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The Beauty and the Beastly Smells of the Fez Medina

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(NOTE: A more complete version of this with photographs can be found at :

http://www.travelblog.org/Africa/Morocco/F-s-Boulemane/Fes/blog-828790.html)

There is mystery and music and intrigue for me in the names Fez and Marrakech. They sound exotic and foreign and romantic. Maybe even a touch dangerous or threatening.

I feel some excitement at the thought of seeing, feeling, hearing, even tasting the experience of locales that have only been names until now.

Both of these Moroccan cities have been immortalized in popular songs of my era:

• “The Fez” by Steely Dan in the 1970’s which is actually using fez as a slang term for condom,

• and Crosby, Stills, and Nash 1969 song “Marrakech Express“, written by Graham Nash after a 1966 train ride from Casablanca to Marrakech.

And so I arrive in Fez with a mission – to acquire a “fez”, the round red hat with the flat top that you’ll see Shriners wearing in parades and festivals.

The first morning in Fez – our guide and driver Redouane and Fouad meet us early at our modern hotel and we start with a couple of quick stops high above the massive white and tan-coloured city to get an overview.

The next visit is at a local pottery school. There, a young worker convinces me to try my hand at molding and kneading the stiff, grey clay, laid out in a big wet lump on the floor, next to the artists spinning their wheels producing tagine pots. The skin of my palms becomes greyer than the hair on my head.

By the time we finish there, I walk out with a beautifully painted tagine pot in my possession. I figure that this is just part of my early preparation for a tagine cooking class we will be taking a couple of days later in Marrakech.

And now, here we are in the entryway to the Fez Medina (walled city) that transports a person back in time into a remarkable marketplace that has been the lifeblood for dozens upon dozens of generations of Moroccans. There’s a touch of Alice Through the Looking Glass entering the hole, the tunnel that may or may not let us out of its grip.

This morning as our group prepares to enter the medina, Redouane, once again dressed in his cloak-like djillaba, introduces us to a young fellow. Aladdin, an unemployed, yet well-dressed local man, will accompany us through the labyrinth to ensure that none of us becomes lost in the narrow, twisted alleys.

Within seconds of leaving the open square and entering the medina, an acrid, pungent smell hits.
We are surrounded by hustling, rushing people pushing their way through cramped, narrow corridors. There are scattered bits of overhead roofing some of the time, although the passages are so narrow, it feels as if we are indoors the entire time.

The first market stalls we encounter are laden with animal carcasses, mostly lamb, sheep and beef, and some wicker baskets filled to the brim with live shrimp or tai-chi slow moving snails in their shells. There are dozens of snail baskets stacked back deep into the shops. These are obviously a popular local delicacy, and something we’ll see a lot of little stalls selling later, hot and prepared in the souk of Marrakech.

The pinched passageway rises up and down and bends around corners, the floor sometimes smooth, but more often bumpy and cracked. Every 10 or 15 seconds a push cart or scraggled donkey heavily laden with food or fabric or animal hides – cement even – approaches from behind and the Arabic word “belek” is shouted…”move aside”.

There is constant movement and interaction between the sellers and the men, women, and children who live their lives inside this encapsulated city.

Small emaciated cats sit amusedly or run hither and thither, collecting any tiny stray scraps of meat or white bits of fat dropped to the ground by merchants. In the Muslim world, cats are considered clean and can be touched and held, whereas dogs are believed contaminated, and after touching one, it is important to wash and cleanse oneself, almost as if you were entering a mosque.

Some of the shops appear to be long ago dug into the dirt hillside, dark and primitive, while next to them, others have lovely ceramic entryways and bright lights. Still stranger are the doorways that open into a modern looking bank or a restaurant, a mosque, or even the world’s first university.

This is a place of huge diversity, with a whole lot of curiosity; for example, when we entered a leather tannery factory.

At the dark, claustrophobic entryway, a small, old, bearded man hands each of us a branch of fresh, leafy mint. Nice smell, OK.

We climb two flights of cramped wooden stairs where we are greeted by a middle-aged semi-toothless fellow who speaks English with a southern twang, who ends his “s” words with “sh”…”Welcome to Fesh”.

It’s hard not to stare at his yellow-mottled, peg teeth as he tells us he once lived in Cold Lake, Alberta, flowering us with compliments about Canada. Then he launches the tour of the tannery factory inside the Fez Medina.

Leading us one floor higher, we walk into a sizable, dull wood-floored room with a long opening on the far side looking out over the Medina. When we approach the edge to peer out, it’s as if a scene from Dicken’s industrial age is laid out before us.

Far below is a huge square filled with perhaps a hundred round, concrete vats, each maybe 6 or 8 feet across looking like small hot tubs. They’re filled to the top with dye liquids of varying colours.

Dozens of grizzled men work around and inside them. Some are carrying heavy loads of raw, untreated hides that they toss into the “baths”.

Others are swimming in the vats up to their waist in dye water, mixing the hides to take on the stain: the yellow, the brown, the black, the red and many more. All to make the coats and purses and leather briefcases we find in our houses somewhere in the world. Some of the men walk about with legs tinted the same colour as the coats we admire later.

Immediately, it’s obvious why we were handed the mint. The stench is overwhelmingly nauseating in the way it burns into your nostrils and lungs. Holding the mint to your nose helps to lessen but not obliterate the rotting, putrid smell.

There’s a constant flow of hides entering and leaving the area; the tan or white hides coming in flung over the shoulder by the dozen, and dripping wet, coloured hides carried away for the next stage in the process.

After observing the trip back in time for a few long moments, we’re taken the standard tourist route through the many displays and showrooms of all of the leather products: coats, handbags, valises, suitcases, belts.

Sydney, one of our Canadian co-travellers shows an interest in a handbag, if it’s not too expensive.

An hour later and after intense negotiations that could have bought and sold a major Canadian corporation, Sydney sheds $300 on a handbag and a red leather jacket, bargained down from the $700 starting point. Maureen was brought in to the negotiations partway through to lend some supportive, female strength, and then later, Sydney’s husband John was dragged in to approve the final purchase.

Tired, dehydrated and hungry, we all shuffle off for lunch, stumbling along the snake-like passages and then abruptly swinging right through a doorway. Down some rickety stairs, a high ceiling-ed chamber opens up before us – the room is filled with diners settled at round, wooden tables surrounded by benches lined with bulging, over-stuffed cushions.

It is dimly lit, and had it been filled with smoke, we might have thought we had entered a den of iniquity from Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.

Our group settles in and soon has a table filled with multiple plates of finely chopped Moroccan salads, followed closely by a chicken tagine mixed with our first sampling of couscous. No alcohol is served here in the midst of the Muslim surrounds, but lots of hot, sweet mint tea washes down the spicy dishes. A final course of fresh bananas and mandarin oranges leaves us recuperated and refreshed for further medina meanderings.

Getting out of the restaurant is as difficult as finding our way through the rest of the medina.

A few of our small group are held up by the other 3 of us who take a wrong set of stairs and begin climbing upwards, and then more upwards, attempting to find an exit. “Funny, I don’t remember passing this office room when we came in here.”

Finally, a kind server of the restaurant escorts us few lost sheep to the correct staircase that leads us back to the twisted paths of the actual medina. We carry on visiting other alleys and shops, and small factories until our feet are sore from the ups and downs and all arounds.

Like the 19th hole of a golf course, or the sports bar after the hockey or football game, our group returns to the hotel where we gather later for dinner and relive the day that has stimulated all of our senses with the sight, sound, touch, taste, and yes, especially, smells, of life behind the walls of the medina in Fez, Morocco.

In the next blog post, we’ll take you through the Moroccan countryside and to the exciting city of Marrakesh and its Souk (market), a tagine cooking class, and a visit to a Hammam (traditional Moroccan public bath). You won’t want to miss it!

Play It Again Sam … Casablanca to Fez

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(NOTE: A more complete version of this with photographs can be found at :

http://www.travelblog.org/Africa/Morocco/Grand-Casablanca/Casablanca/blog-827033.html)

The Moroccan policeman has a smile on his face that looks pasted-on friendly but it’s pretty clear to us all that there’s serious intent as he reaches forward and touches my arm over and over.

Even our ever-smiling guide Redouane (“Red-One”) has lost the happy light in his eyes. But that’s not important just yet … let’s go back just a bit.

………………………….

RABAT, Morocco

It’s like a symphony performed with the lights turned out.

The sounds float on the cool pre-dawn air into our hotel room through the window left open to allow fresh air that won’t come from the non-functioning A/C unit.

First, the sweetly lyrical but haunting chant crying out through the loudspeaker that calls the Muslim faithful to the first of their 5 times daily prayer.

Then a pleasant woman’s voice emanates from the train station across the street reciting a list in Arabic, French (the 2 main languages spoken in northern Morocco, Berber is spoken more in the south), and English, of destinations for the next train arrival.

Soon after, the squealing sound of a train’s wheels incite dog songs to begin the baying chorus of their ancestors.

Finally, a child’s quiet cries intrude through the background to end the symphony.

This is how the day started in this Muslim city just a bit north of Casablanca in the Monday morning darkness.

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Breakfast in the white table-clothed hotel restaurant is filled with a gaggle of brown-skinned, mustachioed and tuxedoed Moroccan male servers hustling here and there and yet serving very few guests. It’s clearly mostly busy work, but they’re very good at giving it a realistic feel of useful activity.

The serving tables are replete with large platters of just-made crepes and steaming French toast, all manner of fruit, eggs, salad vegetables, and finally, tall spindled serving trays of… shall we say…dry enough to choke a camel, almond-infused sweet goods.

The night before, at a different table in the same restaurant, all of us 5 Canadian travelers-on-tour brought out our tourism six shooters.

In a game of oneupmanship, one by one we fired off an impressive-to-us list of previous travels and exotic adventures. When one of us finished, the next began and raised the ante. China versus Nepal versus Galapagos versus Iceland and so on.

It’s not a contest I enjoy, but my competitive side wouldn’t let me escape and be quiet. Embarrassed at myself, I fired back with my travel credentials. Take that … bang bang!

After arriving on a late night flight from Madrid, the first tour day had been a whirlwind of exploring sprawling Casablanca (population 4 million) with the main Hassan II Mosque and its enormous 200-metre high minaret, the highest in the Islamic world. We removed our shoes to enter with respect and took in the enormity of the marble and cedar shrine to Allah.

The dark, cloudy day was accompanied by large Atlantic Ocean waves smashing into the beach front behind the mosque, giving the scene a roar for the ear and an ominous look for the eye.

Leaving Casablanca, we began the driving loop through northern Morocco’s varied history and landscapes and flavours.

 

The Road from Rabat to Fez

On the smaller Moroccan highways, there are police roadblocks each half hour to hour along the way.

We approached the very first of our journey shortly after a lunch break of delicious chicken tagine (moroccan stew), and little triangle-shaped pastries that mixed a savoury inside (chicken, ground almonds, and egg) with a sugar-dusted outside, in the old university town of Meknes. I’ll be looking for a recipe for those pastries!

Two sour-faced and officious cops waved our 7-seater van to the side of the two-lane paved highway. It was a stretch of road surrounded by lush green fields of fava beans, gentle, verdant slopes rising on both sides.

We had passed alongside huge wide swaths of olive orchards in their silvery grey hues, although the trees were empty of olives for now. On the other hand, the almond trees had been in full pink blossomy splendour and from time to time we had seen bitter orange trees with large ripe round fruit hanging from their branches.

It was as lush an agricultural area as I had ever experienced.

It was also as lush a police hustle as I had ever encountered.

In the driver’s seat of our van sat Fouad, a slender, mid-twenties fellow with a slight resemblance to a young Barack Obama, a big infectious smile and a happy demeanor.

In the passenger seat was Redouane, our handsome, thirty-two year old guide for the journey.

We five Canuck journeyers in the back, sat quietly eating local mandarin oranges, and watched with interest as the discussion went along in Arabic between the officer at the window and our two guides. Eventually both Redouane and Fouad were asked to get out of the van and join the police at their vehicle behind.

Five minutes passed and then 10 as the discussion went on with no resolution; at times it looked like there was some heat in the words of one of the cops and once in Redouane’s face.

But I wasn’t satisfied with watching and waiting as Redouane and Fouad argued and cajoled the police officers. Despite an ongoing discussion with our fellows, the police managed to multi-task and continue to pull over other truck and van drivers, apparently fleecing a few hundred Moroccan Dirhams from some, the equivalent of maybe 30 or 40 Canadian dollars.

Finally, foolishly … stupidly … impulsively … I stuck my head out of the van door, aiming my camera towards the excitement occurring between the police and Redouane.

I snapped a photo of the back-and-forth 15 metres away, pleased that I had been so discrete, and no, I didn’t use a flash.

Climbing into the back seat area, I reached over the back of the seat and took a second shot through the rear window of the van.

I sat back in my van seat, proud of my photojournalism skills.

But, unfortunately, I HAD been caught “red-camera”-ed.

I could hear the crunch crunch crunch of approaching footsteps on the soft shoulder gravel and then the head police guy’s face peered in through the open van door. Redouane looked worried behind his shoulder. The police officer smiled, but it wasn’t a happy smile.

Redouane spoke over the cop’s shoulder:

“You must erase the picture you just took and show the policeman while you’re doing it.”

The cop reached in towards me and touched my arm while I turned on the camera. I was way too timid to resist and insist on freedom of expression or whatever might show true courage.

Everyone else in the van sat in stony silence.

I’ve never deleted a photo on this Canon SLR camera and so Maureen and I fumbled over and over, pushing this button, then that, then another. Nothing seemed to bring up an erase screen.

The cop continued looking at me and touching my arm each time it was clear I hadn’t erased anything. Then he pulled out a small flashlight and held the light on the camera’s back.

Quickly, I spotted a garbage can icon – YES!! This had to be it.

I touched the button beside the icon and the word ERASE popped up on the screen.

The beads of sweat on my forehead began to cool and when the button was pressed, the cop could see the photo disappear. I hoped that he wouldn’t look at the screen and notice that there was a second photo of the scene. But he was too skilled at this scenario and immediately he signaled to me that I should erase the next photo as well. I hit the garbage can icon and it was … gone.

The cop looked up at me, smiled, touched my arm, then said in broken English, “Enjoy your stay in Morocco”. OK…

Redouane refused to pay a cash bribe to the cops, insisting on a written fine so that there would be a record of his “crime”. The travel company would pay the cost of the official fine later for the burnt out taillight that couldn’t possibly have been seen by the cops prior to pulling us over.

…………………………………………….

Off we continued; we passed through a dozen more road blocks in the next day or so without incident – just a collective holding of breath and nervous laughs each time by the 7 inhabitants of our van.

Darkness descended as we finally pulled into Fez for the night. The evening air was cooling to about 6 or 7 C when we hopped out of the van and checked into a beautiful 5 storey Barcelo-branded hotel and prepared for a visit to the famed enormous Fez Medina (old walled city) the following morning.

The delights of Fez and Marrakesh will be the next stops on this blog’s journey. More surprises to come!!

My Blood Flows in Fredericksburg …

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Union soldier

.

Let us cross over the river,

and rest under the shade of the trees.”

……………………………………………..Last words — Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

……………………………….

December 12, 1862 — Fredericksburg, Virginia.

The morning air is chill, but not freezing, thank God.

I’m wearing the standard blue woollen Union army uniform, my McClellan cap or kepi sitting low over my brow, a long-barrelled musket held tight in my nervously-sweaty hands. There’s a frighteningly long straight line of my Illinois friends and neighbours on either side of me, with whom I’ve marched through many dark, cold nights.

We are McClelland’s Dragoons, Company A, come from the farms just outside Chicago.

There were times on this march to Fredericksburg when freezing rain made the chill run so deep into my core that I shook and my teeth chattered in my misery. One of my neighbours just sat himself at the side of the road and quietly died. Two others died of typhoid on the march. I have a rotting tooth that is aching, and bleeding blisters on both feet that also have fungus itching between the toes that is driving me crazy.

Growing corn on my father’s farm was hard work, but nothing comes close to this wretchedness.

Back home — it seems like years ago now, but is actually only 7 months — I anxiously joined my friends enlisting for this exciting adventure to quash the rebel uprising, and to put those southerners in their place. They think they can take our jobs by using the free labour of niggers to make their fortunes. We need jobs for our families too.

And now, I have the glory of walking steadily forward into the smoke and cacophonous blasts of rifles fired from behind a stone wall by those damned grey-coated southerners. I have no armour to protect me, just this heavy woollen coat.

IMG_0953 - Version 2

And all I can think about right now is what my wife will do with our young children when it’s my turn to march towards that bloody wall of fire 300 yards away, and I’ve been ripped open by a blast to the chest of heavy 55 mm lead-shot and I lay on this pockmarked field, in a mound of mud and bodies and blood.

……………………………..

September 17, 2013

The Civil War Trail

The red clay in the  soil beneath my feet makes me think deeply of the huge rivers of blood that soaked into the earth here.

The blood of Union soldiers, the blood of Confederate infantrymen, the blood of countless horses, husbands, wives, brothers, women and children. The blood of warriors and innocents who stood in the line of fire of armies dedicated to destruction in the name of a cause they believed in.

Somehow, it doesn’t feel right that here I am, relaxed, with a warm sun stream coming from the left as I absorb the terrifying violence that tore families and loved ones apart.

A historic saga is running in the breeze through the grasses of Fredericksburg.

I can feel it as I stand on a partly-paved, partly-dirt road recessed behind a long fieldstone fence that rises about 4 feet high overlooking this small, peaceful town. The towering pines and maples and oaks have all grown back tall after they too fell in the maelstrom of the battle 150 years ago.

A few thousand Confederate soldiers crouched behind this fence and slaughtered and wounded 12,000 federal soldiers that approached them head on across a wide open landscape. Above the wall on the hill behind, Confederate cannons blew the walking walls of Union soldiers to bloody shreds with their shrapnel. It was a killing field for young men and boys that marched here from the farms and cities of Connecticut and Maryland and Illinois.

Today, Peter, a young park ranger, maybe 30 years old, walks us along the thick stone wall and tells us a wonderful story of a terrible event. He’s animated and interesting, and interested too not just in the battle, but how it affected the soldiers and their families. How the politics were as muddy as the fields the soldiers marched upon.

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Over the last 10 days, we’ve visited the Civil War battlefields of Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania in Virginia, Antietam in Maryland, and the granddaddy of them all, Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania.

I’ve stood on the spot in Chancellorsville where General “Stonewall” Jackson was shot in the dark by his own confused soldiers (he died 10 days later from pneumonia). Jackson, like so many Civil War Generals, while a brilliant warrior and strategist, screwed up royally and paid the price with his fatal mistake of reconnoitering at night.

I’ve looked over the rolling hills of Antietam from the vantage point of General Robert E. Lee, searching his mind for a stategy to beat Ulysses S. Grant and Abe Lincoln.

I’ve pondered the senselessness of war from the peaceful, grassy knoll in the cemetery overlooking the graves of thousands of Union soldiers where Lincoln delivered his short, but infamous Gettysburg Address.

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From my side, a grey-hair ponytailed fellow approaches with a smile. He begins to talk as if we’ve been friends for years, telling me that he’s a Civil War buff who knows just about everything there is to know about this tumultuous event. I heard him in the museum earlier, collaring others and telling them stories of the battles and strategies used by the generals.

He’s an intriguing guy from nearby Washington, DC. I don’t usually like to be latched onto by strangers, but he seems friendly and harmless, so I let him ramble for a few minutes. We share notes on what we’ve seen as the cool, late afternoon wind buffets and blows our hair a bit.

The sun is just about to set as we shake hands and part ways, cannons silhouetted alongside the paths we take to the vehicle lot and the end of the day.

……………………….

The monster-sized Civil War museum at Gettysburg contains a stunning cyclorama, something popular with the masses in the 1800’s.

Climbing 2 flights of stairs inside the museum after a movie presentation about the Battle of Gettysburg, we enter into a huge darkened theatre that’s like a planetarium in the round containing a cyclorama, a 360° cylindrical painting.

This version that hangs in Gettysburg, is a recent (2005) restoration of the version created for Boston in 1883. It’s huge,  27 feet (8.2 m) high and 359 feet (109 m) in circumference.

The painting was created by French artist Paul Philppoteaux and depicts Pickett’s Charge, the climactic Confederate attack on Union forces during the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.

The intended effect is to immerse the viewer in the scene being depicted, and includes the addition of foreground models and life-sized replicas of cannons and fences to enhance the illusion. The presentation comes to life with a narrated story, loud cannon booms and rifle fire while flashes of light behind the canvas give life to the cannon blasts.

It’s stunning to contemplate the number of artists and the creativity used to produce a painting of this size and complexity.

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A small segment of the cyclorama

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We’ve titled this road trip “The Country Music and Civil War Tour 2013

Travelling these middle-America roads, just like our other travels, has made me ponder many great matters, both important and trivial.

For instance — and you’ve probably asked yourself this question a thousand times …

Which is better, Pancake or Waffle?

Waffles or Pancakes

I throw myself firmly into the Pancake camp. None of those difficult nooks and crannies that catch too much peanut butter or syrup. Warm, tender, fragrant. It’s the perfect breakfast food for getting the day started.

However, the waffle is winning the hearts of those who stay in the hotels of America. The mid-range hotels with brand names like La Quinta, and Best Western all provide a breakfast to varying degrees as part of the package for spending the night between their sheets.

The breakfast, whether simple continental or sumptuous hot buffet, always has THE WAFFLE MAKER.

Nine nights on the road, sampling from a different hotel each morning, has made me the quintessential waffle connoisseur of North America.

Just pour the premade thick batter from a plastic cup onto the round griddle surface, close the lid, flip the whole thing over on a pin, and two and a half minutes later, out pops a golden-brown waffle. Perfect, every time … almost!

Never one to look too carefully, or read instructions (come on, I AM a man!), one morning, I scooped the mix sitting to the right of the waffle maker and poured it over the searing metal plate of the appliance. As I closed the lid, I could see a sign to the left labelled “waffle mix”.

Huh? What did I just ladle into the waffle maker? OHHHH, that would be the oatmeal porridge, just like the little sign said beneath its container.

So, did I panic? Not a chance. Quickly I poured some of the REAL waffle mix over the bubbling oatmeal frying in the maker and closed the lid with a little prayer. I waited with anticipation.

Two and a half minutes later, the beeper sounded indicating the waffle was finished cooking.

I lifted the lid, and there sat a PERFECT golden-toned waffle with extra oatmeal specks, steaming and smelling deliciously wonderful.

So please forgive me for being so glib, but BREAKFAST, like WAR, is HELL!

The first thing I'm going to do when this war ends is eat a pancake ...

The first thing I’m going to do when this war ends is eat a pancake …

Desperately Seeking Marilyn

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crescent moon on new york

I was barely able to make out the waning crescent of the moon in the dark sky.

It was just after midnight on a mild September night when we stepped out into the city lights on Lexington Avenue, just up from 52nd Street. I replaced the felt fedora on my head; it was a perfect match to my tan-coloured suit.

There were the familiar rumbling sounds and underfoot shaking of subway cars beneath the Manhattan city street. The sharp smell of cigarette smoke lingered in the still air as a pair of young lovers passed by along the sidewalk in front of Fleurette’s Jewelry store.

We meandered slowly along, side by side, soulfully talking about how pitiful the sad creature from the movie we had just finished watching was. Then she turned, looked me dead straight in the eyes and in her breathy voice said,

“….he just wanted affection – you know,  a sense of being loved, and needed, and wanted.”

She had such a wide-eyed look of innocence and naivety. Who was she really talking about?

And then she stepped onto the criss-cross metal grating above the subway line:

“Ooo, do you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn’t it delicious?”,

she said, her perfectly smooth legs locked straight at the knees, her feet in high-heeled white strappy sandals placed about a foot apart. And then her ivory-coloured halter-style cocktail dress billowed upwards exposing her legs, her white panties, and the inner pleats of the dress that resembled the underside gills of a mushroom. A look of little-girl innocent pleasure painted her face.

It wasn’t a hot night, but what man wouldn’t feel a burning at this moment? The world stopped and lived only for us two for a precious few seconds.

I wandered a semi-circle around her, cocked my head a bit and smiled, “Sorta cools the ankles, doesn’t it?”

An iconic scene of the 20th Century by an iconic figure of the era.

marilyn monroe over subway grate

The abrupt honking of a passing cab snapped me out of my daydream.

Ambling up Lexington Avenue a couple of summers back, it was a warm Friday morning in Manhattan and we were on the hunt for Norma Jean. Yes, that Norma Jean. You might know her as Marilyn Monroe.

It was a scene from the 1955 movie The Seven Year Itch where Marilyn strode out of the Trans-Lux 52nd Street Theatre onto Lexington Avenue with co-star Tom Ewell after having just watched Creature from the Black Lagoon.

We were visiting New York and wanted to see the iconic spot in person and feel the aura of what was but a few seconds from a scene that occurred over 50 years ago. Millions and millions have likely walked this street and across the hundreds of subway grates scattered throughout Manhattan. But we wanted to see THE sidewalk grate where the Hollywood GREAT had stood and purred those famous words in her high-pitched-dripping-sex-all-over-the-place voice.

We asked workers unloading beer cases from trucks, we inquired with hotel doormen, but no one seemed to know the exact grate where Marilyn had cooed and billowed. We wandered back and forth up and down Lexington hoping a sign, a cairn, some marker would pop up saying:

Here, actress Marilyn Monroe captured the world with her engaging smile and undulating white dress while cooling her ankles and naughty bits on her return home from a date in the movie The Seven Year Itch.

But why? Why would this be important? Was I fanatical about Marilyn Monroe? Not at all!

We seek out fame and the famous, the historic, the iconic, the tragic and the momentous. We bookmark our lives by the battlefields and cathedrals and moviestar mansions we visit- we set plaques and monuments as tribute and remembrance. We collect cars, and bubblegum cards, and vinyl record albums, and coins and stamps and vintage wines.

There is a burning desire in so many of us to visit and draw in greatness – both positive and catastrophic –  from the past and feel a part of it within us. We want to walk on the “hallowed” ground and breathe in the air that Julius Caesar absorbed.

No matter our station, there is a feeling of splendour and ownership if we see and touch the same things that others who have achieved much have seen and touched. We want the sensation of being a part of something bigger, grandiose and monumental.

We want to be unique but at the same time we want to feel like a part of the human family. And for many of us too, I think it’s because we want to be fabulous in some way and do something special in our short lives.

fame-star

What could be cooler than to leave a legacy behind; a song that others hum, a story that resonates through time, a grandmother’s iris plant that thrilled, a photographic portrait that mesmerizes 100 years on?

AND SO?

We didn’t ever, to our best knowledge, stand on the famed sidewalk grate we were seeking out on that busy Manhattan avenue.

BUT … we did grab a hot dog from one of New York City’s ubiquitous sidewalk vendors and imagine ourselves solving a stupendously difficult murder case from TV’s Law & Order. Later, we ventured to the top of the Empire State Building and envisioned ourselves as Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr (An Affair to Remember), or Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle). I may have even daydreamed of seeing myself climbing that building as King Kong while Fay Wray or Naomi Watts screamed in my hairy clenched hand.

And it’s everywhere.

In Paris, I imagine myself in the catacombs of the Paris Opera House, a half-mask covering my face… in Berlin, I stand in front of the Brandenburg Gate giving an address to hundreds of thousands of onlookers as Adolf Hitler, or John F. Kennedy … in Tokyo, I am Hirohito …in Beijing, I am Mao … in Ottawa, I am Trudeaumania … in Washington, I “have a dream” of standing before a huge crowd on the Mall as Dr. Martin Luther King.

No matter who we are, or where we are in time, we stand beneath the dark skies, feel the warm caressing of the night breeze, and gaze dreamily skyward at the same moon that Marilyn and I flirted beneath that late summer night of 1955.

Van Gogh Starry Starry Night

Everybody Loves the Sound of Train Sex*

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Italy. Summer 1979. Overnight express train from Milan to Brindisi.

milanocentrale

My travel companion John and I were clickety-clacking southward to catch the ferry boat cutting away from the heel of the Italian boot across the blue Ionean Sea to Patras, Greece.

Our vagabond student backpacking wandering was into its third month.

I was so young and pliable that I’d started to talk with a slight British accent after only a month hitchhiking in England and Scotland. If the Queen had invited me for tea, she might have mistaken me for one of Prince Charles’ good buddies, in those pre-Diana days.

John and I had been 2 friends from high school, three years into our professional careers, living thousands of miles apart with a common desire to travel Europe.

The relationship between John and myself went off the rails almost immediately after we landed in England from Toronto. Within a week together, we could barely agree on whether London was north or south of Edinburgh.

Fortunately, we had an equal relationship. We were both equally certain that the other was a total ASSHOLE. Our tense “marriage” crumbling, we took to separating for a week or so and meeting up at pre-determined locations for a day or two before splitting off once again in different directions.

One thing we could agree on was that we were both keen on visiting “cheap” Greece. So, while knocking back huge frothy steins of beer, and lustily shouting eins, zwei, g’suffa in the huge Hofbrauhaus in “expensive” Munich, Germany, we agreed to meet a few days later in Milan so we could travel in tandem to Athens.

Hofbrauhaus

A then-cheap Eurail pass gave us unlimited train and boat travel in western Europe. We used the landlocked cruise locomotive not only as transport but also a place to crash on the nights when hostels were filled and there were no stable-rooms available at the inn. It provided all of the necessities for efficient travel. Our goal was to access as many European ruins, cathedrals, art galleries, and museums as possible in the time before our return flight to Canada.

We agreed to catch the overnight train from Milan to Brindisi and then jump aboard the morning ferry boat to Greece. In the Milano train station, we waited in a line for about an hour anticipating the train’s arrival. There were 30 or 40 of us young 20-something kids from various countries, festooned with our heavy backbacks and hiking boots.

Conversations ensued.

Just in front of my friend John and myself were 2 young girls, our age, Canadians we quickly discovered.

One was dark-haired and studious looking, the other, knockout gorgeous with short blonde hair and an “I’m ready to party” attitude about her. Woody Allen’s movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has two female characters (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) that could have been these girls’ close twins.

vicky-cristina-barcelona

As Canadians, there was a commonality that led to excited chatter about where we lived and what we did when we weren’t backpacking… soon, a bit of flirting and suggestive talk arose between John and “Scarlett”.

As dusk began to settle in, the train arrived at the station in a cacaphonous mixture of brake squeals and diesel smoke. Together, we four Canadians climbed aboard.

A quick bond had formed between us, as so often happens when we travel. Strangers become friends in a flash in a foreign country. We stuck together and found an unoccupied compartment to share. John and Scarlett on one side, “Rebecca” and I sat on the other.

Train compartments were always cozy with their heavy sliding entrance doors and long plush-weave bench seats that faced each other on either side. When there were no other itinerants occupying the adjoining spot on the bench, we could stretch out on them to sleep. Drop-down windows allowed us to gulp in huge mouthfuls of fresh air when smokers shared our space and to hang our heads out like dogs in speeding cars to take in the gorgeous Italian countryside. Orchards filled with ripening olive trees or reach-to-the-sky sunflowers refreshed our mental cupboards when they were filled to overflowing with cathedrals and museums.

train compartment

Soon, the train began to inch forward and the compartment lights were dimmed so that we could see only shadowy outlines of each other in the darkness.

Like some magic, as the lights dimmed, John and Scarlett’s ardour rose.

The mere act of turning down the compartment light seemed to draw something intense from their inner sexual urges. Neither Rebecca nor myself were interested in creating our own “liaison” with each other.

Conversation died off and the sounds of physical connection took over. Oohs and ahhs and slurps and smacks rippled across the dusky compartment in little waves. Shuffles of clothing being removed or pushed up or down. The unhinging of bra and pant buttons and zippers. Each new note of voice or clothing sound increased my discomfort. Making casual conversation with my benchmate Rebecca seemed inappropriate somehow.

What to do, what to do.

Rebecca and I became unwilling and uncomfortable voyeurs-in-the-dark.

Feigning sleep at this point seemed to be the only option.

I closed my eyes as the level of lust and fast paced rhythmic intimacies intensified. The blending of the train’s steady staccato beat and our companions lovemaking merger was like a beautiful artistic aria in an Italian opera. I remembered that I didn’t like opera.

The train’s rhythm continued pulsing on but the movement and sounds on the opposite side of the compartment soon swelled … and peaked … and then receded. The night returned to quiet, except for the incessant click-clack beneath us.

The sun rose hot and bright early the next morning and the train pulled to a stop in Brindisi. We sleepily poured ourselves off onto the station platform. We stood chatting a bit awkwardly together. Scarlett and Rebecca said they planned to stay a day or two in Brindisi before taking the ferry across to Greece. Mailing addresses were exchanged (e-mail in 1979, not a chance!).

We said our goodbyes to the girls and ambled in different directions down the platform. John and I were soon aboard the ferry bound for Greece and seeking new adventures in a new country.

We didn’t talk about the night before.

There were uncontrollable trains that merged and passed in that night and on that trip. We hop onto one train, enjoy the journey, and travel to a destination that suits us. Then a station comes along and we decide a new destination will fit us better than the one where we’re headed.

I never saw or heard from either Scarlett or Rebecca again after that day.

A few weeks later we boarded the plane returning from London to Toronto.

I never saw or heard from John again.

(*with apologies to Paul Simon for hijacking lyrics from his song “Train in the Distance“)

 Man Looking Out Train Window

The Heart of a (Formerly) Nervous Flyer on the Canadian Prairies

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For about 15 years I was a scaredy-cat white knuckle flyer…. nervous as a perilously plumped tom-turkey in December.

My heart would thump wildly like an African drum when any plane I sat in took off or landed. I would try to look calm on the outside while my insides flipped and turned like Olympic trampolinists. Were we really meant for reading, sleeping, talking and eating at 35,000 feet while floating weightlessly suspended miles above the ground we walk on? My inner child wanted to cry out for my Mommy…

I know I wasn’t alone in my fears here.

I only have to quickly glance around the cabin of any aircraft to spot the anxiety-ridden face of a passenger whose fingernails are leaving indelible crevices in the armrests. White-knuckle flyers abound.

We all know it’s irrational thinking, but that doesn’t hold back the cold sweats for some. Mind you, it’s possible I could be misinterpreting. I can imagine myself reassuring the person in the aisle seat next to me as a small bead of sweat trickles down their forehead:

       -No need to be nervous, those are just normal sounds the plane makes when the flaps are being extended to slow us down. 

       – It’s not that… people were staring at me when I came back from the washroom. I think all the passengers have figured out that my girlfriend and I just joined the Mile High club. 

Ohhh…THAT! I should never presume to know the back stories to my seatmates.

Airplane!_movie2

“…Just sit back and relax, folks…” Are you kidding me?

My flying life began years back in a nonchalant and calm way. But then came some flights I took in the Northwest Territories in the late ’70’s that struck near-terror inside. I probably could have used a fresh set of adult diapers on some of those roller coaster rides through the cold, dark Arctic night. I wasn’t sure what would be worse, being torn apart in a ferocious fiery crash, or surviving the impact and freezing to death in the bone-chilling -40C temperatures of the tundra.

Thankfully, after toting my young kids along who could distract me from my airborne fears by crying or vomiting, and after dozens of smooth, carefree flights, my adrenal glands have gradually settled and I take to the skies once again with gusto and anticipation… hallelujah!

At this time of year many winter-wearied Canadians, Americans and Europeans alike turn their backs on the snowy winter gifts surrounding them and pile into squishy, tetris-like airplanes that transport them to places with exotically familiar names such as Puerto Vallarta, Maui, Ft. Lauderdale, or Sevilla.

But, unlike earlier years, it’s no longer only for the affluent. Hell, newborn babies collect enough cash in their monthly government cheques to fly south for at least a week or two each year.

This is the beauty of travel in our 21st century world. Winter one minute, summer the next. We have an ability to chart our own seasons with the flick of a boarding pass.

BUT… travelling “down” to “up” the degrees was not for me this year … no sir.

Last week it was “across” … VANCOUVER TO SASKATOON … Tulips to Igloos!

The jet arced from mild, coastal Vancouver to snow-bound, prairie Saskatchewan like a long-bomb football pass from a great quarterback. It soared upwards effortlessly defying gravity before gracefully drifting down into the arms of the runway receiver. A friendly family visit in early spring was the game plan.

After settling down to ground, I hopped into the grey 2003 Honda Civic borrowed from my kind brother Robert. Motoring from small city Saskatoon to smaller town Kindersley and then even tinier burg Dewar Lake, I knew I was in new pastures when I came to the intersection of BuffaloBerry and Toad Roads. This is W.O. Mitchell territory.

Here I was steering the flat, straight ribbons of blacktop in late April where great white smooth oceans of snowy fields awaited their overdue seeding of wheat and peas and canola. Peering out for miles over the ivory sea, there were isolated copses of clumped trees in the distance looking like ocean barges or sea freighters carrying their loads across the great expanse.

Snowy Sask

This is the Canadian prairie heartland.

For more than 100 years, huge swaths of golden grain have stood tall and swayed in the swirling winds of this vast area. Dwindling numbers of soldier-straight grain elevators store the wheat that is then finely ground and made into bread and pasta to nourish the world.

Pinning the fields down to the earth at regular intervals are oil pump-jacks, bobbing and bobbing, sucking oil and gas upwards from the depths. These nodding cranes pour thick, black, regular cash flow not only into the mega oil companies bottom lines but also into farmers’ bank accounts for the lean years when weather and insects decimate harvests.

Oil-jack

This is not a land or climate for the weak or frail. It’s a life of isolation and challenge. The simple joys of curling and Saturday night dances and jellied salads. And despite the apparent simplicity, I don’t think this is a place for me to live or to fully understand.

.

That Saskatoon moon

Is calling to me

It rises so bright

In my memory

I long to see it shine

On the river below

And walk arm in arm

With this sweetheart I know

                                                                                                                                                                                                         Connie Kaldor

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My wife’s brother-cousins farm an enormous plot of land covering 2700 acres (almost 11 square kilometers) under the expansive skies. This is major ranch-size farming in most Canadian provinces, but here on the plains, it’s just a small chunk by today’s grain farmer standards.

Cousins Cliff and Don are typical of the European settlers who have grown grain here for generations- warm, good-natured and stoic. They love the land they live on and farm, and accept all that it throws their way.

They talk in a farmer’s unhurried cadence with acceptance of whatever happens, happens. They have rough, weather-worn hands from fixing combines and seeders on days of freezing cold winds and blistering sun. And then there’s Cliff’s wife Barb, the effusive and optimistic glue that holds the home, the boys, the kids, and the operation together.

This year their acreage will be split into equal portions: wheat, durum, peas, canola, and fallow (rest). There is little to no tillage anymore to avoid worries of erosion that plagued the prairies in the dust bowls of the 1930’s.

They’re high-tech, knowledgeable farmers with expensive and complex machinery equipped with air-conditioning, stereos, gps’s and internet connectivity that allows them to oversee and seed a huge patch of dirt.

And like any farmer, some years produce abundance, others disappointment. Cliff matter-of-factly tells me of last year’s pea crop that was decimated by hail and fungus. All part of the chess match of farmer versus nature.

The landscape of the prairie appears simple. I encounter people who feel little or no affection for the prairies, describing them as barren, empty, and devoid of interest. I look around and I can see how this impression would be easy to fall into.

But just because the land is flat, doesn’t mean it’s empty. There’s a great sublety to the plains that needs a sharper eye and ear to understand its beauty. Animal life is craftier in hiding to protect itself. The rabbits, the squirrels, the prairie dogs covertly rustle about while pronghorn antelope and white-tailed deer shyly graze in the distance. Owls, sandhill cranes, ducks, orioles and hawks frequent the sloughs. And yes, summer heat brings out the oppressive mosquitoes and grasshoppers.

pronghorn+antelope+on+the+Prairies

Pronghorn antelope

We said farewell to the farm in its windy, spring freeze. But the visit left me feeling a warm connection to something that strangely makes me feel more Canadian, like listening to Peter Gzowsky on CBC radio in the 1980’s. This country has a tapestry of climates and geographies and people that define who we are. We’re more than the stereotypical beer-swilling hockey players with toques that say “eh”!

The Prairie farmer and the Maritimes fisher and the Bay Street banker are a part of who I am as a Canadian.

Sitting in the small jetcraft, it was time to wing my way back to the west coast.  I stared at the scuffed, grey leather seat-back inches from my face, sipping clamato juice in a small, clear plastic cup, snacking on butter-flavored pretzels.

I glanced out the rectangular plane window. The skies were bright and clear – I could easily see the gradual changes in the land below…the flat patchwork-quilt prairies melded into the budding foothills and then the Rocky Mountains and then the Pacific Ocean.

I really have shed my old days of fear of flying.

It’s a good feeling.

view form plane

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