Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tree hugging for beginners

Well, the final shocking denouement which heralds the end of the B&B will have to wait, because I’ve been up to mad stuff again.

This escapade began with an email from my reporter pal Valerie. We met when she wrote a (surprisingly positive) review of my book for the local paper. Some wine, conversation and parties later, I am a frequent sidekick for any freebies she may be invited to write about.

The email was deceptive. Would I like to go ziplining and then on to an observatory? I had visions of a theme park somewhere, a bit Disneyish, with a little zip line and a big bouncy mattressy thing at the bottom. And I have liked a bit of stargazing ever since Ben had his astronomy phase as a kid; so I agreed to go along for a media day out and pretend I would be writing about the place for British Mensa. That’s when she sent me the webpage. And that’s when I began to panic.
‘A canopy tour that includes 8 zip lines, 2 suspension skybridges, 14 platforms and a 40-foot rappel’ eh? I’m not good with heights I can’t even step on the glass floor section of the CN Tower. While everyone else jumps up and down on it and takes photos of their feet I am the green-looking one holding on to the wall on the other side of the room. And now I’m committed to ziplining and skybridging and rappelling. Hmm, wonder what rappelling is, some piece of equipment maybe….ohmygod it’s American for abseiling. I can’t do that.

Valerie knows me well. I’m so easily manipulated by a challenge. She knew I’d not back down once committed, however frightened I might be, and she was right. We went.

It’s a fascinating place, is Long Point, Ontario. The chaps who bought the land did so to preserve it from development, since it consists of acres of threatened forest, marsh and much rare stuff. I now know that the marshes on the north shore of Lake Erie are on the migration path for all manner of unusual birds and that Carolinian deciduous forests, only to be found in Canada’s southernmost mild climate, are home to more than a third of Canada’s endangered species.
Having bought the land they spent a few years wondering how to use it. The first thing they planned was the Observatory, taking advantage of the darkest Southern skies in Ontario to tempt university researchers and public alike through the doors. The zip-lining idea came next, you arrive for the fun and have your ecology interpreted for you on the way round. The guides are as passionate about the trees as they are about helping to overcome fears like mine. Ours told us about his favourite tree…and his second favourite tree. (I am charmed by someone who can have a second favourite tree.) They scrunched leaves here and there for us to smell them and understand why they have been used in herbal remedies. They explained how the zipines and platforms had been built with minimal invasion into the trees themselves, so that none will be damaged by our passing through. The trees will still flourish, and the forest floor remains undisturbed by our shenanigans. If and when the facility is removed, there will have been no footprint. Soon there will be bees and bats and a winery, the local farmland is gradually switching from tobacco to vineyards. But for now there is zipping by day and stargazing by night.

Of course I wish I hadn’t been too scared to enjoy the view. Now it’s over, and I know it can be done, I can’t wait to go round again. And I have taken to musing on the concept of fear and safety. I watched half a dozen people stand on the little wooden platforms built around the trees and observed for myself how they didn’t fall off. So why did I feel safer hugging each tree as hard as my puny arms could manage? Hugging trees, although it did make me look most ecological, would have been no use if the platform had plummeted from under me. Intellectually I knew that, but it helped with the vertigo a bit. 

After some patient training and remarkably kind encouragement from our guides, I zipped from tree to tree perfectly safe and snug in my harness, landing relatively effortlessly on the tiny-looking stump of wood on the next platform. We were strapped into the very same harnesses when we crossed the skybridges, so why the whole new level of scared? And, of course, had it been dark and and someone told me we were six inches off the ground I’d have been fine, wobbly or not.

Each zip did get easier. Once I’d got the hang of it and knew I could slow down and land in the right spot, it almost became fun. The hardest bit was clambering up onto the little stump step to be high enough to set off. Which is daft, you know that you are in a harness that has just carried you safely from one little wooden platform up a tree to another little wooden platform up a tree, the worst that can happen is that you sit down in it again, there is no point at which you are not attached to a wire. And yet, your brain tells you that it is doing something risky, stepping onto a wobbly stump with nothing to hold onto half-way up a tree. The zips got longer and faster as we toured the forest and by the time we arrived at the longest, helpfully described as 55-60 km/h by our guides (mainly for the fun of watching my face I think) I was on the way to enjoying myself. But the worry was still there. I could zip, I’d survived the bridges, but we still had the abseil to face. I was utterly convinced that there would be tears, humiliation and failure.

We stood on the final platform. Valerie was all nonchalant and confident by then, leaning out from the platform to sit comfortably in her harness as she listened to the instructions. I was still tree hugging. The first guide, a tiny slip of a girl you could pop in your pocket if you were so minded, demonstrated the technique. Hold onto the rope and step nimbly off the platform, twirling about in mid air. Let yourself down as fast or slow as you like, passing the rope through your hands. Who wanted to go first? Well Valerie, naturally. My brain had shut down and I’d taken nothing in from the demonstration, I was going to have to see it done again. My intrepid reporter pal got it right and down she went. 

The guide with the second favourite tree grinned at me. 
‘Um, I think so.’
‘You’re doing great, it’ll be fine.’
‘I jumped out of a plane once, so I ought to be able to do this.’
‘Funny that, I’ve had skydivers up here and they say this is harder.’
‘Yes, you can’t see the ground from a plane.’

The main motivation was getting it over with. No point in hanging about up there fretting, the sooner I stepped into fresh air the sooner I’d be on the ground, one way or another. And who wants to get old anyway? So, I stepped, turned, sat, grinned and whooped with glee. I let myself down in the prescribed manner and collapsed in a heap at the bottom. ‘I want to photograph him coming down so I can show people how high it was. I can get a better picture lying down.’ It seemed convincing to me but I think Valerie knew my legs had stopped working.

It was several minutes before I could stand up again but I am determined to go back and enjoy it properly next time. There really is nothing to be scared of and I think I’m over a lifelong fear of heights. No more tree hugging for me, except the metaphorical sort.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The beginning of the end

Episode three of an exercise in trying to decide whether there's a book to be had from the B&B days.

It wasn’t Fay who finished me off in the end though, it was the guests. You’d think that a nice little B&B tucked away in rural Ontario, where the tourist attractions have to do with Mennonite farmers’ markets, quilting extravaganzas and the world’s biggest Maple Syrup Festival (I kid you not) would attract people with manners and wholesome habits. But it turns out that quiet little tucked-away places are also where you go if you want to fly under the radar. Who in their right minds would book into a hotel chain with managers and security if you want a room from which to turn tricks on a rainy night? Or deal a little coke that you happened to accidentally bring with you from Saudi Arabia? Or pimp out your ‘wife’? Or meet the same prostitute every third Wednesday of the month?

Of course there were nice people too, some even became friends. And most of the crises were funny shortly afterwards. We had a lot of fun with Mr. Third-Wednesday-my wife-couldn’t-stay-for-breakfast-she-had-an-emergency-call-from-the-babysitter. The day he asked me to pretend we’d never seen him before (we think maybe this one really was the wife, what an idiot, I’d have gone somewhere else) was a hoot. We duly pretended, but we also invited my best pal over to impersonate a guest at breakfast and ask all manner of inquisitively friendly questions over coffee.

And the working girls, we laughed about that afterwards too. Next time it was raining and a young lady called to see if our family room was available for one night for cash, I would be inventing a full house and regretfully turning down the booking. But the first time it happened, the penny only dropped when they arrived on the doorstep. How do you say to someone who has made a reservation ‘I’m sorry but you look like a prostitute so I’ve changed my mind’? Clearly, word had got around town about our family room. It had been constructed from the garage, so that it was at ground level for wheelchairs, and had a separate entrance to the rest of the house. This meant that people with dogs and children could come and go, all private and soundproofed, without annoying other guests. I now knew that it also meant nefarious comings and goings which I was supposed not to notice.

That was Mr. Saudi Arabia’s favourite room too. He had a current wife and an ex wife and a cocaine habit. The current wife spent a lot of time ‘socialising’ with ‘business friends’. The ex wife used to bring friends of hers to use the pool. She liked to pretend she owned the place, which was fine by me until she started giving Pinky orders. Everybody sniffed. They were friendly, polite and discreet though, for the most part, and we got sort of fond of them.

We had some mega successes and some wonderful days. Kitchener’s first ever legal gay wedding was celebrated in our garden, with swimming between courses, a mightily impressive buffet and croquenbouche wedding cake produced by yours truly; and masses of goodwill and happiness. Weddings came and went, regular customers returned year after year. My son Ben, then a teenager, developed a demeanour of charming patience which surpassed mine from Day One. Calling the place Mornington Crescent ensured a constant stream of ex-pat Radio 4 fans through the doors. We had regular Christmas guests, an elderly couple who liked a home-cooked family Christmas. Their kids didn’t come over any more because they couldn’t handle Dad’s Alzheimer’s. We made tolerable substitutes and enjoyed popping tiny gifts under the little individual tree in their room.

We became adept at handling attention-seeking food fads, learning to smile while toasting spelt bread twice for the wheat-intolerant to ingest…after their waffles. We learned that people on the Atkins diet tended to know nothing about what carbohydrates really were, and would only eat things that said ‘Atkins’ on the packet, regardless of the actual contents. ‘Oh yes ma’am, this is Atkins waffle mix, we buy it specially.’ I even learned to like the lady who insisted that her scrambled eggs had to have ‘the bit’ taken out. That’s the little bit that becomes the chicken. Hooking a tiny scrap of membrane out of a couple of eggs is a messy business at the best of times but when you have half a dozen over-easies and sunny-side-ups on the go at the same time it’s a mind-numbing annoyance.

We developed a system of sweepstakes for the fussier customers, Pinky, Ben and I would each put in a twoonie (two dollars) at the first sign of an attitude problem, laying bets as to how many complaints they would generate and whether they would demand poached eggs or omelettes for breakfast. Difficult people always ask for poached eggs or omelettes, they require so much more concentration than fried or scrambled. Well, apart from the no-bits lady, obviously. Although sometimes she would push the boat out and go for poached. Some seasons we’d have so many ‘rollover’ weeks that the eventual winner pocketed a decent amount of change.

I survived in business long enough to convince Immigration that we deserved to be Canadians, but the stress won in the end. Mr. Saudi Arabia frightened Pinky and Ben quite severely while I was out of town, calling while high and demanding money with threats. Then there was the couple who set fire to their room on Valentine’s night, they were special. They managed to get through half a dozen towels and several pillowcases trying to stamp out their flaming bedding.

I got really upset with the gaggle of middle-aged ladies who got so drunk in the hottub that I was genuinely frightened for their safety, and then refused to get out. ‘You can’t make me’ was a phrase I associated with ambulance work and dossers, not fancy-schmancy accommodation for attendees at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. That was neither the first nor the last time that I had to threaten to call the police. I watched myself turned into Basil Fawlty.

Mr Hollywood Hotshot was the last straw. But he deserves an episode all to himself…

Friday, June 18, 2010

More Mornington Crescent

So, the interview went well but from 25 applicants there is a shortlist of four for one driving post. This really shows what a hit the road haulage industry must have taken last year, since all us truckerly grads had jobs before the ink was dry on our licences the first time around. Leaving Challenger when I did was clearly a big mistake, but I didn't have a lot of choice at the time. I am taking my mind off worrying about it by continuing the tale of the B&B years. Those of you who held my hand through it all will know a lot of this and anyone following Birds on the Blog will have read it already...really hoping to have more tales of 18 wheeled mishaps for you soon.

After an initial post about buying the B&B for the Birds (who are, after all, a blog circle for women in business) they were kind enough to ask me 'what happened next?' which led to a spot more writing...

The first thing that happened was that I mentally retraced my steps and re-evaluated every piece of advice I’d been given. Most of Fay’s homilies had been about how important it was to change as little as possible, for sound business reasons natch. She told me that keeping everything the same would ensure that regular customers came back…and that was partly true. For the first year at least. But she would hit the roof and yell at me for changing the slightest little thing, entirely as though it wasn’t my business, bought and paid for, and I could do as I damn well pleased with it. Like move the water cooler and put coffee makers in the rooms. I’d originally concluded that she was slightly nuts; the polite, reserved Brit in me had chosen to smile prettily, let her yell, and carry on regardless. It all fell into place once I’d twigged the plan, but it was so outrageous a thing to think of someone that I still really didn’t want to believe it. I commenced investigative enquiries.

I made friends with the local B&B owners association, wrote them some nifty free web copy, schmoozed the nicer ones and brought up the subject of Fay…
‘Oh yes, she told us you were this mad, rich, stupid English kid who wanted a B&B to hide in because you had to leave England.’ (I quite liked the ‘kid’ part.)
‘She said you’d run it into the ground within a year and then she’d buy it back.’
‘She wanted to stay on the committee here because she’d have her B&B again soon but we were glad to get rid of her.’
‘She was really furious when you changed the name.’

I asked one or two of the neighbours. They told the same story, with wildly inaccurate reportings of how much money I was supposed to have handed over. I asked the plumber, (who, among all the contractors, had taken pity on me and turned out relatively reliable) and he took to mumbling and looking very sheepish. It did appear to be true. And then Fay inadvertently confirmed it for me herself. The lady in the Tourist office had said ‘Fay comes in from time to time, she always tells me that people say you have become very expensive and the place isn’t as good as it was.’ Shortly afterwards on a regular pop-in, my mentor advised me confidentially, ‘I’ve been to the tourist office. They told me people are saying you’ve become very expensive and the place isn’t as good as it was…’ The identical form of words was the last piece of the jigsaw.

I changed as much as I possibly could. Not only did I need to make a success of things to keep Immigration on my side, I was on a mission to make the place unrecognisable out of sheer retaliatory spite. Not wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I retained the most successful marketing angles, remaining pet- and wheelchair-friendly, but most of Fay’s other trademarks went. The d├ęcor changed, the website changed, our target market changed, local business partnerships changed.

She still dropped by from time to time but I was through with smiling politely. We filtered the calls and locked the doors. I was never home. Lies were told. By then I was building an unlikely but effective relationship with our ‘deputy’ housekeeper. She had been the ‘weekend girl’ under Fay’s regime and as bullied by the full-time housekeeper as I had been by Fay. When I fired the poltergeist, she took over and became marvellous. We made a strong, if unorthodox, team, I respected her opinion and she watched my back. We called each other Pinky and The Brain, after the cartoon mice. We laughed all day and plotted exciting things. I taught her to speak Cockney and she taught me to speak Newfie. After a few drinks, nobody could understand either of us, but we understood each other. We finished each other’s sentences. She built a wall around me with ever more inventive lies when Fay came to call. Pinky could face anyone down with such conviction and cheekiness that you knew she was having you on but you’d be helplessly in her grip anyway. Gradually we heard from Fay less and leaned on each other more. Pinky remains a lifelong pal. I owe her a great deal more than my sanity.

We marketed to families, offered Ye Olde English Christmas Houseparties and served cream teas by the pool in the afternoon. We organised charity fundraisers and small weddings. We printed gift certificates. We ditched the contracts with large businesses and the honeymoons; both brought us people with expectations beyond a humble B&B and hassle beyond the coping ability of two people. We pioneered the ‘Pre-Wedding Pyjama Party’ instead. Easier to deliver, more fun and much more effective for viral marketing. Do you ever ask a honeymoon couple about their wedding night? Of course you don’t, it would be tacky and impolite. So, where, pray, is the marketing spinoff from all that bloody dipping of strawberries in chocolate and scrubbing of glitter out of the Jacuzzi? Now then, if you have all the girls for a sleepover the night before the wedding, serve them wine in the hottub, bring hairdressers and makeup artists to the house, serve fancy little muffins to them while they are being beautified, make the photographer happy (yes, of course you can take pictures in my gardens) etc, then everyone at that wedding gets to hear about how wonderful your place is.

Things began to turn around but my timing had not been good. You may or may not remember SARS, but it wrecked the entire Canadian Tourist industry in 2003. Tourism is one of those areas that go under first when an economy is crumbling and there was no shortage of follow-up crumblement. Economic retaliation from the US, when Canada refused to join the invasion of Iraq, was crippling industry and layoffs spread across the country. The exchange rate shifted, petrol prices went through the roof…there was always something keeping the punters away.

Many of our woes flowed directly from the Canadian government’s attempts to get Toronto back on its feet after SARS. They partnered with the tourism big hitters to persuade people back, matching marketing dollars and subsidising partnerships. You could go to Toronto for the weekend, see a musical, take in a ball game, eat atop the CN tower, shop til you dropped, and come home with change from a metaphorical fiver. The little people could compete, no-one was subsidising us. Much of small town Ontario went under at that time. From Stratford to Niagara accommodations and festivals closed, as their loyal local customers went to TO for a bargain instead. We did better than most, we were still trading five years down the line, but Fay had already cost me most of my working capital and the cash-flow never recovered. In fact there are people who still maintain that SARS was all my fault. We were still in the poltergeist phase, and having had both a fire and a flood in the same week, I raised my eyes to the river beyond our cedar trees and opined ‘it’ll be pestilence next’. Two days later the WHO slapped that travel advisory on Canada and the phone stopped ringing.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Well, there's an interview for a trucking job on the horizon, so it's just possible that Trucking in English might be about trucking again sometime this decade. In the meantime, I have been guest blogging for the peerless Birds on the Blog about the haplessly bizarre B&B days. It appears that enough time has passed, the experience is passing from trauma to farce, and there's a story sort of emerging. So, I'll reproduce here part of how it all started. A small series might follow.

I wasn’t expecting a life filled with drunks, prostitutes, cocaine addicts and murderers to be honest. I just wanted to be a legal Landed Immigrant in Canada. Ben and I had spent 18 months here in the ‘90s, on temporary visas, and decided we liked it enough to move permanently. (As you will know if you've read the book.) The Immigration rules were strict, if your profession wasn’t on the published list of desirable people you couldn’t just come and work. You could be a self-employed person if you had a track record of self-employment in your home country but I didn’t. The only possible way in for me was to be an Entrepreneur. I looked it up in the dictionary and decided I could have a go. I had to either buy or set up a business and run it successfully, presenting my accounts to Immigration every six months for two years. If they thought I represented an economic asset to the region, they might let us stay. ‘How hard can that be?’ I thought. Those of you who are a little more business savvy that I was back then might be giggling by now.

My original plan was to set up a fabulous bespoke wedding cake empire, bringing modern British sugarcraft skills to the benighted provinces who still considered buttercream to be an edible substance. But while on a fact-finding tour, checking out markets and putting together a business plan, I happened upon this B&B. It was huge, it was gorgeous, it ticked all the boxes for a suitable business, it would mean hitting the ground running…and it was for sale. The owner named her price, it was a bit steep but manageable. I rather sheepishly mentioned that it might take me two years to obtain my visa, expecting that to be the end of the deal but she did that thing where you look up and to one side while you are thinking and then said that would be ok, she’d wait.

We hired lawyers. They drew up a contract to exchange immediately but complete after two years at the price agreed. I had solid evidence to present to Immigration and she had a firm date to work towards for her retirement. It appeared to be the perfect arrangement. We messed about with clauses that meant she had to keep it running nicely and that I would share the cost of any big renovations and we shook hands. I should have done my body language homework though, and checked which side she looked to while doing her thinking. I wasn’t to find out that I couldn’t trust her for another three and a half years.

In the meantime my whole attention was taken up with the mechanics of emigrating. The application was the size of a thesis, took months to compile and required the assistance of several lawyers; one of whom I had to threaten to sue before he got things sorted out in time for the application deadline. There was an interview at Canada House. There were medicals. Then I had to sell my house in London, offload masses of stuff, pack up a small boy and his toys and land in time to complete on the date agreed two years earlier. We landed two weeks in advance of the big day. In that time I had to open a bank account, apply for business tax numbers, buy a car (which involved taking the Ontario driving test before I was entitled to my own insurance policy) book Ben into school, hire an accountant and learn how to run a swimming pool.

The previous owner, Fay, was as good as her word (or so it appeared just then). The business had been kept thriving, there were guests in the beds, bacon and eggs in the fridge, bookings in the diary…the takeover was ‘turnkey’ in that she left and I arrived but the business rolled on. When the day came that I walked through the door to my fabulous new Canadian estate (half an acre, six bedrooms, inground heated pool, inground outdoor hottub, Jacuzzis in all the bathrooms, a tractor to mow the lawn and, oh more other toys I’d never heard of than you could shake a stick at) I suddenly realised that my entire life for the last two years had been leading up to this moment. I had absolutely no idea what to do next. It was a bit like the birth of my son. I’d done all the obligatory NCT classes and had ‘done the reading’ with regard to labour, pain relief and the medicalisation thereof. But when they put that baby in my arms and it looked at me I’d had no idea what to do next then either.

Fay helpfully hung around in town for a few weeks to help me with things. She helped me with the pool, by telling me to pour acid into the filters whenever it looked a bit cloudy. She helped me by recommending a series of contractors who knew the building well, plumbers, electricians and the like. She helped me by suggesting that I keep on her beloved housekeeper so that I would have expert help to get things done. She helped me by sending her friends to come and stay. Six months down the line, after a string of horribly expensive disasters, breakages, complaints and overpriced, shoddy workmanship (during a phase when I was beginning to doubt my sanity and starting to wonder about the existence of poltergeists) I finally realised that a lot of this help had been, well, to be quite candid, positively unhelpful. I had fired the contractors fairly fast, and after the third time the new guy - who I trusted - told me ‘it looks like someone just grabbed hold of this and pulled it apart’ I fired the housekeeper. The poltergeist activity stopped, but it was to be another year before the full extent of the damage, and the reason for it, became clear. Fay wanted her B&B back. She wanted it back at a discount, and the best way to achieve this was to make sure I went under.

Remember the acid in the pool filters? Well it turns out that the water isn’t ‘going alkaline’ when it’s cloudy, it’s just a good trick for making sure that a lot of very expensive stuff will need replacing on a regular basis. A simple addition of algaecide each week (‘oh, did I forget to tell you about that?’) would have stopped the cloudiness in its tracks. Her friends had been primed to make complaints and demand refunds. The contractors were under instructions to overcharge and underdeliver.

Eventually the lady in the local Tourist Office took pity on me.
‘You do know why she’s doing all this don’t you?’
‘Doing all what?’
‘Badmouthing you all over town.’
Actually, I hadn’t known about that bit. When it transpired that all the ‘help’ was designed to lever me out again and show a rapid profit I got a bit cross, dug my heels in, fired everybody else I could think of and became even more determined than ever to make a go of things. I may have lost thousands of dollars being a starry-eyed trusting person but that was the day I toughened up and became a Landlady.