Armchair Travel: Sa Pa Redux

Often sharing a memory can send someone else wandering down their own memory lane. This happened yesterday when Andrew Chilvers, my old friend and colleague from Warsaw Business Journal days, read about my visit to Sa Pa in 2006.

Several years before he was Editor of the WBJ (oh grow up!) Andrew was a journalist and spent some time in Vietnam as the country was opening up to the outside world. Though there was some tourism after Unification in 1976 it was on a very small scale and there was very little infrastructure to support travel. However in 1993 a change of visa restrictions opened the country to the outside world. But even three years later in November of 1996 when Andrew made the trip to Sa Pa it was a journey very different from mine ten years later.

This morning Andrew wrote me that:
“When I was in Sa Pa there were only a couple of hardy backpackers there – (it was) still new to tourists. The journey around the mountains was a shocker – in a soviet era jeep on decaying roads with 100 foot drops. I loved it. Lots of ruined French villas on the roof of the world mainly inhabited by Hmong people.”

He has allowed me to share an article he wrote in 2014 recalling that adventure. A left click on the photo of Sa Pa’s art deco church will take you to Andrew’s memory of the Sapa of 1996.

The word for October 16th is:
Memory /ˈmem(ə)rē/: [noun]
1. The faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information
2. Something remembered from the past; a recollection.
3. The part of a computer in which data or program instructions can be stored for retrieval.
Middle English: from Old French memorie, from Latin memoria, from memor ‘mindful, remembering’.

Picnic at Orly

I was sad to read in Sunday morning’s Guardian of the death of Nicola Pagett. A wonderful actress who many will remember from her Elizabeth Belamey (Miss Lizzie) in Upstairs Downstairs and the title role in the BBC Anna Karenina. After a series of breakdowns she retired from performing and later wrote a book about her battle with mental illness. I have an indelible memory of her striding on stage at the Queen’s Theatre in an emerald green gown flourishing a riding crop to confront Alec Guinness’s Jonathan Swift in an “entertainment” called Yahoo!

Nicola Pagett as Stella in “Yahoo!” an entertainment based on the life of Jonathan Swift (Alec Guinness) which I saw at the Queen’s Theatre, London in December of 1976. While searching for this photo I recalled her in this emerald green gown and carrying a riding whip.

But I also have a wonderful memory of a few brief hours I spent with her at Orly Airport back in 1974. I was taking an early morning flight from Paris to London and our flight had one of those creeping delays caused by London fog in February. After three hours Air France decided to give us something to eat – yes airlines did that in those days – and offered us baguette sandwiches with a small split of wine or water. Every bench and seat in the hold room was taken and it was going to be awkward to manage. However a very beautiful lady put her fur coat down on the floor, turned to me and the couple I was chatting with and asked “would you like to join me for a picnic?” When we settled in I realized it was Miss Lizzie! So there we sat on a mink coat in a departure room at Orly picnicking, chatting, laughing, and making the best of a bad situation for the next hour or so. She was charming, funny, and gracious. I’ve never enjoyed a flight delay more.

May she rest in the peace that eluded her for much of her life.

The word for March 9th is:
Picnic /ˈpɪknɪk/: [1. noun 2. verb]
1.1 An occasion when a packed meal is eaten outdoors, especially during an outing to the countryside.
1.2 A packed meal to be eaten outdoors.
2. The action of consuming a packed meal out of doors.
Mid 18th century (denoting a social event at which each guest contributes a share of the food): from French pique-nique, of unknown origin.
Well it wasn’t outdoors but it was the most memorable picnic I’ve every had.

Mercoledi Musicale

As I said yesterday it was a given that when Tara MacLean celebrated Atlantic singer/song writers Rita MacNeil would be amongst them. The lady from Big Pond in Cape Breton was a force majeur on the Canadian – and world – music scene.

Rita’s story was often rehearsed in the media as she rose to fame in the late 1980s: cleft palate, poverty, single parenthood, shyness and her weight. A less than sensitive CBC reporter (imagine my surprise!) once asked, “What about your weight problem?” There was a slight beat and then Rita smiled and said quietly and sweetly, “Well yes dear, it’s MY problem. Isn’t it?” On another occasion, after her appearance singing O Canada at the opening of a World Series game, an American reporter suggested that they had used a forklift to get her to home plate. When asked if she would do the honours at a later game she said,“Yes, I’d do it, but only if they drive me out onto the field on a forklift.”

That mixture of sweetness, steel, and sly humour was the mark of where she was born: Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She went away to begin her climb to success but returned to Big Pond, her extended family and her roots. Cape Breton was never far from her mind or heart.

As well as hearing her in concert on two occasions I once had a brief encounter with Rita. And yes I’ve used her first name throughout this post because she gave me permission to. It was the spring of 1990, I was working with Air Canada at Ottawa Airport. Laurent had been posted to Cairo the previous summer and I had spent Christmas there. (This will become important in a minute.) I was working at the departure gates one morning and received an assignment to meet a flight coming in from Halifax en route to the West Coast. There was a Vancouver bound passenger onboard in First Class (we had First Class in those days) who was incapacitated and as the stop was lengthy they would like to get off but would need a bit of assistance. Not an unusual request.

I headed down to aircraft and after everyone else had deplaned – and there seemed to be a bit of hold up with people dribbling off – the reason for the delay presented herself. It was Rita. She had recently had surgery and was heading out on her first tour in a year or so. She took my arm and in that distinctive quiet voice apologized for the delay but so many people had stopped to say hello and wish her well and she had to chat with them. I assured “Miss MacNeil” that it wasn’t a problem and was gently admonished “It’s just Rita, dear.” As we chatted I told her that my partner was living in Cairo and that one of the things we did at the holidays was play her Christmas Album to remind us of home. And I thanked her for it. She squeezed my hand, gave me that big shy “Rita” smile and said, “No dear, thank you. Knowing that has made recording it all worthwhile.”

There are many videos out there of Rita performing her signature song but I’ve chosen this one because it includes that gentle voice speaking – as she always found time to do – with fans and well-wishers.

Rita you’re still greatly loved and even more greatly missed.

The word for September 16th is:
Cleft palate /ˈkleft ˈpalət/: [noun]
A congenital split in the roof of the mouth that occurs when the tissue doesn’t fuse together during development in the womb . Often accompanied by a cleft in the upper lip.
Cleft: 1570s, alteration (weak past participle of cleave) of Middle English clift “fissure, rift, space or opening made by cleaving” (early 14c.), from Old English geclyft [adjective]
Palate: late Middle English: from Latin palatum

She Kissed Me

but I didn’t turn into a Prince just a starry-eyed stripling.

Over at his blog home Larry Muffin celebrated the great (such an overused word but in this case nothing else would do) actress, activist and politician Melina Merkouri. It brought back a memory from my misspent (well not so much misspent as overspent) youth which I thought I’d reshare. So for Pierre who missed this when I first wrote it in 2008 I give you an old man’s fond memory:

Willy Or Won't He

Early March of 1967 I was in my first year with Air Canada (my employer for the next 33 years) at Toronto Airport. A clerk in the Operations tower, I worked in a fishbowl perched at the end of a boarding finger reached by a metal spiral staircase. In those days people walked outside to board an airplane, any airplane not just the small propeller ones. One windy afternoon I had struggled down the stairs with an armload of flight plans heading for the terminal. A charter flight from Philadelphia, carrying Melina Merkouri and the cast of the Broadway-bound Illya Darling, was deplaning as I walked towards the terminal.

I don’t recall how it happened but I tripped and 25 flight plans and I fell to the ground in an undignified pile. As I scrambled to collect the plans and my dignity a smoky accented voice asked: Are you…

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Things In the China Cabinet

Probably more than you need to know about my housekeeping but I don’t think that other than the Crown Staffordshire china and Holmegaard crystal anything has been taken out of the china cabinet since we move in several years ago. The cabinet itself is part of a Shaker dining room set Graeme Fenwick, a local furniture maker in the Ottawa Valley, made for us back in 2004. He used predominately cherry wood with some Birdseye maple as contrast. The joints are all dove tail, tongue-in-grove as well as some dowel. The only concession to modern carpentry are the screws in the hinges.

Our handcrafted Shaker china cabinet – part of a set created for us by Graeham Fenwick at Simply Shaker in Perth, Ontario.

But I digress, as is my wont. Several days ago I thought it would be a good idea to turn my attention to the long neglected china cabinet. This meant of course removing everything from it and a thorough cleaning with Murphy’s. Which also means many pauses for trips down memory lane as long ignored bibelots bring back memories of people and places.

Back in 1979 Laurent showed up at the door with the first of many gifts. I honestly forget the occasion – mind in those days I seem to remember we didn’t really need an occasion. Something would catch our eye and we’d think how much pleasure it would give to the other person. Ah young love!

I don’t know where he found this little piece of the glass blowers art but it has travelled around the world with us. It posses the eternal question – what comes first? Well this little gift did!

Another piece of glass that has moved from house to house was an earlier gift from a loving colleague at Air Canada. In 1976 I moved from Toronto to Ottawa – a long complicated story involving a break up, a house sale, a denied promotion because I was gay, and a general mood of “let me live anywhere but Toronto”.

My Kosta Boda Penguin from Norma Jean Montgomery in 1976.

At my farewell party at the old Park Plaza on Bloor St I was given quite a few parting gifts – people were glad to see me go I guess – but none that I treasured more than a Kosta Boda crystal penguin. It was from Norma Jean Montgomery the most senior employee at Toronto Reservations. She had begun working for Trans Canada Airline in 1946, the year I was born, and was #2 on the cross-Canada seniority list. She was also terrified of flying – she had done it once to visit her family in Winnipeg and came back by train. She never boarded a plane again in her lifetime. Norma Jean was not an emotional person but that gift and the hug she gave me when I left, I treasure to this day.

The word for April 16 is:
Bibelot /ˈbib(ə)ˌlō/: [noun]
A small, decorative ornament, curio or trinket.
First appeared in 1873, from French bibelot “knick-knack,” from Old French beubelet “trinket, jewel” (12c.), from belbel “plaything,” a reduplication of bel “pretty”. What they fail to mention is the memories that bibelots can conjure up.

A Beijinger living in Provincetown

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Moving with Mitchell

Jerry and I get around. In 2011, we moved from the USA to Spain. We now live near Málaga. Jerry y yo nos movemos. En 2011, nos mudamos de EEUU a España. Ahora vivimos cerca de Málaga.

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