too seriously.

I’ve never felt any bad vibes here – quite the opposite, in fact – but I have to ask.
“This sort of thing – lights going crazy, paintings jumping off walls – does it happen often?”
“Erm – sometimes.” He coughs, tries to look busy with the register.

So – a haunted hotel room. That’s a first for me, unless there really was something in Charlottetown. (I later asked the hotel if they were happy for me to mention this in my blog – they laughed, and said it wasn’t a secret, and that they’d already had one of those ghost chasing shows filming there). I don’t change rooms. My room is tidied – and the painting removed. From then on, the atmosphere’s normal and the lights behave themselves, so I can go back to reading my book.

Everyone knows Dracula, right? The vampire from Transylvania who comes to nibble necks in Victorian London. But hardly anyone I ask seems to have read it – they’ve seen a movie. And most film adaptations really don’t do it justice. A lot of them try to make Dracula almost romantic (rather than a rapist), which means the women don’t seem to do much except wander around in period costume. That’s a shame, because Mina Harker in the book is a real heroine. She has no fears about going to Budapest alone, at a time when a lot of women were wary of catching a train to London on their own. She memorises train timetables, learns shorthand and typing – it’s her idea to type copies of the journals of the characters in the story, and put the entries in chronological order so that they can figure out what’s happening. It’s also her idea to have Van Helsing hypnotise her to get a better idea of Dracula’s movements. She does not want to become a vampire, and fights every step of the way.

The movies also don’t usually reflect just how much travelling there is in the book: Harker going to Transylvania, Mina and Lucy going to Whitby, Van Helsing flitting between London and Amsterdam, the journey of the Demeter, Quincey’s travel stories, Mina going to Budapest to collect Jonathan, and then everyone catching the Orient Express and racing to Dracula’s castle at the end. The amount of detail makes it hard to believe Stoker never even set foot in Transylvania – he would have made a good travel writer. He did visit North America, including Toronto, but I don’t know if he ever visited Halifax.

Interesting how the characters in the book are using all the latest hi-tech gadgets of their day – travel typewriters, phonograph recordings – while in contrast, I’m travelling low-tech – no laptop, I-Pod, CD player, dictaphone. The only electronic gadget I’ve brought is my camera, which (although slightly more sophisticated) is still something those characters might recognise – Jonathan Harker has a Kodak camera.

It’s hard to imagine now what it would have been like to read this when it was first published. We’re used to vampires in horror movies and cartoons (and even Sesame Street!). We already know, even without reading the book, that Dracula is the vampire, so it does seem to take our heroes ages to figure it out. And when Dracula breaks Jonathan’s mirror (because it doesn’t show his reflection), it’s hard to believe that Jonathan’s main concern at that point is wondering how he’s going to shave himself.

But it’s still a brilliant book. Yes, Van Helsing’s mangled English is frustrating to read, but that’s my only complaint. It wasn’t the first novel to be presented as extracts from letters and journals, but the style is used really effectively here. And it wasn’t the first vampire novel, but Stoker clearly got something right, creating a template for hundreds of imitators. I still live in hope of someday seeing a totally faithful film adaptation – I’d love to hear the line “Why, this beats even shorthand!” in a horror movie.

I leave the paperback in the hotel’s bookcase, for a future visitor to discover – hopefully without any spooky distractions!

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Posted by on July 20, 2014 in Canada, Nova Scotia


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Halifax, Nova Scotia – The Tale of Genji

Another trip to Canada, so more reading time. I quite fancy reading The Tale of Genji again.

It was written by a woman – Murasaki Shikibu – in tenth century Japan, and it’s thought to be the oldest novel in the world. There are older books, certainly, but they are religious, myths, or factual. This is purely fiction, designed to entertain. It’s the story of a son of the emperor, Prince Genji, ‘the shining one’, and his many romantic entanglements.

Court ladies lived life behind screens, so the men can’t even see the women they’re wooing (like online dating, but so much more beautiful). Prospective lovers are judged not by their appearance, but by how well they can compose poetry, how good their calligraphy is, whether the paper they have chosen is appropriate. There are about 800 short poems in all, mostly about love in its various forms.

It’s romantic, and sad, and beautiful – but I’m travelling light, and ‘The Genji’ as Japanese scholars call it, is one big honking book.

I first read the Seidensticker translation – but that was an Everyman hardback, and I ended up reading it with The World of the Shining Prince, by Ivan Morris (lots of useful background information about Heian Japan) so together they take up a lot of space. There is a more recent version by Royall Tyler with loads of footnotes, but I struggled with that translation – and even in paperback, it took up half my hand luggage.

If only someone could make a book of just the love poems from Genji…

Someone has.

It’s called A String of Flowers, Untied. Jane Reichhold and Hatsue Kawamura have chosen about 400 of the poems, in Japanese with English translations, and written a short summary of each chapter to give them some context, as well as notes explaining references, and puns (a string untied was apparently a euphemism for making love). It’s great for dipping into if I only have a few minutes, and just as beautiful as the Genji – and far more portable. The book itself is a lovely item, and simply would not look this good on a Kindle.

As is often the case, I find life echoing what I read. Summer has finally come to Halifax, so there is cherry blossom (suitably Japanese) – and would you believe I got to meet a prince?

Yes, HRH the Prince of Wales is on a flying visit to Canada, and I get to shake his hand on a walkabout at the Grand Parade in Halifax. There’s something I never thought I’d blog.

In another Japanese connection, one morning when I stroll down to the boardwalk, there are about fifty girls dressed in very cute costumes – a Japanese fashion walk is about to begin. There’s a lot of pink and frilly, and cute, but there are also some gothic costumes, and as the walk progresses they’re joined by people who prefer to dress in more heavily armoured costume – leading to some strange sights, like a Klingon holding a big cuddly toy, Thor holding a cup of coffee, and a Star Wars stormtrooper being impaled by a girl dressed as a unicorn…

That’s one of the reasons I love Halifax. There’s always something to see or do, even for free. More than once I find myself in Jennifer’s of Nova Scotia, drooling over Arcane Angel‘s jewellery (gorgeous silver steampunk creations, made using antique moulds and vintage watch parts).

I also drool (literally) at Rousseau Chocolatier – a new chocolate shop where there’s a viewing room so you can watch the chocolatier at work. They make chocolate with a filling of orange and balsamic vinegar (sounds weird, tastes amazing) – and a really rich hot chocolate, which I take back to my room to savour with some more poetry.

And at least this time my hotel wasn’t haunted – but that’s another post…

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Posted by on June 11, 2014 in Books, Canada, Nova Scotia


Trinity, Newfoundland – Seldom (2002)

Well, it took me three days to get here (read my previous post, if you haven’t already), but it was worth it.

Trinity is simply beautiful. It used to be the centre of a busy fishery, but now it’s a heritage town, with lots of very picturesque historic buildings, and a busy theatre festival, Rising Tide’s Seasons in the Bight.

I’m staying at Maidment House, which was built in 1892. It’s been lovingly restored, with the emphasis on local crafts – the bed, the quilts, the soaps are all made locally. Even the pretty leaf keyring for my room key was made at the forge just across the street. Karen (who runs the place) is hospitality itself. She makes the most amazing breakfasts, a different one every day. Normally when it comes to breakfast I’m a toast and coffee kind of girl, but they’re so good I try to eat as much as I can.

In fact, everyone here seems very hospitable. I’m out walking one day when a man says “You’d be that English girl that’s staying with Karen”
How did he know? Because he didn’t recognise me. Everyone knows everyone here. His wife has just made biscuits, so I’m invited in to try them. The next day I come across someone frying fish, and I’m invited to try that as well. Just two hours ago it was in the ocean – fish doesn’t get much fresher than that!

I love it here, though it might not be for everyone. There are some shops, restaurants (where you can watch icebergs drift by), a small marina – but it’s an hour’s drive if you want fresh fruit. And if you want to get a signal on a mobile phone, you have to walk to the top of a hill. I do, and finally get an update from home – I now have a new nephew, and all is well. I can breathe a huge sigh of relief, and start enjoying myself.

I go to several performances, all good. There’s a lot of artistic talent here. The New Founde Land Trinity Pageant makes particularly good use of the unique setting, where storytellers lead the audience around the town, and different historical episodes are re-enacted at each stop.

One play (a comedy) features a scene where campers exit, pursued by bear. There are screams backstage and everyone laughs – until someone comes back onstage and asks if there’s a doctor in the house. The bear has tripped over and broken his nose – luckily there are two doctors in the audience, so they look after him until the ambulance arrives (nearly an hour – the one drawback to living somewhere off the beaten track).

From fake wildlife to the real thing – there’s a whale-watching tour nearby. I’m interested in this one as they use a Zodiac. Apparently because it’s inflated, rather than having a solid hull, whales seem to regard it as sea life, and come closer than they would to a normal boat. Of course, being inflated means that if it hits a submerged rock, you’re in trouble, so we have to put on survival suits.

I now look like a fun balloon animal. Any whale watching me will probably die laughing. But off we go. And it seems to be true about the Zodiac, as several dolphins join us shortly after we set off. They stay with us, leaping alongside, until we pick up speed. A couple of humpback whales have been spotted in the area – we don’t see them, but we do come across a fin whale (the second largest whale after the blue whale). I’ve never seen one before, so that’s a real treat.

Next day I go hiking on the Skerwink Trail. It’s a slightly drizzly day, so I have the place almost to myself. Then I hear something breathing – something big. I make my muddy way through the trees (past a sign reading ‘Danger – Unstable Cliffs’) and lean over the edge. In the bay at the bottom of the cliffs are two humpback whales – the breathing I heard was them spouting. They are totally oblivious to me, so I can stand and watch for as long as I like, without worrying that I’m bothering them. Beautiful.

It’s so quiet here – and very dark once a play ends and the audience drives away. Luckily that means it’s time to read. Maidment House has a bookcase full of Newfoundland books, including Seldom, by Dawn Rae Downton (2002). Seldom is an outport on Fogo Island, not too far from Trinity, so it seems like an appropriate choice.

It’s the story of the author’s grandmother, who loved a man who was lost at sea – so she married his handsome, charming brother instead. Unfortunately he turned out to be jealous, devious and violent. But she stayed with him, trying to keep the family together, because that’s what people did – bandaging up the wounds, and telling the school the child was off with a fever. In small towns, where everyone knows everyone, it’s interesting what people choose not to know.

This makes it sound depressing – and it’s not always an easy read. I would have enjoyed it more if it were fiction. But it’s well-written, with loads of little details of daily life back then. The book spans the first half of the twentieth century, giving a history of the island as a whole, as well as the central family,. There’s no attempt made to excuse or justify the grandfather’s behaviour – it’s just another threat in a harsh environment, like the sea or the snow. But despite the harshness, love managed to flourish between the six children and their mother.

And reading it here, where you can see Newfoundland at its best, is the ideal setting.

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Posted by on November 17, 2013 in Canada, Newfoundland


Travelling to Trinity

Go to Newfoundland, see a play – how hard can it be?

A friend of mine has written a play, which is going to be performed in Trinity, Newfoundland. I’ve actually been to Trinity (briefly) a few years ago, and had been planning to go back. Unfortunately Air Canada no longer operates the daily flight direct from London to St John’s, Newfoundland, so I’ll have to go via Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Trinity is about 300 miles from St John’s. There’s a bus that goes from St John’s to Clarenville (nearest large town) and from there it’s about an hour (and $100 dollars) in a cab. Or there are a couple of cab companies that operate a cab/delivery service, dropping off people and packages around the peninsula – slower, but much cheaper.

To catch my flight at Heathrow, I will have to leave home 4.30 Saturday morning. Now, mornings – I am not at my best (to put it mildly) so I decide to just stay up all night Friday.

This is a decision I will regret.

Saturday – I leave on time, but the train is late. I get to London, and have to get across to Heathrow. As time is tight, I decide to get the Heathrow Express – more expensive, but quick and reliable. This leaves from Paddington.

Now, there are three Underground lines that go straight to Paddington. Two of these are closed for engineering works but the third seems OK – until I get downstairs and set foot on the platform. Then comes the announcement “Signal failure – no trains – passengers are advised to seek alternate routes”. I drag my luggage back upstairs to look for another route, and end up changing lines twice (and acting as guide for an Italian tourist, who is also struggling to catch a flight).

I get to Heathrow. It’s busy, but I make it through security and into the departure lounge before my gate is announced. “Great” thinks I, “Sit down, get your breath back”. But someone is kicking the chair behind me. I turn to look, expecting to see a bored kid – but it’s a woman having an epileptic fit. She stops kicking – because she’s stopped breathing. Luckily airport staff have called someone, and soon she’s sitting up again, and well enough to wonder where her other earring has gone.

And then I hear that my flight is boarding. In all the excitement, I hadn’t heard the gate announcement. I grab my luggage, sprint for the gate, board the plane. Now I can relax.


About an hour outside Halifax, the captain says “The good news is, we’re early…”
The bad news is – fog. Lots and lots of fog. We may have to divert to Montreal.

We fly a bit further. We circle Halifax for what seems like hours. The captain announces that we can try to land, but if that fails we’ll have to fly on to Moncton. I don’t like the thought of Moncton – but I don’t like the sound of a failed landing either.

Finally, the plane lands, safely. The captain gets a round of applause.

By the time I’ve cleared immigration, it’s after 3. My flight to St John’s isn’t till 9.30. I consider going into Halifax, but it’s about half an hour (and $50) in a cab, and it’s surprisingly cold and wet for July. I settle for browsing the airport shops, and treat myself to a Tim Horton’s Boston Cream doughnut – “Mmm, I could never get tired of these”.

I will eat those words…

Eventually I head up to the departure lounge. A lady from Nova Scotia tourism is doing a survey of why people are here, and seems a little disappointed that I’m just passing through. The time comes to start boarding, but the plane hasn’t arrived yet from St John’s – and the fog is getting thicker. The crew are hovering, waiting to hear what’s happening.

Finally the plane arrives, passengers get out, but still the crew are hovering. They get the OK to go, boarding starts – then stops. The flight is cancelled. Nothing is getting out of Halifax tonight. We are all given a piece of paper with two numbers to call – one to book another  flight, one to book a reduced rate hotel room. We have to retrieve our luggage then ring these numbers.

This, of course, is the ideal time to discover that my mobile phone won’t work in Canada.

There is a stampede for the payphones. I ring for a flight – the first available one they have is on Monday evening. Then I ring for a hotel – the woman on the phone says Halifax is full. I ask if she’s tried Dartmouth (the other side of the harbour) but she just says “But you’re in Halifax” and tells me to try again in ten minutes.

I try again. And again. And again.

Eventually I give up on the Air Canada helpline, and try a hotel I’ve stayed at before. They tell me that Halifax may well be full. This weekend there’s a big concert on Halifax Common. It’s also the Atlantic Jazz Festival, plus the Tall Ships are in town. I try big hotels, small hotels, student accommodation, and finally a cheap place in a rough part of town. When even that is full, I know it’s not looking good.

I try the number of a friend in Halifax – who turns out to be in Ontario this weekend. I ring the bed and breakfast I have booked in St John’s to let them know I can’t make it. Thank goodness I happen to have a lot of quarters on me.

Some people who have been able to find somewhere to stay are hiring cars to drive out to hotels as far away as Truro. It’s hard to get a cab now because the concert has ended. Dozens of people are stranded at Halifax airport – women with babies, elderly people in wheelchairs. Eventually the staff notice that we aren’t leaving. There is a garbled announcement that we can get $10 worth of Tim Horton’s if we show our boarding passes – most people can’t hear it, and it isn’t repeated.

By now it’s midnight. I head up to the observation deck, where it’s quieter and the lights aren’t as bright, so I can rest my eyes. I curse whoever designed the airport seating with armrests, specifically so you can’t lie down. The fog is so thick that I can’t see anything outside, just the red Exit-Sortie signs reflected on the windows.

I can’t sleep, so I consider my options, with Pinchy. Pinchy is a big floppy beanbag lobster I have bought in Halifax as a gift – but he’s now been promoted to travel pillow/companion, and named after the unfortunate lobster in The Simpsons.

There is a ferry to Newfoundland. I would have to get a bus to Sydney (5 hours) then ferry to Port aux Basques (5 hours) then bus to St John’s (12 hours). I don’t know how much the fares would be, plus I might have to find somewhere to stay at Sydney/Port aux Basques if I miss a connection. There is a tourist information booth here, but it’s closed now till 9.30 in the morning, and Halifax airport doesn’t seem to have an internet kiosk I can use to find any information.

Or – West Jet have a flight leaving in the morning. If there are any seats left, and if they can get off the ground, I’ll only be a few hours behind schedule. It probably won’t be cheap, but it’s better than staying at the airport till Monday. The fog does seem to be clearing – I can just about make out the lights on the runway. I try the Air Canada helpline again, and it’s now just a recording telling you to make your own arrangements.

So – Sunday 4am, I join the queue waiting for the West Jet counter to open. Yes, they expect to take off as usual. They only have four seats left, costing $Eeep! I buy a ticket – it’s almost worth it just so I can check my luggage in, and not have to keep dragging it around.

By now I’m starting to feel sleepy, but I daren’t nap in case I miss my flight. I get my $10 of Tim Horton’s – nothing else is open. Then go back through security, back to the gate – and back to the tourism lady, who seems slightly confused to see me again. She says she has to ask me why I’m there – I bite back any number of rude responses and say that I just can’t keep away from the place.

I’m too tired to read, so I try to do a crossword puzzle, but in my current state it seems incredibly hard. More Tim Horton’s…

We board. Apart from me, everyone else on the plane seems to be a Newfoundlander who was at the concert last night. We take off – no problems, no fog.

No fog in Halifax, that is.

We get to St John’s, and I find out what a failed landing is like. The captain takes the plane down as low as is legal, but the fog is so bad he can’t even see the runway. We have to turn around – and fly back to Halifax.

I collect my luggage again, then sprint to the West Jet counter to find out what’s going on. They have a flight leaving for Toronto within the hour, where we should be able to get a connection to St John’s – but if that one can’t land either, I could be stranded in Toronto… I opt for their next flight out of Halifax – which isn’t till Wednesday.

If you ever get stuck on a flight that’s cancelled, try to make sure it’s with West Jet, not Air Canada. Within minutes, they have a hotel room booked for me (free) until Wednesday. They give me vouchers good for six meals at the hotel, and direct me to a shuttle bus to the hotel. Unfortunately, while getting onto the bus, I whack my head against the door frame. It is at this point I want to cry like a two year old, and wonder if I should just give up on Newfoundland entirely…

But I am nothing if not persistent. So I check into the hotel, have the world’s quickest shower, then try to decide what to do next. First priority – get a phone. Ordinarily when I’m on holiday, I’m out of touch – but little sister is hugely pregnant, and complications are expected. I left her my mobile number, and detailed itinerary – all of which is now useless. So I call a cab, ask the driver to take me to a mall where I can get a phone. He points out that it’s now Sunday evening, and the mall is closed.

Then (and this is why I love Nova Scotia) the cab driver rings a friend to see if they know anywhere that sells pay-as-you-go phones. Then he calls the head office of the store to see which branches are open late Sunday, then calls the stores to check that they have phones in stock. He drops me off right outside the store – bless his cotton socks.

I now have a phone. I’m right next to the boardwalk, so I decide to have a quick look at the Tall Ships – forty sailing ships from around the world – along with a fun fair, barbeque, and more piratey merchandise than you can shake a wooden leg at. Apparently 75,000 people visit, and they all seem to be here today. And the weather is great – it’s hard to believe after the fog at the airport this morning, but it’s so hot now that I have to buy some sunscreen.

I wander up to the Economy Shoe Shop (which, despite the name, is a bar), and have my first proper meal in what feels like forever. There’s a firework display in the harbour tonight, but I decide it’s probably a good idea to head back to the hotel. By the time I get there, I’m feeling pretty rough – not sure if it’s concussion, or the fact I’ve now been awake for about three days – but I black out for twelve hours.

Monday – I wake up to find I now have a bump on my head where I banged it yesterday. I wonder if I should fly at all – but after breakfast and a bath, I decide I’m probably OK. I set up my phone, and start making calls – check in with my sister (no news), then ring Air Canada (to check flight status), bed and breakfast in Trinity (to let them know that I am still planning to get there), cab company in St John’s (to let them know I won’t be going to Trinity today – the guy there says he’s lived in St John’s for 58 years, and has never seen fog like it). I get numbers for some St John’s hotels, so I’ll be able to find somewhere to stay if I ever make it there. Then I try to get my luggage organised, and check how much cash I have left. I’m too tired to go into Halifax again.

Most flights seem to be back on schedule, so I go to the airport – again! Through security – again! Up to the gate – again! Thankfully tourism survey lady isn’t there this time (she’s probably run away screaming by now). Some twisted part of my brain is singing an alternate version of Hotel California – Hotel Nova Scotia – “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”… and I can’t face any more Tim Horton’s.

The plane arrives, we board – but have to wait for eight people who are stuck in security. We’re late taking off, but I don’t care, because this time we make it to St John’s – and land!

It’s now after midnight. So I grab my luggage and start ringing hotels again – find one that only has four rooms left, and ask them to hold one for me – good thing I do. By the time I get there, they’re full. I’ve actually stayed in this hotel before, so the guy on the desk knocks a bit off the rate for me. And they have a computer! So I get to check my emails, before blacking out again. This time I have really weird dreams – including one that I have finally made it to St John’s…

Tuesday – I get up early to call the cab company and see if I can get on today’s cab out to Trinity. They squeeze me in – literally! Twelve of us, in a cab built for ten – two of them small children who keep biting each other – one a little old man who tells me he had too much whiskey last night – then offers me a sandwich. It’s cozy – and it’s quite an experience. We drive around, picking up people from hotels, hospitals, houses, gas stations, a crossroad in the middle of nowhere. And we take detours down tiny side roads, dropping off parcels, car parts – all manner of things, in a blur of evergreen.

But after five hours, I get to Trinity. Just enough time to check in, drop my luggage off, and race into the theatre.

(to be continued)

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Posted by on October 9, 2013 in Canada, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia


Halifax, Nova Scotia – The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870)

“You’re so brave” a friend once said to me.
“Going to all those places, on your own”
I explained to her that most of the places I go to are pretty civilised – Canada’s hardly a war zone.
“Yes, but – how do you eat?”
“Bars, restaurants – “
“Yes, but – aren’t you worried that people will think you’ve been stood up?”

I’m not often lost for words, but this threw me completely. In all the years I’ve been travelling, it had never once occurred to me that anyone would think anything of the sort. Here I’ve been, going wherever I want, eating whatever I want, having fun – when apparently I should have been – what? Hiding behind a man? Staying in my hotel, ordering room service every night?

I enjoy eating alone. I can eat exactly what I want, without compromise. I can eat at a five star restaurant, or at a roadside burger van, depending on my inclination – or my budget. Going out for meals in a group can be so frustrating – I can’t manage three courses, so I often end up sitting there, bored, watching the others eat their starter – only to be stared at, hungrily, by calorie counters as I enjoy my dessert. Heck, if I want to order an ice cream sundae for breakfast, I will.

And I’d much rather eat alone, than be part of the couple I’m watching this evening.
I love people-watching in restaurants – much better than trying to have a conversation – you can guarantee that someone will ask you a question just as you’ve taken a big mouthful of something (not very ladylike, I know). Plus, my habit of accidentally making people laugh does not go well with lunch – I was in a diner once, and thought I’d have to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre on a friend, who laughed so much she nearly choked on her waffle.

But back to people-watching. This couple (they are a couple, though I was wasn’t sure initially, as she is older) are discussing plans for their engagement party. She is reading the menu aloud, and telling him which dishes he can’t have, because of his allergies – it’s sweet, I guess.

But then the waitress arrives, and the woman orders – and tells the waitress, in great detail, exactly what will happen to his digestive system if he eats the wrong things – sooo embarrassing.

I catch the man’s eye, and want to yell “You’re not married yet! There’s a fire escape over there – I’ll club her with the pepper mill, and you run, run while you still can!”
I don’t, of course. Maybe he’s happy – but of the two of us, I know who I’d rather be.

I’m in Cafe Chianti, in Halifax, Nova Scotia – one of my favourite restaurants. I haven’t managed to try everything on the menu yet but everything I have tasted so far is delicious. Today it’s lasagne – at first sight, I think the portion is small – but it’s so rich, so dense, I can hardly finish it.

I’m staying nearby at the Waverley Inn, a lovely old bed and breakfast. Several of the rooms are named after people who’ve stayed there in the past, including Thomas Fysche. He was a banker, whose mother-in-law was Anna Leonowens – and if that name sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen the musical The King and I. It was based on her book, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), which is what I’m reading on this trip.

In 1862 Anna went to Siam with her young son to teach English language and literature to the royal children (sixty seven of them!), as well as some of the king’s many wives. She stayed for six years. If I’m brave eating alone in public, what does that make her?

It’s a fascinating account of what would have been an incredibly alien world to Victorian eyes. We take it for granted that we can travel to other countries and take photos to show people when we get home, but travel tales like this were once the only way most people would experience foreign cultures. And like most travel tales, it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt…

The book doesn’t really read like an autobiography, or a novel. It’s oddly structured (the chapter where she leaves Siam is not the last chapter) and each of the chapters is about one particular subject (art, religion, monarchy – Anna certainly had an eye for detail, particularly architecture). It’s almost like a series of lectures; Anna did lecture about her travels once she came to North America, so presumably the book was written later.

One thing that does grate a little (in common with other older books) is the assumption that being English automatically equals being superior. Also the language might not suit a modern audience, as it’s fairly heavy, with phrases in French and Latin It’s certainly unlikely source material for a musical.

Anna does seem to have an ambivalent attitude towards the king. She describes him as  frugal and greedy, tyrannical and liberal, fickle and devoted. She doesn’t seem to be comfortable with the power of an absolute monarch – even though Queen Victoria was ruling almost a quarter of the world at that time.

King Mongkut had been a Buddhist monk for over twenty years before becoming king after the death of his half-brother. He studied science, theology and languages, so it seems a bit cheeky of Anna to criticise his English – I’m sure it was much better than her Siamese.

But if the king was really as capricious and prone to temper tantrums as she claims, and if Anna was as stubborn as she seems, then it might have been fun to watch some of their meetings…

Anna eventually lived with her daughter in Nova Scotia for several years. During that time she helped set up what would become the Nova Scotia College for Art and Design. The original building was later used as a morgue for the Titanic victims and is now a restaurant, but the current NSCAD building has a gallery named after Anna, so I check out an exhibition while I’m there.

That may not be her only legacy. Unlike most of South-east Asia, Siam was never colonised by the French or the British. Now called Thailand, it’s still a constitutional monarchy. The king wanted his country to be taken seriously, treated as civilised by the powers that might otherwise have taken it over. We’ll probably never know just how much Anna’s teaching (and her stories) contributed to how Siam was perceived – but I’m sure she made a difference.

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Posted by on August 26, 2013 in Nova Scotia


St John’s, Newfoundland – Wuthering Heights (1847)

“Irish or Scottish?” asks the cabbie.
“Pardon?” says I.
“Your accent” he says. “You’re not from here – but it’s not quite English either…”

He has a good ear. I grew up in England, but both my parents are from Dublin. I had an Irish accent till I started school, and it creeps back when I’m tired, or when I’m in Ireland – or here.

As a child, I used to wonder: where was the most Irish place outside of Ireland? So many people had left – was there another almost-Ireland out there, somewhere? I asked my father, who said probably Boston. Usually he’s quite well-informed – but he didn’t know about Newfoundland.

First colony of the British Empire, first European settlement in North America. The Vikings were here 500 years before Columbus – and if you believe the legends, St Brendan was here 500 years before them…

Almost everyone here has Irish ancestors. The Avalon Peninsula makes me feel so homesick I want to cry – like Ireland, yet not. And like Dublin, St John’s is a small city. Everyone seems to know everyone. Sometimes this is a good thing – sometimes it’s not.

I’ve had a week here this time. I’ve visited archaeological sites, bird reserves – and a lot of bars. I’ve developed a taste for the local rum – aah, Screech. I’ve met the hottest accordion player on the East Coast (a phrase I never thought I’d type). I’ve photographed moose, and caribou – I’ve eaten moose and caribou. Possibly I could have saved myself some time by simply photographing them as they were served up for dinner.

My holiday reading this trip is Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. It’s about love, hate and rivalry across two generations, set on the Yorkshire moors, so Newfoundland, with its own rugged beauty, is an interesting place to read it. Mr Earnshaw adopts an orphan – Heathcliff. His own son, Hindley, is jealous – his daughter, Catherine, loves Heathcliff, but doesn’t want to marry someone poor. Instead, she marries a neighbour, Edgar Linton. Heathcliff elopes with Isabella (Edgar’s sister) for revenge. Catherine dies after giving birth to a daughter, Cathy, who ends up marrying Heathcliff’s son, Linton… It’s complicated.

While I liked the intensity of the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine, it just leads to cruelty and destruction. Hardly anyone in the book is sympathetic, which means it’s not really a fun read. I wish I’d enjoyed it more. Maybe I’ll give it another chance in a few years…

Back to Newfoundland. Tomorrow I’m heading home – but today, I’m going iceberg hunting.

Well, that’s the plan. It didn’t include skidding on some gravel on Water Street. I put my hand out to break my fall – it lands on broken glass. Luckily I’d put my gloves on just seconds before. My knee takes most of the weight as I hit the ground. Ow.

But this just reminds me why I love Atlantic Canada. I once tripped over a wobbly paving slab on Oxford Street in London, and six people stepped over me before anyone asked if I was OK. Here, I’ve barely registered that I’m on the ground before a car pulls over and the driver asks “How are ya?” Having been raised in England, I of course reply “I’m fine”. Another car pulls up – this one’s my tour guide (I wasn’t kidding about St John’s being a small city). She asks if I still want to chase icebergs – hell, yeah!

So, a quick stop at my hotel to wash away the blood, then off we go, in search of icebergs. There is an official iceberg finder site, but we’re relying on word of mouth – any time we see a car my guide recognises (which is often), she asks them if they’ve heard of any.

And we find them. Some huge and distant, some small and close. One shaped liked a dragon, rolling in the waves. Beautiful, blue. I go down to the water’s edge, for a better look at the small pieces, the growlers. The wind that blows off them is the coldest thing I’ve ever felt.

It’s a great day – but by the time we get back to St John’s, my knee is feeling really sore. This is where someone sensible would lie down and rest – but you know me by now, right?

There’s something else I have to see before I leave. Ron Hynes is in town. If you’re in Newfoundland for more than 24 hours, you will almost certainly hear one of his songs, most likely ‘Sonny’s Dream’. I have some of his albums, and I’m not missing a chance to see him live.

So down to the bar I hop. I’m not in pain while I sit still. I enjoy the music, get to meet Ron, get a CD signed. It’s a great evening – until it ends, and I try to stand up. Ouch. The road up to my hotel seems a lot steeper than it did this morning – and now it’s starting to snow…

Next morning my knee is covered in a hideous rainbow of bruises. It’s so swollen it will barely bend, and when I try to put weight on it – it feels like fire. Getting out of bed is a performance. I end up rolling off the side of the bed, then using furniture to drag myself up off the floor. I get dressed (with difficulty) and lurch down to the lobby.

There’s no way I’m going to be able to make it to the plane without a walking stick. The funny thing is, I was actually looking at a beautiful hand-carved hiking stick yesterday, but I talked myself out of buying it – “When would I really need this?”. I could kick myself – but right now, I can’t.

St John’s is hilly, so I’m hoping the front desk might have a walking stick I can borrow. They don’t, so I ask where I can buy one – it is, of course, a Sunday. The receptionist is very helpful – she rings around pharmacies till she finds one that’s open, and has walking sticks in stock, then calls a cab to take me there. The cab driver is also very helpful, doesn’t want to be paid.
The walking sticks aren’t very attractive (why would anyone want anything in sludge green?), but fashion isn’t really a priority right now. I get one that’s a bright copper colour.

Back at the hotel, I pack. The less weight I have to drag around right now, the better. I abandon as much stuff as possible – dirty clothes, a pair of boots (I know I won’t be wearing high heels again any time soon) – and say goodbye to Wuthering Heights. I make it to the airport OK, and thankfully (in spite of the snow) the flight takes off according to schedule.

But when we land at Heathrow, and it’s time to get off – OWWWW. I don’t know whether it’s the pressure changes, or sitting still for five hours, but my knee has now locked – and I can’t get up. The cabin crew ask if I need assistance. I want to say no, but finally have to face the fact that I can’t even stand, let alone get my stuff out of the overhead locker.

They send for a wheelchair – but it’s a tiny folding one. The man pushing it is also tiny. He looks at me – then at the wheelchair – then back at me – and squeaks “But I’m only eight stone!”.

Maybe, but he’s strong for his size. Slowly, precariously, we wobble our way through security, then baggage reclaim, and on to arrivals. The whole time I’m wondering how on earth I’ll manage to make my way across London – but then I see a familiar face. My father, who’s decided to surprise me by meeting me at the airport. I had no idea he’d be there, so I haven’t told him I’ve injured myself . He sees me in the wheelchair, and his jaw drops.

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Posted by on July 8, 2013 in Newfoundland