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My wife’s sabbatical is rapidly drawing to a close and we will soon be winging our way back to the warmer temperatures of Melbourne.  During the months we’ve been away, we have spent time in Nova Scotia, Washington DC and Montreal, Canada.  We arrived in Montreal at the beginning of January, unsure if we were going to be able to cope with serious winters after twenty years away. Katherine, our friend with the place in southern Italy, had offered us her condo when she discovered that we were interested in spending a couple of months here.  Katherine likes Montreal, but she doesn’t much care for the months of January and February.  She usually heads back to Europe to catch up with her family obligations and spend the coldest winter months in somewhat warmer climes.

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We would subsidize the utilities and she would have someone in her flat for the coldest months of the year.  My wife likes the food and the culture, the imposing architecture, the mountain within the city and the conviviality that seems to escape the notice of the language police.  She has spent more time here than I have, but we did live here together for three and a half years in the nineties.  One of those winters was memorably cold, like this one.  A bitter North wind brings the cold home in a way that nothing else can.  You know the wind chill factor is off the scale when you are forced to walk with mittens in front of your face to keep your nose free of frost-bite.  It astounds me that brave souls head out on bicycles on wickedly icy streets on the coldest days.

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Katherine lives in an area of Montreal called the Plateau.  It has played the part of Brooklyn in New York, the place where immigrants first put down roots before moving out to the suburbs.  It has hosted wave upon wave of Portuguese, Greeks, Italians, Jews, Poles and other populations.  By 1900, Coteau-Saint-Louis had become cosmopolitan counting Protestant churches and synagogues among its religious edifices. Protestant traders opened shops on St. Lawrence Street (renamed St. Lawrence Boulevard in 1905).  St. Lawrence was known as “the Main,” — the linguistic border between the French-speaking east, and English-speaking west.

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The Depression slowed construction in the district, although some work resulted from the funding for landscaping Sir Wilfred Laurier Park. The University of Montreal moved to the northern slope of Mount Royal in 1943, resulting in the relocation of some members of the English and French bourgeoisie to the Plateau. Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen was established in 1928, renowned for its Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches.  Greeks set up many businesses in the decades that followed. More recently, Vietnamese and Portuguese settled in, reflected by the many Vietnamese restaurants in the area and Little Portugal.

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In the 1980s, the area’s bohemian aura and proximity to McGill University attracted both students and professors.  As rents increased, many traditional residents and businesses dispersed to other parts of the city. The neighbourhood continues to thrive, and it is now home to upscale restaurants and nightclubs, and trendy clothing stores located along St. Laurent Blvd. and St. Denis St.   It is the most densely populated borough in Canada, with 101,054 people living in an 8.1 square kilometre area.  The Plateau was the childhood home of Michel Tremblay and Mordecai Richler, both of whom mined their memories for their books and plays. Check out “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” in paper or on DVD for a poignant and memorable evocation of the Plateau in the forties.

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My wife lived in a shabby but inexpensive flat on a famous avenue of the Plateau called Esplanade while she was going to Law School.  Fortunately, she had heat but many flats did not.  The tenants had to buy kerosene heaters, barely adequate to warm rooms in stone apartment buildings.  At that time, the area showed few signs of the gentrification that is so obvious now. Katherine has witnessed an amazing transformation of her little neighborhood since she bought her place.  To her astonishment, the most recent wave of immigrants seem to be young French people who have been courted by Quebec and the Canadian government to come across the Atlantic and take up residence.  Every time Katherine does her “courses” now in the supermarkets, she finds herself hearing conversations in what she calls “French French.”

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Despite my partner’s dedication to her working obligations, we managed to slip down to Ottawa to catch up with Darlene and Fred, (the friends who came to Italy with us) and my brother-in-law, Michael.  It was Winterlude in Ottawa, a period in which the city celebrates every positive aspect of winter weather.  Ottawa has a reputation to maintain as the coldest capitol outside of Ulan Bator in Mongolia.  It was only -16 C while we were there, but the Rideau Canal was quite solid and Michael and I took a brief turn on the ice.  It is a wonderfully photogenic venue.

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We couldn’t leave Montreal without renewing contact with friends and colleagues.  We connected at various restaurants around town as well as cozy living rooms with warm, wonderful fireplaces.  Winter brings people together in a way that summer simply doesn’t.  Getting together for conversational catch-up is a wonderful treat in and of itself.  Good food and drinks are the icing on the cake.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who were gracious enough to make time for us during our winter sojourn.

There is a very good piece in the most recent New Yorker about Montreal’s influence on Leonard Cohen.  Check it out at: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/leonard-cohens-montreal.

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Finally, what can I say about cross country skiing in the Laurentians that does justice to the experience.  Despite the back-handed compliment by the man in his fifties who told me that I was an inspiration, he hoped he would still be skiing “at my age,” it was soon obvious that the desire for sport had never left us.  My wife and I have such fond memories of slipping through the snow that we had to try to recapture some of that magic during the last couple of months.  Unfortunately, our bodies have aged and our skill on skis has suffered from neglect.  Our final trip took us up the far side of Mount Tremblant to an area known as la Secteur du Diable.   It is an area where you can still spot oldsters on wooden skis.

I wrote a poem about it years ago when we lived in football friendly Florida.  I don’t think I’ve  pasted a poem in this blog before, but there is always a first time.

Please enjoy the best of the rest of my pics by clicking on any of the photos running alongside this post.  That will take you to Flickr.  Au revoir.  A bientot.

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Cross Country

 

I like to travel on pine tar

its odor redolent as sex

flashing me back to cold Iowa mornings,

crunching through corn stubble on crusty snow,

under watchful eyes of neighbor moms.

 

From the time we take a tentative step,

self-propel ourselves across a steep carpet,

we all fall forward.  It’s the falling that counts.

 

Handsome hickory planks, golden as syrup

and smooth as kitten fur.  Cut and crafted with

lignite edges, they inspire disdain in eyes

obsessed with lycra and the look of speed.

 

Skis have taken me wild places.  Snow covered spots,

branded in memory— Lake Michigan’s frozen shore

at sunset, down snow-cat tracks in Yellowstone,

face to shaggy face with buffalo.

 

North of Montreal, near Tremblant, a trail called

Le Poisson.  One whiff of hard wax and I am there,

panting as I climb.  Forcing myself up hard slopes,

working arms to exhaustion.  All for the thrill

of the fall.

 

Freezing and frozen moments of exhilarating down,

past pines and fir, feeling the grace of

gravity pulling faster and faster.

The glorious glide, the wind on skin,

the sense that we were born to do this.

 

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It may seem like only yesterday, but it was a quarter-century ago when my wife inherited a property called the old Stewart house in Grand Pre, Nova Scotia. It was in such bad shape that her relatives across the road wanted to turn it into a chicken barn. The old, asphalt shingle roof was leaking and the back chimney wanted to fall away from the house. It would have taken the entire back wing with it, a part of the building we now believe is the oldest part of the house.

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The heritage experts believe it was once an old, Presbyterian meeting house that used to be up the hill in the Lower Horton Cemetery. The building was probably purchased and moved downhill on logs when a new church was built. People tended to reuse a lot in those days– tools, clothes, furniture and buildings.

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After our contractor improvised a concrete flying buttress to prop up the chimney and rebuilt the wall, we had to tackle the roof. We chose cedar shingles because of the durability and the fact that they were appropriate to the vintage of the house.

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Floyd had been in the roofing business for thirty years. He had a lean, stooped body that made him look as if he was walking into the wind. Like most Nova Scotia tradesmen, he was straight-talking. He hadn’t put on many cedar shingles, but he knew how to do roofs. He and his crew started in late Fall and by the time they were finished there was snow on the ground. They had run into a supply problem that is a perennial difficulty in Nova Scotia. In the days of sail, this was the most important province in the country. Now it is on the periphery. There was such a strong demand for BC shingles in Texas and Toronto that several months went by when they were simply not available.

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We have been putting off the inevitable new roof for quite some time now, living with the knowledge that the shingles were working on borrowed time. Floyd thought the cedar would last forty years, but twenty-five now seems like a stretch in a Maritime climate. I could see the rot from the ground. Freeze and thaw, day after day, season after season. Rain and wind whip through here like a perverse Canadian version of a winter monsoon. And then there are the hurricanes.

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Upcountry Builders arrived four days ago to start shovelling off the old shakes and putting down the foundation for the new ones. Then it started to rain, heavily. It came right through the so-called impermeable fabric and pooled in the attic, dripping down on my wife’s desk. Richard and I put down tarps in the attic; Greg and Aaron tarped the roof. We have had one more very wet day and a long, holiday weekend to put things off.

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July 1 was Canada Day. Canadians often take on a cloak of invisibility next to their extroverted neighbours to the South, but they do possess a certain pride of place. Canadians have not gone to the trouble to browbeat the ethnicity out of their immigrants and brainwash them with jingoistic “facts.”

Still, they do seem to spend an awful lot of time thinking about what it means to be a Canadian. The current prime minister is attempting to get Canadians excited about the War of 1812 with an expensive campaign smacking of patriotism usually seen south of the border. 1814 was when the inhabitants of this country actually set fire to the White House. Canadians do relish that fact.

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The most inspiring Canada Day story I have come across is about a family that is in the process of paddling across the entire country in a twenty-foot canoe. They began in March, 2007 and they plan to finish sometime this summer. Pam MacDonald of Calgary has given birth to two children during this great adventure. She and Geoff have had many close encounters with bears, porcupines and other critters. They are very appreciative of their hefty guard dog, a seven-year old Alaskan malamute who has shared the entire trip.

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They set out each Spring, paddling on from where they left off the previous year. The couple portaged the canoe and all their supplies across the Rocky Mountains! A 47 kilo (105 pound) Canadian canoe. Check out their progress at canoeacrosscanada.ca. The Globe and Mail did a nice little video you can see at tgam.ca/paddle but you have to put up with the ad first.

Happy Canada Day, eh?


After the long haul flight from Melbourne, Australia to Halifax, Nova Scotia at the northeastern point  of North America, heading down to Durham, North Carolina would seem to be dead easy.  There are no direct flights, but an itinerary through Washington DC was the next best thing.  We were going to need a car in Durham, however, and the only way to get one there was for me to drive down.

At one point we contemplated a rendezvous in our nation’s capital.  I would leave a couple of days before she did.  We would catch up with friends in DC over dinner and sail on down to North Carolina together.  That was before our caretaker told us he was going to be in Acapulco, Mexico so he wouldn’t be there to close up the house.

When Richard is around to take care of things, we can walk away from the old place, but his absence changed things completely.  In January a big storm can knock down the power poles and in no time the pipes will freeze.  To hedge our bets, I would have to drain the plumbing, something I haven’t done in a long time.

It is some 1400 miles (2250 kms) from Grand Pre, Nova Scotia to Durham, North Carolina heading down through the mess of New York/New Jersey.  I wanted to avoid that, so we figured out an alternate route through the hills of Pennsylvania that added mileage but cut out some of the stress.

You can eliminate some of that distance by taking a ferry across the Bay of Fundy.  I decided to shoot for the very last sailing of the year. At noon on the 31st, when my wife and daughter were heading into Halifax for an evening of celebration, I poured antifreeze into toilets and drained a hot water tank.  I had just enough time to drive to Digby and catch the 4:30 sailing of The Princess of Acadia.  It would not be much of a New Year’s Eve, but it would put me in St John, New Brunswick before bedtime.

I had made only one serious “Down Under” driving blunder since returning to North America. I pulled out of our laneway on automatic pilot, heading out onto Highway One in the wrong lane.  The driver coming my way looked up in alarm, breathing a sigh of relief as I made a quick correction. I would have to remember NOT to do that on the long drive down south.  Americans are quite fussy about their cars and they carry guns.

In the end, the journey down the eastern seaboard was uneventful.  I did manage to get stuck in the sloping parking lot of the motel in St. John.  Fortunately, the Vietnamese owner was well equipped to get hapless drivers back on the highway.  I followed a snowplow for miles in northern Maine,
then a sand truck  when the plow pulled off.  Blizzard conditions and sparse traffic made me a little nervous without snow tires or a cell phone.

By the time I reached Marlboro, Massachusetts I was in the road groove.  The lady at the front desk said  there was a decent Italian restaurant at the local mall.  She neglected to tell me that the mall was huge.  I had to enlist the aid of a mall cop to locate the car.  He was smug on his Segway, zipping around like the Prince of Wheels.  I had made his day by looking lost and asking for help.

American road food has to be among the worst in the world, but the hospitality improved as I headed south. My wife’s route route planning and the GPS managed to keep me on track through New Brunswick and all seven states.  It was chilly when I finally arrived, but I left the real wintry weather up north.  There was a new pantry to stock and a new, old house to turn into a nest, a new triumvirate of cities to explore.

I’m in the heart of tobacco land, the home of Bull Durham.  It’s a whole new ball game.


I have taken a leave of absence from life in Melbourne, Australia and from the blog.  It seems like a good time to return to the writing, even though I won’t be back “down under” for half a year.  It hardly seems worth changing the title to Up and Over to point my readers toward North America.  As I said in a previous post, my wife is on sabbatical for a semester and we are currently in Durham, North Carolina, a state that is definitely south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Our transition here was a brief visit with my son and his family in Portland, Oregon, and a two week holiday at the old place in Nova Scotia.  Grand Pre is a lovely place to spend Christmas as long as the weather doesn’t get too Canadian. Our two hundred year-old house does not have central heating and a howling North wind whips right in.

We were greeted by a cold snap that had us quite concerned for friends from Washington DC who planned to spend Christmas with us, but it warmed up to more seasonal temps by the time they arrived.  Right after they left it got very cold again.  Nova Scotia has always seemed gentler with tourists than long-term residents that way.

I have spent a number of years in hot countries, and the celebration of Christmas in such places always seemed odd.  In Hong Kong, I never got used to the neon-lit, red cloaked Buddhas driving Asian looking reindeer on skyscrapers high overhead.  The European traditions of Christmas seem singularly inappropriate when the weather is 40 degrees centigrade and everyone is heading for the beach or the barbecue.

In Canada, men dream of snow blowers at this time of year. A Muskoka man named Kai Gundt got fed up with his wimpy commercial snow blower and decided to build one with a V-8 engine.  His home-built job cleared his driveway in five minutes, throwing snow over a five story building.  The latest model has heated handlebars and a cup holder.  “I know it goes against the green initiative.  But it really works.  It takes the snow and blows it right back where it came from.”

Fortunately, we have a good stock of dry firewood and fireplaces that were built when people knew how to do it properly.  We laid in groceries and got a lovely tree that just fit into the parlour.  Our daughter did a beautiful job bringing it to life.  On Christmas Eve we went to the local church (which is about the same vintage as our house) and sat in straight back pews for the music and the sermon. It was wonderful to come home and snuggle up under the down comforter.

Today, the weather here in Durham went up to springtime temperatures.  People are out running around in T shirts.  Christmas was only three weeks ago, but our connection with the seasons has been tenuous of late;  it seems like it could have been a century ago.  This is what our village looked like then.


Well, the election has finally been announced. Prime Minister Howard drew the first blood by announcing a massive tax cut. Sound familiar? Current government policies are so reflective of the Bush administration that listening to political cant here is almost like being in the U.S. On the other hand, I see reflections of my other country, too — Canada.

This is a resource based economy. It is doing very well, thank you. As Tim Colebatch of “The Age” pointed out in a recent editorial, it is all because of China. These are boom times for economies the world over. Australia is doing particularly well because of China’s demand for iron ore and coal. China is building a city of a million inhabitants every month. The woods of Tasmania are being raped so the Japanese can make more paper.

Canada is booming because its extensive deposits of minerals and the extraction of oil sands out in Alberta. They will make holes in the landscape visible from the moon. All to fuel the automobiles of its voracious next door neighbor as well new ones being built in China.

Both countries are living in the short term, ignoring their future citizens in favor of voters who live right now. Their political salesmen (bolstered by economists) seem to believe that economies can thrive with or without an environment. That intelligent people can actually buy into this notion utterly baffles me.

There are alarming projections for global warming in Australia. In just sixty years it could be five degrees hotter and 40 to 80 per cent drier than it is now. The Great Barrier Reef will be dead. A desalinization plant is in the works for Melbourne and the pundits on talk radio are testing the waters on nuclear power plants.

Like Canadians, Australians still earn most of their money hewing wood, drawing water, and attracting tourists. It is starting to dawn on people that even tourism may be in jeopardy here. Some tourists are starting to think twice about dumping carbon into the atmosphere simply to satisfy their curiosity.

The most obvious options for escaping the resource rut seem to have been deliberately neglected.  “Crystalline silicon on glass” was an Australian invention, but Australia (the land of inexhaustible sunshine) lacked the determination and political will to commercialize its invention. In 2004, CSG Solar purchased the rights.  The company is thriving in Germany, leaving Australia where it seems to want to be, in the backwater of the environmental marketplace.

It is time for a change. Countries such as this one can no longer afford to use up what is left of the planet’s resources to make ends meet, doing nothing to stop the acceleration of global warming. We can’t make the same costly mistakes, over and over until our only home rolls over one last time and says, “I give.”

The world can’t afford it.

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