Wednesday, December 2, 2009

No sign of June either...

The Skyline Drive is part of the Shenandoah National Park. There are campsites, cabins, nature trails and information points, you could spend a month there quite happily. The road runs along the Ridge bit of the Blue Ridge Mountains and bends and curls about for just over 100 miles and contains 75 lookout points where you can pull off the road, gawp and take photos. It took all day to drive, but we weren’t complaining. Happening to drive it as the trees were turning colour in that part of the world (Canada’s ‘fall colour’ season has been and gone) every bend brought a new orange carpet to look at. We quickly realised that stopping at each lookout would mean extending our journey by a day or two and became a bit selective.

There were deer. Apparently there are bears too, but we had no pickanick basket, so they left us alone. Hundreds of people drove and walked and there was no noise, no litter. Occasional signs advising us not to feed the wildlife (and giving sensible explanations why) were the only evidence of a truly remarkable workforce of rangers and researchers who appear to maintain the park safely for sharing between us and the real inhabitants. We had paid $15 to get in, this would have been the same had we wanted to camp for a week or just drive through, and I am happily convinced that we got our money’s worth. It made our awful foggy night drive on the way down worth it in the end; we knew there were mountains here. A glorious day, impeded only slightly by my truly terrible Laurel and Hardy impressions.

And then it was just about the last leg home. A night somewhere obscure and hilly in Pennsylvania and back into New York State, onto the toll road I90 and following signs for the border. The Canadian jobsworth quizzed us in routine manner, She didn’t care where we’d been or what we’d been up to. ‘Where do you live? How long have you been away? Are you importing any goods? Welcome to Canada.’ And we were home.

I like home. Kilometres, litres, French translations, Tim Horton’s coffee, resentful cat. A grand expedition suddenly over. When we first discussed the totally insane prospect of taking a wedding cake to Florida I thought it might be a bit of a fun wheeze. Then I thought it was impossible. Then I thought I’d do my best and see what happened. What happened was one of those journeys that make life worth living. I can’t thank Cherry and Ron enough for their brilliant hospitality.

Twelve days and 5,000 kms. The car needs a bit of a clean and my habit of nibbling trail mix on long hauls means the inside rather resembles a birdcage. But it’s evidence that we made it, so I’m reluctant to remove all traces of a grand adventure. I do have my NASA coffee cup though, to remind me on the very back-to-normal days that we went somewhere extraordinary. It is the most perfect piece of design I have ever owned. It may only be a coffee cup but it is engineered down to the last detail, to deposit the coffee in your mouth while on the move, as opposed to down your clothing or all over the car. I suppose that sort of thing matters in space.

I have my book too. It’s a wonderful read, I challenge anyone to get to Chapter 2 without making plans to visit Savannah. Or, in my case, revisit. What else has changed? Well, I managed the driving hours without collapse, maybe I’m strong enough to get back to trucking sometime soon. That would be nice.

Monday, November 30, 2009

No sign of Hannah...

There was one sightseeing trip that none of us could resist, although I think it was Julian’s idea to begin with. How could I not have noticed that we were within an hour’s drive of the Kennedy Space Centre? A grand day out. You pay to get in these days (I understand it used to be free) but being used to the cost of London tourist destinations, I reckon you get a lot for your money. A bus takes you about from place to place, there are movies, exhibitions, explanations, dramatised reconstructions, a bit of moon rock to fondle; but mostly there is the sheer brain-numbing scale of everything. The entire Saturn 5, a pukka shuttle. Oh and brilliantly whimsical gifts. Whoever put the place together has a sense of humour, there is even a Moon Rock Cafe. Ben now has a pair of astronaut’s oven mitts. I have a nightshirt advising that I Need My Space. And a NASA insulated travel cup that opens in slow-mo. I have a tendency to be sniffy about the US, but if there’s one place that reminds you what these people do do well, this is it. Go if you ever get the chance.

Suddenly it was time to head back and we had the maps out again. The plan was to take a little longer on the return trip, smell the roses a bit, nose about some other bits of the US and generally get home less exhausted. Randy had seen a film set in Savannah, Georgia and wanted to see if it was as lovely a town as it looked. I had spotted a ‘Skyline Drive’ along the Blue Ridge Mountains and wanted to check it out, so we planned our stops accordingly. Night one in Savannah, then if we arrived early enough we’d have the evening and the following morning for sightseeing there. Night two, back in Richmond, Virginia, which we knew was half-way home. It was also close enough to the mountains for a daylight drive along the ridge the following morning. Night three, somewhere in Pennsylvania, which was just about half-way from Richmond to home and we had the journey covered in four days. Easy. We made a pact that if Randy was prepared to drive the Florida bit, I’d do West Virginia, then packed a mass of souvenirs, waved regretful goodbyes and headed north.

Hugging and waving and promising to return, we left Cherry and Ron amid many gags about lost Swedes, and speculations about being back within half an hour when we got lost in Kissimee. Then we were actually back in their drive within five minutes, having discovered that Randy had left All The Maps on their kitchen counter.

Leaving for the second time we headed, relatively uneventfully out of Florida and into Georgia, arriving in Savannah as the sun was going down. The weather was glorious. Warm but not hot, less humid than Florida. We collected up a pile of brochures from the hotel lobby, walked along the river and found a brilliant pub in which to sample the local fare and make plans for the morning. Fried green tomatoes and locally caught fish, boats of all sizes, real cobbled streets and pukka elderly buildings. Arts and crafts shops that have things made by local artists and craftspeople, and which are open until late at night; handicrafts are the local rock and roll. I could live in Savannah.

We reckoned that the quickest way to see it all sufficiently well to decide if a return visit was required would be the ‘hop on and off’ trolley tour. Touristy, yes, but practical in the circumstances, ie, got to leave by lunchtime. The lady who drove our first trolley (we only hopped once) was a hoot. She clearly relished her role, loved her home town and wanted us to love it too. Savannah is laid out around a series of leafy squares, each dedicated to someone. They all have a statue or a fountain or monument of some sort in the middle and are landscaped to perfection. We trolleyed from square to square, hearing about the people, the history, and the movies that had been made in various buildings. Yes, I know all cities have such tours, I’ve been on several in various parts of the world. Perhaps it depends what mood you’re in, or maybe you need to like the city anyway, but I was charmed and delighted by everything. Even the accent of the second trolley driver, who tried manfully to continue the folklore and whimsical tales, but was as comprehensible as Stanley Unwin on a bad day. ‘I think he’s from Alabama’ whispered Randy, as though that explained it all. ‘I’m only getting about one word in twenty’ I whispered back. People around us nodded and grinned. The trolley full of bemused half-smiles continued its way, from the squares district back to the river front. Fortunately I had read the tale of how the streets became cobbled the previous evening somewhere, and my head gradually switched in to the strange speech patterns once I knew what he was trying to tell us. He became more like Stanley Unwin than ever. Ballast, from the ships from England, by the way. They chucked it out onto the streets when loading with goods to take back, so the locals paved with it.

I bought a book. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. You sort of have to, it is Savannah’s claim to fame, the title is a mantra that you hear everywhere; the book is the first thing you see in every shop. It is where the movie came from that Randy had seen once, although I now know, from the trolley lady, that many, many movies are set in its enthusiastically manicured squares and imposingly reproachful houses. I was overcome with a need to read it, to see the movie and to return. I might even finally get to bother with Gone With The Wind. Two bits of days in a part of the US I never knew existed and I am hooked. We will definitely be back. Savannah needs several days, and a side trip up the coast to Charleston for another aspect of the Old South. But it was lunchtime and we had to hit the road if we were going to be in Richmond by late evening and on the mountains the following day.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Florida and chocolate

Arriving at Cherry’s house late and exhausted we started to become transfixed by the whole issue of the random and inexplicable Swedes. Two or three silent people nodded gravely at us as we fell in through the door bearing mountains of cake-related impedimenta.
‘Who are they?’
‘They must be the Swedes.’
‘What Swedes?’
‘Cherry said she had Swedes.’
‘Are they here for the wedding?’
‘No, they’re going home tomorrow.’
‘Well, why are they here?’
‘I don’t know.’
Tired as we were, it was perplexing and we wanted to know about the Swedes. We couldn’t ask of course, not until the following day... it would have been rude. ‘What’s with these Swedes already?’ became the number one topic of conversation, eclipsing both the trip and the cake. They were silently there in the morning, the inscrutable Swedes. One of them spoke to me briefly while I was hunting for coffee. ‘It is finished. We forget more.’ Fortunately I had brought an emergency supply of Blend 37 in my huge box of emergency supplies, so was marginally less irritated by the silent, coffee drinking Swedes than I might have been otherwise.

As soon as they left to go home, we burst with ‘what’s with the Swedes?’ and Cherry began the tale. Old friends who were lovely people but rather demanding houseguests, they had arrived to stay in the magnificent new house almost as soon as Cherry and Ron had bought it. They had seemed oblivious to the fact that visiting during the alarmingly short gap between moving in and getting married might be sort of inconvenient, due to there being a lot to do. The tale was a little disjointed as the phone kept ringing...lost Swedes, driving around in Downtown Kissimmee trying to find the road to the airport. (I am now of the opinion that Kissimmee, like Guelph, Ontario, is a vehicular black hole. You can drive in but are doomed never to leave.) Randy and I resolved to be independent houseguests, looking after ourselves and trying very hard not to be in the way, underfoot or in any other way difficult .

The rest of the week passed in a flurry of people arriving and leaving, the gathering of more houseguests, the popping in and out of friendly local people and the charmingly understanding way in which all and sundry left me to my own devices in Cherry’s kitchen to garrotte cakes, blend raspberries and cream, stir ganache and generally do what I do. An occasional person would stick a finger in a bowl and declare the contents good. I overheard phone conversations with regard to the cakiness of the kitchen and the promise of good things to come. But mainly, I was in the zone and everyone left me there. It was considerate, helpful and kind and contributed greatly to my sanity while faffing about in an unfamiliar kitchen. I only lost it once, and that was with poor Ron. Who thinks 82F is cool. I was struggling personfully at the time with red moulding chocolate, attempting to roll it out and make things with it. I was covered in oily red gloop and near to tears when Ron said that people got used to the Florida heat and humidity eventually.  I felt obliged to point out, a spot more tersely than is appropriate for a guest, that people might but chocolate wouldn’t. We compromised, for the sake of the chocolate.

Suddenly the finished cakes were all back in the freezer and it was the big day. Somehow, while my perception had been elsewhere, it had all been organised. There were chairs and tables in the extension, flowers and drinks in the lanai, everything looked gorgeous. Ladies appeared to take charge of the food, chaps appeared to go and fetch last minute items, there were dresses and hair and family, and, surprisingly enough, there was a tolerably decent wedding cake. My cunning plan was to take each tier out of the freezer in turn, timing the thawing depending on size, and finishing the whole edifice off in situ an hour before the wedding. It would have been a stroke of genius without the Florida humidity. Every 20 minutes, for the hours each tier took to thaw, the damned thing had to have its brow mopped; as condensation developed, leeched the red chocolate of its colour and dripped onto the tier below. I hid a roll of kitchen paper under the table and dabbed fretfully at it whenever nobody was looking. But nobody was looking anyway of course, Cherry was far too gorgeous for anyone to look elsewhere.

  It was, as all weddings are, over in the blink of an eye and the eating and drinking and music took over. Ron’s band are terrific by the way, if you go and visit, make sure to hear them play. The cake tasted fine, it fed enough people with tiers to spare. The truffles were so good, and survived their transportation so well, that I am minded to go into business sending hand-made truffles round the world through a website. There was time to dream at last because as soon as the knife went into the cake, I was really and properly on holiday.

We made loads of plans to do things; head down to Miami and drive the Keys, get an airboat in ‘gator country and have pictures taken doing Horatio impressions with sunglasses. But, tiredness took hold and everyone was so friendly that most of the time was spent visiting with nice people, catching up with conversations that hadn’t had a chance to happen at the wedding. We had a taste of old-fashioned Southern hospitality and declared it good. Next time we will fly to Miami, hire a car and do the touristy stuff, but pop up to Kissimee to see old and new friends. To think that way about people in a week is to feel good about life. Ron’s parents are utterly charming, Cherry’s pal Ivette has to be met to be believed and Jo-Marie seems quite happy to assist with the Florida marketing of my burgeoning chocolate empire. The band must be heard again, and for a little longer next time. It seemed a bit mean to expect Ron to play all night at his own wedding but I for one was left wanting more.

We did do a little gentle shopping though. Randy, Julian and I. We all wanted different things but a trip to Target seemed to encompass all our requirements; so we set off on a bit of a local adventure to find the shops while Cherry and Ron were otherwise tied up with errands. We found the plaza easily enough and bought our bits and bobs, then feeling a bit lunchish, we began to search for somewhere to eat. There had been much fried chicken and many burgers over the last few days and we fancied something a bit less All-American, so when we spotted a British Pub on the way home it seemed the obvious choice. Now, the US and Canada are full of ‘British Pubs’ which have nothing in common with the real thing at all, except for a couple of decent draft beers. And of course ‘Irish Pubs’ which have a couple of decent draft beers and Guinness. Sometimes there is fish’nchips, or bangers’nmash. The authenticity generally ends there, since there will be table service, decent food, polite, smiley people who like serving you and a generally squeaky clean feel. As soon as we walked in to this one though, we realised we had found that rarest of things, a real British Pub in the middle of Florida. It smelt nasty. That tang of old beer, old smoke, old carpet and old people that you just don’t get anywhere else. There were two customers, scowling at opposite end of the bar. The barmaid scowled too. This in itself was odd. Americans smile, they show off their dentition, Florida just isn’t a scowly sort of place.

We did get table service though. Randy and I ordered some sort of chicken wrap that looked as though it might have some greenery in. Julian plumped for the BLT. We were just giggling about how very British a pub it was when the unsmiling barmaid came back looking a little sheepish. Guess what? No bacon! We dissolved on the spot. Not only dark, smelly, a bit dirty and a bit unfriendly but Bacon Was Orff. Julian told her that ham would be fine and she melted a little at our evident happiness. By the time we left she was actually sort of smiley. Maybe thinking that other people are bonkers cheers her up of a day shift.

Giggling all the way back to Cherry’s house we arrived in high spirits at our adventures to discover that our errands had taken less time to complete than Cherry and Ron’s. And that the house was locked. We wandered about a bit looking for an open back gate or door or something and found our way into the back garden, and thence into the lanai, which is a sort of screened-in outdoorsy bit with a splash pool in. This was fine, we could sit by the pool for a while. We took off shoes and popped our feet in the water. It was a lovely day, we could splash to our heart’s content and chat about British pubs. I found a plastic duck to play with. Time passed and we started to get a bit in need of comforts such as bathrooms and cold drinks, so the conversation turned to maybe calling Cherry or Ron to see how much longer they might be out. I discovered that I had their cellphone numbers in my phone, from the hapless ‘getting lost in Kissimee’ drama on our way down, so I was detailed to make the call. I tried Cherry’s number first, and we all grinned wistfully as we heard the ringing from the kitchen counter on the inside of the house. Then I tried Ron’s phone and he answered. Here began a telephone call that encapsulates, as no other experience I have had on this side of the Pond, the difference between English communication and the rest of the world.

We Brits never do quite say what we mean, do we? I didn’t want to emulate the Swedes and be a nuisance if he was busy, so I began to beat about the bush with ‘oh hi, we’re back, just wondered where you had got to...’ and he told me they were at the Realtor’s and would be home soon. As I ended the call I realised that I had been talking to an American and it might have been wise to state unambiguously ‘we’re locked out’, but I didn’t. And it was too late now. I couldn’t ring back, way too Swedish.

As Ron put his phone away he wondered why I had called. It seemed a bit odd. Cherry asked who it was and he told her. Now Cherry is English, she knew there was a subtext but not what it was. Maybe we were getting hungry, she thought, and wondered if they were coming home for lunch but were too polite to say so. She decided it would be best to stop off for some groceries on the way back just in case. We variously got hotter, thirstier and more in need of bathroom facilities as the time wore on. We discussed calling again, maybe one of the chaps would be able to actually say what they meant better than me. As the only non-Brit, we were about to charge Randy with the ticklish task when Ron and Cherry finally appeared, with the lunch we didn’t need and found us, a bit bedraggled, in the lanai. Ron looked at me.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you were locked out?’
‘I’m English.’
Cherry got it in one and collapsed in a heap of giggles.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Nine states in two days

New York State, Pennsylvania, Maryland. We stopped to peruse the maps and make a routing decision. Heading directly for Interstate 95, which would take us directly into Florida, would entail driving round Baltimore and Washington DC during the evening rush hour. This looked like it might be an unpleasant delay. There was a detour through West Virginia and Virginia which would bring us onto the I95 south of the major conurbations; it looked a little longer but much less built up. Clearly a good idea. I had driven the first six hours, it was Randy’s turn to take the wheel and I settled happily into the passenger seat to start enjoying the view and note down some of the truly bizarre road signs we’d been marvelling at.

Pennsylvania definitely wins on both daftness and impossible grammar grounds. ‘Beware aggressive drivers’ for a start. Who is doing the bewaring? Does one beware of aggressive drivers? And if so how? One could look in one's mirrors a lot and keep a decent distance from other people, but that’s um, just, driving. Is it the aggressive drivers who should beware? And if so, what of? Each other? Then there was the peerless ‘Aggressive driver high accident zone’. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Aggressive drivers cause more accidents here than in other places? Why? Is it something to do with the road layout? Does it make people aggressive? If so, is a sign really the answer? There were cute ones too, I rather warmed to ‘Buckle up next million miles’; but ‘Be alert heavy truck traffic’ oh don’t get me started.

The rain began somewhere in West Virginia. The further we drove the harder it rained. It was becoming quite hard to see the road at all. A famous attempt to pull into a MacDonalds for a wee and a coffee (oddly enough, despite the general crappiness of all things MacDonalds, they do make remarkably good coffee, truckers learn this sort of stuff) was totally snookered by an inability to see where the pavement ended and the entrance to the car park began. We ended up trying to reverse across three lanes of traffic out of the exit we’d tried to enter, Randy took it personally and won’t drive in West Virginia any more. We crossed into Virginia (‘Buckle up Virginia’, now that’s quite friendly and to the point) as dusk fell. Then it got foggy. It got foggier. And foggier. There were permanent signs now saying ‘Heavy fog’ but we knew that. There were huge orange cats’ eyes lining both sides of the road like a runway so that, despite the fog, we could still sort of see where the edges were. ‘Goodness’ we said to each other, ‘it must get foggy here like this quite a lot, they are well equipped for it.’ We were going more and more slowly. It took ages. We began to think that maybe Baltimore and Washington in the rush hour might have been a better bet. But then, all of a sudden the fog began to lift, we seemed to be going down, although we hadn’t really noticed going up, and the fog and the runway lights ended both together. There was a road sign. ‘Guess what?’ I chirruped, ‘that was the Misty Mountain. It’ll be funny by tomorrow.’ I looked at the map. ‘This is Virginia isn’t it? I think we’ve just driven over the Blue Ridge Mountains.’ Guess we both need new reading glasses.

Things got less interesting after that. We found our overnight stop in Richmond, arriving in a bedraggled heap moaning about having driven for 12 hours, just as though we weren't used to insane truckers' hours. Revived by a pleasant dinner and tolerable breakfast we found the I95 just the other side of Richmond and commenced much driving in a straight line. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia. Wees, coffees, snacks. The weather got warmer. We saw a palm tree somewhere in Georgia and cheered, it felt like 'nearly Florida' even if it wasn't. Mostly, day two of the grand road trip was a bit of a blur. Then, as dusk fell again we crossed into Florida with a slightly more enthusiastic cheer and started to rustle about for the Googlemap directions to Cherry’s house in Kissmmee.

The first clue that Florida roads might be a little more aggressive than the rest of the US came with the inevitable road signs. ‘Buckle up. Just do it’. How fierce, no whimsy at all. Deary me. It was my turn to drive the final leg and all of a sudden we were tailgated, undertaken, people swerved to and fro in front of us, deciding to take exits from the outside lane a nanosecond before the ramp disappeared, trucks merged an inch from our exhaust pipe. What was going on? People retire to Florida, it’s hardly New York City. I took it personally.

The Googlemap directions took us in and out of Orlando, on and off a toll road and out to Kissimmee itself. The toll road worried us somewhat. We had organised for the car an electronic transponder back in New York State, which had got us uneventfully through all the tollbooths and turnpikes in the North Eastern US, but the deal stopped at Virginia. Florida had their own system apparently. There were signs everywhere warning of the dire consequences of toll defaults, and of photo surveillance. We were running a bit low on cash, and it all looked a bit daunting. ‘I hope they take credit cards’ I fretted. ‘You’d better dig my card out of my bag, I can have it ready then’, as I scanned the tollbooths for one that said it was non-electronic, or that it took cards, or whatever passed for helpful in Florida. In the dark, they all looked the same. With a sinking feeling that the dire consequences of knowing-the-system-default would soon become apparent, I stopped at a toll booth. A smiling lady asked for a dollar. ‘A dollar?’ I queried. ‘Yes Ma'am.’ Randy found her a dollar and put the credit card away. I beamed at her, stupidly delighted. ‘Thank you very much.’ And we left a bemused tollboothperson behind us, to giggle our way onwards and debate among ourselves how much it must cost to implement photographic surveillance to retrieve the occasional dollar.

I had neglected to print off an actual map view of Cherry’s house and the instructions got a bit garbled. Every road in Florida seemed to have three or four names and numbers. None of the names and numbers on our instructions seemed to match with any real live road signs. It was eleven thirty at night, we’d been on the road for thirty-six hours, a full twenty-four of which had been spent driving. And of course, it finally happened; after 2400 kms with nary a hiccup we got lost in Downtown Kissimmee. We parked up to look at the instructions again, neglecting to notice that we had come to rest by a fire hydrant. Two police cars appeared from nowhere, flipped their lights on to attract my attention and pointed. We were supposed to park round the corner. Did they amble over to help the lost tourists with Ontario plates? Of course not. But I was thankful just not to be arrested. We swallowed our pride and gave in, I called Cherry from my cellphone. She and Ron turned out in the dark to come and find us and lead us the rest of the way. Lovely people.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cars get around too

Not a trucking exploit but a travelling one all the same. I have just driven to Florida and back, to make a wedding cake. Yes, I know, potty, but it seemed like a good idea at the time and the resultant road trip kicked off my writing reflex. Going somewhere always does. If you have followed this tale on the Mensa list, there are a few additions and changes and photos but it is largely the same yarn. If you are reading for the first time, I should introduce you to a small array of characters first.

It all begins with Cherry, an old pal from England, who remembers when I used to make everybody’s wedding and birthday cakes. Cherry is moving to Florida and marrying Ron, a charming Floridian gent. Would I make their wedding cake? Of course I would. I would probably have to make it at home and drive it down there, rather than fly down and make it there; but I felt sure that with enough planning it could be done. The aforementioned planning took about six months. Cherry would like a chocolate cake, filled with raspberries and cream, coated with ganache and decorated with chocolate truffles. She does like chocolate does our Cherry. What else? She left it to me, but something that represented both of them would be nice. I had grand plans for a Cherry Blossom cake, which I thought would be most dramatic against the chocolate background but that plan bit the dust on a humid day in Ontario, when the flower paste I am used to using in the UK fell to bits. Recalling that Florida is humid too I cast about for a new theme and plumped for lots of marzipan cherries, and chocolate guitars for Ron. Longsuffering family, neighbours and friends ate a lot of chocolate cake, raspberry fillings, and chocolate truffles over the months as I perfected and destruction tested each recipe for heat, cold, humidity and longevity. Don’t tell anyone but it was actually a slightly more challenging project than I had bargained for.

Suddenly it was time to go and I should therefore introduce you to Randy. We’d been dating a while, it seemed to be going ok and, on a whim, I asked him if he felt like driving to Florida. I did have an ulterior motive in that Randy is another ex-trucker, two long-haul drivers might be better than one, given that the cakes would be thawing on the way down.
Julian appears in the story too. Another pal from the UK who headed to Florida for the wedding and then hit the road north to drive to Ontario via a different route. But mostly that is his story and not mine.
I’d like to say it was bright and early when we set off for the marathon road trip but it wasn’t. Randy had to collect a renewed passport at nine in the morning from the branch office in downtown Hamilton, fortunately only an hour from the border, so it wasn’t going to be a crack of dawn crossing. With just two days to get to Cherry’s place and then just two days to finish off the cake I had all manner of apprehensions about delays and jobsworths and non-existent passports. I displaced my anxiety in the traditional manner by repacking the car for the umpteenth time. The cakes were still frozen, packed in their respective cake tins for protection on the way. The truffles, chocolate guitars, marzipan cherries, chocolate bows and big bags of couverture chips were carefully boxed with bubblewrap in the travel cooler loaned to me by Theresa for the occasion. With a box of bowls, mixers and tins, a box of random ingredients and two toolboxes full of sugarcraft implements, my sturdy little SUV was packed to the gunwales before we tried to get a couple of little suitcases in, a small cooler for drinks and a heap of maps. I had to photograph the car boot version of Tetris that resulted.

To my utter amazement, and with a cheer for Canadian authorities, the passport was there on the dot of nine and we were on the road shortly after. Without too much of a border delay we had 10 hours driving ahead of us to the half-way point in Richmond, Virginia. With minimal stops for wees, coffees, food, and swapping the driving around we hoped to be there by 9 o’clock that evening. No longer apprehensive about passport woes we began to fret a bit about the border. Neither of us had crossed by road as tourists before, but we’d both been on the rough end of things taking freight across and had no idea how the personality bypass brigade would view a car full of cake and tins and bowls and boxes full of sharp, pointy implements. I suppose you could smuggle lots of drugs inside three bloody big chocolate cakes. Does one offer a truffle by way of proof that the chocolate is real? Would that constitute a bribe? If they poked about enough, things could get ruined and I was on a tight schedule at the other end. What is it about these people that makes you sweat like a criminal anyway when you have nothing to hide?
We joined the queue that turned out to be moving the slowest. Not a good sign, clearly a jobsworth.
‘Where are you going?’
‘Kissimee, Florida.’
‘How long will you be away?’
‘Two weeks.’
‘Why are you going?’
‘To a wedding.’
‘Why does it take two weeks to go to a wedding?’
‘We’re taking the wedding cake and it’s going to take some time to put together and ...’
‘You have a cake in the back there?’
‘Yes, look...’
Randy began to wave aloft each cake in turn while I launched into a little explanation of the finer points of the civil engineering involved in wedding cake construction. He surveyed our faces and seemed to twig that we would be able to lecture on the intricacies for some time, I hadn’t got anywhere near the truffles yet and Randy hadn’t waved the third cake...
‘You’re good!’ in a tone that meant ‘bugger off’ and we were through and in the US and really, properly on our way.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cicadas and alarums.

It’s an unusually cool summer for Ontario. Normally August is notable for the sort of disgusting humidity that ensures you spend all outside time cocooned in a mobile warm bath of your own sweat. Everywhere is air conditioned though, which makes it easier to cope with than an unseasonable heat wave in the UK, where nothing is built for heat and relief is impossible to find. Indoor ‘climate control’ as we are supposed to call it these days, is one of the novelties I take most delight in when I am considering the luxurious essential non-essentials of transatlantic life. It is like the water softener and the reverse-osmosis filter, a guilty pleasure that the British me didn’t know you needed. Not only can I select the temperature I would like my controlled climate to sit at, I can tell it my preferred percentage of humidity too. Very useful when trying to prevent the icing on a wedding cake from sogging into a heap before the big day, but actually ( and there is a guilty secret about to emerge here) I much prefer open windows and fresh air.

This summer therefore has been heavenly. Apart from a week, which did have more to do with wedding cake survival than personal comfort, the windows have been open. Which means that the exotic sounds of Canadian wildlife have been filtering through Radio 4 and Test Match Special to remind me how odd it all is, having living things share your space even in the city. It’s cicada season just now. Late summer, hot afternoons, and their songs are deafening. Which leads me to muse on the original effect of such a sound on a Londoner with minimal exposure to exotic climes.

The first cicadas I heard were in 1998, on my first trip over here. I would sit outside on hot days watching over the elderly lady I cared for back then, making sure she didn’t wander too far around the neighbourhood on her weeding binges, and listening to the sounds of living in Canada. One of these was an odd noise that sounded for all the world like the humming of an electricity substation, only louder. I would look about at the pylons and overhead cables and wonder how come the heat seemed to make them sing. And how come no-one had found a way to stop it, and whether it was safe and why no-one else thought it was odd. The sound was high up. And very electricy.

I know now that my brain had nothing in its sound library with which to compare the cicada’s song other than previous experiences of similar noises. We had a substation in our garden while I was growing up that used to sing the same sort of way. City kids oughtn’t to travel late in life, it causes far too much embarrassment. I did however, by dint of keeping my ears open, nodding sagely and looking up cicadas on the internet, manage to avoid having anyone witness the cringeworthy moment when I realised I was listening to insects. But not so with the frogs.

There was this odd noise you see, in spring, at the B&B. Our fabulous garden backed onto a series of lakes that formed the flood plain for the Grand River. It was a protected area for all manner of rare water species and unutterably lovely. As soon as the weather perked up enough to sit outside, I sat outside. And pondered the odd noise. Did I think 'wildlife' after my previous cicada stupidity? Of course not. This odd noise matched nothing in my internal sound library quite so closely as the wailing of masses of car alarms all set off at once, a long way away. The sort of thing you hear when approaching the scene of an IRA bomb blast in an ambulance, say.

‘Gosh,’ I thought to myself, ‘something big must have kicked off in downtown Kitchener. I’ll pop the news on later and see what’s happened.’ But nothing had happened. And the noise went on night after night. How could a sleepy little town like ours have so many extra-sensitive car alarms? And how come the wind was in the right direction to carry the sound over my garden every night at the same time? It remained a mystery, dangling around on the edge of my mind - not important enough to intrude on the million real worries of trying to make a go of a business I had no aptitude for – but hanging on in there awaiting attention.

Then Theresa came to call. As my first best friend in this country, it was usually Theresa who witnessed the sillier aspects of having no idea how to be Canadian. She walked into the garden with her head on one side, ears pricked up. ‘Oh how lovely to hear the frogs singing. You’re nearer the river than we are, we don’t hear them.’
‘Is that what that noise is?’
‘Yes, it’s the frogs making whoopee because it’s spring. What did you think it was?’
‘I don’t really want to tell you.’

And a tale of almost pumpkin pie proportions was born. I can recognise the sounds of blue jays now and cardinals, mourning doves, chipmunks and raccoons. I know why you shouldn’t go near a snapping turtle and what skunks smell like. But cicadas and singing frogs will always take me back to the inexpressible weirdness of trying to be an adult citizen of the world when you are, in reality, just a city kid who knows nothing.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Wizard of Oz

I’m making this beanbag. Why? Well we are in the process of rounding up furniture for Ben’s student house. This is a bit of a shock, since in my head I haven’t quite outgrown my own Young Ones phase yet, and I seem to have reverted to 70s thinking as a result. “You should have a beanbag chair! Students must have beanbags.”

Well, thanks to the wonder that is the internet it is possible to Google, download and print off a pattern for pretty much anything, so not long after the thought was formed the pattern existed and we were off looking for wacky fabric. Now, this is Mennonite Country. The best fabric warehouses are in the outlying villages, where every farming family boasts at least one old-time quilter, and this is how Ben and I ended up on a short road trip out of town.

I travel the back roads quite often for work, trundling from farm to farm with Lifeline buttons, so I have probably become too familiar with the strange beauty of this region. The old-time charm, peace, general niceness and polite affability of the area’s Mennonite roots bring themselves into town in so many subtle ways that it is easy to settle into being happily ensconced in a new life, without giving much thought to what drew you here in the first place. Waterloo may be the home of the Blackberry, of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the new home of Google; finalist in the ‘World’s Most Intelligent Community’ year after year...but Waterloo Region is, has been and always will be just Mennonite. The Old Order farmers manage without electricity and phones, fields are ploughed with horses, maple trees are tapped by hand and our roads have extra wide hard shoulders to accommodate the horse-drawn buggies. Supermarkets have buggy parking, covered, to shelter the horses.

Taking Ben with me made me see it all again. Bunches of flowers at farm gates, with an honesty box to pop your money in if you choose to take some. Horses pulling ploughs, girls in bonnets and mop caps picking vegetables. And of course, the symbol of our region, the horse and buggy road sign. “It’s like the Wizard of Oz,” he said. “We’re only 20 minutes out of town and it’s a whole fairy tale going on.” He is right, as ever. The girl who served us with our fabric requirements wore the traditional dress and cap, and the biggest, most genuinely happy smile. I have noticed this a lot, the smile. I have a sense from people who live in Pennsylvania, in and about Amish country, that the Amish keep themselves to themselves, disapprove a little of non Plain folk and come across as a little dour. Not our Mennonite neighbours. Big smiles, fabulous pies, syrup and flowers... quiet friendliness.

You can visit the farmers’ market and sample different grades of syrup, or different family recipes for ‘summer sausage’, the local salami. You will be chatting with the person who learned how it’s done from the generation before. You can take a guided buggy ride around the region or visit the Information Centre in St Jacobs, the village that has styled itself the centre of Mennonite Country, and learn all about their culture and history. My personal favourite trip is to the tiny Maple Syrup Museum. Free, of course. When visitors come to stay we do all these things, but a drive around the cornfields and sugar bushes teaches just as much about how to live well. I am reminded why we moved here.

I should add that not all Mennonite families farm in the old ways. Some have become more urbanised, a little more modern. Most of the larger local firms were begun by part of a Mennonite family moving into the city. They tend to retain a work ethic and sense of duty to the community which wouldn’t make much sense elsewhere. Charities and fundraisers don’t go short of sponsors; the Mennonite Central Committee sends teams of workers to disaster-hit areas all over the world. Everybody volunteers. And I am reminded why we moved here. So finally, after 7 years, I have got round to taking a pic of the road sign that defines why we sold everything to try and make a life in this corner of Ontario. Since I am no longer a trucker in any meaningful sense, it will top the blog for a while.

I sat with a new Lifeline client last week, taking details for our records and asked him who his family doctor was. “Oh I don’t have one at the moment, he’s a Mennonite. He’s in India building a hospital.”

Thursday, July 30, 2009

An old story

It has been brought to my attention that some readers are baffled by the pumpkin pie allusion. Anyone who has been reading the Unoff Mensa List for the last few years will have heard it at least once, and anyone even remotely connected with Theresa’s family will have heard it, oh, annually. But the nice thing about blogs is that they develop legs and move about the place under their own steam. If you’ve heard it, skip a week, I will be moving along shortly. If not, the moral of the tale of my first Canadian Thanksgiving is that you probably have to grow up with traditional holidays to really 'get' them.

Thanksgiving isn’t an English custom you see. We Brits have a sort of harvest festival but it is restricted to little food drives at churches and schools. Not that there's anything wrong with that, I'm sure that receiving your autumnal box of tinned rice pudding, pineapple chunks and an apple is very nice for those elderly folk brave enough to open the door to a gaggle of schoolkids. It's just not very exciting, no family gatherings for a start. Or traditional dinners.

Please don't think that we Brits go short of pre-winter celebrations, we are most festive on November the 5th. It's the time for firework displays, bonfires and sausages you can write with, but we save our major family feastings for Christmas. Which is why, shortly after emigrating, when we were invited to Theresa’s for Sunday dinner earlyish in October I accepted the invitation happily enough but had no inkling that anything special was going on.

It must have been half-way through the Saturday when some kind soul scanning my groceries made a little polite conversation: "So, are you going anywhere nice for Thanksgiving Dinner?" My face must have been a picture of incomprehension. She said it again more slowly, just in case I didn't speak English. "Um, yes, I think so," wasn't the wittiest riposte in the circumstances but I suddenly had a lot of processing to do, and an urgent phone call to make.

"This Thanksgiving thing, is it, you know, sort of a special meal?"
And do you know what? It turns out that we had, indeed, been invited for a special meal. Apparently turkey is usual but the family tradition chez Theresa is for Bob’s famous ham and scalloped potatoes.
"How nice, what can I bring? How about dessert? Have you made dessert yet? Good, leave it to me."
Ten minutes later:
"So, is there anything sort of traditional that you're supposed to have for dessert? Pumpkin pie eh? Ok, pumpkin pie it is."

Consider the dilemma. You are a habitual baker. (Due possibly to an English upbringing... processed food is so much more expensive than basic ingredients, so everybody cooks from scratch.) You have never, however, eaten pumpkin pie. You have twigged that the chap who told you about pumpkin hunting was probably kidding. (The farmer blows a horn and it frightens them so they all run about the pumpkin patch, then you can shoot one. It’s considered cheating to shoot a resting pumpkin. Allegedly.) But you have not – to date – seen, tackled or cooked with a pumpkin at all. You have no idea what it should look like or taste like. All the recipes tell you to start with a "cup of cooked pumpkin" but omit the step beginning "first, attack your pumpkin". Yes, yes, yes, I know you can buy it in cans now, but I didn't then and it was an emergency. So, I chickened out and went to Zehr's for a frozen pumpkin pie.

Having finished shopping a few hours before we were due to join our adopted Canadian family, I decided to leave my prized pie in the car. The theory went that it should have thawed nicely by the time we were ready to eat it. You are naturally way ahead of me here so I'll cut to the chase. Picture the scene, a dining table full of family, friends (and adopted strays like us) have had a little rest after their Thanksgiving Dinner of Bob’s deservedly famous ham’nscalloped potatoes. Ben and I are feeling welcome and happy and all in favour of this New World tradition. We all begin to feel as though we could manage a spot of something dessertish and I step proudly into the kitchen to dish up my contribution. There is a pause. A silent moment that lasts a fraction too long.
"Um, is it meant to be all runny like this?"
"Not really. How long did you bake it for?"
"Oh dear."

Of course the unbaked runny filling had slopped all over the box by then, there wasn’t a huge amount left in the pie case but we baked it anyway. At about midnight we all partook of a slice of soggy, pumpkin flavoured pastry. It wasn’t terribly nice. I still take dessert when invited for meals. I am greeted at the door on each occasion with a cheery "did you bake it this time?" I rather like being part of someone else's family folklore though, it’s a belonging of sorts. I have even learned how to make pumpkin pie but I can't say that I like it very much. Thanksgiving definitely takes practice.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Tradition, tradition

I’ve been to a bridal shower. Well not exactly been to one, to be exact it came to me. My house was logistically the best venue for this eagerly anticipated pre-wedding event. I was intrigued to find out what would happen since we don’t have bridal showers, baby showers or any other sort of showers in the UK. Except for the merely utilitarian sort that make you wet.

I offered my little house and volunteered to make food, after ascertaining that the appropriate type of catering was something that I could handle. A rerun of the Great Pumpkin Pie Disaster of 2002 would not be wise on a nice young lady’s pre-special day special day. Apparently pretty canap├ęs, finger food generally and edible feminine fripperies are the best thing, and I can do that, so I did. The rest of the planning fell to Theresa and Katherine, who know from bridal showers.

The musings were, well amusing (sorry). Thanks are due to Ba for her specifically English take on the idea...“The bride is hauled into a shower and stripped. Her sage women friends turn on the cold water in the hope that she comes to her senses. It has been known to do the trick.” But in the interests of proper, educated, transatlantic cultural enquiry I turned to Wiki for help. And there I read that this is a specifically North American tradition, which may have been imported from Belgium or possibly the Netherlands in the mid 1800s. A party at which all the women associated with the forthcoming nuptials get together and shower the bride with wedding presents. There are also games. The gifts bit makes sense but the games bit, less so. Wiki tells me that the custom probably began as a way to marry off young ladies whose father couldn’t afford a dowry. Make sense. And actually, it comes over as a little classier to me that that horrible habit Brits have of putting all the gifts on display at the wedding, so that everyone can see who bought what and how many toasters there are.

Wiki also advises that ‘Sociologists like Beth Montemurro note that the ritual of the bridal shower "socializes women into the hyper-feminized traditional wife role," with its emphasis on the future role of the bride-to-be as family cook, homemaker, and sexual partner.’ I think that makes them a Bad Thing. But, mulling this over in the light of a fairly pleasant evening where the dishes, teatowels and candle holders took centre stage and there was only one kettle, I am minded to place a more generous, post-feminist interpretation on the custom. Perhaps, down the ages, families have known that if you give anything to a guy he will lose it in a poker game and the sensible course of action is to let the women take care of the giving and receiving. Hey, I’ve got an ‘ology, perhaps I can get a grant to develop the theory.

Anyway, the shower has been and gone. Leftover tasty, nibbly comestibles inhabit the fridge and I get the thing with the games now. If you are going to collect together all the women of two disparate families with nothing in common, who don’t know each other yet, and ask them to have a tolerable evening, a little greasing of the wheels is required to convince everyone that they are having a nice time. Fortunately for us, Theresa is a consummate storyteller; so on this occasion the games rapidly gave way to tales of ‘all the other traditions Carolyn knows nothing about and has messed up’. Yes, Including the pumpkin pie.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The eternal language barrier

I’ve been chatting online with a pal in the hospitality business, comparing notes on the respective frustrations of running a B&B versus a motel. He is off to buy a new TV for one of the rooms today and I was reminded of the absurd TV buying disaster of yestercareer. So, with thanks to Barry for reminding me today, and Ian for putting me right at the time, I think it’s time to relive the great Canadian R debacle. This is what I wrote at the time…

It's a useful thing, the Canadian R. There are times that I wish my English way of speaking – my inherent BBC accent – could learn to incorporate it. The technique would have helped a lot with this week's spot of linguistic difficulty. The discovery that I am still prone to linguistic difficulty is surprising in itself. I have been through the initial culture shock associated with realizing that no-one in Canada knows that Brits speak a different language. I have come to terms with the fact that old episodes of 'Are You Being Served' on TVO don't help me when I want to buy petrol, crisps or knickers.

I came through all that and emerged on the other side the sort of wise and whimsical Brit who uses the language barrier for fun but can turn it off at will when there is serious work to be done. I went native vocabulary-wise and thought I knew it all. Well guess what? Vocabulary isn't always enough. An inability to produce the Canadian R can get you into just as much trouble as a car with a bonnet.

It all began with an email from a friend…another ex-pat from London, England, transplanted to Ontario. Another mascot with a quaint accent who entertains all and sundry on a regular basis with jolly misunderstandings of a transatlantic nature. After a few years of gags about putting trunks in the boots and boots in the trunks of our cars, asking for tomatoes that don't rhyme with potatoes just to confuse people and clinging doggedly to trousers and torches and lorries, we both considered ourselves adept at mangling the language for pleasure, the deliberate, linguistically delicious cabaret.

So, what strange alignment of the planets…which unheard of synchronicity of biorhythms caused us both to discover in the same week that Canadians pronounce 'pawn' and 'porn' somewhat differently? Of course, I am very grateful to have received the email. Without it, typed amid tears of glee I understand, after what sounds like a classic cabaret day, I would not have known. And that is the big difference between his story and mine, his listeners put him right. There and then. Embarrassment, laughter, beer, funny anecdote.

Mine were polite. Without the anecdotal email I still might not have known quite how I had managed to horrify a couple of guests at my B&B. I would only have known that they appeared to think me a little strange. If my ex-pat pal had not been among work colleagues who consider it their inalienable right to poke fun, and if he had refrained from kindly sharing the joke with me I would still be none the wiser.

It might have helped if I had told them I was looking for a TV/VCR to upgrade one of our bedrooms but I didn't. They told me all about their day and I told them all about mine. About finding this great little pawn shop where the people were so friendly and helpful. My guests looked a little nonplussed but smiled encouragingly. They appeared to want me to continue with an explanation, so I did. "They have this great scratch and dent section for electrical goods," I wittered. "All new stuff, nothing used…and I have a 30 day guarantee too."

If you are reading this, dear guests, I am truly sorry if you thought I was running a brothel out of the room next to yours. It was a beautiful little TV/VCR combo and I am still delighted with it. Brits are quite normal really.

I have been practicing my diction ever since. I thought I could be relatively Canadian when I chose, after all I can do a really authentic 'howarya' on the telephone sometimes after a beer or two. I have tried really hard to make 'pawn' and 'porn' sound different but I can’t do it. The Canadian R you see, Brits just don't have what it takes. Should I require any more cheap'ncheerful electrical goods I shall have revert to Dickensian times and frequent the town's pawnbroker. So much safer.

Friday, July 17, 2009


For a few of us it is a lifestyle choice, for most of the world it’s a ‘issue’. The UK witters about it all the time, what with being full up, and it would appear that Canada is beginning to fret about immigration too. Only this week the Canadian government has slapped visa requirements on Mexicans and the Czech Roma, to try and stop unsuccessful refugee claims from tourists. There have been minor outcries. Apparently it costs insane amounts of money to look after people for the years it takes to process an unsuccessful claim, and Canada looks after people prettily, that’s why they come. It’s ok of course if you are a real refugee, but the chancers and tryers-on are a drain on resources.

The other category that we love to hate, of course, is your economic migrant. These cheeky people are the lowest of the low on both sides of the Pond. Not even pretending to be in fear of their lives, they move around the world with no finer motive than to try and better their family’s lifestyle. The phrase economic migrant is one that is difficult to say without a little sneer, something to do with the consonant sounds... try it.

Both countries like to celebrate diversity of course, that’s a different thing. Diversity is colourful and inclusive and tolerant and is about being polite around strange customs and interested in weird food. There are festivals about it. But where does that leave me? I am an economic migrant who is not diverse. Who cares? The system has no pigeonhole for me...I am not welcome at the local Immigrant Employment Centre (trust me, I dropped in for a bet). I am that invisible, uninteresting sort of immigrant who appears to be able to cope. I am here for reasons that have nothing to do with visible hardship, oppression or need. I am prosperous and articulate, an economic migrant who even speaks a sort of English. I am fair game for hanging out to dry.

It's an interesting characteristic, a BBC accent, an asset and a liability. "I love your accent." I hear it in stores and at interviews, it makes instant friends in restaurants and supplies work for which I am in no way qualified. An English accent inspires confidence. I am clearly honest and charming and although I sound as though I might think myself a little superior, that's kinda charming too. I am everybody's mascot; just opening my mouth makes someone's day. Being quaint as a career move.
Government and big business see me differently though. To those outfits who own the inalienable right to make the rules, handle my money, sell me utilities and insurance, I am one enormous gravy train. Totally vulnerable; I have no choice but to walk head-first and eyes-open into scams so blatant they can't possibly be legal.
"As a foreigner you may not understand how insurance works."
"You might not know how to pay utility bills."
"You could have forged your credit history."
"You probably didn't understand your accountant's advice."
And every time it costs me just a little more than anyone else. What am I going to do? Go home? Complain? To whom?

I'd like the powers that be to know that we are not stupid, those of us who move around the world. An institutionalised fleecing of us just because you can is really rather un-Canadian. Whatever colour our skin, whatever language we speak, whatever our reason for being here, and whatever initial assistance we may or may not appear to need in order to settle; let me tell you here and now that the people who choose to make their home in Canada are really rather bright. We understand how to pay bills and we know what banks are for. The dumb ones don't come.

Don't get me wrong, I love this region's people. I chose them. When I opted to stop being a struggling single parent in a UK slum and make a bid for prosperity and new opportunity; when I sold everything I owned and sunk every penny into one final chance to turn life around; K-W was my deliberate destination. And anyway, the few who chose to take advantage have fallen by the wayside, replaced with the finest friends anyone could ask for. The ones who learn with me that one of us doesn't speak English. The ones who are first to join in a good laugh when I mess up again. The ones who pass other English-speaking migrants my way for advice.

It amuses me greatly that I get my electricity from the hydro company and my water from the gas supplier. That flower beds are gardens and gardens are back yards. It is all part of the fun of emigrating, life just-a-little-different. I explain happily to newcomers that the pavement here is the bit you drive on and that, should you require air in the tyres of your car, you can't go into a garage and ask to use their air line. They will look at you a little oddly and direct you proudly to the new Waterloo Regional Airport.

I tell everyone to be a mascot in their local shops, revel in their accent and anticipate an exciting education for their children. I tell them that Canadians are the warmest, most welcoming people in the world. I also warn them about the label on their forehead that says "bleed me dry". I tell them to expect the small print to have more, smaller print and to expect that the smaller small print will include things they thought were illegal. I tell them to count their fingers after signing anything and to tolerate losing the odd one with a rueful smile. It will mean they have settled in a little more.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Looking back

It occurs to me that there are several sorts of travelling. Immigration, for example, is a lot more than just moving to another place. The demolishing of normality makes for a bizarre internal journey. As I contemplate not writing about new places for a while, it might be amusing to look back at some of the odder aspects of settling in. We live here now, it wasn't always thus. So, a few articles culled from work published by Emigrate magazine over the years. Just to get things going...

How complicated can it be? You pack up a few books and clothes, a box of toys and an antique grandmother clock. You pop a teenager under your arm, leave London, England behind and cross the Atlantic. You then buy a big house full of stuff and run a B&B. Why? You fancy to live in Canada because it’s nice. Canadian Immigration demand that you buy a business, so you do. Dead easy, why doesn’t everyone emigrate?

I honestly thought the anxiety was over the day we moved in. The years of planning, paperwork, legal battles and interviews were behind us. I had permission to enter Canada as an Entrepreneur and two years to prove myself a competent business person. The fabulous B&B I’d agreed to purchase at the start of the application process was still sitting waiting for us two years down the line, the future looked assured. All I had to do was arrange a modest loan, buy a car, move into my palatial new home and sit back to watch the money roll in. Oh, yes and cook the occasional rasher of bacon.

I began to realise that all might not be plain sailing during the car hunt. In the UK one buys the car first, then insures it and – if necessary – learns to drive it. Having to pass an Ontario driving test before I could insure a car, and having to insure it before I could buy it, was an unexpectedly irritating extra hoop to jump through. ‘Piece of cake though’ I thought. ‘I’ve driven ambulances in London, limousines in Toronto and nurtured nervous young ladies through their driving tests in leafy suburbs. I’m as good as through.’

With commendable caution I decided to leave nothing to chance and booked myself a driving lesson. Shame really, it would almost have been worth failing the test to see the examiner’s face when I inadvertently treated him to a British emergency stop. I can now report that when a Canadian examiner asks you to stop as if in an emergency he has a very different scenario in mind. None of your imagining a child has run into the road at your minimum stopping distance while he braces himself against hitting the windscreen. A Canadian examiner wishes you to pretend you hear a strange noise emanating from the bowels of your car and execute an unanticipated but politely signalled stop at the side of the road. Much is made of which way you will turn the wheels depending on the incline of the road. Canadians like their emergencies relatively polite.

That was the start of the training. Thanks to a patient lawyer and a string of accountants I acquired my B&B. It was as gorgeous as I’d remembered but came equipped with a terrifying array of toys; machinery to do things that Brits didn’t know needed doing. I had a toy to soften the water, another to filter it. A toy to turn the baths into Jacuzzis, a toy to make ice and a toy to squash my rubbish. The only thing that didn’t have an on/off switch was the septic tank. Septic tank? I hadn’t anticipated one of those, do they go wrong? Is it smelly when they do? Who do you call? (Poo busters?) I rapidly learned what each and every snazzy part of my fabulous new life cost to repair when it went wrong. And do you know what? It’s all a bit overrated in my opinion. Despite the premium rates chargeable by pretentious B&B’s with knobs and whistles, on the days when I was contorted at an impossible angle on the kitchen floor with my rapidly numbing hand up the freezer workings trying to dislodge a blockage from the ice-making machine, I recall wistfully that it wasn’t so hard…all that filling up of ice trays in the benighted, technologically innocent UK days.

In addition, I can now report that a swimming pool requires a chemistry degree plus more attention than a baby and that having a ride-on lawn tractor is totally terrifying. During the owner-of-half-an-acre years, I ripped several spotlights out of the ground, mowed down the barbecue and demolished the pond. Twice. Ben it was, however, who parked the mower in the constantly rebuilt pond on the day of its final demise. Somehow that ended up my fault too. I found out what could go wrong with a septic tank, where to find the ‘septic people’, how to trouble-shoot air conditioning and correct recalcitrant hot tub chemistry. I became almost competent with transatlantic toys. But I turned into Basil Fawlty in the process. There is more to the industry than bacon frying. All that having of strangers in your face before coffee in the morning takes its toll. It had to stop and five years on it did. The tales are on the verge of becoming funny again. Even the bit about Ontario dropping the driving test nonsense for immigrants a year after we landed.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

All change

It’s been ages. I know. ‘What happened to the blog?’ I’m being asked. And it is high time I told you.
It appears, you see, that I may not be quite strong enough to be a trucker after all, and that is quite a difficult thing for an intrepid trail blazer to admit. Just after the last, terrifying, sleep deprived, icy, whiteout of a drive I had some trouble getting out of the cab. I could drive ok but unaccountably couldn’t walk. Whisked off for tests to check for worrying things like MS and brain tumours, I wasn’t allowed to drive until some doc or other deemed it safe.
The good news is that I don’t have MS or a brain tumour. The bad news is that some of the symptoms continue, as do the tests; and it looks like whatever I do have will turn out to be something that doesn’t respond well to physical exhaustion.
So, here I am, an apparently ex-trucker, with half a book about the joys of trucking and a blog that was just starting to get interesting. It has been pointed out to me though that I don’t have to become an ex-writer as well. The blog can be about other things. Lots of people blog about non intrepid lives. And, as Ben works on a play about the wilder aspects of life in the B&B we used to run when we first arrived in Canada, I am reminded that emigration has its exciting side, even if it generates fewer songs and urban legends.
So, just to get the ball rolling again I am planning to revisit some of the articles I wrote back in the early days, pop a few of my favourite stories up here to get back in the swing of things. Then perhaps the Book of the B&B will emerge, tale by tale. Or maybe I will become an intrepid local reporter...the hidden delights of Mennonite country. Dunno.
I think the title will remain however. Not sure where the blog is going but to keep calling it Trucking in English appeals to my sense of the absurd. And to keep the sense of failure at bay, it will serve as a reminder that I did almost make it, a bit, for a while.
If you feel inclined to watch this space, something will appear.
And thanks for all the nagging, you know who you are...