By JIM WITHERS
Just wrapping up two weeks on P.E.I. where I’ve been pondering this philosophical question: Can retired people ever be said to be “on vacation”?
It’s been a relaxing sojourn at the North Rustico summer home of a couple of Montreal friends, much of it spent stretched out on Muskoka chairs on the deck, reading, and watching the herons patiently fishing and the little lobster boats chugging by.
Winnie and I make it a habit to vacation after Labour Day to avoid the heat, humidity, high-season prices and tourist hordes of summer.
Our first week here was warm and sunny, then autumn unofficially ushered itself in one night in the form of a howling wind, and we’ve pretty much had leaden-skies and windy, moody Maritime weather ever since – rain one minute, sun another, and once hail.
I was last in P.E.I. half a century ago, probably the last time I agreed to take part in a family vacation. One of the things that have stayed with me from that trip involved my father and I getting our hair cut. (It’s amazing what we remember – and what we forget.)
“Why,” Dad asked the barber, “is the ground here so red?”
With scissors in hand, the oldtimer thought for a moment before replying, “I dunno; I think it’s always been like that.”
Fifty years on, P.E.I’s earth is still red, thanks to its elevated iron-oxide (rust) content – just like Mars, but presumably with better beaches.
Changes? Well, I’m sure the last time I saw the bright lights of Charlottetown you couldn’t buy kimchi. There were no big-box stores; the local radio announcer didn’t sound like he was in L.A.; and there weren’t a lot of “visible-minority” students.
The first big change hits you before you even set foot on P.E.I. – the 12.9-kilometre-long Confederation Bridge, which opened in 1997. It would be an understatement to say the world’s longest span was a contentious issue, a bridge too far, as it were. Many Islanders
wanted no part of a “fixed link” with the mainland, warning that the corrupting influences of the modern world and the inevitable sprouting up of tacky tourist shops would ruin Island life.
But with its less-than-frenetic pace, lighthouses, ceilidhs, lobster traps, shanties, dunes and bucolic, rolling, green countryside, the Land of Don Messer, Milton Acorn and Stompin’ Tom still seems authentic to me, far more than just an island theme park for middle-age visitors.
In no particular order, here are some highlights of our stay:
Hearing the relentless whoosh of waves crashing on shore while we strolled barefoot on the beaches of Cavendish and Brackley. “Beautiful!” a tourist exclaimed as she arrived from the parking lot and stood on the wooden Cavendish lookout. “Now THAT’s a beach!”
Devouring seafood, in restaurants and at our home base. When you’re in Alberta, you don’t order the clam chowder. In P.E.I. you’ve got to eat at least one big, extraterrestrial-looking crustacean.
Winnie killed and cooked her first lobster, and did it Chinese style – hacked up and stir-fried with oil, ginger and shallots, instead of boiled. A landlubber, whose experience of seafood while growing up in central Ontario didn’t extend much beyond salmon sandwiches, I was out on the deck drinking heavily while my cleaver-wielding spouse dispatched the poor creature. (I have no stomach for violence.) The result, though, was delicious!
Attending Searching for Abegweit, the wildly popular, foot-stomping, Celtic-flavoured primer on Island history by Acadian singer/storyteller Lennie Gallant and his band. Abegweit is the original name for P.E.I.; it’s a poetic Mi’kmaq word meaning “cradled on the waves.” The Acadians later called it Île-Saint-Jean. Then, after the British deported most of the Acadians, the island was named after a European blueblood – Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn (1767-1820), fourth son of King George III – who never set eyes on the place. (I hate seeing aboriginal place names bite the dust, such as when century-and-a-half-old Nottawasaga Township in my native Simcoe County somehow became Clearview in 1994.)
To the victor go the spoils – and the naming rights.
Exploring Province House, where 150 years ago this month the birth of a nation – ours – occurred. What lively viewing it would have been had CPAC been around when one John Alexander Macdonald and 22 other politicos from the British colonies of P.E.I., Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada first knocked around the idea of political union. Even when he was half in the bag John A. was usually the smartest person in the room, and I suspect he was here, where the table, chairs and spittoons they used are all still on display. “We have cleaned those up,” a guide said of the spittoons.
I wonder what John A. would have made of Thursday’s referendum in his native land. In a way he was doing here what the Yes side was aiming to accomplish in Scotland – creating a new country out of a chunk of Britain. A big chunk. Fortunately for us, Macdonald succeeded.
Scoring a Mike Duffy sighting. Only a few days before the disgraced senator’s trial date on 31 charges of fraud, breach of trust, etc. was to be set (next spring), my idea was to pop by the Duffster’s modest Cavendish cottage and snap a selfie. I didn’t expect him to actually be “home,”
the place he claimed to be his – wink, wink – primary residence. Turning off the highway and onto the gravel road that is Friendly Lane, I ignored a sign that said: “Private road. No exit. No access to beach.”
“There he is!” Winnie said almost immediately, and I felt a frisson as I spotted his portly figure. I felt as though I’d just spotted J.D. Salinger.
Duffy was sitting there reading on his deck, with a giant black poodle at his side. He seemed to turtle, pulling down his ball cap and tugging up the collar of his jacket – perhaps to be less conspicuous or perhaps because of the cool breeze – as I slowly drove past, the gravel crunching under my tires. Maybe he feared I was a paparazzo.
Friendly Lane is, as the sign said, a cul-de-sac, so all I could do was turn around and drive past Duffy again. I wanted to look at him, but at the same time I didn’t. I could feel his discomfort. He must get a lot of other rubber-neckers parading by, and maybe even disgruntled taxpayers ringing his doorbell in the middle of the night.
With the growing list of people PM Harper has thrown under the bus – Bev Oda, Nigel Wright, Helena Guergis, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau, et al. – you’re almost tempted to break out into a chorus of “Who’s Tory Now?”
The only face-to-face encounter I ever had with Duffy occurred back in the 1970s when he was a TV reporter covering Parliament and I, a bartender at the National Press Club, served him a beverage. It was an unremarkable event, but after my drive-by gawking I couldn’t help thinking about how our respective lives have unfolded since then.
Hooking up with author/editor/broadcaster Marian Bruce, one of my favourite former colleagues, whom I hadn’t seen since she left Montreal in 1987. Having worked and lived in big cities across Canada, it was a treat to see Marian in her element, living in the
century-old farmhouse of her birth with partner, Jerry, and in the company of her three horses, two dogs and one very affectionate feline. How do you pack 27 years of living, Gazette gossip and discussion of Island life into three hours? Well, with a drive in the country, a little wine and her fabulous seafood stew, we did just that.
Chatting with the other locals, including several CFAs (Come From Aways). P.E.I.’s a great place to live, but you’ll always be reminded that you’re not a native, they invariably said. A woman from the West Island of Montreal told me she’s been trying to sell her “honking” big place for three years after she and her husband realized their grandkids didn’t want to spend time here.
Touring the Anne of Green Gables house. You don’t go to Paris without seeing the Louvre, and you don’t visit P.E.I. without touring the Anne of Green Gables house. Despite never having read L.M. Montgomery – Winnie’s a big fan – I liked this tourist attraction’s understated window on the 19th century. I won’t soon forget the sight of a group of middle-aged Mennonites checking out the buggy parked outside the house the way auto enthusiasts ogle the newest model in a showroom. I wondered if the Japanese tourists who came upon them thought the long-bearded men and bonnet-wearing women were costumed Green Gables staff members.
So can retired people be said to be on vacation?
And as for you, Abegweit (a.k.a. Prince Edward Island), bridge or no bridge, you’re all right.
I don’t think I’ll wait another 50 years before coming back.
Jim Withers is a 66-year-old retired journalist who lives in Verdun, Québec. A native of Ontario, he was a newspaper reporter and editor for 38 years in Ontario, Alberta and Quebec, and retired in December 2010 after 26.5 years at the Montréal Gazette.