Cycling on Sanibel

Even after a few hours on sun-kissed Sanibel, you can’t help but notice that this island paradise is bescrawled with bicycle paths winding through shaded forests, skirting the shoreline for miles, between ranks of stately palms, and dipping into interior waterways thronged with tropical birds and silvery leaping fish.

Indeed the Sanibel Islanders seem to do little else but ride all day. It’s common to see multigenerational families, from great-grandparents on down, happily pedalling and chattering on their way to the beach, traditional Sanibel lunches and towels tucked into their wirework baskets.

There’s the problem right there, I thought. This much carefree happiness comes at a terrible cost: For every single road on this bike-mad island is clogged, as drivers are compelled to stop for cyclists crossing from one bike path to another. In consequence, the free circulation of people, goods and commerce throughout the island is at a near standstill.

This insight, I reasoned, might help Sanibel Islanders accelerate a transition from their post-colonial economic malaise to a more efficient model. But where to start?

As with most traditional societies, Sanibel Islanders display a profound respect for their elders. Any sort of palaver must therefore begin at the top. And so, anxious to gauge the local appetite for progress, I waited by a bike path until I spotted an elderly gentleman, easily distinguishable by his traditional dress of sturdy white shoes and pastel-coloured clothing.

Stepping on the path and forcing him to stop, I began at once:

“Sir, I have a modest proposal for your island economy. The march of civilization, from tree swinging to bipedal walking to the use of domesticated beasts to powered conveyances, represents the normal course of progress. Now, pedalling is a pleasant pastime, I’ll give you that, but hardly the pillar on which a modern economy can rise and flourish.”

The gentleman stood dumbfounded. I felt that I had struck a chord.

“I recognize,” I continued, “that a collectivist model has its seductive attractions. But let me assure you, this quasi-communistic approach will only delay prosperity. Do you see this, sir?”

“Get out of my way or I’ll call the police,” said the old gentleman.

“Good day, sir,” I said, impressed by his English and beating a hasty retreat.

I was anxious, too, to preserve his dignity. For I knew full well that in this mid-day heat, the island police would in any case be snoring in their guard huts, deep into their siesta.

I have just one word for Sanibel Islanders and their dangerous flirtation with happiness. That word is “Grenada.”

Sanibel Island

I prefer to be surprised when I travel, and so rarely consult guidebooks. It seems to me that following other people’s opinions about where to stay, what to see and where to eat takes all the fun out of travel. I prefer some measure of serendipity: Wandering around, getting lost and being surprised.

Well, the first surprise is how close Sanibel Island is to the Continental United States, linked only by a causeway and bridge totalling some five kilometres. The first hint of the laid back lifestyle awaiting us on Sanibel was the unofficial-looking uniforms of the customs inspectors who greeted us at the bridge. Even when I offered our passports, the officer demurred with a friendly, “No thanks, sir.” I have heard of this. In some countries, a great deal of discretion is allowed to even minor officials. After long service at potential “trouble spots,” they develop an eye for the honest face and benign intentions. After only a moment’s confusion, a modest six-dollar (U.S.) fee gave us immediate entry, and we were soon aboard Sanibel.

I will report back in greater detail later, with pictures. But based on our first impressions, I highly recommend Sanibel Island as a vacation spot. Local merchants accept U.S. dollars and just about everyone you meet speaks nearly flawless, unaccented English.

I asked one young fellow, who was serving us our first Island dinner, how to say “grouper sandwich” in the local patois. He took a long time to respond, eventually asking if I’d like another Sam Adams. They are a shy people.

When I do eventually “crack” the local lingo, and gain their trust, I have much to ask about this unassuming island paradise. No doubt, things were not as idyllic as they now seem. The story of Sanibel’s independence from its colonial masters, for example: Many of these troubled island nations experienced a wrenching period of transition as they struggled to diversify their economies and redefine themselves in the modern world.

More to come…

Travelling back

After a long flight and a six-hour ride in a hired car through mountains lit only by stars, I awoke in an unfamiliar room flooded with light. I was lying on a divan, surrounded by heavy furniture. Directly above my head, an open window framed an enormous white rose.

Moments later, barefoot, I was picking my way over moist, dew-soaked ground beside the house. Snails the size of my fist clung to the whitewashed wall, waving their eyes at the sky. I turned the corner and, beside the house, found what I was looking for — masses of heavy white blooms sculpted by morning light and glistening with dew. The tallest of these had been leaning into the window, intoxicating my dreams with its perfume.

I had just arrived from Canada. I was seven years old. This was my first taste of travel.

Travel shaped the Greek mind long ago, as it shaped the landscape, which we ruthlessly stripped of trees to build ships bristling with soldiers, or filled with amphorae bursting with oil, honey and wine, or laden with linens and aromatic oils, trading in precious gold, silver and slaves.

Travel also shaped our imagination, and its limits. Growing up, if an uncle or father didn’t serve on merchant ships, then you knew someone whose father or uncle did serve, and who had gotten drunk in Buenos Aires and Cape Town, Sydney and Hong Kong, and, made stupid with drink, dreamt of returning to Greece to settle down, but instead wound up living in Park Ex.

In some sense, the general dislocation and disorientation stay with you. You absorb it through both your parents, who were born and raised in a different land, speaking a different tongue and thinking different thoughts. No matter where you live, you will always be a stranger in a strange land.

When I left Canada, our second-floor apartment stood at the corner of Roy and Hôtel-de-Ville Streets. By the time I returned, my family had moved to Park Extension, and I entered for the first time a glass-fronted apartment building at 7460 Champagneur Street. We would move two more times in Park Ex.

But on the first morning back in Canada, after thirteen months away — an enormous span at that young age — I became gradually reacquainted with a more spacious and modern world of smooth and reflective surfaces. The bedroom furniture was pale beige, lightly freckled, sharp-edged and modern. The headboard contained a stainless steel clock and, astonishingly, a box of Kleenex. I had forgotten about Kleenex and its near-miraculous mechanism of convenience: pluck one tissue and another pops up to take its place. Again and again, one white flower after another.

Travelling forward

I will be leaving for Sanibel Island early tomorrow, for a two-week respite from the ice and snow. I will bring Brownie and plenty of film, and hope to do some running and to post more often during this time away.

On pain and running

When I run, it hurts. It hurts during long runs and it hurts even more during pickups. It hurts during interval training and tempo runs. Recovery runs at a slow shuffle: these, too, hurt. So do races. Races hurt a lot. Sometimes I run in the wind and pelting rain, which hurts in a different way. Other times, in the summer heat, the hurt is served up with a side of thirst and delirium. Night running has its own barking terrors and varieties of hurt. Winters bring gradations of hurt impossible to describe, so I will save the details for later.

No one warned you about the pain: it is wallpaper.

I registered for a long road race some years ago, in another city, in which the fee included a Nike training program. The program explained that every type of run toughens the body, but some runs are also useful for toughening the mind. You gain “comfort with discomfort.”

Anyone who has visited the dentist recognizes the weasel words.

“You may experience some discomfort during this procedure,” the dentist says. “If you do, raise your right index finger.”

The dentist places a masonry chisel against a tooth and begins hammering. Your right arm shoots up. The dentist steps back, with barely concealed annoyance. A distorted figure appears in his blood-spattered visor: you. Convex, skinny, snivelling, you. A human worm recoiling in discomfort.

The difference with running is, you can stop the nightmare any time. No one forces you to run.

Meanwhile, I’ll be running with The Club tonight at an indoor track that smells of rubber and dust. Sure beats running on ice and snow. I guess.

Round and around we’ll go…


Some years ago, I was paying for something at a Greek grocery store on Jean Talon Street, back when there were Greek grocery stores on Jean Talon. It was a weekday morning, in winter, and the place was nearly empty. As I collected my change from the middle-aged woman behind the counter, a man walked in and stood swaying by the front window, staring at his shoes. He smelled of beer. By the looks of him, he hadn’t shaved, washed or slept for days. A cigarette smouldered at the corner of his mouth. He wore an old greasy coat.

The woman asked him, in Greek, “How’s it going, Maki?”

I recall a pair of bloodshot eyes and a voice, croaking: “Psofáo gia parexígisi.”

(Ψοφάω για παρεξήγήση)

That three-word sentence lingers decades after I first heard it because it is so perfect and so perfectly untranslatable. But let me try, even though I am not a translator.

Greeks draw a sharp line between humans, with their gifts of philosophy, architecture, rhetoric and war, and the world of brute beasts. (This might explain the casual cruelty to animals you can still witness in Greece, especially in the villages.) People and beasts live and die in entirely separate realms. We even have different words for the death of a man (péthane) and an animal (psófise).

Either of these words is handy for expressing an intense desire, as in, “I’m dying for a cigarette.” But psofáo carries an added whiff of the barnyard: it’s closer to a raw, animal need. And so I’m not just dying for that cigarette, I’m actually perishing for it. (But perishing is too precious for my North American ear.)

Equivalent to the preposition, “for.”

The plainest translation is “misunderstanding.” So, by stringing together the three words, we now have:

“I’m dying for a misunderstanding.” This is literally what Maki said to the woman behind the counter.

But parexigisi has an extra burden. Among Greeks, even a minor misunderstanding at a café, in a cab or at a bus stop can suddenly escalate: Sharp words, striking sparks on flinty Greek pride and self-regard, can flare up. Indignant words turn into shouts, shouts into gestures, gestures into threats of violence. As the blood reaches boiling point, the participants begin hurling honorifics and endearments — “My dear sir” and “Esteemed madam” — the surest sign of trouble. Any parexigisi, or misunderstanding, therefore, has the potential for unhinged chaos. As I said, one of our gifts is war.

And so, “I’m dying for a misunderstanding” might better translate as, “I’m itching for a fight” or “I’m cruising for a bruising.” But neither is adequate, and neither expresses Maki’s appetite for trouble: the black cloud that no quantity of coffee and cigarettes, on that particular morning in that store on Jean Talon Street, will lift. Sometimes, only a cleansing parexigisi will do.

How to kill a joke
You’d be surprised to learn, at this point in this painfully long post, that Maki’s three-word sentence is actually very funny. I have managed to explain away every particle of humour.

I murdered this joke, and my memory of it, to underscore the struggle of writing the Park Ex stories. In my head, they unspool almost entirely in Greek. But my Greek is failing through lack of exercise; English is always inadequate to the Greek; and, as I said, I am not a translator. One curtain after another draws across the stage.

These thoughts came to me during the first few kilometres of last Saturday’s long run, which I ran alone and in the cold. Then, as I began my pickups in the second half of the run, the mind went blank.