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We are wrapping up the first phase of our stay in Durham and we have barely scratched the surface.  I’ve visited Chapel Hill twice, and I have yet to visit Raleigh, the state capital, which is only thirty miles from here.  I feel I may be failing to educate my readers about the Triangle area of North Carolina, but  it takes time to settle into a new place, to find a new doctor and dentist, to discover the things worth doing and seeing.  It is a process with which I am long familiar.  One step forward, two steps back.  It is the price one pays for geographic variety, the cost of being a nomad.

The two parts of North Carolina that attract tourists in droves are the mountains and the sea.  The state has been blessed with attractive proportions of both landscapes.  The Appalachians run up through the western part of the state and the barrier islands, the Outer Banks, maintain a tenuous foothold against the waves of the Atlantic.

In the last ten days, I have been to both areas, for very different reasons.  The first trip was easier in terms of distance and the driving, although the route finding was a little tricky.  I have invested in yet another GPS to replace the one I lost to the smash and grab man.  This one should help keep us on track. I am tempted to call this the land equivalent of the Bermuda triangle, since I discovered that I am not the only one who finds it impossible to get one’s bearings here.  I have adjusted the voice of the GPS to guide me in Italian, rather than English.  Silvia’s voice is pleasant, far gentler than her American counterpart, and if she does anything to bring back my Italian language skills I will be grateful.

The destination for our first significant outing was the coastal town of Swansboro, some three hours away by car.  The village lies about half-way down the North Carolina coast, below the bulge of Cape Hatteras, tucked in underneath the old town of Beaufort.  You can place it by its proximity to the Croatan National Forest and Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base.  Marines and marine life are the main focus of the people who live in Swansboro.  Camp LeJeune is home to some 40,000 Marines, so they have a significant impact on the economy and the lives of the local population.   Swansboro is home to boat nomads and fisherman as well.  The shrimping season will start soon.

A long lost relative had sent me an unabridged CD set of a book by Arthur Upfield, which made the drive pass very quickly.  Roger was astounded to learn that I had spent three years Down Under and never read any of Upfield’s books.  The author of the “Bony” books grew up in England but settled in Australia in 1910 at the age of twenty.  After the War, he immersed himself in the aboriginal culture and life in the Outback, then wrote a popular series of mysteries with a half-caste hero as the protagonist, a man with the unlikely name of Napoleon Bonaparte.

His books depict life in the forties and fifties, but the Outback changes slowly, so much of what he depicts is probably accurate to this day.  The “Bushranger of the Skies” had us both hooked.  Tony Hillerman credits Upfield with some of the inspiration for his own series of mysteries starring Jim Chee of the Navaho Tribal Police.  At a rest stop, my wife was so absorbed with the narrative that she felt we were back in Australia.  Everything around us was out of place.

Our journey to the North Carolina coast had a simple mission–  to enjoy a little rest and relaxation on the water.  Lamar Hudgens launched Barrier Island Kayaks fourteen years ago.  He offers kayak rentals, guided trips and instruction out of a building right on the water.  He is one of a handful of Americans qualified by the British Canoe Union with a five star rating, but we had not come to take advantage of his expertise on this particular trip.  We were there for the scenery, the paddling, and the zen-like calmness that comes when you are out on the water and into the rhythm of self propulsion.

The Waterway Inn is literally right next door, so we were able to check in, change clothes, grab some lunch and get out on the water by mid-afternoon of the same Saturday we departed from Durham.  With Bob Patterson as our guide, we paddled through the marsh lands and hunted for sharks teeth on one of the islands close to town.  We learned to identify birds and get a feel for the tide.  We learned to dodge the maniacs on jet skis.

Sunday morning after breakfast, Bob led the way toward Bear Island.   The trip out to the uninhabited barrier island was mesmerizing, offering us a variety of birds and seascapes, and we were fortunate in our timing, having the benefit of a returning tide on our way back.  It is like being carried on the back of a giant whale, being pushed by the sea.  Green turtles, loggerheads and even giant leatherbacks lay their eggs on the island.  I am glad there are no lights to distract them, that their offspring will be able to make their way easily back into the ocean.

I hate to visualize them making their way through the black muck that is spreading like cancer in the Gulf, but I have no doubt it is happening.  Bear Island is beautiful.  Like the turtles that come back year after year, we too will return.


My father grew up poor, hitting his formative years during the great depression.  Most of his energy went into getting away from that poor place and staying there.  He did it by working his way through college and applying himself diligently to things he had trouble with, like scientific German.  Most of his choices were dictated by circumstance.

The only narrative he subscribed to was the one at the heart of the American dream– achieving success through good fortune and hard work.  He regarded all fiction as frivolous, from airport and beach books to Shakespeare and Tolstoy.  I suspect many men of his generation felt the same.

Naturally, I became an English major, taking up with every literary floozy that came along, from “Catcher in the Rye” to “Atlas Shrugged.”  It wasn’t long before I went hard core, attending poetry readings and filling notebooks with everything that came into my head. It was infatuation, not real dedication, that led me down the literary path.  I was the young man Garrison Keillor mocks so gently on “The Prairie Home Companion,” the one he sees in himself.

I have come to see that books are my escape and my refuge in unsettled times. I remain omnivorous, devouring books of all kinds, shapes and sizes, hardcovers, paperbacks and audio files.  I have yet to purchase an electronic reader, but I can see one in my future. It is the perfect format for expensive, expendable travel guides as well as a great device for airplane reading.

The books I read and the ones I download from Audible take me into different worlds and different times.  I love mysteries, and Donna Leon has escorted me back to Venice several times in the fine company of Commissario Guido Brunetti. Louise Penny has immersed me in the surprisingly complex life of a small village in the Eastern Townships of Quebec with charming Inspector Gamache. With Charles Todd I have travelled all over England at the end of World War I inside the troubled mind of a Scotland Yard inspector plagued with guilt, having had his best soldier shot for insubordination. Stieg Larsson has me hooked by the sexy and sexist, over-caffeinated and nicotine-addicted Swedes.  I can’t wait for the third book in the series.

During the past week, the fine voice of Simon Vance reading Kate Grenville’s “The Secret River” has transported me back to Australia while I’ve been walking the circuit of East Campus of Duke University.  Set during the days of the first settlers, it conjures up a simple man whose desires lead him to the darkest places. He is one of the victims of the British impulse to banish the petty thieves of London to “terra nullus,” the continent of Australia.  The injustice affects him for life, of course.  But the aboriginals bear the brunt of the settlers’ fear, ignorance and firepower.  It is a brilliant book.

“The Wayfinders”, by Wade Davis, is a fascinating tour through a handful of aboriginal cultures around the world. Davis suggests that the extinction of cultures is as risky to the future of our species as the precipitous decline of plants and animals. The San people of the Kalahari have found extraordinary ways to survive without water; the Polynesians sail 10,000 kilometers without a sextant or compass and manage to find a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific ocean; the peoples of the Amazon rain forest harvest plants for medicine that we have yet to name.  The subtitle says it all:  Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.

You can cosy up to a good book or take a bumpy ride, but it’s a great way to see and hear the world. And you don’t have to be an English major.


This was the week the clouds broke. Following what seemed like weeks of gray, the sun emerged, gracing Melbourne with blue skies and light. September 1st was the first day of Spring. North American readers will have a hard time with that. It is a bizarre notion for me and I’ve had some time to get used to the idea.

The writers came to town for the Writer’s Festival. There were luminaries like J.M. Coetzee and Dave Eggers as well as charmers like Alexander McCall Smith and John Lanchester.  I got a handful of tickets and enjoyed a feast of wordsmiths talking about subjects from family secrets to the impact of a materialistic culture on spiritual life.

I came home with books, of course. More for the stack on the bookshelf, the pile by the bed, the coffee tables. I learned that I am a rare bird, a male reader. Apparently, anyone who plows through anything thicker than magazines is a woman, almost by definition.

I am the odd man out, currently reading “Fiasco” by Thomas Ricks, the “True History of the Kelly Gang” by Peter Carey, “Pegasus Descending” by James Lee Burke and “A Commonwealth of Thieves: the Improbable Birth of Australia” by Thomas Keneally.

And now, of course, I can listen to books, a wonderful way to fill up hours at the gym, on the tram or bike path. I just shook off the magical spell of “The Emporer’s Children,” by Claire Messud, followed by the powerful and depressing “The World Without Us,” by Alan Weisman. As an antidote, I am deep into the charming tale of “Balzac and the Little Seamstress” by Dai Sijie.

The one time I attempted to ask a question at the Writer’s Festival, my tongue simply refused to get itself around my thoughts and the two eloquent writers at the front of the room found themselves completely baffled. I am often incoherent in the public forum and I don’t know why I expected to be able to express myself well this time.

With a blog you get a second chance. The panelists were Marcella Polain, an Australian writer who has a novel out based on her Armenian family history, and Nancy Huston, a well-known, Canadian-born writer who lives in Paris and usually writes in French. The discussion subject was triggered by Tolstoy’s famous line about families.

My question was intended to be: since family forms the template for all later relationships in life, from the worker in a company to the citizen in a country, are differences in social structures around the world reflecting differing family dynamics? When JFK said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can you do for your country,” was he really just saying, “Grow up.”  You are welcome to fill in the gap with comments.

There was a big hole in my schedule on Friday so I walked across the river to see the Immigration Museum. It was fascinating. I loved the televised mock interview, where I was able to assess various candidates. The interviews were supposed to take place when this country took in great numbers of immigrants, Brits, of course, Chinese, Greeks, Italians, Somalians, Sudanese.

I loved the Greek sponge fisherman’s wife, who didn’t speak a word of English and kept up a constant stream of chatter while her husband did his best to listen to the questions and squeeze out appropriate answers.  With our fluency in English and my wife’s job offer, we would be considered  “champagne immigrants,” but I can still identify with that fisherman.

One of the wonders of imagination. One of the benefits of growing up in a world of books.  Everybody I saw in the interview booth got thumbs up.  Welcome to Australia, I said, in my head.  May the blessings of this land make you grow strong and be happy.

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