Category Archives: Travel

The Victims of the Victims

Image result for haskell library stansted

Family Reunited inside Haskell Free Library, Stansted, Quebec (Public Radio International)

The Victims of the Victims

The service station at Exit 115 Orford/Magog, two hours East of Montreal, is a place people come to hang out. They get to see the Exotic here, like a woman wearing a dress, or her son in a button-up shirt and knee-high socks. Formal is not normal. The old guys in blue shirts can’t pass by without some kind of interaction. ‘You know the bus stop is round the other side? It isn’t really a bus, it’s a limo…’ I smile appreciatively and they go and have coffee in paper cups and look at me through the window.

The bus (‘limo’) only goes to Montreal. I’m headed the other way, further East, where there used to be railways but aren’t any more and the untarmacked roads were state of the art early last century. The Quebecois romantically name these regions, ‘Les Cantons de l’Est’, as if they are to the East of anywhere one would want to be. The English-speaking residents call them more prosaically, ‘The Eastern Townships.’

My problem is that in this bureaucratic land no one will drive me without a booster seat for my five year old son. And no one has a booster seat around here so we are waiting for a taxi to come up from Sherbrooke, forty minutes away.

The only even half black person I will see the whole trip strides in and out. She is taking this day seriously, in tight jeans and wedge heels. Now and again when she’s in the car park she finds toddlers and leads them by the hand to look at her boyfriend’s Harley Davidson. It is a beautiful machine, sky blue and shining with sunlight. Mums emerge quickly from their parked cars and go and squat protectively next to their tots. Finally the Harley Davidson exits, roaring like a lion.

A tall, snowy-haired man wanders onto the forecourt. He wears a wide blue tie which sports the fleur de lys of Quebec. He stares straight ahead and drops a twenty dollar bill. It’s around his shuffling feet for a while and then he pulls it up again on a nylon string. Everyone smiles. For the next hour or two, I meet him here and there around the service station, at the queue in Tim Hortons, in the corridor by the toilets. He keeps dropping his money and pulling it up again. People smile, but no one asks him the question he’s waiting for: ‘Excuse me, monsieur, I think you’ve dropped something…’ Everyone can see the string, better than he can.

Eventually our taxi driver arrives. He is a kind man who takes our cases. He wants to communicate but he has very little English. I thought I spoke French but it turns out I don’t. I was an au pair in Toulouse once upon a time but that doesn’t count for anything over here where the language branched off in the seventeenth century. ‘Je ne sais pas’ is something like ‘J’en sayeess puh!’ It’s too hard.

This area used to be mainly English speaking, and railways linked the towns together. The tyres crunch over the gravel roads. The misty dark green of the forest is balm to the eyes. Our taxi driver doesn’t know Baldwins Mills. He wonders if I mean Ways Mills. There are a number of these old settlements dotted around the rolling countryside: two white clapboard churches stare at each other across a junction, their sharp lines contrasting with the soft haze of the forest, which is just about kept at bay. One church will be Anglican. The other could be Catholic, or a different Protestant denomination, little frequented now. The saw mills, owned by Anglos, worked by Anglos and French, shaved the whole forest coating these Northern Appalachians. The trees have sprung up again, home to moose and coyotes. But the secondary growth is no good for lumber. The region has fallen back on tourism, loved for its lakes in summer. Far fewer stick it out through the winter, despite the attraction of quaint old sports like curling – spinning a stone over ice.

My friend John is tall and tanned with a white beard. At 79 he still bathes in the lake twice a day. John’s father graduated from Edinburgh and Oxford in the 1920s. Like many of his time, he was attracted to the opportunities and wide open spaces of the Brit-colonised world and he took up a university post at Bishop’s in Sherbrooke, Quebec. He married a forceful woman whose mother had run a chain of clothes shops in Vermont. It was all part of one world.

John was eager to show me that world’s holy relic, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House at Stansted, where he works as a volunteer. Built in 1904, during the region’s golden age, the library straddles the border between Quebec and Vermont. Its foundress, Mrs Martha Stewart Haskell, a Canadian married to an American saw mill owner, wanted her library to be enjoyed by citizens of both countries.

The building exudes grace and peace. With its art nouveau decorations of foliage, its high windows and purple and yellow stained glass, it is a temple of educated liberalism. An Algerian man visiting at the same time as we were wrote in the visitors’ book, ‘One day there will be no more borders.’

Above the library is an opera house where orchestras and choirs came by railroad to perform classical music, alongside jazz played by ‘nigger minstrels’. The performers are more local now. A line is chalked on the carpet, demarking which members of the audience are sitting in Canada and which in the USA.

Occasionally, someone comes in to use the toilet and leaves a gun there for someone else to pick up. The US government is stepping up the security. However, it cannot stretch to funding a new coat of paint for the woodwork around the windows.

Image may contain: people sitting and indoorThe town of Stansted’s main employer, the dye factory, is gone, along with the railway. There is a nice patisserie now. John orders in French and we sit by a wide glass window. The pain-au-chocolats taste Parisian but they are double the size of their European cousins.

John is one of the ageing population of English speakers in the area. His sister refuses to speak French. ‘Life is too short,’ she jokes. But John loves swearing in Quebecois. Perhaps it chimes with a Protestant streak for him, as most of the swear words seem to be profaning the Catholic Mass. ‘Tabernacle!’ he booms, shaking his fist. ‘Caleeess!’ (Chalice) ‘Je m’en calice, mon hostie!’ ‘I’ll wine-cup you, you holy bread!’ For a really infuriating situation there is ‘Hostie de calice de tabernacle!’ ‘Host of the chalice of the tabernacle!’ – or ‘Damn!’ for short.

‘When I was a young man I was all for Freedom for Quebec. That was the radical thing. I called myself Qubecois!’ John stirs his café au lait. ‘Now I call myself an Anglo-Quebecker.’

John’s father was chancellor of Bishop’s University in 1969, the year of student rebellions everywhere. The local council was worried that there might be nationalist riots and the English-speaking university might be targeted. They sent along some police for protection, but the police were mainly French-speaking. The chancellor rang up the kitchen. ‘How many steaks have you got in the freezer?’ ‘Two hundred.’ ‘Cook them all!’ The police dined well and the rioters stayed away.

In another corner of the café sits Peters, broad-waisted, chatting with some acquaintances in French. ‘He’s an Anglo, but he’s a fruit farmer. He needs to keep in with everyone, for his business,’ John mutters to me.

It’s not just the linguistic changes that take some getting used to. The Quebecois government is very bureaucratic. Water police charge over the lakes in motor launches, making sure everyone is wearing a life jacket. On our drive this morning John had to turn back after ten miles, remembering that he had left his driving licence at home. If caught, that would be an on-the-spot fine.

‘What would happen to the Anglos if Quebec became completely independent?’ I ask John.

‘They would move.’

There is an Eastern Townships Association now, which is trying to protect the rights, culture and wellbeing of mainly ageing Anglos. They help their members cope with the language and the bureaucracy so that they can access public services.

John pulled a piece of plastic out of his wallet: his health insurance card. ‘We have to show this every time we want treatment. Look. It’s all in French. Some people might feel offended about that.’

#Europe, my country

#Europe, my country

When I was nineteen, my friend Paula and I went inter-railing around Europe. The Berlin Wall had come down just the year before.

We splashed in the fountains in front of the Eiffel tower, then took a train East, chatting all day in English with a young man from Iceland. We stayed in the Ruhr and then in a small castle in Bavaria that was full of Yorkshire Terrier puppies. But we had to carry on East because Prague was the place to go, the recently uncovered jewel.

Being vegetarians then, all we could eat in Prague were white bread rolls, plain yellow cheese and the sweetest, most pungent tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. In the old town the statues of heroes on horseback, and the shutters and curtains decorated with hearts, recalled to us our own childhood fairytales of gingerbread cottages and earnest princes.

We wandered in grand nineteenth-century cemeteries, peered into dynastic shrines where brown and white photos showed familiar old-fashioned costumes – fluffy beards, cravats, monocles.

A history teacher and his wife and teenage son had us to dinner and spoke to us in broken English and broad smiles of delight that we could all be there together. After dinner the couple withdrew to the sofa to watch TV and cuddle unashamedly.

Paula and I took our picnics of white rolls, cheese and tomatoes to benches in the wide squares. Around us the middle-aged and the old walked slowly, almost gingerly, out from their apartments to sit on benches and talk, softly, casually, about this and that, the pigeons, the children. We were told this was a great new pleasure for them, that they hadn’t been able to do for forty years. The women were stout, with knotted nets of varicose veins around their calves.

Taking the train back we passed leafless forests, where smoke from soft coal had burned away the leaves.

We saw the wound, and we saw it starting to heal.

#Pilgrimage in #Terror: Day 5

Day Five: Trust. 

Zubiri to Trinidad de Arre (14km).


Sandra and I began the day with a search for the post office. We were directed to a magnificent old mansion. In the style of the region, it was dusty cream-coloured stone on the outside and rich and dark with carved wood on the inside. I am trying to think what sweet would give the same effect – some kind of white chocolate with a dark fondant filling, I suppose, dusted with icing sugar. A chunky oak staircase rose from the hall and the floor was black cobble stones arranged in fan-tail patterns.

A man was standing in the shadows, next to four bicycles. We felt very silly in the intimacy of his private house. Clearly the house was not a post office. We apologised and explained what we were looking for. He motioned to one of the heavy oak doors: ‘There. That’s the post office.’

We were surprised, but tried to believe him.

He knocked on the door, but there was no reply. ‘I don’t know where she is,’ he said.

We went back out into the sunlight, with our friend following behind. ‘Ah! There she is!’

A woman was walking along the river bank with her shopping bags. He introduced us. She agreed that she was the post woman. What did we want? She waited attentively while we got the words out, and then looked a little disappointed. Oh, stamps. She didn’t have any stamps.

We stood on the mediaeval bridge where I had seen the old woman the previous evening while Sandra went into her musical Virgin-Mary-receiving-the-holy-spirit routine, tipping forward repeatedly and shaking her head. Certainly this visit to a post office had been an unusual one. After a while I became stern and drew her away from laughter onto the business of the day. We set off.

Sandra progressed in a lurching gait from one hedgerow to another in spasms of berry-led greed. I was reminded of times as a teenager when I rode some cynical old pony in a long line of cynical ponies on a ‘hack’ for horse-sick teenage girls. My creature would get his head down onto the grass and could not be pulled up or budged. Kick, kick, kick went my little heels, but without making the slightest dent on the consciousness of my animal.

The sun climbed. At half past eleven it began attacking in earnest. The path left the shade of the river and joined the road. There was no shelter now. I had on all the defences I could muster. I was smeared in cream and obscured by a floppy white nylon-straw hat and a pair of bug-eye sun glasses.

My friend began her Behold-the-handmaid-hee-hee routine again. In a serious moment she asked, ‘Do you always dress like that?’ Did she really imagine that I walked around London in a skirt with an elastic waistband, a huge pair of trainers, and a floppy nylon hat? But then, I suppose, she had never seen me in anything else, and my normal clothes were probably only a fraction smarter.

We passed a man in a dried up wasteland of a field. He was gathering armfuls of vetch to feed his livestock. Sandra asked him to take a photo of us. This was cruel, but she was carrying my things in our communal bag, so it was small price to pay. The man got the giggles looking at us through the view-finder and it took ages for him to calm down enough to hold the camera still and click the button.

For lunch, we walked down to the river through an orchard of cherry trees too old and shrunken to yield much fruit. Around them grass, vetch and herbs grew in a profusion of brown stems. They crackled underneath our feet and gave off gorgeous scents, half dying though they seemed, and flickered with insects. Clouds of butterflies rose ahead of us as we walked. I hadn’t seen such profusion of butterflies for years. I remembered holidays in Cornwall in the ’70s and ’80s when the stone-and-turf walls trembled with Meadow Browns and Cabbage Whites and the lilac bushes were smothered. But butterflies are so sparse now in England I had begun to doubt my memory. Here there were Cabbage Whites and Blues, presumably feeding on the vetch, and one orange butterfly and a large brown and white Fritillary.

We sat in the spattered shade of a grove of poplar trees. I dug into my potato crisps, Sandra spread her strawberry jam. We had known each other now for four days, shared long conversations, silence, evenings and mornings. We each knew the other had a boyfriend, but we had stayed off the subject with a delicacy, a desire not to fall into the clichéd confidences of normal female conversation. Now on a hot afternoon, sitting on tree stumps, curiosity bubbled up….

#Pilgrimage in #Terror Day 4

Day Four: Within a Tradition. Burguete to Zubiri (20km).  

Vue de Bizkarreta-Gerendiain.

‘The Navarrese fornicate shamelessly with their beasts, and it is said that a Navarrese will put a padlock on his she-mule and his mare lest another man should get at them. He also libidinously kisses the vulva of a woman or a she-mule.’

So wrote Aimery Picaud of Poitou, a French clergyman who made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the twelfth century. Afterwards, he wrote a guidebook to the route, in which he criticises just about every Spaniard he meets. But the people of Navarre, where I am walking now, are the most sexually depraved, according to him. (How did he find that out?)

My path led out of the hills and down into the river valley to pass through Viscarret. Viscarret was grand enough in the twelfth century to be a major staging post for Aimery Picaud, between St. Jean Pied de Port and Pamplona. Since then it has steadily lost importance. There are no modern buildings in Viscarret. The yellow churches and the great houses of stone and carved timber decompose gently amid striped vegetable gardens.

It was time for lunch and the eternal hope of potatoes. A sign saying Cafe Bar pointed through a bead-hung doorway. I pushed through the tassels only to retreat as a dog snarled and leaped about in the shadows. People of different ages were standing about or sitting at a small kitchen table. They motioned me to go round to the other entrance. Fine. But why have the sign pointing straight in through that door if it isn’t the entrance?

The other door was on the piazza of the village. Germans sat out in the sun like ripening tomatoes. I took my English complexion indoors. I was full of hope. I heard sounds of cooking in the kitchen, could smell frying. A young woman eventually came to the bar in this small, dark room. She was slim, with black hair but looked as though she hadn’t slept for weeks, perhaps had never slept. This look – the sallow face and shadowed eyes – was to haunt the village bars that I passed through. All that lovelife, taking its toll.

‘Habla usted patatas?’ I asked.

She called through a door to the kitchen which was out of my sight and, after some discussion back and forth, she replied that No, there were no potatoes. I presumed the smells of cooking must therefore be for the family and the savage dog and enquired if there was a restaurant in the village. Yes, across the road, she said.

I went out and found an impressive mansion with a sign saying restaurant and delicious smells of vegetables being fried. I strode in happily. In a little room to the right an old lady and an old man were preparing an elaborate lunch. ‘A meal?’ I asked, salivating.

‘No, we are closed,’ said the old lady, regretfully.

‘It smells so good,’ I tried.

They laughed with pleasure at the compliment and then waited for me to leave.

I was back with sallow-face behind the bar. We were no longer friends. Why on earth had she directed me to a restaurant that she must have known was closed? It was moon-faced idiocy. With resignation I ordered a sandwich, and crisps for my potato content, and a bag of pistachios and sat down at a brown formica table. The thinly sliced processed cheese arrived in its white baguette, speckled with blue spots of mould. I tried to comfort myself with the pistachios and grew a mountain of shells on my table top in the shadows.

From my corner I perceived that three men had come in and places were being laid for them. They even had a checked paper table cloth. A soup appeared, along with half a carafe of wine. The soup course passed and pieces of chicken appeared, together with salad and – !

I rose from my table, a fountain of pistachio shells cascading in all directions but as nothing compared with my incandescent indignation. I stretched out my arm to the enviable gobbling men and summoned my finest Spanish to the fore:

‘Senora! These are potatoes!’

At which the dark eyes flashed. ‘But that is a menu! Did you want a menu? You should have said. Do you want a menu?’

‘Well not now,’ I said, no longer bothering to speak Spanish. ‘Not after I’ve already eaten a mouldy sandwich, a pack of greasy crisps and 500 grammes of pistachios!’

She understood exactly the tone of my words and gestures and began a tirade, the words flashing across the little room like jumping fish. I remembered the woman in Espinal who had hurled my shopping basket across the minimart, eyed the bottles behind her, and decided it was best to leave.

May the name of Viscarret be remembered forever….

#Pilgrimage in #Terror: Day 2

September 2002. Giving up on protesting against the ‘war on terror’, Katie goes on a 13-day pilgrimage in Northern Spain…. 

Day 2, Mortality: over the pass to Roncesvalles (20km).

Vierge d'Orisson

By the time I left the barn where we’d slept, there were only two pilgrims behind me. They were an English brother and sister who were deeply involved in washing clothes and then attaching them to their rucksacks to dry. As we were going to be above the cloud line, there was little chance of them drying. However, these were the instructions given in the bright green laminated guide book of the Confraternity of St. James. We were to carry only three pairs each of socks and pants – one clean, one being worn, one being dried on the back of our pack. It was made as a practical suggestion, ignoring the fact that washing powder is as heavy as underwear, before you take into account the recommended scrubbing brush and plastic pot with screw-top lid for holding the powder. I suspect the deeper reason was to keep the pilgrims in a constant state of washing clothes, on the Magdalene Laundries principle, so that through all that external scrubbing our souls might be purified.

I haven’t often seen the dawn and it was hard to take my eyes off it and get on with walking. Shiny pink clouds hung all over the sky, like brand new cars in a show room. Below them and me the clumps of sweet chestnut trees stood out prickly among the pastures. Further away the stone walls of Saint Jean crouched by its river. I kept stopping and turning round to look at the hills heaving and spreading out below me.

The other reason I was dawdling was that there was a large cow ahead. She stood astride the path and leered at me. A great bell hung at her throat. One horn pointed straight towards me like a javelin, the other was twisted back behind, giving her the lopsided look of a pirate. She eyed me and she didn’t budge. I kicked my heels, and threw looks over my shoulder at the tossing bed-clothes of hills below. Some way down I could see the courteous Frenchman whom I had met under the oak tree, ascending with two new friends. I decided I might as well be sociable and wait for them. After all, it was the Frenchman who had advised me to go ‘doucement’.

Just in front of the cow, the Frenchman introduced me to his new friends. Gilles, a smiling man with big blue eyes and a white moustache, was from Quebec, and had been on the road for a month already, having started from Le Puy in central France. The other was Sandra, a young woman from Berlin. I stepped politely onto the grass, to allow them to pass closer to the cow, and strolled along beside them.

We hadn’t gone more than a few steps when Sandra’s most characteristic trait began to show itself: the laugh. This was not because I was being witty, but because for her the mere fact of trying to walk with the quantity of stuff she had on her back was pure comedy. She certainly looked as if she had included the whole of her life in that bag, including a saucepan, coffee pot and cooker dangling from the bottom. I wondered if she was an itinerant or moving house the hard way. Anyway, at the slightest provocation she would tip herself forward (not hard with her pack) and emit four clear notes as sweet as the far-off tinkle of goats’ bells. The laugh said, ‘Aren’t I silly? Aren’t we a pair? Isn’t the human race beyond belief?’

She had golden straight hair and a fine small face with a golden glow to it, like the face of a Flemish High Gothic painting of the Virgin Mary. When she tipped forward to laugh she seemed to be at just the same angle as one of those virgins in the paintings receiving the news from the angel Gabriel. Perhaps indeed if we could hear those Gothic virgins, so silent in their paintings, they would be emitting a very similar resigned and musical laugh at the bizarreness of the holy spirit coming upon them. ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord! Hee hee hee hee!’

By this time we had reached the high, narrow neck of the valley. The rock was closing in on three sides. ‘So now you see,’ said our Frenchman, ‘It goes much quicker when you have someone to talk to…..’

Dirk Hendricksz, from