Category Archives: Nova Scotia

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


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 anotherĀ  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 asĀ  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