Saturday, May 26, 2007

ode to the isle

As long time readers of this blog will know, my travels to places new to me, which include New Brunswick, Newfoundland, New Zealand, Taipei, Australia, and San Francisco, have inspired writings on "huminbean" intended to share observations and at least a small part of my travels with you, the illustrious readers. But my tendency to observe and my delight in details need not end simply because I'm home. Actually, trying to continue expressing these details and observations can enrich and challenge my writing. The difficulty lies in making myself become more aware of my surroundings, so that I can write about them in a way that is as entertaining and interesting for you to read about as it is for me to experience it, especially when the surroundings don't change as obviously as during a trip.

Luckily I'm in a place that lends itself well to experience and description, for good and bad. Cape Breton Island, on the East coast of Canada, is a place that combines hardscrabble and high class, two words that together bring to my mind someone wearing Versace driving a mud-covered pickup truck that rattles dangerously over every pothole. What I actually mean by using those two opposing terms is that there is both a long history of poverty (European immigrants of many nationalities seeking a better life, industry taking advantage of people and resources, long cold winters and mainly minimum-wage, seasonal work now that a lot of resources have been mismanaged) and of richesse (upper, middle and sometimes even lower class citizens of America and Europe coming here for summer homes, sailing cruises and driving tours since before Alexander Graham Bell, one of the island's more famous summer residents). The tourist tradition continues today, when every summer finds yachts with mysterious guests docked in Baddeck, cars with licence plates from all over the continent lining the streets of our towns, and tourists in lodgings as disparate as expensive resorts and RV parks. To some, Cape Breton is synonymous with sailing, sun and getting away from it all, while to others it means welfare cheques, road salt deteriorating cars, and the ghosts of homesteads and home towns. Quite a contrast!

I like that my feelings are mixed whenever I come home; it means I never get bored! On the one hand, there's the sense of isolation that grows every year as more and more people, especially those in my age demographic, 18-30, move out West to find better paying jobs and make new lives for themselves, away from what can seem like the dead weight of "the way things have always been done": government corruption, nepotism, a disregard for long term planning. There's also the "fishbowl" effect -- almost as bad as Coronation Street, everyone knows everyone else, and their business, and not just in each small town, but over the whole island! Sometimes "close-knit" feels more like a stranglehold.

On the other hand, there's the natural beauty that keeps drawing people here even as gas prices rise and our roads get bumpier each year, heaved by the frost. Mountains that drop from a flat plateau into the ocean, where the rocks are slapped by choppy waves, forests of spruce, pine, maple and larch that are criss-crossed by old dirt roads that reveal bits of the past as you explore them, an inland sea, and clear rivers that you can both swim in and drink from. If it sounds like a postcard, that's because it is. Then there are the people who know me and my parents and care for us as if we were from here, and our lineages were tangled up with their own, even though we're not related(Mum and Dad came here in the early 1970's from Quebec and the US, respectively, after meeting in BC). There's the fierceness of an art scene that produces art shows, galleries, punk rock concerts, artisan's shops and great radio programming and writing despite cuts to funding and population.

So when I start to feel that I've hung out too long in one perspective I can switch to the other. That's the great thing about mixed feelings--they are essentially parts of the same whole, the same truth, the same deep and complicated love for Cape Breton.

Sometimes I can feel like it's all been said, that once I'm home on the island, that's it, end of story, all you (the reader, again) need to know. But I forget that the words "Cape Breton" may not mean anything to you, and if they do, the meaning may not be the same as I have. So I need to challenge myself to try and express the scene of wherever I am the same way --with the same detail and observation-- whether I'm in Bondi Beach or Baddeck Bay. That way things can never get old, because the scene is always changing, though perhaps on a different scale. When I'm travelling, "new" is at every turn in the road and every experience, and it makes it easier to pick up on what is noteworthy. Here at home, "new" is smaller: the fuzzy red buds on the maples, the scent of the air as spring turns to summer, the way the light fades, the new dishes I'm cooking.

Well, that's enough on this subject, at least for now. Since I do have that tendency to observe and delight in details, I'm sure you'll be hearing about some aspect of Cape Breton again soon. Since you've listened to me go on, I suppose it would only be fair to ask you, my dear readers, is there any particular part of this place you're interested in and would like to hear about?

The next post is already in "rough-draft" stage, so I'll just (pun intended) whet your appetite: Catriona Macinnes, a friend of mine and chef-in-training, came to my house and cooked up something we had in the freezer, wearing her chef's whites and her tremendous smile. The end result was absolutely delicious. I'll tell you all about it next time. Meantime, tell me your thoughts on the Cape and this post, as usual!

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