Archive for the ‘travels’ Category

Flying

November 14, 2011

Six o’clock always comes too early. Kay had set the alarm for it, but she was awake five minutes before, nervous that she would not meet the seven forty-five train, the last morning train into Vancouver. She padded about doing her morning ablutions, brushing her teeth, combing her hair, slipping into the clothing that she had laid out the night before.

It was alway wise for Kay to set everything out the night before because her brain did not start working until ten, and by that time, she would already be in Vancouver.

At The Station in Vancouver, she found a coffee bar and ordered up a large sized misto, then sat watching the commuters stream from the train exit doors towards the street exit. Every few minutes, another train would arrive. Crowded, jostling people would obscure her view until, suddenly, there were only one or two people sauntering by, not concerned with being anywhere on time, not going anywhere special. Like Kay, for the next hour.

She took up an abandoned paper and worked the Sudoku then the crossword. Her camera lay on the table, the shoulder strap curled around her right arm. It was a poor area of town with druggies, not always recognizable. A good camera would give them a few hits in trade. It was wise to hang on to it against such an eventuality.

Just before ten, Kay rose, chucked her cup and newspaper, loaded her overnight bag onto her shoulder, lifted  the hidden handle to her valise and began to roll it towards the direction of the Art Gallery. Her old time friends – Degas, Monet, Manet, Fantin Latour, Val Jean, Pissaro,Toulouse Lautrec and others of their era were showing their drawings. It was a Gallery Blockbuster, borrowed from the Quai d’Orsay Museum in Paris, a rare thing for Vancouver, halfway around the world.

At noon, Kay left the gallery, sated with visions of Parisians and their environs, to head back to The Station and the Canada Line to the airport. At the Main airport terminal, she waited for the Shuttle bus, sitting on the bench beside a thin man smoking a cigarette, engrossed in his newspaper.

When she boarded, the thin man helped her with her valise, lifting the heavy red case with ease onto the back of the Shuttle Bus to the South Terminal. And then at two, the plane to Trail was boarding, for it was in Trail that Lizbet would pick her up.

Lizbet was moving. After thirty seven years in her small community, she was leaving to settle in retirement on the coast near Parksville.  Kay was coming to help her close up the house and to pack.

It was odd, thought Kay, that there was no security for these smaller airports. People lined up just like they used to in the ‘Sixties, walked through the doors and across the tarmac to the airplane, walked up rickety steps to the cabin and bent double going down the aisle to a seat of one’s choice. It felt archaic.

But the thought did not actually take form until, landing in Trail, everyone walked back down the rickety steps to the landing strip asphalt and walked to the exit gate.
It was a bright but cloud-covered day. There, not fifteen feet away behind a three foot chain link fence with no other sign of security, was Lizbet and her dog Heidi. They were  standing in an unmown patch of grass waiting with the others for the passengers to get their baggage and come out to them, ”

There was Heidi dog wriggling her whole body, furiously waving her tail, running in short circles at the end of her leash, emitting a high pitched squeal of delight at the sight of Kay.

“Hello!” said Kay, greeting Lizbet, then nodding to the dog who was trying to leap up to give Kay a dog’s kiss, “She remembers me!

“Ah yes, ” Lizbet replied, “She has a fabulous memory for people.”

And off they went to the car to continue on to Lizbet’s home.

“Do you realize,” said Kay, “how special that is? How unusual now, to have an airport with no need for major security, like this one, in Trail?”

“It gives you an odd feeling, of having found the original sense of security – that everything is right with the world here. Trusting, Safe. Right with the world.

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If you don’t, then I will …

November 30, 2010

The plate glass window gave no privacy. It was at ground level, looking out to the courtyard. Kay pulled the thick red drape across. She didn’t like the room and this made it worse. She would be a self-made prisoner of her hotel room. But it didn’t matter. It was only for two nights.

She selected a water bottle, some whole grain bars, a pen and note book, her map of Zurich and her camera and stuffed them into her black carry all, slung it over her shoulder and locked the door behind her. As she unlocked the tubular steel gate, she noticed a commotion on the road. Just in front of the cafe doors, a paddy wagon was loading a street person.

At least the police frequent the area,” Kay said wryly to herself, repeating “it’s only for two days” as a mantra. It was a small measure of comfort. She checked to her left and right. There was no reason why she shouldn’t cross, and she stepped out smartly towards the corner to head back to the station and then into town.

When she went past the circus area, she crossed the street to the other side to avoid a small knot of people. A drug deal was in progress. She hastened her step, consciously not looking, keeping to herself, passing between a police woman with arms crossed, waiting, and the midnight blue van with the circulating blue light. It wasn’t her business.

Soon she arrived at the canal and instead of heading to the station she followed the canal  into the old city where she sought a cafe. A hot steamy cup of European coffee would do much to restore her spirits.

The center of the city was filled with holiday-goers and upscale shoppers. There were quality stores for clothing and watches, for footwear and for financial dealings. There was little in sight for dining or cafe-people-watching. She walked along, alert to her surroundings, knowing she would have to find her way back to the hotel without the aid of Gretel’s white stones.

It was getting on in the afternoon, but the September sun wouldn’t set until after seven. She walked up to St. Peter’s church and was shooed out of it. It was too late.  She wandered down an adjoining street and found a place  filled with smartly dressed people where she found a small empty table and ordered coffee. At ground level, the store fronts were modernized and elegant. One story up, the stone carved window frames spoke of centuries gone by, with shutters wide open to let the least breeze in against the unseasonal heat.

It was, she decided, not really a pretty city. There was a greyness to it.  What was she doing here, she asked herself, wandering alone through less than exciting streets while her green luscious garden was growing back home? She didn’t like shopping at home and she didn’t like it when she was away. It was ridiculous to be window shopping day after day for something to do.

She had been traveling too long. She had no one to share her table; no one to share her meanderings through the street. Traveling with someone was much better, she concluded. But she would not waste the day, and she rose to tackle a few more streets in search of something interesting.

At six, she began to find her way home through streets that were ill marked. Finally she saw the station and knew she could orient herself from there.  By now, she was tired and putting one foot in front of the other with stubborn perseverance. It was time to find some dinner.
I’ll eat near the hotel.  I won’t be trying to  finding my way in a rough part of town in the dark.” She was determined to be home early, though in her effort to travel light she had brought very little to amuse herself for a whole evening in her miniscule hotel room.

When she came up Militarstrasse, she passed by the pizza place making a mental note that the men outside were swarthy and mafia-like. It would be a last choice, she thought.  At the corner, she poked her nose in the cafe, but it was dirty and the customers looked none too clean either. Outside the cafe, only men sat at the side walk cafe, but inside there were a few women. The proportion was about ten to one.  She would not eat here.

She passed by this establishment a few steps forward to the Irish Pub, but it had no windows to be able to see what it might offer.  As she came alongside it, she stopped to see the notice board. Strip dancing shows were continuous, a poster stated. The lovely ladies were displayed in black and white photos behind the glass encased notices. That was definitely not a place for dinner.

Across the street, another cafe offered it’s wares. The tables were rickety, covered with plastic tablecloths and the chairs were old and worn. It was six o’clock but there were only four men in it, drinking. A large television had a sports program running. The walls and the decor was all a muddied buttercup yellow making it look lurid. There was no evidence of food except for a soiled menu posted on the door.  Kay was uncomfortable about it and didn’t even come close to read it.  She continued on.

Beside the yellow cafe was a lingerie shop. Red lace garters and black brassieres  were lustily filled with dark skinned mannequins. Next to it was an African  jewelry store displaying the wares in a wholesale style, crowded together. There were mannequin heads with wigs in a rainbow of colors – cotton candy pinks, greens and blues; an electric blue, a lemon yellow, an orange and a purple – that sat on a shelf just above the necklaces and bracelets. Who would wear these?

It was evident. There was no decent place to eat up this street. So Kay turned back to explore the lateral streets, with no better success. She sighed and returned to the pizza place.

At Milano Pizzeria, the men at the outdoor tables eyed her, mentally calculating her interest to them. She went swiftly by them into the cafe and found herself in a dining room with thirty tables, each dressed in a linen cloth with folded napkin, silverware and a wine  and water glasses.

A tall, thin waiter who had been lounging outside the door turned back into the cafe.

“Can I eat inside?” Kay asked, warily in French.

“Of course!” he answered in French without an accent. “Where would you like to sit?”

The place was empty. She chose one with her back to the door, close to the door where people walking by outside could not see her easily. He handed her a menu and left her to make her selection.  Across two tables, there was a bar where a young man was rolling pizza dough in the air. The waiter returned, spoke to him briefly in Italian. The man at the bar brought out some glasses and filled them with red wine and the waiter whisked them away to his sidewalk patrons.

He returned to Kay in five minutes.

“Have you chosen?” he solicitously.

“No,” she said, forlornly. “I can’t read a word of what is written here. It’s all in German. The only thing I can guess at is Schwein.  That’s pork, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” His  mouth registered a trace of a smile. Diplomacy was good business if a tip were to be earned.

“Well, please would you chose something for me? Not too expensive. I just want a light dinner. And not spicy.”

“Cotelets?” he asked. “Everything is very good. I think you will like this.”

It was schwein with tagliatelle for twenty two Swiss francs. Expensive, she thought, but what was she to do? Whatever tagliatelle was, she would eat it. She had never heard of it before but she didn’t want to expose her ignorance. She nodded her agreement.

“And an entrée?”
She declined, shaking her head, “No.” He looked askance as if she had offended the propriety of eating out. An entrée was de rigeur!

“But a glass of house wine. Red. Please?”

“Of course.” And he went to place the order.

Kay sat, her head spinning, wary like a fox of her surroundings, railing against the expense of eating out day by day and not even getting what she wanted for dinner. There seemed no middle ground for nourishment for a tourist much less any low cost options.

Two men came in from the sidewalk tables. They sat four tables away from Kay and she watched out of boredom. They did not seem interesting. Then the waiter came to their table and sat with them. The lad from the bar brought them each a drink.

They were not noticing her, so she brought out her sketch book and drew them, noting the particularity of their shapes, the dark of their business jackets, the  light of their faces, in comparison, and the dark of their hair.  She drew them rapidly, hoping they would not see her doing so and perhaps object.  What if they did not want to be seen here. Her sketching of them might be interpreted as an invasion. A danger.

She flipped the page and began a drawing of the tables with the repetition of cutlery and glassware, serviettes, tables and chair backs. The waiter came carrying a pizza. She closed her sketchbook.

“Would you like a piece?” he asked.

“Oh, no thanks,” Kay replied.

“Go ahead. It’s mine. Really, have a piece.”

She felt as if she might insult him if she did not accept, so she smiled and allowed him to give her a slice on a small bread plate.

It was delicious. She had not expected her hunger was so strong; it was due to all the walking; but she was thankful that she had not ordered the pizza for dinner. It was thin crusted and there was very little on it.

Soon her dinner arrived. It was indeed a pork chop, a thin one, covered in an excellent creamy pepper sauce and it came with a small portion of pasta.

“Did you like it?” he asked when he picked up her plate.

“Oh yes! Your sauce master is an excellent cook! May I have a coffee? ”

” No dessert?” He seemed offended.

“No dessert.”

He brought the coffee and the bill.

When he left, she examined the bill. The main dish. Twenty two francs. Wine. Six francs. Tagliatelle five francs. Coffee, four francs. Total thirty seven. The Swiss franc was even with the Canadian dollar. Thirty seven dollars for a thin pork chop and hardly anything n the plate. That was outrageous.

So he had charged her for the pizza after all, she thought bitterly. They can see a tourist coming a mile away. But she was determined not to  complain. She felt too vulnerable, all round, to have to challenge the bill and she wanted desperately to have a pleasant part to her day.  Especially in this place, she would not complain; but she vowed she would not eat in this district the next day. But really! Five francs for a slice of pizza!

She brought out her money and placed exactly thirty seven francs on the table. At this price, with so little dinner, I’m not giving a tip besides, she thought.

He came and lingered at the table.

“Alors! A budding Picasso!”

“Picassa, I think. Do you want to see?”

“Fantastico!”

“Here. It’s yours.” Kay tore the page from her sketchbook and gave it to him.

His smile stretched wide and he took it.

She packed her things and left.  At the corner, she stopped at the grocery store, a grim little place with ready-made snacks. She took an apple, yogurt, a bottle of spring water and a cereal bar. That would give her breakfast. Thirteen francs for a Rothaus hotel breakfast was just too much!

In her room, there was a book, her journal and the television for the remainder of the evening.  From her bed, the only place to relax, she watched Pretty Woman with Richard Gere in dubbed Italian.  Kay didn’t understand a word, but she had seen it twice before, long ago,  and knew the story.

The next day she toured the city for galleries and points of interest. She ate her meal late in the afternoon and was back early at the Rothaus. Just as she approached, she once again saw the paddy wagon, blue light flashing, doors open just at the entrance of the hotel.

A man was being loaded into it. On the ground, a woman sat, dazed, the entire contents of her purse spread around her – condoms, syringes, pills, lipstick, personal effects. The police woman was urging her to gather her belongings and come with her, I suppose, the second customer for the wagon in blue.

Kay caught the police woman’s eye, pointed her finger towards the Rothaus gate and received a nod. Yes, she could pass by with impunity. She could get into her hotel.

At least the police frequent the area. It’s just one more night. I can leave early in the morning,” she calmed herself. “It’s just one more night.

Kay was telling her experience to an Italian friend when she got back home.

“Anyway,” she said, “what is tagliatelle?”

“It’s pasta.”

“Pasta? They charged me five francs for pasta? That’s outrageous!”

“But he didn’t charge me for the pizza. It really was a gift!”

If you don’t…

November 28, 2010

“I’m going to put my laundry in. If you don’t find a hotel by the time I get back, I’ll find you one and at any price. You can afford it. It’s about time you started staying in better hotels.”

It was Hugh, frustrated with Kay’s seeming inability to book a hotel through Expedia or Hotels.ca. If Hugh was frustrated with Kay’s lack of computer brilliance, Kay was more so with the computer.

First, she wasn’t used to the laptop cursor control and the little arrow was flying over the page sometimes and then refusing to move at other times. Then, she became boggled down trying to compare prices and places. There were so many hotels and she knew so little about where they were, in a city she knew nothing about.  She could end up in some obscure location and spend half her time traveling back and forth to the hotel, when there were other hotels that were perfect for her meandering through the old parts of the city. But how was she to know when she had never been there. She’d chosen a hotel in New York that way.

It was three hundred dollars a night that she shared with her friend Kathy on a long-weekend side trip they had done from Toronto to New York, tagged on to a work-related convention. The hotel had been central alright. But the promised two beds was a trundle bed that pulled out from underneath a cot-like contraption. The second mattress lay on the floor which looked none too clean. The blankets were surplus from the First World War – gray, heavy woolen ones with dark blue stripes at the top – and there was hardly any room to move or to put luggage.  The towels were thin raggedy looking ones. Pictures  of hotels, Kay knew, were deceptive on the Internet.

Kay went back and forth between this hotel and that but they all seemed far to expensive for just sleep and nothing else. Finally she found one at one hundred Swiss francs and that seemed fine to her. The blurb stated that it was close to the city centre and the train station. There was a pub-restaurant with live music on weekends. That was a dicey thing. Perhaps with loud music, she wouldn’t be able to sleep. On the other hand, maybe it would be interesting music and it would give her something to do, close to her hotel, in the evenings.

She proceed through the steps of booking on-line, but every time she did so, the system informed her that she was missing information and booted her out. It was on the fifth try that Hugh came back from the basement with his knapsack full of clean laundry.

“Well, have you got it yet?”

“No”, she replied defensively, “but it’s not for want of trying”. She explained her trials with the computer and the booking system and how she kept getting error messages when nothing seemed missing. She showed him her selection and he took back his computer and started to key into the site where she had been looking.

Kay lamented not being able to compare the hotels.

“It’s so easy,” he replied. “Look! Here are references from other travellers. “Near the heart of town. Close to the train station. Staff is very friendly. Rating 5 out of 6. Cleanliness 5 out of 6. Sounds good. Entertainment in the surrounding district. 5 out of 6.”

“See these ratings? ” he continued. “Travelers leave there impressions and you can do the same when you have finished your trip. The other one you’ve chosen has no ratings at all.  You can’t tell. So take this one with the decent reviews. ”

After a few minutes, Hugh, too, was being booted out of the reservation system. He looked at Kay with a baffled expression.

“Well, there’s a telephone number here. We could telephone, but you’ll have to give me your credit card number so I can book for you. Only don’t stay on the phone long. I pay for my minutes if I stay on too long.”

Kay said nothing and watched Hugh thumb the telephone number into his cellular phone. It rang on the other end. Kay could hear the unfamiliar European ring repeating itself.  Hugh asked if they spoke English and then turned to Kay.

“You are sure you want to stay two nights? It’s going on your credit card. You won’t pay anything when you get there. They’ll give the special price you would have had if you had booked through Hotels.ca.  Shall I go ahead? Are you sure it’s the fifth and the sixth?”

Kay nodded mutely as  he proceeded to provide her card number. When he was finished, he turned to her and said, “See. It’s not so difficult. The only thing is, you can’t do it on line less than 24 hours before you are going to be there. ” He printed her a Google map and with a highlighter, traced her path from the station to the hotel. “Here. Take this with you. You can’t get lost.”

Kay nodded again, then, thinking the process had gone miraculously more smoothly than she could have mustered, she said, “Let’s do the one for Paris for when I return home; and let’s get one for Strasbourg for the sixth.”

“Look,” he said with a chastising tone, “You have to stop choosing the least expensive hotels. You can afford better. Suck it up. I’m going to get you a good hotel and  I get to choose.”

They argued a bit, but in the end Kay was defeated when Hugh announced, “If you want a cheaper hotel, you can do it.” Kay, feeling rather beaten, nodded her head, still wordless, with a grim feeling of panic.

The next day she left early with Hugh, down the hill to the bus stop, then down to the train station where she was on her own now, fending for herself with a continuing feeling of vulnerability. I’m getting on, she thought to herself. Now I need a magnifying glass to read a map and everyone will know I am a tourist. Now I need help to get my luggage up into a train. I no longer have the stamina to walk miles, and I’m about to go to a city where I don’t know sixteen words of the language. I’ll have to find a different way to travel.

The train ride was a long, with one transfer to Bern, then another to Zurich.

Industrial sprawl petered out around Lausanne. The steep hills above Lac Leman were green and corduroyed with ownerships of vines,  and accented with red-tiled roofs of the farm houses. Small cities were linked together by the railway, Nyon, Lausanne,  Vevey, Montreux, and then the train began to climb away from the lake towards Bern.

In the mountains, bright green pastures climbed high onto the slopes that were covered with deep green stands of pine and fir. The farm-style houses of the lower levels gave way to small chalets of the traditional sort – dark -wooded, two storied, steep-roofed to let the snow slide away.

At Bern, she had to ask a fellow voyager if it were the right place to get off the train. The signs were now all in German. With only six minutes to get her corresponding train, she followed the stream of other travelers. Then when they dispersed, she found herself in a long hall with no clear indication of which of many stairwells she must take to get there.

People streamed by in hasty determination to catch their trains, while disembarking passengers wove by in the opposite  direction – a dance that never ended in collision.

“Zurich, please!” she cried out in mounting panic. “Where’s the track for Zurich?”  and an adolescent in school uniform plucked her sleeve. “Follow me, ” she said, pulling Kay in the right direction. “It’s the train after mine. Watch there,” she directed, pointing to a automated board that clicked over numbers as the trains came and went away again.

“Next one!” the girl waved as she  and her classmates disappeared into a train.

And so Kay got on the next train and sure enough, it deposited her in Zurich.

Once again there was a baffling configuration of halls giving on to train tracks. It was the main hall that she wanted, and an exit to the city. When she looked out she hoped was  the front of the station, there was construction going on. She couldn’t tell because everything was shrouded in scaffolding and swaths of plastic. No street names were in view. When she looked back into the station, there were three other exit possibilities. What to do?

She walked down the long hall with shops on either side looking for the Tourist Information Center.  It was not obvious despite the large sign that hung up  above along with a huge surreal sculpture of a woman floating just below the rafters.  She returned back to the central point, close to the wall, passing a florist, a bakery, coffee shop, the ticket counters and other businesses. She returned to the ticket counter, stood in line and waited five minutes.

“It’s not here,” replied the bored clerk in a dull, flat voice. He pointed to the opposite side of the hall at the far end.  Back she went, now annoyed.

“Please, do you speak English,” she asked, and the Tourist Information clerk nodded.

“How can I help you?”

“I already have a hotel. I reserved it on the Internet.I just don’t know where I am on this map, which exit to take, which direction to go.”

He pulled out a city map in an automatic gesture from under the counter, without swerving his  kind eyes from Kay.  “And your hotel?”

“The Rothaus.”

His expression did not change, nor did he say a thing, but there was a slight movement backwards of his whole upper body. It was the first indication that something might be wrong.

Smoothly, he continued on, “The Rothaus.There is a bus at the end of this street. Just turn right out this door, he pointed,  and walk down to the street at the end. There’s a bus stop. Take the number 3.”

“Bus?” replied Kay. She had no change and felt more vulnerable on the bus. What if she went far past her stop and got lost. It was different if one was traveling with a friend. They could sort things out and there was company if things didn’t work out. But now it was  all up to her. “Couldn’t I walk?”

“You could but it’s better to take the bus. You go out this door, turn right, walk the full length of the station, There’s a bus stop just right there. But if you really want to walk, cross the street, again to the right until you come to the corner, then walk two blocks to the river, cross over the bridge,  one block left, then about five blocks down Militarstrasse.”

It was too much to remember, but it was now highlighted on the new map and she thanked him and headed out the door.

The front of the station was shrouded, Christo-like, in scaffolding and plastic wrap. There were detours around construction hoarding covered with graffiti and posters apologizing for the inconvenience. At the end of the station street, there was one block of uninviting shops and then the commercial aspect of the streets petered out.

Kay crossed the canal by bridge, turned left a block and found her street.

There was nothing of note for a block, then a huge open space fenced by a stone wall with forged iron fencing ran for about three blocks. Three large, striped tents were situated about a block away in the center of it and there were circus animals in pens outside.

As Kay was taking in the details of the circus, two swarthy men passed her clicking their tongues as they brushed passed her in, raising their brows and leering.

“Oh Lord, ” thought Kay. ”  All this long trip, she had not been pestered by the migrant North Africans as she had been thirty some years before. Was she just entering a poorer district? Was she marked as a tourist and therefore was prey? She tightened her hold on her black carry-all and took mental note. She would not bring her camera out in this district. It was dicey.

In the next block, there were young people, about fifty, she guessed,  waiting for the bus. It appeared to be beside the entrance to a technical school. They payed her no attention, forcing Kay out into the street to pass them. She sped her steps, leery of European drivers who stopped for no one.

Once she was beyond them she once again took stock of her surroundings. Across the street was Milano Pizzeria. At worst, I could eat a pizza tonight, she thought. There was a grimy-looking corner store, but possibly there was an inexpensive dinner in there as well – maybe yogurt, cheese, some bread, a banana or an apple. Kitty-corner there was a cafe which she was fast approaching, and on fourth corner, a clothing shop with racks and racks of cheap, gaudy merchandise.

Kay noted that there were only men sitting outside the sidewalk cafes, and that there were a few women hanging around aimlessly, drably dressed, not going anywhere.  With relief, she saw her hotel, a red brick structure on the corner of a side street less than twenty meters ahead.

“Rothaus. Red House. Of course!” thought Kay, translating from the Swiss German to English with an educated guess. Here it was!

The main door led to an empty cafe where she supposed the music was in the evening.  To left and right, she could not see a hotel entrance, but saw an arrow pointing to one side. There was a locked gate made of unpainted tubular steel and a buzzer with a sign which she hoped was for the hotel, and an intercom.  Just past the gate was another buzzer which, she supposed, was to let oneself out.  The intercom answered, “Rothaus!” ,  a female voice.

“Rothaus Hotel?” asked Kay.  The buzzer sounded and Kay pushed the gate. It opened and she entered. A narrow grey door in an unfinished concrete stucco wall was marked Hotel in white paste on letters. It didn’t look promising.

Inside, a young woman at the desk asked Kay’s business.

“I reserved over the phone last night. Kerrer is the last name, ” Kay said. “Do you speak English? It’s already paid for,” she added, making sure she would not be asked for more money.

“Oh yes.  Your room is number 64. I’ll show you.” She handed Kay the key and preceded her back to the courtyard. At the door, she pointed to a small new building within the compound, built like a blockhouse, square, three storied, uninteresting.

“There’s a door just under the stairwell. Your room is at the end of the hall.” she said and ushered Kay out past her.

The corridor inside the blockhouse was narrow, plain and dark. At the end she found three doors. It didn’t compute. The building was so small. Was there room for three hotel rooms in here?

Inside the room, it became evident. There was a double bed with crisp white linens and a bright red bed cover. At the end of the bed, there was no room at all. A twelve inch shelf ran from one side of the room to the other. An modern style stool fit underneath it, the only other piece of furniture.  A guest was not expected to sit here in the evening, nor write, nor relax in a chair.

Along the bedside, was a narrow space from the door to the shelf, not thirty inches wide. Four colourful plastic hangers swung from a bracket, above, in this space. It was the nearest thing to a closet that there was.
In the bathroom, the toilet was so close to the wall that the paper fixture stuck out into the room making it necessary to sit sideways first before settling in.  A concrete lip on the floor provided the base for the shower in one corner and the curtain, gathered close to the wall, provided the two other sides for it.  The pedestal wash stand was cracked.

“It’s only for two nights” thought Kay. She couldn’t bear the thought of returning to the station to find a different hotel. She couldn’t imagine trying to get her money back from this one. “At least it’s clean, ” she added, talking out her concerns to herself.

Time was wasting. She only had two days, so she sorted out what she would need for a walk and then, leaving the remainder in the room, she consulted her map, then went out to explore the city.

To be continued.

Preprandial hornet

September 8, 2009

Shuswap yellow life jacket 2 small

Lizbet lured Kay to the lake with promises of fresh air, warm bathing water and a fine picnic table to set her paints upon.

Kay gathered her paint pots and paraphernalia, locked the cabin door behind her and toted her kit down to the beach. Lizbet was just coming out of the water, her wet dog dancing around her, teasing Lizbet with a stick that she would not let go.

At ankle deep, the dog shook with a mighty wiggle, radiating the lake water out four feet about her in a diamond spray as the droplets caught the sun.

“Oh,” says Liz, “I was just coming out. Are you coming in?”

“How cold is it?”

“Seventy-two degrees warm,” she replied. “They tested it this morning. It’s not bad if you go in slowly. You get your feet wet and let them freeze. When you don’t feel them anymore, you move in up to your knees and let them freeze. You keep doing that until you are in. Everything’s frozen so you feel warm” She hesitated a minute noticing that Kay was not at all convinced and added dubiously, “and there are warm pockets…”

Her words hung in the air. Kay had no intention of freezing herself for the pleasure of a two minute swim and the unlikely chance of finding a warm pocket.  She unpacked her palette, her paints and vials, her water tub and her brushes and paper until they spread over the entire table.

Looking across the lake, she saw little to paint.  Smoke still hung heavily above the water obscuring the low mountain, obscuring even where the shore and land met. The sky was grey with a pall of ocher-tinted smoke coming from the west. The Sorrento fire had grown from thirty five to seven hundred kilometers square overnight. It was unimaginably huge.

The cloud travelling east towards Seymour Arm was smoke, not moisture. Moisture in the form of rain had not been seen for a month and then, it had barely wet the surface.

There were children on the beach screeching in their high pitched voices, a band of six small boys, cousins, were building a fort from beach rock. One of their fathers was an engineer and the child was precociously instructing the boys to reinforce the bearing wall, to dig out drainage and to grout the stones with sand as the five boys piled the stones three wide and three deep.

Two toddlers were lumbering along precariously as only toddlers can, bottom heavy with diapers and top heavy with yellow life vests. Thin girls were parading in their bikinis, exhorting each other to run into the water, hitching the panties that would not stay firmly up over their skeletal hips.  When they raced back out of the water just as fast as they went in, they quickly wrapped large beach towels over their heads and about their slender frames, looking like miniature Biblical figures.

Kay watched in wonder at their insouciant sense of balance and their indifference to the rough stones that scattered the beach beneath their tender feet.

Lizbet took her leave.

“I’m going to get into dry clothes,” she said as she walked up the sandy hill to the road and from there to the cabin.

Kay shrugged. It had taken her half an hour to get down and to prepare to paint. If she didn’t find anything to paint, at least she could drink in the fresh air and watch the activity flowing around her.

It was almost an hour later when Lizbet’s voice came, proclaiming from the road, “Don’t ever say I don’t do things for you! I’ve brought you a glass of wine!”

Sure enough, she was balancing two glasses of red as she picked her way over the tufts of dried yellow grass that gave purchase on the sandy hill to the table.

Coming behind her was Heather’s husband, grinning, balancing his own glass filled with a milky brown liqueur, his libation of choice, Baileys.

Kay moved her spread of painting tools out of the way and the three of them clinked glasses and sipped away as they chatted.
Kay, absorbed in a child and its movements and continuing on with her daubings of a moored boat, payed little attention to the conversation and the wine.

She loaded her brush with blue and carefully drew it along side of the boat she was painting. A few strokes of the same blue over the first wash served to describe some reflection and water movement below the boat.  Then she picked up her wine glass and savored two long sips of wine.

It’s one of those things. You don’t really look at what you are doing. You are focusing on one thing and doing another. Beach-side multi-tasking. Out of  peripheral vision, a movement catches your attention. Your brain is slow to register; it does not compute the image; the pattern slowly emerges; an alert comes far to late for the registering message to be heeded. There was something black in the red liquid contained in her glass that she had just freely drunk from.

“EWWWWW!

She almost flung the glass from her. There was a great black insect in the bowl of it drunkenly swimming in the red wine. It was wearing white and black striped swimming trunks and she had narrowly missed ingesting the ugly beast!

Kay touched the glass gingerly by the stem, pushing it away from her. It was a very large hornet. She dumped the glass to make it go away, but the hornet was not interested in leaving. The hornet climbed swayingly to the rim of the glass and fell helplessly back into the residue of wine. He licked his angular legs and rubbed his mandible and antennae. Oh wine! How Divine!

Kay closed her eyes and said a powerful prayer of thanks. She had narrowly missed ingesting that ugly besotted, black striped beast.

The insect, like many a drunken fool, proceeded unaware of Kay’s repulsion. He continued to wobble and sway about the rim and down again into the cup, bewildered that his drinking partner had cut off his supply.

Kay packed away her kit and headed back to the cabin to make dinner.

When Lizbet and Heather’s husband came in for dinner, Lizbet was laughing.

“He misses you! He’s still down there drunkenly calling your name. Jason gave him a droplet of Baileys as we left, but it just wasn’t the same. I distinctly heard him cry, “Sauvignon, Sauvignon, my beauty, where are you!”

Shuswap 1 006 crop

No Apology

April 6, 2008

I promised myself fifteen minutes of sorting photos on the computer this morning as I drank my first coffee. I spend too much time facing the screen and I had lots of things nagging at me. I had calls to make; taxes to prepare for the accountant; the Art Walk coming up. These last two, I am utterly unprepared for and I am tackling these tasks with the very best procrastination that I can muster. Avoidance reigns supreme.

It was for that reason that I took three hours last night to write a post about my trip to Fiji. I wanted to get a conversation with our taxi driver and a clerk in Suva down on paper before I lost the details. I had found the incident relevatory. It occurred on one of only two days that we left the resort to mingle in the general population, not the artificial population that a time-share resort tends to bring together of affluent North Americans, Aussies and Northern Europeans.

Having successful finished that pleasant activity and posting it, I then continued on in my avoidance mode and called a very close friend to see if I could come for a cup of tea. She eagerly read my post for me and then, oddly, quit half way.

“I can’t read it now,” she declared imperiously.

“You’ve read it half way. Why won’t you just finish it. It’ll just take three minutes,” I complained, a bit taken aback.

“No. No. That’s it. I’m not going to read it now.” She was bristling.

“Well, why not? What’s the matter with it?” I said, brazenly defensive.

“It’s white middle class crap. You walk in there like some affluent tourist and then criticize their society. It’s what is wrong with resorts, plunking rich cosseted tourists in the middle of third world poverty and then gloating about it; then pointing out how backward the general populace is.”

I had no intention to insult anyone with my writing. I was appalled that someone might think that that was the point of my post. I’d have to rethink what it said, see it again with someone else’s eyes. And so I left abruptly, went home to deactivated the post and then, disheartened returned to my friend’s place for the tea which would be ready for me.

We defended our points of view ferociously as we often do. Then her husband came home, mid-debate or mid-debacle, and he added his logical weight to our arguments, tipping the teeter totter radically in my direction. Soon it was political to change subject, and we moved on to topics like finding someone to mow the lawn, the demise of a microwave oven and finding its replacement; and lucking out on finding a giant Cheez Whiz sale at Costco. We were back on safe ground.

I said good night. They wished me a good night too.

“Don’t stay up too late,” he said as I parted. She said, “Phone when you get in.” It’s a safety check that have for each other, going home in the dark.

“Oh, I guess I’ll still be up for an hour or two writing,” I said, “I’ve got work to do.” It was a dig. I hadn’t been able to let it go.

So here I was sorting out photos of the trip, looking at them differently. I had taken a photo of Mels, short for Melanie, a beautiful Fijian with a stunning profile. She had soft eyes and a soft manner. Had I taken advantage of her by taking her photo. I didn’t think so. I could justify myself, but now there was a niggling doubt. And the photos at the Arts and Culture centre where the actors had portrayed life in Fiji before the explorers, traders and the Missionaries? What of those? They were expecting us to take photos, all dressed in their native costumes. What was the ethic of taking those pictures? Did we have to moralize about every photo we took? The photos I had taken of the gardeners and the bar servers and the boutique sales girl and the receptionist and the taxi driver – were these only reinforcing the servility of the people? Good grief! Canon and Kodak would go broke if no one took pictures of people.

As my fifteen minutes stretched into procrastination thirty, my computer alert dinged that I had new e-mail. It was entitled Apology.

My friend had awoken, her mind in a swirl, feeling apologetic that she had infected me with her negativity about the state of the world. She apologized for getting my back up and for defending her point of view even if it maybe, just maybe, had errors in it.

I’d like to share my response to her with you. I had to do some thinking to get there and the night, as often does, had brought some counsel to me. Here it is:

Dear friend:

Absolutely no reason to apologize. You identified something you thought in reaction to my work and voiced it. I gave me need to pause and think about I how I express myself. I have no desire to offend people, especially a whole nation of struggling people. I need to be careful about how I express myself and so acted quickly to withdraw the piece until I had time to reflect on how I do that.

We always get into rabid discussions. It’s who we are and who we are together. Gordon joined the fray. We bickered about our points of view. Gordon and I ganged up on you and your pigheadedness and defended another point of view. You, too, have to think your ideas through carefully…. and I can be just as obdurate.
At the end of the evening, I went home and slept soundly and without a trace of rancour. Not to say that I haven’t thought about it all, but that I will take my time to think about it and to think about the piece I wrote with another perspective. Frankly, I thank you for it. You are somewhat right and it’s something I have to deal with. I need to be clear when I am writing something and then be clear that I’ve achieved my goal.
You do quite well as a Jiminy Cricket conscience for me. I’m often more glib than people take me for and I need wake up calls from time to time. You are a perfect foil for that because you challenge my thinking.
As for the state of the world, it is negative. The question is, what are we going to do about it.
We found ourselves talking about an unresolvable dilemma.
If I write about my perceptions and things that have happened to me personally as a means of exposing the conditions in the world they are apt to be taken in different ways by different people.
Yes, the minute we buy into the big resort business by giving them our business, we are buying into a different manner of colonial imperialism. It’s an global economic imperialism rather than a nation-driven imperialism. It’s in some ways more insidious than an out and out takeover that can be focalized.
And yet, if one does not go and observe from whatever beginning foothold one has, then how do we even become aware of the disparities? How do we ever address the problems of the world? Do we leave entire nations to sink in the mud by themselves in a purist stance that they can sink or swim and that is all there is to it? (And then sneer as they fail, with an I-told-you-so attitude.)

Or, now that historical events have transpired over four hundred years and changed the whole mix beyond recognition, must we have to deal with the here and now? And then, how do we do that, allowing each sector of society to keep its traditions, its culture and its history while engaging in the modern world? After all, even they don’t want to go back to their cannibalistic society. When the missionaries showed them a different way, the general populace was only too glad to buy into it. The only person in the tribe who benefited from the cannibalistic society was the chief – all the others were in abject submission to the chief and his whims and terrified in their daily living. And, may I add, it was the pure Fijians in their own Arts and Cultural presentation who said that to us. They are glad to be out of it.

I don’t have the answers. I do observe what I see. And you helped me to see around some of it so that what I observed was more whole, less one-sided than what I had seen before.
I thank you for that, my friend,
And I’m sorry I gave you moments of a sleepless night

And that, my faithful readers, is now the intro to my post which I have reconsidered.

Suva

“What are those?” Heather asked.

“Those are wheelbarrow boys” said Rasheesh.

Rasheesh, by a network of Indo-Fijians we had met, had been assigned to drive us into Suva for the day at a princely sum of seventy Fiji dollars for the whole day. He picked us up at eight a.m. and brought us back at five. From that sum, he had to pay his gas and car upkeep.

The boys we were watching were actually grown men, each with a big rusty-looking garden wheelbarrow racing at Olymic speed after a moving bus at the very busy Suva bus station. There were about ten of them dressed in nondescript shorts and faded t-shirts, weaving their way through the throng of other bus passengers.

“See that building over there? It’s the farmers’ market.” It was a big grey concrete building looking much like one of our parking garages with no walls on the ground floors, only structural posts holding it up. It was the size of a large exhibition hall. Rasheesh was giving us a deluxe tour complete with tour guide commentary.

“The boys run to see who is coming off the bus with produce and needing help transporting it across the street into the market.”

I reflected on the entrepreneurial spirit of the Fijians, especially the Indo-Fijians who seemed quite creative in finding ways to add on extra activities to increase their income. Taxi drivers were apt to propose side trips for only a small increase in fare. They knew all the possible desires – to go clothing shopping, to see a temple, to visit a museum, to have a general guided tour.

These barrow boys we had just driven past were otherwise unemployed folk, trying to earn a little extra by being right there when the buses came in, offering to transport awkward or heavy loads that the passengers had brought with them.

Rasheesh who was at our service for the full day provided us a guided tour around the city, including accompanying me to the photo shop and helping me resolve my need to download my pictures from the camera onto disk. He also guided us to the best stores and found us an Indo-Fijian place to eat lunch. We hadn’t the heart to tell him that neither of us wanted spicy food. It was economical and quick, and for that we were pleased.

When we had first arrived in town, our first stop was an Esquire’s Cafe – the only place I could find a brewed decaffeinated coffee – the first I would have had in the 8 days we had spent in Fiji. Across the street was a photo shop that should have been able to download my many photos (642 in all, when I got the disks back) from my digital camera. It was on the verge of overload and I wouldn’t otherwise be able to take more if I couldn’t download them. We left Heather there while we tried to resolve my problem.

Unfortunately, the Photo Store clerk looked at my Sony Cybershot with consternation.

“Just a minute,” said the young store clerk as he took my camera to the manager. A small crowd of camera shop personnel huddled around the camera looking at it and talking in low voices.

“We can’t download this camera,” the clerk stated flatly, almost defiantly, as he returned it to me. “You will have to go across the street.”

I raised my eyebrows questioningly to Rasheesh. He nodded. It was true. They couldn’t do it here in the biggest photo store in Suva. They didn’t carry Sony and they didn’t have the attachments to do it. My heart sank. But they did offer another possibility. Perhaps the big department store could help us out.

“Come on.” Rasheesh said to me, and we crossed the street, entered the department store and then took the escalator to the second floor.

There were three clerks standing about watching rows of television screens. When they saw us, two moved away leaving a young lad of about nineteen at the till. Rasheesh explained my plight. The clerk held his hand out for the camera and immediately opened up the battery door.

“Oh Lord, I thought, It’s not the battery that’s the problem. Does he have a clue what he’s doing with our one and only operative camera?” The clerk picked out the memory card “Oh that’s where it’s stored,” I said to myself mentally as I panicked. Hugh had set the camera up for me. I just point and shoot. The operation of it is somewhat of a mystery to me still.

The two lads spoke in Hindi rather rapidly. My eyes whipped from one to the other somewhat like watching a tennis match. I didn’t understand a word of it and the fate of my camera and all my week’s pictures were in these young men’ hands. People are vulnerable when they can’t understand what’s being said.

Finally Rasheesh looked at me as if explaining to a child, “He says it will take him two hours. We can come back for it after twelve. He has to go buy some disks and he has to have a computer big enough to download so many pictures. So it will cost seven dollars and fifty cents.”

I made a rapid calculation. It cost me fifteen New Zealand dollars when I was there. This was half the price. The price was right, but why did it take two hours? In New Zealand it had taken less than five minutes, so I asked.

“He has to do it on his lunch hour.” said Rasheesh.

I made a rapid decision. I had little choice. By nature, here or anywhere, I was somewhat suspicious. What if he erased my pictures? What if, what if, what if? But if I didn’t, I couldn’t take any more pictures. What was my risk?

I nodded my assent. The clerk held the memory card between thumb and index finger as if looking at a precious stone. Rasheesh said, “Well, let’s go then.” and we walked away. They did not speak again but there was a look of commitment, of some special understanding between them as we left. I sifted this gesture in my mind to decipher its meaning.

I waited until we were out of the store and going down the escalator back to the car where Heather was still waiting, probably wondering what had happened to us.

“He’s doing it under the table, isn’t he?” I said.

Rasheesh nodded.
“He’s going to take it home on his lunch hour. It’ll be alright. Don’t worry. If he doesn’t do it right, then he’ll lose his job. If he doesn’t, we won’t bring customers to his store anymore because we’ll know they haven’t been dependable. He can’t afford to fail.”

Don’t worry!

Don’t worry; Be happy was the mantra of Fiji..

It was the whole record of our stay! It was Heather’s and Lizbet’s too. Lizbet had not been able to recharge her battery and so was camera-less. Heather was still using film and only had three rolls with her. And my memory card was worth almost a hundred dollars. How would I replace it if I didn’t get it back intact?

We had at least two hours to wait. He offered to take us on a tour around Suva. He pointed out the multi-cultural schools, the Institute for Hospitality and Tourism, several religious schools, the Sports arena and school. I had a bit of business at a local printers and he found that place for me. Heather and I were invited to look at the printing plant while he waited in the heat of the midday sun in the parking lot.

When our tour was just about done and we were headed back, he took us past government Embassies and Consulates, some compounded diplomatic homes, all fenced with chain link fence topped with rows of razor wire. We stopped at Thurston Gardens a bit further on this road, with its Fiji Historical Museum. He allowed us about an hour though we could have taken two or three. The history was interesting and the displays, although mid 20th century in style, were excellent and informative.

Like many indigenous populations, the Fijians had not wanted the European and South Asian traders and explorers to take foothold on their lands. They were devastated by the introduction of European diseases for which they had no immunity, and the recovery of their population still has not come up to the number there was pre-“discovery”. All sorts of social and economical issues were described alongside the cultural displays of the primitive boats, household goods and other artifacts and it made for good reading.

After our quick lunch, we had ten minutes left on the parking meter, and being frugal, we took the time to explore a small fashion shop. Most of the styles were aimed at a younger Indo-Fijian crowd, but there were larger sizes too. The Fijian culture appreciates roundness in their women and many of them are quite tall and big framed like North Americans – unlike the small framed norm for most Chinese and Japanese Asians. So there was a wide variety of sizes, which allowed my thin sister and portly me to anticipate that something might call out our name with “Buy me, Buy me”.

I think our driver was getting impatient because, as we piled back into the car, he said, “Have we done everything now, except the camera?” It was akin to in impatience to “Are we there yet?”

“We’d like to go back to Jack’s,” I said. “We haven’t gone shopping yet. We saw some things earlier that we would like to buy now.”

Whether he was typically male, hating to wait for women to shop, or whether he was hoping to get home and get a few more taxi rides in, I don’t know. He said nothing; started the car; drove without commentary.

Traffic had thickened in the centre of the city. It turned out he was somewhat concerned about rush hour, if that can be said about Suva. Traffic was mildly bottlenecked. We inched along for about ten minutes and I itched to take photos but my camera was without memory.

Once more back at Jack’s, we left Heather in the car and went back to the photography section of the department store.

Rasheesh and the clerk had another three minute intense conversation in Hindi, their eyes locked as they battled out some question that I was not privy to. “What did he say?” I said when the conversation abruptly stopped.

“He wants another nine fifty for downloading the camera.”

“Why? Why does he want another nine fifty? We made a deal for seven fifty.”

“He says you are using the camera wrong. You take vertical pictures. They should all be horizontal. He had to turn all the pictures upright for you. It took him a lot longer and he couldn’t fit them all on two disks. He had to buy another disk.”

“Nonsense!” I said. “Let me see what he has done. Can he show me the pictures on the DVD player over there?” I said with a mild defiance, I wanted some proof of his claim.

The clerk took a disk and put it into the store DVD player, extracting one that was already sitting in the drive. The pictures of underwater tropical fish went black and twenty pictures of our family lounging at the resort lit up across twenty wide, flat- television screens on the department store shelving. The pictures changed over in slide show fashion at a maddeningly slow rate. I asked if he could speed it up, but he couldn’t and he was beginning to look worried.

Eventually enough had passed by to show me that the pictures were there and that the verticals had been rotated. I had known that I would not fight the added cost before I had asked for proof. The delay it gave me allowed the calculator in the back of my mind to reason that if I had had to rotate all the pictures it would have taken me an hour; and if I paid a total of seventeen Fiji dollars, it was really only the same price as I had paid in New Zealand. The only difference was that it had taken me five minutes in NZ and two hours plus here. For the difference, I had bought myself a good story and all my pictures would be upright.

I took a couple of pictures with the reloaded memory card, one of the clerk, one of the bank of televisions, to verify that all was in working order. I paid my money and we left.

Heather and I promised to be only half an hour to make our purchases of sarongs and postcards. I looked at Fijian black pearls and found them way too expensive for my pocket book. We drooled over the fantastic, brightly decorated fabrics that were arrayed for saris, then we were back in the car with Rasheesh driving, racing back to Deuba before the half hour was up.

There’s more to tell about the trip back, but that’s for another time.

I was a bit silent in the back of the car thinking about the entrepreneurial spirit of these people. They were eager to please and eager to accommodate. I’d had fine service from this young lad and from Rasheesh too. I thought of what Rasheesh had told us – that he earned 100 Fiji dollars a week – that’s about 70 of our dollars – and he considered that he was very well paid. The amount was fixed, but he worked long hours and had no overtime. If he got stuck in Nadi late in the afternoon, he was expected to stay there and wait for an Airport fare back to Deuba. He had to arrange for his own overnight stay, but he had family there and could sleep on the couch.

He told us he had two children and that one was lacto-intolerant. He had to buy formula to feed the infant and this cost him $27 dollars per month. It was a hardship on the family. Working life was not easy in Fiji.

Before we were half way back to Deuba and our hotel, Rasheesh had a phone call from his company. Where was he? What was his estimated time of arrival? There was a customer waiting for him. When would he pick him up?

His day that had started early was going to be a long one.

Trepidation without a cause

April 1, 2008

I had a major anxiety attack over going away. I was quite contented to stay home, really, and the travel reports that nephew Hugh had obtained for me did more to increase the angst than to calm it. The ticket was already bought and not refundable so I was going anyway, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit gloomy. I don’t know why.

Finally he said to me rather firmly, “Look, they want tourists. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Just don’t go to Suva. ” There had been some trouble in January in Suva over the current government. There is always conflict there between the Fijian natives and the Hindo-Fijians who are the commercial class.

I was travelling with Heather and her husband and Lizbet, my other sister. They have time share and are happy to share costs with us. Travelling in a group is better for me now than travelling alone and I don’t like organized tours that keep pushing you forward to see one monument after another.

Heather and her Dauntless Husband came down four days before departure. He had an specialist doctor’s appointment. Lizbet came on Friday night after her last day at school. It’s the beginning of Spring Break. We left on Sunday.

With so many people in the house and all with their suitcases open in some form or another of reshuffling and redeciding what to take, it was impossible for me to think. Six days into the trip, someone asked for Q-tips.

“I have some!” I proudly announced. But they were nowhere to be found. I found them this Friday when we returned, still sitting on the bathroom counter where all my first aid kit for travel was spread out in excellent organization for the trip.

It’s a hot country. We were going to a resort with sand shores and a gorgeous looking pool. I also forgot my second (and best) bathing suit.

As we were going out the door, Lizbet asked “Do you have a hat? I don’t have one.”

“Oh lordy,” I groaned inwardly. I get sunstroke so easily. I hadn’t thought about a hat.

But I had two tucked up in the storage closet from the last tropical trip I took. I’ve used my favorite often since, but it is deteriorating. The straw is developing holes. The other one isn’t flattering but it has a wide brim. It’s great for a scorching day.

I grabbed them both and said she could use one of them.

And so we went. It was a gruelling trip – over 24 hours from pillar to post. Seven and a half hours of flight to Honolulu; a nasty bit of Immigration at about five in the morning, our time, with little useful sleep preceding it. I suppose that they can’t have anyone in the plane when they are refuelling; and the American’s like to do their own security checks as we touch down into their territory. At such an early hour it was unpleasant to have to deplane with absolutely all of our traveling possessions and then wait around for an hour and a half for everything to be ready to go.

We arrived in Nadi airport at 5 a.m. the next day after another 7 hours or so of flight (having crossed the International Date Line) . Don’t even try to figure out the hours – with the time zone changes and the date line, it’s not worth the bother.

In Nadi, Dauntless Brother-in-Law had arranged a bus trip for us to Pacific Harbour and our hotel, The Pearl of the South Pacific.

Despite our sleep deprivation, that was a glorious ride. It’s the kind of travel I like to do, where you are riding in the same transport as the rest of the people in the country (and no, I didn’t try a donkey). Lizbet who I call our Ambassadress and who someone else calls Chatty Cathy (figure it out, it’s somewhere in between) started talking to the passengers beside and behind her.

When I shook my head in wonderment as to how she did it, she said with amazement, “It wasn’t me. It was you!. If you hadn’t been drawing the person across the aisle, nobody would have talked to me. They thought you were amazing!”

I looked at the drawing. It hadn’t succeeded at all. It was like a cartoon. I was afraid that the girl that I had drawn would be insulted by my feeble effort. In my defense, the roads were terrible. There were more potholes than road and it was very difficult to get a continuous line of half an inch without being bounced out of the seat and repositioned back into the sunken upholstery.

The windows were covered with a light film of mud. Without opening the window, one could see nothing; and yet, it was raining. So when the window was open, this slightly muddy precipitation whipped into my face. When the rain let up a little, the two photos I tried to take went all fuzzy. Over and above, with the humidity, the lens tended to fog up so that focusing became impossible.

We stopped in Nadi proper – the business district – to pick up more passengers. There I managed to get a few pictures of street vendors and of people doing every day things. At Nadi bus station, we picked up two fellows that sat behind us. One was very obviously an Island native. He had the tightly curled mass of hair and broad features including a very friendly grin. It was he who was asking after the drawings. Beside him, his friend looked like a New York black or an African black of medium build. He is difficult to describe because he was ordinary. The first one introduced himself as Ben and the second as Jimmy.

Lizbet was curious and started to pump them with her barrage of questions. Come to think of it, she would make a perfect spy. She blathers on so innocently asking questions but remembers all the names and all the answers afterwards.

“What do you do? ” she asked Ben.

He looked at her with his persistent grin but a suddenly blank look in his eyes.

“Do?” he asked back, as if he hadn’t ever considered that he was expected to do anything.

He hesitated a while. His face became perplexed. And mind you, he spoke perfectly good English with an Australian accent.

“I guess… ” he started, then hesitated again. His grin reappeared giving an air of perfect contentedness. There didn’t seem to be the slightest coquetry in his answer. “I guess I’m a journalist. Yes, you could say I was a journalist.”

He went on to explain that he had worked about six years in Australia for a newspaper and that he had written for them all that time. But he came home. Now there was no job for him and he was working on a project, a writing project. It was in the middle and it wasn’t very firm yet so he didn’t want to say any more about it.

All the while, Jimmy nodded his agreement, almost in admiration of his traveling companion, his happy face bobbing up and down. Lizbet was not about to let him off easily though, and turned her focus on him. “And what do you do?”

He had the same hesitation, as if looking through a list of occupations that would be plausible to say out loud.

“I’m a musician,” he said finally. “Yes, I’m a musician.” This last was a confirmation, somewhat to himself, as if he’d passed that exam question with honours and could definitely advise you, should you need it. He was positive now that he was a musician.

I found that rather amusing. I was enjoying listening to the banter while I tried to get a better drawing of the young lady with a grey striped scarf around her throat.

I hadn’t been an hour in the country and I already had a feeling I was going to like the people. They stand and sit proudly. They have a quiet dignity about themselves. They were courteous and warm towards us.

Soon the young lady got off the bus and then the two young men. They waved gleefully from the ground as the bus took off again, as if we were friends that they were seeing off on a holiday. We’d known them for less than half an hour.

Along the roadside, we would see small horses and occasionally cattle. Jungle growth lay a broad blanket of lush green over everything but the roadway. In a few places, the earth had been exposed – a bright, rich red soil. At one spot, we traveled parallel to a long sandy beach. The breakers formed about half a mile out to sea in a white line and a calmer water came up cloase to the shore in broad flat waves.

I must have dozed a while because I don’t remember seeing much more before we were deposited, baggage and all, at the Arts village, just a kilometer past our hotel. A taxi came to drive us to the hotel. The fare for all four of us and our baggage was two Fiji dollars. That’s like one dollar thirty cents Canadian.

We were glad to find our room and settle in for a nap. It had been a long flight. An arduous journey.

There are lots of stories to tell, but they will have to be written in the days that come . That’s it for now.

Avoiding Christmas

January 2, 2008

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The warm sodium lights seemed to be throbbing up from the earth’s surface in suburban patterns of cul de sacs and highways. Snow lay in the yards and large undeveloped patches but had melted from the roads and the trees. The snowfall had not been consistent everywhere; it seemed to have chosen select communities in the Lower Fraser Valley. By the time we flew over Burrard Inlet with its sulphur docks in Port Moody and the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver, out into the Georgia Straight for a landing from the west, all traces of the wintery white were gone.

Below, the lights were crisp and clear, cheerier and richer in colour at this end of the Christmas holiday season than they would be at any other time of year.

I had been up at seven, Ottawa time; on a bus to Montreal by nine, arrived at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport in the community of Dorval by eleven. I ate an early lunch, fully aware from my flight from Vancouver that there would be no meal service and only tightly compressed sandwiches bound in swaddling plastic wrap or junk food to be had from the airline’s “cafe” menu. I sensibly downed a Caesar salad and a clear glass of cool water then went to security check-in.

Beyond the point of no return there were few shops to linger in. There was a coffee stand with croissants, sweets or sandwiches that you could take with you on the airplane, more sensibly boxed (therefore not crushed into eraser-like carbohydrate wads). I bought an oatmeal cookie telling myself that it was whole grain cereal with only a bit of sugar and a cheese croissant for my on flight sustenance. I bought a cup of decaf which I immediately downed. I would not be getting a decent cup of this until I got home again.

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted for three weeks. I took the luxury of a holiday to visit two of my cousins and my nephew Hugh and a fine relaxing holiday it was, too. I met with two friends, one recently met through our mutual friend, Mother’s university friend who was in touch with her until the very end, and one of my colleagues from my former workplace.

Cousin Beryl in Ottawa spent a week with me and then went on holiday with her partner of 30 years. They were off to play indoor tennis, Patrick having recovered only recently from a knee operation and still unable to go skiing. She works too hard, very devoted to her job as director of a humanitarian organization and needed some downtime, some renewal time.

Cousin Clara, whom I had started this holiday with, had gone on to Toronto to visit her daughter’s family and then on to Florida where she spends some winter time in the comfort of a warmer clime.

Coming back through Montreal, there was no point in going up to her house during the three hour period I had before my flight. She wasn’t there. The whole city felt empty knowing that Clara was not in it. It was somewhat the same feeling I had leaving Byrel this morning as she saw me off at the bus station.

I had stayed in her house while she was away on her holiday. All the personality of her decor could not make up for the the fact that she was not there. The house all of a sudden felt empty. We have similar tastes in music and I played her CDs a good part of the time I was alone but it was not the same. I felt a good measure of joy in talking with her as I do with Clara.

Beryl is one of those rare people who speaks her mind clearly without hesitation. We had a parting hug before we left the house. When we got to the station we looked like two people who barely knew each other. As we were standing in line up with about seventy other people headed for Montreal, she said, ” I never understood really why you wanted to come to Ottawa for Christmas.” It was a question.

In my inimitable way, I blurted out my inability to sit down at the dinner table with my family this year. Too much water under the bridge. A damning situation. A log jam of emotions, if you prefer which, by the way, I did not say out loud. I’d had great cooperation and assistance from my sisters, but Otto had been obstructive. I wanted a neutral territory to celebrate Christmas on. I could perhaps have sat down at the table for an hour with him, but not stayed in the same house with him listening to him extol the merits of family and how wonderful family was when he had taken care to tell me how odious I was over the matter of Mother’s estate.

I must say I hadn’t been very tactful in answering Beryl. My original idea in my getting away at Christmas was to avoid unpleasantness. To be somewhere where every decoration, every change from tradition would remind me of my Mother’s passing. But as I began to think where I might go, I knew that Hugh would be alone and missing the festival of the year that he most delights in. If I were to make the trip, I would most certainly want to spend some time with Beryl. Clara was reasonably close by in Montreal, and so as I conceived of this trip, I wanted to ensure I saw her too. They are both “safe-haven” kind of people.

So that was the explanation I gave to her forthright question. We parted company only five minutes afterwards. I was on the bus and grumping somewhat about ending this delicious holiday with a full day of travel – two hours of bus, three hours in between time before the flight, five hours of flight – and I had time to reflect.

These two cousins are like sisters. We understand each other. We are of the same generation, and unlike direct family, we don’t have to see each other. We’ve chosen to do so.

I met Beryl and Clara after a forty year hiatus. I had know Beryl and seen her only occasionally before I was ten and then not afterwards. Clara had visited only once in my hippie-dippy days at our mutual age of 23. Many years later in my working career, as I was often travelling back and forth for my job, I often flew into both Ottawa and Dorval. On these trips, I reconnected with these fine women. It didn’t take us long to uncover our common ground – how we felt growing up, what we were doing now, our successes and failures in our relationships, marriages, and partnerships.

My father and their mothers were siblings, but it’s our mothers and our upbringing that we feel are the common thread. We talk about the vicissitudes of childhood and early adulthood that were more characterized by the upbringing of our Mothers and their culture than our common thread of our parent siblings. Fathers had less to do with the day-to-day management of children and they figure quite differently in our affections and family heartaches.

So as I ruminated on these things on the bus to Montreal, passing through a rich sepia world of farmlands and small forests all softened by a fresh dusting of snow that was still falling, I regretted that I had not mentioned how much I had come to love Beryl and our Cousin Clara; how any opportunity where I can add on a visit to one or the other, I will; how I am vastly proud of Beryl for her humanitarian work; just as I am of Clara for her stubborn determination to learn to paint and now that she is proficient and sure of her skills, her volunteer work with difficult medical patients, teaching them to paint, bringing joy to their impoverished lives.

I ruminated on the gifts these two ladies had given me. Both had given me their trust in speaking freely of their lives, their loves and their families. It’s not sugar coated. It’s down to earth real. We take a Giordian knot of relationships and try to sort out the whys and wherefores of family, of our joys and hurts and we try to find ways to heal them or heal ourselves.

They have both given me a welcome that made me feel that I was important and valued. Now, how great a gift is that! And it didn’t die after three days…. you know that aphorism about fish and visitors stinking after three days. We were still sharing stories as avidly after a week as we had on the first day. And if we don’t see each other for another year, or two even, now that I’m retired and travelling less, we will catch up the conversation as if it never had stopped. That’s a mark of a good friendship.

Beryl phoned a day after my return to the Wet Coast. I asked her what she had meant by her question on my reasons for coming to Ottawa.

“Oh, the weather,” she explained. “Why would you want to come knowing we might have snow?” I had completely misunderstood the intent of her question. And, well I might. In Ottawa, people go away to have a break from perpetual cold and snow. On the West Coast, we are inundated with perpetual rain. Grey skies prevail. We only have two seasons – cold autumn and warm spring. The heat of summer lasts two weeks and the snows come for two days and melt away. Had I understood the thrust of her question, I might have answered, “Oh, we don’t get snow. I thought a white Christmas would be glorious!” Instead, I fueled a day’s worth of rumination on family and some of my most favourite people whom I was leaving behind until next time. Dummy me! I’m glad I misunderstood.

In all of this rambling, I haven’t even talked about seeing Hugh again. It was wonderful! But that’s another story.

Thanksgiving

October 9, 2007

 I’ve been silent for the last week or so, too busy to write. So  as a bit of introduction to this post, I travelled to Sechelt by bus on Friday to visit my sister and her husband for the Thanksgiving weekend. The bus trip is another story – but for now, I wanted to say something special for this holiday which is all about family connections, thankfulness for what we have not just today, as a festival, but thankfulness for our lives and how we live them.

In the morning, Heather and her husband went out to their exercising activities and left me home alone. I went rummaging in the basement, unfamiliar with their organization of household tools, looking for secateurs and a trowel. I found a sorry looking pair of secateur but not the trowel, and settled on a rake and a shovel to augment my weapons for the garden.

A bear has been sighted garnering all the fruit he can get from local yards and Heather’s is no exception. There were two calling cards left, one just beside a dwarf apple tree and another right in the vegetable beds. The bear is nocturnal, so we haven’t seen it, but it certainly has made itself felt. The low branches of the apple tree are perfect for fruit picking. If the bear gets there first, well, there is no apple crop for us! There is certain evidence that he has been helping himself.

Heather’s garden always needs an extra hand. I went down to the lane and dead headed the Dusty Miller that grows in a giant clump about three feet tall, and gave a hair cut to the Shasta Daisies that were looking bedraggled with their soggy looking brown buttons, seed heads, that wobbled top-heavy on their late autumn stems. The sorry-looking secateurs were very sharp and practical. Looks aren’t everything!

Next to the Shastas and the Dusty Miller, lavender was growing vigorously in a large round bush shape and I left it alone. It was providing a beautiful dusty colour and a lovely perfume. It’s flower heads stood evenly five inches above the leafy base and provided an interesting texture I wouldn’t have wanted to touch.

I took out a few aggressive branches of blackberry that seem to crop up everywhere, easily rooting themselves when they touch the ground, spreading and leaving spiky, wicked thorns for unsuspecting gardeners.

When Heather and her husband came home, I went in for a cup of tea and a bite of lunch with them. Then, once the turkey was safely cooking in the oven filled with a sage-y bread stuffing, I convinced Heather to come out into the garden with me to enjoy the autumn sunshine.
The forecast has been for rain five days straight. Saturday night the wind soughed down the chimney and rattled the plate glass windows. There was loud whistling and sighing in the house all night. The Weather Network had a wind warning for Sechelt with gusts of 80 kilometer gusts battering the coastal region. I woke several times during the night to the clap-trapping noise it produced.
Now the wind had abated, was calm even, and it was a shame to waste this lovely day inside.

As I explored the garden looking for easy things to do, I found a young Eucalyptus tree that had fallen over. . Heather had propped it up on the south side with a rope that held it firmly in place; but the wind had had the nerve to blow from the other direction and there was no support on the other side.

We brought the tree back upright. I held it in place and she brought bricks and large stones to anchor the base of the tree in a temporary fix. I’m always wondrous at her ability to improvise solutions in her garden.

Oak leaves had fallen in quantity in the previous night’s windy shake-up and the pine tree had released a carpet of rust coloured needles. The colours were lovely, but they needed to be raked. That’s an activity I like, so I tackled raking and she gave me help in bagging them for the yard waste garbage.

From the pile of pine needles, she began carefully separating them and cleaning them out. I didn’t get it.

“What are you doing with those?” I asked.

“Oh, the slugs don’t like to move over the pine needles,” she replied. I use them like a mulch around my strawberry plants so that the slugs won’t eat them. I’m taking out the fir needles because they have some kind of anti-growth in them.”

Heather is an informed gardener, unlike me. She has read a lot about it and knows many tricks of organically gardening. This was one I’d not heard of before. I like gardening for being in the fresh air and doing tasks that I feel are meditative and intrinsically pleasing, but I’m far from being knowledgeable about it. I learn a lot from her.

Then Heather moved away to do other things. I took the spade and rooted out some buttercup mallow that lives in profusion in the garden, taking over any free space to root and flourish. It chokes out other plants and I’m always happy to dig it out of the vegetable beds. It feels like I’m making progress somehow, though taking things out is not the really fun part of gardening.

We’d planned an hour exactly as our time in the garden. When an hour was gone by, we needed to put potatoes to bake in the oven and start preparation for the remainder of the Thanksgiving feast. Reluctantly we gathered our tools and put them away. The warm breeze, the fresh clean air and the bright autumn sun had been wonderful.

As the three of us sat down to dinner an hour later, dressed a little more formally than our earlier work-a-day attire, a glass of wine awaiting, and a meal to be truly thankful for, I counted my blessings. This is a dear, beloved sister and her husband is a fine and happy man. I’m lucky to have them in the circle of my life, and of my friendships.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Messing with feminine bits

October 1, 2007

Every crossroad is an orifice that pulsates white or red lights into the dark conveyor belt of a highway. Under the dark sky, there is nothing clearly visible but headlights coming head on, or tail lights, following. Vehicles seem not to be powered of themselves, but drawn on by an inevitable force. I joined this slow procession at Laity Street at five thirty in the morning, crawling with all the other singly occupied cars at a pace not registering on the kph scale. It seemed as if a tap had been opened and could not be shut down until the last resident was floating city-wards on this sea of commuters. I was awed by the number of residents in our community that took to the roads at five a.m. and crawled in this fashion to work in the city.

East of the highway, the direction I was coming from, the beads of red lights bobbled mesemerizingly. At such close distance to the one in front, one had to pay attention. A blurt of acceleration could result in a rear-ender bringing traffic to a halt. Not enough acceleration could annoy the road-rager behind you, and provoke an angry reaction, to be avoided at all costs so early in the morning. It was better to gently let the car drift of it’s own, inexorably forward, crawling, adding to city’s blood supply, joining the arteries that connected Vancouver with it’s worker bees.

The road was clogged for many miles like this to the highway at the Port Mann Bridge and again until Brunette Avenue and then magically, the press of vehicles was gone. There seemed to be no reason for it. Where had the cars gone? There hadn’t seemed to be a large turn off of vehicles along the way. I was acutely aware of how dark it still was, a deep midnight blue at six in the morning. Only the car and city lights pierced the darkness. Where had September gone to, so quickly, that now the sun would not rise until seven?

I had offers to drive me to the hospital and to pick me up. My sister would have come in from Sechelt, but it was too far to ask her to come, and she hadn’t been home for the last month with vacationing, so it was a bit much to ask her. Mr. and Mrs. Stepford offered, but of course, Mrs can’t drive because of her failing eyesight and Mr. works. He’d jut been away for ten days on a business trip and needed to be in his office, not running around the peripheral communities of the mega-city looking after me.

My dilemma was solved when the anesthetist insisted I stay overnight. And so it was, o I drove myself in and parked in the hospital parkade for the twenty four hours plus that I would be there. It’s illegal to drive within 24 hours of having anesthetics administered. I was happy with the arrangment. I need to be independent as much as possible so that when I really need something, my offerers won’t have exhausted their willingness.

And so there I was, daylight just lifting as I entered the parking lot at the hospital at seven twenty. O only as I was leaving, the next day, did I realize how absolutely lucky I was in finding the first parking stall open and waiting for me. Tuesday, I watched cars circle relentlessly waiting for someone to leave so that they could take over the stall.

In the admissions hall, I was provided with two hospital bracelets – a white one with the date and time of surgery, my name and a other undecipherable hospitable data. The other was orange and listed drug and food sensitivities and allergies.

Next, I was instructed to wait in the pre-operation lounge. There, I tackled a Sudoku puzzle to keep my mind off the upcoming fiddling the gynocologist was going to do, and when that was done, I leafed through one magazine after another, looking for something to read.

An hour later, a nurse asked me to come and to change into their crumpled, blue cotton hospital gowns, one put on open at the back and the second, open at the front. I was given long green socks that came up to my knee. These had a peculiar seam at the toe end that sliced over on a strong slant. I was led to a chair where this same nurse massaged my hand until she could find an artery to insert a needle which would connect up to the intravenous equipment.

“Stop jerking your hand!” she commanded. “If you don’t, I won’t be able to get an artery and we’ll have to call the operation off. Besides, you will have scars all over the top of your hand. ”

I forced myself still. She taped the needle to my left hand and put Scotch tape over my mother’s thin, plain, white gold wedding ring. I had been instructed to bring neither jewellry, nor money, nor credit cards. I had not been able to get this ring of Mother’s off, not even lubricated with soap. Someone would have to cut it off to take it.

I asked the nurse about the curious socks.

“It’s so that all sizes of feet can fit into the one design,” she explained. I said nothing but thought that if they had been sewn straight across, they would have done exactly the same thing without leaving this curious green elf-like extension at the end of my feet.

There was still a paper hat much like a shower cap and paper feet covers to go on. I didn’t want to think about anyone taking a picture of me in this curious garb.

Across from me, two patients were installed in similar booths to mine. When privacy was needed, a curtain could be drawn around. These patients each had a spouse seeing them, cajoling and comforting them up to the last minute of their surgery wait. I silently cursed my pig-headed stubbornness that had led me to come head to head with both Franc and Otto in the last few months. Franc was supposed to bring me in, stay with me and drive me home. But that was off. I hadn’t seen him since July – almost three months ago now. And I’d quarrelled with Otto about the will and it’s fairness. He’d resorted to calling me nasty names. Darned if I was going to get Otto to do anything for me. So there went my back-up plan. I consoled myself that neither of them were hand holders.

A dark curly-haired nurse came in and introduced herself. She looked sweet. She connected me up to a plastic pack on the IV stand and brought me a couple of pills to swallow to keep my stomach from revolting at the anesthesia.

“You look really familiar,” she said. “I’ve wracked my brain to remember where I know you from. Then I saw your name on the chart. We used to rent the apartment from you. I’m Kathy O’Brian,” she said.

I cursed my feckless brain that kept items of remembrance like a sieve kept water. I hadn’t recognized her.

“So you got on here permanently?” I said.

“And how is Ken. Is he still piloting? You’ve changed your hair. That’s why I didn’t recognize you.”
“Ken’s fine . And yes , he’s still a pilot.”
Small world, I thought, and a good thing I’d had such a lovely relationship with those tenants, as she went on to the other patients waiting for their turn. You never know when someone you’ve met will turn back up in your life.

An elderly, bearded man came in dressed in a white lab coat. He bade me to get up onto a gurney that he wheeled away to the operating room, all the while holding the IV bag high above his head. He had unhooked it from the stand and then held it high in a pose dignified for the Statue of Liberty.

There in the operating room was the anesthetist dressed in that same set of wrinkly ,green scrubs, that pink and yellow floral hood with ear-flaps down around her chin, the two unironed strings falling beneath her chin waiting to be tied in a laughable bow. Beside her was my gynecologist, a motherly-looking East Indian woman with bright red lips. Both looked curiously short, not more than five foot two, and I wondered at the marvelous success each of these women had met in their lives, each having a highly skilled and respected profession, and neither having my generation’s stereotypical appearances of a doctor.

“Wriggle down to this spot here,” the doctor directed and I did so. The anesthetist explained what she was going to do and then the doctor. I don’t remember any single thing that came after that, not even being administered an anesthetic, until someone said, “She’s stirring.”

“Take her to the maternity ward on the third floor,” said a voice.

Maternity ward! It was too late for me for the maternity ward. I was wheeled down the hallway to the elevator and transported to the third floor. The same elderly man pushed me into a ward room that was big enough for four beds but there was only one bed in it by the window.

A nurse came and encouraged me to get off the gurney and walk. My arthritic feet did not want to stay silent as they creaked back into service. They pinched; I winced; and so I limped a little.

“Watch her! She’s pretty unsteady.”

I was feeling quite clearheaded. I’m not befuddled, I thought to myself. It’s just these feet haven’t been active in a few hours and they are complaining.

I slept then for a couple of hours. I’d left the house at five thirty. I’d driven all the way in over a period of two hours and been so sleepy on arrival that I’d had to shake myself awake in the last mile or two of the journey. I’d been to bed late the night before, fussing about what to take and what to leave at home. I was ready for some catch-up sleep.

I awoke some time later and felt some compassion for my mother who had become obsessive about time and date. I looked at my watch and found it was gone – left at home, I knew. In the hours that followed, I must have looked twenty times, never finding the watch – automatic reaction – and me remembering too late that I had not brought it.

An aide came in with snacks and drinks. She left me some juice.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“It’s about two thirty.”
I was getting peckish. I hadn’t eaten since eleven the night before.

“We come at four thirty with dinner,” she said in reply to my query about food. I slept a while longer and soon dinner arrived. A nurse came in to check on me and inquire about my aches and pains. There were none and she was satisfied. I’d brought my own pyjamas and changed into them. The hospital garb was depressing. I began to feel more normal with more normal clothes on.

At four thirty, dinner was left on a narrow tray table that rolled across the bed so that one could eat sitting up. I activated the bed controls but no matter how high I pushed it, I could not find a suitable position to use whereby the food could actually travel from the tray to my mouth without becoming breast-shelf decoration. I gave up and sat upright on the edge of the bed, feet hanging over, and ate.

There were three very thin, machine sliced pieces of pork roast, more peas than I’ve ever seen on a dinner plate before, and a small round ice cream scoop of mashed potatoes. All was covered in a puddle of instant gravy. It was warm and food. I hadn’t had a bite nor a drink in sixteen or seventeen hours. I ate it all.

The meal came with two short plastic cups of milk sealed with a foil top which I hoarded for later. Despite my orange band proclaiming my allergy to caffeine, there was a fruit flavoured tea bag sitting beside the blue thermal mug, and a few portions of packaged sugar. I drank the tepid water.

When the aide came back, I pointed at my orange band and then at the tea bag.The tea was not decaffeinated. A fruit flavoured tea did not mean that it was herbal.

“It has to say decaffeinated on the package,”I protested.

“I don’t know,” she said. ” You marked it on your menu. But I don’t put anything on the tray. I just bring it.”

“I’m just asking that you say something to the kitchen people so that they understand,” I replied. “I know it’s not your fault, but they need to understand and not make the mistake again. ”

In the three offerings I got from the kitchen, each time this fruit tea arrived. The message did not get through. So, when the nurse came, I went through the same conversation.

“The government has decreed that we use contracted services for cleaning and for food services. The same employees that previously worked directly for the hospital are working for them, but the contractors are only interested in doing the least work for the most profit. Things like this go by every day. You should see how the cleaning has deteriorated,” she complained.

She took me to the little kitchenette down the hall and across on the other corridor. She explained that the corridor made a rectangle that one could walk all around. In the core of it were more offices and service rooms. I had to cross to the far side for this kitchenette.

She opened the fridge and showed me a shelf for nurses’ and staff lunches, not to be touched, and above that, sandwiches that people had not opened and not eaten from their trays. There was tuna, chicken or ham. There were more of those short, foil-covered milk containers, yogurt and orange juice. In the freezer there were three long loaves of white marshmallow bread.

There was a toaster and a microwave oven. If I was feeling hungry later on, I could take a sandwich or make toast. In a drawer, there were hundreds of plastic picnic knives, forks and spoons. There were individual portions of peanut butter, jams and honey. A box filled with individually packaged teas and two portions of instant decaffeinated Sanka was tucked in the front of the drawer. She encouraged me to have my coffee. But I had just eaten. I would savor the coffee later

I went back to my room and sat in a visitor’s chair on the other side of the room from my bed where the light was good for reading. I was wide awake and alert. Far away down the hall I could hear a raucous sound like a Stellar Jay complaining. Soon it dissolved into a baby’s cry.

I pulled out my novel, a romantic tale of two noble children who love each other and are promised in marriage. Then the the father of the girl falls into disfavour with King Henry III and the boy is made to marry another. She becomes ill, wastes away and dies. The peril of autocratic politics and the descriptions of medieval life were interesting and the story was told quite well. I finished the book then reached for my crossword book just as the snack angel wheeled her cart back into the room.

It was about seven o’clock now. Outside it was black. It felt as if it were midnight. This late in September, the evening light had fled. She offered me yogurt, orange juice, milk, cheese sticks and digestive cookies. I took cookies for later and ate yogurt and cheese.

I finished one half-done crossword puzzle and I had enough.

I returned to the kitchenette looking for a hot drink. Styrofoam cups were the only kind available to heat hot water in the microwave. Fearing a melt down and a splash of scalding liquid, I had to find something else. I wouldn’t be able to cope with a mess. So I retrieved my yogurt container and hoped it would be somewhat less likely to melt. I made my coffee and downed two Sankas in rapid succession, thankful for its hot sweet taste. I was conscious that in the morning, there would be none left to drink for breakfast. There was a sturdy supply of fruit teas remaining in the little box. I’ll get out of here as early as possible and go down to Starbucks in the lobby, I promised myself.

I made two pieces of toast and loaded them with Becel, peanut butter and raspberry jam. I was still thirsty. It must have been the anesthetic and the fact that I’d had nothing to drink for sixteen hours . Creative hospital cooking was required. I took two containers of milk, heated them and sweetened them with raspberry jam.

On my way back, I passed a dark skinned, short man cradling an infant so small it seemed that he was rocking a blanket with out a baby.

“She’s colicky” he said in a whisper, looking up as I stopped to look at father and his new infant.

“She’s quiet now” I replied just as quietly, as I continued past him, back down the corridor.

Back in my cavernous room, I reflected that it was good to take a day or two to do nothing, to sleep, to meditate, to read, to observe, to think. I began another crossword and quickly bored with it, I returned to the bed to sleep.

I awoke in the middle of the night, remembered that the nurse had mentioned I could always see the time by the television if I just turned it on. It was four thirty and I was wide awake. I had no interest in the puzzle and my book was finished. I put on my slippers and went to the window, all the while listening to the strange raspy sounds of discontented infants on the other side of the walls.

The night was a canvas of midnight blue with four sodium vapour street lights pouring orange halos around and about themselves. There were other neon and fluorescent lights that seemed like pin pricks in the fabric of the dark night. Across the way was a street level parking lot with lots of underground lighting. It was late and there was little activity. Occasionally a car would drive by with it’s amber tail lights glowing. Up high, there were two cranes with blinking white and red lights meant to warn planes that a structure was there.

Soon there was nothing more to see. I went back to bed, got the covers arranged around my feet and up to my shoulders and tried to sleep.

About seven in the morning, the food server came round and announced breakfast had arrived. I sat up briefly then promptly lay back on the bed, falling into a troubled sleep. I dreamt that I was in a parkade, driving out of it by driving down a staircase. At the landing, I was having trouble getting the car turned around and realized I should have driven down the ramp. With much manoeuvring, I turned the car around and drove back up and then towards the ramp. A tall hooded figure in a grey cassock held his hand up for me to stop and I did, parking the car, and returning with him to the third floor.

The apartment was motel-like with a balcony just outside the door. I could see down into the lovely garden and across the harbour, just like at the Empress hotel. I heard steps outside on the staircase but could not see who was coming up.

Two women who were with me announced, “Mrs. Stepford is coming. That was her car you could see just now.” But I could not see it. I exchanged banalities with these women about weather and clothing and children. All three of us went back inside the apartment just as two elegant, grey-hooded figures appeared at the door and entered.

In a deft motion, the two women and one monk figure departed, leaving me with a tall, gracious man, clothed in this fine hounds-tooth checked fabric that from a distance had appeared grey. The cowl slipped back slightly to reveal a younger Richard Chamberlain.

He reached his fingers to a stray strand of hair and let them fall slowly, gently down my face. He took me by my shoulders and leaned forward slowly, kindly and brushed his lips against mine. The sensation was warm, sweet and promising.

“Mrs. Kay, your breakfast is getting cold. You’d better get up and eat your breakfast. Call me when you’ve finished and I’ll take your blood pressure and your temperature.” blared the nurse’s voice. I struggled away from the warmth of the embrace and looked into the impassive face of the morning nurse. I shook my head a little for clarity. The dream was gone and the details of it hurried away after it.

Eggs would have been nice. Even powdered eggs are edible. I lifted the blue plastic cover of the food plate. There on the dinner size plate were two unbuttered, soggy slices of bread cut diagonally. I quickly put back the cover on the plate.

There was a blue thermal bowl of cereal. I lifted off the fitted plastic lid and found a lukewarm white gelatinous mass. It looked too much like paper paste and I returned the lid to the bowl. There was a small thin plastic cup of juice. I sipped it to identify it and couldn’t . It was probably made from concentrate and hadn’t been stirred. The water substance therein was unidentifiable. There were two containers of milk and a blue thermal mug of warm water. A fruit-flavoured tea sat beside it.

I drank the warm water. It was time to go.

I pushed the red button that was lashed to the side rails of the hospital bed.

“Yes?” came a booming voice from the intercom system.

“Yes.” I replied, and hesitated. What was I to say?

“The nurse said she want to see me when I’d finished breakfast. I’ve finished breakfast,” I said. I hadn’t eaten a thing. Starbucks in the main entrance to the hospital was calling me.

“She will come when she can” boomed the voice.

I was mostly dressed from the night before; I’d gone to sleep half dressed in my street clothes. I felt safer that way. I completed my dressing including my socks and shoes, packed my few belongings and waited.
I stood by the window looking out on the scene I had looked upon during a waking spell in the night. There was no parkade across the way. Under a flat grey sky, it was a hotel with a covered arcade at the ground level to keep rain off window-shopping customers. Behind the hotel, there were three new buildings under construction covered in the brilliant blue plastic that protects the plate glass windows and doors. High above them, swinging gracefully through the air were two cranes lifting construction goods from the stockpile of materials to other locations on the site. Between the new buildings and the hotel must have been a park with a grove of cedars and firs.

I looked then at the flat roof just outside my window, a narrow roof not ten feet wide terminating in a parapet wall. The lack of maintenance was terrible but beautiful. I regretted not having my camera to photograph the thick moss clumps, bright, newly green and vigorous with the latest autumn rains. It was clinging to the layer of grey pebble ballast that was designed to keep the roof down in windy conditions. Tucked between the clumps of moss were lichens in a soft pale copper oxide colour, the earth colour artists call Terre Verte. Where the moss was thriving, tiny thin tendrils of a coppery coloured flower bunched on the top of the moss. Set in amongst the rocky ballast, a rose filter perched atop the drain to keep out leaves and other debris. It had a lovely geometric pattern of piercings. Oh, where was that camera?!!!

From a Property Manager’s point of view, it was a disgrace; the moss was destructive, reaching it’s “roots, into the tar and ruining it’s waterproofing. From an artist’s point of view though, it was a marvel of shapes, colours, patterns and textures.

The nurse returned and took my blood pressure and my temperature. I was fine to go. Only, she needed my doctor’s permission to discharge me. The doctor had just left ten minutes previous.

“What on earth was she doing here last night?” I asked. “She was here at seven in the morning. You don’t have to have her come back do you?”

“Oh, she was on call last night,” she replied. “I just need her permission to let you go.”

The nurse paged her and fifteen minutes later, I was free.

I navigated back to the elevator, descended to the ground floor, asked for and found the closest exit to the parkade and found the car. I left my goods and chattels in the trunk, locked it all up and went back to the coffee shop for the tallest decaf they had, and a fruit bar.

The rest, my friends, is another story.

Travels with Mama 3 – Westward ho!

September 6, 2007

Trier was the turning point. We were going west now and on the return side of our journey. We needed to be back in Paris in a few days for a flight, but I was convinced there was much we could see on the way. I was determined to see the things I felt I had missed during my seven year sojourn that had ended six years ago. On the list were the Tapestry of Bayeux and the Cathedrals of Rouen and Beauvais.

We saw signs for one of the fortifications of the Maginot Line, the defense system built after the First World War that was expected to repel definitively another attack by the Germans. The inner structures were closed to the public in late September and we only stayed a few minutes to imagine war and its machinery tromping over the landscape below us.

We went back through Rheims, always considered a crossroads city throughout history – for the Romans, Charlemagne, the Prussians, the Germans. We stayed at the Hotel de la Paix for a night of luxury. We took a different path, heading north of Paris to avoid its  busy traffic. Besides, the side roads of France are ever-changing, picturesque rural scenes that might have been subject of any of the Impressionists. It was a pleasurable eyeful for us both.

We pushed on for Compiegne, but I don’t remember whether we stopped there, or just  kept pushing on. We only had a limited time. We stopped at the ruins of the castle described in Barbara Tuchman’s book A Distant Mirror, a wonderful historical documentary book about the calamitous 13th century in France.

We stopped in at Beauvais and saw the Cathedral St. Pierre which, around 1275,  was considered the highest vaulted cathedral in Europe and the finest Gothic architecture. (seeWikepedia)

As we entered the inner, old city of Rouen, I saw for the first time, a whole intact area of medieval half timber houses with exposed wood framing and plaster infill,  in what the English call the Tudor style, reaching four or five stories high,  looking like they were leaning against each other crazily for support. As one looks up, they appear to lean in over the street.  In Rouen, we stopped right near the Cathedral, which Mother was not eager to see inside for some reason.

“I think I will stay in the car. How long will you be, Kay?” she asked.

“About twenty minutes. ”

I knew how fearful she would be, sitting in a parked car in the middle of a city, especially since she did not speak the language. Perhaps her feet were hurting her. Perhaps she had no interest in medieval stone, as I did.

“Just come in and sit in a pew,” I suggested, and that’s what she did. I wandered about looking upwards, drinking in the medieval light, feasting on the decorations. This Cathedral was bombed in 1944 during the great war and a large part of the Cathedral is restored although it’s hard to tell which parts. Like all the great Gothic cathedrals of the middle ages, there is mystery and majesty filtering through every atom of its construction. I think it was here that the beautiful cloister dominated by red brick construction was attached to the cathedral. Memory fails now. It might have been Beauvais.

Leaving Rouen, we passed through the industrial district beside the river. Mother exhorted me to hurry. It was unfamiliar territory to her; there were no houses, no places to get succour should it be needed. If there were no people to be seen, it couldn’t bode well. I, on the other hand, was fascinated by the white cathedrals to industry. I had no idea what these industries were, originally built close to the river for ease of transport, but they shone in the late autumn sun. I could see Monet doing a series of paintings of this, just like he did of the cathedrals. The silos and towers, walkways and railings, pipes and smoke stacks all combined into an interesting industrial lace. I wanted to stop for pictures. I wanted to get out my sketchbook, and draw; or come back and paint.
But there were two of us travelling and compromises needed to be made. She’d waited me out at the Cathedral; I’d give in on this one. The picture of this stretch of industrial road is now more vague in my mind but the memory of it still calls me.

Then in Bayeux, west of Caen,  we stayed in a small hotel in the centre of the city. It perched on the edge of a narrow canal that threaded between the medieval houses to the river. The hotel rooms were not numbered. Instead they had names of ancient royalty. We stayed in the Queen Maud room. There were ones named after Matilda,William the Conqueror, Henry II, Harold and others.

We spent a long time looking over the handwork of Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife, and her handmaidens while he was off fighting Harold for control of England. Not many people read in those days and pictures were more valid as a way of recording history and advertising a husband’s glory.

The tapestry surprised me in that it is one continuous long piece of Medieval comic book style writing, protected in a museum created especially for it, sealed off from air and lit by special lamps that minimize the effects of light damage. It has iconic interest for artists as a n early handbook for design.

It was her birthday, the 28th of September and I offered her a birthday lunch in a lovely looking café to celebrate. Later in the late afternoon, we walked up to the church and looked within. We got somewhat turned around in our walk back. Suddenly I no longer knew where I was. Mother depended on me for finding our way. All I knew was that we were near the edge of a little canal, though there was no guarantee that it was the same canal that passed our hotel. I stopped and looked around. Nothing gave me a clue as to which direction we should take. There weren’t any people about. Darkness was coming on. Mother asked what was the matter and I told her.

Mother, who has no sense of direction whatsoever, insisted that we go left when my instincts said we should retrace our steps and go back the way we had come. I sat on a planter box seat for a moment and asked her to sit down while I thought. Every minute I sat brought her closer to a panic attack. She peppered questions at me while I was trying to think, reason, figure out for sure which direction to take. I was close to a panic attack myself. What could I do? There were no people to ask. It was a walking space with no signs or street names. I hadn’t a map. My first instincts were most likely to be right. I took her hand firmly, drew her along protesting as we retraced our steps, crossed a little whitewashed bridge against the watercourse and regained a street with traffic on it.

There we found someone to ask. We had done the right thing. Not one street away, we could see our hotel. With grateful feet and hearts, we regained our room and plunked onto our beds. We did not go out for dinner but ate apples that we had picked up somewhere on the way.

In the morning, we wanted to leave early. At seven, we tiptoed down the stairs to the breakfast room hoping it would be open a bit early. We tried the door but it was locked. We thought, instead, we would go out for breakfast. Surely there would be a bakery open, but we were locked in. Instantly, her fear of fire asserted itself. What would we do if there were a fire? We could only return to our room.

I agreed with her that it was unthinkable, totally unacceptable, for patrons to be unable to leave a hotel, dependent on the key keeper to be able to get to the door in case of emergency.

At the appointed hour, the breakfast room was opened up.  We sat and ate their home made butter croissants with coffee for me and tea for Mom. In her ninety-fourth year, Mom was still asking me,”Kay, do you remember those croissants from the hotel in Bayeux. Those were the best I ever had.”

We had wanted to get away early and we did not linger over breakfast. We headed up to Arromanche-les-Bains to see the Atlantic, the English Channel, pound against the beach. Not too distant from the shore, we could see scuttled landing vehicles from D-Day. We talked about the war. It was so much more real when we could see the remains of it sitting in the landscape in which it occurred.

Now we were more pressed for time. We had one more day, then we needed to return the car in Orly and fly away. We had little time except for the essentials. We planned to circle Paris, stop at Versailles, stop at the small village of  Barbizon then head straight for Orly.

At Versailles, we visited the palace which thrilled Mom. I’d seen it before, but I found it equally fascinating second time around. We were unable to go into the gardens because the French Prime Minister was holding talks in one of the buildings there there during the day. and the place was crawling with military and police. Once again as we were leaving the palace, there was police/military activity.  We were held up to allow a cavalcade of black diplomatic cars to sweep past and out the ornate wrought iron gates that were leafed in real gold.

We found our rental car and headed out towards Fontainbleau.

(to be continued)