Category Archives: Travel

A summer trip down home

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To reach paradise, you drive from Moncton about four hours through some of the prettiest country the Maritimes offer.

You take the Trans-Canada past the village of Memramcook and the university town where my grandfather, dad and daughter once spent many happy and productive years. If you are peckish, you stop at the elegant and still exquisitely appointed Marshlands Inn in Sackville, New Brunswick, for a quick and supremely satisfying repast.

You rejoin the road at the Tantramar Marshes, where ancient Acadians once diked and dammed the land to eke out an existence from the brackish sea. You pass the glorious windmill farm near Amherst, where Don Quixote – if he were real and a long-haul trucker – might roll up to challenge the mighty blades spinning in the sun.

You move along with speed and alacrity until you reach Bible Hill, Nova Scotia, forge through until you are on Mount Thom, then descend into the vales of New Glasgow, Antigonish and Monastery, where the real deal describes itself this way: “Our Lady of Grace Monastery is home to the Contemplative Augustinian Nuns. Here, these religious sisters live out their lives consecrated to Our Lord where they pray for the Church and the whole world. The Monastery of Saint Lucy, which is the mother house is located in Rome.”

Still, on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia in the summertime, Rome seems far away. Paradise, on the other hand, is just around the corner.

You take the paved road through Lincolnville and arrive at the bustling outskirts of Bolyston, a town the Globe and Mail’s Kim Mackrael once described as “The pearl of the East.” In her 2011 piece, she enthused, “The tiny seaside village is perched on the northeast side of Nova Scotia, close to Cape Breton Island. Like many of its neighbours, Boylston suffered deeply following the collapse of the Atlantic fishing industry and the loss of thousands of jobs along the coast. These days, Boylston is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, one driven by people looking for a place to call home after they retire.”

Indeed, she reported, “Some of its residents have discovered the town only recently, while others are finding themselves drawn back home after a long absence. What they have in common is the sense of being instantly welcomed into the community. That’s why Marilyn McLean nominated Boylston as one of Canada’s great communities. She and her husband are. . .settling down after a life in the military.”

Said Marilyn: “Our neighbours are neighbourly; our darling doctor mends bones and brings hot casseroles until you can manage your crutches. You awaken after a monster snowfall to a freshly shovelled walkway. How can there be any better place on earth to live out one’s life?”

Added Ms. Mackrael: “On calm mornings in Boylston, the water by the wharf becomes as smooth as glass. Tourists driving through choose this spot to pull over and take photos of the boats as they bob gently beside the dock, casting colourful reflections across the water.”

That’s about right. I should know. My family settled these parts in the late 18th Century, fresh off the boat from Scotland. Our forbears and us have maintained “The Place” on the banks of Chedabucto Bay ever since. It’s a small, and yet somehow rambling, former farmhouse perched on 80 acres of prime rock-growing territory.

It really isn’t much, but it’s ours. And the view is, well. . .what you might expect from paradise.

As for me, I’m going for a long-missed drive down the road to down home.

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Home alone for the holidays

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They rolled over the central Maritimes, one after another, each a vast, white steamroller, each inevitable, inexorable, remorseless; and at some point on the day after my holiday haircut and before the last bag was packed, I knew the adventure was over before it had begun.

“We’re not going to make this happen, are we?” I quizzed my wife, already certain of her answer. She remained silent, but the look on her face said everything that needed to be said.

We had started planning the trip to New York City – a short, Christmastime sojourn in the Big Apple – last winter. It had made terrific sense. Our adult daughters would be gone with their families, enjoying the seasonal cheer this year with their husbands’ relations. We, in turn, would escape to Manhattan’s jazz clubs and Central Park and the Museum of Modern Art.

By early November we were ready: tickets bought, various admissions arranged, hotel reservations confirmed. Nothing would stop us. Nothing could go wrong. After all, we’d orchestrated a similar jaunt to London, England, only two Christmases ago, and it went off without a hitch.

Of course, December 2011 was not, as things transpired, December 2013.

The Canadian winter dominates the nation’s literary canon as Professor Moriarty did the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: capricious, diabolical, confounding. And so it was in the days before our scheduled great escape. Storm upon storm upon storm descended, bringing with them all the attending power outages and, more relevantly for us, flight delays and cancellations.

We had planned for every contingency except, naturally, the one for which there is none. Now, the battle turned indoors.

How exactly does one enjoy a merry Christmas when no halls had been decked, no mistletoe had been strung, no presents had been wrapped? Hell, no tree had been raised. Is any scene more pathetic than that of two 50-somethings huddled around the fireplace channel, crackling away on the tube? The packet of American bucks rested, inert, in the living room bureau drawer, feeling very sorry for itself, indeed.

Fortunately, my wife possesses a streak of resourcefulness wide enough to inspire a planeload of stranded passengers. With cheerful fortitude, she determined that if we could no longer go to New York then New York would come to us, and began to organize our leisure time accordingly.

Back issues of the New Yorker magazine were rescued from the recycle and placed prominently on the coffee table. Annie Hall, Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, and Bullets Over Broadway were stacked neatly beside the CD player, waiting only for the bagels and lox to be served.

In no time, quotes from the iconic New Yorker – Woody Allen, himself – danced through our heads. . .

This: “I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.”

And this: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

And this: “The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep.”

And this: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

When we’d had our fill of that sort of wit, we turned to another, in form of The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 miles in the City by William B. Helmreich. The book, a gift from our daughter, fairly brims with a native’s good-natured observations about his home town:

“The conclusions drawn. . .are based. . .on the more than six thousand miles I walked through the streets and parks of New York City over a four-year period,” he writes. “I hung out on street corners, attended community meetings, sat in parks, went to concerts, danced in nightclubs, and spoke with hundreds of people from every walk of life. In truth, I’ve actually been walking this city since I was a young child, having been raised here.”

Meanwhile, storms continued on their punishing course and the planes stayed grounded, as did we – but in a good way, as we gorged on the promise of spring.

“What about New York in May,” I quipped. “Winter should be over by then.”

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Footloose and fancy free in the undiscovered countries

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

Beyond the headland, off to meet the horizon

I travel not to arrive, but to leave. To leave the familiar things and commonplace trinkets that litter my life is to become unhinged, like a boat that slips its mooring, unnoticed until dawn reveals that it is gone, off around the headland or beyond the horizon.

My wife and I agree that we have not travelled nearly frequently or widely enough during our three-plus decades of marriage. That’s what happens when two people get hitched at ridiculously tender ages and commence, immediately, to do their part for global population growth.

No branch of literature romanticizes the comings and goings of dutiful partners, raising and educating children, growing older, and becoming grandparents. But the bookshelves are full of odes to both the outward and inner travelers among us.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things,” the writer Henry Miller once said.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” Mark Twain penned.

As for St. Augustine, that reformed reprobate, he observed that “the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

He was right, of course. He still is. That’s what bugs me, and always has.

How can I call myself a writer when I haven’t really been anywhere, when I haven’t inserted myself into another country, another culture, long enough to start missing my own bed?

That’s not strictly true. I’ve been to Europe and to the United States. I’ve travelled right across Canada, from coast to coast and back again. I’ve had a hot dog in Victoria and cod cheeks in St. John’s.

Still, somehow these excursions have seemed exceptional, like the odd Christmas present you honestly appreciate. To be in the wind as a way of life; this has always intrigued me.

“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going. . .You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back. . .The wish to travel seems to me characteristically human: the desire to move, to satisfy your curiosity or ease your fears, to change the circumstances of your life, to be a stranger, to make a friend, to experience an exotic landscape, to risk the unknown.”

The musings are those of Paul Theroux, one of my favourite novelists and travel writers. His books, The Great Railway Bazaar and Riding the Iron Rooster, about his journeys in Asia, compelled me to consider quitting my job at the Globe and Mail in the mid-1980s and hop a slow boat to China, there presumably to find my ch’i.

Two decades later, I settled for a fairly elaborate (and, I thought, quite workable) scheme to live and work in the world via motor home – but not just any motor home.

At that time, my wife and I decided to pool the resources we had accumulated over the years (by not letting a bank give us a mortgage on a house) and plow them into a state-of-the-art, mobile command and control centre, a sort of freelance writing, broadcasting and blogging factory on wheels.

In it, we would circle the world, reporting on what we saw and who met in an endless travelogue, earning a living from media markets – which, we were sure, would trip over themselves for our stuff – in every country we visited.

In the end, the plan proved unfeasible. For various reasons, the timing wasn’t right. Still, we never quite abandoned the basic principle of travelling as a way of life. And as the years passed, we began to formulate an alternate approach.

This Christmas, we will be heading to New York City. While there, we will do all of the classic touristy stuff – Empire State Building, Central Park. But we will also seek out the “other” Big Apple, the city that even many New Yorkers fail to notice in the less-trodden neighbourhoods.

Two years ago, again at Christmas, we did London, England, this way. Two years hence, with any luck, we’ll do Rome.

If we get good at this, the adventures will pay for themselves. Our dispatches from the front lines  of conviviality and culture will find their way into what remains of the world’s travel press.

Or not.

What’s important is the effort. How can you know when you’ve arrived, if you never leave?

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