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Archive for the ‘Towns & Cities’ Category

Lake Ontario

Many people come here from relatively small localities, from what for centuries were tiny towns, villages and countries. They arrive in Canada … and are staggered by the immensity of the land, the wealth of natural resources, the vast areas that have never seen a human footprint. Even the lakes are beyond their imagining. Lake Superior sees storms that rival the North Atlantic; you could drop Ireland into it and the Irish would sink without a trace, just a few shamrocks floating on the surface of the water.

A few years ago a young friend from France came to visit us. She arrived in Kingston from which she took the train to Toronto. She stepped off the train and clutched my arm: “Is it … all the same lake?!” Lake Ontario, smallest of the five, and half the size of France.

Her trip from Kingston took almost three hours — on and on, forever, it seemed to her. I shrugged, the indifferent gesture of a native Canadian, and pointed west: “Three thousand more miles of it out that-away.” I casually chew a straw of Canadian hay. “Three times bigger than Europe. Twenty times bigger than France.” The Canadian yahoo points south. “There’s another couple of thousand miles down there that we rent to the Americans.”

Flying over the Rockies once, an hour or two before dawn, I looked down. Lost among the majestic mountains that seemed to span the entire world, I saw a single light, one spark of life in the darkness. Who could it be? I thought. Whoever it is, they’re 500 miles away from anything. It brought home to me the size, and potential loneliness, of the country. I was born and raised in the shadow of those great mountains, but the sight of that tiny light still made me gasp.

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Map © Digital Wisdom Inc.

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Bunkhouse Blues

Back in 1953, when I was in the arctic, winter storms were no surprise to the construction crews; even non-construction greenhorns like me tried to take the howling snow-filled winds with a casual indifference which most of the time was barely skin deep.

There was one old gaffer — “Old Pop” he was called by the construction crews — who, in the face of all storms, went casually through the arctic days and nights secure in his belief that so long as the snow and ice descended his paycheque was guaranteed. Others might moan and groan about the weather, but Old Pop laughed all the way to the bank, even though the bank was 2000 kilometres away in the southern metropolis.

Fifty years before, and a continent away (this is the Klondike of ’98). Our bunkhouses were not made of logs, nor did we wear fedoras, but the “feel” of the photo is the feel of Frobisher Bay in 1953.

Old Pop’s security was based on the simple fact that life in the camp revolved exclusively around the bunkhouse. Given the frequency of storms — and there always seemed to be one either looming or subsiding — outside the bunkhouse human life (for “human” read “southern”) could not exist. But who would want to go outside? Thermometers were a joke. Did you need a thermometer to tell you it was 30 below?! Did you care? Did you feel 25 below was an improvement?

So Old Pop would grin to himself, bless the icy storm, and go about his business: Filling the oil stoves in every bunkhouse, warehouse, and office, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I think he’d been doing it for years.

Snowmobiles, the sled dogs of 1953.

Old Pop? Not scared of talk; recalls the past,

Old adages, and humor wise, homespun;

Philosophy; a rural pun rerun.

He’s 5-foot-4, and 65; not fast;

In youthful face and form by Youth outclassed:

Old Pop’s a wrinkled unshaved son-of-a-gun,

He fills the bunkhouse oil stoves, sun to sun;

He’s happy as a clam; his job will last.

For us? We come and go, like night and day.

André, the Frenchman, said that Pop’s “Cray-zee!

He got no brain in head, dat’s why he stay.”

Yeah, like a fox he’s cray-zee, mon ami.

Old Pop, when e’er he gets his pay,

With overtime, makes three times more than me.

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There’s Air Canada (airlines; at least I think they’re still an airline), Revenue Canada (taxes), and Poste Canada (mail). But mail, in the rest of Canada it’s also Canada Post. Why?

Is it because some misguided civil servant felt that we can cater to the French so much and no more, and that the postal service will carry the banner of revolt? (To the barricades! Canada Post Forever!)

Still, somehow, I feel it lacks the same heroic vibrancy as in the old days when we scaled the walls of Constantinople, cross of St George in one hand, blood-soaked sword in the other, voices hoarse from petitioning the gods (ours or anyone else’s) for aid.

Canada Post mailbox *

Now we are asked to man the shallow barricades of “Keep Canada free from the stain of Post Canada.”

Sheesh! Is this a fight worth fighting? Maybe it’s because the civil servants can visualize their names on some future rusted plaque mounted over one of the urinals in the Ministry of Something-Or-Other, a plaque dusty but hallowed, grimy with age but a monument to their selfless endeavour.

But, by George, it might really be something to be so revered! Has a spot been reserved for the memorial? They might declare a national holiday: Canada Post Day. Still (pensive scratching of head), translate it and the whole point is lost (Le Jour de Poste Canada), and the guys on the barricades would have to get a job. Ach, it’s a small point, surely; leave it to the purists. Political correctness hasn’t failed them yet.

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* Photo:  This photo is by “TomJ” to whom I extend my thanks. I think I’m allowed to use this without infringing copyrights. If not, please let me know.

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Totem

First nations think they have a patent on “Original Peoples.” Little do they know I’m part of the group. Not overtly perhaps, but kind of the Southern Ontario branch office.

Drop in next time you’re by. My living room looks like a longhouse. Brooding over everything and everyone in the room is a totem pole. Warm dark wood, over a metre tall, it was carved in the early 1960s by one of the west coast natives, a very talented guy named Jimmy John. Most of the figures, one atop the other, stare out at you, grim, unsmiling.

Do you detect a certain menace? Could be; the totem is powerful and doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone.

Have you noticed that every totem pole bears frowning figures? My totem gives top spot to the Owl, wings folded as if at rest. Beneath him the Raven sits on top of the Bear, who is seated on the Frog. I like to think the totem represents my family: The Owl, wise, all-seeing, and powerful (that’s me); the Raven, the cunning trickster (that’s me again); the Bear, brave, strong, very big on courage (the totem can’t be about me all the time); the Frog … well, my wife is French.

The totem pole has guarded my home for almost half a century since it came into my hands during a visit to my homeland, Vancouver Island. I would never give up that totem. And, somehow … in the darkened room at night, I think … I think the totem pole would not let itself be taken away. I see the Owl’s alert eyes in the darkness, I hear the beat of the Raven’s unfurled wings, the threatening grunt of the Bear, their movement in the shadows … no, they would not let it happen. And I feel reassured, and sleep soundly, secure in the knowledge.

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Lifelines

Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island, 1953.

Down south, in what passes for civilization, a snow storm is inconvenient, uncomfortable, dangerous to traffic, and a huge pain to shovel afterward. Up north it’s a blizzard and it’s the end of the world.

The only safe element within that maelstrom of snow, ice, and insane winds is the lifeline, that microscopic thread, no thicker than a spider’s web it seemed, that linked you to the huts and bunkhouses of the site.

Standard blizzard; motor vehicle (lower left) is perhaps ten metres away. At ground level in Frobisher Bay, swirling wind and snow between the bunkhouses made visibility zero. *

 

Beyond my window lifelines stretch, in sight

For maybe three short inches from my door.

And then they’re lost within the snow’s bright light;

Completely lost within the blizzard’s roar.

Looking through the bunkhouse door toward the dining hall, I saw … nothing but screaming billows of blizzard-driven snow, and heard the terrifying animal-like howl of the storm. I knew the dining hall was there, a scant three or four metres away, and I was starving. But I also knew that narrow laneway went perhaps 50-60 metres to my right. You could walk that distance and at the end … there was nothing, just 2000 bleak, empty kilometres, eventually leading to civilization.

Ice on power lines.

I stepped out the door and grabbed the lifeline. The wind slammed the door behind me.

Of necessity my eyes were squeezed shut. Blinded, I knew salvation rested solely in holdingthatline, firmly, with both hands. The wind pushed, tugged, tried to spin me around. Nothing to be frightened about, I told myself, frightened. I knew I had to simply take two steps, fall forward, and I would be touching the dining hall. Quite simple. Nothing to it.

Other blizzard conditions: Weight of snow pulls down a tree.

But …

What if … when I fell forward … I lost my hold on the lifeline … and found I wasn’t touching the dining hall? Eh? Eh? What do you do then, pal? Are you struggling in what you think is a forward direction, hoping to find the dining hall? Or are you headed toward that barren tundra thousands of kilometres to the right? Eh? To the right where the wolves are waiting …?

A bit melodramatic, I know. But you weren’t there. You were not faced with the reality. It wasn’t melodrama; it was stark, bonechilling. There were two or three of those storms while I was there. I never got used to them. Every one reminded me of the thousands of kilometres of empty snow and icy sea between me and the next human being. And I understood, then, why some of the men on the site went crazy.

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* Photo:  CambridgeBayWeather

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Napoli / Amalfi

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Toward the end of my time in Italy (1955) I travelled from Rome and its sad reminders of an empire that flourished 2000 years ago, to Naples where — in an amphitheatre under the stars, sitting on a stone tier that supported the derrieres of Neapolitans before Rome was even born — I saw La Tosca, and after sat in a tiny pizzeria at two a.m. and had the greatest pizza I have ever had in my life.

Naples and the Gulf *

Looking south from the heights of the Sorrento peninsula.

The next day I went farther south to Amalfi which lies more or less on the south coast of the Sorrento peninsula. (Just over the hill is Ravello, where my daughter, yet unborn, would be married, 45 years later). Marvellous climate, lovely villas, home to millionaires, who are the only ones who can afford to live there.

Thoughts of money reminded me of my dilemma at that point: I had come to Italy on a one-way ticket, intending, in my juvenile mind, to stay forever. My remaining travellers’ cheques told me I was wrong. As a foreigner I was prevented from working, and I didn’t have enough money left to allow me to return to Canada. I eventually managed to get to London, England, arriving with enough funds to let me eat for two weeks. At the eleventh hour, after hocking everything but my Jockey shorts, I got a job. And that, very definitely, is another story.

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* Photo:  Oliver-Bonjoch

 

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Capri Revisited

I say “revisited,” but it’s difficult to ever leave Capri. Indescribably beautiful vistas will haunt you for as long as you live. Forget the dark historical aspects — The Emperor Tiberius flinging young women from the cliffs, and all that misleading legendary stuff; oh all right, maybe one or two women, but hey, we all make mistakes. So, as long as you’re not a beautiful young woman, you’re pretty safe. Just sit back and bask in the beauty of the place.

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Very vertical, as I’ve mentioned before. The port area seems just one long building: Posh hotels, top-of-the-line restaurants, the usual tourist traps; spiders could take lessons in catching tourist dollars.

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Once you’ve arrived at the island’s heights you can walk the many shaded lanes. So pleasant and peaceful. The full weight of Nature is upon you: The buzzing of insects, sweet bird songs, the wonderful aroma of herbs, the almost tangible quietness.

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And then, of course, there’s me, and beyond that horizon is the North African coast, both of us hot and dry. But the North African coast has a lot more money.

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“…or walk with kings, nor lose the common touch…” Hey, common touch is my middle name — and things don’t get any commoner than the john, in Italy or Canada. This obviously candid shot was taken from the men’s room of my hotel in Napoli. All modern conveniences: As you entered, a fellow sold you a couple of sheets of newspaper. For want of a better term, call it personal service. Could you ask for anything more?

The window was an opening in the wall. No glass. No curtains, blinds, or any of that effete stuff. While I couldn’t have shaken hands with the lady, a pleasant conversation was entirely possible.

I have a million wonderful memories of Italy, and though recent visitors tell me the country has changed, I close my eyes and ears. I refuse to believe it. My memories of Italy are as alive today as they were 50 years ago.

I can’t change the past. And I’m glad of that; the past is all I have left.

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