March 17th, 2008 writerspice
A few years ago, my brother was living in Baltimore, Maryland and J. and I took the opportunity to visit. He lived in the suburbs, but showed us around the old downtown – the Inner Harbour (yes, here in Canada, we retain that old English ‘u’) and the city’s Little Italy. We learned that the Irish also had a strong presence in this city, fleeing the famine and ending up in Baltimore to work on the railroads in the mid-1800s, a history now commemorated by two museums and a walking tour through what are now some of Baltimore’s rougher areas.
But my favourite place was Fell’s Point. Tucked up against the ocean, this historic area is paved in cobblestones and still boasts an active, old market where crab soup is served with cornbread by an apron-clad waitress who calls you ‘Hon’.
The neighbourhood bars – the Cat’s Eye Pub and the Wharf Rat Tavern (the Fell’s Point location), among others – retain the dust and grime (and archaic charm) of a more rough-and-tumble time. In the Wharf Rat Tavern, we ordered the local drink, brewed by Baltimore’s Oliver Breweries. Surrounded by broad beams wrapped in thick ship’s ropes, we sipped stout alongside our meal of malt-vinegar-soaked orange roughy and succulent oysters accompanied by chips (uh, French fries).
After eating, we wandered around the corner to the Cat’s Eye, an Irish pub with nightly live music – or, as is the case today, a 2:00 pm start to Dogs Among the Bushes, a traditional Irish folk band.
On the way, we crossed Lancaster Street where William Fell started the first shipyard after arriving from England in 1730. As other shipyards opened, the harbour began to boom and the neighbourhood evolved into a crowded haunt for mariners and merchants, complete with rooming houses, plenty of pubs and the essential brothel.
Turns out the Cat’s Eye used to be the brothel. Serving spirits and ale for over a hundred years, the bar’s low ceiling and slanted floors once hosted a pretty rough crowd of sailors and, more recently, bikers. In the 1960s, Fell’s Point came close to being obliterated when the city nearly replaced the ancient rowhouses and cobblestones with an expressway. When Fell’s Point – or part of it – was added to the National Register of Historic Places, that plan thankfully came to a grinding halt.
In the bar, a cobwebbed model of a schooner hung from the ceiling and a large mural of the history of Ireland decorated one wall. Above the narrow stage, a wall light glowed red near the remnants of old-staircase, once used by sailors climbing to the brothel bedrooms, so legend and locals say.
Sipping scotch alongside a chaser of microbrew, we watched the band and felt thankful for the chance to enjoy the unpolished Fell’s Point, to sit at the worn bar and drink our grog like so many others who came before.
Photo by Lauren Carter
March 10th, 2008 writerspice
Thanks to T.S Eliot, everyone calls April the cruelest month… Well, maybe in England.
Maybe in England April is all about soggy skies and flaccid flowers but here, in Central Ontario, April is more about, um, Hope, Sun, and, ultimately, The Big Melt.
In fact, I can’t wait for April.
In this neck of the woods, March is, in fact, the cruelest month. Or at least one of them.
It makes perfect sense that it’s named after the God of War. Just when you start sniffing some odour of spring in the cool air, WHAM, the weather turns and things like this weekend happen – double-digit metric measurements of snow dumped on the landscape. A sneak attack, an invasion.
And today it’s freezing cold; the alarmingly tall snowbanks are frozen into fortresses. Walking home from the library the other day, J. and I tried to kick one over. No luck. It was solid, like stone, and our feet smashed against its hardness as if we were kicking at a mountain. They’re all over the place now – these solid sentries narrowing the streets, standing like obstacles to anyone in a comparably midget car trying to peek around the corner to see if anyone is coming.
The only remedy for all this is either to Get the Hell Out, a prescription that requires available funds which, unfortunately, are all being consumed by the sky-rocketing cost of the oil fuel that heats our house. Or, two, Daydreaming. (I know I’ve written about this before but that’s because I’m a writer who lives in the snowy part of Canada…)
As a kid, growing up in Blind River, I mastered this art while standing on the silent beach, my body wrapped mummy-style in scarves and other woolen clothing items, staring out at Lake Huron and imaging it was the Mediterranean, the Dead Sea, the Red Sea, any sort of ocean that promised the slightest inkling of Exotic Warmth.
My fantasies have changed a bit. These days, while J. plans every detail of the week-long solo canoe trip he’ll be embarking on this summer, I’ve been stuck in England. He moves his fingers along the blue routes of rivers and I flip the pages of a guidebook to walk the Coast-to-Coast Trail or Hadrian’s Wall. It’s the north I want to see – mostly, the Yorkshire Dales in August when the purple heather makes a richly-coloured rug of the landscape. We’ll walk on it all day, returning to cook up some dinner and sip some tea at a home-base a wee bit like this.
It likely won’t happen this year, but that’s okay. A large part of the process is the dreaming. It gives relief from the cold that everyone is complaining about, from the wind that seems extra biting on this last slim bridge towards summer.
Photo of the Yorkshire Dales by Stuart Hamilton
March 3rd, 2008 writerspice
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a photojournalist for National Geographic. Last year I managed to somewhat fulfill this life-long ambition, when a story I pitched to their travel mag, National Geographic Traveler, was accepted.
In August, J. and I jumped in the car and headed back to that little bit of Europe, that pastoral paradise (pictured above) where we honeymooned in 2003 – Ile d’Orleans, Quebec. And this month, my brief piece about the island is making its public appearance, on page 114 of the March issue. Check it out!
Photo by Jason Mills