Eight Days East: Halifax

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After a grueling drive of almost six hours from Louisbourg, we arrived in Halifax for the last three days of our trip. We checked into an old hotel on Barrington Street called “The Waverley.” Our room was at the very top, under the roof. No elevator. Really old Victorian furniture, chandeliers in the lobby, and portraits on the walls of long-forgotten people, whose eyes followed us as we climbed the stairs. I thought for sure the place was haunted, but I didn’t glimpse any ghosts during our stay. Our room had sloped ceilings, old wallpaper, and a large, dark wardrobe, as well as a bed with a tall, creepy headboard. I really liked “The Waverley.” We had a nice meal at a nearby pub that first evening, and retired for the night.

The next morning, the four of us walked down to the boardwalk. I literally mean “down,” as the streets were very hilly and steep, leading down to the harbour. I was enthralled with the harbour. I loved the pretty sailboats moored at the docks. I loved the massive ocean liner further out in the harbour, its deep, resonating horn as it headed out to sea. I loved all the stores and the restaurants lining the boardwalk, the fountain where little children played with happy squeals. I loved the fresh, salty breeze coming off the water. The boardwalk was just a happy, relaxed place to be.

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I was very keen to see Pier 21, as my mother and her family had arrived there in 1950, fresh off the boat from Holland. My mom was only seven years old at the time. We visited the museum there, but there was little information they could give us, as there are privacy rules for immigrants arriving after 1935. Mom has lots of info any way. Really, it was great just to see the place and have a little taste of my history and the beginnings of my family in Canada. Dad came in 1949 with his family, but they landed further up in Quebec.

By this time, our daughter and her boyfriend were en route to Halifax themselves. They had procured a place for six weeks so that my daughter’s boyfriend could continue his research on wind turbines for his PhD. When I plugged their new address into my phone, Siri showed me that it was a two-minute walk from the hotel to their front door. We went and took pictures of the outside to send them, as they had rented the place sight unseen.

That night, we had dinner at “The Five Fishermen.” In its former life, the restaurant had been a mortuary. There were many ghost sightings at this place over the years, all documented in their pamphlet. When the Titanic sank in 1912, some of the recovered bodies were brought into Halifax. Even in death, the class structure was quite apparent. The wealthiest corpses were brought to the site of “The Five Fishermen.” We ate dinner under the same roof where John Jacob Astor had been laid out until his family came to gather his remains.

That night, we visited briefly with my daughter and her boyfriend, who had finally arrived after their fifteen-hour drive (compared to a two-hour flight, wowsers…)

The next day, sufficiently recovered from the hours of driving we’d endured after Louisbourg, we headed out to Peggy’s Cove and Lunenburg. I was excited to see the rugged beauty of Peggy’s Cove, but when we arrived there, I realized that there were hundreds of others who equally shared my enthusiasm. The famous rocks of Peggy’s Cove were swarming with people; the place was like a gigantic ant hill. The parking lot was crammed with tour buses, an endless flow of people streaming into the village, climbing up towards the pretty red and white lighthouse. It would have been an awesome place to sit, perched on the rocks and looking out over the ocean, sketching the little houses and docks and overturned boats and piles of rope…I realized as I looked around that I’d seen some of these views before. My Oma loved to make landscapes of places like Peggy’s Cove, and she must’ve copied some of her oils from pictures she’d seen of the place. It was terribly selfish of me to wish I could have Peggy’s Cove to myself. It’s one of those world-famous views (like Stonehenge, also plagued with multitudes of tourists) that lose all their ambiance when people invade.

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Lunenburg was also lovely and picture-esque, and without all the hoards of people. The streets were extremely hilly; in fact, there were times when I could have used a ski lift to get up them. The houses with their various colours and rainbow trims were a pleasure for the eyes. I think my favourite meal of the trip was the seafood au gratin we had down by the water in a nice little restaurant. We also visited a textile art gallery of works by Laurie Swim. Her pieces were so beautiful; I almost wept, just looking at them. My sister-in-law has a passion for fabric art, and after this visit, I got that.

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The four of us took my daughter and her boyfriend out for dinner at The Docks (an enormous restaurant off the boardwalk) on that last night. I had my first oyster, and I have to say, it was a better experience than the lobster one! After that, we walked up to this truly ancient and creepy cemetery down the road from the hotel, and walked around in there, trying to decipher the faded letters on the blackened stones. There were graves in there that were more than 300 years old.

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Later that night, I crept off with my daughter and her boyfriend and we wandered the boardwalk in the darkness and fog, listening to the creepy foghorn moaning across the water, climbing down to a wobbly dock and putting our toes in the Atlantic. We took pictures under the Pier 21 sign for my mom’s scrapbook. I really loved that experience.

The next day, it was time to head home. First, however, I had a chance to explore the grounds of Dalhousie as we set about finding some EastCoast Lifestyle shirts to bring home for my son. Hot commodity, according to my daughter. A really beautiful campus, with its unique brown-stoned buildings.

Now, we are back in Ontario, and I’m getting texts from my daughter about foggy nights on the boardwalk and endless seafood…

What I saw of the east coast was ruggedly beautiful and captivating; my experience there was nothing but wonderful, and the people are as friendly as they are often reputed to be. I would go back in a heartbeat. I think I’d even have a nice (free) couch to sleep on…

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Eight Days East: Louisbourg

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Although the town of Louisbourg wasn’t too alluring, the fortress nearby certainly afforded a lot of colour to the place. We bought our tickets and a bus took us up into the fortress area.

I am no history expert, but this is the bare bones of Louisbourg’s story…

It was built by the French in the beginnings of Canada’s times, one of two fortresses built to hold France’s claim to the new land (the other was in Quebec). Louisbourg was not a fort with just a military function, but a fortress town that housed an entire community of families and businessmen, as well as all the military components. It was taken by the British twice. Although the fortress had strong protection from attack by sea, it was vulnerable to land attacks, and this is how the British won it, both times. By the time the 1960’s came along, the place was rubble and foundations, but the central part of the fortress was painstakingly rebuilt over the next two decades on the original foundations and became a national park. The staff there dress in the period costume of 1744 and “live” that time period. The houses are furnished, the gardens are planted in original formations, authentic dances and songs are performed in the streets. Establishments welcoming the wealthy have signs with print painted on them, and the peasants’ establishments have only the benefit of a symbol, as those poor people did not know how to read. My husband’s brother and his wife gravitated to the fancier establishment for lunch, but my husband and I thought we would sample the peasant life, and we headed into the lowbrow tavern for a midday meal. Serving girls in long, heavy dresses and with their apron tops pinned to their blouses directed us to rough tables, where strangers crowded in together. We were given large cloths to tie around our necks. The heavy spoons we were given were to serve us for the entire meal. We had vegetable soup in metal bowls, and shared a plate of bread baked on the fortress’s premises and hunks of white cheese. Our apple juice was served in heavy metal cups. We chatted with the couple across the table from us. They were from Victoria, a young couple with a veterinary clinic. (These brief opportunities to connect to other people are really the highlight of traveling, for me). We were really happy to have had this authentic experience at the fortress.

Interesting fact: The French living in the fortress at the time did not consume tomatoes. None grow there in the gardens. The reason for this is that they were considered poisonous. It was actually the pewter dishes reacting with the acidity of the tomatoes that made the people sicken and die of lead poisoning.

While in the fortress, we saw a musket and canon-firing demonstration, complete with soldiers marching to the fife and drum. The boom of the canon firing was absolutely massive; I could feel it echoing in my chest cavity, and everyone jumped. We toured the soldier’s barracks and the governor’s apartments, all furnished to the last detail, looking as though its occupants had just left the room for a few minutes. A lady and gentleman in the street were having a conversation about being sold unsalted cod, and the lady didn’t know what she was possibly going to do with all that fresh fish before it started to rot. The man turned to us and tried to enlist our help in procuring some salt for them. A lady in a kitchen showed us all the fancy gadgetry of the time, including a kind of clock-works system that turned the spit over a fireplace. She explained that the lady of the house didn’t like living there, and hightailed it back to France. Her husband followed her there from time to time, but at times of war, he had to stay at the fortress. When I nodded and said, “Yes, I guess he’d be stuck here,” she puffed up and roared, “I beg your pardon!?” It was quite hilarious when she warned the other occupants of the house that “this lady is a little evil.”

We found time near the end of our visit to walk the paths back to the ocean-front. As we walked, we were able to see the stone foundations of some of the other buildings that had not been rebuilt in the reconstruction–a convent and a monastery, just pits and rock and long grasses growing inside. Only a fraction of the fortress had been restored, and it must have cost an unbelievable amount to do even that, considering the attention to historical detail and the incredible accuracy.

It would have taken a good two days to tour every aspect of the fortress, so I feel like we had just a taste. This walk through history was well-worth taking. So many story possibilities there…I can’t let myself think about it; I have too many on the back burner already.

Eight Days East: Into Cape Breton

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When we left Prince Edward Island, via the ferry this time, we stopped in Pictou, Nova Scotia, for the night. We stayed in a very charming bed and breakfast establishment called “The Evening Sail.” We had an upper room (named “Jacob’s Dory”) beneath sloping ceilings, decorated charmingly in a nautical theme to the last detail. If we’d planned to stay a few days, we would have used the completely outfitted kitchen. It was one of those places where you could imagine just moving in and staying for a long time. Since we were on our way to the next adventure, we went to a nearby camping lodge for a meal, and then climbed up to our room under the eaves to enjoy a good sleep. The next morning, many travellers met in the common dining area to enjoy a great breakfast and some pleasant conversation. The baked goods were delectable, and we were all given ziplock bags to fill and take along with us for later. That was such a lovely touch.

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From Pictou, we headed to the Canso Causeway to get over into Cape Breton for the next phase of our journey. Cape Breton was a veritable feast for the eyes…the Highlands, trailing down from the Appalachians, rose high and green above us, and below them, pristine stretches of lakes and rivers and an inland fjord, all edged with hills of vast pine forests. We stopped in Baddeck for lunch, and then set out in search of the Uisage Ban Falls hiking trail. After some back-road driving, we located our destination, and set off into the woods. It was a bit of a tricky hike, as the trail was rocky and filled with roots. I must have tripped a hundred times, all of them without the humiliation of a fall. A ways in, we found a couple in there, searching for their dog, who had become separated from them. I wonder still if they ever found him. The hike to the falls took about an hour and a half. The falls were beautiful, water cutting through the rock in two levels, spilling into a pool surrounded by boulders and rock at the bottom. My husband took a pounding shower under the last level of spilling water, and then we all went back down the trail to the entrance again. We spent the remainder of the afternoon driving the Cabot Trail, enjoying the panoramic views and the rugged beauty of Cape Breton. In the evening, we arrived in Louisbourg and had a great meal at a little seafood place before retiring for the evening. Our B & B was not nearly as charming as the one in Pictou, but it was adequate and clean. We were quite excited at the prospect of visiting the Fortress of Louisbourg the following morning before our final long stretch back to Halifax.

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Eight Days East: The Last of the Island

I would have been just as happy to stay planted at the Johnson Shore Inn for the rest of our stay. I’m learning that I would rather stay in one place and live the experience than cram in a pile of excursions and have just a taste of things. Things turned out very well, and I thoroughly enjoyed our foray into Cape Breton and our stay in Halifax. But there is something to be said about settling in one spot for a while.

Three days in PEI, and the weather on the island changed from one moment to the next. Fair skies, and then, a torrent of rain, then back to sun again. As we enjoyed Island fare in the dining area, we looked out the windows across the green towards the cliffs, and saw everything from hummingbirds to bald eagles. People came and went during our stay. Meeting new people is always the highlight of a trip for me; there is always something to learn in those meaningful, encapsulated chats.

I loved the fact that there were no televisions in the inn. It’s a special kind of quiet when the media is gently refused access. (I admit that my husband and I did enjoy a few episodes of “Derek” on the iPad just before bed. But “Derek” was a worthwhile exception to refraining from television-watching).

PEI is much bigger than I had envisioned. My imagination had painted a picture of a flat, red-sanded area that you could bike around in the course of a day. That was completely wrong. It might be possible to drive around the perimeter of the island in a car over a day (it would be a long day), but there is a lot of land on that island. Most of it is farmland–potato plants blooming in their neat hills, the occasional crop of corn, a few horses and cows grazing in pastures. There are great stretches of forests as well, most of them coniferous, and everywhere, the green landscape is dotted with pretty little white churches. Water views abound–be it the shoreline or inland lakes and harbours. It is just the most peaceful and pastoral place anyone could imagine.

I have always been a bit squeamish about eating lobster. The idea of eating something that has been boiled to death never really excited my taste buds. Silly, when you think about how often I eat things that have been shot between the eyes… At any rate, I planned to make the eating of a whole lobster one of my goals while on this trip. We were driving around a little town (I think it was Souris) one day when we beheld a lobster shack. It was lunch time. The lobster was selected and thrust into the pot, and twenty minutes later, it was time to eat. There are intricate guidelines for the cracking and eating of a lobster. I had studied the poster on the wall carefully. First, the claws. The meat inside was quite delicious, especially when dipped in a bit of melted butter. Similarly, the tail too was good. But then, I beheld what was left of the creature on my plate…black beady eyes, a mushy, squishy central body cavity. Ugh, I was done. Considering how expensive lobster is by the pound, and how inedible a lot of it is, I think I will count that as my one and only experience with eating whole lobster. At the very least, I will stick to the tails.

Before leaving PEI on that last day, we spent the morning in Charlottetown. It was misty and wet, and parking was a big challenge. But we had a lovely lunch under an umbrella in the street, and went to see the building where Confederation was born in 1864. Kind of cool to consider that our beginnings as a nation saw their first light in this little town on a tiny island.

And then, it was good-bye to the pines and the red dirt and the shimmering waters. We headed for the ferry.

Eight Days East: Green Gables

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Of course, we had to go.

How could we visit PEI without wandering through Anne’s house in Cavendish?

It may seem silly to some, this old homestead all gussied up with period furnishings and implements to look like a house in a book, to wander through the rooms that were “occupied” by fictional characters. I think it’s rather lovely. To see the power of good story-telling a century later is very encouraging to me, as a writer. When characters are born from imagination and attain lives as real as yours or mine, that is an incredible gift.

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The house belonged to L.M. Montgomery’s aunt and uncle. She was raised by her grandparents at a farm further down the road. Apparently, this house was in the back of her mind as she wrote “Anne of Green Gables.” One certainly does get the feeling, when going through the rooms, that Anne and Marilla and Matthew might have just been there in the kitchen, having their breakfasts, or receiving visitors in the front room.

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The outside grounds were equally as appealing, if not moreso. A kilometre of trails through the woods and “Lover’s Lane” where L.M. used to walk and connect with nature and reflect. There were several signs inscribed with quotations from her journals, proclaiming her adoration of nature, which found its way into her books and made PEI beloved to so many.

Of course, no visit to Green Gables would be complete without a nice refreshment. Raspberry Cordial, anyone? Although, admittedly, I would have enjoyed just a sip of Marilla’s currant wine. Only a sip, mind!

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Eight Days East: Arriving on Prince Edward Island

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Our journey to points on Canada’s east coast began at The Johnson Shore Inn in Prince Edward Island. Like so many tourists before me, I have had a longing to experience the island since my little-girl infatuation with Anne of Green Gables. My husband’s aunt recently bought an inn on PEI with her partner, and the four of us (me, my husband, his brother and his brother’s wife) planned to support their new business venture by staying there on the first leg of our journey.

After landing at the Halifax airport and picking up the Jeep Cherokee rental, it took us more than five hours to get over the Confederation Bridge and then over to the other side of the island, where the inn sits, overlooking the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. We enjoyed the beautiful sunset as we travelled over the bridge, and once on PEI, were awed by the tranquil, rural landscape…red dirt roads, endless potato fields in bloom, lakes and bays and channels. By the time we approached the inn, it was pitch black and finding the lane was a terrible challenge. Finally, we did get the jeep pointed towards the inn, and we bumped and jerked our way up the kilometre-long road to find Mell coming out to meet us, and Dave all set to pour us a glass of wine or pass us over a cold bottle of beer. It was so dark; we couldn’t see an inch in front of our faces. I looked forward to the sun coming up and affording me my first view of the cliffs and ocean below.

Our room was charming and comfortable, and as clean as a whistle. A ceramic pitcher and jug stood on the dresser, and there were lots of fluffy pillows and a pretty quilt spread over the bed. The window promised a view of the sea beyond the grassy acreage below. The next morning when I woke up, I hurried to the window to check out the view, and it was glorious. Red cliffs and ocean whitecaps beyond the green, spreading lawn, and an enormous sky above. Mell had a delicious breakfast ready for us downstairs in the common living/dining area, and once finished, the four of us donned our shoes and went down to the shore. We had some how gotten the opinion (wrongly) that we could walk along the water’s edge. Once we had scrambled down the side of the cliff, it quickly became apparent that we were misinformed. My husband, ever the adventurer, enjoyed leaping from rock to rock or climbing over them. However, I was not as enthused, imagining how a broken arm or a fall on my face onto the rocks was going to impact the rest of our trip. The rocks were enormous, stained the same red as the dirt of the cliffs. Beautiful and rugged to behold, but daunting to travel over. We made our painstaking way over them for about an hour, then decided to climb back up to the top of the cliffs and make our way overhead. Once back at the top, it was disappointing to see how little ground we had gained for such an expense of energy. Nevertheless, we continued on, in our quest for the beach of the “Singing Sands.”

My brother and his wife had encouraged us to find the singing sands, and we were game for the challenge. My niece had enjoyed running across them on their trip a few years previously, hearing the strange whining squeak under her feet. Something about silicon content in the sand… Apparently, these sands were near the inn. Alas, my sister-in-law and I were not to find them. As my husband and his brother foraged ahead, the two of us ladies, worn out and needing a washroom, turned and headed back to the inn. Although it wasn’t “THE” singing sands beach, the two men did find a beach that sang quite competently. They recorded it on a phone as evidence. And enjoyed lording it over the ladies’ heads that they had experienced this sand concert while we had not.

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Writing Woes

The sun was out this afternoon, but I spent hours in the writing room, working on edits for my porter book. I sequestered myself well into the night. The manuscript is 450 pages long. Every time I go through it, I am seeing things that ought to be expanded or added…I wish my brain would start subtracting instead of adding. Never in my experience of writing have I had so many profound doubts about a novel. I started it in 2003. It has been eleven years of sporadic agonizing and deliberating, questioning over and over again whether to continue or not. I dove in hard last summer in Banff and made an end of it, but it needs edits. I made some sketchy notes on a few basic things today. I need to stick to those and put this thing to bed. I’m really confused about this story. I need some readers. I have been so lost inside this thing; I don’t know which direction is up any more. I truly have no idea what this book has become, if the story flows, if the character develops, if I have said even one thing of merit. Talk about a mishmash—Down Syndrome, tragic love, Pullman Manuals, tornados, slavery, trains, stillbirth, racism, premature death, spousal abuse, murder and Star Trek. When I see this all listed, I have to wonder just how ludicrous this book might be. I don’t think I will ever be satisfied with it, even if I spent another eleven years on it. And I have other manuscripts that need my attention—stories that aren’t so overwhelming and onerous. I just need to give Gideon the final touches he deserves, and then let him go. Where to release him, I do not know. Do I dare to send him off to the slush pile, or should he just join all of my other dusty characters, dozing in bottom drawers or jump drives? Perhaps he would be happy, floating in the nether regions of the iCloud?
Why do I do this? These hundreds and thousands of words; I just keep writing and writing, and for what reason? The investment of time and effort and postage—I can’t even begin to estimate what I have spent. Reason tells me I should stop. I get a couple of bites, some positive feedback once in a while, and then a GOOD LUCK finding a place for it. I walked around Chapters today, looked at the walls and shelves and islands filled with freshly published books, and I was truly flummoxed, wondering how they’d all done it? I am not J.K. Rowling or J.R.R. Tolkien or John Steinbeck or one of the Bronte sisters. I know this. And yet, I can write. Annick Press has affirmed this, as well as Second Story Press. If it truly is a matter of sending the right manuscript to the right house at the right time, then my batting average is abysmally bad. I could not possibly be more discouraged about writing than I am right now, and yet, at the same time, I know that I will never stop. I can’t stop. I suppose this is what makes me a writer, even without an audience. If I weren’t a writer, I would be able to quit doing this. This knowledge is no consolation whatsover.

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