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.