San Gimignano

Twin towers
Two of the remaining fourteen towers of San Gimignano. There were originally seventy-two. On a clear day, we can see San Gimignano from our agriturismo. On the horizon, it looks like Manhattan transplanted to the Tuscan hills. Slender towers rising into the sky, proclaiming the power and influence of the individual families that erected each sky-pointing finger.

We pulled into the small parking area at the Porta San Giovanni before ten in the morning. I made a quick beeline up the main street, wasting no time viewing the celebrated frescoes at the Collegiata or climbing the town’s medieval towers, in my haste to reach the opposite Porta San Mateo, where I finally arrived at my destination: San Gimignano’s barbershop. Continue reading “San Gimignano”


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I know we’re supposed to be in Volterra, but I couldn’t help looking back at Montegemoli and the lovely Gilda, who was so choked up at our departure that she couldn’t face the camera.

Since our arrival in Tuscany, we’ve been hoping to find Etruscan shards underfoot, but the place has been picked clean. No shards to speak of, especially of the highly valued Etruscan variety. But we’re here for another couple of weeks and will continue to look. Continue reading “Volterra”


After twenty-one hours of travel — enough time to jet to Australia — concluding with a harrowing drive on switchbacks with thundering trucks, only dimly registered under the blinding glare of the setting sun, we arrived at Montegemoli.

Like our recent travels in Anacortes, Washington and Hayley, Idaho, Montegemoli is the smallest dot on the map.

Our lovely hostess and her happily leaping dog, Gilda, greeted us and immediately hustled us off to a nearby restaurant — the only restaurant in town — just a five-minute walk away. We hadn’t planned on eating, but were too polite to say so. We were so exhausted that we were looking forward to a quick Spartan meal of a crust of bread and a square of chocolate, before toppling into bed and into the embrace of oblivion.

But we gamely trudged off to Osteria dell’ultimo carbonaio. The place was unassuming, with just a few customers sitting at rough wooden tables and chairs, surrounded by screaming children with plastic swords. We scanned the offerings on the vinyl-covered menu: vegetarians would starve to death. Boer, venison and duck featured prominently in just about every dish.

At a loss, we asked the waiter to recommend a few dishes. Something light, as we were tired and not particularly hungry. The “light” antipasto turned out to be a platter of carpaccio. Our hearts sank. But the carpaccio melted on the tongue. Next, two bowls of homemade pasta: One of sausages and porcini, the other with black truffles and cream. We’ve ordered truffled-up dishes in restaurants back home, and always dismissed them as hype, as it’s almost impossible to taste anything, given the microscopic shavings that, rumour has it, may have been sourced from truffles.

Here, the truffles, likely sliced on a mandolin, were generous, earthy and sharp. A mineral quality so different from anything else we’d tasted, they could have been mined on the moon.

So good it was enough to make you weep.

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Striped lady at a café.

After a long night’s sleep, Gilda joined us for breakfast on the patio, overlooking the Tuscan hills. The hills are different from those in Idaho: gentler, less abrupt, more cultivated. Geometric fields give the landscape the appearance of a lumpy bed covered with a patchwork quilt. Our hostess brought us figs from her garden, and we drank cup after cup of coffee as the shadows shortened under the rising sun.

The view from breakfast. Note the rooster at lower left, whose tail is a whirligig. Much better than a real rooster, who would wake us up.

(Many years ago, on a deserted beach in Greece, an old man arrives every other morning, bringing us large figs in his straw hat: purple figs, so dark at to be nearly black, bursting with jammy meat. A glass of cold water, three figs on a yellow plate, distant applause from the morning sea.)

The rest of our first day in Tuscany, we spent at Colle di val d’Elsa: a walled city that is nearly invisible in the guidebooks we consulted. Cobbled streets and stone walls and small, tidy museums and palazzi with hanging laundry at their windows. The relative lack of tourists, such ourselves, was a pleasure. But we did see a number of Europeans on some kind of pilgrimage, each of them weighed down with bright nylon backpacks and their private sorrows.

The approach to Colle di val d’Elsa, after parking our six-speed, diesel-powered Fiat Tipo — a joy to drive on the twisty roads.

We read a lot about this walled city. Medieval seat of blah-blah, gateway to the duchy of this-and-that, cathedral to Saint-what’s-his-name, celebrated centre of industry. We stepped into a few shops and the tourist office. Famous for its armaments, and its finocchio. Or was it Pinocchio? I forget which; maybe it’s both.

Facts roll out, make a few orbits around the drain, and disappear. Many people collect them — facts, I mean. But I don’t retain a single one, which makes me a terrible travel companion and dinner guest.

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One of the many alleyways in the walled city.
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Part of the clocktower, attached to the cathedral, which is a magnet for pilgrims.
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Evidence of life in the deserted city. It’s easy to forget that only mad dogs and tourists stir between one and four o’clock in the afternoon.

Sun Valley, Idaho

Many years ago, at a period when I was cultivating my first moustache, I was persuaded to read a book that has stayed with me ever since. That is to say, the feeling of reading the book lingered long after I was done with it, but not a word did my memory retain, until I picked it up again last week.

Here is a passage:

Now for the Art of catching fish, that is to say, how to make a man that was none to be an Angler by a book; he that undertakes it, shall undertake a harder task than Mr. Hales, a most valiant and excellent fencer, who, in a printed book called A Private School of Defence, undertook to teach that art or science, and was laughed at for his labour. Not but many useful things might be learnt by that book, but he was laughed at because that art was not to be taught by words, but by practice; and so must Angling.

Some of you may recognize the style. The Compleat Angler is by Izaak Walton and it was published in 1653. Everyone should read it, and not just anglers, because the book is so much fun.

It came to mind because we were staying in Hailey, Idaho, which is close to world famous trout streams. Hailey is a ten-minute drive from the town of Ketchum, itself only a longish walk to Sun Valley resort. So close are all these burghs, that they’re generally lumped together as Sun Valley. So, yes, we were in Sun Valley.

But to the fishing. I did not get to fish, but we spent a magical late afternoon at Silver Creek, a place of shallow swift streams, hungry trout and darting mayflies. Ernest Hemingway came here often, as do wealthy anglers from all over the world, for the pleasures of catching and releasing the famous trout.

The magnificent Silver Creek calls for another passage from Walton: “And after this manner you may catch a Trout in a hot evening: when, as you walk by a brook, and shall see or hear him leap at flies, then, if you get a grasshopper, put it on your hook, with your line about two yards long; standing behind a bush or tree where his hole is: and make your bait stir up and down on the top of the water. You may, if you stand close, be sure of a bite…after this manner you may fish for him with almost any kind of live fly, but especially with a grasshopper.”

On another day, we visited the town of Ketchum, whose ersatz village charm rivals the fakery of Mont-Tremblant. Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll break the window of a Gucci store. I’m sure that when Hemingway lived here, it was much less groomed. It probably retained more than a whiff of its mining origins, when mules hauled heavy ore wagons from the mines, to be offloaded onto train cars for refining in Salt Lake City, some three hundred miles away.

It was here, at his home in Ketchum, that Ernest Hemingway blew his brains out with a shotgun. A genetic disease ran in his family and made many of them crazy. Heavy drinking didn’t help, nor did the writer’s nagging paranoia. Hemingway’s father killed himself, as did his brother and sister. Also, more recently, did Margaux Hemingway. Seven suicides in all.

The former assay office on Bullion Street, in Hailey, where miners brought their lumps of rock for analysis. It now houses a thrift shop for a nearby church. Incidentally, the “brick” is actually pressed tin.
The first thing you notice at the Boise airport is a display of novelty items, roughly based on Star Wars, emblazoned with the words “Darth Tater.” Keychains, t-shirts, fridge magnets and more. Someone is deeply committed to the joke. Lots of farms, though, in Idaho, and we were sure to try their excellent potatoes. 

Achilles and the Count

While in Hailey, I took several runs along Wood River Trail, just seven hundred metres from the place we were renting. Built on an old rail line, the paved trail is twenty miles long and runs from the town of Bellevue to just past Ketchum. The railroad engineer must have determined the route by placing a ruler on a map of Sun Valley and running his pencil along the steel edge. It’s that straight.

Looking straight down Wood River Trail. Twenty miles, no shade, luscious new asphalt.

As you run, the effects of high altitude, the arid desert climate and blistering mid-day heat accumulate. You note the many grasshoppers on the path. You’ve been warned about rattlers. But also about dehydration: the things it can do…

And so you begin talking to the Achilles tendon on your right heel, which you’ve been mollycoddling long enough — for months, in fact! You’ve caused me no end of frustration, you calmly explain, trying to not betray the bitterness in your heart. It’s always three steps forward, two steps back with you, isn’t it? I took you to run in Rockport, Massachusetts and then to Anacortes, Washington — clear across the continent. Now we’re in sun splashed, world-famous Sun Valley and still you persist in…

You see a small park, a father and two small children, a water fountain. You stop, take a drink and throw some water on your face. Nearby is a large plaque that tells the origin story of Sun Valley.

Early in the twentieth century, the grotesquely rich chairman of Union Pacific Railroad, Averell Harriman, was disturbed that so many American millionaires were spending their money in the Alps — money that could be his! And so he deputized Count Felix Schaffgotsch, an Austrian-Bohemian nobleman who knew a thing or two about skiing, to find the ideal spot for America’s first destination ski resort. The count had his instructions: The resort had to be well away from any large city, to ensure that the developer, who conveniently and not incidentally also owned railways — the only dependable way of getting into high country in winter — would be doubly rewarded.

The count visited dozens of places across the United States. None of them seemed exactly right, and so he gave up. But then, just as he was packing for home, a telegram summoned him to Idaho.

Fine, one last look.

The count toured up and down the area until he arrived where the resort now stands. He pronounced Sun Valley perfect. Soon after opening in December, 1936, Sun Valley became famous for its tycoons and Hollywood stars — Marilyn, Humphrey, Lucille, they all came.

You won’t find any ski hills named after the count. Inside the resort, you’ll search in vain for the oak-panelled Schaffgotsch Alcove, or even a Schaffgotsch baba au rhum on the dessert menu. Not a trace of the count survives by way of commemoration. Nor does the plaque mention why.

But later on, you discover the reason. The count — urbane, dashing, a champion talker — was also a fervent Nazi. He served in the Waffen SS with great distinction, and was killed in action in Belarus, in 1942.

As I pick up my pace, my heart lifts, emptied of bitterness. Fresh blacktop as far as the eye can see. The path littered with grey-green grasshoppers. Many of them lie dead, crushed by bikes. The live ones pivot as they sense my approach, prepare their jump.

A last look at Silver Creek. 

Coffee culture in Anacortes

Coffee kiosk1

On the west coast, the coffee culture is rich, full bodied and intense. They know their coffee, and they like it. Which calls into question why Starbucks remains in business in these here parts. Maybe they’re rooting for the home team that conquered the world.

On our first trip to Washington State, years ago, we toured the Olympic Peninsula, which remains one of the great experiences of my life. Gargantuan cedars and dripping rainforests and vast thundering beaches strewn with boulders and the bleached bones of dinosaurs.

At the tail end of that trip (or was it near the beginning?), in the middle of nowhere, we found ourselves driving through a Native reservation and were struck by the sight of a dilapidated roadside trailer parked on a patch of gravel. Espresso, declared a hand-painted sign. How could we resist?

In the shadowed interior, dreamcatchers hung from the plywood ceiling, posters of Native warriors were scotch taped to the corrugated tin walls. A Native girl, no more than fifteen, reluctantly rose from her stool. She was surly in the way of all fourteen-year-olds who know their time could be better spent at the mall with her pals.

Behind her stood a gleaming, brand new Italian monster at full pressure. We ordered a double espresso, a cappuccino and biscotti, all of them excellent.

Coffee kiosk2
On our first trip to Anacortes, right outside this coffee kiosk, on a Sunday morning, the middle-aged and elderly exercised their right to free speech by pacing back and forth on opposite sides of the street and holding up signs. SUPPORT OUR TROOPS was the argument on one side, MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR on the other side.
This was in 2014, when the idea of a Trump presidency would have elicited laughter on both sides of the street. In Anacortes, the exercise in free speech continues every Sunday morning.
Plywood lookout
Anacortes Veneer, which donated this slice of Douglas Fir, went under generations ago, but the roadside lookout remains. I went behind some bushes for a much-needed pee, and to get a look at the view. I was promised Fidalgo Bay in the foreground, where millions of logs were once assembled for the devouring sawmills, and Mount Baker, in its snowy cap and shawl, in the distance. But there was nothing. Just an impenetrable screen of blackberry bushes and evergreens. Revenge of the trees.

Greek coffee in Park Ex

Coffee culture is equally strong among Greeks, where it’s an essential mid-afternoon social lubricant, usually accompanied with several packs of cigarettes.

I often watched my mother read people’s fortunes in their coffee cups. Among Greeks, this is quite common. You simply turn your empty demitasse upside down on its saucer for a few minutes, to allow the coffee grounds to slide down the sides. The soothsayer (i.e. my mother) picks up the cup, turns it slowly in her hand, and closes one eye in a manner freighted with meaning.

I watched her do it plenty of times, and I could never tell if she was conning the neighbours or herself. According to her, the coffee patterns revealed everything: financial windfalls, a death in the Old Country, a meddlesome in-law, a hat trick by Jean Beliveau. Once, in the delicate language employed by adults in the presence of children, she suggested that a baby had been taken before its time. The young woman whose fortune was being told burst into tears.

My mother showed me how. It’s easy, like lying on your back, having a smoke and staring at the clouds. There goes Goofy, followed by Dolly Parton, and, bringing up the rear, a roast turkey.

Every hour or so, a freight train blasted out of a hole in the mountain and, after about a mile, enter an identical hole in the next mountain. Right in the middle, beside the railroad tracks, is Taylor’s. Mud flats as far as the eye can see and acres of oyster beds. People come from miles around for trays of oysters and buckets of beer. As they eat, their kids wander into the mud flats and sink up to their knees. Their dads, cursing with every step, come to the rescue, tugging skinny limbs from the sucking mud.
The best spots at Taylor’s, equipped with barbecues and picnic tables, are commandeered by Asians with piles of children. They toast slices of bread and grill the oysters, picking up the meat with chopsticks and slurping from the shells.
Mini lighthouse
A short drive away lies a dot on the map called Edison. If you’re in the area in February, you can enjoy the Edison Chicken Parade. “People and poultry flock to Edison to participate in this annual parade,” declares the local guidebook. Alas, the date for this year’s Chicken Parade has “yet to be determined.”
Western marine
Efthemios Demopoulos emigrated to the United States in 1907 and soon founded Anacortes Junk Company, later rechristened Marine Supply and Hardware Company, the oldest continuously operating hardware store west of the Mississippi. He did such a roaring trade with commercial boats, that in 1956 he donated ten city blocks to Anacortes. On our first visit, I saw an attenuated descendant sitting behind a desk and surveying his vast emporium of useful and useless ware. The place had definitely come down. It also pandered to tourists such as myself. On this last visit, I asked about the founding family. The descendant sold up three years ago, I was told. But inside, in the older part of the store, glows a small glass shrine to Efthemios.
At dusk and especially on Sunday evenings, Anacortes is Nowheresville, U.S.A. We like places just like this — endlessly fascinating in their particularity and eccentricity. It’s our third trip to Anacortes. We’ll be back.

Anacortes, Washington

Bull boat angle
This brute of a boat appeared as we rounded the corner . It was like being punched in the nose.

More than 3,500 kilometres from Montreal, at a reception in a condominium overlooking the San Juan Islands in Washington State, where we sat during the late afternoon and watched barges loaded with granite heading south, possibly to Seattle, and ferries bound for the islands and Victoria slip from the dock below, a woman handed me a book she’d been saving for just this moment — Cuisines Collectives MultiEthniques: La Richesse de Parc-Extension.

It’s like a homecoming far from home. And, except for mis-spelling Park Ex, the book is perfect. So is the woman, the lovely Theresa, who grew up in Park Ex at the same time as I did, but who attended Catholic schools and therefore moved in different social circles from mine.

The book is exhaustive, more than 200 recipes, but only one for salmon (Saumon à l’oriental, with the inevitable ginger and unexpected cayenne). Just as well, for the wild salmon are being depleted. Anacortes, where we’re staying for a few days, once canned more salmon than any other place on earth. In season, the rivers positively boiled with the fish.

On our second night in Anacortes, which lies about halfway between Vancouver and Seattle, we bought some wild sockeye, what’s left of it in the wild, and feasted.

Puget salmon
Without a trace of irony, the old part of Anacortes celebrates an era when salmon was wealth. Trash bins dotting the neighbourhood replicate now long-forgotten brands of salmon.

Red breast

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The day before we arrived in Anacortes, we endured a terribly long drive from the Seattle airport to Anacortes. No one had warned us of the risks of driving by Everett, which lies about halfway along the route. It was a Friday afternoon, around the time when the massive Boeing plant in Everett releases a torrent of people and cars in every direction. Traffic is bumper-to-bumper on roadways for miles around, and this near-gridlock added more than an hour to our drive.

I’ve never seen the plant, but our hosts informed us that, at 13.3 million cubic metres, it’s the largest building, by volume, in the world. It covers nearly a hundred acres and employs 1.8 million people. It’s so big that it has a pack of bloodhounds for locating missing visitors, and is built over a titanium mine and aluminum smelter, for the convenience of making aerospace components in-house.

And yet, for such a massive operation, the Everett Boeing plant has just one bathroom, which means the lineups must be positively horrendous. To my mind, this is bad planning, and perhaps explains why their airplanes keep falling from the sky.

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I loaded up my Brownie and packed lots of extra film for our trip to Anacortes. As soon as we returned to Montreal, I rushed to the pharmacy and asked for “doubles.” 

Someone from Anacortes has to tell you about Lovric’s, otherwise you’ll drive right past the place on your way to the ferry terminal. Guidebooks don’t mention Lovric’s Seacraft, but it may well be the best reason to visit Anacortes. This was our third visit to Anacortes, and we made the pilgrimage to Lovric’s on the first day.

The place was founded in 1965 by Anton Lovric, a Croatian naval architect and marine engineer. He died some time ago, and the business is now run by his widow and two sons.

Lovric spool
Lovric’s is a theme park of broken-down machinery, flaking paint, ancient cogs and gears underfoot, and massive winches bolted into the cliff and meant for hauling ships from the sea.

Lovric silosLovric trucks

Lovric rusted tanker

But here’s what makes Lovric’s interesting. Two years later after Anton Lovric founded it, needing a northern breakwater, he beached an old four-masted schooner, La Merced, alongside the business and filled its hold with sand. Before its retirement, La Merced had spent decades sailing up and down the coast and across the Pacific. At its last commercial gig, when La Merced was slow and arthritic, La Merced served as a floating fish cannery in Alaska.

In the fifty years since, mature trees have burst through the schooner’s decks. Bushes and vines sprout from holes in the wooden hull. And alongside its vast haunches, like an invisible gas, an air of decay and menace.

Lovric ship from top
The breakwater at Lovric’s, formerly a four-masted schooner, protects the pleasure craft moored beside it. 
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The schooner’s busted prow.

Long before he emigrated to Anacortes, during the Second World War, the Nazis sent Lovric for hard labour at Dachau. I wonder, did the prisoners share memories of pre-war meals and cigarettes under starlit skies, the breath of their beloved warm in their ears?

And did they leave with a hunger to get on with life, but also with a knowledge of a darkness, at the northern edge of things, a knowledge that never goes away?

Rockport, Massachusetts

We woke to sunlight reflected from the seawater beneath our window and dancing on the ceiling above our bed. Yellow and blue lobster traps were stacked above the sea wall opposite, like a seaside condo development.

The sight that greeted us on our first morning in Rockport.
Rockport can also look like this.

That was six years ago, and we’ve been coming back to Rockport, Massachusetts ever since. The traps are still stacked in the same spot, and many of their former tenants end their days at Roy Moore’s, just around the corner. Roy Moore’s is famous. In sunny weather, people line up all day for lobster rolls, stuffed clams, oysters and whatever else the harbour boats brought in that morning. Patrons sit out back, at three picnic tables, as Roy Moore’s athletic crew shout and laugh, heaving plastic tubs of crushed ice onto the tables of fish and plucking lobster from the boiling water.

Roy Moore
While buying fish for dinner, I asked why cod wasn’t on offer, as in previous years. The young guy serving me was uncharacteristically curt: “They say we shouldn’t fish ’em anymore. They say not enough cod.” They clearly meant government and ocean scientists. The know-it-alls who make life so hard.
The front of Roy Moore’s is dominated by several gurgling tanks, where the doomed lobster slowly pace and pace, shouldering each other aside in the murky green.

You like hot sauce?

Asians love Roy Moore’s, and I’ve been speculating loudly, as I do when I don’t know if a thing is true, that Japanese travel guides to American points of interest must devote entire chapters to the thumb-size shack. After all, they stand so patiently in the street on the little spit of land called Bearskin Neck, waiting their turn for the legendary lobster roll in its fluffy, tasteless bun.

But Ken, the current owner of the business, sets me straight when I ask about the Asians. He gets some Japanese and Chinese tourists, but most of his Asian customers are Thai-Americans who live in the Boston area, less than an hour away.

I am crushed, and not a little embarrassed, because I’ve been to Thailand and thought I could tell the difference.

“You like hot sauce?” he asks.

“Who doesn’t,” I say.

“My Thai customers bring their own hot sauce and leave it here so it’s always in stock.”

He takes a small tub from the fridge and dunks a cooked shrimp into the sauce. I take the shrimp whole and my eyes brim with tears.

Seeing machine
There’s a lot to see in Rockport, for just twenty-five cents.
Rockport and Cape Ann generally can be aggressively picturesque.

Small boat

A punch in the nose in Gloucester

In previous years my Saturday long run would take me to Gloucester, on the other side of Cape Ann, but now that I’m waiting for my Achilles tendon to heal, I’m reduced to riding my clown-issue orange folding bike.

People who’ve never seen a folding bike point when I ride by. Sometimes I get a thumbs-up, and most cyclists grin and wave. One woman slowed down beside me, rolled down her window and demanded that I “get off the fucking road!”

Rockport is clean and orderly, and a ghost town by sunset. But Gloucester is none of these things.

Rockport can be deadsville in the evening, which suits us fine.

Down on the waterside and in the boatyards, Gloucester is rusty chains and busted concrete and ancient leaning buildings covered with peeling paint. Rogers Street, a block or so inland, is cluttered with waterfront bars and liquor stores. Men loiter outside. Tattooed, unshaven, of indeterminate age. Wearing old shoes with no laces and pee-stained pants. You see a dozen places where any number of patrons would be glad to punch you in the nose. A folding bike would be provocation enough.

Gloucester port
Dredging was in progress when I arrived in Gloucester. Might be more waterfront redevelopment for the tourists, which is nicely done and for some reason attracts a lot of Brits.
Cape Pond Ice
Just across the water, another Gloucester icon. Every fishing boat heading out to sea stops at Cape Pond Ice to load up. You can buy your ice in blocks, crushed, cubed or bagged, wholesale or retail. You can also order ice sculptures and dry ice for your arena rock show. Cape Pond Ice markets itself as the “coolest shop” with the “coolest gifts.”

Up the hill, commanding views of the harbour, you find lovingly maintained old houses where the ship and factory owners lived, and where captains’ wives, generations ago, produced needlepoint samplers with homespun sayings, as they waited with a cup of tea in the gathering gloom.

When the whaling ships docked here, the sea was churning with fish. Gloucester ships fed the world, put oil into lamps and stays into corsets, while the lowest-grade fish fed the slaves. There’s still fish, but not as much of it, and the Gorton’s plant (Trusted since 1849) continues to dominate the waterfront.

San Pietro
Italians and Portuguese arrived in Gloucester in the nineteenth century, and their descendants still work on the boats. While I was in town, preparations were underway for the annual San Pietro festivities (St. Peter is the patron saint of fishermen), which features parades, carnival rides, boat races and solemn processions with holy icons and statues. The priest blesses the fishing fleet, says Mass, and leads nine evenings of prayer. The festivities culminate in a greasy pole contest.

Up from Rogers, there’s a main street, called Main Street, with shops and restaurants and places to buy second-hand books and costume jewellery. You can get an excellent espresso at a Sicilian café, called The Sicilian Café, but their cookies and pastries don’t measure up to their coffee.

Plaques declare Gloucester to be the oldest port in the United States. Samuel de Champlain came to Cape Ann twice. The second time, in 1606, several hundred Indigenous people met his arrival and offered a hand of friendship. Within ten years, three-quarters of the Indigenous people of Massachusetts were dead from diseases brought by the Europeans. During his second visit, Champlain also drew a map of the harbour, and called it le beau port.

The name didn’t stick.




The Pelican

graphic pelican
The pelican is on the left. Note the doomed fish in his beak.

We were speaking of pelicans. Shari said they look like cartoon birds, and I had to agree. The brown pelican makes for an ungainly package. Laughable, actually. Especially when it’s earthbound. We watch them settle on the dock, just below our window. Pensive and impenetrable, sequin eyes staring, webbed feet neatly folded over the handrail’s edge.

The brown pelican is a charcoal sketch, maybe just a first draft. Someone’s idea of a concept bird, unlikely to ever fly. But wait…

Unfolding, it becomes a swift galleon sailing inches above the water. Elegant and still, propelled by an unfelt wind. Then, suddenly soaring at a height of twenty or thirty feet for a better view of lunch. The next instant, it folds up and plunges with the grace of a busted umbrella. A bucket of garbage dumped from a window. A jumble of feathery armatures in free fall. Then, a splash. Then, rising from the water, with a doomed struggling fish in its pouchy beak.

One day, we rode our bikes to the J.N. “Ding” Darling nature reserve and observed dozens of large and magnificent birds: snow-white egrets and ibises, great blue and little blue herons, roseate spoonbills, menacing ospreys, and mysterious anhingas. Even loons, on vacation from Canada’s frozen lakes.

Also, white pelicans. Creatures altogether different from the brown pelicans on our dock: large, aristocratic and aloof in their white tails. Not like our pelicans, in their grey overalls and with their lunch-bucket beaks.

photo pelican
Pelican at rest. I named this one Cedric, after a character in a one-act play I wrote shortly after Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

Greetings from Sanibel

Soon after we arrived on Sanibel Island, a golden retriever came bounding up to greet us, and we became instant friends. Lilly’s owner turned out to be an elderly gentleman, who often stood on the lawn overlooking the bay and tossed tennis balls for the tireless Lilly. Whenever our paths crossed, we greeted our new acquaintance, exchanged a friendly word, spent a moment tousling Lilly’s silky coat.

One day, returning from a run, I saw our new friend puttering in the back of his van. We waved and smiled at each other, as usual, and then he went into his condo, leaving the van open. Inside, I saw a sign: TRUMP – PENCE 2016.

I recoiled. And instantly hated myself for it.

Throughout our time on Sanibel Island, I continued to greet the old gentleman. But, somehow, everything was different. Even Lilly…

The Colonels

Growing up in Park Ex, the political divisions of Greece remained firmly and always in place. My people came from an area adjacent to the region of Mani, which has always been fiercely royalist and conservative — God, King and Country. But we were on the left, and on the losing side, as determined by three men at Yalta. The Greek Civil War, which followed immediately after the Second World War, was in many ways more savage and socially corrosive than the German Occupation. It forever divided families and friends. Men spent years in political prisons. With young families at home, and little money, most of them swallowed their pride and signed a shameful declaration renouncing their past and pledging loyalty to the regime. It was the only way back. No one blamed them.

In Park Ex, each side pretty much stuck to its own. If a right-winger strayed into our social circle, politics were carefully avoided. A wrong word, on the wrong night, could get you a bloody nose.

Sometimes, though, through business or marriage, an alliance might be struck. A tenuous, rickety bridge thrown across the divide. Over time, a kind of respect might take root: a measure of tolerance for the other.

“He voted for So-and-so,” an uncle might say of a new acquaintance. “And his cousin fought alongside So-and-so. But, take my word, he’s alright. Once you get to know him. A real palikári.”

“A fascist, you mean.”

“You’re right,” the uncle might sigh. “But my son married his daughter.”

These divisions are now mostly healed, at least in Canada. The legacy of the Civil War (1946-1949), the Colonels and their brutal junta (1967-1974), the suppression of the student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic (1973), and, of course, the ever-resourceful CIA, which served in an “advisory role” to the Colonels (U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew opined that the junta was “the best thing to happen to Greece since Pericles ruled in Ancient Athens.”) — all this is in the history books, and unlikely to get you a bloody nose.

In those days, we also listened to Mikis Theodorakis. As a young man during the war, Theodorakis led resistance fighters, and was later imprisoned for his service. He studied composition in Paris, wrote chamber music and symphonies, and won international prizes. He was a prodigiously talented and prolific composer, but on his return to Greece he abandoned all that for popular music — or, music of the people.

I saw him with his orchestra once, at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, in Montreal. The hall was positively packed with wild-eyed Greeks. In the middle of the concert, a man just a couple of rows in front of me, unable to contain himself any longer, leapt to his feet and clutched his head to keep it from exploding. Theodorakis’s songs, especially when sung by Maria Farandouri or Grigoris Bithikotsis, can have that effect.

Among the thousand or so songs Theodorakis wrote, the Mauthausen Trilogy contains his finest. The trilogy is based on lyrics by the Greek poet, Iakovos Kambanellis, who was imprisoned at the Mauthausen concentration camp and fell in love with a Lithuanian Jewish girl. It includes the heartbreaking Song of Songs (Asma Asmaton), and was premiered in Vienna in 1965. Sung in Greek, Hebrew and German, it was hailed as the greatest piece of music ever written about the Holocaust.

Late in life, Theodorakis disgraced himself with anti-Semitic comments.

It’s so hard to be good; much easier to be bad.

All too human

I think this is what I like about pelicans. Like us, they are improbable creatures. Ugly and laughable when earthbound. But, occasionally, when you’re paying attention, they are transcendent in the air. So much to deplore but also much to admire.I leave you with two more pelicany items.

  1. The pelican is featured on the Albanian 1 lek coin.
  2. In 1910 the American poet Dixon Lanier Merritt published this:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.