Italy: Grand Delights PART I

My wife and I encountered the charms of Italy ten years ago during a tour titled “Romantic Europe: Paris to Rome”. So the surprises in Florence, Pisa, Venice, and Rome this year were few. It was the hilltop towns of Siena, Assisi, and San Marino and all of Sicily that delighted us in unexpected ways. Books and films set in Italy do raise expectations sometimes that are likely to disappoint. Eat, Pray, Love, for example, regardless of the obvious differences between story and reality, nonetheless, raises an expectation for travellers of experiencing first-rate food every day, a rekindling of faith, and fresh intimations of romantic love. Romantics beware: delicacies, spirituality, and passion are not guaranteed in Grand Tours of Italy. Every stop on our current Grand Tour of Italy from the top of the boot to the toe enriched our souls through the beauty of the landscapes and seascapes, the architecture, the sculptures and paintings, the food and wine, and the insights into the ancient and modern history of the country. The sketchy notes that follow trace the itinerary of our recent two-week journey.

ROME

Trevi Fountain

Rome springs to life in the September sun. Our hotel is in walking distance of Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and Piazza Navoni. Strolling past high-end shops and people-watching along the way make every step worthwhile. Even getting lost, heading back to our hotel at night because we stopped at the gelateria after dinner, has its rewards. Under the stars, Trevi Fountain takes on new life. The lighting on the sculptures of water gods and horses and rockery at night highlight so much detail lost in the daytime sun. During the day, Trevi Fountain feels crowded; at night the blazing splendor helps you forget the crowds are there.

SIENA—Tuscany

Piazza del Campo

The drive north into Tuscany becomes fascinating with the tour guide’s succinct, helpful mini-history of the hilltop towns. Siena does not disappoint. The surprise is the town square is a circle, a “campo.” Stopping at a café on a hot afternoon is great entertainment: first, we watch young people stretching out on the sloping campo as if suntanning at a beach; second, we engage an employee of the café on her break in conversation about the cost of living in Siena, why shopping in Florence is so good, and recent legal cases headlining local newspapers. As we chat, we look onto the campo at the centre of Siena. The campo has a ring of cement columns, four or five feet tall, around the perimeter. The marble walking path on the outside of the columns just in front of the cafés becomes the sand-covered track for bareback horse racing twice in the summer. Citizens and tourists pay a lot of money to watch the race, standing room only, from the centre of the campo (on the inside of the columns). The two races are taken very seriously by the various parishes in Siena and much civic planning goes into arranging the races and the accommodation for so many visitors. Pope Benedict requested a ticket for one of the races but had to be refused because of the burden of security on Siena’s busiest days of the year. I love it: you’re the Pope and you can’t get a ticket to the races!

FLORENCE—Tuscany

Michelangelo's DAVID

Admittedly Michelangelo’s “David” is the “whole package” in Florence. Impressive as the replica is on top of the hills overlooking the city or the copy in Piazza Della Signorio near the Uffizi Museum, the original at the Accademia is the world’s most famous sculpture because it is a feast for every eye from every angle. Dazzled by the brilliant accomplishment of Michelangelo, we move forward on the streets of Florence only to encounter a new phenomenon as we turn a corner. On posts probably set up for chaining bicycles, we see lovers’ locks (padlocks) attached any whichway by couples who wish to offer a sign of total commitment to one another. Police try to remove the locks overnight.

CHIANTI WINERY—Tuscany

Hostess talks Vino

Visiting a Chianti winery, Fattorio il Poggio, just south of Florence became an unforgettable evening. The charms of our hostess prevail through the informative walk into the vineyard, the stop in the processing room for olive pressing, the casual insights shared on pine nuts and bay leaves and pistachio trees on our way to the tables set up for wine tasting and dinner. Oh, what a party: superb wines, fine olives and olive oil dips, lively discussions on the merits of each wine, music that whips everyone from the tables, winery staff joining the festivities and starting “bunny hops” out of the dining room into the evening darkness under umbrella pine trees and into starlight winding our way back to our tables.

VENICE—Cannaregio district

Bridge over Cannaregio Canal

Bridge over Cannaregio Canal

In Venice, our most northern stop, we are disappointed that our hotel at the centre of the city is overbooked, but delighted with the first-class dining at that hotel after our sail around the city and our ride in the gondola. Hotel Bonvecchiati hosts what turns out to be the major highlight in Italian cuisine on our tour. As if the dinner experience is not enough, we stay in a renovated convent in the Cannaregio neighbourhood that is most pleasant and modern and convenient. The next morning our guide meets us at our hotel, leads us on a walking tour few people take, and offers many insights into the charms and challenges of living in this historic city. We meet locals going to and from work, labourers plying their trades along the canals, locals dropping into small cafês and shops. We seem to be the only tourists in Cannaregio. We enjoy a pleasant rest in the Jewish Ghetto, where we see one of the first banks in Venice and learn how Napoleon enabled the Jewish community to become a vibrant section of the Cannaregio district. The guide comments on and answers questions about all we see along the way of our forty-minute stroll to the Rialto Bridge, Saint Mark’s Square, and the Grand Canal.

SAN MARINO–Republic near the Adriatic Sea

As we start our southern journey through Italy, who would believe the oldest and the third smallest republic in the world after the Vatican and Monte Carlo, is San Marino, seated at the top of one of the mountains along the Appenine range, the “spine” of Italy. This gem, south of Venice and east of Florence near Rimini on the Adriatic Sea, offers easily the most beautiful landscapes—morning, noon, and night.

ASSISI–Umbria

St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi

On our way back to Rome for the start of the second week of the tour, we stop at Assisi, the home of Saint Francis, the patron saint of Italy. The initial view of Assisi, nestled in the middle of a lush, green hillside, is unforgettable. In the rain, a pink texture comes through the stonework of the town; in brilliant sunshine, the consistency of the sand-coloured stone of the houses and public buildings integrates elements of medieval and renaissance and Romanesque architecture seldom seen anywhere. As we leave a place of sacredness to the Italian people of faith, the organic unity of the whole town makes it stand out as a jewel in the Umbrian countryside.

POMPEI–Campania

The surprise of Pompei, lost to the world in the 79 A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, is the effect of the restoration on visitors. As interesting as the tour guide is on the past and present history and restoration of this extraordinary place, I am stunned by the reality that ordinary people once lived in ordinary houses we see, worked at the various business places, and walked the stone streets we are walking on. I still feel the stones of the roadways, I recall impressions of two-story villas, bakeries, gymnasia, colossal temples, and the brothel frescoes. During the visit itself, the real horror of what happened to the parents and children and the animals as a result of the catastrophe shut me down emotionally, suffocating the words of the guide, blocking the warmth and brilliance of the sun. I should have bought the brochure on Pompei: today I just might be able to absorb the details

MORE POEMS WITH PORT

FRIEND TO THE END

Shutters never closed;

sunrise-white curtains

cut the dazzle of first light.

Mid-morning

sun on our backs

down to and up from

the village.

Mid-afternoon

sun sautes,

tans us to gold.

Monochromatic,

sunset skies

help us ignore the chill.

Festival of stars and

phases of the moon

accompany our nightcaps.

Shutters still open

Last sight

amber lights

ascend to mountain villas.

LISBON

Took a bus to Lisbon

early Sunday morning.

Toured the world-class city

And palaces of kings,

Verdant gardens, and boulevards–

Imitations of opulence

on the Champs Elysee

or  Versailles.

Portuguese splendour, however, a very poor cousin.

Rossi Square, the tramway, the Funicular,

The walking streets, the Fado Club,

The nocturnal , downtown taxi ride

Serve the city better.

Made a stop at Sintra.

What a difference here!

Driving up the mountains,

our bus squeezes by

the rambling gypsy market.

Glimpsing gracious dwellings

among flowering trees

on slopes

fascinated.

Stopping at a café

with a blossoming

pink magnolia,

tasting almond pastries,

sipping good white wine—

giddy with joy.

Through the village,

exploring quaint shops,

taking in

the royal summer palace,

savouring sights

of blue Azulejos-tiled walls

in glorious living and dining rooms

(luxurious, but not excessive),

glancing up to see the

Moorish fortress wall

crowning the village,

Looking everywhere—

enchantments.

Driving back to the Algarve,

Sintra is gleaming still,

Estoril beaches are shimmering with spring,

And even Lisbon has its charms.

Through the windows of the bus,

darkening Algarvian countryside–

with its orange groves and corktree farms,

its rice fields and the vineyards—

naturally presenting itself

to heavy eyes

at the end of our day.

A sadness slides through

the windows of the bus:

the people desert the vineyards;

the people are emptying

the countryside

taking the bus to Lisbon

early in the morning.

BRIDGING THE GAP

From our sundeck

we face North Africa.

The head defines the major gap.

Eons ago, teutonic plates shifted,

separated Africa from Europe.

But the Sahara feels so close

when the sun

in the morning

warms us from curling toes

to the hair on our heads.

Our eyes even believe they see

the African coast—

not just a cruise ship

traversing the horizon.

Regardless,

the man in Silves

at the fossil shop

offers much to think about.

His shop full of fossils from Africa,

from the Sahara Desert

where the sands used to rest

2000 feet below water,

where fossils had been cast up

the effluence

of volcanic

eruptions.

The fossil man from Silves

has made a life of searching

for these pieces from the past.

He skillfully cuts open

stone

shaped

like big round seashells—

Amethyst inside.

He diligently polishes

tiny

sardines

caught in volcanic flow

in a vertical school.

He rubs so hard

the skeletal

spines

of the fish

leap white

from the

black onyx

column.

Perhaps it is the fossil man

who makes us feel the nearness of Africa.

A lifetime spent

sailing between the Algarve and Morroco;

winning the trust of Africans who see him

as a brother in love with their fossils;

and he respecting their knowing

where to take him hunting,

their helping him return his findings

so he can make

jewels

for the world.

Blog #9 WHY LESS IS MORE

W

We planned a trip to Greece a few years ago. It was more than we needed, perhaps, but it was what we wanted. We couldn’t afford that trip, so we waited. Friends did go on the equivalent of our dream trip to Greece. They loved it, but they felt they paid far too much money. So this year we planned again and settled for a less-expensive trip. We got more than we expected.

 

Travelling with “Transat Holiday Tours” from Montreal to Athens, we found ourselves surrounded by three hundred other tourists with a trip itinerary tailored to their wishes. We shared expectations and on the flight back to Canada, we traded highlights and disappointments. These conversations convinced us we enjoyed more for a lot less: we had chosen the appropriate itinerary to bring us home satisfied, yet with some change in our pockets.

 

We started with a visit to Athens for three days. The city tour of temples to Athena (The Parthenon), Zeus, and Hephestus, the Olympic stadium, the Plaka (an attractive food, booze, and shopping district), the National Museum of Archeology turned out to be a wonderful precursor of the whole trip: ruins of interest and significance, active walking, casual dining, endless shopping, and dramatic land and seascapes.

 

We left the big city for a four-day cruise among select Greek Islands.   A sunset visit to the Island of Mykonos took us walking along beach front cafés, a fishing-boat harbour, expensive jewelry shops, pelican “dances,” bougainvillea-roofed tavernas, and the first of many glorious sunsets highlighting traditional Greek Orthodox churches, windmills, and one striking, unconventionally-designed church—the most-photographed church in Greece.

 

We woke from our first night at sea in Turkey, docking at Kasudasi and taking a bus trip through the countryside to the second most important historic site in Turkey (after Istanbul). We drove to Ephesus, the most significant commercial centre after Rome by the time Christ was born. Some of us took a slight detour into the mountains where we enjoyed a sanctuary in nature at a tiny chapel located where Mary’s house is believed to have been located. St. John took Mary here to live out her life after the Crucifixion of Jesus. The bus ride down the mountainside gave us our first impression of Ephesus. The ruins trace a city of antiquity with remarkably recovered amphitheatres, government centres of debate and decision, hillside-embedded housing, commercial storefronts, public latrines with running water, water fountains, a spectacular library, with adjacent walls donated by a Roman Emperor that lead to the Agora and the twenty-four thousand seat amphitheatre for the people. With a final glance from the top row of the theatre, one can see along the Harbour Street to what was once the shores of the Aegean Sea. We finished our stop in Turkey back at Kasudasi, visiting a carpet factory and the Turkish bazaar. We then embarked on a short cruise to the Island of Patmos for the afternoon. Just a word of caution about shopping in Turkey: North American banks are very nervous about financial transactions in countries not in the European Union. Keep your bank in the loop about a stop in Turkey.

 

Patmos, reputed to be the holiest island in Greece (by the Greeks) and cited as the most idyllic island in the world (by a UN report), can be as little or as much as you wish. Some relaxed at the beach; others journeyed to the top of the mountains to visit the grotto where St. John wrote his Book of Revelations, to explore the monastery where the treasury museum was worth visiting, and to let the imagination embrace the myth-related islands surrounding Patmos.

 

We cruised to Rhodes where the colossus once stood hundreds of metres above sea level at the entrance to the harbour until an earthquake destroyed the huge statue in 255 BC. Our excursion across the island led us to Lindos, a spectacular, historical seaside acropolis. The ruins of the acropolis are gracefully set on the highest cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea far below and peaceful St. Paul’s Bay where the apostle Paul disembarked and preached to convert the hearts and minds of the people of ancient Rhodes to Christianity. Back in the city of Rhodes, the busy Turkish bazaar is nestled inside kilometres of medieval walls built by the Crusaders. The blend of Christian and Islamic architecture is at once comfortable and appealing.

 

The cruise for us ended at the Island of Crete, where we booked into a resort along the northern coast of the island about twenty miles from Heraklion—the major commercial port where the cruise ship had docked. We opted to enjoy the resort with its seaside and pool swimming possibilities, cosy accommodations, well-stocked bars, and excellent dining rooms. The Silva Beach resort is set up in a village-layout where all the walkways by the villas have flowering shrubs and fragrant seasonal flora at every step and every glance . We strolled the shopping streets along the seaside [Good buys in Crete in October as the tourist season is drawing to a close.] and on the hilltops near the resort. Others rented cars to tour mountain villages in the interior and charming ports along the coastlines of Greece’s largest island.

 

The stopover at the resort in Crete prepared us up nicely for our fast-trip to Santorini, the most picturesque island on our itinerary. We were ready to enjoy our four days on the top of a volcano crater. The side of the island facing Crete (seventy kilometres away) is notable for sheer cliffs extending four hundred metres up from sea level. Perched on the cliff top, the main city of Fira (where our upgraded Majestic Hotel was located) is modern and sophisticated; its white houses, tavernas, and hotels stand out in sharp contrast to the black volcanic cliffs and soils. The curvature of the island is the caldera, the inside slope of a volcanic island mass. After a series of eruptions every twenty thousand years, what is left is the outside wall of a circle facing into a water-encircled top of a volcano—now an island a few metres above sea level.   Through the millennia, the volcanic mountain has sunk hundreds of metres straight down into the sea. That tiny island just breaking sea level is all there is to see of the original volcano. This is all to say that the reality of the volcano and the beauty of the setting are the focus of every café, terraced home, store, walking street, and church. The fascination of Santorini grows out of the juxtaposition of the fearful and the beautiful wherever one looks. There are enough distractions in the bustling life of Fira to play down what the eye sees below the caldera. When one reaches the village of Oia, a hauntingly attractive village, the essence of Santorini emerges from the drenching sunlight when you start to feel that the painter behind every paint stroke of white or blue had one eye on the surface being painted and one eye on the volcano.

 

More time in Santorini offers more pleasure and reflection than is possible if one opts for a bigger trip on land (to Delphi, for example) or to more islands (there are hundreds of them). Because of its deserved reputation as a special island, no travel agent wants to leave Santorini out of the tourist’s itinerary. The result for too many goes something like this: one spends four hours in Santorini with a ride up the cliffs in a cable car, a walk through the shops, and a hop onto the bus back to the fast boat.

 

Starting with the excitement of Athens, appreciating the novelties of the island cruise, relaxing in Crete, and ending with a four-day stay in Santorini, we experienced an unforgettable, affordable, satisfying trip to Greece.

e planned a trip to Greece a few years ago. It was more than we needed, perhaps, but it was what we wanted. We couldn’t afford that trip, so we waited. Friends did go on the equivalent of our dream trip to Greece. They loved it, but they felt they paid far too much money. So this year we planned again and settled for a less-expensive trip. We got more than we expected.

Travelling with “Transat Holiday Tours” from Montreal to Athens, we found ourselves surrounded by three hundred other tourists with a trip itinerary tailored to their wishes. We shared expectations and on the flight back to Canada, we traded highlights and disappointments. These conversations convinced us we enjoyed more for a lot less: we had chosen the appropriate itinerary to bring us home satisfied, yet with some change in our pockets.

We started with a visit to Athens for three days. The city tour of temples to Athena (The Parthenon), Zeus, and Hephestus, the Olympic stadium, the Plaka (an attractive food, booze, and shopping district), the National Museum of Archeology turned out to be a wonderful precursor of the whole trip: ruins of interest and significance, active walking, casual dining, endless shopping, and dramatic land and seascapes.

We left the big city for a four-day cruise among select Greek Islands. A sunset visit to the Island of Mykonos took us walking along beach front cafés, a fishing-boat harbour, expensive jewelry shops, pelican “dances,” bougainvillea-roofed tavernas, and the first of many glorious sunsets highlighting traditional Greek Orthodox churches, windmills, and one striking, unconventionally-designed church—the most-photographed church in Greece.

We woke from our first night at sea in Turkey, docking at Kasudasi and taking a bus trip through the countryside to the second most important historic site in Turkey (after Istanbul). We drove to Ephesus, the most significant commercial centre after Rome by the time Christ was born. Some of us took a slight detour into the mountains where we enjoyed a sanctuary in nature at a tiny chapel located where Mary’s house is believed to have been located. St. John took Mary here to live out her life after the Crucifixion of Jesus. The bus ride down the mountainside gave us our first impression of Ephesus. The ruins trace a city of antiquity with remarkably recovered amphitheatres, government centres of debate and decision, hillside-embedded housing, commercial storefronts, public latrines with running water, water fountains, a spectacular library, with adjacent walls donated by a Roman Emperor that lead to the Agora and the twenty-four thousand seat amphitheatre for the people. With a final glance from the top row of the theatre, one can see along the Harbour Street to what was once the shores of the Aegean Sea. We finished our stop in Turkey back at Kasudasi, visiting a carpet factory and the Turkish bazaar. We then embarked on a short cruise to the Island of Patmos for the afternoon. Just a word of caution about shopping in Turkey: North American banks are very nervous about financial transactions in countries not in the European Union. Keep your bank in the loop about a stop in Turkey.

Patmos, reputed to be the holiest island in Greece (by the Greeks) and cited as the most idyllic island in the world (by a UN report), can be as little or as much as you wish. Some relaxed at the beach; others journeyed to the top of the mountains to visit the grotto where St. John wrote his Book of Revelations, to explore the monastery where the treasury museum was worth visiting, and to let the imagination embrace the myth-related islands surrounding Patmos.

We cruised to Rhodes where the colossus once stood hundreds of metres above sea level at the entrance to the harbour until an earthquake destroyed the huge statue in 255 BC. Our excursion across the island led us to Lindos, a spectacular, historical seaside acropolis. The ruins of the acropolis are gracefully set on the highest cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea far below and peaceful St. Paul’s Bay where the apostle Paul disembarked and preached to convert the hearts and minds of the people of ancient Rhodes to Christianity. Back in the city of Rhodes, the busy Turkish bazaar is nestled inside kilometres of medieval walls built by the Crusaders. The blend of Christian and Islamic architecture is at once comfortable and appealing.

The cruise for us ended at the Island of Crete, where we booked into a resort along the northern coast of the island about twenty miles from Heraklion—the major commercial port where the cruise ship had docked. We opted to enjoy the resort with its seaside and pool swimming possibilities, cosy accommodations, well-stocked bars, and excellent dining rooms. The Silva Beach resort is set up in a village-layout where all the walkways by the villas have flowering shrubs and fragrant seasonal flora at every step and every glance . We strolled the shopping streets along the seaside [Good buys in Crete in October as the tourist season is drawing to a close.] and on the hilltops near the resort. Others rented cars to tour mountain villages in the interior and charming ports along the coastlines of Greece’s largest island.

The stopover at the resort in Crete prepared us up nicely for our fast-trip to Santorini, the most picturesque island on our itinerary. We were ready to enjoy our four days on the top of a volcano crater. The side of the island facing Crete (seventy kilometres away) is notable for sheer cliffs extending four hundred metres up from sea level. Perched on the cliff top, the main city of Fira (where our upgraded Majestic Hotel was located) is modern and sophisticated; its white houses, tavernas, and hotels stand out in sharp contrast to the black volcanic cliffs and soils. The curvature of the island is the caldera, the inside slope of a volcanic island mass. After a series of eruptions every twenty thousand years, what is left is the outside wall of a circle facing into a water-encircled top of a volcano—now an island a few metres above sea level. Through the millennia, the volcanic mountain has sunk hundreds of metres straight down into the sea. That tiny island just breaking sea level is all there is to see of the original volcano. This is all to say that the reality of the volcano and the beauty of the setting are the focus of every café, terraced home, store, walking street, and church. The fascination of Santorini grows out of the juxtaposition of the fearful and the beautiful wherever one looks. There are enough distractions in the bustling life of Fira to play down what the eye sees below the caldera. When one reaches the village of Oia, a hauntingly attractive village, the essence of Santorini emerges from the drenching sunlight when you start to feel that the painter behind every paint stroke of white or blue had one eye on the surface being painted and one eye on the volcano.

More time in Santorini offers more pleasure and reflection than is possible if one opts for a bigger trip on land (to Delphi, for example) or to more islands (there are hundreds of them). Because of its deserved reputation as a special island, no travel agent wants to leave Santorini out of the tourist’s itinerary. The result for too many goes something like this: one spends four hours in Santorini with a ride up the cliffs in a cable car, a walk through the shops, and a hop onto the bus back to the fast boat.

Starting with the excitement of Athens, appreciating the novelties of the island cruise, relaxing in Crete, and ending with a four-day stay in Santorini, we experienced an unforgettable, affordable, satisfying trip to Greece.

Blog #8 Ted Kennedy Came to My Grad

In May 1964, Commencement Day at Saint Dunstan’s University, a small Catholic institution in Charlottetown, PEI, Canada, became a little more exciting as the procession of grads, staff, and honorees climbed the steps to enter the hall for the ceremonies. A glance over the shoulders of the seventy plus graduates caught the gleaming smiles of young Senator Ted Kennedy as he responded to the adoring crowds. He was there to receive an honorary doctorate and to address the graduates.

His address highlighted why he was so willing to join the Class of ’64 in its celebrations. First, he outlined the historic connection between PEI and New England that went back to 1900. As a Senator with political blood in his veins, he knew his constituents well. The Speaker of the House of Representatives was John McCormack, born in Souris, PEI. He knew also of the migration of Maritimers for generations to the Boston States, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, or simply Massachusetts. He commented on his delight to learn that nearly 25% of SDU’s enrollment that year was American. (Primarily students from Maine but some from Massachusetts and other states as well.) Second, Senator Kennedy reminded his audience that President Kennedy had been unable to accept his invitation to come to SDU when he had been Senator. Ted Kennedy was there to fulfil a wish his brother had before higher office called him to serve as President of United States. Third, he welcomed the opportunity to speak to Canadian audiences to thank them in a public way for the condolences and prayers they had extended when the Kennedy family and the American people attempted to cope with the assassination of the President a few months before.

History has shown that Ted Kennedy was a remarkably engaging public speaker throughout his career from his time as a thirty-year-old new Senator to his final year as the third longest-serving Senator in American history.

Meeting Senator Kennedy offered insight into why he became such a successful politician in his forty-seven years as a Senator. In time, we learned that he had vision, communication skills, determination, wit and humour, a passion to serve, and an understanding of the power of compromise. He had human frailties and endless charm. But what I learned personally, from my encounter with Ted Kennedy in May 1964, was that he possessed a compelling quality to be a careful listener with a caring way with others he had just met.

After the commencement, the honorees met with senior staff and the senior class executive in a small reception. The Senator was introduced to about fifteen people. I was one. As photographs were being taken, he said, “What are your plans for next year, John?” I responded that I was accepted at graduate school for an MA in English.” As I was answering, I could see my mother (on crutches and recovering from a broken ankle) was now in the room and I gave a subtle wave to a beaming, proud mother. Senator Kennedy turned to me and said, “Is that your mother?” I replied that it was. The careful listener and caring person spoke above the chattering crowd, “Mrs. Dunphy, would you join us for the next photo.” Now how could any person listen to names when introduced to numerous people and recall them at will within minutes without prompting? Only a special politician.

All of you would recognize the handsome young Senator and the woman in crutches in the photograph in my office. I am the one in the cap and gown.


Blog #7 My new old Hero!

Just finished reading David Hackett Fisher’s Champlain’s Dream. For the first time in years, I have a new hero–Samuel de Champlain.   I knew Champlain explored the Maritimes and the Saint Lawrence River and gave many place names to Canadian locations. He was the superb explorer he gets credit for, and so much more. His achievements and the person he proved to become makes him a hero for all times.

His start in the region of Saintonge along the western coast of France helped him develop personal qualities that helped him throughout his life and career. Love of camaraderie, joie de vivre,  and sense of humour characterized the personality that took him through successful encounters with people in the courts of France and Britain as well as on the shores of the St. Lawrence in New France. His experience as a soldier in the civil wars in France at the turn of the 16th century taught him that although courage and skill with tactics, strategies, and weaponry will get you through warfare, it is facing the reality of the futility of war and destruction that will get you through life. So his positive personal qualities along with wisdom made Champlain effective in human interactions throughout his whole life.

As a child and adolescent, he learned navigational and leadership skills in seafaring that saw him survive numerous trans-Atlantic voyages without ever losing a ship. His intelligent loyalty to King Henry IV of France and subsequent rulers and courtiers (like the formidable Richelieu) taught him diplomatic skills he needed in exploring, settling, building, maintaining, and governing New France.

Any lesser person could have the skills and personality of Champlain, but his consistent strengths as a visionary, communicator, and humanitarian transcend so many famous leaders.  For example, when he started to develop New France, it became clear to him that the tribal warfare among the Indians was destructive for human society.  He consistently negotiated with native leaders honestly and nobly until trust became the foundation for peaceful settlement along the St. Lawrence.  Despite the numerous setbacks, Champlain would go back to the basics: tell the truth, govern by law, fight, when necessary,and negotiate for peace.  As chief magistrate in New France, he was judge and jury for murder cases between rogue Frenchmen and native people.  He successfully turned the native people away from a principle of revenge toward some semblance of Christian justice.

Champlain never lost sight of his vision of New France based on respect for individuals, caring for his charges on land and sea, peaceful sharing of land and resources, tolerance and respect for religious practice, responsibility in honest negotiation for the welfare of all. New England, New Spain, New Netherlands demonstrated smaller visions in their interactions with the native people and early settlers in the New World. Even France may have lost the vision at times, but not Samuel de Champlain. Persistence and determination as an explorer and leader paid off in the end. Settlement in New France did prosper and grow, while other European attempts failed and went badly askew. In his early years in New France, his efforts at achieving goals were tempered by a strong scientific attitude regarding agriculture and horticulture and map drawing. In later years, his flexibility and respectful approach to the native people won him great affection and support needed for successful settlement to match his vision for New France.

If one were to Google Samuel de Champlain, one would find six million pages. Over four hundred years, sixteen generations have had their say about Champlain. Fischer’s account benefits from all the books and words written about Champlain in the past. What impresses me is the combination of traits and skills that were tested throughout Champlain’s life in Europe and the New World.   The humanity of Champlain becomes clear as we discover that he was a person who loved and lost and loved again, who sought justice with insight and good heart, who led wisely whether or not he was morally supported or understood by his European superiors, who lived out his dream with imagination, dignity, and intelligence along with the virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

Champlain rises to heroic status in my mind because he was able to lead with integrity without falling for the temptations of greed and ambition and pride when most of his contemporaries did fall. He becomes heroic in his humane treatment of others who were vulnerable or weak. Perhaps he proves most heroic to those who knew and loved him and those who are just getting to know him in modern times by demonstrating how one uses persistence to do good by being good at everything one does.



Blog #6 New Book Launch

My first book launch went very well.  I sold all the books I had.  About 60-70 guests came to Patty’s Pub, formed social groups, ordered food and drinks to entertain themselves for a half-hour while I sold and signed books.

First good decision was choosing a space that is conducive to conversation and listening.  The friendly atmosphere and service by the pub staff made for a pleasant gathering.

Second good decision was to have my son, his wife, my two grandchildren involved and responsible for the sale of books.  They handled money, record of sales, signings to the correct purchaser, delivery to the tables of the signed books.  That meant that the author was free to prepare the oral presentation, mix with guests to welcome them, and to explain how to purchase the books.  It also left my wife free to host people, introduce guests to one another, and to enhance the friendly atmosphere.

The third good decision was to rent a standup microphone, two speakers, and an amplifier for the sample readings  which could be heard in the room by all guests seated.  The rest of the bar (two other rooms) still had access to the washrooms, food and drink service, and lively conversation without the author’s guests straining to hear above the voices of the other patrons.

Fourth decision that helped the presentation was practice on the author’s part and a dress rehearsal.  In the dress rehearsal I dropped my notes and lost my place more than once.  So I typed the selected passages I intended to read on a space smaller than the page of the book and attached the typed passages and introductory comments on the top of pages in the book.  I placed the typed notes on every right page and made the notes stop at natural breaks.

Finally, in my rehearsal someone suggested I use a map to help guests unfamiliar with the setting written about in the book.  I used a travel map and yellow post it notes to identify the changing places of the setting.

I limited the readings to twenty minutes which left ten minutes for questions.  They were solid questions which I was happy to address.  That half hour created lots of lively conversation for the remaining hour and enough time for me to sell and sign the rest of the books.  In the end, the reviews of the book launch were positive.

Blog #4 Alice Munro wins Booker

How wonderful that Alice Munro has won the Man Booker International prize.  Her life’s work is being honoured among writers in the British Commonwealth.  What is interesting to me, a writer who is about to publish a short story collection,  is how much interest the short-story is getting recently.  Why does the short story form appeal to me  more than the novel form?

As a first-time writer  preparing to publish, I balked at reading Munro’s  Castle Rock collection as it is a series of linked stories similar to what I was attempting in my  modest collection of stories and reflections in Indian River.  I did read Munro’s stories after I finished writing my book.  I took confidence not in competing with a master like Munro, but in quickly realizing that my people, their life paths, my writing were so different.  I also began to accept that my stories tell different truths which others should know about too.

Book Club Ratings

BOOK SHELF

Books rated by the Men’s Book Club,

Patty’s Pub, Ottawa

2003-2004

Out of Muskoka, James Bartleman                       4/10

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut 9/10

Stanger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein     8/10

The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown                                 9/10

Deafening, Frances Itani                                             8.5/10

Paris: 1919, Part I, Margaret MacMillan             9.5/10

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin                                    8/10

Dude, Where’s My Country, Michael Moore          7.5/10

December 6th, Martin Cruz Smith                              7.5/10

Paris: 1919, Part II, Margaret MacMillan 9.5/10

2002-2003

Atonement, Ian McEwan                                              +

Good News For a Change, David Susuki & Dressel  +

The Stone Carvers, Jane Urquhart                                   + –

The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester   +

The Wars, Timothy Findley                                                     + +

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen                                      + – !

The River Thieves, Michael Crummey                                + +

The Navigator of New York, Wayne Johnston                    + –

The Life of Pi, Yann Martel                                                             +

The Englishman’s Boy, Guy Vanderhaegte                              +

2001-2002

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry                                                   + +

Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Wayne Johnstson               + +

Stolen Continents, Ronald Wright                                                +

The Night Inspector, Frederick Bush                                           +

Archangel,Robert Harris                                                                    +

Potato Factory, William Courtenay                                               +

The Constant Gardener, John LeCarre                                         + +

Great Questions of Canada, Rudyard Griffiths, ed.                  +

In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick                                 + +

In the Skin of the Lion, Michael Ondaatje                                       + +

2000-2001

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis deBernieres                            + +

No Great Mischief, Alistair McLeod                                                     + –

A Walk in the Woods, Brian Bryson +

Road to Mars, Eric Idle                                                                              + +

In the Blood, Gordon Pitt                                                                            +

On Beulah Height, Reginald Hill                                                              + +

The Power of One, William Courtenay                                                  + +

Barney’s Version, Mordecai Richler                                                        +