Looking for the Love, Philadelphia Part One

“Looking for The Love”, Philadelphia Part One

America’s original capital city, Philadelphia, seems to have fallen off the main stage but it is still the fifth largest city in the US with more than five million residents. Despite the name of a recent sitcom (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, you can find it on Canadian Netflix), I would say that it rains every single day in Philadelphia. I should perhaps disclose that my observations made from under an umbrella were conducted over the course of two days. So, there is a slight chance that the weather may differ from when I was there but that is how I will remember it.

Philly first hit my radar for places I must visit when I discovered that it was the “City of Brotherly Love”. Doesn’t that sound just lovely. I imagine guys walking arm in arm, sitting outdoors at street-side cafes calling each other “brotha” as they share the love. The locals must really affectionate with each other to earn such a title. Perhaps the term, “bromance” comes from here too. Will Smith was born here; he seems like a warm, loving guy, doesn’t he. Kevin Bacon too. Aren’t we all supposed to be somehow associated with Kevin Bacon by six degrees? That’s a warm and connective thought, isn’t it. Fits right in to my new life philosophy that connecting with others is perhaps the most important thing.

Imagine my shock on discovering that “brotherly love” was not readily apparent on the streets when I first wandered out of my hotel in search of dinner in torrential downpour that first evening. I was a little disappointed when no one had offered me as much as a hug while I was checking-in to the artsy Hotel Monaco. Then on the streets, passing the soaking people slogging their ways home after work, not as much as a friendly smile to acknowledge my arrival to their loving city. What was more, I was not even called “brother” that first night, not even one time. I was horrified.

Turns out, the city did not earn the reputation of being a city of brotherly love in recent years, nor is it actually a reputation. It stems from the city’s conception by founding father, William Penn, who must have been a pretty loving guy himself. It was his vision to create a place where everyone would just get along. He envisioned that people from different places and backgrounds could live together in peace and harmony. I guess equality of the sexes had not come together for him yet though, or he simply recognised that most of the problems were coming from the guys anyway. Women are always more accepting and loving towards other women when compared to men. Except when they’re not. So it was he found his male-focused inspiration from the Greek, philos adelphos. Always a fun place to go with words when you want to sound smart; it gives you that little extra edge on profundity too. Literally it means, “loving brothers”. Well, the loving brothers probably didn’t want to live somewhere that sounded as precious as philos adelphos so it was anglicised to the handsome name of Philadelphia. Another name Bill can take credit for is the state of Pennsylvania. Which is his surname plus “sylvania” (Latin for “forest land”) so literally, “Penn’s woods”. So, that name is a tiny bit more self-focused I can’t help but notice.

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There were other fun reasons to visit the “cradle of liberty” anyway. Mustard was first produced here in 1768 by Benjamin Jackson. I like mustard. Was it invented here or was that just when the first person recorded making it in this location; people like to record all sorts of silly things. Someday I’ll have a fact checker who enjoys looking into such exciting matters, for now just know that I do not promise that any of the facts presented here are definitely true, but I did not make them up either. (Okay, Siri says the Romans had mustard, so I’m not sure what exactly this claim is about. I think that Siri might also be using the internet for her information too though.) Anyway, do they love mustard so very much that they aknowledge simply when someone first made it here? And how do they really know he was the first person here to do so? Do they know when someone was the first here to make jam too? How about strawberry pie? Might one happen upon a plaque somewhere indicating that within this home was where the first person in Philadelphia who practiced Japanese flower arranging lived? How far do such commemorations go? I wonder if there is anything I could do here to become the first to have done it here.

Another exciting first came soon after in 1775 when Johann Behrent completed the first piano (then called piano forte) built in the US. In fact, Philadelphia had a lot of firsts. The first commercial radio broadcast (KDKA). The first zoo in the US (founded by Benjamin Franklin). The first bank on US soil. The first US stock exchange (1790). America’s first daily newspaper. (Although short-lived, 1784-1790.) The first “Rocky” film in 1976. And then the second. And the third.

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My first evening I enjoyed a meal at a little pub where I did enjoy some brotherly chat with the bartenders. They were enjoying a two-to-one customer-bartender ratio so could hardly avoid interacting with the four of us sitting in front of them at the counter. Even if they had wanted to. I was not walking away without my brotherly love. Well, with one of the bartenders I suppose it was sisterly, or half sisterly-half brotherly since she would have been like the loving sister chatting with me her loving and very interesting and dare I say charming, brother.

The next day I burst outside, again finding the rain a little off-putting for sight-seeing. Off-putting in that subtle way that I did not want to go outside and had to force myself. I wandered past the liberty bell, the infamous instrument that cracked on it’s first ringing. Online there is some dispute as to whether Pennsylvania was misspelled as Pensylvania or whether both spellings were at the time commonly in use. I should think Penn would have always wanted the second, silent “n” to be included for higher name recognition, even if it were a redundant letter when it came to pronunciation. Later I will visit Allentown, where I discover that the broken/cracked bell was escorted to protect from it the British. I guess the British must have really liked big, cracked bells. I must ask them about it next time I’m there as it’s one of my favourite countries to visit. A conversation starter, “Do you people still like to acquire large, cracked bells?” So high was it’s value, it was escorted back to Philadelphia by a caravan of seven hundred wagons. I read that online, so it must be true. But that sounds astoundingly absurd to me. One damaged bell. Seven hundred means of transport. Overkill or prudence? One shouldn’t judge.

I discover another first on my wanderings, this one technological.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
TO BE CONTINUED

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The Liberty Bell, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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A Mural in Philadelphia, 2014.

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Inside the lobby of the fun-looking Hotel Monaco.

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In my room of the hotel in the city of brotherly love where no hugs were pro-offered.

STAY TUNED – TO BE CONTINUED

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Going to the Met (“People Make the City” Series)

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Vera

“I’ve been watching that collect dust for 35 years,” a mature New Yorker tells her friend as they sit staring straight-ahead from the Dress Circle of the Metropolitan Opera House. There is an odd sculpture directly above the proscenium, incongruous to the main of the decor. “It looks a bit like old-fashioned toothless saws and some fishbones; what is it supposed to be?” I ask. In Manhattan one is allowed to jump into others conversations. Toronto is a friendly city too, but we would pretend not to hear a private conversation beside us, to be polite. Here people join in strangers conversations all the time, it’s probably what I love most about this city. “I think it’s a broken violin,” she answers, “but it’s hard to tell. Whatever it is, it sure is ugly.” Yes, it is that. (I look it up later. It’s a bronze called “Untitled” by Mary Callery. I guess she didn’t know what it was either.)

“It’s an ugly theatre,” she adds, “from 1966. The one the opera used before was much nicer.” It’s true, looking around all the balconies, the gold scallop design would have been ugly in any era. The ceiling is great though. I love the Sputnik chandeliers, bursts of crystal celebrating the space age and reminiscent of Superman’s icy home planet. (Did he have an icy home planet? It’s been a while.) I mention this and she adds,”The chandeliers are from Austria.” Before the show an elderly couple I was chatting with in the foyer had told me they were from Czechoslovakia. “The Czech Republic is known for it’s glass and crystal work,” I had acknowledged. Anyway, they are definitely from somewhere. (Post note, they were a gift from the Austrian government and were recently sent to Vienna for refurbishment in 2008.) The lights lower and the low-hanging chandeliers around the periphery rise in unison, they make their way to the ceiling as to not obstruct any view. It is apparent that a few have at times risen too far; there is some damage to the gold leaf ceiling exactly where a few of the chandeliers have scratched against it. This evening they stop about three feet below. In the Met gift shop there are pieces of replaced chandeliers available for sale. Little pieces of starburst that had caught my eye before I knew what they were as they reminded me of my former-partner’s sculptures that he called orb.bits. Sparkly, unique, and collectable, people bought them mostly to hang on their Christmas trees.

Although I don’t love the music of Verdi’s Falstaff I’m happy to see this production conducted by James Levine. I had seen some of his backstory during a live broadcast of Tosca at a cinema recently in Toronto. He has come back after a major spinal injury that had seemed like the end of his illustrious career. Now he’s back and with as much passion as he ever had. With the energy apparent of a twenty year-old. It is a miraculous recovery, even if he is aided by the best hydraulic technology.

“Today’s curtain calls are about twice as long as they should be,” I suggest to nodding seat mates after we’ve all tired of clapping and most of us have stopped. I think it’s great to show appreciation, but if I were directing a curtain call I’d have the company do a respectable once-over and leave the stage with the thunder at it’s full force and before the audience has become worn-out by the effort. Instead they wait for it to trickle, as if they must be standing before us since we’re still clapping. Then we feel like we must keep clapping because they are still standing before us. “Thank you SO SO VERY much,” we seem to be clapping, as if we had not paid hundreds of dollars for our tickets.

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Standing in front of the Metropolitan Opera House at the Lincoln Centre, Manhattan, NYC.

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Gorgeous chandeliers in the lobby.

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Gorgeous chandeliers in the auditorium.

Click the link below to see more images of the chandeliers:

https://www.google.ca/search?q=metropolitan+opera+chandeliers&client=safari&hl=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=emuzUpikKqHIsAT41oL4Dw&ved=0CFwQ7Ak&biw=1024&bih=672#facrc=_&imgrc=lwvz7LK3axG8QM%3A%3BKaFFE8jvKuePuM%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fm6.i.pbase.com%252Fg4%252F65%252F615665%252F2%252F60101906.ChandelieratMetropolitanOper.jpg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fwww.pbase.com%252Fimage%252F60101906%3B800%3B533

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Meeting on New York Street Corners

I started my writing project last year in Manhattan, in November 2012. This short posting is from that first month of writing. I will soon be completing the circle and returning to NYC in December where I have rented an apartment in Greenwich Village for the month. I am already starting to plan to do some readings and open mics so if you are in NYC let me know if you’d like to join the audience some night when I’m taking the stage! Cheers!

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I experienced the re-election of President Obama in Times Square during my visit in November, 2012.

Warning: The following prose contains some language of a mature nature that may be offensive to some. Also: Smoking is bad for you. Really, really bad. It was really hard to quit, but I finally did for good in February, 2013.

Finn

“Can you spare a cigarette?” so often the opening line of so many interactions and another reason it’s so hard to quit, again. “Sure,” I fumble into my pocket to pull out a package of B&H. I clearly have the look of someone who does not mind sharing cigarettes, based on the frequency this happens. And it’s true, I don’t mind. “Do you need a light?” I ask after handing him one and his hand lingers on mine a second longer than is comfortable. “Sure,” he says with a gentle voice. I flick my little disposable yellow bic holding it up to where it needs to be. He takes it from me and lights it himself.

“Yellow is my favourite colour,” he smiles, handing my lighter back. “Mine too,” which is true, but a long margin. “What’s your name?” he asks. “Darren.” “Darren?” “Yeah. What’s yours?” “- – -in” The noise at the street corner is loud and I miss it. “Sorry?” “Finn.” “Oh, like Finley?” I elaborate as way of verification, still guessing what I heard. “FINN! F – I – N – N ! God! It’s a simple name!” His anger surprises me and I step back, I turn away. I’m back to the task at hand which is meeting someone for dinner at the corner, but I’m not sure which corner, I just know that we’re meeting at this busy intersection.

“I’m sorry,” he says, reappearing in front of me after having sat for a few moments and finished his cigarette. “Would you like some beer?” he asks, standing too close, intensely making eye contact. I’m blushing. He’s a very cute little guy, not at all my type, but the attention feels nice and he makes me feel special. He holds-up a large can wrapped in a magenta pashmina with just the top showing. “No thanks, I’m waiting for someone, I’m meeting him here.” “Oh,” his face drops. “Is he your boyfriend?” “No.” “Your bodyguard?” “Yes, I’m meeting my bodyguard.” “O-Kay,” he replies in that high-toned ‘I understand’ sort of way. “I’m just kidding, I’m meeting a friend.”

“My roommate calls his guy his bodyguard. Whenever they go anywhere, he tells everyone he’s his bodyguard.” “Really?” “Yeah, but my roommate is an asshole. I mean, he’s a nice guy, I like him, but he’s an asshole.”

“What’s your name again?” “Darren.” “It’s just that I’d really like to go with you to your house and suck your dick all night. I’m just sayin’ . . . . .”

“You saved me!” I blurt aloud as my date arrives on the scene. “Oh?” I gesture with wide eyes. “Okay then, lets go!”

“Bye Finn.” “Bye Darren.”

My date and I walk nearly a dozen blocks South before settling on an Italian Restaurant for dinner. Chatting, we don’t pay great attention to the restaurants we’re passing, but it’s in the direction of his meeting afterwards. Following dinner, we walk a few more blocks where I deposit him for his evening rehearsal. After parting, I continue walking up the side street, I’ll walk a different route home for interest.

“Can you spare a dollar?” a small voice calls out to my left as I round the corner onto 8th Avenue. “Finn!” “Darren!” “Yeah, I’m a homeless guy,” he admits,”that’s my bed and he’s my roommate I told you about.” He points to a commercial entrance closed for the day, in which there is a small pile of dirty blankets, a shopping bag, and another smallish black guy holding the fort.

Finn suddenly brightens. “How was your date, Darren?” “How did you know it was a date?” “Oh, I could tell.” “It was really nice. We’re meeting again.” “I’m happy for you.” “Thanks.” “Here’s some money for dinner, Finn, I gotta go,” I start to walk. “Thanks Darren! See you around!” “Take care Finn.”

As for my date, we did meet once more. But only once.

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Some random shots from Nov, 2012 in NYC.

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Going for a Ride in Lima

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I would like to say that I did enjoy my visits to Lima and it is a city well worth seeing. That this story unfolded during those visits is probably coincidence. I recommend visiting Peru and I probably will again myself someday.

 

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Mother and I visiting a park in Lima, Peru.

Going for a Ride in Lima

The flight to Lima was uneventful. My second visit and Mother’s fifth, we anticipated our arrival knowingly and with excited anticipation. My family is involved with a charity project a couple of hours North of the city and Mom is the administrator.

We arrived to a summery Autumn day. Now experienced with this destination, we knew that the best exchange rate was not found in Canadian banks or even Peruvian banks, but in the airport. Mom has also become involved in a small community down South in the Sacred Valley where she likes to spend most of her time when visiting Peru because her visits to the charity project are basically constrained to two days. Canadian money goes a long way in Peru and Mother had decided that on this trip she would buy a roof for the church she attends in the Valley. It wasn’t that the roof needed replacement, the church didn’t actually have one. It was thought that having a roof would be handy, especially during rainy season when four brick walls on a patch of mud might not provide the shelter desired. For this purpose and for her own spending, she brought with her a good amount of cash.

Looking back at it, a glass cage in the middle of a busy airport hall was perhaps not the most inconspicuous place to deal with stacks of cash and we could have been more discreet. We both giggled when we saw the stacks of Peruvian nuevo sols that thousands of Canadian dollars had become, it looked silly. It appeared like the amount of money one could retire on, which in Peru I suppose it was. We also filled another small bag after Mother’s purse was full to busting.

Well educated on the perils of hiring just any taxi, we organise our government-controlled taxi ride before leaving the airport. The facility itself is located in one of Peru’s most dangerous neighbourhoods and is not somewhere one should even step onto the street. Too much luggage for us to take a car, we hire a full-sized van to get into the city.

After being directed into the van by our amicable driver, we start out. “I can’t believe how comfortable I have become here!” Mother exclaims, “I used to be nervous arriving to Lima, now it just feels like my other home!” We both beam excited smiles, looking forward to visiting some familiar places in Lima before we head to the charity project in a couple of days. The children will be excited to see us. I’ll get to visit my own sponsored kids again too, quite a rare experience when one sponsors children in the third world.

“Darren!!! Darren!!!”

At the traffic light some blocks away from the airport, a young man has smashed Mom’s window open. He has her bulging handbag out the passenger-side window before we can even register what has happened.

Mother is in the habit of keeping her purse over her left shoulder. The purse catches on her shoulder long enough that I am able to join in the struggle myself before it is too late. The young man and I have a considerable tug-of-war through the window before the assailant realises he won’t win, lets go, and runs off with nothing.

Our driver somehow hadn’t noticed this was happening and only after the man was sprinting away did he turn towards us. “What’s wrong?” as if he didn’t hear the window smashed open directly behind him, me shouting and fighting with someone right there. The driver got out in an act of infuriation that such a thing could possibly happen. But his reaction was impossibly delayed. If he honestly did have that delayed of a reaction, then he should not be allowed near any motor vehicle or even be permitted to walk down the street. A lot could happen to someone who has a 20-second delay in processing stimuli. (Sad. He fell in the bath tub and didn’t notice until after he had drowned that he was under water.)

Can you imagine being behind such a fellow at a coffee shop? “What would you like?” Twenty second pause. “What kind of juice do you have?” “Apple and orange juice.” Twenty second pause. “Is the orange freshly squeezed?” “No.” Twenty second pause. “In that case I guess I’ll just have a coffee, do you have a medium roast?” “Yes.” Twenty second pause. “I’ll have that then.” “How do you take it?” Twenty second pause. “Take what?” “You’re coffee.” Twenty second pause. “Where? I don’t see my coffee.” “Would you like to have a coffee with cream and sugar?” Twenty second pause. “No, just cream.” . . . . I imagine myself tackling him in utter frustration. Back to what actually happened, it wasn’t as though our struggle had been quiet, and we were in the seat directly behind his. He didn’t seem to be hard of hearing nor visually impaired. Oddly nearby is a police officer who our driver mockingly yells at and then tells us that he yelled at the policeman for what happened. Case closed. We were then back on our way with our deflated driver who probably just missed-out on a 6-month holiday. Mother whispers, “Should we still tip him?”

A good question. From my considerable experience, I usually factor-in quite a few scenarios when calculating my tip. How honest was the route taken (if I know, today I do), how helpful was the driver with our bags, was the driver friendly or standoffish, did the driver try to take us places we did not want to go enroute to our destination? Did he try to take us to his friend’s hotel rather than the one we instructed, did he tell us our hotel was out of business trying to persuade us to another destination then feign shock when he was mistaken? Did he refuse to use the metre, or did he start the metre at an extraordinarily high amount? Did he pretend there were ridiculous surcharges not included in the prepaid fare, did he not have any change whatsoever and refuse to take us to get change causing the fare to be six times the agreed rate? Did he try to pick-up an additional passenger (who could be a comrade to make it two-against-one for a mugging, by the way.) Did he run out of gas, did the car break down, did he insist on smoking and with the windows up, did he refuse to turn on the air conditioning without further payment when it was steaming hot and an air conditioned cab was already paid-extra for. Did he agree on one fare before you got in and then present you with a random total four times the agreed amount at the end? Did he then yell to a nearby police officer that YOU were trying to cheat HIM? Was his visa machine broken until you took a photo of his car’s id and then suddenly it was working after all? Did he try to drive away with your luggage still in his trunk? Did he put your suitcase on the roof and not secure it until you refused to depart until it was? “If it doesn’t fall off, someone will just take it when we’re stuck in traffic.” “So? Maybe my brother, I mean the stranger, needs it more than you do.” All of these scenarios I have encountered. I am not kidding. In some places I am now in the habit of taking a photo of the cab information while the driver is watching, I make that gesture obvious on purpose, although many drivers will still attempt a variety of cons even knowing I have the full ability to track and report. Best to use a phone because cameras can be removed from you. “So exciting to be here again! I just texted a picture of your cab to my sister!” NEVER admit to being a first time visitor to a taxi driver. At the very least, first time visitors tend to get the scenic route. The only country where I completely trust taxi drivers is Japan. “Sumimasen. Could you please count the cash in my wallet while I go use the toilet, I didn’t have time to check how much I have. Arigato gozaimasu.”

Today I add to my tipping criteria, “Did he collude with other criminal(s) to look the other way for a share of the takings while we were being violently mugged less than two feet away from him?” If you ask me, it’s definitely grounds for a reduced tip.

We arrive to our usual hotel shaken but thankful. We are still alive and the church will still get it’s roof. “I’m glad you were with me this time!” Mother chirps gratefully. Definitely. Alone her purse would have been gone and she would not have had anyone to calm down with. That would have been a terrible experience. (Unlike the wonderful experience it was due to my presence.) “That poor man, he’s probably addicted to drugs,” my Mother mused throughout the day. “Isn’t that sad, Darren. Did you see how thin he was? Do you think he probably uses crack? That makes people really skinny. He’s someone’s son. He’s probably someone’s brother. Just think of his poor Mother.”

We weren’t so lucky during my first visit. Nearly, but not quite. At the end of those three weeks we had one last day in Lima after covering Cuzco, the Nazca Lines, Machu Picchu and some other main areas. Our guide took the two of us inside St.Francis of Assisi Church in the lovely district that looks more like colonial Spain than South America. This was a church open for tourism, with paid admission. A crowd pressed close to look over a railing down into the catacombs where we could see a large collection of skulls. Turning away Mother suddenly noticed her purse was now open. Someone in the pressing crowd had unzipped it and got away with her wallet.

I had her passport with mine in my waist wallet, strapped under my shirt. Without that, we would have had to extend our stay which we were no longer keen to do. We did, however, spend our last afternoon and evening in Peru on the phone to Canada cancelling her various credit cards and later in Canada she had to go about the process of replacing all of her stolen ID. “Good thing you were with me,” I remember her saying that day too. Yes, thankfully one of us still had access to funds. And it’s much better to share a crisis. Not in the same way that it’s better to share a birthday cake. Or it’s better to share your crayons. This is more like sharing student debt with your parents. Everyone wins. Except your parents. You know what I mean.

Later we discover that the same scenario coming from the airport happened to someone we knew who had arrived to Lima a week before. She had also changed money inside the airport hall. Her window was also smashed open, she thought with a metal gun but wasn’t sure because it happened so fast. Despite being closed, our window was able to be smashed open. Her’s was smashed into pieces in her lap and she had to go for stitches.

At the end of our stay we again flew through Lima where we had an 8-hour layover. Previously, we would have gone into town to enjoy lunch and wander around without a second thought, but this day we stayed-put. We decided it wasn’t worth the risk for such a short duration. The airport suddenly seemed a perfectly cozy place to spend a day.

No matter how experienced one may be there are always new situations that life can bring and new lessons to be learned. I didn’t really feel like learning a new one just yet. I firmly believe that we need to take chances in order to live life fully. But sometimes we need to listen to our experiences and not just move boldly forward. Perhaps there was a reason we weren’t to visit Lima that last day. Maybe our close call was actually a warning. Whatever the case, the expectation that someone might attack us at the first traffic light after leaving the airport was enough to alter our enthusiasm for seeing Lima again.

Visiting my foster kids North of Lima.

Visiting my foster kids North of Lima.

A Street in Cuzco.

A Street in Cuzco.

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Swimming in Paradise

I may update this with some photos from our trip to Turks & Caicos in the near future.

Swimming in Paradise

“Is it an STD?” our brother playfully asks the nurse as we burst into the examination room with camera in hand. Our sister, suffering from burns, sits on a chair in the medical office of our resort while the attending nurse verifies her condition. Barb is not yet finding the hilarity of the situation and presents a finger in response to the intrusive photo taking and general merriment being enjoyed at her expense.

The day had nearly been like any other, on a trip with friends and family at a beach resort in Turks & Caicos. Relaxing breakfast lingering over coffee, wandering through the grounds, reading under a canopy, swimming. Today we sign-out snorkel equipment to be able to better appreciate the beautiful sea life below the surface. “You can snorkel here,” we are told at our resort, “but if you continue down the beach, the area in front of the next resort has a lot more to look at.”

“That’s awesome! Thanks so much for telling us!” Barb replies. We all make our way towards the water pulling on our masks and trying-out making silly noises through the snorkels. We sound like a herd of elephants in confused distress as we listen to our own affected voices manipulated through the air tubes while our feet awkwardly slap the wet sand as we walk with our flippers.

We enter the waves directly, with plans of swimming over to the next resort to behold the more impressive beauty known to reside there. It’s always interesting after swimming somewhere, particularly in salt water where you need to close your eyes tightly, to later swim again but with the added view of what is swimming with you. The beach around our resort was voted by readers of Conde Nast Traveler to be the “best of all island beaches worldwide”. So it was pretty. The main attractions, under the water, were not to be missed.

As a group we playfully drift our way in the direction we were suggested and eventually we encounter a rectangular area a bit away from shore circumferenced by lines of red buoys. “This must be it!” someone calls as we all follow suit and one-by-one duck under the line of buoys to enter the space. “Gold pot!” Barb calls sing-songly as she views her first school of spectacular fluorescent-coloured fish and brightly-coloured vegetation. “Over here, look!”

“This is amazing!” our brother Bryan exclaims, pulling his face out of the water long enough to share his enthusiasm. “Incredible!” calls a friend, “I can’t believe this is real!” We’re all fascinated as we slowly skim along the top of the water, enjoying the views of life and beauty unfolding just underneath us.

“I have to go in,” I swim over to tell someone not very long after we’ve started, “I’m getting burned.” I guess the waterproof sun block is coming off and I’m burning just at the top of my shoulders. I leave the group and the water and make my way to shade. Deciding I’m done with the beach today because of the sun, I go back to my room to clean-up. I’ll find a nice sheltered area where I can read.

An hour or so later Bryan has come to find me. “Do you have burns?” “A little bit, that’s why I got out.” “Let’s see!” I lift my T-shirt to show a bit of redness on my shoulders. “That’s not sunburn, that’s where the buoys touched your shoulders when you ducked-under them! I just have a bit on my arm!” Bryan shows, “You should see Barb, she is covered with great big red spots! She’s in the medical clinic, let’s go!” Starved for adventure at an all inclusive resort, this is quite a breakthrough. I mean, she probably won’t die or become maimed, so no need to worry really.

The first burst of adrenaline in days of lounging and eating at this child-friendly family resort, we excitedly run to the medical office where, when no one answers, we continue through to the private examination room. “This is private!” the nurse shouts on our rude and abrupt entry. “It’s okay, we’re with her!”

“Holy smokes, what is it?” I blurt-out seeing Barb covered in big red blotches and after Bryan has teasingly asked the nurse whether she has been sought on this occasion to treat an STD.

Barb, who was last to leave the water, explains. “We were swimming in fire coral. When I came out there was this older local guy who asked didn’t we know that we could be fined ten thousand dollars each for swimming in a restricted area.”

“What restricted area?”

“The area inside the red buoys wasn’t showing the best area to explore, it was showing where not to swim.”

“But how were we supposed to know?”

The nurse, who most likely fills her days dealing with minor injuries caused by the utter imbecility of resort guests, looks at us with tired eyes and some pity. I suppose she never gets to meet the sensible visitors. The ones who didn’t forget to wear sunblock when seeing sunlight for the first time in three months, or who thought it might not be prudent to try to pet the interesting wild birds that have large, funny beaks. No, she meets the daredevil who was sure he could impress the ladies by going down the enormous water slide standing-up and then sent his now-broken teeth right through his lip when it all went wrong. The girl who had one-too-many bottles of wine before accidentally falling unconscious into the chocolate fountain very nearly drowning herself in front of small children holding up their strawberries and marshmallows on little sticks under the flow of the viral chocolatey liquid. Had it not been for their screams. . . . The man who thought his mother’s medicated hot roll-on ointment for joint pain was his deodorant and burned his armpits. Okay, in his defence he never went for medical treatment and anyway that was months ago and he wasn’t used to having houseguests. They were very similar containers. With the impressive line-up of ailments she must treat, the nurse probably wonders how all of these ridiculous people can even afford travel let-alone how they haven’t accidentally killed themselves already by choking on their own toothbrush or forgetting to chew a large hunk of steak. Life isn’t fair.

“Does red mean “go” in your country?” the nurse asks. “Because in our country it means stop. And caution.” We stare, processing her logic. Interesting.

Barb continues, “He said there was a sign that blew over last week. And then the old man points at my red patches and he says that they are burns from swimming near endangered fire coral and that I will need to see a doctor.”

“Oh my goodness gracious,” I reply, although in less polite terms, as I now suddenly re-visit my own red burns. “So do they put-out burning acid into the water? Is that why they’re called fire coral?”

“They’re actually a type of jelly fish,” informs the kill-joy nurse. Again, we stare with pause. This woman really likes to be the centre of attention, barging-in with her random comments.

“Should we pee on her then?” asks Bryan, helpfully. (Urine can be an antidote to jelly fish stings.)

“You could,” the nurse replies, “but it won’t help.”

“Let’s try anyway,” I offer, “I’ll pee in this jar and bring it back.”

“If it’s not going to f*ing help, I’m not pouring your f*ing piss on me! Thank you!” Barb politely refuses. A tad melodramatic if you ask me. We’re just being silly about her being covered with burns from swimming with poisonous see creatures. I mean, she is in pain and I suppose we don’t yet know if it’s serious or not so I guess she has a point. But she’s probably not going to die or anything.

Cortisol cream dispensed, ten days later it’s like it never even happened. Just another happy travel memory.

Two years pass and we find ourselves on set of a travel show in production. We’re being interviewed for this story and for the story earlier-written that caught the producers attention about our flight to Turks & Caicos. Both stories will be separate segments of “Bad Trip”. http://www.cmjprod.ca/badtrip.html The show will be in editing this winter and aired sometime in 2014. I’ll post a link to it when it’s out.

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If this looks like a photo shoot, it’s because we forgot to take photos while they were interviewing us on cameras. These are pics from the photo shoot afterwards. See here Bryan, Barb, and Me.

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Rather than visit this production company in Montreal, we joined the proceedings at the Royal York Hotel here in Toronto. That’s why it may look like some conference you’ve attended.

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Of course they wanted me to be the one lifted in front but I was too shy.

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Bumbling about the Handsome City of Chester

Bumbling About the Medieval Walled City of Chester by Darren Elliott

Chester is one of those places where I arrived in disbelief. It wasn’t like some outpost in Northern China where I wondered what I had done so wrong to deserve to end up there. It wasn’t shocking in the way that getting-out at the wrong subway station can be in some US cities. It didn’t remind me of my time in Winnipeg or of growing-up in the Kennebecasis Valley. Of being a visible minority in a suburb of London or the only Western person in a school in Japan.

The disbelief came from wondering why I had never heard of this place before. Chester is one of England’s best-preserved walled cities with nearly 3 km of Grade 1 listed walls. First established as somewhere in 79 (that’s 0079, not 1979) by the Romans and having received city status in 1541, this is not some new place for me to have not yet heard about. This is an incredible, handsome city full of character. Chester should long have been on my radar of places to visit, and yet it was only by recent suggestion during my UK travels that it came to be on my hit list.

I had heard of lovely Chester years ago but it didn’t register. My most senior employee when I was a co-owner of a retail business in Winnipeg was from Chester.

Margaret is one of those people with the gift of charm and we were lucky that she wanted to work for us. Friendly and outgoing, interesting and interested, Margaret could while away the hours chatting with customers and neighbours while selling any manner of merchandise. Always impeccably dressed and ready to work, Margaret came from that era when people felt their time at work belonged to their employer. None of the texting, doing homework, mobile phone-using, watching videos or playing games on tablets that younger people might hope to achieve during their employment hours. Between sales Margaret was dusting, sweeping, glass cleaning, watching. We had other excellent staff too, but they weren’t from Chester.

Margaret’s charm was bolstered by her jovial English accent which I had thought was from Manchester. I had known that she had danced with John Lennon, he was in a band called the Quarrymen that performed at a pub in her hometown. (The band later became the Beatles.) That Margaret’s hometown was Chester, a smallish city today of 120,000 people South West of Liverpool near the Welsh border, had never quite connected to my obviously-weak brain tissues. I did not realise I was visiting Margaret’s hometown when I was in Chester, she told me that later, on my blog.

I did come to know that Chester was Paul’s hometown before my visit. Paul was someone who taught for the same board of education as I did, in Matsuyama, Japan. As handsome and impressive as his hometown is, I can see that it may not have had the plethora of career choices he may have wanted since sadly Chester is no longer needed as a base from which to attack Wales. So pros and cons about that. “Let’s attack Wales just for jolly fun!” I am tempted to suggest remembering my very long week in Cardiff this past winter. “Jolly” isn’t even in my vernacular, that’s how enthusiastic I feel just thinking about it. “But Wales is part of Great Britain.” “But is it, really?” “Yes, it is.” “Is it though?” “Yes.” But they were mean to me when I was trying to order sandwiches and stuff. Everywhere I went. All week. Oh never mind, it was just an idea. I bet it would be good for the economy though.

So between knowing Margaret and Paul, I figure I’m practically a son of Chester. Most of the places I’ve visited on my UK adventure I’ve had no connection to whatsoever. Did you know that Princess Diana was also the Countess of Chester? I would have put that above my Princess of Wales title if I were her, but that’s just me holding a grudge. I suppose she had no choice in the matter really. And for some reason when I hear “Countess of Chester” my mind pictures “Court Jester” because of the slight rhyme. So I suppose Princess of Wales has a nicer ring to it, it doesn’t make me giggle.

When my favourite writer, Bill Bryson, passed through Chester, he just passed through. I guess he was saving it for others to write about, he mentions only that he changed trains here. In this beautiful town of medieval buildings, many restored during the Victorian era and still absolutely picturesque. How could he have passed this lovely town and not felt compelled to capture it in his entertaining way for time immemorial. He can’t have been well. Under the weather. Temporarily blinded. I’m not complaining, his act would have been very hard to follow.

Chester is perhaps most famous for it’s Rows. These are very interesting and unique structures. All in medieval style, basically there must have been some type of agreement between the landowners that each independent building in a row would have a built-in walkway. These are within the structure linking building-to-building on the level above ground. This was a very early form of multi-story shopping where one would promenade along one row of shops and dwellings on the ground level, and another row of shops and dwellings on the level above. The walkways are not uniform and are obviously of separate construction. As one passes from one building to the next there are changes in height, dimension, and building styles; it’s a very interesting arrangement.

Pondering Bryson’s surprising exclusion I find a place to wait for the little antique double-decker bus that has a narrated tour by costumed guides. I have seen this little contraption here-and-there putting about the city. It is quaint and cute and I want a turn. It has arrived to the departure point but I am told to wait. If others do not come, there will be no more tours today. Sitting there, a mother and her grown daughter swoop in beside me. “BHS is British Home Stores and I’m sure they’ll have it. Just wait here and I’ll be back for you,” says the daughter as she merrily wanders off down the high street. “I’ll be here with Mondrian,” her mother replies, referring to my socks. Pretty ones I got in NYC. Having fun socks is enough for this woman to decide that I must be a decent sort of fellow.

Now I might have used the term “swoop” loosely. I meant it in more of a trudging, painfully-slow, dragging-ones-limbs, laborious sort-of-way. The mother, who looks to be shy of 60, is, how can I put this delicately, mammoth. A very large woman who has become nearly immobile and steps with the aid of a large walker. Very friendly and amicable, we start chatting before her ample weight has even met the bench. (No, it didn’t break. How rude of you to think that. You’ve gotten me completely off topic. Again. Bad reader.)

“Are you here with the cruise ship?” I ask. I had just completed a walking-tour with a group of Albertans who came off a large ship docked today in nearby Liverpool. The entire town seems to be abuzz with the sudden influx of hundreds of visitors who arrived all at once and soon will be departing in a flash mob to return to port before curfew. In a matter of minutes half the people wandering the streets will have suddenly vanished. “We are, are you too?” “No, I’ve been here for a couple of days. I’m touring around by car.” “By yourself?” “Sure.” “I’ve never done that, I always bring one of my daughters with me. I’ve run-out of friends to invite, I travel as much as I can afford to. It’s always been my thing, my friends and family think I’m nuts! I used to travel with my husband until he passed a few years ago.”

“So, do you mostly take cruises?” “No, I prefer rock climbing and adventure travel. Last year my other daughter and I hiked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.” “Oh, I’ve been there too!” “I was kidding.” “Oh, yes. Ha, ha.”

“I LOVE cruises,” she continues, “I’ve been all over the world on cruise ships. I get all sorts of perks now, with the cruise company I’m with this time I have their top status, that’s for having more than 150 days of cruising with them.” “Wow! That’s a lot of days!” “Sure is,” she acknowledges proudly. “My husband, rest his soul, was a large man. One of the cruise companies didn’t treat him well with his mobility issues, so I don’t use that company anymore.” We continue talking about cruising as I have only travelled on one so far and I am happy to learn more from this veteran of the seas.

The conversation comes around to my travels and I tell her that I am planning on taking a road trip around her country soon. “You must visit my beautiful valley, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.” Well, she would know. “I live in the Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia.” “Like the song?” “That’s the one!” I had thought the song came from Ireland’s longest river, the River Shannon. And that “doah” was a word for “river” like “loch” was for “lake”. Turns out I was completely mistaken in this assumption. But then I only ever knew the first two lines of the song. Every time I sang those lines, as an actor, I thought my character was pining for his homeland across the ocean. I never got to the end of the verse and I never actually heard the song apart from what I sang.

One summer during university I had a summer job in Fredericton as a park performer. I was a member of a troop called the “Calithumpians”, we wrote and performed some historical plays for tourists in a downtown park. In one show there was a brief mention of Ireland and in lament I suddenly burst into song, “Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you, away you rolling river . . . ” before being pulled-back to the action by another actor. The song itself seems to have been made popular by the Irish Tenors too, so I am surprised today in researching it online to find that yes, in all it’s variations of lyrics it is indeed from the Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia. This well-travelled woman’s homeland.

Click on the video below to hear me sing the first two lines of Shenandoah. (If you received this story be email it should open it in a browser.)

We must have chatted for at least twenty minutes before the coach tour was cancelled and I took my leave. “It’s been great chatting with you!” I said as I stood up. Walking away I added, “I hope that I’m you in thirty years!” Now, I am in my fortieth year and I look that or more. If she paid attention to my comment and added 30 years to my appearance, she might have thought about that for a long time. Another kind and thoughtful remark put out into the universe by yours truly. I don’t know how I said that! I was trying to leave with a complement, I had very much enjoyed chatting with this friendly, interesting American woman while she waited for her daughter. The two of us were from small towns and were both enthralled with seeing as much of the world as we could. Of course she would realise that I had meant that I hoped to be her with regards to the extent of her travels, which exceeded my own, and not with regards to her being a young widowed grandmother or for her substantial girth which weighed her down so that cruising was really her only option for travel. “That Canadian guy must have thought I looked like I’m in my seventies! Do I really look that old? We seemed like such kindred spirits, he and I. Why would he say that?”

Kicking myself, I circle back thinking to somehow mend my departing comment but I am too late. Coaches are already filling to take everyone back to port. I see her from afar, as do two older local woman standing near me. “Bless ‘er, she’s as big as a bus,” one of them says, her hand over her face. “Oh my word, don’t look now, she’s trying to get in one,” gasps her friend.

A deep thinker and a student of life, I often look back on experiences to try and find the deeper meaning, the life lesson that the universe is trying to teach me. Perhaps even the real reason that I find myself in Chester today. After only a few minutes I have my “ah-ha” moment.

Next time I happen upon Mondrian socks I really should buy a few more pair because they really do go with just about everything.

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I stayed at a B&B called the Chester Townhouse on this lane. I enjoyed staying there, pleasant hosts and a warm environment.

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Here you can see the unique feature of the Rows. What looks like open balconies are openings on to the above-ground common walkway.

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Another view showing the Rows.

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Walking along the above-ground walkway.

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Click on the image below to see some kind of exercise commercial that was being filmed in from of the town hall.

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A view from walking along the city walls.

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School trips were here and there being led by costumed guides.

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One of the things I miss most when I leave the UK are the pedestrian zones. Every city should have one.

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Another photo looking down from the city walls.

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The antique bus tour I missed from waiting until my last afternoon to take it. I guess I’ll have to go back another time.

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Mondrian Sock.

Click on the image below to play a video of someone practicing piano inside St John’s Church.

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Resting back at the Chester Town House.

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