- 01. Minutes of the COCKUP
- 02. A Public Service
- 03. The 22% Solution
- 04. On The Campaign Trail
- 05. Athens of America
- 06. A Yankee’s Yankee
- 07. My Canadian Family
- 08. Edmonton? Why?
- 09. Prairie Singers
- 10. Deconstructing Calgary
- 11. My Kelowna
- 12. Wine Whine
- 13. Fire Mountain
- 14. A Stopover and a Popover
- 15. Inspiring Victoria
- 16. Planet Rosehip
- 17. Carry On Grunge
- 18. Street People
- 19. The Curse of Portland
- 20. Mean-Spirited, Powerful Justice
- 21. Amtrak’s Jewel
- 22. Managing Yosemite
- 23. Yumpin’ Yosemite
- 24. Parched
- 25. Brave New San Fran
- 26. Over The Hill
- 27. Greatest Again
Months ago, not long after I was advised of my mother’s death – I think it was about twenty seconds – I did a rough calculation of the dollar amount I stood to inherit. Scottish heritage, don’t you know. It wasn’t a huge amount, nevertheless it was a something of a windfall since her mother lived to the age of a gazillion. Gramma left her estate nearly penniless, having squandered her dwindling fortune on life. I had expected nothing more or less from Mom.
After Mom’s funeral, I was feeling flush, as well as grateful to the friend who had put us up for several days. In thanks, I offered to buy him and his extended family dinner at a local restaurant named Brine on State Street in Newburyport. We sat down and started ordering “flights” of geographically diverse oysters. Even those from Long Island Sound were tasty and did not kill us. Yet, anyway.
A lovely time was had by all, the food was great, the service better. The check came to eight hundred dollars, which is quite reasonable for seven people at a fancy restaurant. Nevertheless, it represented a couple percent of my inheritance. Realizing that if I did this fifty more times, well, “poof”, Ma might as well have lived another twenty years, I reviewed the bill carefully.
I had spent over four hundred dollars on oysters.
I like oysters. So did everybody else. By my calculations each of us had consumed a dozen-and-a-half of them. That isn’t hard to do when offered six different kinds – just three of each. The next time I see a “flight of oysters”, I will do the math first, and then, perhaps, take flight. Or maybe order the baked scrod, all around. I like oysters. But not that much.
Friday night, our comely yet creepy AirBnB hosts left us. The apartment, on closer inspection, appeared to be stellar in every respect. I considered the possibility that I had mistaken Canadian hospitality, warmth and concern for overtures of a different genre.
Stepping out to get some dinner, a nearby restaurant, The Docks, beckoned with a sign promising “Local Oysters, 50¢ All Day Friday”. I quickly calculated that we could each have eighteen oysters for twenty-three dollars including tax and tip. We could do that over two thousand times before my inheritance ran out. It was irresistible. Inside another sign suggesting “BYO Wine, $3 Corkage” made it almost too good to be true.
How good can fifty cent oysters be? Let me tell you, in Victoria BC, an area renowned for oysters, they can be – they were – excellent. We had a bottle of wine while devouring two dozen oysters in the bar. Just as the sun began to set over the picturesque Inner Harbour, our waterfront table became available. I cannot recall enjoying a meal more. I had a mixed shellfish “Steampot” with a light tomato-based seafood broth, which is sacrilege in New England. To no one’s surprise, I enjoy sacrilege, even when it involves eating seafood on a Friday.
Afterwards we took a twilight stroll around the harbor. Tempting opportunities to push unwary unicyclists and jugglers into the briny deep presented themselves. It occurred to me that buskers were generally a fit lot, and not the most stable of personalities even when dry, so I denied myself that pleasure. It did seem a way to liven things up a bit. I may suggest this to the festival organisers.
In the morning I awoke to the realisation that for first time on this trip — we were now twenty-three days into it – Frank Lee and I had no plans or appointments or meetings or weddings or anything with anybody. A smile came across my face as I drifted back to sleep.
I have taken to classifying my travels into two categories: “About The People” and “About the Places”. This trip was a hybrid, the first half being about the people, while from this day forward, it was to be about the places. I enjoy both categories, but trips “about the people” are a whole lot more work. To some degree, the math demands that such is the case.
When Frank and I travel alone, there’s only one negotiation that has to occur, and that negotiation probably occurred years ago, so we already know how it will turn out. Add one more person to the equation and there are three negotiations that have to take place. That is still manageable, if the third person is someone, like Daisy, with whom we have travelled before. If need be, a happy compromise might be fashioned in minutes.
Things get difficult when you hit four people travelling together – even two couples. Now there are six bilateral negotiations that must resolve to the same answer before anybody leaves the hotel. All hell breaks loose with a party of five. No fewer than ten identical two-sided agreements must conclude. Put your feet up and turn on the telly, nobody is going anywhere until everybody is happy.
This goes a long way towards explaining why the European Union is doomed. With 28 member countries needing to agree before anything significant changes, 378 combinations of leaders must chat without offending each other. Don’t hold your breath. It also explains why weddings aren’t planned by consensus. Otherwise, two hundred guests would require almost twenty thousand discussions yielding the same conclusion.
The other thing about trips “about the people” is that often those people are family. I like, even love, my family, which is larger and more intense than most. It amazes me how fast the pecking order between my siblings is re-established the moment we get together. Instantly, I am a know-nothing sniveling peon whose greatest accomplishment was falling down a flight of stairs with a sousaphone at the age of ten. Elsewhere, my input is appreciated and enjoyed, but with family I struggle to get a word in edgewise. It is humbling. And exhausting.
Victoria, the place, beckoned. To stock up the place, Google directed us to the Save on Food supermarket at the nearby Memorial Centre. This turned out to be the ice hockey arena (the Save on Food Memorial Centre), not a market, super or otherwise. We tromped crosstown to the Market on Yates, which offered organic everything-free save-the-planet blah blah blah at twice the price anybody working there could afford to pay. It served our immediate needs, though. Breakfast was had.
With nothing planned we did what we love to do: walk. Around the Inner Harbor, by the BC Legislature, on to Fisherman’s Wharf, past a marine industrial area, along the cruise terminal, and then a kilometer out to sea on a Breakwater. From there we turned inland into the James Bay neighbourhood where we lunched at an organic everything-free save-the-planet blah blah blah Farmer’s Market where everything cost twice the price any farm hand could afford to pay. Nearby Beacon Hill Park was irresistible, particularly to a Bostonian. There, a jazz ensemble innovated and improvised and in a renovated and revised bandstand to a sparse but appreciative audience. We passed a cricket pitch and a bowls club, both with matches underway, leaving me feeling very much back in Melbourne. After a “soft serve” ice cream cone at the Beacon Drive-Inn – right out of the fifties — we found (with some difficulty) “The Lookout”. The small rise offered views of the not-so-distant Washington State, including the Olympic Peninsula sparkling to the south, with the San Juan Islands partially shrouded in fog to the east. Finally, at 127 feet, seven inches, we admired the world’s tallest totem pole, erected in 1956. “Isn’t that – something…”
We left the park into the adjacent Cook Street Village, a pleasant tangle of shops and restaurants, many of the “new age” variety, surrounded by single family bungalows and small apartment complexes. The sidewalks were crowded with presumably disabled folks dashing about on electric mobility scooters at speed, crankily beeping their way through pedestrians, not to mention café patrons seated at tables. As we made our way up Cook Street the bungalows shrank in number while the apartment complexes grew in size and blandness until the streetscape resembled a Soviet era housing development with extra shrubbery. Each complex had a billboard in front with a name reflecting the creativity of real estate professionals – El Mirador, King Charles Apartments, Monte Carlo, Tara Place – and a list of available flats, or “No Vacancy” where applicable, giving the neighbourhood a transient feel.
Next came Mosaic Village on “Fabulous“ Fort Street, which had some interesting architecture and a host of quirky shops. We made our way back downtown where the shopping district was in full flight. Finally we grabbed a bottle of wine in Victoria’s small but prominent Chinatown, then retreated to our nearby apartment, pooped from the fifteen kilometer stroll.
The walk left me withno doubt that Victoria is first and foremost the seat of provincial government and a tourist town. Other than the bureaucrats, the middle class scrapes out a living as retail merchants, many in the tourist trade, others in Victoria’s huge “New Age” industries: yoga, juice bars, chiropractors, holistic therapists, organic, everything-free, save-the-planet blah blah blah — all at twice the price any of them should afford to pay each other. They sell their wares to a smug class of well-to-do people, although it wasn’t clear to me what the well-to-do were well-to-doing. If I had to guess, I’d say they were lawyers, accountants, bankers and real estate agents flipping Soviet-era apartments and marginally profitable retail space at higher and higher prices to a merchant class struggling to find any other way to prevent themselves from falling into the category of the homeless or working poor. Parents, don’t let your children grow up to be retailers.
My thirteenth campaign pledge: Bernie Sanders has a point – a university education should be available to anybody with the capability and desire to attempt its completion. We need a new GI Bill, only this time it will be offered to anybody with a gastrointestinal tract.
It was clear to me that in these relatively warm Canadian climes Victoria also was home to a sizable class of homeless and working poor supported by government social services and all manner of charities – the city has an abundance of their “thrift stores”. Given these realities, the city seems to function admirably well. Like most cities, though, the gap between the rich and poor is glaringly apparent, and more worryingly, the middle class shares more with the poor than the rich.
After a bottle of wine, the idea of a quiet dinner “at home” had tremendous appeal. We lacked only a main course, so for the second time in as many weeks I found myself wandering the markets of a Canadian city’s Chinatown. Even if I had the stomach for their offerings I hadn’t the faintest idea how to prepare them. I pondered how I might “ruin” chicken feet. Then a barbecued duckling, dangling, glistening in the setting sun, presented itself. It was beautiful. It was delicious.
Just before ten o’clock we were out of wine, so I dashed out to buy another bottle, finding the streets virtually deserted. Peculiar, I thought, for a Saturday night. After ten minutes in the bottle shop I exited to find the streets now teeming with teams of grunting and howling young men, and gaggles of giggling woman in attire unsuitably scant for the brisk evening. All were headed downtown. It was as if an alarm had sounded calling out every horny person under the age of thirty, which is all of them, to hit the streets, to hit the bars. Back at the apartment I pointed the parade out to Frank. For fifteen minutes we watched from our balcony with bemusement. Then it was over, as quickly as it had started. Extraordinary. I assume there was another parade in the opposite direction after closing time, but by then we were fast asleep.
Tastes and smells, they say, can be powerful triggers of memory. I hadn’t fully appreciated that until overnight I awoke more than once with a strangely familiar metallic taste in my mouth that was accompanied by an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I couldn’t recall the time or place, but I knew the story: I was going to be quite ill. At sunrise I rose to find I had a bad case of sea legs. It got worse from there, but I will spare you the details. The next time I buy a beautiful barbecued duckling that has been hanging under heat lamps in a window for who-knows-how-long, I won’t let it sit out while I bake the potatoes and prepare the salad. I wasn’t going anywhere this Sunday morning. Happily, it started to rain, lessening my sense of guilt for staying in bed.
By two o’clock I was feeling a bit better. I had promised Frank High Tea at the Empress Hotel, the premiere event at Victoria’s Grand Dame. I rousted myself out of bed so we could take a slow walk over there. The hotel was a madhouse, to be expected on a Sunday afternoon, but worth a look in any case. For sixty-three dollars each we could have had High Tea including tea, pasty looking sandwiches, and a lovely variety of pastries and sweets. Thing is, I don’t like tea, pasty looking sandwiches, pastries or sweets very much. In my current state, they were simply out of the question.
Instead, Frank agreed to settle for a drink at the Bengal Bar which claimed to draw “inspiration from Queen Victoria’s role as the Empress of India”. We enjoyed sitting in the afternoon sun — I could manage but a fruit juice – watching a thirty-ish man at the bar in a smart linen suit stumble, slur and hang all over two older women who seemed perfectly happy to have him do so. When I went to use the men’s, this man followed me in.
As I sat in the stall, I could hear him struggling to produce at the urinal. “Aw, c’mon, don’t fail me now! Damn!” Then things got personal. “Hey, you,” he began – I was the only other person in the room – “Give me a minute before you squat and thrust, will ya? I don’t want to smell your turd.” Lovely. Rather than confront the lout, I waited a few moment while he continued to grunt and groan. Then another gent entered, to which the drunk bellowed “How about those Canucks?” The other guy said nothing, then the drunk left, and a minute later the other guy said “Aw, geez…” When I exited the stall I could see the source of his dismay was a large puddle where the drunk had been standing.
Back at the table, the waitress handed me the bill, and I did something I’ve never done before. I told her in a low voice “The gent at the bar in the tan suit…”– she saw him and nodded — “…has had quite enough to drink. He was just extraordinarily rude to me and another gentleman in the men’s room.” She apologized profusely and made a beeline to have a chat with the bartender. Minutes later our friend left, his arms wrapped around the necks of his two lady friends, his feet dragging behind as they guided him out.
Our waitress, a middle-aged woman of some stature, apologized again, explaining that the bartender had served him only two beers. “There’s not much we can do if they show up drunk already!”
“Too much inspiration from Queen Victoria’s role as the Empress of India.” I concluded.