A Week in February

This week has been brutally cold. We had day after day of -15C to -18C temperatures, with the windchill approaching -30C. The sun has been conspiring in this, shining brightly out of clear blue skies, so one might look outside and think “oh, that looks nice” and then go outside and go up on your tip toes in horror, fur fluffed out as you try to scratch back in through the door before it closes. That’s what the dog did, anyway. The cats just sat inside and looked out, refusing to go anywhere near the door at all.

I do take the dog for her regular walk to an area of common land which is designated as an off-leash park. There are paths through the woods, and views down to the river. It can be very pleasant. Or not. Especially when you’re tentatively picking your way down a slope of ice braised clear by the wind, knowing there is no other idiot out there with their dog and so if you slip and break something you’re probably not going to be found until the spring. The dog runs and huffs and sniffs, you scan the ground for bare spots with the intensity of someone clearing land mines. Carefully placing one foot after the other, shuffling like the 80-year-old you’d like to be one day, you navigate the terrain. And then you hear the crows start their predator alert, a cacophony of cawing, and looking up watch a huge bald eagle soar over the trees and glide along the river bank in front of you. Majestic doesn’t do enough to describe the scene, and your steps are lighter as you make your way back to the car.

The cold snap broke eventually, it got up to almost -5 the other night, but with the warmth comes the next storm. It came from New Brunswick, after hammering Toronto and Ottawa and Montreal and Quebec, almost 30 cms. of light dry snow falling through the day. And then the winds, picking up to over 70 kms/hour and picking up the snow from the ground to mix it with that still falling. Horizontal snow, pitting your face like a flurry of stones thrown up by a car racing through a turn.

It’s on days like this that one faces the age-old conundrum. Did we buy enough storm chips and, if not, whose turn is it to go out and get some more?

Storm chips are a bit of an Island phenomenon. They’re basically just potato chips, or crisps to those of us who grew up in England, on sale in every supermarket. A tradition developed where people buying emergency supplies before a storm – candles, water, tinned food, and so forth – would also throw in a bag of chips, as comfort food for those long evenings when the power’s out and there is nothing to do. A few years ago, a young woman called Jill Ross, a B.Ed. graduate who was helping with administrative duties in the Faculty of Education at the time, tweeted that her family was ready for an imminent storm because she had “got our storm chips”. The term was picked up and retweeted by others and is now so widespread that a local company manufactures bags of “Storm Chips”. These are all the leftover bits from the specific flavour bags and so you have no idea whether you’re going to get something plain, salt and vinegar, cheese and onion, or whatever, they’re all mixed up together! I know it sounds disgusting but they’re actually pretty good. Especially when sitting by the fire with a nice cup of tea or other beverage of choice!

I was doing just that the other evening – sitting by the fire, munching, sipping – and thinking about the delayed class I taught this week. It was supposed to have been on Friday, but we had a storm then as well, so it was deferred to Monday. This was special as it was my last class as a teacher educator. I’d like to say that it was the best class I’ve ever taught, or that we finished with a cake and a sing-song, but we did none of those things. I taught the last topic on the syllabus, the students made presentations about what they had learned, and we all left the room. I did insert a last slide, where I tried to synthesize what being a teacher meant to me, but I don’t think anyone really noticed. I think the students were too preoccupied with their upcoming practicum placements. They’re all going out to schools for the next 11 weeks, half the time in an international placement and the other half in Canada, and their focus is on the practical needs of teaching – the what-will-work-on-Monday sort of stuff.

I try to remember if I was like that when I was a student, impatient with theory and focused only on what works in the classroom. I don’t remember it that way – I remember enjoying the texts on the philosophy and sociology of education, entering in to the arguments about conscientization and the teacher as subversive, learning the nuances of Vygotsky and Freire. I still think it makes for a better teacher, one who considers practice to be the result of thoughtful consideration, not simply reactive behaviour.

I’m also not sure that a teacher education program offered by a university is the place to learn the practical skills of teaching. I still believe that the university is supposed to be a place of ideas, of challenge, of debate, not a place where technical skills are taught or prioritized. I know that the classroom has changed, that student teachers today are facing challenges quite different from those of nearly half a century ago. The ubiquitous cell phones in everyone’s pocket contain more information, and more computer power, than anything even dreamed of when we were setting the world to rights. Each school where they practice is going to be different, and so equipping our students with the intellectual skills to understand the contextual nuances of every different classroom they experience seems likely to be a more useful learning process. That’s why we call it teacher education, not teacher training.

And then I think, ah, you’re just getting to be one of those ‘seasoned veterans’ (aka old codgers) who remembers the good old days as being better than anything happening in the here and now. After all, nobody writes songs any more like Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Townsend and Daltrey. For heaven’s sake, you still read books, and walk around without wire dangling from your ears, and go to a coffee shop only when you want to drink coffee. How reactionary is that?

So, I was sitting by the fire thinking these things, and feeling all introspective, when the universe righted itself and brought life back in to balance. I received an e-mail to inform me that I have been selected as the recipient of the inaugural UPEI Faculty of Graduate Studies Award for Outstanding Graduate Student Mentorship. I consider this a huge honour, one of the high points of my career as a prof. Working with students is something I’ve always enjoyed, and their success is something on which I’ve tried to keep focused, so to have this recognized in such a way is incredible. The nomination was apparently made by students from both UPEI and Calgary, they all got together and wrote letters. I am truly touched. The Committee is charge of this award have asked me to give a keynote presentation at the spring Graduate Studies Research Conference, so I guess I’ll have to try and think of something to say.

There must be a line I can steal from Leonard Cohen …

Ascending into Retirement

A couple of years ago, one of the vendors at the Farmers’ Market told me that on New Year’s Day she had filled a jar with 36 glass marbles. Every week when she went home from the market, she took one marble out of the jar. When the jar was empty, at the end of the summer, she was going to retire, and stop getting up early every Saturday to load corn into her truck and drive into town.

I was thinking of this last week, when a colleague asked me if I was really going through with my decision to retire. “Of course,” I replied, “I’ve put my letter in and everything.”

“But what are you going to do?”

And that’s the question everyone asks. I think that this highlights a deep gap in our lives. It seems sad to me that we have talked ourselves into identifying “work” as normal. As though there was nothing else one could, and perhaps rather would, be doing. As though our position as cog in the wheel of commerce is the only thing that could possibly take up our hours in a meaningful way.

It seems to me that I’ve done OK in the rat race we disparaged in our youth. I didn’t win, but I think I placed. I started teaching 45 years ago, in July 1974, and came to Canada 35 years ago, in 1984. This year seems a good year to move on to a new chapter of life.

I am still going to work, but just not for the university. I had a life before the academy, and I hope that I can create one after it. In a way it’s “forward to the past” – many of you know that my first life was as a teacher of art and geography. I plan to keep writing, albeit in creative as well as scholarly styles. Like many, I’ve often thought that I have a novel in me somewhere, and this will be a chance to find out if that’s true. I want to continue to build my skills in the creative arts, in painting and photography, and perhaps see if I can get good enough to exhibit my work somewhere. In my offices there are files full of research data that I haven’t really published yet, so there might still be some academic life left in me. I know I’m not quite ready to quit my development work, and after the summer will be actively looking to see if any short-term contracts are available.

Yes, that was a hint, if you know or hear of anything!

Indeed, I have lots of plans, in addition to the normal “now I can sort out all those boxes of old photographs in the basement” sort of thing. I intend to complete the structured garden at Grandview, and perhaps open it to those who would like a quiet place for contemplation. I also intend to make sure that the garden produces enough vegetables to feed us through the summer, and though canning and pickling to support us through the winter. I am looking into building a cash crop that will help make such expenses revenue-neutral, and I am aware that I’m fortunate to have a pension which should cover most other costs. I shall miss the camaraderie of colleagues but am confident that I’ll keep in touch with my many friends from the Island, from across the country, and from around the world. That is one of the glories of contemporary communication networks.

So, what am I going to do? Am I going to become one of those people who say, “retirement? I’ve no idea how I ever had time to go to work, I’ve got so much happening in my life!”? Perhaps. I know that I’m going to be busy, that there will be other deadlines and other commitments, but that’s OK.

The vendor at the Farmers’ Market still grows corn, but she sells it from a small shed in her yard, instead of driving into Charlottetown. She opens when she wants, with a sign on the road telling people if there is corn available or not. She has time to chat, now, and to make her own decisions.

I only put 26 marbles in my jar on New Year’s Day, as my new beginning will be on 1 July – Canada Day.



Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

So here we are, a month later and still the sky hasn’t fallen. The roads are not blocked by cars racing each other at 3 kms. per hour down University Avenue. The sidewalks are not littered with semi-comatose youth giggling uncontrollably. The police haven’t been swamped with calls to out of control parties in the upwardly mobile parts of town. Nope, it’s all much the same, even after Canada decriminalized marijuana.

It was all a bit bedraggled, as one might expect from a process so long in the anticipation. At our local store one fellow waited in line for three hours, just so he could have the distinction of being the first person on PEI to buy legal pot. He was not young, probably in his fifth decade, and he admitted to having sometimes inhaled in his younger days. I know this because he was interviewed by our local TV station. It all seemed totally appropriate when he was interviewed a second time, on the way out, and we discovered that he hadn’t been allowed to make a purchase because his ID had expired. At least he was the first to cross the threshold, and if it were New Year he’d be lauded as the first-footer.

Everyone else in the initial line-up got served, and a conversation started as to why Customer One had needed to be ID’d in the first place, as he was patently over 21. It turned out that the shop was scanning everyone’s driver’s licence or whatever. They said they weren’t keeping the data, but nobody really believed them, and when a computer geek checked the hand-held scanner he found that the data were being stored for “up to 48 hours.” So that caused a bit of a ruckus and they stopped scanning.

Apparently they still were checking everyone’s ID at the door, though, in a sort of vestibule before you were allowed inside. So that started another conversation, about how as pot was now legal it should be treated the same as booze, and people should only be required to show proof of age if they looked under 30. I think that’s what they’re doing now. I use words like ‘apparently’ and ‘think’ because I haven’t been in there yet. I just haven’t had time to even drop in for a look at how it’s set up.

When I do, I’m going to have to take cash. There’s some degree of concern about credit card and debit card data being ‘readable’ on both sides of our border with the US. The fear is that if a border agent asks you, “Have you ever smoked pot?” and you say, “What, me, officer? Of course not!” then he’ll be able to have a look on his computer and say “Oh, so this fifty bucks you dropped at FIGR (Cannabis PEI), what’s that for then?” So that’s still got to be worked out, as although some states have long permitted and legalized marijuana, it’s still illegal at the federal level in the US.

Interesting times.

One of the unanticipated consequences of the whole thing has been the challenge which legalized dope has brought to the world of etiquette. Specifically, dinner parties. For example, we had one last week, there were a dozen or so people over for a big roast beef dinner on the Sunday night after our fund-raiser. I was especially proud because the vegetables – leeks, carrots, parsnips – had all come from our garden, and everything except the wine and some of the cheese was from within 50 kilometers of town. Anyway, after the cheese course I brought out the usual suspects – some single malt, brandy, liqueurs, and so forth. Then I wondered – should I have gone to the shop and bought some joints to put out as well?

And when people had arrived, they had given Sally some chocolates or flowers or wine as a hostess gift. In future, would it be appropriate to bring a gram or two? We’ve not really had that conversation yet, as far as I know, so any ideas would be welcome!

So here we are, a month after decriminalization day and all is well with the world. The government is making money from the new taxes, and some others are making money in this new business. The initiative I like best so far was started by a small restaurant two doors down from the dope shop. I was in there for lunch the other week and noticed that he now has three menus on the table – the regular menu, the lunchtime specials, and the Munchies Menu! It turns out the owner is from Nepal, where they know a thing or two about marijuana, and he figures people who smoke dope crave certain types of foods. And so now he’s offering them, no doubt in the hope that people will stop by on their way to, or from, the retail outlet and grab some munchies before heading home for round two.

Or three.


Drugs, Drones, and Decisions

I hope that writing a blog is like riding a bike, a skill which once learned is never quite forgotten. Such hope comforts me as I sit in Ottawa airport on a mid-October afternoon and start to write. It was five months ago that I returned from my last visit to the Balkans, and a lot has happened in the interim. I don’t want this to read like a diary but, to quote my grandmother, stories always go best if you start at the beginning. So here goes.

It had been a very hectic first part of the year. I was on sabbatical and so had some luxury of time to travel, but three bereavements had added a layer of stress which had not been anticipated. By the middle of May I felt like my old cousin Jimmy [Captain Cook] must have done, wrung out from so much time in strange and distant lands. There was an old TV show which celebrated the “place where everyone knows your name”, but when that’s an Air Canada lounge it becomes a bit disconcerting.

My body agreed, and three days after getting home I was in the emergency department at our local hospital. If you want gory details then I’ll share those off-line but suffice it to say that my back blew out and I could hardly move – sitting, standing, lying down, all were agony. The doctors probed and prodded, sampled and tested, x-rayed and ultra-sounded, and in the end told me it was probably muscular. “Probably” is not the kind of thing one likes to hear in a diagnosis but that’s what I got. They gave me some decent drugs, though, and I remember the end of May and beginning of June through a haze of rain and pain killers. The rain was good, as I didn’t feel upset at not getting in to my garden. I discovered the joys of massage therapy, something I’d never done before and to which I am now addicted. I also had some physiotherapy, and every now and then remember to do my exercises.

The summer on PEI this year was epic, weeks of sun and heat, rain in the right places (and mainly at night), a gentle breeze. Through July and early August, I taught a summer school course and was fortunate (or senior!) enough to be given a classroom with air conditioning, so that went well. I was also Acting Dean for a while, when the proper Dean was on holiday, and for the first time met a Drone Parent.

“What’s that?” you ask. Well one day the admin. person phoned me to say there was a call for the Dean and could I take it. Sure, I said. The connection didn’t come through to me so I returned the call. A lady answered. I then listened as she told me about how wrong it was that our B.Ed. classes were being held in Memorial Hall, the Education Faculty building, where there was no air conditioning. It was impossible to focus when it was so hot. And to be fair, we were having a spell where it was 29 degrees outside, 38 when one factored in the humidity, and our classrooms and offices were starting to represent a sauna. We had tried to have new classrooms assigned but had been told by the people in charge of such things that all classrooms were booked, and we’d just have to make do with what we had.

I explained that we were trying our best, with fans and such, and that if she could hang in there then things would change as the weather would hopefully break soon. On PEI it’s not like southern Ontario, we don’t usually get more than a week or so of hot sticky weather.

“It’s not me,” she said, “it’s my daughter. She’s coming home from university exhausted. It’s not safe for her to even drive, I had to go into town and pick her up yesterday.”

Well, to say I was gobsmacked (to use a colloquial expression from Yorkshire) would be an understatement. Our B.Ed. program is an after-degree one, which means that participants have already completed at least one 4-year degree and have often worked for a while as well, prior to applying. So, the youngest candidates are in their mid-twenties. I recognize that times have changed but at that age I was a department head at a school in Papua New Guinea, married, and getting on with my life. Sally and I would spend weekends in a long house at Tambunum, a village on the Sepik River.

The only time my mother got involved in our lives was when she and my youngest brother Michael came to visit. We were returning down the river one evening when the outboard motor on our dugout canoe stopped, it had become clogged with weeds. The Sepik is a pretty big river, full of crocodiles and water snakes and sawfish and the like, and it was getting dark. Our boatman used a paddle to steer us across the current towards the shore, where he could then try and fix the motor.

Sally, trying to be helpful, drew upon her upbringing playing around on canoes in northern Ontario and started to walk to the front of the canoe, so she could grab hold of some reeds and hold us in place. The rest of us, who did not grow up in northern Ontario, sat petrified in the body of canoe – basically, a hollowed out 20’ log – while Sally walked to the front. On the gunwales. Over our heads. At which point we discovered that my mother couldn’t swim. And that she knew a lot of interesting words.

All this went through my mind as I listened to the lady complain about the impact which the heat in the classroom had on her daughter. At the very least, I thought, it would have been good for the daughter to have been the one to contact me. Did she even know her mother was calling? What would she say if I walked into the class and mentioned that because someone’s mother had called to complain, we were going to try to resolve the situation? Would she have been mortified and embarrassed, or have just shrugged it off as normal? I didn’t know, and I didn’t try to find out. Instead, I explained that as Acting Dean, I had no power. And even as real Dean, I had no authority to spend our meagre Faculty budget on air conditioning. But what I could do was give her the name and telephone number of the Vice-President (Facilities), who did have both a budget and authority. Which I did.

The next day we got a phone call from the VP’s office, asking what the heck I was playing at, so I explained that perhaps I was wrong, and the fiscal climate had changed, but I didn’t think I could just go out and buy air conditioning units. It was acknowledged that I was correct. The day after that we got another phone call, telling us that all our classrooms had been changed for the rest of the summer, and we were now going to be teaching in a building which did have air conditioning.

So that’s a drone parent. Not content to hover in the background like a traditional helicopter parent, this new model gets right down and involved in what’s going on. It’s amazing how things change.

The rest of the summer was a lot more normal. On weekends and off-days I dug and delved in the garden, slowly bringing it to nearer to the place I would like it to be. I took the last couple of weeks in August as holiday, and we got the pond lined days before we had a ‘significant rain’ event. The harvest started in August as well, with beans and beets, then has continued into the fall with squash, pumpkins, leeks, carrots, parsnips, onions, and even watermelons.

So here it is, October already, and the last few months have given me time to ponder on life and make some decisions. First, I decided that continuing to drive my 10-year old Ford Ranger pick up truck back and forth from the garden was getting to be awfully expensive, the fuel economy is just not there. I needed something a bit more economical, more of a runabout that had good mileage and would give me a pleasant drive both in the city and on the highway. So the truck is now based out at Victoria’s, and I’m really enjoying my new Audi Q5!

Second, I started to think about what I really wanted to do and decided that sitting in an office or going to meetings was not on that list. I still enjoy teaching, and from my student surveys it seems that I remain pretty good at it, but I also recognize that there are many younger people whose school experiences are much fresher than mine, and who can contribute to the Academy in ways that I now find boring. So, a couple of weeks ago I submitted my letter, informing the President that I intend to retire from the University at the end of June 2019.

All I’ve read about this momentous decision informs me that one should not retire from something but rather, retire to something. And that’s what I intend to do. I plan on going back to the type of work I enjoyed during my early years, when I was an Art teacher and practised painting, sculpture, photography, writing, and other creative activities. I’m hoping also to engage in some short-term contracts, both domestic and international, that allow me to continue to contribute to the field of educational development. And I’m looking forward to really making the garden work, both as a source of food for family and fiends but also as a plant nursery and, perhaps, even a market garden.

I shall continue this blog, with reflections on life as it evolves, but it might change its focus a bit. If you’re not comfortable with that, thank you for reading until now and don’t feel shy to unsubscribe. But if you want to keep up to date with what’s happening, I’ll try to keep you informed.

But now it’s time to board my plane, and fly home – just in time for Decriminalization Day, when marijuana will be legal in Canada. But more on that later!




On Explorers and Exploring

On explorers and exploring

In May I went back to Kosovo, with a couple of days in England en route. This gave me a chance to see the wonderful Captain Cook exhibition at the British Library, an experience of which any traveller would have been proud.

Captain James Cook was, of course, the pre-eminent traveller of his day. One might argue perhaps of any day, but then the fans of D’Entrecasteaux and Magellan, Tasman and Shackleton, Hearne and Scott, Erik the Red and Xuanzang, Ibn Battuta and Franklin, Livingstone and Pisarro, would each stake a claim. Perhaps even supporters of Thesiger and Hilary. After all each of them, like Picard, boldly went where no-one had gone before.

Well, not exactly. They all went somewhere that others had been, but it was somewhere they personally hadn’t been and nobody they knew had been, so to them it was all terra ignota. So, in the way of men and yes, I recognize the gendered nature of the list above, they reported wherever they got to as being a new world. They also usually reported it in terms of “their” travels. Other than Tensing, who shared the limelight on top of Everest, and Banks whose botanical collections formed the basis for Kew Gardens, how many assistants and planners and financial supporters and second officers and expedition members and family members and intimate companions and so forth do we know by name? Magellan sailed through the Strait which now bears his name, but there was a whole crew of people on the Trinidad, and even more officers and men on the other four ships of the fleet.

Now I have a particular fascination for Cook and have managed to get to many of the places where he once walked. From his birthplace at Marton-in-Cleveland near Great Ayton in Yorkshire to Cape Tribulation in the Daintree forest of northern Queensland, where the H.M.B. Endeavour was berthed on the beach to repair a hull gashed open on the Great Barrier Reef. From Poverty Bay in New Zealand to Botany Bay in Australia to the British Columbia coast to Newfoundland to Quebec City, where he played a vital role in the battle for that city. Sorry my Quebec friends, but that’s what happened! I’ve not been stalking him through history, not really, but my grandparents came from that same general area of north Yorkshire and I like to think that, in the way of Goose Fairs and May Day dances, enough genes got shared that there might be a family connection. So Cousin Jimmy it is!

I was therefore delighted to discover that the British Library was producing a major exhibit of his three major expeditions to the Pacific, ostensibly to observe the transit of Venus but also to check out the area, map it, and claim what might be claimable. Which he did with distinction, providing the Eurocentric world with its first clear view of the southern parts of our planet. The exhibit is comprehensive and tries to present the voyages not only in the context of the time but also from the perspective of those whom he met, the Maori and the Aborigine and the Tahitian.

This approach brings voices not always heard in the conversation about the travellers of the past – a huge gap in our knowledge. I know it took living with the Dene in northern Saskatchewan for me to even know that Matonabbee existed in Samuel Hearne’s world, and of course the Inuit knew all along where Franklin foundered, but nobody ever asked them until recently. So it was here, with the voices of those who watched the Endeavour arrive giving their own versions of those stories.

Although they are different, both types of stories are true, and are recounted as remembered. Whether the oral history of the Kuku Yalangi people of the Daintree or the written notes of Sir. Joseph Banks, these are accurate reports of what was important to the people who were there. Each version included some thoughts and excluded others, incorporated some explanations and ignored others, and presented remembered memory as the ‘truth’. It is this acceptance of multiple truths, I think, which drives the current U.S. President to distraction, for he (and/or his various associates and assistants) wants a single truth which applies to everyone and everything, and this is simply not possible.

Indeed, as a place to recount my own experiences, this blog offers some form of truth. But it is always my interpretation of experience, there is no absolute truth to anything. Others who were there may have noticed different things, drawn other conclusions.

On my last weekend in Kosovo I went with my friend down to Prizren, the beautiful southern city about which I have often waxed poetic. In the soft spring sunshine it was perfect – the river full with snowmelt, the streets busy but not yet full of tourists, the castle lying like a crown high above the red tiled roofs. On Saturday evening my friend, Sherif, said, “I’m going for a couple of beers with my friends from Bosnia, who I only see every month or so. Would you like to come?” Well!

We drove into the old part of the city, where there are still empty houses remaining from the war, their burned or shell-shocked walls leaning and gaping in myriad ways, pigeons lined up on shattered windowsills. We pulled up in a gravel car park next to a couple of older buildings, both of which were in some disrepair. It must have been about 8 pm, there was a bit of natural light left in the sky which was good as there were no street lights. On the wall across the street was a sort of metal panel with a door in it. There were no windows at eye level but a vent a bit further up the wall. The door opened and a young guy came out, nodded at us, then held the door while we entered. I noticed a hand-lettered sign nailed to the jamb, “Open 17.00-00.00”. Inside was a narrow corridor, with a couple of toilet cubicles to the left and a small desk to the right, then past those a flight of three or four steps to the left and a wall fridge to the right. At the end of the corridor another door. I opened it.

The space opened into a room with about 20 tables, all packed with men drawn from central casting for “Interior. Country bar in Balkans full of men who look like farmers, smugglers, and collected riff-raff.” A lot were in black t-shirts and scuffed leather jackets. The tables were piled high with beer bottles and plates of food, the air just thick with smoke. Sherif had ushered me in first so there was a bit of a sudden silence as I walked through the door, then Sherif came in and showed me to this table where a couple of his friends were sitting, and things slowly started to get noisy again. I noticed a few pretty heavy stares, though, especially from the table next to us – I was looking at Sherif as he translated but it must have looked like I was staring at them. Anyway, things got better when Amer arrived. He’s Bosnian, about 6 feet high and the same across, and he’s such a big guy that when he gave me a bear hug and slammed a beer down on the table in front of me, everyone seemed to figure I was OK and stopped looking at me.

I used the disinterest as cover to look around. In addition to the tables on the main floor, behind us were three steps up to what was possibly a stage in a different life. Here there were a few more tables, all populated by the same tough looking men – and one fellow in a suit. He was a bit older, and as well as his suit wore a button down shirt and a purple and yellow striped tie. In a different city it could have been his regimental one. He did not stop looking at me, even as people came up and shook his hand, then slowly drifted away. I decided it was better not to even appear to be looking at him, or in his general direction, and turned my attention to cutting up a piece of liver (I think) from the plate of meat.

As my friend said later, I was probably the first international to ever go to this bar. It certainly wasn’t somewhere you’d find on the tourist maps! We ate plates of some kind of mystery meat, apparently the owner of the bar used to be a butcher, and drank lots of Skopje beer, and I was even more confused than usual as rather than shouting at each other in Albanian (as had happened at an event in Prishtina on the Friday night, and of which I know a few words), they were yelling at each other in Bosnian, of which I know one word (“fala” = thank you). I used that a lot as the beer kept flowing. Apparently the Bosnian rule is that they just keep taking your empty bottle and bringing another one, until you say “stop”, and even then you have to drink the last one they just brought. Around 1130 or so the lights were dimmed. Sherif uttered the immortal lie, “one more then we’re done”, and just after midnight we left – there were still a couple of other fellows, leaning on a table near the back, but I am proud to say that I came close to being ‘last man standing’ at the secret Bosnian bar in Prizren!

At least, that’s the truth as I remember it.


Some Frequently Asked Questions

Note from Victoria Scribens: Sorry everyone for sending out an early draft version! The link for the Afghan Letters is now available.


Some general answers for readers!

It’s always good to hear from people who’ve read the Blog, and sometimes I get asked questions which deserve a wider response. So here are some of the recent ones:

Why is your Blog written by Victoria Scribens and who is she?

Victoria Scribens is the pen-name of my ATM, or Assistant Tech. Monkey, who is really my daughter, Victoria. She helped me design the website in the first place, keeps track of the website analytics, and makes sure everything is organized properly. In the real world she is a writer, gardener, and purveyor of fine cheese. You can read about her and get hold of her novels at http://victoriagoddard.ca

I wanted to respond to your Blog so I hit ‘reply all’ but it tells me the e-mail address doesn’t exist – why not?

The e-mail does exist but we’ve set it up so that it only sends messages – that prevents us from being inundated by robot-Spam. As a result, your message has entered that contemporary purgatory where thoughtful prose floats unread in the ether for eternity. So, if you want to make a general comment, please do so by first hitting the ‘Leave a comment’ button. Your comments won’t appear immediately because Victoria first reviews them to make sure that they’re not too rude or derogatory. If you want to send a private message, just note that in the comment, together with your e-mail, and I’ll reply directly.

Why have I stopped receiving your Blog?

There are a few possible reasons for that. Perhaps your e-mail has changed, and you didn’t change it on the website? Or, perhaps you didn’t see my note asking people to re-subscribe when the privacy laws changed in Canada a couple of years ago? Now you have to actively sign up for the Blog. You can do so on the website at <http://www.timgoddard.ca>, just enter your e-mail at the prompt on the home page.

To have a read of any Blogs you’ve missed then just click on “Occasional Blog” header and follow the prompts.

Where can I find your Letters from Afghanistan?

These Blogs were written over a five-year period before I had the website established. The first ones were published on CBC and the rest went to people on the “sign-up” list. I have now collected these letters together and put them on the website – you can find them here


Why do I keep getting ads popping up with your Blog?

Yes, I know, I find those incredibly annoying as well. I think we have solved this now – we have paid a fee to make the Blog ‘ad. free’ in future so if you still experience problems, please let us know.

Thank you for reading the Blog, and please do send Comments and other messages as I appreciate the feedback.

And thank you again to Victoria for all the work she does to make this Blog appear.


Second Spring

We arrived in England looking for quiet, a place where we would not be not surrounded by crowds of people. We needed a few days ‘down time’, to catch up on laundry, answer e-mail, and let our systems adjust to a more normal diet – one not quite so replete in wine and cheese. At the end of a dirt track in Blacko, Lancashire, in a small stone cottage attached to a working farm, we found such a place.

Or mostly. The cottage had a washing machine, so we did laundry, but no tumble dryer. It poured with rain, so a washing line was not an option. The house rules contained a strict admonition not to hang laundry off radiators or doors. Our solution was to sit in the car in damp clothes and turn the heated seats up high. We did have WiFi, but it was rural slow, and took a while to connect or download. And changing the diet from wine and cheese to meat pies, chips and beer probably didn’t have much overall effect.

It was quiet, though.

On the second day we thought it would be good to hear voices other than our own, so wandered over the hills to Settle. It was market day, and we couldn’t find a parking space. Then we did, but it was a Pay and Display which only took cash, not a card, and which blithely informed us that “overpayments would be accepted but no change given”. Not being willing to trade a five pound note for a 90p tariff, we left Settle and drove off looking for a more accessible pub lunch. We followed the River Ribble up to the stunning viaduct which carries the train line over the valley, then dropped down to a pub which advertised “fresh food daily”. We walked in, finding the barmaid sitting chatting to two older gentlemen. We asked if there was a menu only to be told that the kitchen was closed as “the cook’s away today”. We asked about local alternative eateries, but she didn’t know any, although a pub in the next village might do something, she wasn’t sure. We drove on.

In the next village, Austwick, we saw a pub which offered rooms and food. It’s called the Game Cock Inn, and if you’re ever within 100 miles of Austwick, go there. Lunch was simply one of the best meals I’ve eaten on this trip, and probably the best restaurant food I’ve eaten in England for years. Subsequently I’ve learned that others think so as well, and it has earned all sorts of honours and awards. Well worth a visit!

After our brief respite in the country, with e-mail checked and clothes washed (if not dried), we set off to visit friends around England. Our journey took us across to the Wirral peninsular, under the Mersey (alas, the ferry doesn’t take cars, so that trip is still on the wish list) to Poulton-le-Fylde and the northwest coast, back over the Pennines to Nottingham, and then down to near Paignton in Devon. We covered a lot of miles, and amazingly did so without too many traffic delays along the notoriously crowded motorways. Along the way we saw friends from Papua New Guinea whom we hadn’t seen in years, spending many happy hours recounting stories from the days of old and generally doing what friends do – eating, drinking, and laughing – a lot.

We also had some adventures. A blazingly hot day (in England! In April!) saw us eating ice creams and walking along the sea front at Lytham, admiring the windmill and throwing a ball for the dog to chase. It’s been a while since I last had a 99, which for the uninitiated is a soft ice cream cone with a chocolate flake. In Newark I visited the Civil War Museum, which I hadn’t known existed, and learned a lot more about that period of history than I had thought possible.

Then, in deepest Devon along the banks of the River Dart, we discovered Agatha Christie’s house and at last I found a fellow traveller. It appears that in addition to writing her novels, Ms. Christie was an ardent collector of ‘stuff’. Wandering through the house, with every surface crammed and shelves bowed, it was humbling to realize that I still have a long way to go in the hoarder league! She also had a wonderful garden, crammed full of camelias in full bloom – how I wish they were hardy in Canada.

The camelias and the serried ranks of daffodils along the roads reminded me that this was spring – my second after France. There was a bank of blue, mauve and white which sparkled like an impressionist painting, northern echoes of Giverny. The trees were resplendent with their bright green leaves shimmering in the sunshine. The bluebells were out, and we argued about which were the traditional English ones and which were the sturdier Spanish imports. The roses were in leaf, thick buds starting to swell in the heat. The first early candles of the horse chestnut had started to emerge, and here and there a butterfly or a bumble bee graced us with their presence.

And then Heathrow, and the plane to Montreal, where a five hour lay-over was enhanced by another (and unexplained) delay of an hour, but home eventually just before midnight and fast asleep into the nearly forgotten comforts of our own bed. We had been away for 24 nights. The next morning, I patrolled the garden, and found to my delight that the crocuses were out, and the early daffodils were pushing up through the mulch. It was nearly spring – again.