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When you reside in a country that is as far from anywhere else in the world as it is possible to be, you may develop an illogical resentment of your absolute reliance on airplanes.  As fond as I am of my bike, I’m unlikely to ride from here to North America any time soon.  Planes do, unfortunately, fall out of the sky from time to time.  Not to Qantas, though, at least not yet.  But this last one was a very close call.

In an amazingly short period of time, we have come to embrace the routine of air travel.  I am old enough to remember when it was anything but routine.  Boarding an airplane was an event, like riding an elephant through a river or taking a hot air balloon over the Alps.  The child-like wonder I once had has certainly eroded over time and the thrill is long gone, but I still marvel at the fact that it works at all.

On my last long-haul flight from San Francisco to Auckland, a man my age was doing some stretches in the aisle while I hovered in the toilet block waiting for a vacant sign.  He gave me a bemused look and said, “Amazing, Isn’t it.  These things can carry all these people.”  It is, indeed.  And each and every person has close to his own weight in luggage.  The fact that the engines can develop sufficient thrust to get all that (plus the plane and those heavy trolleys) into the sky before the end of the runway is amazing.

At any given moment in time, there must be a good-size town full of people flying around the planet.  All reliant on incredibly complex machines that take us way out of our comfort zone, up where it is very cold and we can hardly breathe.  Everest high.  Dependent on human beings, over-achieving offshoots of apes and chimps, not even up to snuff when it comes to multi-tasking, if recent studies prove correct.

Nobody pays any attention to the safety spiel any more.  It seems so distant, so irrelevant to what air travel has become, a routine mode of transportation.  I tried to picture folding my torso over my lap in an emergency but there is simply no room to do so anymore.  No one I know has ever seen an oxygen mask except in the hands of an airline attendant.

According to “The Age,” passengers on the recent flight from Hong Kong to Melbourne were under “orders” from Qantas not to comment about the ordeal.  Despite the blackout, Tara Kynnersly told reporters she thought she was going to die.  She had just received a proposal of marriage and was flying home to celebrate her 31st birthday. An hour out of Hong Kong, the plane plunged.  “I have a beautiful fiancee, family, friends– I have had a wonderful life… I’m on a plane, there’s nothing I can really do about it.”

When St. Kilda architect, David Suanders, boarded the jet he noticed water streaming down from a light fitting, a panel hanging off the wall, and that the rubber seal around the entrance door was frayed.  He mentionned to the head flighet attendant and the passenger next to him that the plane should be retired. David burst into turns during an emotional reunion with his mother and sister after arriving in Melboune.

Everyone has commented favourably on the professionalism of the captain and crew in the emergency.  That said, the 365 passengers and crew members were incredibly lucky.  If it had happened out over the South Pacific, the plane would have run out of fuel and crashed. The latest guess is that it was an oxygen cylinder, a safety device for the pilots, that caused the calamity.

With the price of fuel going through the roof and the prospect of a carbon tax kicking in, we can only hope maintenance won’t be sacrificed on the alter of shareholder profits.  Right now, flying is far and away the safest way to travel.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

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The reason for our journey to Portland was simple.  My son and his family migrated up there last year from their previous base in San Francisco.  The decision was triggered, in large part, by the birth of my grandson just two years ago. Portland offered a lifestyle conducive to young families, the prospect of an affordable house, and, for my son and his wife, friends who had already moved there.  The city’s cycle-friendly reputation probably didn’t hurt.

Portland is known as the premier bicycling city in North America.  There are entire streets where cycling commuters take priority over cars.   I actually laid hands on Calfee Design’s beautiful bamboo bike and paid a visit to a local recumbent shop.  Ironically, while yours truly was chatting away with the owner, I came very close to getting an expensive parking ticket on our rental Subaru.

From almost anywhere in the city, you can see the lovely volcano, Mount Hood, and usually Mt. St. Helen as well.  It is the city of roses.  Powell’s is here, the largest bookstore west of the Mississippi.  There are 28 microbreweries.  It has great coffee, delicious fresh food (especially berries) from nearby farms, and eleven bridges.  The Willamette River effectively divides the city in half.

For more than fifty years, Oregon was the destination for thousands of immigrants seeking a better life.  They joined caravans of covered wagons and made their way out West.  They came for the free land; the gold rush; a better life.  That was the picture my teacher drew when she spoke about the great migration.

I hold vague memories of long road trips from Montana to visit my mother’s favorite sister in Portland.  She and her husband were warm, generous people.  They had a small, very neat house.  George took great pride in his car and did all the mechanical work himself in his exceptionally tidy garage.  They took us up to see the Rose Test Garden, of course, and probably the zoo as well.  It was summer and everything smelled good.

My wife and I arrived on July 11, barely missing my grandson’s second birthday.  Sometime during the last year he had metamorphosed from a beautiful baby into a non-stop talker, a bundle of energy and emotions.  We had gone from being part of his magical physical world him into being strangers.  It was a disconcerting transformation.  Our second visit in as many years did not exactly turn us into a known and trusted item.  In Nova Scotia they have a term for people like us, “come-from-away.”

Despite parenting demands and my son’s work schedule, we found time for a fabulous farm market, great meals, good conversation, a visit to the most popular tourist attraction in the area (Multnomah Falls), an outing on Sandy river, a family get-together, a celebration of my son’s birthday. and a getaway of our own to the Pacific coast where we walked for hours on the beaches.

On our very last day we squeezed in a hike up one of the streams flowing down from the mountains to the Columbia River gorge.  It was stunning.   If only, if only it weren’t so far away.


In my early twenties I was lucky enough to be able to live in Paris for two years. Whenever friends or family came through France, I would take them to Les Halles, the city’s fabulous food market. It was a cornucopia of sensual pleasures. We would head out at first light, indulge ourselves with a bowl of French onion soup followed by sweet, luscious strawberries, croissants and coffee. It was heavenly.

One time a friend landed on my doorstep after an exhausting, solo road trip from Beirut, Lebanon, through Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. Since his Russian was limited to one word, he ate nothing but bread in Bulgaria. When we got to Les Halles he went a little crazy. He insisted that I get him a job, any kind of job, lugging lungs if need be. The sensory overload of Les Halles had that effect on people.

Over the years I have been to a number of food markets. One of the most memorable was the “wet” market in Hong Kong, the main source of meat and fish in they city. The wet market makes one realize the true extent of man’s carnivorous character. There are a staggering number of creatures for sale. The sights and smells are not for the timid. I was told that some of the snakes found on the hiking trails in Hong Kong were destined for the soup pot. They slithered their way to freedom.

We are blessed with a wonderful farm market in the town of Wolfville, five kms from Grand Pre. Wolfville is a charming University town with one main street. The college is small, but the town has attracted a lively mix of academics and artists, working folk and retirees.

Every Saturday morning they gather on the plot of what used to be a dairy plant. The building bit the dust nearly twenty years ago, but the chimney was saved to benefit migrating “chimney” swifts. These small birds have a rigid wing. They reach higher speeds than any other family of birds, but their tiny feet are not well suited to perching. They dart into hollow trees or old, unlined chimneys to roost.

The market is a place to shop, visit, eat, drink and listen to live music. Like the town, it has changed considerably over the years. Old timers who had been away for a decade would be astonished at the sight of tofu cakes, coffee beans from all over the world, fresh sushi, samosas, delicate French patisseries and heavy German breads.

On a beautiful summer morning there will be throngs of adults, children and dogs mingling amicably around the stalls. They will give over the better part of a morning to the event, relishing the chance to get their groceries, see their neighbours and make new friends.

The farm market may be the new church in this secular age, the church of fresh food. The sermon is simple: Slow down. There is absolutely nothing else that is more important than this moment. To live is to eat, so eat well. In Hong Kong, one of the very first phrases I learned in Cantonese was “sik fan,” which means, literally, have you eaten yet?  Colloquially it is the closest phrase they have to our everyday greeting, “how are you?” Try it next time you go to your farm market.  Surprise somebody.


For readers who follow this narrative on an irregular basis (or those who have stumbled across the site playing internet hopscotch), here’s an update. Thanks to a semester break, my “partner” and I are currently hanging out in our old, family home in Nova Scotia. You can read all about it by going back a couple posts.

When we are not here, which is most of time, we rent it out on a weekly basis during the summer months, which is the only time tourists actually come to Nova Scotia. Sometimes circumstances conspire to drive us away even when we are here. It happened the week before last.

Several months ago, a nice couple from British Columbia inquired about renting the Stewart House for their daughter’s wedding. They had family coming from Europe and Australia, as well as Canada. Since she was getting married at the winery in our village, they needed a home base.

I thought it would provide us with the impetus to get out of the house and actually have a vacation, which never seems to happen when we are here. The reality was more work than I had counted on, but the idea was sound.

Our first stop was Antigonish, where we caught up with Eric and Clare just before they headed off to Ireland to sail their boat. I wrote about that last summer. Then we nosed the old Volvo up toward Cape Breton. If you have an active imagination and can picture Nova Scotia as a lobster, Cape Breton would form the claws. It is the only part of the province I have seen with rugged grandeur.

The claws are divided by a huge, inland estuary, called the Bras d’Or Lake. One beautiful island near Baddeck held the summer home and lab of Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone and dabbled with many other inventions, such as the hydrofoil and a precursor of the iron lung. When Ann Sullivan and Helen Keller went up to see him, they stayed at the Inn directly across the road from where I’m sitting now.

Cape Breton came to be dominated by Scottish settlers as a result of the highland clearances. It houses one of the only colleges in North America dedicated to preserving Scottish traditions and the Gaelic tongue. Thanks to the Island’s geography, locals had to entertain themselves long after most Canadians had settled in front of the box for their popular entertainment. Their music scene is still vibrant.

The main draws for tourists are the golf, the music, the Bell Museum, whale watching, the spectacular Cabot trail, and Louisbourg, the largest historical reconstruction of an 18th Century French fortress town anywhere in North America.

Our last tour of Cape Breton was many, many years ago. We went mountain biking in September and it got so cold it could have snowed. This time around, we went for the hospitality, scenery and kayaking. We didn’t count on good weather, but we were blessed with sunshine on all but one day. What more could one ask for? Maybe it’s just luck, maybe it’s an effect of global warming. I hate to say it, but Canada just may benefit from something that is going to be very hard on Australia.

Two weeks ago we had the longest day of the year here in Nova Scotia and missed the shortest day back in Melbourne. I’m sure I’ll pay for that, somehow.  In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy the second summer.

P.S. For those of you who have been waiting patiently for the results of the unicycle race, your time has arrived. The intrepid team of unicyclists from New Zealand acquitted themselves admirably, with a total time just 18 minutes behind the the German Speeders. Next year, bring on the Aussies!

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