Category Archives: Canada

October on Prince Edward Island…

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“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” Lucy Maud Montgomery

 

As we tour Prince Edward Island this was indeed my prevailing thought, but they’re the words of the island’s most famous author, Lucy Maud Montgomery. Are they not precisely the sentiment that her beloved character, Anne, of Anne of Green Gables would exuberantly exclaim?

The island in October is simply stunning with hues in their autumnal glory, but it isn’t only the natural flora that wows. Whether in the cities, hamlets or countryside, the islanders truly delight in the season with elegant pumpkin-lined porches and flourishes of wreaths.

Prince Edward Island’s narrow roads wend through the forested and pastoral countryside – explosions of burnt reds, oranges, and golds line the way. Road signs suggest that you just might just be required to give way to a horse and carriage. The island does have that feeling of serenity, of simpler times, of history that lingers still.

My mom and I are first-time visitors this far east in Canada. It’s the ideal time to visit this ‘Garden of the Gulf’, yet be forewarned as many sites have already closed for the season. As the smallest province of Canada, PEI is a graceful canvas of quaint harbours, colourful bait shacks, tidy homesteads and lush agricultural land. It produces 25% of the nations potatoes, complimenting its fisheries, tourism, aerospace, bio-science and renewable energy endeavours.

It wasn’t too long after crossing the Confederation Bridge to the island that we chance upon Victoria by the Sea. With its squat lighthouse – traditional white, trimmed red – the small harbour town welcomes with a hearty bowl of seafood chowder, local crisp white wine, and glimpses into a fisherman’s daily life. Ropes, nets, buoys, and boats are at the ready for forays out to sea.

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In the summertime, the small harbour would be astir with visitors. Now we wander happily along the quiet streets and chance to meet Ben. Positioned just across from the lighthouse, this artisan moulds candle holders from the iron-red sandstone and clay of the island. The light glimmering from Ben’s tiny studio brightens up the gloomy October afternoon.

“This was once a healing house,” Ben tells us. “In the early years, diphtheria took many lives. Instead of going to the sanatorium, if a family had the means, they’d build a small cottage on the property for their loved one’s isolation… and hopefully recuperation.”

Ben’s perch has a view of the quaint wharf and the water, he finds it peaceful… just the way he likes it. Happily posing for a photograph with my mom, he gives us a few pointers for the island. “Don’t forget to say hi to Anne,” he says with a friendly laugh. “She keeps the tourists coming!”

After time in Nova Scotia, we’re touring for four days and chancing upon the unexpected, meeting locals, is very much part of the journey. Ben’s friendliness is matched time and time again in the days ahead.

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“The legend is that the island was formed by the Great Spirit placing on the Blue Waters some red crescent-shaped clay. We called it Epekwitk – cradled by the waves.” The Mi’kmaw, First Nations

The accent of many islanders hints at their roots, of the vast number of Scottish, English, Irish and Acadians who settled. Yet long before this time, the Mi’kmaw First Nations thrived on the island they called Epekwitk – the long pristine beaches, sand dunes and red sandstone cliffs inspiring their creation story.

IMG_0403I was fortunate to meet Bernie – not long after leaving the island –and I consider it an honour to have met this proud, compelling elder of the Mi ‘kmaw nation.

Gathered one evening around a blazing campfire, Bernie Francis greeted our writing group in the tradition of a powwow. With a healing drum and the gift of cedar, tobacco, sweetgrass and sage, Bernie’s soulful tunes wafted over us, spiritually connecting us to the land, to traditions, to storytelling.

The reverence for his nation’s people, who once moved with the rhythm of seasonal hunting and gathering, was palpable. We felt enveloped in a honeycomb of stories, heritage and soulful lyrics. As a Mi’kmaw elder, Bernie exemplifies the keeper of wisdom and traditions bestowed upon him.

As a linguist, he helped design the now official orthography, the writing of his people’s language. There had not been one and this achievement earned him honorary doctorates and grateful accolades. Leaving home, and the country, at 14, Bernie would eventually return in later life to work as a Director of the Court Worker Program, ensuring fair and just treatment of his people. His accomplishments are many, yet around the campfire that evening as Bernie serenaded us in Mi’kmaw, Spanish, and English, he taught us the gentle art of humility and generosity. For me, our evening with Bernie was the apogee of my trip.

Back in Charlottetown, I learn about the irrevocable change for the Mi’kmaw people. In 1763, The British, claiming dominion over the Maritimes, called the land St. John’s Island. Then a name change to Prince Edward Island, in honour of the fourth son of King George III, Prince Edward the Duke of Kent, Commander-in-chief of British troops, North America.

Hostilities grew as the island was soon divided into a mere 67 lots of properties – allocated to the King’s supporters by means of a lottery, most were absentee. Prince Edward was the father of Queen Victoria and in the course of her long reign, many more were encouraged to settle here, though the French were the first colonial settlers in Charlottetown.

In 1720, not far from the present-day city at Port La Joye, they staked their settlement bringing along Acadian settlers. Some forty years later, it was besieged by the British and renamed Charlottetown after the King’s consort. Then followed the tragic, wrongful expulsion of the Acadian settlers by the British –  an indelible stain in Canadian history.

Today, Charlottetown is widely remembered as the birthplace of confederation, where meetings and negotiations took place to discuss the forming of the nation – official on July 1, 1867. Paradoxically, Prince Edward Island declined to give up its status a colony of Britain, declining to join the fledgling union. Soon, it would be the railway that sealed the bargain.

 

“The railway moved mourners to funerals, brides to weddings, brass brands to picnics, hockey teams to tournaments. It got farmers’ produce to market, children to boarding schools… Islanders moved and mingled to the whistle of the train.” A signboard near Charlottetown’s first train station of 1907 

For many, before the railway came to Prince Edward Island, one could live ten miles from another village and barely know it existed. In 1871 this changed dramatically as railway branch lines slowly criss-crossed the island. Yet with too few passengers, too little freight, too many stops (every few miles) and unable to pay the debt, the colony faced bankruptcy. In 1873, Prince Edward Island reluctantly agreed to become Canada’s seventh province – the new nation would assume the island’s railway debts! Not only did this create jobs to compliment the long established fishing economy, railway coincided with the rise of shipbuilding and new wealth from shipping and timber.

The charming streets of Charlottetown attest to this. Perhaps a grand mansion such as Beaconsfield, its rooftop glass belvedere viewing out to the sea, its wealth of William Morris wallpaper speaking to its privileged past. Or wander the walkable streets and admire simpler homes, their facades in heavenly painted shades, their heritage and names proudly on display. I revel in the rich architectural past and their various styles – Georgian, Greek Revival, Italianate, simple Island Ell and Four Square – each with their own unique elegance.

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“It’s delightful when your imagination comes true, isn’t it?” Lucy Maud Montgomery

Back into the countryside, it was time to make our way to the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ house in Cavendish. As a writer, I wanted to know more about the author who created the spunky, loveable Anne Shirley. What had inspired Montgomery? Was the setting for her inspiration as beautiful as portrayed in her books. If you haven’t watched the current CBC series, Anne with an E… I simply implore you to do so!

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The drive from Charlottetown to Cavendish provides another showcase for the island’s beauty, but the town itself disappoints. With not much more than the church where Montgomery once played the organ, the small post office (already closed for the season) and the local cemetary the attraction is the home of a relative where Montgomery spent much of her time. The setting does feel like a storybook and it’s clear why she felt such a deep connection to the landscape. Embraced in the Cavendish community, Lucy was raised with a love for natural beauty… for the woods, the fields, the shores. Her imagination transformed it into a vivid, fictional world.

From the age of fifteen, the author began submitting poems, essays and stories. She partly credited fireside storytelling for her gift, ‘the romance of them in my blood.’ Despite the constrained expectations of women in the Victorian era, Montgomery was independent and strong-minded. She went away to Dalhousie University, became a school teacher, habitually rising early to write before class. After years away from home, she returned to care of her ill grandmother who ran the Cavendish post office from the kitchen of her own home.

It once stood near the present Cavendish post office, and the often lonely and dispirited young author discreetly sent out submission after submission from the humble surroundings. The manuscript of Anne of Green Gables, once stored away in a hatbox and safe from further rejection, was finally accepted on the sixth try. Published in 1908 to wide acclaim, it was an instant success. Lucy never shied away from the issues – the emancipation of women, freedom of speech, the struggle of identity, even the colonial treatment of the Mi ‘kmaq.

Anne Shirley’s adventures continued in numerous books – even as Montgomery struggled with her own depression and that of her husbands, a preacher, who ministered near Toronto. The author was stricken with the Spanish flu and almost died in 1918, afterwards almost divorcing her husband for his uncaring treatment. Difficult to obtain in Canada until 1967, Lucy ultimately decided against a divorce believing it was her Christian duty to make her marriage work. She returned to her beloved island as often as she could.

Awarded an OBE, many other awards, she is one of the most prolific authors in Canadian history. Upon her death 1942, Lucy Maud Montgomery was buried in Cavendish, the place she had always loved and that had given her so much inspiration.

As I wander the grounds, a single bus load of tourists from Japan is soaking up the surroundings, reminding me that from the outset Lucy enjoyed an international following and this continues today. Indeed, I get a true sense of the writer and her muse… this evocative place that she called home.

 

“On a cold day a winter sleigh ride and a picnic to survey the land for the best placement of the island’s first lighthouse. 13 miles across the frozen bay… basket lunches of bread and cheese, and fortifying wine was consumed by all.” Historical notes, March 31st, 1840

 

I had this one last destination in mind, Prince Edward Island’s oldest lighthouse. After all, I had been ‘collecting lighthouses’ throughout this trip. With the wind whipping up the waves and cold air biting, I venture out into the Atlantic wind to savour the lighthouse up close. My mom wisely remains in the warmth of the vehicle, as I peer up, then out, and around, to fully appreciate this vital structure.

Once the location for Point Prim Lighthouse had been determined by the surveyors that freezing day in 1840, it ended five years of petitioning, planning and funding. Simply put, as Charlottetown grew and shipping traffic increased, shipwrecks were piling up along the rugged shores. Merchants and fishermen often faced ruin and loss of life. Between 1770 and 1845, up to 100 ships had foundered in the island’s waters. The traditional bonfires at a harbours entrance now no longer sufficed.

As I guard myself against the roar and the spray of the ocean, I spare a thought for the lighthouse keepers. Their job was often one of loneliness and danger, but also of meaningful industriousness. The keeping of logs to record weather patterns, the buffing of the lights copper reflectors and the gleaming of salt-sprayed windows. And the summer months of tending gardens, farms and fish traps. Their names are recorded for posterity at many of the lighthouses and here at Point Prim, their contribution to the community is poignantly mentioned… ‘those enduring contributions.’ It strikes me that here on Prince Edward Island, community is and has always been the bedrock of this intriguing, compelling land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A ‘Come from away’… feeling at home in Peggy’s Cove

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The Buoy Shop owner tilts his flat cap ever so slightly as he considers my question.

“Well now, you must be a come from away – not from these parts – if you’s asking that. Different buoys you know, have different purposes.”

Roger is seemingly drowning in buoys. They dangle in nets and perch in the crooks of his aged bait shop – shades of blues, turquoises, oranges and faded reds.

“See this small one here, it’s carved from Portuguese cork. Those net floats there, they help catch the fin fish.” Roger’s sliver mustache curls into a smile when I ask how long he’s been a fisherman.

“I’m fifth generation, my children are six. These days, it’s more lobster fishing, but it was once more cod and haddock.”

Once I’ve browsed and chosen a handcrafted wooden buoy, Roger offers some advice. Shoving his large, calloused hands into the pockets of his checked flannel jacket, he cautions me. “You’ve come on a nice day, but yous be sure to stay off those black rocks. They get slippery and we don’t want to be fishing you out of the sea.’’

Roger and his Buoy Shop are an institution in Peggy’s Cove. Now, gazing out over the steamship-sized inlet, one gets a sense of time standing still, of maritime heritage preserved and presented to perfection.

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Crab and lobster traps nestle against weathered bait shacks. Snakes of rope coil on wooden docks. Small schooners, dories and Cape Islander’s anchor in the late October sun.

To get a true snapshot of Peggy’s Cove, I amble across from the docks, along the narrow path of Lobster Lane. A stranded buoy, bobs in the shallows and seaweed smothers the rocks at waters’ edge. Clusters of buoys arrayed in bouquets of colours and sea-green Adirondack chairs poise out to sea from the deck of the lonely Wharfside Cottage. The end of the season is already upon many parts of the Maritimes as the come from aways return to other parts of the province, country, or the world. The more permanent homes perch on a gentle cliff above, no strangers to the volatile maritime weather. Theirs is a spectacular, albeit often wind-whipped vista.

The gentle sibilant breeze is suddenly interrupted by the engine of a Cape Islander. The Harbour Mist,a lobster-fishing vessel, glides past slowly. Its cherry-red bow gracefully parting the deep-blue waters as it returns to the safety of Peggy’s Cove.

I soon hear an, “Ay, welcome back,” as the crew is greeted back home. The welcome, and the relief, of a seafarer’s return has been playing out here since 1811 when six families were issued a land grant of 800 acres. Fishing was their mainstay, but cattle also grazed the fertile soil that surrounds the coastal village. By the early 1900’s, a lobster cannery, a church, the General Store, and a schoolhouse supported a population of some three-hundred locals. Today, only thirty-five permanent residents call it home.

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Wandering onwards, I chance upon much more charming names than ‘General Store.’ These days it’s The Foggy Rock, Hags on the Hill and the Sou’ Wester. The once settlers’ cottages serve as quaint gift shops, restaurants and even the old schoolhouse has been converted into a charming homestead.

I hear the scraping of a wire-bristled brush even before I chance upon it. Eliza is five-steps up a ladder, tilted against the old school house. She is brushing away layers of paint… patinas of history. I peek through the window, admiring its transformation from schoolhouse to cozy cottage.

IMG_0998“It was built about 1858,” Eliza tells me, gingerly backing down the rungs to welcome me. “I married the son of a local fisherman, about forty years ago.” Yet our conversation soon meanders not to the personal, but to the local economy, now greatly influenced by the multitude of bus tours making their way from Halifax.

“The number of cruise-ship tourists grows each year,” Eliza laments. “We’re becoming overwhelmed.” Eliza and other locals agree that surely there is a limit as to how many buses these narrow roads, limited parking, and the environment can sustain.

She mentions Roger, back at the Buoy Shop. “He’s one of the residents speaking out. As am I, but some older people are leaving well enough alone.”

Of course, the star attraction of Peggy’s Cove is its iconic lighthouse. One of the most photographed images in Canada, it beckons to millions of tourists a year. The eight-sided concrete tower rises 50 feet from the grey-white granite outcrops; ancient rocks polished by glaciers and the ocean’s unrelenting tide. Guiding vessels into St. Margaret’s Bay since 1914, this lighthouse replaced the first structure of 1868– a mere beacon on the roof of a lighthouse keepers wooden home. Up until automation in 1958, the keepers ensured the kerosene oil lamp perpetually shone – first red, then white, then green – finally settling on red to conform to world navigation standards.

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I watch visitors clamber over those evocative, timeless outcrops; thankfully none are venturing down to the perilous black rocks where rogue waves have swept some out to sea. I gaze back towards the land… vegetation ablaze with the burnt reds of autumn and the church spire rising above the paint-box hues of bait shacks, cottages, and anchored boats.

A fighter-jet suddenly pierces the sky, roaring low over the cove and I turn again to the silvery-blues of the ocean. Just beyond, is a sacred place. It’s impossible to not think of those who perished here in the tragic aviation crash of September 2, 1998. The memorial, two imposing oval granite monuments at nearby Whale’s Back, lie in direct alignment with the crash site. “In memory of the 229 men, women and children aboard the Swissair Flight 111 who perished off these shores. They have been joined to the sea and sky. May they rest in Peace.”

As I take my leave, the strains of a bagpiper punctuate the scene. His kilt fluttering gently in the breeze, the piper stands alone. The melody drifts over the rocks and across the sea.

The plaintive tune harkens to the many Scots who sailed to this new land. It evokes the ferocity and the serenity of this rugged landscape. It honours the tragedies, and the vibrance of life at the cove. It is one of the most beautiful, soulful and unique places I have visited.

With it all, this appreciative come from away, feels very much at home here…

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Upside Down In The North Sea… the ‘Salsa-Kayak Pact’

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The instructor’s voice was serious and authoritative, her German accent rendering it non-negotiable.

“Time for the roll. Throw your body in the water, come up the other side.”

It was October in Norway. Along with the creeping hypothermia, I now froze in fear. Afloat in the numbing waters of the North Sea, the wind was whipping up waves and lashing the rain down like daggers.

Tucked inside the cockpit of my kayak, a ‘spray deck’ – like a skirt with a rubber seal around my waist – was attached around the oval lip of the vessel. It packed me in tightly, like a sardine in a tin; for after all, a kayak is meant to be an extension of the upper body. My lower body was now yellow, streamlined fibreglass.

“Time to roll,” the command bellowed again. But I knew that I didn’t have the body strength to fling myself into the water on one side and pop up on the other. I feared I would be stuck upside down, the weight of my vessel trapping me. Would I drown slowly, or perish from the cold first, I conjectured numbly?

“No fear,” we were encouraged, “One of the instructors will show you how.”

Sven looked like a real-life ‘action man’, melded as one with his kayak – a veritable extension of his broad torso and rugged, good-looking Nordic face. In the two-day Open Seas Kayaking Course, he projected calm, a modern-day Norse God on water who we all aspired to emulate.

With his paddle slicing the choppy water, Sven folded gently sideways into the sea like it was the most natural thing. One second, two, the bottom of his kayak pointing skyward, then on the count of three he popped up like magic… a perfect roll! He was unfazed, even his Tilly-hat remaining intact over his glistening golden hair.

One by one, the other students began plunging themselves into the frigid sea. I knew I was protected somewhat from the cold, at least my new neoprene wetsuit was doing its job of keeping me dry. With rubber cuffs that sealed out the water – at the wrists, ankles and neck – I could have been much colder than I was. The suit was a gift from hubby, more like a bribe, I now suspected!

We had just finished lunch, huddled on the shore as the rain pelted on our soggy smørbrød and any part of the body that wasn’t suited up. I had asked myself ‘what on earth was I doing here?’ I don’t like the cold, yet there I was enduring the elements on the shores of the North Sea, frozen and out my depth both mentally and physically. And all for the sake of a kayaking course? The instructor had even roped my kayak to his at one point, lest I drift off to distant Iceland. I reminded myself that it all came down to a pact… ‘the salsa-kayak pact.’

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A few months prior, a friend had announced that Salsa dance lessons were about to begin. A female engineer was offering them at the company, once a week.

“We should join,” I cornered Bruce. “You’ve always promised we’d take dance lessons together. It’ll be fun.”

He had acquiesced, but with a counter-proposal. “I’ll take salsa lessons, if you’ll take the sea kayaking skills course. It would be great to do that together. Gliding through the fjords, along the coastal scenery…”

I had actually agreed quite enthusiastically, and we soon found ourselves with ten or so other couples at the ‘office yoga studio now dance floor.’ Some were already keen dancers and kept up beautifully with the instructor. Engineer-by-day and sensuous-salsa -aficionado by night, her fluid steps – one, two three, back, five, six, seven – had the two of us baffled.

We were hopeless and maybe a little disappointed. Where was the opportunity for spontantious expression, the freedom of movement? And where was my long-ago cheerleading acumen, my ability to pick up dance steps without missing a beat?

Our zest for the lessons petered out by week three, maybe four, but now it was my turn to deliver on my part of the pact, that pesky kayaking. I had noted ruefully that Bruce had passed his kayaking course in the balmy month of May. How on earth did I end up with dismal days of October?

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But there I was, the instructor waiting not-so-patiently for my roll. Many of the kayakers had already completed their first and were now showing off with their second.

I leaned to the left, hit the water, gurgled my way until I was upside down. As predicted, I couldn’t thrust myself around to the other side. I was trapped, upside down in the North Sea. I panicked. I kicked with all my might against the oval-shaped rubber seal and as it came free, I flailed my way to the surface of the water… spluttering, bewildered, half-drowned and bedraggled.

The brusque German instructor looked at me, unfazed.

“Ok?” I had barely nodded before she boomed, “Now try again!”

Of course one can kayak without this certification, yet somehow, I knew that if I failed this, right there and right then, I might be afraid to know the true wonder of sea kayaking…. to ride the waves then gaze from a fjord’s waters up to chiselled granite cliffs and swooping eagles. I might never ply the open waters, through clustered islands dotted with quaint wooden hyttes, aromas of birchwood fires evocatively scenting the air.

I might miss the wonder of gliding into a vista – onto the canvas of nature’s masterpiece – embracing the call of the loons and the passing gaggle of ducklings as my sweetheart and I paddle together in our double kayak. What if I never had the opportunity of revelling in the serenity of silence, gazing towards the land in reverence, our children in silent communion beside us.

So, yes, I did that darn roll again. Of course, it wasn’t perfect like Sven’s, but with all my will and might, I got a ‘pass’ from the instructors. Still now, I refuse to seal myself in completely.

As I write today, autumn has tinted the trees in hues of gold, rust and deep red. We might just make it out on the water for one last autumnal paddle. We’ve paddled often since we returned home at the end of July and, indeed, the ‘salsa-kayak pact’ has turned out to be one of lifes’ most fortunate agreements.

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Jennie’s Masterpiece… the story of Butchart Gardens

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I can picture Jennie Butchart, suspended high up in a bosun’s chair, carefully coaxing soil and vine roots into limestone crevices of the abandoned quarry. She had commandeered the vast gaping hole, and now her Sunken Garden was taking shape.

“You’re ruining the country, Bob, just to get your old cement,” Jennie had reportedly chided her husband. A 1952 article in Maclean’s Magazine described it as thus…

“One day in 1909, in a glade sloping to a salt-water bay on the Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island… a woman stood on the edge of an abandoned quarry and began to cry.

Jennie Butchart knew the quarry well. For more than three years she had lived beside it. As a chemist in the cement works of her husband, she had analysed its high-grade limestone. She watched it yield them wealth. She knew its moods in the moonlight and at the height of storm. But the tears came because she hated it more than anything else in the world; its very ugliness so fascinated her, she could not stay away. 

The perpendicular quarry walls, twisted from dynamite blasting, dropped sixty feet to a quagmire of two and a half acres of clay. Out of a subterranean spring percolated a muddy creek which fed a deep pond on the quarry floor. A hummock of grey rock, unfit for cement, rose like a spire from the centre… Jennie Butchart stood and cried.

It was then an inspiration came to her, ‘Like a flame’ she was to say, ‘for which I shall ever thank God.”

The Butchart Estate (pronounced Butch – Art) included both their home and the quarry. Now that Jennie’s creativity and determination had been sparked, debris and rocks were replaced or hauled out. Horses with wagonloads of soil trudged back and forth to the site. Douglas firs, cedars and Lombardy poplars were strategically placed – flowering trees, shrubs and annuals would follow. Jennie envisioned colour and vibrancy. To her, the eyesore was a canvas on which to blend a palette of nature’s rich hues and textures. After all, at heart Jennie was an artist… the world famous Butchart Gardens would become her living masterpiece.

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Born in Toronto, in 1866, Jenanette Foster Kennedy was orphaned at only fourteen. Sent to Owen Sound to live with an aunt and her seven cousins, Jennie thrived in her new family. Both intelligent and artistic, she also embraced outdoor life while attending the prestigious Brantford Young Ladies’ College. Yet when offered a scholarship to continue art training in France, the young graduate declined. Instead, she choose a life with her new beau. The eighteen-year-old married the tall, determined, twenty-seven-year-old Robert (Bob) Butchart.

The young businessman was an innovator and within four years had opened Portland Cement Mill in Owen Sound. Portland cement derives its name from England, where in 1824 bricklayer Joseph Aspdin, patented the blend of limestone and clay. He named it after the local Portland stone it resembled.

In 1902, Bob would hear of a large deposit of limestone at Tod Inlet on Vancouver Island, about 20 km north of Victoria. With two daughters in tow, Bob and Jennie moved across the country and soon established a quarry and processing plant. Vancouver Island Portland Cement Company was the only cement-producing company west of the Great Lakes. The company not only pioneered refinements, but was the first to ship cement in sacks, rather than heavy, cumbersome barrels. Fortunes soared dramatically as Bob began to supply cement to facilitate the rapid building in the burgeoning province and beyond.

Jennie did not sit on the sidelines; she earned a certificate in chemistry to work in the firm’s laboratory. Yet her surroundings awakened her artistic inclinations. Re-envisioning her quaint on-site home, she hosted tea, croquet and tennis parties. Jennie was always forging ahead. The magnificent Sunken Garden was completed in nine years and to this day, cradles Jennie’s breathtaking vision. Yet if the old quarry is Butchart Garden’s celebrated centrepiece, supporting works of ‘art’ accompany this National Historic Site of Canada.

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The rambling Rose Garden, blooms with some 280 varieties. The Japanese Garden, its authentic Torii gate, stepping stones, maple and beech trees evoking serenity. The Mediterranean Garden, a celebration of the island’s balmy, temperate climate. The Coast Salish totem poles, honouring the storied culture of the island’s indigenous peoples. And my personal favourite, The Italian Garden – once the family tennis court – anchored by a sensuous arched wall of green, exotic palms and plants flourishing from around the globe.

For indeed, the Butcharts were also avid travellers. A trip to Rome had inspired The Italian Garden, while travels to the Himalayas, the Pyrenees and the orient garnered yet more unusual plants as well as collectibles such as urns, statues and pagodas.

As Jennie’s gardens were designed, planted and flourished – with flowering plums, magnolia, dogwood, Siberian wallflowers, bachelor’s buttons, peony and so much more – her home flourished as well. After numerous expansions, a welcome sign in Italian hung over the door. The lady of the house epitomised the spirit of ‘Benvenuto‘.

Friends began to visit the gardens, they brought their friends, and their friends brought other friends. Soon the garden opened officially three days a week. By the First World War, sightseers were flocking to the garden in tallyhos, on horseback, aboard country trolleys. Now, Jennie flung her garden gates wide open… and left them open seven days a week.

When strangers peered in the windows of Benvenuto, friends would suggest to Jenny that she should charge admission. “Oh no” she’d reply, “the flowers are fleeting. Why shouldn’t people enjoy them? They’re free for all.” Only one sign asked for ‘privacy’, and still does today. Enclosed by white lattice, it was Jennie’s one retreat – her private garden.

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Bob contributed to the thrilling panoply with rare birds, peacocks, pearl breasted pigeons, English and Mexican canaries, water fowl and German bullfinches trained to whistle. He imported 565 Japanese cherry trees to lavishly line the public road to the estate. At the time, its ‘beauty second only to Potomac Drive’ in Washington DC.

The entrepreneur expanded into timber, steamships, shipbuilding, coal, hardware and trusts. He had one of the first automobiles on Vancouver Island and followed it up with imported European and luxury models. With his chauffeur often in the back seat, Bob was known to cruise at breakneck speeds. When he reached eighty, his concerned wife convinced the police to revoke his driver’s license.

It’s said that Bob had the bearing of a distinguished officer, but it seems the self-made millionaire enjoyed life with a wry sense of humour: games of rummy with his servants, given to piping melodies from his beloved pipe organ into The Italian Garden to serenade lovers on evening strolls, offering a doctor who had performed an operation part cash and part world travel for payment… the doctor took him up on it!

It’s reported that in contrast to her husband, Jennie was ‘as blunt as an Irish washerwoman’. Just over five feet, she was a force to be reckoned, one who cared more about the colour flow of her gardens than the cut and fashion of her dresses. Who can blame her that overalls and a straw hat were her preferred garb. She was an excellent storyteller, loved a good earthy joke… she was generous and kind. Each week, a gardener would don high rubber boots, wade into the wishing well to fish out the coins that visitors had cast in. Wheelbarrowed over to Jennie as she sat on her sun porch, she would help package the coins to donate to charity.

As the unpaid official welcomer for the city of Victoria, Jennie entertained dignitaries, conventions and whole army regiments. She hosted tea parties for the poor and the aged, and delighted in drawing word pictures of the flowers for the blind so they could envision them as they savoured their scents. Sharing the enchantment of her garden was Jennie’s gift. Even when, by 1915, some 18,000 people toured the gardens, she refused to charge admission.

During the ‘off season’, the Butcharts embarked on extensive world tours (today the gardens are open year round.) “It seems lonely when the crowds stop coming,” Jennie lamented and Bob agreed, “I can’t understand how some people shut themselves away from their fellow man. Why, I’m never lonely when I can see so many people enjoying themselves every day.”

In 1931 Jennie was recognised as Citizen of the Year by the City of Victoria. In 1938, the ownership of the gardens was transferred to their grandson, Ian Ross on his 21st birthday… it is still in the family today. In 2015, Jennie was inducted into the Business Laureates of British Columbia’s Hall of fame. Their motto – they built, we benefit – seems tailor-made for Jennie Butchart.

As I wandered the gardens, I mused that her spirit still graces the vistas; from the dramatic Sunken Garden to the whisper of maples gently rustling in the Japanese Garden from the dancing fountain to the riots of colour and the vivacious scents of the blooms. It’s recalled that during Jennie’s time, many visitors didn’t realise the property was a private garden. People plucked flowers and fruit from the trees – this meant fewer to give away to hospitals. A few were known to pilfer coins from the wishing well. A family dog and a garden peacock were carried off. When visitors carved their initials on various trees, Bob patiently designated a tree for that purpose alone.

Yet more often than not, their generous hospitality was repaid in kind. When the King of Siam visited, he invited the Butcharts to visit his palace in Bangkok. The following year, the travelling couple gladly took the King up on his offer, spending twelve days as his guests. The Butcharts lived well, both overseas and in their tucked-away haven on the Tod Inlet.

I vividly envisioned Jennie, weaving her way through her garden, luxuriating in the divine setting she had created. Perhaps this last anecdotal story, during the visit of an English explorer, portrays this inspiring lady at her finest.

“I know one flower you haven’t got,” the visitor piped up as Jennie showed off her 5000 varieties. “You don’t have the blue poppy of Tibet.”

Jennie slyly led the visitor to a bed of heavenly blue poppies. “Why that’s impossible,” the Englishman exclaimed. “I just discovered them myself in Tibet!”

And indeed he had, and had then sent one flower from Tibet to London’s Kew Gardens. But Jennie being Jennie, had wasted no time and had already garnered the seeds from the blue poppy. I like to imagine her re-offering the guest a seed or two from the very flower he had sourced.

If only, if only we could stroll through the gardens with Jennie by our side…

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If you go…

The Buchart Gardens are a short drive from Victoria, or hop on a bus

Visit in the afternoon and stay for the free summer evening concerts… Jennie would be pleased with that!

Enjoy dinner in the Dining Room overlooking the Italian Garden, or at the more informal Blue Poppy Garden

Do buy some seeds in the wonderfully stocked Gift Store

Adhere to the Garden’s Etiquette including no selfie-sticks and quiet conversation…

Read more about Vancouver Island’s other inspiring artist I’ve written of, Emily Carr, and of the island itself

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Seeking colours in unlikely places… from urban landscapes to an ink-maker’s palette

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We often talk about putting colour in our lives, enjoying colourful characters, revelling in the vibrancy of autumn colours… so it’s little surprise that the absence of colour can leave us searching.

For the first time in more than twenty years I spent a full winter in Canada and in the process, it seemed almost like a re-learning of what it was to yearn for colour. Beyond the whites and blues that dominated my vistas – and yes the rosy hues of the alpenglow on the mountain peaks are always spectacular – I longed for splashes of primary colours. Oh give me greens, blues and yellows, pops of red, maybe even a dash of ‘bird of paradise’ orange!

After experiencing five months of continuous snow and sub-zero temperatures, I’ve concluded, I’m not a true winter-connoisseur. As the days fused into a continuum of meagre chromatic tones, I found my mind wandering endlessly back to India. At this time last year, our posting in Bangalore was coming to an end and I knew that I could never replace the vivid colours of my daily life there – the vibrant sarees, the exotic fruit piled high on vegetable carts, the canopy of lush greens that was the backdrop for our apartment. And so through those long winter months I felt bereft of colour, almost starved, as if it were nourishment for my soul.

Impatient for the promise of an early spring to deliver me, I began in earnest to seek out colour. On a bright sunny afternoon we visited Fort Steele, a heritage village nestled against the Rocky Mountains. The aged wooden buildings seemed to be making a grand entrance to the new season, the still snow-draped mountains  providing the perfect framing for their subtle colours. At this time of year, Fort Steele is still absent of its summer crowds, the silence seeming only to enhance the simple washes of colour, the nuances of gentle palettes.

 

A week later, a trip to Vancouver confirmed that, at least on the coast, spring had most definitely sprung… budding crocuses and darling daffodils announced the re-birth of colour. On Granville Island, I soaked in bursts of peony pink, carrot orange, and radish red. There were vivid blues and yellows. I found shadows on walls and textures on lights. Even the sky swirled its own evocative design with soft, billowy clouds. I gratefully extracted sustenance and delight from every play of warmth.

 

Then this past weekend, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that I found myself in Calgary attending a lecture/conversation where colour was very much the topic.

Jason Logan is a modern day urban forager, with a very specific cause. An individual with a unique perspective on the hidden bounties of the city. His purpose, quite simply, is to make ink. His book, MAKE INK, A Foragers Guide to Natural Ink Making, chronicles his surprising and delightful endeavours.

Jason’s bespoke palettes of ink practically burst off the pages and I can only imagine how vibrant they must be in real life. Their names more than hint at their origins… evocative concoctions like Hawaiian turmeric, sap green, carbon black, black walnut, wild grape purple and acorn cap silver.

“It all started with a black walnut tree,” Jason told the audience at Calgary’s stately Memorial Park Library. Years ago, he had quickly used up a purchased bottle of ‘black walnut ink’ while working as an illustrator in New York. He loved the texture, the depth of the colour and rapidly filled up an entire sketchbook with the mahogany-black hue. But when Jason tried to replenish his supply, he found the ink maker had stopped producing black walnut ink.

Seven years later and now back in Toronto with a young family, Jason’s daily cycle to work took him past a beautiful aged tree. Discovering it to be a black walnut tree, he waited not so patiently as the tree’s bounty of nuts slowly matured into green hulls. When they shed in late September, Jason soon had them boiling into a rich brown ink in his kitchen. After repeated tweaking of the recipe, he was hooked.

His passion has translated into the Toronto Ink Company, and he now takes plants, roots, berries, metal, gypsum, weeds, in fact whatever he may find in a specific city, to create inks evocative of a specific area.

The day after his lecture, I noticed on Instagram that Jason had foraged in Calgary as well. ‘Paint chips of Calgary: pried off of a cement block in the Paliser Parkade, the CN bridge downtown, a rusty pipe near the Bow and Elbow rivers, an old Toronto Sun newspaper box in the East Village and the underside of a bridge.’ The colours were luscious and will no doubt reveal themselves as they’re transformed into a bottle of ‘Calgary Ink’.

One of Jason’s clients and confidantes is Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient. In MAKE INK, the two creatives discuss shellac, the necessary binder for ink.

Jason comments, “The shellac that I buy comes from these little beetles from a bush in the high mountains in India. Almost everything I make, I make from the streets of Toronto, except the shellac. I would at least like to meet those little beetles.”

“The first creature I remember very vividly is called the golden beetle in Sri Lanka. It was sacred,” Michael Ondaatje replies. The ink maker confirms that, “Beetles strangely play a really important role in pigment and ink.”

Their conversation meanders to beetles that live on prickly pear cactus feasting on the purple magenta syrup, to the ‘witchy relationship’ the English have with herbs and the dyeing of wool, to making ink from ancient lichen, rust, bone, wood, land and quinine all of which pay homage to the Franklin Expedition, the doomed British Arctic endeavour of 1845.

I find it original and fascinating; Jason’s mantra, ‘Colour is Everywhere’, rings true. During the presentation, there is an earthy, visceral, almost elemental, passion that comes through as he speaks. He tells us that his inks are fugitive; they’re alive, they change, even in their fading there is poignancy.

And he’s asked, Why ink?”

“They’re an intensification of colour that can be used in communication. It’s democratic, anyone can play. Maybe a fine line of a pen. And with a brush, it loses its mind!”

Post Script

As I publish this post, I find myself in Spain. We’ve begun some months of traveling and yesterday I was reminded of how wonderfully a town can ‘lose its mind’. On the Costa Blanca lies a delightful town, like a colourful box of pencil crayons… La Vila Joiosa

This once small fishing village is awash with colour, across the full spectrum of the rainbow. Its name means ‘jewelled town’ and the vibrant colours were traditionally intended to guide local fishermen home from the sea. Narrow, centuries-old houses lean against each other, each distinctly hued. Shades of powder and cobalt blues, reds, pale lavenders, ochres and mustard yellows and seaside greens. Imagine selecting a handful of your favourite pencil crayons and living amongst them… it’s fanciful and alive.

I was here a number of years ago, and it’s just as beguiling and nourishing as I remember it. My yearning for colour has absolutely been fulfilled!

 

 

The Writing Workshop… on an ‘island’ of creativity

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IMG_3182Fear and procrastination have a way of dissuading… of whispering that perhaps you can put off doing what you know in your heart to be intuitive and true.

I had been promising to host a writing workshop here in Kimberley, since last autumn. Yet, still I hesitated.

I’ve hosted workshops in India and Kazakhstan, and have been part of many writer’s retreats and workshops in various countries. Yet despite knowing how they enrich and inspire, something held me back.

Perhaps it was the promise of spring that prompted me to finally plan the inaugural workshop on home soil. For the first time in many years, I’ve spent the entire winter here and I longed for the first signs of spring. With the first hint of melting snow and birds flitting in the pines, I sensed my own awakening. It was time to share what I know with others. Time to inspire others in their writing journey… call it the renewal of spring!

‘The Joy of Writing’ was full, twenty writers had made the commitment of discovery. And, by the time we set down our pens, flowing emotions had translated to profound words on paper and emerging stories. Friends had committed to the workshop together, but wonderfully, strangers had also become friends, united by their common desire to explore and enrich and expand their writing canvas.

Less a guide or an instructor, I felt more like a midwife to their nascent stories, helping the latent to become revealed. It was deeply fulfilling, connecting me emotionally to those earlier days when my desire to write and my fear were mixed in equal measure.

Yet there’s more here than meets the eye, more here than simply pen to paper. Why do we brave the act of pushing ourselves beyond our boundaries, away from our comfort zone? We humans have a deep-rooted urge to be emotional and in that emotion, to be authentic and, as a consequence, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We long to share, to be heard, to be storytellers… to be connected. Writing does this.

I’ve written often of that first transformational writing retreat for me. Yes it happened to be in Tuscany, an idyllic setting to be sure, but it struck me that our town’s beloved art centre and gallery was no less inspiring. Kimberley’s population of 7,000 or so, fully embraces the cultural hub that Centre 64 represents. How did some of us word it that day?

 

“Instantly, I feel accepted. This room that holds me is large and loving and living. The tremendous wooden beams absorb my Song. Who is the man who first saw this place in his mind? Who is the man who then created it with his hands? I sing to celebrate his authentic Masterpiece.”   Brenda


In this town renowned and beloved for its culture of the ‘great outdoors’ and where so much of the community bond and identity is somewhat related to planks on snow and wheels on dirt, the Centre feels like a foreign island. 

Here, true culture comes to life and pushes the outdoor where it belongs, outside, in a gentle: ‘Fuck you! There is more to life than how many turns you made last winter!’

True expression of ideas, talents, quirkiness and creativity… and vulnerability of the soul. Celebration of the landscape comes in a pure form on canvas, on stage, through strings, copper and words… a world of its own, that would not get to savour unfortunately, if you don’t dare visit the ‘Island’.”  Emile   https://rocksnowandicecream.com


“A space that embraces works of art and quiet contemplation, yet often sings with rhythm and theatre. On this day, it is a cocoon for inspired and creative writers. We share our words and stories like treasured jewels… we laugh, and cry, like kindred souls. We acknowledge the healing power of writing, then give gratitude for the welcoming haven we find ourselves in.”   Terry Anne


“From what I can see, aside from material objects in this mature art gallery, is a bunch of aspiring artists, all searching for a way to express their creative genius. A certain creativity lies dormant in all of us and hopefully today, we can combine forces as a mastermind group and awaken that sleeping genius. After all, each one of us is very unique and has a story worthy of hearing. In other words, a beautiful garden worthy of being shown to the world.”   Niall


 

So who comes to a workshop? IMG_3209

Mature people with a lifetime of stories from Afghanistan to Ireland, within the hippie culture of California and along the quiet backroads of rural Canada.

Young mothers who relish the blessed opportunity to write while their toddler naps.

And then there are teachers, hair stylists, gallery and city administrators. Indeed, the whole gamut, from firefighters to yoga aficionados.

All are people with dreams and talent – writers with the desire to share their personal journey, perhaps for the world or maybe simply for the ‘kids’.

Like me, they may one day see their book on bookshelves, yet that satisfaction can be fleeting. I have come to realise that it is the sharing of experience with others that truly matters most.

The morning after the workshop, I received a message from one of the participants. Shannon had been up early on her lakefront perch and already writing. The first time I met this lady – beautiful from inside and out – she was relocating a ‘wayward’ snake. We were unloading our kayaks close to her home when she appeared pushing her bike. Slithering in a plastic bag, the snake dangled precariously from her handlebars. At a cautious distance, I struck up a conversation and since then we have enjoyed encountering one another, the way that you do in our small town.

Shannon is a gentle, spiritual soul whose eyes perpetually sparkle – whether doing good for the animal kingdom, talking about her latest yoga retreat, or while writing that day at the Centre.

She, and the others, remind me of the joy of connecting. As I read Shannon’s poignant musing that morning, there was no doubting the power of inspiring others, of hearing kindred voices and of why we should always heed our inner voice. In writing and in life, I have learned to follow my instincts – it has become a source of great happiness and contentment.

 

An early morning penning, by Shannon

“We are given this lifetime to nourish our souls and to learn life lessons so that we, as beings of light and love, can evolve.

We know this as babies and children but then ‘life’ happens and we forget.
When we have events occur in our life that cause us frustration, anger, sorrow, disappointment, and fear, we need to step back from the situation and look at it from another view.

If we can open our hearts and souls to try to learn and understand why this is happening… If we can be open to where the Universe or God is trying to lead us….
If we can be open to try to hear with our hearts what we are being told…
If we can find a crumb of gratitude for what we do have… here and now…
If we can rise above all the downers and show humility and forgiveness and love from a deep level..
. then we can feel whole, complete, joy, love, and at peace wherever we are. ”
Mahadevi

 

 

Old Quebec City… the romance, and the fortitude of the King’s Daughters – of all the founding women

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At this time of year, Quebec City celebrates its cold climate and rich heritage with Winter Carnival. It’s a celebration of winter and all that entails; especially those pastimes beginning with ice – palaces, canoeing, sculptures, skating and fishing. People from around the world descend on this historic walled city, the only in North America, revelling in the unique atmosphere. It’s my first visit in the winter and I admit; it is bone chillingly cold, often windswept and the icy sidewalks can be precarious.

Yet the cold seems to subside, if only just a little, when you stroll the vibrant streets. They’re still resplendent with Christmas greenery and décor, enhancing the already romantic streets.

 

And there is much to romance you here: the French language, the mix of French, British and Canadian architecture, the delicious cuisine and of course the statuesque Chateau Frontenac. It is a treasured beauty, dominating the upper town, evoking the chateaus of the Loire Valley of France and on this visit, I was fortunate to add my humble name to its storied guest list.

Completed in 1893, the Chateau was the first of the iconic tourist hotels of the Canadian Pacific Railway. On my third day I join a tour of the hotel, guided by the charming ‘Ms. Emily Post’. The young lady is in costume and character, portraying Ms. Post, an author and daughter of the hotel’s architect Bruce Price.

The tour begins on the long cliff-top boardwalk where squeals of delight from tobogganeers on the swooping wooden-framed run peal in the chilled air. Above us, the sharp crack of ice, breaking like glass under ice-picks of intrepid déneigeièrs clearing the Chateau’s impossibly steep rooftop. Roped in and rappelling down the treacherous facade, they clear the roof of accumulated ice. It’s an arduous and hazardous task which I see repeated throughout the city. Managing this city in frigid temperatures brings myriad challenges not least of which is avoiding dagger-like shards of falling ice from the charming buildings.

 

As much as I appreciate the hotel’s storied history during the tour– including the somber hosting of the top-secret conference in which Roosevelt and Churchill planned the D-Day invasion – I am drawn to the much more distant past. During my five days in Quebec City, it is the Filles du Roi, the ‘King’s Daughters’, and the founding Jesuit and Augustinian Sisters who capture my attention.

The strength and fortitude that was required of these founding women intrigues me. And I reflect that the country might never have developed as it did without them. First, allow me to set the scene…

 

The First Explorers and Samuel de Champlain

The vastness of the Atlantic Ocean mingles with fresh waters at the mouth of the St. Lawrence river and, in the hinterland beyond, lie the lake-strewn lands of eastern Canada. First Nations who had called this home for over ten thousand years witnessed, in the arrival of European traders and settlers, the advent of modern Canada. As early as the late 15th century, they had mostly welcomed trade with various nations who visited their shores. The dominant commodity was fur from the Castor Canadensis,the humble Canadian beaver. They were as gold; European demand for their luxuriant pelts helping transform small trading outposts into a vast nation.

European and First Nations trappers braved the harsh, unforgiving environment to supply ever increasing merchant fleets. Locals bartered for kettles, knives, cloth, blankets, buttons and beads, trading endless stacks of beaver pelts that would be fashioned into hats once in Europe. The Continental, Navy, Clerical, The Paris Beau and the tall dignified Wellington – these names may no longer be familiar but it was unthinkable for any man of standing in the 17th to 19th centuries not to wear a head covering fashioned from beaver.

Statue de Samuel-De Champlain, Québec

Statue de Samuel-De Champlain, Québec

Archaeology suggests that Viking explorers had been unable to build lasting settlements; explorers Cartier and Roberval had failed too. But after a number of visits, Samuel de Champlain had a vision. He had fallen in love with the wilds of the New World and was determined to build a settlement for France. On July 3rd, 1608, Champlain’s three vessels docked at Kebec – ‘the place where the river narrows’.

It was a place of dense forests, lush with butternut trees; a strategic location on the St. Lawrence River where flora and fauna promised survival. Here, Champlain built the first ‘habitation’ with planted gardens, stocked cellars and a palisaded fortress. And unlike previous colonisers, he befriended the First Nations. Their knowledge and friendship was crucial to the new settlement’s success.

Yet hardships from the cold, scurvy, hunger and understandably hostilities from some tribes, would continue to threaten Quebec and it grew slowly. In 1620, Champlain brought his new Parisian bride to the settlement on the St Lawrence. Unsurprisingly, she found life in the isolated outpost difficult and remained only a few short years before returning to France. Champlain would live the rest of his life without her. He was fiercely dedicated to his dream and although the surrender of his New France colony to the British, more than a century later in 1760 signalled the end of his vision, many refer to Champlain as ‘The Father of Canada’.

History books devote volumes to this fascinating, volatile period, recording exploits of the mostly men who blazed the trail. Yet a nation cannot be built without women and for me, it is an equally intriguing chapter in the history of Canada.

 

The King’s Daughters – Les Filles du Roi – and The Sisters

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As the colony grew, New France, was largely a man’s world: soldiers, fur traders, voyageurs and, hoping to convert the First Nations to Christianity, Franciscans priests who arrived in 1615. The Jesuits followed in 1625 and ten years later, the year of Champlain’s death, they began offering classical education. Yet education would begin in earnest with the arrival of Sisters. At the Ursuline Convent and School, I encounter a remarkable woman of faith.

Marie of the Incarnation, as she would come to be known, was from Tours, France. From the age of seven, she knew that she would devote her life to God. Resistant to her wishes, her family demanded that she marry a silk merchant. She was widowed not long after bearing a son and, at the age of nineteen, a vision came to her that she could no longer ignore. It was a vision of saving souls in a foreign land. Giving her son over to a foster family, Marie entered an Ursuline Monastery. She remained steadfast – even as her son could be seen crying at the convent gates and as she was accused of parental neglect. An inheritance designated for her son was also revoked. Yet still, she dreamed of winning souls for Christ in that foreign land. Resolute, she began correspondence with the Jesuits in Quebec.

Funding for the journey and a new convent materialised in the form of a pious widow, Madeleine de la Peltrie. By arranging a sham marriage, Madeleine overcame her family’s strong opposition to her traveling to New France. With the official seal of a royal charter, she signed over the bulk of her estate to the Ursuline Order. Marie and Madeleine set sail in May of 1639. To their new life in Quebec, they would take a fellow Sister, a young commoner, three nurses and two Jesuit fathers. It’s believed they were the first Catholic Sisters in North America.

 

In the Ursuline Convent Museum, I gaze at the painting of Marie. She is a vision of steadfastness and devotion to her mission – to convert and educate, ministering initially to the First Nations and later to French settlers. After three years in the lower town of Quebec City, the nuns moved to a new monastery and in a painting of the settlement, I see Madeleine’s wooden home depicted. It is just below the monastery, surrounded by tents; the Catholic Church of that era marvelled at their progress – despite the scarcity of provisions and lack of basic necessities, and the oft hostilities with some First Nations.

Marie quickly learned the languages of the Huron and the Algonquin and even as she became a decorator, an architect and a teacher, the Sister also remained a devoted mother. Her son became a Benedictine monk and in their vast correspondence, until Marie’s death in 1672, the unwavering love between a mother and a son is poignantly evident.

And of being a mother… Marie of the Incarnation would fulfil yet another role in the making of New France. The filles du roi were sailing her way.

As the colony grew, a problem arose. In 1663, the King of France decided to take more control of his far-flung colony and one of his first actions was to address the severe imbalance between men and women. For every woman in the colony, there were at least seven men. Sponsored by the King himself, a program was proposed to increase the population – with shiploads of young women from France.

Initially, it was agreed to sponsor five-hundred women, but it would total some eight-hundred over ten years. In actual fact, many were still young girls, some as young as twelve. Believing that girls ought to marry young, King Louis’s filles du roi were sent to New France for the sole purpose of marrying and populating the land. Often they were orphans or poor, so a dowry was provided. As the the ships arrived at Quebec City, it’s said that some were selected even before they could disembark. Those not chosen would sail further to the next ports-of-call, the fledging city of Montreal being the last stop.

It seems Marie also took a supporting role in this new scheme. Some of the younger girls were first housed and prepared for their new role as wives and mothers. The nuns taught them cooking, embroidery and sewing. They were also chaperones in the selection process. Likened to old-fashioned speed dating, eligible men would enter the room and with the steadying presence of a nun, the young women would ask appropriate questions to the eligible bachelors: How old are you? Do you own property? Do you have any vices?

The letters Marie wrote during the 1660’s reveal much of the hardship that these new settlers faced. In 1668 she wrote, “When they have eaten the barrel of flour and bacon the King has given them, they will suffer greatly until they have cleared the land. It has been decided that only country girls should be sent here. They can work like men and experience shows that those not brought up on the land do not fit in as they don’t know how to cope with poverty and hardship.”

In another letter to her son, dated Oct. 1669, Marie confirms, “As soon as the ship arrives, the men go to meet them in search of a wife… sometimes there are thirty weddings at a time. Wiser people begin by getting a house and place first. The first question the girls ask is if they have a house and property, because those who haven’t suffer greatly.”

In the days I spend in the city, I think often of the these women. I’m empathetic to the hardships and transition most of them would have faced. No doubt some of them did find happiness in marriage and knowing that all were encouraged – through promise of a pension from the King – to have a minimum of ten children, I can only imagine the fortitude and resilience this required on top of the privations and isolation of a settler’s life.

It is commonly held that two-thirds of the province of Quebec are descendants of the filles du roi. Some would also eventually migrate south into what is now the United StatesPeople including Angelina Jolie, Celine Dion, Hilary Clinton and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau trace their ancestry back to these courageous women.

For me, the beauty and romance of old Quebec City is very much alive. The perseverance and fortitude of the Sisters, the king’s daughter’s and all the women who braved the deprivations in those formative years, add to its rich past. Go, if you get the chance. Find their stories… in the monasteries, in the museums, in the lively character of today’s women.

 

 

Poster-perfect Banff… a century of allure in the Canadian Rockies

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Still vibrant, these classic posters leap out, drawing you into their spectacular mountain scenes and alluring pastimes; skating, skiing, hiking, or just feeling glorious as a pampered world traveller… and all in the splendour of the great Canadian outdoors. These advertisements weren’t created by happenstance. They spoke of the promise of luxury travel to the Canadian West and no place better epitomised this than Banff in the Canadian Rockies.

I admit that a few years ago, I found it impossible to resist acquiring a limited reproduction of one of these treasured posters. They evoke a distinctive time and place, and also represent one of the best advertising campaigns of the late 19th and 20th centuries – Canadian Pacific Railway decided who their market was, and captured it well. The exacting quality and style that they sought, often called for prominent artists, creating posters by the thousands in different languages, to be distributed globally. They portrayed a dream, a lifestyle and on a recent trip to Banff, I wanted to get a little more ‘into the ink of it all’. How did it come about? How did this once obscure settlement, once known as ‘Siding 29’ with little more than a house and a small log store, become world renowned Banff?

It’s quite simple. Without the Canadian Pacific Railway, there would have been no unified Canada and, without the railway, Banff would never have achieved renown, nor would that splendid ‘castle in the mountains’, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, exist. The railroad helped catapult Banff from obscurity and it all began with one man’s vision.

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His name was Cornelius Van Horne and he had a flair for railway ventures. Under his leadership, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was completed in 1885 and Canada had achieved its dream of becoming a united country; connected from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Government of Canada was a mere eighteen years old. How would the CPR recover the enormous costs of building this ribbon of steel across thousands of acres of wilderness? They now had a railway and 25 million acres of land, an area larger than Ireland, granted to them by the government. Beyond the myriad small settlements that sprouted up close to the newly laid rails and the few burgeoning settlements such as Vancouver and Calgary, the vast tract of land was largely unsettled. But Van Horne soon realised there was an opportunity to attract tourists to Canada’s western frontier. In a moment of inspiration, he was reported to have exclaimed:

“Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.”

Van Horne realised the potential of tourism and he executed the next phase. The CPR began building luxury lodgings such as the Banff Springs Hotel, the Empress Hotel in Victoria, the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. They would cater to wealthy visitors from Europe and the United States and the posters would become Canada’s ‘calling cards,’… but mostly for the privileged few.

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Banff had it all from the outset. Health-giving natural hot springs, spectacular scenery, legendary mountains, all rooted along and backdropped by the Bow River. Older than the mountains themselves, the Bow is a place where as long as 11,000 years ago, the First Nations people gathered wood for their bows along the banks… hence the name. They camped and fished the rivers, replete in trout: brook, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden. They lived in what could be a harsh, but spiritual environment which they deeply revered. It was a place of seven-hundred year Douglas Firs, a landscape shared with grizzly and black bears, bison, moose, lynx, cougars and wolves.

Few Europeans had yet passed through the region: Simpson from the Hudson’s Bay Company, a few military detachments, one Reverend T. Rundle in 1847 and explorer J. Hector in 1858. But in the autumn of 1883, the first tracks made steady progress up the Bow Valley passing and in 1886, through what would become Banff. This pristine wilderness was now part of the important link in the nation’s transportation and commercial corridor. Railway workers had noticed a natural hot springs and eventually Van Horne would convince the Government to reserve 26 square kilometres of land around the springs – the beginning of Canada’s national park system.

 

We spend our few days in Banff feeling as if we’re tourists. I’ve been coming here since ‘forever’, but this time we’re hosting family from The Netherlands and we savour the experience as a small holiday. We stay in a woodsy lodge where a roaring fireplace and a  colossal stuffed bison head presides over the grand room watching tourists from around the world come and go. We stroll the streets of the small town, the prominent Cascade Mountain aligned perfectly on the axis of the bustling Banff Avenue. We admire a cluster of small cabins, some of the first homes of the original settlers, now part of the excellent Whyte Museum. People like David MacIntosh White, who in 1886 followed the adage to ‘Go West, Young Man’ first working for the CPR before becoming one of Banff’s founding businessmen. More brothers followed David from Eastern Canada and the White (later Whyte) family would become naturalists, poets, painters, park wardens, mountain guides, ski adventurers; they and the mountain community thrived.

Enthusiasm abounded and by the end of 1887, settlers had applied for almost 180 lots, both for home ownership and for businesses. There were six hotels, nine stores, two churches, a school and a post office. Along came a log railway station, roads were built. An impressive new hotel was under construction and, anticipating what would follow, access to the Cave and Basin and the Upper Hot Springs was improved.

We luxuriate in those same Upper Hot Springs one evening. It’s -5 degrees below outside and under a waxing gibbous moon, steeped in curative minerals, vapours steaming around us through the frigid mountain air, it is nothing short of breathtaking. In that idyllic setting, we all understand the long-attraction of these health giving waters. We return to our lodge room and gather around a crackling fire – it’s a winter getaway to perfection!

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The next day, I’m determined to explore a little more of Van Horne’s iconic creation. Van Horne himself, occupies a commanding position near the entrance to his Banff Springs Hotel, his statue presiding over the arrivals and departures of guests. Testament that  without his vision of bringing the people to the mountains, none of this might be here. When the hotel opened in 1888, its architect Bruce Price of New York, described it as a ‘bastion of luxury’. And bastion it was – with 250 rooms that opened seasonally from mid May 15 to early October. CPR’s advertising strategies soon paid off and they continued building their chateau inspired masterpieces. Even as round-the-world tours began in  association with P&O, CPR also acquired their own steamships, bringing the international set from afar to the Canadian Rockies.

The increasing popularity of the hotel as an international mountain destination (assisted by a fire) cried out for the need to replace the original wooden structure. Soon an eleven storey tower was added, then more wings, and in 1928 new styling was unveiled ‘in the spirt of a Scottish baronial castle’. Little expense appears to have been spared as stone-cutters from Italy and masons from Scotland were brought in to render this masterpiece!

As I wander through the sprawling hotel, it is rich with carvings, tartan carpets, soaring fireplaces, ballrooms that seem to beg for bagpipes, and million-dollar views. I easily imagine global travellers arriving at the station and being whisked to the ‘castle’ in a ‘tally-ho’s, the original Brewster carriages. Many arrived for their four-month stay, with stacks of luggage and a $50,000 letter of credit in hand to see them through the season. Their’s was a life of luxury… just as the evocative posters had promised.

 

 

I peer out to the Bow River beyond. It’s always been a multi-use kind of river – perhaps a curling sheet, a hockey rink, a backdrop for one of Marilyn Monroe’s movies, or a royal visit by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Theodore Roosevelt and William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Yet as I gaze a little longer, I’m also reminded of those who laboured to bring the tracks to this setting. Those like the legendary Swedes, who they say handled the railway ties as though they were mere toothpicks. And the mixes of other ethnicities who contributed to unifying this country; Italians, Norwegians, Irish, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, British, Americans and Canadians. Most suffered hardship, many lost their lives, some stayed to settle this vast land. Their perseverance enabled more than two million settlers from Europe and the United States to pour into the west between 1886 and 1914 – the first and greatest wave of immigration in Canadian history. By 1901, this new country would have a population of five million, some 700,000 born overseas. Many would acquire plots from the CPR, choosing to homestead, our first farmers and ranchers. All of them welcomed, and needed in the new cultural mosaic of Canada.

For me, Banff is much more than the opulence of a beautiful hotel, the lure of stupendous scenery or world-class ski hills. It is about the stories that still echo around these grand peaks.

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If you go, allow me my suggestions:

Stay at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge, besides the lobby, fireplaces are also in individual rooms.

Stop, or stay, at the Fairmont Banff Springs. Take the stairs to the second level and wander!

Be sure to luxuriate at the Upper Hot Springs. Eat at the casual and fun Magpie and Stump. Don’t miss the iconic Hudson’s Bay store on Banff Avenue. Visit the Whyte Museum. Stop on your way, or afterwards in nearby Canmore, stroll the shops and the the beautiful scenery along the river.

 

 

 

A Very Happy New Year… filling, and cherishing the chest of memories

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Could there have been more of a contrast? Last New Year’s Eve found us in Delhi,  celebrating under an outdoor, chandelier-lit cabana. It was a warm, balmy evening and we had only just made it into the city for our reservation; eight-hour train delays from Agra will do that!

All seven of us (two girlfriends are part of our family) had donned our evening clothes, packed away the dusty traveller’s duds in which we had just toured Northern India, and appeared sparkling and ebullient for the New Year’s Eve dinner and dance. Throughout the evening, we reminisced over the wonders and the often troubling sights and encounters we had experienced together. It was a family adventure never to be forgotten, nor perhaps repeated.

This year was entirely different. Without Luke and Trixie, we were only five in this winter wonderland in Kimberley, British Columbia. We exchanged our ski gear, toques and warm gloves for smart-casual as we prepared our mountain home for the evening. To complete this festive gathering, we had welcomed family from Holland, along with my mom and dad. Neighbours dropped by for happy-hour and close friends stayed for the late dinner. There was Pictionary, crazy hats, impressive moonwalking and my husband, as ever, led us in Auld Lang Syne to formerly ring in the New Year. I was filled with the profound feeling that we were creating another cherished page for our family memory book.

As the years drift along, I’m reminded more and more that much of life is defined by how we gather and treasure memories. Something I read recently struck me as wisdom and truth. A woman in her nineties had poignantly professed:

“Each day is a gift, and as long as my eyes open, I’ll focus on the new day and all the happy memories I’ve stored away, just for this time in my life. Old age is like a bank account, you withdraw from what you’ve put in.”

This has resonated deeply with me on the threshold of 2019. I saw firsthand how true this is; for even as we celebrated and revelled in the beautiful snowy surroundings, we seven (including our two in Slovenia) reminisced time and again over our Indian adventure. Perhaps it was partly because that was the last time all seven of us were together as one.

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“Thinking about all the memories of last year and looking forward to the next time we get to share together,” Ayla wrote just before she and our son Andrew arrived home on the 27th.

“Love you guys! Sending big hugs,” Trixie added from Slovenia. On New Years’s Day, Luke chimed in with, “Dad, hope you sang Auld Lang Syne at the top of your lungs to ring in the new year, though it would be hard to beat last year’s performance.”

Yes, last year’s rendition had been during that celebration in Dehli when Bruce had joined the band to sing his treasured version of Robbie Burns classic words – as perhaps only a true Scots-Canadian can.

So despite the superb ski days, impromptu snow angels, terrific tobagganning, woodsy trampings and fireside chats, memories of last year were never far from our minds.

Since that eventful Indian journey, this past year we have come together in various countries, yet never all at once. It was an often challenging and difficult year, yet eventful, exciting and also truly joyous in which we were privileged to live and share on three different continents. Now, as we transition, in the short-term at least, from our global life, we look forward to more simple times in our Canadian home base. We’re excited for the new year, but unsure where it will lead as we open doors to new opportunities and adventures – and yes, perhaps another country.

So this year’s family photo doesn’t picture all of us in front of an iconic landmark such as the Taj Mahal. No, we’re more incognito in our ski helmets, or informal and relaxed over apres-ski drinks. Come to think of it, despite our best intensions to take a ‘nice family photo’, we somehow didn’t manage it. Was it perhaps subconscious as two of us were missing? I have a feeling it was.

With further words of wisdom from that cherished ninety-two year old woman, she counselled:

“So, my advice to you would be to deposit a lot of happiness in the bank account of memories.”

Let’s make 2019 a year to be mindful of memories, to be truly present and appreciative of each experience as it happens. This is the material from which our memories are carved, no matter how seemingly simple or extravagant they may be.

And so, as we celebrated on New Year’s Eve with those who were near, I messaged those far away; “I too have been thinking of last year. We’ll set a reunion for us all as soon as we can; this mother’s heart is yearning for that time.”

For now, I have a treasure chest of beautiful memories and the anticipation of creating many more. May we all be blessed to have the same.

A very Happy New Year Dear Readers!

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Luke and Trixie blog from Slovenia, and other points known at: https://www.howlblog.ca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Canadian book launch… a prairie, farm-house setting

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Picture a long ranch-style bungalow, tucked behind pine trees, once small saplings, now towering tall to meet the wide-open prairie sky. Imagine a place where the deer and the antelope really do play, and where the stillness of the night might be broken by the hoot of an owl under a splendid moon. This is my parent’s home.

A place imbued with support, with love, with familiarity around its welcoming kitchen table and oft blazing fireplace. A home that has hosted a passel of occasions from weddings to dog memorials, from reunions to rambunctious all-night family game nights. Now, it can add a book launch to its long tapestry of life’s occasions.

Monday Morning Emails had already been launched in India and The Netherlands, yet now that I’m home, it was time for me to debut my first published book.

 

I cherished the enthusiasm when I heard that my mom and some friends had planned the event. A cake was commissioned, table clothes and napkins were procured in that MME turquoise, blue-green. Old storied suitcases were dusted off from storage, bringing to life the vintage image on the book’s cover.

It all set the tone. This was a celebration of not only a book, but also of story telling by a once small-town girl. No, perhaps it isn’t every day that a book launch is held at a prairie- farm-house setting, yet it felt very normal, quite natural, that the Campbell Farm would be the venue of choice.

As people arrived, I knew it had been the right decision to gather here rather than in a hired venue. I greeted aunts, uncles and cousins, many of whom I had not seen in years. It was wonderful seeing them again, confirming that the bond of family transcends prolonged absences brought on by distance and busy lives.

Long-time friends also arrived, those who knew me long before I had ventured off to travel and live overseas. They remember me as that freckle-faced teenager whom they camped and played softball with, whose wedding they attended, then welcomed me home with each new child in tow. That history runs deep, forming family-like bonds.

Carol, my long-time friend and an early muse for my nomadic life, was also able to join the celebration. “Terry,” she reassured me, “this book isn’t only for expats, it really does resonate with us all.”

And Aundy, my sister-in-law, was profuse in her praise of the expert advice in the book, “I seem to turn to the page with just the right quote I need to inspire me,” she confided.

My niece Jess, a young mother raising a daughter on her own, seemed intrigued to listen to a few nuggets of inspiration from her Auntie Terry. And her daughter, my adorable great-niece was delighted to have her very own copy of the book. She’s only four and it will be tucked away in a cedar chest until she’s old enough to appreciate the essence and emotion of the correspondence between two friends living a global life.

To my surprise, Aundy also requested a second copy of the book. One to hide away for posterity, perhaps for family members to rediscover in later years. A moment like this impacts you as an author. You cherish such a gesture and you hope also that your words might have a lasting impact.

 

As I began my presentation, I gazed appreciatively over the crowd. I felt their warm embrace of support as I described my journey as a writer. The joys, the challenges, the meandering road of discovery and evolving as a person; the ‘climbing of a mountain’, each step bringing you a little closer to realising your dream. I also spoke to the cathartic nature of writing, to the soul searching, to the healing it can bring. I know that sharing through writing can offer solace and comfort.

I spoke at length and from the heart, taking time for book signing, eager to spend a few minutes chatting. As I wrote a personal message to each, their kind words and encouragement cast a warm glow on the already special day.

“What will you write next. Maybe historical fiction?” someone asked. As if they already knew that the idea has been roaming around my mind; characters waiting to come to life, to play their part in faraway tales.

“Will you put some of your blogs into a book?” Myrna, a long-time family friend asked. Her enthusiasm and commitment to my writing are like a treasured book – you know it’s there to call on for inspiration, to remind you of why you do what you do. I explained to Myrna and a few others that there are times when I question the relevance of my blog. No, it isn’t often, but when the news of this world seems overwhelming, one can question if your own stories are relevant, are they not merely trivial?

 

“No,” they assured me, “this is especially when we need your writing. To remind us of life and what is important, even of simpler things.”

Surely I’m not the only writer who questions the relevance of one’s stories, who suffers from occasional writer’s block, who ponders the significance of their humble words? But it is conversations like these that ignite and reinforce within me that storytelling is intrinsic to human societies. It has been thus, since the beginning, and in this age of short form news and seemingly limited attention spans, is it not ever-important to keep telling stories?

During these exchanges, I was mindful. Mindful that these people who I care about, have their own challenges, maybe sorrows, their own life-changing events that far supersede my often-supposed hardships. This leads to other questions.

“Will you come and speak at a home for the elderly? Perhaps a writing workshop?”

I answered with a resounding ‘yes’. I had explained in my presentation the satisfaction of having already hosted a workshop and the joy of knowing you might have inspired a new writer. That is now part of my mission, to ‘pay it forward’. My inspiration and mentor, my co-author Jo Parfitt, is proof of the power of helping others, willingly sharing what you know to help inspire others.

Six years ago, my journey began in Tuscany, and when I confided to the gathering that in fact, in just a few days I would be there once again, ensconced in that same retreat with Jo at the helm, they seemed genuinely pleased for me.

“Yes, it will be full circle,” I told them. “I know how lucky I am and I’m thankful. Let’s see what I’m inspired to do next.”

And then another thought from my nephew Todd.

“Why not a podcast, Auntie Terry Anne? I’m a podcast guy.” The thought of other mediums has long crossed my mind and I’m reminded of the necessity of a fixed schedule, of goals and of making sure those next dreams do indeed come true.

And if anyone can inspire me to do just that, it’s one of my dear, dear readers, the lovely Donna Lee. Even in her later years, she exudes beauty both inside and out. She is charming and full of life. When I told Donna Lee that I speak of her in one of my presentations, her eyes fill with tears.

IMG_9241“What do you say?” she asked, not suppressing her bemusement.

“I relate the power of sharing stories, Donna Lee. Remember, after my blog about the Taj Mahal, that you wrote to me. You told me how the post seemed to take you there, through words and photos. You mentioned how you remembered learning about the Taj in school and how wonderful it was that you knew someone who had been there.” As Donna Lee often does when we talk, she took my hand in hers.

“That’s why I write,” I continued, “to hope to transport you and others to those new places, to hear different tales. Thank you so much for coming along with me,” I told her. “I know you’re always reading and it means the world.” And as always, we hugged.

“And I don’t know what I’d do without your mom and dad,” she added, confirming what I already knew, but maybe what I needed to be reminded of again – that special feeling of sharing your successes with those who care about you.

At the end of the evening, as the cake had been cut, as flowers had been presented to my mom for her unwavering support, as my husband/editor/travel companion/long-time cheerleader had been thanked for his role in my small journey, as the stack of Monday Morning Emails dwindled, as each farewell hug was heartier than the previous, I thanked ‘my lucky stars’ for the day, for the joy of my ‘tribe’ here at home.

And I gave Donna Lee a final fond farewell. “I hope to see you soon Donna Lee. But first there’s Tuscany… you’ll be travelling with me again in spirit. Tuscany, here we come!”