Sunday, May 19, 2019

Still Spying and Still Standing


O Canada, I miss you.


Image Courtesy of YYT Photo & Design
I haven’t seen you since last July. Highlights from that trip to New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island: visiting with friends at the safehouse in St. Andrews (NB) and with other friends in the Montague (PEI) area; a Souris sunset, set to music; and a tour of the Belfast Mini Mills, where I purchased a hat that I’d wear for a good portion of a long New England winter.

I’ve resorted to staying semi-connected by electronic correspondence with friends and by these other means:

Music: Alan Doyle (from Petty Harbour, NL) and The Beautiful Band in Lowell, MA. At that outside show part of the summer music series, the lads and lone lassie fiddler filled the air with frolicking tunes. Can’t remember if “When I am King” made the setlist that evening. To keep Newfoundland and Labrador close to heart, I’ve been practicing that song on the guitar and performed it for the first time in public at open mic at the local coffeehouse.

Books: Mark Critch, a Newfoundland comedian, mentions Great Big Sea in his book, Son of a Critch. Funny, insightful and entertaining, the book also left me feeling grateful—for my childhood, my family and all the adventures my wife and I have enjoyed Newfoundland. Black Ice, a story billed as a tribute to the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, grabbed a hold of me not just because of the hockey; George and Darrill Fosty did their homework about Maritime history that connects that part of Canada to places I hadn’t considered much. Enlightening.

Internet TV. Ever heard of Jonny Harris? I hadn’t until my wife mentioned the Newfoundlander’s Still Standing show. In the past month or so of 27 episodes, I’ve been mystified and misty-eyed as Jonny meets Canadians who dwell in small towns, from Bamfield (BC) to Fogo Island (NL). These hearty and enterprising folks have stuck together through difficult times, evolved and endured. My kind of people.

My wife and I have visited some of these towns. So many more, we’ll put on our wish list. Top of that list: Bell Island, NL.

See you in two weeks, Canada.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Why Winnipeg

Three years ago, I posted a piece about the best of Newfoundland. (Sorry to any readers who wondered if the espionage police had finally tracked me down and stripped me of my Internet connection.). Not the case. I’ve returned to St. John’s, NL (the province officially known as Newfoundland and Labrador) as well as British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia. Too much material for one blog post, so I’ll fill you in about a province my wife (and professional donut photographer) and I hadn’t visited.

Manitoba: Home to the American Hockey League’s Moose and the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets. Other than hockey, why Winnipeg? For nine days? In late November, for crying out loud? These are questions that friends, as well as Winnipeggers at the safehouse, asked us.

We wanted to meet the good people of Winnipeg and learn more about the joys of Canada. Who knew Winnipeg had so much character—and characters?

Those who’ve congregated at the West End Cultural Centre, which in 1987 was transformed from a church into a music venue, could testify to performances from Arlo Guthrie to the Hanson Brothers to Zoo Animal. On this chilly November night, the Reverend Rambler, a.k.a. Matt Colpitts, opened for the Dust Rhinos, who would be celebrating their 25th anniversary. The Reverend, a bearded blues-inspired guitarist, rocked the former house of God.

After the Rev’s rambunctious set, he told us that he’s a shop teacher by day.

If Colpitts is half as passionate about molding young minds as he is about music, his students must love him. (Further research indicates that the Rev also enjoys hockey.)

My wife and I did, of course, see the Jets play in Bell MTS Place. Friendly people behaving themselves yet alive with the spirit of True North, strong and free. (Warning to first-timers: stay alert during O Canada.) The home team defeated Taylor Hall and the New Jersey Devils, 5 – 2.  

As we approached the arena’s exit, I spied a fellow wearing a Jets sweater; the name on the back was not Wheeler or Perreault but rather Dancing Gabe. (Never heard of him).

Fast forward a few days later to Chapters. A light snow fell outside the bookstore. Inside, in the hockey section, I saw a man sporting Canadian red attire. With his arms extended and his face lit up with joy, it’s as if Gabriel Langlois was about to embrace me. I plucked Daniel Perrons’s biography of Dancing Gabe from the shelf and would later enjoy the heck out of the book about Winnipeg’s most revered and wonderful sports fanatic.

Next time I’m at Jets game, I’ll have to ask Gabe what his favourite donut is and then add him to the list.

I wonder if Gabe has been to Bronuts, in “the Exchange” (district). 

Home Alone
(Image courtesy of YYT Photo and Design)
Brett and Dylan Zahari, the brothers who in 2015 launched the gourmet donut and coffee shop, have created a community centre of sorts. Spacious. Welcoming. Brett served as the frontman during our first visit and explained donut menu: Each of the eight seasonal round darlings has a name based on a fictional character. These donuts have flair for sure, and boy oh boy, is the staff friendly. And the bros, as well as Brett’s wife Meghan, have done their homework. Lots of research, trial and error. And when you get right down to taste, these are the best donuts in Winnipeg.


Yes, yes, it’s cold there in November. But not brutal. And in the summer, I’ve heard of nasty black flies to despise. Keep the faith, fellow travelers. There are lots of reasons to love Winnipeg. This Canadian spy tells you no lies. 

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.