Saturday, June 06, 2015

Newfoundland Top Twelve: All the Best

Newfoundland, +1.5 hours from Boston.
Image courtesy of  YYT Photo and Design
Since our last trip to Newfoundland, much has changed—new eateries and music to be discovered, for example—yet the unyielding wind and the waves and the wonderful people anchor this place in our hearts.

From the Air Canada flight, when my wife spied “the Rock” from above for the first time in six years to our last night in Newfoundland, when we shared an elevator with a couple from Ottawa (they thought we were from Ontario, too), I present the Top Twelve highlights from our latest Canadian espionage adventure:

1.      Signal Hill
A snot-knocking wind whips my face, and my jeans billow. I am alive and well. In front of me and below, on a descending trail that skirts the ocean, walkers and runners become specks. I imagine successful journeys and shipwrecks. Alan Doyle’s “Laying Down to Perish,” a haunting song about surrendering to the inevitable, sticks with me long after I’ve left what some still call “the Lookout.”

2.      Breakfast and “Launch”
Rocket Bakery & Fresh Food on Water Street: We enjoy the logo and vibe, and the quiche of the day, the porridge or a breakfast croissant, and the coffee. We have breakfast there, but not “launch.” We enjoy our mid-day meals at Nautical Nellies, also on Water Street. The Pear, Bacon and Goat Cheese salad do Newfoundland proud, as does the Patrice Bergeron lookalike who serves our food and chats about hockey and Boston.

3.      Newfound Music
Walking along George Street on a Sunday evening, my wife and I hear someone singing “Boston and St. John’s.” We look at each other, intrigued. Who’s covering this Great Big Sea Song? We walk into Green Sleeves, past the singer on stage. David Whitty covers “Galway Girl,” a revamped version of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” and some clever and catchy original music. He ends his show with Elton John’s “Your Song.” On another night at what at least one local calls “the Snotty Cuffs,” Rob Cook (from the band BUMP) has me “Feeling Groovy” and does a splendid job of covering Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”

4.      Lighthouses
I smell the pine trees on either side of me as I walk from the makeshift parking spot to the towering bold red edifice in Ferryland. At the Cape Spear lighthouse, I climb the same steps the Cantwells—lightkeepers for 150 years—climbed. I witness the outermost layer of wallpaper (there are more than 60 layers) in their house, now a historic monument, on this most northeastern point in Canada.  

5.      Dinners
The YellowBelly Brewery & Public House serves a delicious Meatball Trio appetizer—parmesan meets polenta—and the Four Cheese & Chicken Caesar pizza pacifies our taste buds. Best of all is the gracious server from Corner Brook, NL. Best place for authentic Neapolitan pizza: Piatto Pizzeria on Duckworth Street. We watch the pizza man prepare our dinner and we talk about his fondness for Salt-N-Pepa. Let’s just say that it’s “very necessary” for us to return there for a VPN Margherita.

6.      Desserts
Newfoundland Chocolate Company: Ur cracked if you don’t walk a few blocks from downtown to learn Newfoundland expressions, which are wrapped around the chocolate bars, or to try a treat named after a St. John’s street. Shockin’ good chocolate. Or, if you prefer old school candy and a retro-nerd atmosphere, then the Freak Lunchbox is for you. Sing along to “Karma Chameleon” and say “Yo, America,” to A.L.F.

7.      Beyond St. John’s
Drive west along the Trans Canada Highway to the Bay de Verde Peninsula, which separates Trinity Bay and Conception Bay, and then continue along the Baccalieu Trail to discover Newfoundland’s strong tie to Portugal. The Bonavista Peninsula, home to ex-Bruin Michael Ryder, fleets of icebergs and a heavenly pea soup and ham sandwich, lift my sagging spirits. We drive back to Clarenville and enjoy the enthusiasm and breakfast (molasses muffins and bakeapple jam on brown bread, yum) at the Island View Hospitality House.

8.      On the Radio
VOCM, 590 AM, is a great way to learn about what’s on the minds of locals and to hear the Newfoundland accent. Local citizens talk about issues—Muskrat Falls, the Fishery, health concerns—and politicians from all parties chime in. And there’s a healthy dose of folks who call to solicit support for charitable causes. Many callers sign off by saying “all the best.”  There’s also music for the drive: I hear a Journey song on the way back to St. John’s

9.      Old Reliable Music.
Larry Foley has been on the music scene for two decades, and he still mesmerizes with his voice and lyrics. He’s a must-see act for those who love traditional Irish music or the “Gulf of Mexico.” So we do see him perform, at Shamrock City.

10.  Finding it at Fred’s
My wife and I walk past the array of Newfoundland and Labrador musicians featured—from Ron Haynes to Great Big Sea to The Once to Hey Rosetta! Steve and Tony recommend artists and help me with music history (stuff I’ll use in the historical novel I’m writing). We buy the latest from The Fortunate Ones, The Bliss.

11.  Icebergs
Ever stare at an iceberg for an hour? That’s what we did at Cape Spear. A bit of ice slides off one drydock iceberg that at first looks like a jet plane and then morphs into a bunny rabbit alongside a shoe. The bergy bit lolling to shore transfixes me, and I wonder about the behaviour of icebergs: Most of them are calved from glaciers off the western coast of Greenland, a place I reckon 90% of us won’t see in person, and these behemoths evolve. If we’re lucky, we can see the surface level juts, peaks and fissures, but we can’t possibly know the pain and sorrows hidden underwater, the sentiments that can cause an iceberg to scour the ocean floor; we can’t easily see the beauty beneath, that which can propel the arctic creature to its next destination…until it dies and melds with the ocean…and its hydrogen and oxygen disperse and circle back to its creator.

12.  Guitar Buddy
An older fellow wearing a white scally cap strums his acoustic guitar as he sits on chair on Water Street. A block away from George Street, where the more popular performers are guaranteed a job, this fellow is paid mostly in loose change tossed into his guitar case. He grins as his left hand forms G, D and A chords and his right hand keeps the rhythm to “Looking for Love.” I smile back at him and join him in song and spirit, unfettered by fear. My newfound friend, whose name I don’t ask, broadens his smile and brightens my day.

Until next time, all the best.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Top Twelve: On the Walk and On the Run

Walking near Cardigan Bay, PEI, serenity abounded: No bugs buzzing about as a cool morning breeze blew across my receding hair line. A cow mooed. I smelled hay. A paved road, void of any other activity, stretched before me for about half a kilometer before the asphalt rose to meet the horizon—and then I heard danger. A humming sound. A vehicle off in the distance. Moving too slowly to be a combine on a mission to mince me?

No, just my Walter-Mitty mind conjuring trouble. The car or truck was probably on a different road.

The humming became louder, but I didn’t panic.

I turned left, on to a PEI red road, as a speedy silver car emerged from the hilltop. The driver had no intention of slowing down, and I didn’t establish eye contact for that would have raised suspicion. Instead, I continued my walk down the sloped road, back to the safe house, as my would-be adversary searched in vain.

I continued the mission—regular readers know it’s to delve into Canadian culture to improve Can-Am relations.

After a week-long venture into New Brunswick and then PEI, my accomplice and I have returned stateside…through Calais, Maine, through the rain on Route 9 and to the On the Run convenience store in Bangor, where Canadian spies count their blessings for having avoided the authorities, once again.

Now safe and sound at headquarters, I present these Top Twelve highlights.

1.      CAN-AM Crossing at Calais/St. Stephen: A fifteen-minute wait allowed us to listen to National Public Radio’s program called Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me. Funny.

2.      Familiar Haunt: Niger Reef Tea House, where the chef and his crew served so grand a meal (baked haddock with mango chutney for me; for my wife: steak, grilled on the barbeque five meters from our table on the deck). My wife described the experience as idyllic and then said, “I don’t want it to end.”

3.      New Haunt #1, Algonquin Resort, which some say is inhabited by super natural entities, has re-opened after a much ballyhooed $38M makeover. The hotel looks and feels stately but not overstated, but the dislodged spirits, or perhaps only the highly-touted “jilted bride,” were not altogether happy with the changes. So says one concierge. Nor were some of the construction workers who had to disrupt them.

4.      New Haunt #2, Katy’s Cove: No ghosts, so “haunt” in the supernatural sense isn’t what I mean. But we’ll probably return, even though we’re not swimmers or beach bunnies. As we stood near the canteen at closing time, we admired the cove feeding into Passamaquoddy Bay.

5.      Fish and Chips: Rick’s is renowned and justly so. Less heralded is the Murray River Corner Café. “Best fish sandwich, evah,” my wife wrote in the guest book.

6.      Cape Bear: As tourists and locals flocked to Charlottetown for the Canada Day fireworks, my wife and I watched the swallows flitting to and fro near the cliffs. We had this part of the island almost all to ourselves. One islander, who talked hockey with me before I entered the lighthouse to join my wife, was welcome company.

7.      Canada’s Smallest Library: In Cardigan (the town, not the aforesaid bay), an 11 x 11 humble edifice stood on the shores of the Cardigan River. Inside, on the tile floor, my gaze fixed to the right: five rows of non-fiction. Books included Windows 7 for Dummies, New England: Land of Scenic Splendor. Between Princess Margaret and Going to Extremes, I spied a book whose one-word title in red and gold letters enticed me. Lanny. Could it be Lanny McDonald? The mustached man on the front cover delighted me as I wondered how much he might reveal about my beloved Colorado Rockies. I scanned the index to find familiar names like Mike Kitchen. Ah, but I didn’t have a library card, so my accomplice channeled Jason Bourne and took pictures of the pages that mentioned Rockies players.

8.      Elmira: Conducting research about trains for the novel I’m writing, the kind folks at “the End of the Line,” a PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation site, didn’t have a business card. So they gave me a tiny gift box imprinted with their contact information.

9.      Basin Head: Barefoot on the beach with my wife, I shared my fears and other pent-up feelings (a spy can cry, by the way). After lunch from Skallywags, I took stock of my surroundings: To the south, the Atlantic—where the ferry should be passing any time; to the northeast, windmill tops whirling.

10.  East Point Lighthouse: A pleasant chat with the Visitor Centre workers about their love of PEI and the music they prefer (see Island Music, below). They said the ferry to the Magdalen Islands would be passing by in about fifteen minutes. At the gift shop next door, I became attached to the map showing the deportation of French-speaking inhabitants, from Acadie—present-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI—to North American British colonies. I love maps, but it was time to move on.

11.  Island Music: Before we left the gift shop, I listened to the featured music: Fiddlers’ Sons. While in the spy car, we had the radio tuned to CFCY, and I enjoyed new stuff, like “Invisible” by Hunter Hays. I also sung along with a new-to-me, “It’s Friday,” by Dean Brody. The lyrics and beat caught my tongue and toes because Great Big Sea contributed a Celtic cadence to the country tune.

12.  Beating the Heat: With the temperature approaching 30°C and international anti-spy organizations hunting us, we escaped indoors to see a movie. The Grand Seduction, a wonderful story about saving a Newfoundland fishing village, seemed like a confluence of Mad-Eye Moody, Rare Birds and rural revival efforts featured in Saltscapes. (The pre-movie entertainment: my wife reading, from her camera, a few pages from the book she would purchase when we would return home.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Montreal Top Twelve: The Best of the Belly of the Beast that Beat the Bruins

Fresh off a 3–1 loss to the Canadiens in Game Seven at the TD Garden, my wife and I drove from Boston to Montreal, the belly of the beast. There, we rendezvoused with an erstwhile stateside friend to enjoy the cuisine and culture—and to congratulate Canadiens fans on their victory.

I became, you might say, a Canadien and a Canadian spy, and present my top twelve observations and reasons to visit Montreal.

1.      Saint Louis. Our hotel attendant, a funny and amiable fellow who I‘ve canonized here, hailed cabs and pointed us in the right direction. (Mont Royal is to the north). Louis also told us that the Bruins used to stay at his hotel, on Rue de la Montagne, and he shared a funny interaction he had with Shawn Thornton.
2.      Wrap City. When we told one employee that he looked like Patrice Bergeron, he said someone in Boston told him the same thing. After some friendly hockey talk, we delighted in the food. I recommend the Fifth Avenue wrap and pistachio biscotti.
3.      The McCord Museum. From First Nations to “the Main” to Msr. Masionneuve, the videos, placards and artifacts revealed a wonderful history.
4.      The Hab hockey vibe. On Saturday morning, some five hours before Game One against the Rangers, I walked along avenue des Canadiens—in front of Le Centre Bell—as workers unloaded produce from trucks and television production crews set the stage for announcers. No crowd yet. Serenity surrounded me as I crossed Rue Stanley en route to Gare Centrale.
5.      Second Cup. A youngster wearing a Canadiens shirt listened to his father ask him, in English, what he wanted for breakfast. The father then ordered in French. My turn. I ordered, in English: a chocolate almond croissant to go with my Panini style egg sandwich and coffee, into which I sprinkled chocolate powder. At a nearby table, one Habs fan recalled a story about how he had secured last-minute tickets. I sat at my table and ate as I waited for the train.
6.      Chez Puckbite. Msr. Plouffe and his son, clutching a Canadian and an American flag, greeted me and then treated me to a tour of their home. Puckbite Palace is to hockey memorabilia and painting what the McCord Museum is to history.
7.      Habs vs. Rangers. Not being invested in the outcome, now that my team had exited the playoffs, afforded me relief from the drama and awarded me the joy de vivre de hockey as Puckbite shared his quirky color commentary from his living room. “Subban Incorporated,” he exclaimed as P.K. went end to end. The Canadiens would lose, and I took no solace in that.
8.      Cabbies: From Italy, Lebanon, Algeria and Haiti they had emigrated. All friendly in their own way as they drove us to restaurants. Grazie. Shukran. Merci.
9.      Lola Rosa. While waiting for the vegetarian lasagna, I opened the drawer at my table. It was stuffed with hand-written notes about love and misery and university life (McGill is a few blocks away). Some were funny, but I didn’t write them down and can’t recall them now. But I wrote one of my own. Please let me know if you’ve read it.
10.  Las Sala Rosa. Paella, sangria, limonada and a tortilla española. Muchísimas gracias.
11.  Modavie. Second floor at this bistro in Old Montreal. Chicken Drumette, so yummy. A snare drummer and guitarist accompanying Dray Wood, singing bluesy tunes. Tres magnifique.
12.  What does the Kitsuné say? I still don’t know what a fox says but can tell you that Kitsuné is Japanese for fox and the name of the espresso bar that imports, from a nearby bakery, the best spinach scone. An endearing ambiance (especially for a geography freak and writer), too: a giant world map on the wall and a globe atop a bookshelf containing The Purpose Driven Life (first edition). A most enjoyable Sunday morning, our last day in Montreal.
13.  (Baker’s dozen). Indigo. Blood and Daring. (It’s not about stopping pucks with the face or crashing the crease). John Boyko’s book, featured here on the Agenda with Steve Paikin, is great reading about Canadian-American history— not only for self-assuming Canadian spies like me but anyone interested in the (American?) Civil War.