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et in acadia ego

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There was a time, not long ago, when transit systems – those urban knots of intermodal connection – held great fascination. In particular, the places where the connections were made were of special interest. From taxi cab (two bags in tow, his and hers) to Heathrow Express – and in the middle, the newspapers and the bottle of mineral water, the ham and cheese croissant, the cigarette taken sneakily in the gap where inside vaguely becomes outside at Paddington Station. Later, having arrived at the airport and having negotiated the ticketing and security procedures, there are souvenir stands and more newspapers. One purchases what one wouldn’t normally when a long-haul flight is imminent. One purchases these things without guilt or worry at the airport, as it is a special zone, an exceptional place where spending is permitted – as the purveyors of Duty Free know all too well.

The first WH Smith was at Euston Station, and wasn’t just the first WH Smith but the first train station newsstand on earth. I can remember the thrill of visiting one, and seeing the stacks of the many British and international newspapers, though that thrill is long-since gone.

There are Relais newsstands in America now, at airports, although there they are called Relay.

The only thing worse than not being able to smoke outside of a bar (because it’s in an airport terminal) is the lack of natural light in them. Windows seem to be reserved for the executive clubs.

The iPad has relieved one of the need to purchase news in newsstands. A bittersweet development, like all of the others. But that is not the only reason why the newsstand – and the transit hub in general – holds less fascination than it used to.

A trick is played upon boarding. Having been offered a window seat in trade for his middle, so that two can sit together, the canny American businessman takes the aisle instead. When he meets with resistance, he blusters through, saying that he needs to be “nearer his family.” Within five minutes, and through some rapid Blackberry exchanges, he subsequently swaps his new aisle for an aisle elsewhere and isn’t heard from again.

On the smaller jet to Halifax, the bathroom door swings open during take-off and it is promptly slammed shut. This seems to break the lock – incapacitating the only toilet on the plane – until the flight attendant comes to the door and shifts the little metal sign that reads “lavatory” which reveals a tiny button which when pressed overrides the lock. One of the smaller mysteries of passenger aviation revealed.

The rental car is upgraded for free from a “small SUV” to a “large SUV.” Which means a Chevy Suburban with three rows of seats plus a trunk.

A stop for burgers in Wolfville, the home of Acadia University. Some wondering while he steers through the town and stops at the crosswalks about what life would be, quiet and 60 miles from Halifax.

Ten years ago, Nan sold her teetering shoreside house and purchased half of her sisters plot of land to build a prefab but lovely house. From the second floor deck, one can make out scraps of blue water in the bay. The view of the surrounding hills is better.

The old house is still there, but will one day soon, probably due to the vestiges of some hurricane or nor’easter or other, fall into the sea. A family from Boston has it now for a vacation house. Likely it is filled with lawn toys and drying shells, just as it was during summer visits twenty years ago.

An awareness of mortality has entered into these trips. In fact, one of the driving reasons for the trip is this awareness of mortality. Great grandmothers do not live forever. Thankfully, she is of earthy stock and this is more a subject of humorous banter than the bilious flow about death, its mercies, and the reticence of grandchildren about it all that would come from his other set of relatives, the post-Quebecois Catholics.

He decides, over the course of several conversations, that he will keep the house when it is his. He will go there during the summers to write and relax. Perhaps, if he can, he will rent it out for ten months a year for the sake of upkeep during the harsh winters.

There is a second-hand bookshop in town – actually a nice one – called Crooked Timber Books. The proprietor of the shop owns the website When asked if he is aware of the website, he claims ignorance, but then asks if it is run by philosophers.

There are real delights in limitation. The internet is borrowed from a neighbour and intermittent, which is good. There is nowhere to shop but souvenir shops and a Canadian Tire and a Walmart, as well as two supermarkets. Each morning he picks up the Globe and Mail and a box of doughnuts for the family breakfast.

At night, after the kids are asleep, Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. A perfect choice. The cosmopolitanism of the rural, the fact that Norfolk was once the western side of the mouth of the Rhine.

What to do with imperial history when explaining it to children? All that is left out from the dioramas and posters. The English defeated the French, yes, and sent them on their trek to Louisiana, yes, which made Cajuns of Acadians but what of the others, whose descendants are ensconced on First Nation reservations. Why the reservations, at this point?

A Mi’kmak necklace, made of porcupine quills, is purchased for $60.

Nan’s maiden surname is Denton. According to a popular genealogy website, the Dentons left their farm in Jamaica, Queens, New York in 1776 to move to Digby Neck, NS. Loyalists, Tories, and above all, bad businessmen.

Fort Anne, in Annapolis Royal, looks like a port and Port Royal looks like a fort. This confuses nearly as much now as it did twenty years ago. The former is constructed according to Vauban’s earthwork principles, which you can read about in Sebald’s Austerlitz.

Port Royal was a short-lived French fur trading settlement, established by Champlain amongst others.

In Lunenburg, there is a fine museum of fishery complete with docked trawlers you can explore at your leisure. Belowdecks and above. The borders of the UNESCO World Heritage district are indicated with dotted-lines on the maps of the town. Across the small bay, a giant golf course spreads in voluptuous green.

Most of the map-marked towns in rural Nova Scotia possess nothing more than a convenience store: pop, cigarettes, gasoline perhaps, hockey cards. Some lack even that – an old church, not yet nor probably ever converted into condominiums.

Brooklyn is a maritime place. You can still hear the horns of the boats and sometimes the air carries a sniff of salt. Brooklyn was once loveable for that reason, and others, but as with the newsstand and transport hubs, it no longer solicits the affection that it once did.

Lobsters: before and after.

Someone who hid from travel through photography. Trips were for the generation of photoessays to be posted to a blog. It is hard to shake the sense that cameras are a sort of prophylactic against contamination by the places one visits and the people one visits the places with.

To stage one’s disappearance not into the diffusion of the style indirect libre but elsewhere and otherwise. Into an accumulation of blank noticings, into reading whether of printed texts or not.

Sebald on Lowestoft:

The last time I had been in Lowestoft was perhaps fifteen years ago, on a June days that I spent on the beach with two children, and I thought I remembered a town that had become something of a backwater but was nonetheless very pleasant; so now, as I walked into Lowestoft, it seemed incomprehensible to me that in such a relatively short period of time the place could have become so run down. Of course I was aware that this decline had been irreversible ever since the economic crises and depressions of the Thirties; but around 1975, when they were constructing the rigs for the North Sea, there were hopes that things might change for the better, hopes that were steadily inflated during the hardline capitalist years of Baroness Thatcher, till in due course they collapsed in a fever of speculation. The damage spread slowly at first, smouldering underground, and then caught like wildfire. The wharves and the factories closed down one after the other, until all that might be said for Lowestoft was that it occupied the easternmost point in the British Isles. Nowadays, in some of the streets almost every other house is up for sale; factory owners, shopkeepers, and private individuals are sliding ever deeper into debt; week in, week out, some bankrupt or unemployed person hands himself; nearly a quarter of the population is now practically illiterate; and there is no sign of an end to the encroaching misery. Although I knew all of this, I was unprepared for the feeling of wretchedness that instantly seized hold of me in Lowestoft, for it is one thing to read about unemployment blackspots in the newspapers and quite another to walk, on a cheerless evening, past rows of run-down houses with mean little front gardens; and, having reached the town centre, to find nothing but amusement arcades, bingo halls, betting shops, video stores, pubs that emit a sour reek of beet from their dark doorways, cheap markets, and seedy bed-and-breakfast establishments with names like Ocean Dawn, Beachcomber, Balmoral, or Layla Lorraine.

The one sea-side bar in Digby is, during the middle of the summer, so overrun by mosquitos as to make sitting outside undesirable, almost as undesirable as sitting inside.

The lobsters, apparently, are caught and then penned for later use. In the pen, they are inserted into a plastic tube and chilled to the point where they go dormant – they hibernate. And then one afternoon, they are awoken.

Amazon, the Kindle app, all of those books on-line. Occasional but relatively frequent trips to London and thus the British Library and New York and thus the NYPL. In Buffalo, not even as small as this, an instantaneous sense that this is the place where real work could be done, a magnum opus.

Of course also a fantasy that develops as if instantly and without due permission. A wine bar and art gallery, with a bookshop attached. Something that would serve as a magnet. Gentrification, studies have shown, often helps the natives – at least those in a position to help themselves. The family of course are natives; Richard wants to buy the empty pier and set up a steakhouse amidst all of the seafood restaurants. So it is said, and then quickly forgotten as impracticable if not wrong – and wrong for more than one reason.

Whale-watching and the uncanniness of these mammals float along the surface, sucking fish. Fishing and the murk of the water off the wharf, under the wharf. Someone spots a young seal on a rock. Someone says the mackerel linger near the other end of floating docks.

Addiction is perverse allergy. Many people from small towns, it can easily be imagined, spin on a line of bored desperation, desperate boredom, when they finally reach the centre of the world.

Young as she is, she is not accustomed to the radio. To the fact that you take what you get from it and that there is a pleasure in that.

German tour buses roll slowly past the statue of the WWI Infantryman at the centre of town. The buses stop, as they must, to allow pedestrians to clear the crosswalks.

A hospital visit for someone’s separated shoulder. Clothes washed to avoid spreading MRSA amongst the very old and the very young.

Thoughts, nearly aspirations, of a better sort of life. A subsequent thought that the ennui (some would call it depression) isn’t permanent, essential, but contingent, locational.

A narrowly focused accounting of detail, especially that which fails or even refuses to shout out its need to be noticed. (The strange opening section of The Pale King – there but unsustained as if an object lesson, a performance, of what the book wants but cannot allow itself to have). The ditch that has opened (when? this year? a thousand years ago?) between igneous and sedimentary rocks at Point Prim, the pink Queen Anne’s Lace which is either the same species only younger or a different one altogether. The churn of the currents off the point as the Gut meets the Bay, which I point out to my daughter when she asks if we could swim.

The small salvation that comes of that, the unobtrusive detail retained, for me and for her and, if not all of us, then

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 20, 2012 at 2:35 am

Posted in canada, sebald, travel