The snow runner

Montreal’s fresh snow and bracing cold have been positively glorious this winter. Every run is a tonic.

The Coach says it’s not about distance or time; it’s about effort. So last week I went to great effort to dress for the occasion: Merino-blend long johns under insulated running tights, a long-sleeve running shirt under a zip-up mock turtleneck, and over all that a medium-weight blue fleece topped by the red Running Club windbreaker. On my hands, dollar-store knit gloves and Thinsulate-lined mittens. And on my head a balaclava capped with a running hat.

Running with a balaclava is a challenge because I’m not entirely sure how to pronounce it. I’m tempted to say baklava, which I know is wrong on several levels. Most people pronounce it with the accent on the third syllable. But I like to hedge my bets, so as I run I chant the word balaclava, once unaccented and then progressively favouring each of its four syllables. As a running mantra it works very well in winter, transporting me to a sleek Barcelona chair in a book-lined room filled with classical music, where I sit before an open fire holding a ham sandwich…

Where were we? Oh, and on my feet I wore my regular running shoes and socks.

The temperature was –24° Centigrade with a wind chill that brought things down to –32°. But once you get going it’s fine for several minutes and then gets too hot. Suddenly you’re a salmon being poached, and despite the internal heat the moisture in your breath, trapped by the balaclava, freezes into icy shards that press against your cheeks and eventually join up with the encroaching ice from your frozen eyebrows to form one continuous layer.

Did I mention the sidewalks? There are no sidewalks. The sidewalks are under four feet of snow, so you run on the road and the drivers, careening helplessly because they have no traction, honk and stare daggers at you. You stare daggers back, but they can’t see you doing it because your glasses are fogged from your breath, causing you to miss the turn that would have taken you home an hour ago and you’re now standing in front of a concrete building you’ve never seen before. Although, helpfully, it is a hospital.

 

 

So long, Sanibel

I went for a long run the other day for the usual reason: to clear the mind. In the cool morning air, before the start of foot and bike traffic, a large sleepy snake had curled up on the asphalt to warm in the sun. Annoyed at my approach, it slithered into the underbrush. I thought the snake to be a good omen.

At the 8.3km mark of my long run, with egrets and ibises flickering through the trees on my right, and ospreys wheeling above, I experienced a spell of the runner’s euphoria others describe but I’ve never felt. By the 9km mark, the euphoria had evaporated, but I remained grateful for having seen the snake.

Wings in

 

Wings out

Two birds I photographed with my Brownie. My son, a tireless joker, calls every bird near or on the water a duck. Neither of these is a duck.

Christmas on Sanibel

This is the first Christmas vacation we’ve spent in the south. It’s disorienting to see people setting up miniature Christmas trees beside their beach towels, and women wearing necklaces of Christmas lights as they sun.

On one of my runs I passed a Santa-and-reindeer diorama. Someone had stuck twelve rickety metal flamingos into the dirt, adorned them with red toques and harnessed them with strings of tinsel to a massive Adirondack chair, painted red. Shuddering in the morning breeze and weighed down with their spangled reins, the poor flamingos had the sturdiness of used twist-ties. Absurdly, I felt sorry for them. The flamingos clearly weren’t up to pulling the fat man and his chair. All I could think about was #MeToo.

As I ran by, an elderly woman taking pictures kept exclaiming, “Lovely…lovely.”

Later that same day, on the beach, a boy of about twelve was wearing a t-shirt illustrated with a fishing rod and the words, “God is the REEL THING.” I was tempted to explain to him that Jesus, not God, is generally regarded as the “Fisher of men” (Matthew 4:19). But he probably would have gone running to his mother, and I’ve now learned how prickly Sanibel Islanders can be.

Further down the beach, Shari was sitting cross-legged and sketching the Sanibel Lighthouse. As my photo shows, the lighthouse lacks the picturesque romance of Maritime and New England lighthouses. Only an engineer could have come up with it: basically, a superstructure of girders supporting an iron cylinder that encloses a spiral staircase. It’s simple and ingenious and, with its reddish glow of rusting metal, actually quite attractive. A few small outbuildings are clustered at the base, with one chimney crowned by an osprey nest.

Lighthouse

As I was photographing the lighthouse, four Latino boys kicking a soccer ball stopped to watch Shari sketch. They were clearly not tourists, nor Sanibel Islanders. My guess is they were enjoying a day off from a restaurant kitchen. They stood for some time, looking approvingly over Shari’s shoulder at the sketch and glancing up at the lighthouse.

At this point a woman with two daughters — from their sound and appearance, Dutch tourists — began setting up on the sand. The comelier daughter casually stripped off her t-shirt and rummaged in a straw bag for her bathing suit top. She was well outside the boys’ field of vision, but activated by some invisible signal, four heads swivelled with impressive unison, rotating a hundred-and-eighty degrees. The heads watched impassively until the bathing suit top was secured, then snapped back into position. The boys recommenced kicking the ball down the beach.

The Miami Dolphins quarterback

One day, we took a drive to nearby Matlacha. If I were to give you five guesses, you would still be unable to come up with the correct pronunciation for this island. The locals say “Matt Lashay.” To my ear it sounds like the name of a celebrity hairdresser on the Shopping Channel or the Miami Dolphins quarterback or a televangelist (“And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men”).

It took about thirty minutes to get to Matlacha, past sprawling housing developments, followed by malls that service the developments, then tracts of empty land, then more sprawling developments and more malls to service them, and so on. We concluded that staying on Sanibel is more agreeable.

I’ll offer up one final image to cap our vacation: On the day of our leaving, crowds of Sanibel Islander came out to wish us a safe journey. Lining the entire causeway and bridge to the mainland, they beat their drums and blew their conch shells in traditional farewell, as they raised giant palm fronds to create an archway for our departure. I confess to shedding a tear or two.

 

 

 

 

 

Helen of Sanibel

When travelling, we often check in on local farmer’s markets, especially when we have a kitchen to play in. And so last Sunday, under mild and sunny weather, we drove to the Sanibel Island market for inspiration. It offered some expected bounty: tables laden with baskets of jalapeno peppers and tomatoes, bakers selling key lime pies, and hobbyists peddling scented soaps, alongside food trucks serving pulled pork sandwiches and tacos. A bit of everything and a lot of fun.

But we also found unexpected fare. Behind one counter, a red-faced guy with white hair neatly pulled into a ponytail, was selling olive oil, Kalamata olives, vinegars, dried herbs and mountain teas from Gythio, in the Southern Peloponnese. His stall was decorated with photos of the terroir, to add notes of authenticity, and he offered tastings of the oil and olives.

He’s not Greek, as it turns out. But he represents a Greek-American woman named Dáfni, who now lives in Maine but whose family comes from the Gythio area. She imports in bulk and repackages in the United States.

I’ve visited the ancient port of Gythio many times over the years, as it’s close to my birthplace. I have one indelible memory of the town: every dockside café and restaurant is strung with clotheslines hung with hundreds of octopi desiccating in the sun and salty breeze. Grilled over charcoal and fragrant with sea and smoke, the plump mouthfuls are rightly considered the only true accompaniment to a cool glass of ouzo. Gythio is packed every evening with locals clapping their hands for waiters and busily depleting the town’s ranks of octopi.

And another thing: In ancient times Gythio was Sparta’s main port. So when Paris abused King Menelaus’s hospitality by absconding with Helen, the king’s wife, the pair sailed to Troy from this picturesque port. Stealing the king’s wife was considered bad form in ancient times. It led to the Trojan War. But, more happily, it also produced the Iliad and the Odyssey.

IMG_0444

 

Fortunately I had loaded my Brownie with fresh film.

First story for 2018

I’d like to announce my third Park Ex story, “Whatever happens happens.” I hope you like it. It joins the two previous stories on this blog, “Mother” and “Brothers.”

I’ve learned that some people who subscribe to becauseisaid.ca can’t always locate the stories. You can read all three stories simply by clicking on their titles above.

Or, if you’re using a phone or tablet, click on the Menu button and you’ll see the stories. If you’re on a computer, go to becauseisaid.ca and click on “Stories,” at the top.

Lots of ways to get there.

I hope you have a very happy and healthy new year.

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.