Dispatch from the Field: Cape Breton and a Gaelic Kaylee

Breton pano

Cape Breton Island is at once beautiful and culturally significant, as it is home to a massive amount of Acadian and Gaelic culture and history. The French Acadians were evicted from the southeastern part of the Island when the British beat the pants off the French during the Seven Year’s War. Acadians subsequently came back to the northwestern part of the Island where the high lands (now known as the Cape Breton Highlands) gave them some protection and cultural insulation. It worked! There were as many Acadian flags (the French tri-color with a gold star on it) in that area as acadian flagthere were Canadian flags. Many Acadians also moved to other parts of Canada as well as Louisiana. Avid reader and Cajun music lover “shortforcanyon” will appreciate (and no doubt already knows), that after the Acadians got to Louisiana the persistent southern accent converted “Acadian” to “Cajun.” Same great traditions and same great music.

In addition, centuries ago Gaelic immigrants from Scotland came by the tens of thousands and made Nova Scotia, especially Cape Breton, their home. The Gaels, with their Celtic language and rich culture, have helped shape Nova Scotia’s identity.  More on that in a bit.

For now let’s focus on the Cabot Trail which circumnavigates the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Cabot Trail signWe did the 200 mile Trail (meaning road but Trail sounds oh so much more adventurous and that is what they call it) in a day, with a stop for lunch at the Keltic Lodge, enjoying the breathtaking view from the restaurant. We took some short hikes along the way, and I took a short nap, and we got back to the motorhome in time for dinner. Doing the Cabot Trail in two days, and spending more time along the way, might be the better option. But geez, not in a motorhome. Parts of the road are windy, steep, and tight. Hence we took the Jeep, and I was too cheap to stop half way through and rent a room somewhere.

breton coast line

Along the Trail, there are a bunch of hiking opportunities, and we took the one called “The Bog.” Clearly, it does not sound as inviting or as sexy as “Skyline Trail” or “Middle Head Trail,” but it was supposed to have a good chance of us meeting a Moose. What we would do in that event, it was not clear. The issue was moot, however; no Moose, just bog. But as bogs go, not a bad one.

bog

As beautiful as the Highlands were, the highlight of our Cape Breton experience was attending a Ceilidh (pronounced “Kay-Lee”) at The Gaelic College. Let’s just call it a gaelic collegeKaylee and focus on the event rather than the spelling or pronunciation. A Kaylee is an old Gaelic tradition roughly meaning gathering, as in let’s get together in the kitchen and play music, eat, dance, and tell stories and lies. Carol was hoping “drink some Scotch” would be a part of it, but two of the performers, Dawn and Margie, instead served all of us tea and cookies. Yes, the performers served tea and cookies to everyone there, like we were in their kitchen. And that was the point.

Since The Gaelic College is all about preserving the Gaelic culture, KayLeelanguage, and traditions, they hold many public Kaylees, and we attended a doozy. Margie and Dawn started off the show, playing the fiddle and
keyboard, and were ultimately joined by three more performers. They all traded off playing the fiddle, the keyboard, the guitar, and dancing. There was even a Gaelic song, sung in Gaelic that nobody understood, but we all sort of got. Another tune was from a Gaelic song literally translated “She put her knee in him.” Sadly, the title and the song were not explained. The music pulled me in like a magnet on iron. It was all I could do to keep from jumping up on the stage and dancing with them. Well, that and lack of talent.

One of the performers was Rod MacDonald, who played the fiddle and danced, sometimes at the same time. The Gaelic tradition is all about dancing to the music, even if you are playing the music. It was a wonder to see. It turns out that Rod is not only the CEO of the College, but also the former Prime Minister of Nova Scotia. (Just teasing, Canadians, he is the former Premier.) We talked to Rod after the concert. He was pretty sweaty from all the performing, so I guess that’s why Carol is hugging me not him. He with rodtold us that prior to becoming Premier he was at various times the minister of tourism and culture, and immigration, and this, and that. Essentially, when he became Premier he knew pretty much everything about what was going on in the government. We asked him if he would consider moving to the States and running for higher office, but he politely demurred and instead invited us to return to Cape Breton another time. We actually might.

When we were at the Keltic Lodge (and I know they can’t seem to get the spelling straight – is it laurenKeltic or Celtic? Apparently no one knows), we met Lauren, who now lives and works in the Cape Breton Highlands. I asked her where she was from and she said “Sydney [Nova Scotia] but I’m not going back!” Why? “Because there’s nothing to do! The coal mines and steel mills have closed, and it’s kind of depressing.” So, of course, the next day we went to Sydney. She was right. There was one thing though that I did want to see in Sydney – the Odditorium. What better place to go for a blog that enjoys the weird and the quirky. It apparently specializes in old rocks and minerals and other relics of the past. However, the Odditorium enjoys odd hours too. It turned out that they are open – briefly – on Monday and Friday, and otherwise by appointment only, and we were not there during the open hours. And it was very, very hard to find, unless you happened to already be heading to the medical marijuana dispensary next door. Hmm, that’s odd. Coincidence? Lauren, I’ll never doubt you again.

Our last night, tropical moisture from hurricane Maria mixed with a cold front from western Canada, resulting in the most intense series of Cape Breton thunderstorms in decades. Torrential rain. Lighting. Thunder. It started around 4 in the morning and lasted for three hours. The experience of thunder and lightning is a bit more intimate when your campsite is at the top of a plateau, you are all by yourselves in your motorhome, there are no other tall objects nearby, and your head is on a pillow separated from the metal superstructure of the RV by about three inches and a thin wall. Every time there was a flash of lightning I counted the seconds before the boom. Five seconds means it is about a mile away, and luckily the strikes never got closer than that. Storms like that make for little sleep, but great sunsets.

breton-sunset.jpg

Dispatch from the Field: PEI and the Search for the Silver Tin

pano pei campsite day

Notwithstanding the photos and video clips you see from RV company ads, it is rare to have a campsite that is honestly on the waterfront. Above is the view from our campsite in PEI. The picture at the end of this dispatch is also from our campsite. We enjoyed our time there so much we added some extra days, one of which involved staying at the campground and just enjoying the view. For those who know me, this is rare.

Knowing I was heading to Prince Edward Island (known officially as “PEI”), avid reader and fellow jazz aficionado Joe writes: “I lost a stash of weed in a campground on PEI in 1977. I appreciate your keeping an eye out for a silver tin and a pack of Zig Zags.” The loss apparently still hurts as he followed up with a further email after I agreed to take on the search: “Ok. I seem to recall the tin was packed with the finest Hawaiian weed available on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. God how I missed that, and it impacted the general tone of the rest of my cross country trip. My buddy and I had to rely more frequently on Strohs and Old Overholt for our kicks after our great loss.”

More about the search later, but whereas we couldn’t find enough to do in other places, we could easily have stayed in PEI another week. We didn’t even get to spend any time at the Art Gallery, or the Museum, or attend a couple of other plays that looked interesting, or get to know Bill the actor/story-teller/playright who goes around town, coffee shop to coffee shop, with long, scraggly, graying beard and hair, and wearing only a robe and sandals, referring to the pastries he wants to purchase as “bird droppings.”

But we did meet Paul, a semiretired software engineer, now a consultant helping startups who works with a business incubator down the street. He is a business powerhouse, having managed a number of Nasdaq companies, but fell in love with PEI. Why? “It’s small, only 135,000 people on the entire island, and only 35,000 in Charlottetown. People care about each other.” He lives on the north edge of the Island, along the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “Friends often get together for dinner at each other’s homes. Last weekend there were 14 around our table. Tonight there will only be 8.” He doesn’t mind the weather, despite the howling 60mph/100kmh winds coming off the St. Lawrence in the winter.

churchills-pub.jpgWe met Paul at the best curry place in Canada – Churchill’s Pub. There were four curries to choose from. We ordered two – both great. But what got Churchill’s into the Canadian foodie show “You Gotta Eat Here” was their Deep Fried Mars Bar. I’m a big fan of Winston Churchill. My favorite speech by anyone was his speech at the beginning of WWII to a graduating class somewhere, where he got up to the podium, paused, looked around and said in its entirety, “Never give up, never give up, never, never, never, never give up!” And he sat down. My kind of guy.

Now some of you, maybe all of you, may know that the foregoing story is a myth, that the quote was a short excerpt from a two page speech, and that this portion of his speech actually read: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” And he kept going. I like my version better, but I liked their Deep Fried Mars Bar best of all:

deep fried mars bar

We also met Hamad. Having been immensely disappointed in the fish ‘n chips served at Jungle Jim’s in Fredericton (my fault – who else would order fish ‘n chips at a chain called Jungle Jim’s?), we went to Brit’s Fish ‘N Chips in downtown Charlottetown. We immediately noted by his accent that our server was hamadnot British. He volunteered that he was from E-Ron. “You may know it as Eye-Ran.” He came to Canada 10 years ago with his family, but it took them 13 years of effort before that to gain admission. He started working at the fish ‘n chips store with his brother, then when the owner decided to sell, the family bought it. There were lots of choices on the menu but I asked for the traditional fish ‘n chips and a beer. He asked where we were from? I said Oregon. He said “most Americans think Canadian beers are…” and he paused, hesitant to continue. I said, that’s OK, tell me. “Cat piss.” So I ordered a pint of cat piss, and here is Hamad presenting it to me. As cat piss goes, it was not too bad. A bit mild, not too hoppy. Your standard yeoman cat piss.

Of course, PEI is all about Anne of Green Gables, and we went to the Anne Museum, the Anne National Park, and one of two Anne plays then playing. Not having done my homework ahead of time, I had not read the book. Or books. I guess there were a bunch. But I found one thing very interesting. The guide at the Anne Museum said they rent out the place for weddings of “Canadian and Japanese couples.” I asked why the reference to Japanese couples as compared to any others. “Green Gables was translated into Japanese just after WWII and proved to be very popular among Japanese women. Anne was a strong, and independent woman, and this resonated among Japanese women whose culture did not encourage that independence.” While we were there, at least half the people attending were Japanese. Here is a picture of the Green Gables house:

green gables house

Not the real one mind you, but an exact replica built in Japan and one of the most popular tourist sites there.

The drive out to the Green Gables area took us through many picturesque villages, and with some effort we finally made it to the north shore, and saw the Gulf of St. Lawrence:

gulf-of-st-lawrence.jpg

Charlottetown is historically significant to Canadians. It is where delegates from the various colonies north of the US gathered together in 1864, and agreed to create the union we now know as Canada. This was all very dry stuff when I attended Canadian schools when I was young. It would have been way more interesting had I known the truth. In fact, the meeting was only for delegates from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI, but politicians from what we now know as Ontario and Quebec crashed the party. They wanted something bigger and better – a new country to be called Canada, consisting of all of their collective territory. With crates of champagne to drink, the delegates spent more time at the banquets and on the dance floor than in meetings. The “Canadians” wined and dined the Maritimers for 8 days, basically wearing them out, until they realized this could work out for their benefit. Either that, or they agreed in order to get the Canadians to go home. The conference ended with a grand ball that lasted into the wee hours. Finally, at 4am, a procession of undoubtedly very giddy politicians marched down the main street to continue the celebrations aboard the SS Queen Victoria. Think how much could be accomplished these days if politicians actually partied together!

Back to Joe’s missing silver tin. Despite an intense search consisting of me standing at our campsite and looking around with my head down, Joe’s tin remains at large, but I did notice that the people at the campsite four down from us were very, very mellow.

sunset-pei.jpg

Dispatch from the Field: The French Fry Capital of the World

So Edmundston was not a hit for us, but at least tiny Florenceville-Bristol, located an hour or so down the road in the middle of New Brunswick, is the French Fry Capital of the World. It used to be just f-b signFlorenceville, but a few years ago it merged with Bristol. When Port Arthur and Fort William merged they came up with a great name with a lot of punch: Thunder Bay! It was such a great name that Paul Shaffer decided to come from there. But the best the elders of these two little towns could come up with was Florenceville-Bristol. They could have saved a lot of money on their signs if they had come up with something shorter.

It acquired the French Fry Capital of the World honor because McCain Foods started here and it is the largest french fry producer in the world. If you are eating French fries while reading this post, one out of three of them was produced by McCain. And, by the way, stop it. The salt and starch are terrible for you.

It is also the home of the Potato World Museum, the only exclusively tuberous museum in the world, which also includes the Potato World Hall of Recognition. Tammy Fowler, shown here in front of the donor wall, runs the Museum and the adjacent restaurant. tammyShe gave me the whole story. Turns out that old man McCain was born here and started a potato company, turning out french fries. The business took off, and they have plants all over the world now. Tammy runs the non-profit museum and restaurant during the tourist season, and the rest of the year she and her husband haul produce all over Canada and the US, especially out west. As a result, she had the most curious and engaging accent that combined her Canadian roots and a western drawl. It was quite lovely. One cannot come to the French Fry Capital of the World without having french fries, so we enjoyed both regular and sweet potato fries:

fries

Had I room, I would have ordered their Iced Chocolate Fries for dessert, or maybe their Iced Caramel Fries. The McCain lab is next door, and I got to wondering why a potato company needs a lab, but I didn’t want to think about that too much, and kept eating my fries. I know, I told you to stop eating your fries and here I am finishing mine. But these are the best in the world so get over it. Or come to Florenceville-Bristol.

That was originally going to be the end of the post, but then I saw an article in the national newspaper Globe & Mail highlighting the hot water you get into when you marry potato money. Canada is in the middle of tax reform, and the tax proposal of head tax dude and finance minister, Bill Morneau, would hit small businesses but shield family trusts and corporations from increases. You’ll never guess who is a beneficiary of such trusts and corporations. OK, you figured it out, but can you guess why? Morneau married Nancy McCain, and now has substantial wealth in a McCain family trust and various McCain corporations. So, eat the fries, but marry for love.

green pig.jpg

On the way out of New Brunswick, we stopped at the Green Pig Country Market and mega-marshmallow farm. I bought some butter tart squares, and asked the baker who came up that idea. “I did,” she said proudly. I asked to take a picture of her, and she turned me down. First time that’s happened. I am losing my touch.

Why the name “Green Pig?” Daisy Lewis, born in 1911 and now passed on, started the place with husband Stewart. It was a busy and popular spot, where you could buy candies, odds and ends, and great pies. One day, according to the official Green Pig History, “Stewart came home with a whole bundle of sickly green paint. ‘It was on sale’ he said. So they painted the whole store with it, therefore the nickname ‘the Green pig.'”

OK, there is a logical flaw here, in that naming something a pig does not necessarily follow from painting that something green, but it does give me the opportunity to show a picture of the lovely Daisy who is no longer around to turn me down.

daisy

Dispatch from the Field: An Apology to the People of Edmundston

I mean no offense to Edmundstonians, but their town Edmundston in New Brunswick required all of about 15 minutes to tour, and not a photo was taken. I suppose I could have taken a photo of the attractive but standard-issue cathedral at the top of the hill, or the pulp mill that had the most phallic smoke stack I’ve seen on this trip (not that I am cataloging them), or the walking bridge that, so far as I could tell, simply got you to the other side where you would look around, and then get back on it and come back, but really, why? There was also an old, deteriorated wood sculpture of a squirrel in the park that I think was intended as a beaver, but it was so deteriorated you could not tell. And deteriorated not in an artistic sense deserving of a photo, but really more in the “are you kidding, why don’t you restore this poor thing or chop it up for firewood?” sense.

I did spot a sign for a covered bridge and after many miles of traveling, and lucky guessing at a T intersection that failed to provide further guidance, I did find a covered bridge. The rules of these types of blogs requiring a photo at least every couple of paragraphs or so, here it is.

covered bridege 1

Just a covered bridge with a tiny sign identifying it as the Boniface Bridge constructed in 1925, and a whole lot of modern safety signs that completely detract from the historical rustic-ness and artistic value of it.

I drove through it and shot the other side, thinking how could it be any worse?covered bridge 2

In fairness, we were in town on a Sunday, and it was pretty much closed down, so I was unable to strike up a conversation with anyone except the person who took my order at the local coffee house. She took pity on me and spoke English – everyone else was conversing in French and took absolutely no interest in me.

Our campsite was notable not only for being one of the most comfortable, spacious and beautifully landscaped sites we have had, but also perhaps the closest to an operating railroad line. This is not a problem for us. In fact, railroads and campgrounds go together like curbs and gutters, since the property value diminution caused by the one makes the other economically feasible. And anyway, we like trains. But this spot was notable because we could feel the rumble of the trains in our motorhome just about the time we heard it. At first we couldn’t figure out what it was. A semi barreling in to the site next to us? A phalanx of semis rolling down the road in formation at 100kmh? Do they have black ops helicopters here in Canada too? We peeked out the window and this was the view:

CN

The campground was also notable for having only a single washer for those of us needing to do laundry, but no dryer. Now if we were in Yuma, I could understand no dryers, but this was the Maritimes and I was as puzzled as the look on the host’s face when I repeated “no dryers?” Oui. We deferred doing the laundry to another time.

On our way out of Edmundston the next day, we stopped at a local cafe, where once again all the customers were speaking French. So much for thinking we had left French-speaking Canada when we left Quebec. It turns out that New Brunswick is officially bilingual, which I think means everyone speaks French except servers and cashiers.

Our server had a tattoo visible above her ankle. I told her seeing her tattoo made me feel at home, since just about everyone in Portland has a tattoo. She said it’s one of six, and that her first was a butterfly “down low on my…back.” She said it was addictive, and she has plans for more. I asked her what was there to do in this town? She hesitated, paused, thought. I asked where do you go to have a good time, and she said “Moncton.” Trying another angle I asked, well, what is the one thing you need to do when you come to Edmundston, what is the highlight? She thought a little more and then her eyes lit up and she said: “Me! You need to come to this restaurant! I am the highlight!”

melissa

And she was.

Dispatch from the Field: FrancoPhobia

QC from ferry

I do not have a fear of walking backward, naked, into a glass door-knob like Johnny Carson did. I do, however, have a neurotic, almost incapacitating fear of being in a room full of people who only speak French. Not that the educational institutions in Canada didn’t try to teach me enough French to find my way to the washroom. That they failed was simply due to my not having the gene allowing the learning of multiple languages.

My FrancoPhobia, however, predates my junior high French class, because the worst thing about growing up in a bilingual country was the cereal boxes. When I was young, the front of the cereal box was for the cereal name and logo, the back was where all the fun stuff was that kids care about. Descriptions of free toys inside the box, puzzles and games, offers for things to send away for. french-toast-crunch-boxMy parents always let me pick the cereal, and my decision was solely based on the back of the cereal box rather than what cereal was inside. When Canada got serious about bilingualism, it all changed. The front was English and the back was French. Unless you were in Quebec, in which case the front was French, and the back was English. Either way, gone were the free toys, the puzzles and games, and the offers. How was a kid to decide what cereal to buy?

Canada is officially bilingual so at some point you have to get over the cereal box thing (say, at age 25 or 30). Except that in 1977 Quebec adopted Bill 101, which requires everything in Quebec to be in French and French only. Well, there are exceptions, but I had read over the years about shopkeepers that put English signs next to their French signs in their Quebec stores and were hauled off to court. They are so serious about this that there is a government office known only by its initials (OQLF –  because the actual name is in French), staffed by 230 people who enforce these requirements. They even have 15 language terminologists who take English words that have come into the parlance and decide on French equivalents that must be used. Want to send an email in Quebec? That’s a $7,000 fine from the language police. You must call it a “courriel.” Want to take a selfie? Better call it an “egoportrait” or you may get a visit from the tongue troopers.

In fact, Bill 101 has had vast consequences. According to Statistics Canada, up to 244,000 English-speaking people have emigrated from Quebec to other provinces since the 1970s, primarily due to the cereal box debacle, and many businesses and jobs fled the province. Recently, Quebec has relented a bit, so you no longer have to say “sandwich au fromage fondant” – you can now order a “grilled cheese sandwich” with no fear of repercussions. Nevertheless, it added to my irrational fear of waking up in Quebec and having to understand someone who was legally obligated to speak only French.

Hence, the plan was to blitz through Quebec without going to either Montreal or Quebec City. We’d return some day as a part of a tour group where someone else can do the communicating and we could just smile. If we were lucky, we could maybe make it all the way through without even having to fuel up (“eh, how you say, “diesel?”).

We did not make it. We ended up stopping for night at a KOA not far from Quebec City. In fact, it happened to be very close to the ferry that goes to Old Quebec City, the walled city built on a cliff, still preserved after centuries. The first night, we dipped our toes in the French water, going to a highly rated restaurant in the little town of St Nicolas, the Cuisine du Marche. The server could not have been nicer, yet the language barrier was there. Between pointing, and a whole lot of smiling, we chose well, and had a wonderful meal. The next morning, I thought, “what the hell,” and we took the ferry to one of the most beautiful cities in North America.

ferry to qc

You enter Old Quebec from the ferry by one of two ways. First, a $3CDN trip up the Funicular (French, “Funiculaire”), or second, a scramble up the cliff and over the wall followed by a visit to the emergency room. We took the Funicular and enjoyed the view.

funicular

Quebec is made for walking, and many streets are still made of cobblestone.

cobblestone

It remains a fortified city with walls and gates except where cliffs and other topography made those needless. By the late 19th century, there was a movement to remove the fortifications as obsolete and as an obstacle to urban development. Fortunately, Lord Dufferin correctly anticipated 20th century tourism and successfully led a movement to preserve them.

wall gate

Following the sound of live music, and lured by the hope of internet access, I  found myself seated in Pub Irlandais Chez Murphy’s (English translation: Murphy’s Irish Pub), where I met JoHanne and Simon. They are friends, both from the island of Ile d’Orleans, not far from Quebec City.

joHanne

She’s a teacher, but dealing with the struggles of an aging, and ill, parent. Her father was at a nearby hospital undergoing a procedure, and she was taking a break before going back. We should go to Gaspe, she said. And Newfoundland. Yes, people from Newfoundland are very nice, “but people in Quebec the friendliest.” Which is true, since she initiated our conversation while sitting 3 stools over. She said goodbye and left for the hospital again, and I stayed to enjoy honest, live, Canadian pop music.

live at the pub

 

More walking around, beautiful buildings, statutes, and landscaping everywhere:

red roof

The red roofed building is actually a restaurant and jazz club so later that evening, it was time for more jazz (French translation “Le Jazz”), except that I have found that in Canada, jazz is a loose reference to, how you say, “musique lounge” or “lounge music.”

jazz lounge

I’m really aching for some good PDX Jazz again.

All in all, spending a day in Quebec was not the torture I thought it would be, primarily due to the fact that every single person I interacted with also spoke English. But I tried to pick up some of the language, primarily from menus.

By the second day in Quebec, I was like an old pro standing at the counter of Tim Horton’s:

Me: “SVP, un Glace d’l’maple, por favor, y un cafe a un creme.”

The server smiled and said “OK, that was a nice try. Three dollars please, and have a nice day.”

Dispatch from the Field: What is Art? Is this Art?

art museum

These Dispatches, formerly criticized for including too many attractive women, is now being criticized for not having enough. A trip to the National Gallery of Art would solve that. The view of the Gallery from the outside is impressive; the view from the inside out toward the Parliament Buildings is spectacular.

As is the art inside. I took only one photo of the collection, my fervent view being that taking a picture of art is not art. It is simply a photo of art. I made an exception for my artist friend Greg, who is an amazing life painter, and sent him this photo of a painting by Edwin Holgate, one of the famous Canadian Group of Seven. The model, indicated the adjacent sign, “is truly in harmony with the landscape around her – almost to the point of integrating into the foliage completely.”

nude.jpg

My point in emailing him this was simply “Hey Greg, look at this, neat huh? Looks like some of the work you’ve done.”

His response was as thoughtful as my comment to him was inane: “Interesting style. The model has a great body with classical proportions. The lighting is ambiguous, teasing the viewer. Lots of green skin tones in the woman’s torso shadows, suggesting reflected light from plants behind viewer or possibly from the water. I would have expected the highlights to be brighter since it appears her upper back is in direct sunlight. But the dynamic range is highly compressed so it’s hard to know. The shadows on the bottom halves of the legs are quite warm in contrast to the torso, suggesting reflected light from the rocks. The background is a bit unconventional since it’s not suppressed by soft edges and is only slightly more abstract than the figure itself. I think that’s what generated the comment about her being ‘in harmony with the landscape’ since she’s distinguished only by a slightly more realistic style.”

I just thought it looked good.

After savoring as much art as my brain could handle in a couple of hours, it was time to head to the Vineyards Bistro in the Byward Market area for some jazz and $16 fries (side order of sirloin steak included at no extra charge). There I met Carol and Jean-Maurice, from Toronto. carol and J-M.jpgMy hometown has changed since I left, they said. Millions more people, quantum level more traffic, little additional public transportation. Some of my earliest memories of Toronto are about taking the subway with my mom to go shopping downtown. I had always thought the subway system was unsurpassed, particularly because it was safe. On a visit to my folks back in Toronto in the mid-1980’s, I wanted to head downtown. I asked my dad how late was it safe to take the subway. He said, somewhat puzzled, it closes at 2am. I said, “OK, but how late is it safe to take the subway?” He said “I don’t understand, it closes at 2am,” the point being that as long as it was open it was safe. But it has not kept pace, and unless you live within the small downtown zone where the subways still are, you have to drive to get anywhere, and the drive is awful. I told them about Portland, and our light rail/trolley/tram/ and even bus system, all integrated. They would love to move into the downtown core so they don’t have to drive so much, but a 1200 square foot condo there is $1.5 million or more. So they are keeping their house in the suburbs, and cursing the traffic. I suggested they move to Portland.

I had never understood why my family moved away from Toronto when I was 11; it has always seemed like the perfect city. I still love it, but feel better living in a place where we almost never have to drive, we just hop on a streetcar, or the light rail line, or just walk. Smaller scale is not bad. Not bad at all.

And – nothing against Ontario ice wine – the pinot noir from the Willamette Valley is way better.

Dispatch from the Field: My Visit to Parliament, Cheating Death, and a Serious Proposal for Canada-US Trade

parliament 150

It turns out that I have a relative who is a Senator in the Canadian Parliament. Who knew? I didn’t. Avid reader, friend and cousin Dave set me up to meet my second cousin the Senator, or is it my cousin twice removed, or is it both? I’ve never figured that stuff out. Anyway, his name is Peter Harder, and I spent a day in Parliament thanks to his invitation, and it was a great experience.

Not quite the adventure of being ‘Fighter Pilot for a Day’ that I enjoyed once, thanks to avid reader and former fighter pilot Paul (call sign “Nibes”), but tres cool nonetheless. Political junkies (and you are out there) might say that a private meeting with a Canadian Senator far surpasses the excitement of standing on the tarmac of the Fresno Air Terminal (call sign “FAT”) watching an F-16 start up. True, except that an exotic gas used to fire up the F-16’s engine escaped, the process was immediately shut down, the emergency equipment jumped into action, and the pilot hauled off for medical examination, all while Nibes and I were quickly escorted out of the area. It seems that one whiff is instant death. [Photo of F-16 over Sierra Nevada mountains shamelessly inserted here to maintain reader interest:]f-16

Cheating death was not going to be a part of my day on Parliament Hill so far as I could tell. (The F-16 pilot was fine by the way.)

After quickly going through the special entrance for official visitors, I was met by Peter’s lovely assistant Amina who escorted me to straightaway to his office. Peter and I could not recall meeting each other as kids (though we are the same age). His Aunt Tina was my Aunt Catharine – don’t ask, it’s complicated. However he knew my folks, and in fact their story was very similar to that of his own parents: born in small villages in the bread basket of Russia, came as youngsters to Canada as Mennonite refugees, grew up in southern Ontario.

His interest in law and politics took him to the University of Waterloo majoring in political science and then graduate work at Queens University, while mine took me to law school and a career as an attorney. I enjoyed my career but his was way more impressive. He joined the foreign service in 1977, and was first appointed as deputy minister in 1991 – a role he eventually would play under five different prime ministers and 12 ministers, including in the departments of immigration, public safety, industry, the treasury board and foreign affairs.Peter Harder When Trudeau was elected, he headed the transition team. Peter said, “when the Prime Minister asks, you don’t say no.” He was then appointed to the Upper Chamber (which is a snooty word for their Senate) in April 2016, as the first Independent Senator appointed under a new non-partisan selection process. He arrived in the Senate with nearly 30 years of experience in the federal public service, and a decade serving as a volunteer in various organizations and as a member of several boards of directors. As Government Representative in the Senate, he is tasked with both shepherding government legislation through the Upper Chamber and leading efforts on reform towards a more independent, accountable and transparent institution.

Oh yeah? Well I did a lot of wills. And trusts. And agreements. Lots of agreements. And stuff like that.

I peppered him with questions. Is the Canadian system like the US, where nothing gets done? He said the US system works just the way it was intended. A system of checks and balances. In a parliamentary system like Canada, the party that wins Parliament also governs, so they are accountable to the voters at the next election. Moreover, their Senate is appointed, not elected, so Senators take as their role to include long term review and analysis of really thorny issues – some research and reports take 10 years to complete. In addition, the Prime Minister of Canada has to answer to the Parliament every day at Q & A time – and he can’t duck it. The Senate has a Q & A time every day also and the person that has to answer on behalf of the government is…Peter. What about lobbying? Not nearly the refined art that is in the US. Campaign contributions? Severely limited as is campaign spending. What about political campaigns that never end? The last Canadian political campaign was about 11 weeks long and people thought that was too long.

So in the Canadian system, policy and long term consequences are carefully considered, there is no gridlock because the party in power also controls the government, money and economic power have much less influence in elections, and there is daily public accountability to the questions of the day.

Of course the American system is superior, for reasons that I cannot go into, or even understand, but I am sure it is the case because that is what I have always been told.

Now comes the serious part. This is my contribution to the state of relations between the US and Canada, and in particular US-Canada trade. Here is my proposal.

As I have crossed Canada, the only thing that people seem to talk about in coffee shops is Trump. They don’t talk about their government leaders nearly as much. Trump, Trump, Trump. And I recently read an article saying that Trudeau is more popular in the US than in Canada.

So I have a trade deal for Canada to consider: the US will trade Trump for Trudeau. If they accept this proposal, Canadians will still talk about Trump all the time, so no change there. And the US will get Trudeau who is more popular there than in Canada. A win-win deal. “What do you think?” I asked Senator Harder.

“Thanks a lot.” At which point I was escorted out of his office.

I had actually wanted to make this proposal to Prime Minister Trudeau himself but his people and my people were never able to get our schedules together. Something about him being in Toronto or Newfoundland on “government business” and, of course, I had to make the next campground before dark, so I will accept Senator Harder’s demurral as the official government response.

A tour of Parliament followed, from the House of Commons:

house of commons

to the Senate where Peter fulfills his duties:

senate

to Parliament’s reading library (my daughters will salivate over this one):

library

to the top of the Peace Tower with a commanding view of Ottawa:

peace tower.jpg

After a hard day of tough, high-level international trade negotiations, time for some good old American jazz:

jazz

UPDATED: It has been brought to my attention that my earlier references to the Premier of Canada must be revised to “Prime Minister” because that is what he is. Premiers are the heads of provinces, the Prime Minister goes around the world, smiling, and making all of us wish he was our President. Rather than argue the point (as if anyone would raise hackles were I to refer to our President as, say, the Prince of Darkness), and to avoid other potentially serious and negative consequences, I have updated this post to reflect Trudeau’s correct title, “His Prime Ministerness,” or simply, “God.”

There, cheated death again.

 

Dispatch from the Field: Canadian Content and Intense Rivalry at a Canadian Football League Game

cfl

Last weekend I scored a ticket to an Ottawa Canadian Football League (CFL) game. The CFL left Ottawa for a while, but Canada’s capital recently got their team back, and they obviously were not going to get into a controversy over their team’s name. Washington can have its Redskins, but Ottawa calls their team the RedBlacks. Yes, their name is two colors run together. Their mascot is plaid.

plaid

Plaid anything. Plaid everywhere. No one but no one is going to be offended by their name or their mascot.

Understand that Canadian football is not really football. Football (i.e., NFL) is a game of inches, like the armies of WWI spending enormous effort to move the trenches a short distance at a time, with an occasional pincer attack downfield. CFL is a game of longer distances and larger territory. Kind of like Canada. The overall field is 30 yards longer, and the playing field is 10 yards longer and a dozen yards wider. Three downs not four. One full yard between the scrimmage line and the defenders. A guy who coaches a high school football team in Canada told me at length all of the other differences between the NFL and the CFL. I forgot most of the rest of them, but they added up to a lot more passing in the CFL.

Ottawa was playing the Hamilton Tiger Cats, and I was immediately struck by the intensity of the rivalry at the game.  Like the US Civil War, it was North versus South, and the two clearly did not mix. The North in their part of the stadium, the South in theirs, and only a narrow bridge connecting them. No need for a big bridge; if you are in one area you generally don’t set foot in the other area.

Oh wait, you thought I was talking about the teams. Nope. There is a north side of the stadium and a south side, and it is like crossing the Mason-Dixon line to go from one to the other. The North’s pride is that they have a roof. The South’s pride is that they have Shoe Beer Man. What’s that you say? Well, a roof is a thing above your head that keeps the rain and snow away. Oh, the other thing? One day, a fan high up in the South seats came up with a unique way to urge the team on. He poured his beer into one of his shoes and, well, bottoms up. He is now legend, and revered to this day by South Siders.

North Sider Jesse Westwell put it this way: “The North is filled with passion, energy and emotion ready to burst out during every play…I also can’t help but point out how much we enjoy staying dry during those rainy games.” A sign on the South Side was less eloquent: “North Side Still Sucks.” I was seated in the South side, but the weather was perfect so it was all good.

There was also the usual good-natured rivalry between the two teams. I sat next to Steve and Chris, who drove 5 hours that afternoon from Hamilton to root for their team, and planned to drive back the next morning. Why the hard hats? Steve said “Hamilton is the Pittsburgh of Canada, a steel town, with a lot of blue collar, hard-working people. We’re proud of our heritage.” They were proud of their Ti-Cats too, who eked out only their second win of the season – against the defending Grey Cup Champions at that.

steve and chris

Just like it seems most hockey players in the NHL are from Canada, it seems that most football players in the CFL are from the US. However, the CFL’s Game Ratio rule provides that “Each team may have a maximum of 44 players, including 3 players who shall be identified as quarterbacks and 41 other players, of whom not more than 20 may be international players.” QB’s and key receivers are often Americans, and other positions – say, those requiring the build of a lumberjack – are filled by Canadians. This year, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers had filled out the international (i.e., US) part of their roster, but wanted to sign a promising receiver from the Santa Clarita, Drew Wolitarsky. Drew’s mother was a Canadian, so he quickly filed his application for Canadian citizenship and he’s now a receiver on the Winnipeg team.

There are also Canadian content requirements for TV shows in Canada. A specified percentage of shows must be Canadian. SCTV (think John Candy, Martin Short, Harold Ramis, Eugene Levy, and others) got its start in Toronto. Mocking Canadian content requirements, cast members Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas ad libbed a satirical sketch called the Great White North. The premise was a TV talk show by Canadians Bob and Doug McKenzie about Canada and Canadians, eh? To their surprise it became the most popular segment of SCTV. bobanddoug1Moranis recalled, “We went on the stage with no preparation, and did 15 [sketches]. Two of them were lousy, in three we cracked up and fell apart… maybe six were keepers.” Added Dave Thomas, “Rick and I used to sit in the studio, by ourselves – almost like happy hour – drink real beers, cook back bacon, literally make hot snack food for ourselves while we improvised and just talked. It was all very low key and stupid, and we thought, ‘Well, they get what they deserve. This is their Canadian content. I hope they like it.'” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_and_Doug_McKenzie]

They did.

We get DirecTv through an antenna on the motorhome and watch CNN and other US shows all the time, so I suppose we are in violation of some Canadian-content anti-bootlegging law. Here we go – on the lam again.

 

 

Dispatch from the Field: In Search of the Perfect Poutine and Other Horrible Things Canadians Do Potatoes, and the Nicest Campground Owners Anywhere

Some readers are having a hard time even picturing Poutine, let alone getting their arms around the thought of eating it. As a service to them, we went on a mission to find the perfect Poutine. We were told that people come from all over to enjoy the chip stands in Sturgeon Falls.

Larrys

Asking around town, everyone agreed that Larry’s Chip Stand was considered the best. Larry’s has been in business for 63 years. Larry is gone of course, but the Stand is now owned and run by his daughter Colette. ColetteWhen ordering, be prepared to answer a lot of questions. For example, how do you want your chips, plain or Poutine? Curds or shredded cheese? Heavy on the gravy or the light version? If you just want chips, do you want ketchup? Vinegar? If vinegar, white or Malt? Her son, Ivan, made gagging sound and held his nose when he heard the word “malt vinegar,” so I would suggest not ordering that. There are other things on the menu, of course, but if you are going to come 2800 miles to go to a chip stand, for goodness sake you better order the chips. Poutined-up. With curds. Light on the gravy. Mmmmm, perfect:

poutine

Now it might seem that this is about as good as it gets. But Canadians do not stop there, and will add any or all of the following to your Poutine:

  • Bacon, Scrambled Eggs and Maple Syrup (this is called the “Hangover”)
  • Chili, Cheese, and Bacon
  • Perogies with Sour Cream and Bacon
  • Chipotle Pulled Pork with Bacon and Italian Sausage
  • Double-Smoked Bacon, Italian Sausage, Sautéed Mushrooms, and Caramelized Onions
  • Jerk Chicken with Red Peppers
  • Butter Chicken with Green Onions
  • Chicken Bacon Ranch
  • Chicken, Bacon, Carmelized Onions, Mushrooms, and Peas
  • Philly Cheesesteak
  • Nachos
  • There is even a veggie version with Guacamole, Sriracha Sauce, Sour Cream, and Cheese Sauce
  • Do I really need to continue?

Please note that these are not served next to your chips, they are served smothered right on top of them, in all their righteous, gooey glory. Had enough? Let’s move on.

Now I would have thought that northern Ontario would also be known for its fresh-caught local fish, since it seems there are more lakes than land there. However, I struck out at every restaurant where I asked for locally caught fish. Puzzled, I asked Colette what kind of fish she served in her fish and chips, hoping she’d say pickerel, but willing to tolerate Atlantic halibut. Nope – frozen haddock from wherever one gets haddock. She told me she would love to serve local fish, but it takes multiple levels of special certification for a restaurant to serve it so the only places to order pickerel or the like are on the reserves. We had heard about one reserve that had a fish fry, but it was once a week and we were there on the wrong day. Colette loves to fish, and it breaks her heart that she can catch them and she can eat them, but not serve them. I did get lucky at one grocery store along the way, and found some fresh pickerel and made it myself. Good, but not nearly as good as the fish fry at my Aunt Lil’s cottage at Ontario’s Buckhorn Lake when I was a kid. It seems food memories are like that – always better then, than now.

Ah, but there there is one other food memory where the reality is better than ever – butter tarts.  You cannot get butter tarts in the States, something about multiple levels of certifications I think. I still get them, but only when I go to visit my sister and she decides to bake them for me. But in Canada you can find them just about everywhere and they are glorious:

butter tart

That evening we stayed at the Sturgeon Falls KOA. We found Greg and Gina to be the nicest KOA owners anywhere. When I checked in, Gina introduced herself with a big smile, and shook my hand. This happens as often at a campground as it does at a Motel 6. greg and ginaLater she came by to deliver firewood. I had just made a Manhatan with Crown Royal Canadian Maple Whiskey and offered her a sip. She approved, and said her husband liked the vanilla Canadian whiskey. I invited them both to come back so he could try the results of my mixology. They came and I gave them each a Maple Whiskey Manhattan. Discussing that, we all agreed that a drink made with Canadian Maple Whiskey simply should not be called a Manhattan, so instead I named it a “Toronto.” I later googled that name, and it has already been coined for another much less appropriate concoction. Not wanting to get into a trademark war, I am taking suggestions for another name.

Greg and Gina are a blended family with two of his and two of hers. They have been together for 30 years. I asked how they got into the campground business. He had built up a successful company doing drug testing, sold it, and when his consulting obligations ended 6 years ago they bought the property, and quickly signed up with KOA. His family had been in the cottage/lodging/hospitality business and he wanted to get back into the business. However with lodging, you are responsible for everything. The toilet is backed up – he has to fix it. Sheets need changing – they need to change them. It costs $30K to build a cabin. But it only costs $4K to develop an RV site, and if my toilet backs up it’s my problem not his. Why sign up with KOA? The company handles the marketing and the IT costs. He knows the expense of putting that infrastructure together and with KOA he can use theirs. He does have to pay them a percentage and stay in their good graces, but from our experience that is not going to be a problem. We visited until the sun went down and the full moon came up.

It is our practice that I get up early and head to a coffee shop while Carol sleeps in. I am currently at a coffee shop and Carol is currently sleeping in. Anyway, at Gina’s suggestion I went to Twigg’s at the waterfront in Sturgeon Falls the next morning and discovered the best view from any coffee shop yet:

twiggs

There, I also discovered one other Canadian food idiosyncrasy. The container they bring out with jams and jellies always includes peanut butter. Without fail. You may only get one jam but you will always get peanut butter too.

peanut butter

I have no problem with this.

Dispatch from the Field: The Diefenbunker

bomb shelter with lovelies

Cold War fever enveloped Canada as well as the US in the 1950’s. As a kid growing up in Toronto, I still remember big signs along the road advertising “Bomb Shelters For Sale,” and actually had one relative who claimed he had a bomb shelter. I saw it one time, and he proudly showed off all the cans and jars of food he and his wife had accumulated. It was built into the side of a hill, but had glass patio doors. He lived way out in the rural area, so I could never figure out the need, nor how well it would work if the Russians did decide to target the fruit-growing regions of southern Ontario. But then, I was only 10 or 11, not savvy about the survival strategies of the day.

dief himself

In the late 1950’s, while a gruff, pasty-looking fellow named John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister, Canada built an enormous monument to the Cold War, an underground bunker to safely hold the key members of the government in the event a nuclear missile targeted Ottawa. It was built far enough from Ottawa to survive the blast, but near enough that the chosen ones could get there in time. Not wanting the Russians to target the bunker too, the government claimed that it was actually just a non-essential radio facility – hardly worth bombing. The top secret status lasted about as long as the latest version of an iPhone, when a crack reporter from the Toronto newspaper flew over the huge construction site and counted 78 toilets waiting for installation. Surmising that a handful of radio-operators would not need 78 toilets, he concluded that it was what is was and in a major published story, the secret was blown:

Star headline

The name stuck, and the Diefenbunker is now a museum that is open to the public, and freaky as hell for those who remember that dark period.

Dief sign

It was four stories deep, and large enough to hold over 500 people for at least 30 days. This model shows the layout, but belies its enormity.

Dief model

The War Cabinet room reminded me of scenes from Dr. Strangelove:

War room

It had all the usual things needed to sustain life, including a cafeteria and a recreation room. I wondered what the conversations would have been like while playing cards or shooting pool after a nuclear event.

It even had small offices for each of the government ministries, like the Department of Mines and Minerals, and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Really? After nuclear war? There was also refrigerated room that doubled as both food storage and a morgue. “Hey Fred, get the pork chops will ya? They’re right next to Johnson.”

Canada was on the gold standard back then, so they even devoted an entire floor to a special vault to hold the gold bars from the Royal Bank of Canada. The gold bars were to be transported by truck in the event war became imminent. Assuming none of the drivers took a wrong turn to their own homes.

bank vault

The door to the vault was thicker than I’d ever seen:

vault door

They wanted to make sure they could communicate to the population before the bombs hit, and to any wandering moose afterwards, so they had a fully functioning studio for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation:

CBC

And they had the very latest in computer technology:

computers

One of the eeriest parts of the tour was seeing the office and sleeping area for the Prime Minister:

pm quarters

Notice that his bedroom has a single bed. All beds for all 500 people were single beds because no one, not even the PM, was permitted to bring their spouse or children. Pause for a moment and let that sink in. John Diefenbaker himself never set foot in the bunker, and it is said that in the event of war, he would not have gone to the bunker. He would never have been willing to leave his beloved wife behind.

I read a comic book when I was a kid about a guy who built a bomb shelter, and when the air raid sirens blared, down he went, closing the impenetrable door behind him. He heard lots of knocking which he knew were people desperate to come in. But he didn’t want to share it or his food, so he kept the door locked until the knocking stopped. After waiting the recommended period, he emerged to find no damage..and no people. A note said that there had been no war. Instead, aliens had come to take them to some paradise planet and they tried to get him to come along but he wouldn’t open the door. So he had the entire planet to himself, all the material goods the world had to offer, but no one to share them with. He missed his chance to join the rest of humanity in paradise and instead spent his life alone on an empty planet. And he promptly went nuts.

I remembered that comic book story when thinking about the people who would have been allowed into the Diefenbunker, and what it would have been like to emerge from that shelter and find yourself among the few survivors, with family gone, friends gone, everyone gone. Except the fortunate few, and a functioning though bare-bones government. Including, thank God, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.