The Real Deal

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As if further proof was needed that man is not a rational animal who learns from past mistakes and makes decisions based on evidence, we again struggled as we made our way from London to Deal. Despite frequently and fervently swearing to travel light, we lugged out 45 lb suitcases, plus loaded carry-ons and briefcases from our hotel in Soho, through the tube system (avoiding man-eating escalators) to the St. Pancras train station, though we initially went to adjacent King’s Cross and almost missed our train.

Arriving in Deal we discovered we were 2 hours early for check in and, having dragged our luggage across a bridge we popped into the nearest pub to have a beer and work out details of our arrival. I must say the locals were friendly if somewhat perplexed to see two heavily laden Canadians in their pub. Still, they were free with their advice as to where to get the best and most economical lunch platter and the cheapest beer. We eventually wound up in a taxi to drop off our luggage. “You went to The Eagle?” he queried. “Not first on my list of recommendations.” Apparently we managed to find the one notorious pub in the entire town of Deal. We may go back again this weekend to watch the fights.

Deal itself is charming, stretched out along the channel between Dover and Sandwich with a long pebble beach and large private and public gardens. It has a charming High Street with plenty of interesting shops – all closed because yesterday was a national bank holiday (the Canadian equivalent of Victoria Day apparently) – more good planning on our part. We met a lovely couple (John and Lynda) – amazingly fit and spry for being in their seventies – tending to a large garden on the edge of Deal on the location of a castle that fell into the sea. They were hoping to win the upcoming garden competition, having finished second last year, and were busily weeding and deadheading. They confessed to having been award winning dancers which perhaps accounted for their continued flexibility. I got sore just watching them work.

Our cottage is exactly as described and photographed – once you remember that in England, the first floor is actually the second floor – which makes for quite a climb up narrow stairs to bed every night. Still it is well equipped and has better Internet than what I have at home. It has a washer and a dryer though the dryer consists of a line in the backyard and a heated rack for drying towels in the upper bathroom. And, sadly for our guests, the second bathroom is downstairs from the second bedroom. But we’ll work something out.

Last night we feasted on some of the best Indian food I’ve had in years (though the service was marginal) and today we are off to the store for groceries. Tomorrow I’ll return with more of the usual political fare but for now that’s ten minutes.

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The Things You See

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You go away for a few days and all hell breaks loose. Andrew Scheer (that is, Joe Who?) squeaks in as leader of the Canadian Conservative party, revealing nothing except the deep divisions within those who voted for him (and the almost equal numbers of those who didn’t). The divide is no longer between Reform and Red Tories – that ship sailed long ago with the progressives either hanging their heads glumly or long since departed for the Liberal and Green parties. The division now is between the libertarians and the social conservatives. The conservatives are talking a good fight but it is doubtful if Scheer will have a chance at the Prime Minister’s job before he turns 50 (like the knives won’t be out before then).

Meanwhile, Trump finished his first world tour to mostly negative reviews. A leading German newspaper called him a danger to the world. Meanwhile, eager to be in the camera’s eye he shoves a fellow NATO leader aside and pushes to the front, smirking madly. One day, he’ll push the wrong person and they will clean the poor old guy’s clock. I’m putting odds on Angela Merkel. It was funny though – I never realized how small Trump actually is, even Melania is taller than him.

I’m probably still suffering from the effects of my tumble down an escalator as I’m having trouble caring much about politics these days (or maybe it’s retirement). I have to say it was amazing how many people ran to our rescue after our fall (I took out Liz when I went past) – not only those whose job it was but many of our fellow passengers. But that’s not surprising. Whenever we were struggling up the stairs, we would suddenly find people grabbing our luggage and taking it up to the next landing for us. While in New York, you might worry they are trying to steal your clothes, in London, you know it is just people being helpful.

We’re staying in the middle of Soho which is full of life and people of every race, language and religion. It is like being at the crossroads of the world. It doesn’t take long to realize that most of the people you meet are not tourists like us but rather people who have come to live in one of the truly great cities of the world. I find myself more and more bewildered at the Brits who would want them to go. I’m sure my mother who hails from Basingstoke and helped found the first racially integrated cub pack in Canada would smile sadly and shake her head at her fellow citizens. Embrace the world, I say, you’ll be a better person because of it.

This weekend has been fabulous for the ambiance, the surprisingly good weather and the museums but especially for the chance to spend several days with Liz’s daughter Susan and her partner Kevin. Delightful, interesting people both. Now it’s time to go – not just because that’s ten minutes but because we are heading to their flat for a BBQ.

Erin Go Bragh

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

I’ve had a long, if somewhat oblique, relationship with Ireland. My English grandfather was stationed in Ireland during the 1920s. He was regular army – not the much hated Black and Tan who came later – and always expressed sorrow over the difficult lives experienced by so many of the Irish, both Catholic and Protestant.

As a teenager interested in fantasy, I was drawn to Celtic mythology much of it based in the legends of Ireland. I still have a copy of Nora Chadwick’s ‘The Celts’ on my bookshelves. Given how often I’ve moved and how many books I’ve given up, that’s an indication of how important it was to me. On the fantasy side, Lord Dunsany, an Anglo-Irish writer, was a favorite.

the celts

Over the years, I read many Irish writers. Some like Yeats and Joyce were readily identifiable as such; others, like Beckett, less so.

In my mind, Ireland was a green land, filled with mist and bog and surrounded by a tumultuous ocean. It was a land of faerie and myth. It was much more than that, of course. Though the common image of the Irish church is one of oppression and backwardness, this was a modern development. Irish monks had been essential to the preservation of much of the legacy of ancient times. While libraries were being burned across Europe, they preserved and protected books and eventually returned them to the mainland. The Irish may well have saved western civilization. Irish theologians were also the strongest defenders of the idea that women had souls – a matter of some dispute in the 9th century.

In the 1990s, I wound up becoming the Artistic Director of the Liffey Players in Calgary and was introduced to the majesty of Irish theatre. I directed half a dozen plays by Friel and Heaney and Keane. I even had a chance to chat briefly with Seamus Heaney – the year before he won the Nobel prize. I wrote a play of my own – thankfully lost now – loosely based on the poetry of W. B. Yeats. The highlight of my time with the company was directing Bold Girls by Rona Munro.

The Cure at Troy

The cast of The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney

A couple of years ago I finally visited Ireland itself – or at least Dublin – where I walked the banks of the Liffey and cruised the many museums and parks that fill the city centre. Dublin was a little down at the heels – Ireland was swept up in the banking madness of the early 21st Century and is still suffering the consequences. But it was still a pleasure to see.

We visited numerous pubs where we heard too many versions of ‘Whiskey in the Jar” but also some great traditional music. Liz and I spent a fun evening dancing to live music in what passed for a pick-up bar in Dublin. We even tried to get the locals up on the floor. The lasses were willing but the lads went so far as to fake injury to avoid participating. At the end of the night, one of the women took Liz’s hands in hers and told her in a beautiful Irish lilt: You’re lovely.

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The River Liffey

Which is pretty much how I felt about Dublin. I look forward to returning to it and the surrounding countryside someday.

And that’s ten minutes.

Homecoming

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I love to travel. It is enlightening and enlivening. When you go to a new place, it can be challenging and even a little scary in the ‘horror movie’ kind of way. It seems dangerous and risky but you’re pretty sure you’re going to survive it and come out just fine on the other side. Travel can broaden your perspective and enrich your understanding of life.

I love to travel but, after a while, I love to come home again. The sense of familiarity makes it easy to just be yourself; you don’t have to be cautious or concerned about the impression you’ll make. You can talk politics freely without risking starting a riot, an international incident or a term in a Turkish prison.

Coming home is also eye-opening. Even in ten days, a lot can change. The leaves fall from the trees; your balcony garden has dwindled to the last few cold-hardy plants. There is even a new layer of dust on all your things. And of course there is the mail to open – yes, I still get relevant things via Canada Post – and the contents of the fridge to explore (cautiously).

On the first day back, we all say the same thing – ‘do you realize that just 24 hours ago, we were walking on a beach in Cuba or listening to the call to prayer in Istanbul. After a week, it all begins to blur – the best parts standing out as shining moments and the worst acquiring the patina of wild adventure. A trip is never better than it is in memory.

Still, if you do it right, remain open to new ideas and tastes and concepts of beauty and cultural value, a trip, whether for pleasure, for business or for learning, can be an almost endless string of singular moments, that, while they are happening, have a sense of eternity. A journey, I suspect, is the only kind of heaven that would be worth dying for.

Back home, the demands of routine return. There are bills to pay – including those impulse purchases we often make on our last day abroad, desperate perhaps to extend out stay just that much longer, by having something special to unpack. Work soon beckons, whether it’s the day job or a publishing business that demands your attention or that story that needs to be finished or marketed. You chide yourself a little for not getting more done while travelling but you know in your heart that you don’t regret your preoccupation with people and place one little bit.

Still, it is great to finally lay your head on your own pillow and let the familiar sounds of your own home and your own city drift you off to sleep. In a month, you’ll say, that was such a great trip. Remember when… Or you will say as you look at a favorite souvenir or photo, oh, that was such a perfect day…

In three months, you’ll say: darn, we never have any fun. And start planning your next trip and your next homecoming.

And that’s ten minutes.

Turkish Hiking

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If you ever go to Uchisar in Turkey, you must spend part of everyday, hiking down one of the many valleys that cover the land. With names like Pigeon Valley, Love Valley or Rose or Swords, the choices are myriad. The walks are pretty arduous and, therefore, good for you and the vistas are spectacular. But of course the real reason you must walk them is, it is the only way to work off the tremendous amount of food you will eat.

Breakfast in Turkey is always sumptuous but at our hotel in Uchisar – the Sakli Konak – it was spectacular. You arrive when you like between 7 and 10 and take a seat at one of the large breakfast tables. Soon a young man will bring you a tray with nine kinds of cheese on it. Surrounding that will be five kinds of olives, several slices of deli-meat or perhaps sausages in tomato sauce. A basket of bread, of course, is provided (more if requested – you pig) with 10 types of homemade jams as well as peanut butter and honey still in the honeycomb. Had enough yet? Would you like an egg prepared, any style? Have some fruit – melon one day, slices of apple and orange wedges the next. But wait, there’s more. Some eggy fried bread perhaps or crispy fried pita with cheese in the middle. Don’t forget your coffee and orange juice. And what would breakfast be without a tomato, cucumber and pepper salad? And to fill up the corners, a few chunks of delicious nutty halva.

Now you walk. For three to four hours or so, scrambling up and down steep slopes and along narrow ridges, taking pictures every ten steps or so because you can’t believe the next fabulous magical view. And the reward on the other end? A nice cold beer and lunch on a lovely rooftop terrace with more spectacular vistas to look at.

It doesn’t matter what you order, they always start you off with a free appetizer. On our last day it was fresh baked bread which you dip in oil, spices and crumbled feta cheese. Delicious. Then we had hot hummus (the edges were still bubbling when they served it) topped with beef bacon. For our mains we shared dry roasted lamb neck with rice, potatoes and grilled vegetables. And we had worked so hard on our hike that we deserved a dessert of yogurt with honey plus some thick Turkish coffee (with a few pieces of Turkish Delight thrown in as ‘thank you for your business’ treat).

I’d like to tell you we then walked back up the hill to Uchisar (some 8 km away) but we took a cab. We needed to rest up for supper.

And that’s ten minutes.

Turkish Carpets

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It is always interesting to visit a city or a country for the first time. No matter how many guidebooks or travelogues you read, the reality is always different. The first day or so is spent recovering from jet lag and learning the rules. And it always takes a few marginal – hopefully not bad – experiences to really let you start to figure things out.

Wednesday was our third day in Istanbul and was the transition point when we went from bumbling foreigners to semi-confused tourists. The previous day was forecast to be the last sunny day so we had gone down to Princes’ Islands on the ferry. It was glorious but on the way back we misread a map and got off at the wrong ferry terminal. We were dropped in the middle of the busiest night life of the city – at a bus terminal in the dark. It was a wakeup call of sorts, a reminder that this is not home and we are strangers here.

The next day we decided to stay closer to ‘home’ and went up to see the Blue Mosque. On our way we were accosted by a friendly fellow who greeted us warmly. Being Canadians we responded politely and soon we had a boon companion. He was very clear – he would help us out and we would visit his shop later on. And, in fact, he was very helpful. He advised us that we had arrived too late for the Mosque –it closes at lunch – and suggested we go to the Hagia Sophia instead. He got us past several queues and gave us good advice as to what to look for. Ninety minutes later there he was waiting patiently by the exit in the rain.

What else could we do but follow him? We went to his shop – not his at all but his ‘family’s business’ – and then the hard sell began. We were given a fifteen minute history of the evolution of the Turkish carpet along with explanations of how much work went into them and all the rules governing the sale and export of heritage rugs. Then the display – carpets rolled out across hardwood floors and flipped artistically through the air to show off their colors. There was talk of government set anticipatory prices and discounts to be had. This one was $2000 and that one only $1200. Though we expressed a desire to see something smaller and more modest (we live in a small place, we explained), the hint was never taken. Oddly, if they had shown us something nice for $750 we might have bought, but I guess the margin wasn’t high enough. In any case no sale was made.

Our friend was waiting outside – disappointed no doubt that he would earn no commission. He gently asked for a small tip for his time. It wound up being 50 lira ($25), not bad given the show we had received. We made our escape before he could guide us to his favorite ‘family’ restaurant and spent the rest of the day in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts but that’s another story.

Lesson learned in any case – don’t respond to friendly offers with anything more than a smile and shake of your head.

And that it ten minutes.

Istanbul

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As I write this it is late afternoon in Istanbul. Meanwhile back in Canada, polls have barely opened and Canadians will spend the day deciding the fate of their country for the next four years. It seems odd not to be there, watching the results flow in with friends but I’m sure they will flow in without me.

Arriving in Istanbul after a 10 hour flight was, as you might expect, disorienting. The long hours combined with the dramatic time shift – seven hours – is only compounded by the distinctly different nature of the city. There was fog at our arrival obscuring the land around the airport, but almost immediately one senses a difference quite unlike the various European or Mexican cities I have visited. The combination of old and new is dramatic as is the massive amount of construction that seems to be going on everywhere.

As we drove in from the airport I was struck by the size of the city’s port – dozens of ships filled the waters of the bay – and by the importance water must play in the life of the city and its citizens. As I’ve been reading – and despite the joys of books they only take you so far – Istanbul is intricately linked to the life of the waters that surround it and divide it.

Our hotel in is in one of the oldest districts and from the small balcony where I write this I can see the dome of one of the many mosques of Istanbul. During our lunch on a sunny rooftop terrace, the call to prayer began to reverberate from the many minarets – now all equipped with loudspeakers – that rise above the rooftops all over the city. The echoing and ululating cries truly marked our entrance into a different world. Liz and I found it quite beautiful, but from the way many Turks responded, I suppose it is possible to become quickly blasé in a mostly secular city. Still, as we left the restaurant we did come across one the waiters praying to Mecca as is his obligation five times a day.

Istanbul has already begun to capture my deepest imagination. The range of people, both local and foreign that fill its streets, the way two great religions face each other often from across the square, the mix of old and new architecture, traditional and modern dress – and everywhere you look stray dogs and cats slinking or strutting along the sidewalks and across the patches of grass – will undoubtedly fuel my thoughts for months to come.

So, vote my Canadian friends and give me something to come back to or I might just stay here.

And that’s ten minutes.