Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the category “travel”

Authority Figure

coloring-book1So I’m sitting here watching a gaggle of students angst and squirm over the final exam I’ve just handed them.  Some of them are making the most bizarre faces as they cogitate.  Which I guess means I have just about made it through my first semester as an instructor at the U of Guelph/Ridgetown College/Clinton Campus outpost on the furthest edge of the back of beyond.  Good christ on a cracker, how did that happen?

This is rhetorical.  I’m cognizant of how it happened.  I just haven’t quite transitioned in my head, yet, to Fully Employed Person, having been an itinerant freelancer of one sort or another for, like, yonks.  It’s likely that my credit rating hasn’t quite caught up with the news either, so I haven’t attempted to get myself a slightly-less-decrepit truck yet.  Current truck is, saints be praised, soldiering on quite admirably, with 374,000 klicks on the odometer as of this morning, and I’m invoking a variety of deities (with gifts of incense, Passion Flakie wrappers, and Timmie’s pumpkin muffins) to encourage it to continue in good faith until spring, when perhaps the creditors will be open to treating me like an actual grown-up with predictable renumeration.

That’s not to say that the U of Goo might not pull the plug on our little program at any time.  I really have no idea what the economics of running it might be, or if Guelph is more invested in its relatively shiny four-year Bachelor of Bio-Resource Management degree program, which has an “equine management” specialization and is jack blackbeing run out of the main campus (which on an academic level, is far better equipped, but which lacks the equine facilities we have here in Clinton).  To some degree (no pun intended) the two-year Diploma program we offer is rather awkward, given that the first year happens in Clinton, and the second, on the campus of Ridgetown College, about two hours away.  Ridgetown has the advantage of being able to offer student housing, while in Clinton the students have to scramble for rooms to rent … but Ridgetown isn’t really set up for horses.  There are two ancient Standardbreds housed in a corner of the dairy barn, and that’s it.  Meanwhile, if we could solve the student housing issue, we’d still have a challenge with classroom space on our campus, because we share the building with London’s Fanshawe College, which runs a couple of programs here.  They have dibs on the bulk of the classrooms; we have exactly two (plus the barn, paranoidof course).

It’s possible, of course, that I’m just naturally paranoid, after having had more than my share of rugs pulled out from under me over the years.  Then again, it’s possible that the enrollment we currently enjoy is not enough to justify keeping the program running.  I’m only on a year-to-year contract, which means that I could be cut loose this coming May with very little trouble.  It’s hard to get super comfortable under those conditions.

But here it is, December, and I have officially survived one semester, which is a pleasant surprise.  It hasn’t been seamless, exactly, but given that most of us are rookie instructors, it definitely could have been worse. (Um, the total complement on the staff side is five … plus one brave individual doing the whole second-year program in Ridgetown.)  I managed to find something to teach for every one of my lectures, I don’t think the students hate me, and after 18 weeks or so I feel like I’m approaching competency with the U of Goo’s “CourseLink” system, which allows me to post course notes and announcements and marks and such that the students can access.  That’s been a steep learning curve.

OTOH, I have utterly failed to find a place to live closer to Clinton, which is a double-edged sword.  I’d be very annoyed if I did pull up stakes and move everything, only to too much stufffind myself given the ‘here’s your hat and what’s your hurry’ come spring … and that could definitely happen.  Moving everything, in my case, doesn’t just mean the contents of my little house … it also means five horses, two hay feeders, six rubber mats, five troughs, whothefuckknows how many jumps, multiple feed bins, six huge Rubbermaid containers just of blankets and rainsheets, the contents of an entire tack room, and two trailers.  Bit daunting, that.

Nonetheless, I am continuing to look (though if I don’t find something in December, I might as well resign myself to doing the road warrior thing until the spring, as utterly idiotic as that will be, because moving all that shit in winter weather is going to be unfathomably difficult).  I’ve turned down a couple of places that just were too expensive or didn’t make the drive any easier than my current two-hour trek each way (which at least is on main roads which are likely to get ploughed).  I did find one place with an absolutely beautiful Victorian farmhouse that was basically my dream abode, and the place had a barn, arena, the works.  It was close to London, too, which would have been ideal.  Alas, the owners decided they couldn’t accommodate all five of my beasties.  I console myself with the thought that I could never have really afforded it anyway, but dammit-jesus.jpgarrrggghhhhh.  I have lots of helpful people who’ve been keeping their ears to the ground for me, but suitable spots are proving elusive.

I’m trying to be philosophical about the stupidity of my commute.  I mean, I get to see quite a lot of Ontario this way.  (Perspective:  In order to listen to the CBC all the way across from home to work, I have to change the station three times — from the Toronto 99.1, to Kitchener/Waterloo 98.7, and then to London’s 93.5 when I get to Wingham and turn south.)  People are starting to put up their Xmas lights now, so that’s pretty, given that lately I have been leaving when it’s dark and coming home when it’s dark.  I get to see some interesting Mennonite vehicles and ponies on the side of the highway.  Apart from them and the

commute

This is literally what I do 10 times a week.

occasional tractor the size of Montreal, there’s very little traffic to contend with on my route.  And I’m getting a lot of podcasts listened to.  Seriously, a lot.  I welcome podcast recommendations, especially anything science-y or historical or science fiction-y, or anything about journalism (because I might be a professor these days but I will always on some level consider myself a journalist); please post below in the comments.

puffer-vest-streetstyle-450x600

Is it working?

But the commute is also beating me up.  I’ve gone up till now in my life without having developed a caffeine addiction, but green tea is now the only thing keeping me from crossing the median and slamming into a combine some nights.  Four hours a day in a truck also ain’t doing the credit card any favours (I get about three one-way commutes to a $110 tank of gas), nor the muffin top.  I’m really only able to ride on the weekends now, and I’m so knackered by the time I get home that the treadmill is a ludicrous fantasy.  So I am thankful beyond measure that this is the season of big, camouflaging down vests, because, ugh.

So I’m understating it when I say I am ecstatic that for the month of December, I don’t have to go in every day.  I have two more exams to give in the coming week, and there will be meetings and the submission of final marks and such, but until the winter semester begins on January 7th, I can work from home a fair bit.  The batteries need a serious recharge.  And my hair needs cutting.  And maybe I should find myself a dentist too, because that hasn’t been happening for the past couple years.

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Pining For the Fjords


ceased to be(S)he’s not pining, (s)he’s passed on!

Naw, naw, naw, (s)he’s restin’.  Remarkable bird, the Norwegian Blue.  Beautiful plumage.

And etc.  (Yes, I can regurgitate the entire thing.  Don’t get me started.)  I just wanted to register a complaint point out that assumptions of my demise, while entirely reasonable, are in fact erroneous.

'E's not pining, 'e's passed on. Ceased to be. Shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the bleedin' choir invisibule. If you hadn't nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies. This ... oh, you know the rest.

I have just had a truly colossal case of writer’s block.  The kind you can see from outer space.

But I figured I could at least share this, because it makes me positively giddy (dreadful tinny sort of word … bound, vole, recidivist … sorry, I’m digressing again).

When I tell you that my gelding Spike’s registered name is, in fact, Norwegian Blue, you will begin to fathom the depth of my appreciation for a 50 foot fibreglass parrot in Potter’s Fields in London.  Click the link already or I shall be forced to taunt you a second time.

it's a stiff

 

 

Bermudaful

DSC_6672I really had forgotten how much I love the place.

I’ve been lucky enough to have travelled to two places necessitating air travel this year — which is more than I’ve done in ages.  (The flying itself isn’t the lucky part, I hasten to add.  I hate airports as much as I ever did.  Foul, officious, inefficient, sterile, vexing places.)  Thanks to a contest win, I got to rat around Paris for a week back in April, poking my nose into every museum I could navigate to and subsisting on street crepes and croissants (which is a fine form of subsistence if you ask me) before returning to my ridiculously posh hotel room every evening.  I did all the de rigueur stuff: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Versailles, a tour boat up the Seine, stealing votive candles from Notre Dame (the ultimately ironic souvenir for an avowed atheist who nonetheless appreciates dramatic architecture, good acoustics, and gargoyles.  OMFG I love gargoyles).

You could send me back to Paris in a heartbeat.  I’m sure I could spend weeks more exploring the city and never get bored.

But there are some places that just get under your skin and worm their way into your soul in a way that even Paris can’t do for me.

A week ago I made my way back to Bermuda for the first time in a decade, a wedding invite clutched in my paw.  Bermuda and I go back a ways … in 1995, between jobs and feeling impoverished and aimless, I took a Bermudian acquaintance up on an offer to manage a little riding school on the island for a year.

Lee Bow Equestrian Centre is (was) in Devonshire, in the middle of the island, not far from the capitol city, Hamilton.  It had a 12-stall barn DSC_7020 john smiths bayand 16 school horses, a tack room full of cardboard-y World War II era pony saddles in which it was impossible for any child to establish a balanced position, a sand ring with a few jumps, and a clientele which was 80% local kids and 20% obese American tourists who all wanted to go out on trail rides and gallop on the beach.  (Bubble burster:  no horses allowed on the beaches in Bermuda.  Sorry, cowboys, Bermudians like their beaches pristine and manure-free.)

My boss was an asshole of staggering proportions (that’s a whole other blog post), the humidity in July and August was purgatorial (and here I thought I came from a humid part of the world), the roaches were the size of a Buick (funny, not a whisper about those in Fodor’s), I was allergic to some sort of mould in the tack room and my eyes swelled shut for two weeks, and I completely fell in love with Bermuda.

Because it’s stunning.

It’s not just the colours, though they’re saturated to the point of almost painful intensity.  Anyone who thinks pastels are kind of a weak, milque-toasty version of reality should spend a day or two tooling around Bermuda on a bike (moped), taking in the hillside groupings of houses in coral, bubblegum pink, turquoise, mint green, and lemon yellow, all with tiered white roofs (which serve as rainwater collectors, since there’s no fresh water on the island).  I’ve often thought that if Canadians took a similar approach, winter might not be so fucking depressing here.

Add to that an array of tropical plants — hibiscus so vigourous they chop it into bloody hedges (while I can barely keep one alive on my windowsill here in the Great White North), intensely poisonous but beautiful oleander bushes in various shades of cerise and white, poinciana trees aflame in the spring, jacaranda and jasmine, banana trees and rosemary that runs wild on the roadsides — and the smell of the ocean … well, hell, it’s sensory overload.

And of course the beaches are legendary.  I never was a ‘beach person’ before Bermuda, but I discovered that’s because Great Lakes beaches are ugly and the water’s cold and filthy.  Who knew.  A Bermuda beach, in contrast, is all silky pink sand, limestone rock formations, and an impossibly aquamarine sea.  Devoid of filth (and hoof prints) because they actually sweep the beaches on a daily basis.  And you’re never more than half a mile away from one.  Sweet.

Beaches alone don’t tend to hold my interest indefinitely, but fortunately Bermuda’s also pretty fascinating from a historical perspective.  With a colonization history dating back to the mid-1500s (initially, the Portuguese; the island was uninhabited prior to their arrival, so no indigenous peoples to squash and/or subjugate), and a number of very hysterical buildings several centuries old, there’s a fair bit to explore.  Also, forts.  Lots of ’em, all built at various times to defend the island’s strategic position out there on its own in the Atlantic, and well-preserved because, as it turns out, none of them were ever shot upon.

I could go on.  Suffice to say that some of the things I learned to love about Bermuda were:

* a summer that actually lasts long enough for you to settle in and get comfortable in it.  Canadians are a bit frantic about summer.  We have to try to cram all our summer stuff into eight short weekends, and so all the good stuff ends up in scheduling conflicts and we never really feel like we got our money’s worth.  In Bermuda, the temps are still warm and lazy in October, you can still stretch out on the beach and fry yourself, and socks aren’t really required till Christmas.

* zipping around the island on a bike — which is what the vast majority of people do.  Yes, there are cars (for locals only), taxis, buses, and small lorries of various configurations, but most of the traffic is of the two-wheeled persuasion.  The roads are narrow, winding, and sometimes steep, the speed limit is 40km/h, and while the tourist bikes are gutless 50cc pieces of shit, they are still way fun and make me hanker for a Vespa every time I come home.

* being out on the reef.  The first time I ever went snorkeling was in Bermuda, which is completely ringed by coral reef, not to mention about 800 shipwrecks resulting from people not navigating those reefs all that well.  (To be fair, the navigation remains bloody tricky.)   I was about 2 km offshore and the water was barely 10 metres deep … I remember ducking under the surface and thinking, “Whoa.  Fuck horses.  I’m just gonna spend the rest of my life with my face in the water and my ass in the air, looking at corals and pretty fish.”  Again, my native Great Lakes, by comparison, suck:  gimme a rainbow parrot fish over a lamprey or a diseased perch, any day.

* tree frogs.  These are petite little amphibians, not a lot bigger than your thumbnail, who peep incessantly all night.  Tourists find them distracting.  It’s possible I did too, the first week I was in Bermuda.  Every time I’ve returned, they have put me to sleep with a stupid smirk on my face.

* gombeys.  Because they’re weird.

DSC_6877 gombeys5The great thing?  All that stuff is still there.  With a few exceptions (the loss of that most venerable of Bermuda department stores, Trimingham’s, among them), the whole island has apparently been in a time warp since I was last there in 2003.  Of course I already knew that very little gets wiped out in Bermuda thanks to hurricanes — it’s not that the hurricanes don’t hit, because they bloody well do, but Bermudians figured out centuries ago that houses made of limestone (or, these days, cement blocks) generally don’t go anywhere even in gale-force winds.  Still, I was surprised how many of my favourite restaurants and little haunts were unchanged apart from the prices.

I only had five days on the island this time.  It wasn’t nearly enough.  But I figure I’m going to start lobbying my connections at the Bermuda Equestrian Federation to bring me down there next year as a schooling show judge.  There’s no way I’m leaving it another decade.

Ouvrez la Fenêtre, Fermez la Porte

That’s about the level of the French I was able to muster while in Paris in April.  In other words, no better than I manage in Quebec.  Considering French is one of this country’s official languages, the Ontario educational system has a lot to answer for.  But thankfully, Parisians know which side their baguette is buttered on, and they’re pretty accommodating to oafish, unilingual North Americans.  (Or maybe they would rather switch to English than hear us butcher one more word in their native tongue.)

Two months later, I’m still basking in post-Parisian bliss to some extent, which I guess shows how badly I needed a vacation.  It was one of those rare occasions when the universe smiled.

I can’t share the macarons and the croissants and the street-vendor crepes.  They’re long gone, my friends.  But I can share a few images.  Herewith the doors (and some windows) of Paris, or at least a few of the ones that caught my eye.  I know, I know, the concept has been done to death.  It’s all over Pinterest, which is pretty much an indication that it’s so last year.  So feel free to call me unimaginative, derivative, a hack.  When I’m on vacation, I shoot what amuses me.

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No Such Luck

In a word, ow.

I tweaked or twanged or otherwise fucked up my back last night.  Getting out of my truck.

I do this every year or two.  It’s always some ridiculous, utterly inconsequential movement that triggers it — bending over a bucket of beet pulp in the barn, hanging up a manure fork, putting away a colander in the cupboard.  It’s never the result of a horse intent on my destruction (or involuntary dismount, at least) or anything dramatic like that.  My lower back muscles just decide to clench on either side of my spine, like an anticipatory sphincter at the proctologist’s, and suddenly simple movements make me yelp and swear like a sailor.  (Or, um, a horsewoman.  It’s not like this language comes hard for me.)

I thought at first I might be able to stretch my way out of this one, but no such luck.  Methocarbamol ain’t touching it either — it’s just making me stupid.

foundationQHOrdinarily, I’m a sturdy little Quarter Horse.  Not the most graceful or lithe of creatures, but I just truck on through most physical complaints.  Not to jinx myself, but I think I have spent less time in the hospital (so far) in my lifetime, than many of my riding friends do in any given year.  No delicate flower, I.

But this occasional back thing — which I admit I have never sought medical help for, since it generally dissipates in a few days and, as far as I can tell, is just a soft-tissue deal, not something major with my discs (presumably, I would be in some degree of chronic pain if it were my actual spinal column) — well, still, it’s a bit of a bitch.

Especially since I am scheduled to assist with the backing of two adorable young medium ponies tomorrow (for the uninitiated, a ‘medium’ is a pony between the heights of 12:3 hands and 13:2 hands, and generally uber-cute), as well as a Belgian mare who is wider than she is tall.  Ugh.  Suspect I will have to reschedule, since at the moment I can barely manage to hobble from office to bathroom.

I am trying earnestly not to correlate this latest episode of incapacitation with having recently observed my 50th birthday.  I’ve been having these episodes intermittently since my mid-30’s, so I don’t really think it’s an age thing.  And besides, I’m trying not to put too much emphasis on ‘milestone’ birthdays.  I have plenty of things not to be positive about, but 50 really isn’t much different than 49, other than when I get dressed now, I find I’m asking myself, “So is this outfit appropriate for a woman of 50?  Or does it smack of mom_jeans_xlargedesperation?”  It’s a toss-up as to whether it’s worse to try too hard not to look your age … or whether embracing the world of Tabi and Jayset is the bigger disaster.

(I did also notice that there don’t seem to be any birthday cards which say, “So you’re 50.  So what?  You’re still completely fabulous and you look better than ever.”  That would have been nice, really.  I mean, I’m 15 lbs. lighter than I was a couple of years ago, I’m a little fitter as well, and all in all I think I’m holding up better than some …. but I digress.)

It’s possible, of course, that the back thing is stress-related, but I’ve been stressed for so long that that’s just status quo.  I had a job interview last week — yes, a real job interview, my first in almost two years — and I was asked to describe a crisis I had handled in the course of my career.  Unbidden, the words, “My whole life is a crisis”, came to my lips.  Hey, they might as well know what they might be getting.

And though it’s possible that the interview itself was a stressor, having a physical reaction to it four days later, some time after having driven five hours up the highway and back to attend, seems sorta implausible.  Though not completely out of the question.

And besides, I am still basking to some degree in post-vacation bliss.  I may be eating Ramen noodles at home and regularly begging my cel phone service provider to give me two more weeks to pay my outrageously inflated bill, but I spent a week swanning around Paris at the beginning of April. Cuz I won a contest.  Yes, a real one.  And though it did still cost me some spending money, I managed notre dame gargoylesto eat on the cheap (mmm, roadside crepes!) and buy very few souvenirs, so it was mostly about museum entrance fees and there was enough included in the prize to cover that.  It was fabulous, and it was my first true vacation in about 12 years, and it was an amazing way not to get bummed out about 50.

Am I getting less negative in my dotage?  I bloody well hope not, but I do see one bright spot in my immediate future:  as soon as I have observed the withdrawal time on the useless methocarbamol (six hours, sayeth the bottle), I am moving on to the Good Drugs.  I have a few prescription pain med tablets left over from the occasion three summers ago when a horse reared, flipped over, and fell on top of me.  (Kinda crunched my pelvis.  I walked sideways, like a lumpy little beach crab, for about three weeks.)

Normally taking this level of medication freaks me out a bit — I am so not an addictive personality, and avoid anything that might be habit-forming as, um, a force of habit — but the weather is finally, finally improving here and I have stuff to do, so bring on the big guns.  I knew I saved them for a reason.

Mud, Mosquitoes, and Mayhem

I promised I was going to usher you into the mysterious unseen world of the horse show press tent, right?

That’s assuming, of course, that there actually is one.

Over the past 15 years or so, I have experienced many levels of media preparedness on the part of horse shows.  Rarely sublime, often ridiculous.  Of course, the general level of making-life-easy-for-journalists has improved vastly with the advent of wi-fi.  (Look, contact with the outside world — oh, bliss!)

But given that horse shows are generally situated somewhere out in a muddy field, it’s little wonder that what most journos might consider the basic basics — stuff like phone lines, electricity, and chairs — are often in short supply, and were even more so 15 or 20 years ago, when I first started trekking to these festivities.

There’s a three-star three-day event called the Fair Hill International, which occurs every October in Elkton, Maryland.  (For the uninitiated, equestrian sports, and especially eventing, are ranked in difficulty by the number of stars, ranging from one to four.  There are only six four-star three-day events in the world and they are seriously, seriously badass.  A three-star event is one level below that, but just to put it in perspective, the three-day eventing competition at the Olympics is at the three-star level.)

Fair Hill is a gorgeous place, but given the time of year when the event is held, it’s almost invariably a mudpit.  And the first year that I arrived there to cover it for the British eventing monthly confusingly called “Eventing“, I sunk my rental car to the axles in the parking lot, schlepped through a sea of goo to the centre of activity, and failed to locate anything in the way of a structure that was designated for weary journalistic travellers such as myself.  After a good deal of feckless squishing around the trade fair, I finally located someone with a walkie-talkie, who looked me up and down with wonder and said something along the lines of, “Wow, we have PRESS!”

Okay, so safe to assume there’s no internet access, then …

The 1999 Pan Am Games, in Winnipeg, wasn’t much better.  While most of the competitions were very well-organized, the equestrian events were orphaned out in Bird’s Hill Park, some considerable distance from the rest of the venues and completely off the organizing committee’s radar.  Once we had visited the main press outlet in a huge urban convention centre, and claimed our oversized plastic press passes on lanyards, we were on our own.  We soon discovered that, in all the excitement of erecting dressage rings and building cross-country courses and battling the world’s largest and most aggressive squadrons of mosquitoes, that no-one had really factored in the presence of press out at Bird’s Hill.

Not only was there no press tent, there was no food.  The only fast-food truck was back in the stabling area, where we lowly journos were forbidden to venture.  (I nearly got my foot run over by an overly-aggressive security person in a Gator, when I suggested that it might be nice if someone brought all of us out some peameal sandwiches.  Sheesh.  Give some people a badge and a radio, and they become megalomaniacs.)

By day two, we were all doing rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock as to who got to do the Tim Horton’s runs (about 30 km from the park), and by day three, the delightful woman who had been organizing the feeding of the many, many volunteers it takes to run equestrian events at the Pan Am Games, started making all of the journalists and photographers extra sandwiches in brown bags.

Honestly, it was just about the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.  And she got us Pan Am shirts and hats too.  I still have the hat somewhere.

At the other end of the press tent spectrum is Spruce Meadows, the showjumping Mecca in Calgary.  I haven’t had the pleasure of covering all that many tournaments at Spruce Meadows, but they can invite me back anytime.  Not only is there a climate-controlled press centre with every desired amenity from closed-circuit tv (should you not desire to look out the picture windows at the ring) to a scrum area, printers, and (gasp) flushies … but for the journalists covering the big weekend classes with the million-dollar sponsorships, they actually wheel in steam tables laden with prime rib, shrimp, three veg, and desserts.  Plus china plates, linen napkins, and cutlery.

I’m gonna say it again.  Cutlery.  Still makes my toes curl with sheer glee.

For journalists habituated to subsisting on potato chips, purchased three days earlier at a gas station and crushed into powder in one’s backpack, this isn’t just a pleasant meal, it’s an absolute revelation.

And by now, you’re probably coming to one very important and correct conclusion:  a fed journalist is a happy journalist.

It’s true.  We are simple, simple creatures, easy to lull into a state of contentment.  Again, it’s possible that this is all standard practice in other arenas of sports journalism, but I, for one, never ever take it for granted.  Mostly because it’s far more the exception than the rule, and one can’t even really assume that because it was offered one year, it will be offered another.

Take another three-star three-day event, called the Foxhall CCI***.  It required a flight to Atlanta to get to this one, but when it was launched, with much fanfare, by a local polo guy with deep pockets who committed to a 20-year run and huge (for eventing) prize money, we footloose freelancers were all intrigued.

So I land at the Atlanta airport, walk about 30 miles from concourse to concourse, claim my little rental car and navigate my way to the showgrounds, which is out in a communications dead zone where no cel phone comes out alive, about half an hour from Atlanta.  I am weary, I am grumpy, and I drag my laptop and cameras to a tent labelled “press” …. where I am immediately handed a huge plate of fried chicken and biscuits, and asked, “Red or white?”

Well.

Unfortunately, the exceptional hospitality at Foxhall didn’t last.  By year three, someone in accounting had cancelled just about all of the perks first showered upon the journalists, and had instituted box lunches that we could purchase for $8 apiece.  (And they were egg salad.  Yecch.  If egg salad were the last food on Earth, I would starve to death rather than consume it.  It’s just revolting.)

By year five, there was no press tent at all … just a power outlet that myself and the one other remaining freelancer who turned up, located up by the stables and took turns using to keep our laptops going when the batteries started to run low. The tycoon had apparently made some unfortunate business deals and was flat outta money.  The show lost its sponsorship and was unable to secure another one.  Needless to say, that 20-year deal failed to be honoured.

I don’t miss schlepping all the way to Atlanta, but man, that fried chicken was exceptional.

Truth is, however, we don’t attend horse shows for the food.  (Well, except for Fair Hill, which features amazing crab chowder in styrofoam bowls.)  We just want to write a good story about the action, and we’re prepared to make some sacrifices to do so.   My expectation, these days, is for a wobbly table and a plastic chair set under a leaky, drafty tent. If there’s a power outlet and internet access, all else is gravy.  And let’s face it, wi-fi, phone lines, and hydro are all fairly recent expectations.   Horse show grounds, historically, have not been the easiest places with which to provide these luxuries.  I get that.

Even Bromont, another three-day event site which once hosted the equestrian events at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and thus boasts a large, permanent grandstand, had zero in the way of power outlets or wi-fi available to the press last time I was there.  I had to beg a corner of the scorer’s trailer because I was filing daily reports for a website … where I was relentlessly entertained by an Equine Canada official who was drunk as a skunk, and getting increasingly belligerent, as she added up the scores.  Incorrectly.  Par-tay.

I know I’m not the only intrepid girl reporter who remembers huddling in a leaky tent at Rolex, the feet of my plastic chair sinking into the wet grass, clutching the edges of the garbage bag protecting my laptop from the elements, mentally begging the dial-up to work, and never once thinking, “I could have been a civil servant and worked in a nice, beige, upholstered cube farm somewhere.”

Thankfully, the Kentucky Horse Park was selected to host the World Equestrian Games in 2010, so its press tent set-up received gradual upgrades in the lead-up years, culminating in the whole business being moved indoors (indoors!) to a roomy space overlooking one of the indoor arenas.  With plumbing and all.  Now, all I have to kvetch about is that the windows give a tormenting view of the trade fair below, which I have neither the time nor the cash to peruse.

Many of my colleagues have trekked around the world to cover Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games and are more familiar with the scale of the press centres attached to these events than I; again, alas, not having a surfeit of Air Miles at my disposal, I have had to sit most of those out.  But the Kentucky WEG did give me a taste of the possibilities, without the associated hassles of passport-carrying.  (Though I did get various versions of pat-downs every dim early morning as I entered the park with my gear.)  Yes, it was a tent, but it was a tent designed for 1200 people, with an attached interview tent and a designated cafeteria just fer little ‘ol us.  (Overpriced, to be sure, but handy nonetheless.)  We had flatscreen TVs so we could watch the action in multiple arenas, we had Canon set up on-site with its IT guys, and my particular circle of acquaintances seemed to have a knack for winning the Rolex door prizes of bottles of champagne, by correctly guessing the nightly leaders on the scoreboards of the eight different equestrian disciplines we were all trying to cover.

I think champagne tastes particularly festive when sipped from a paper cup.

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Welcome to the Press Tent

Normally, on this particular week of the year, I would be feeling a little like I’d been run over by a herd of rampaging wildebeest.  That’s because this is normally the day after I would have gotten home from the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, at the Horse Park in Lexington.  It’s an annual pilgrimage, except that due to other commitments (and a serious shortage of funds) I didn’t make it this year.

Not that I’m not still running on a sleep deficit and generally feeling like death warmed over … it’s just that I don’t have any unpacking to do.

I do the 10- or 11-hour trek  to Kentucky every year for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, it’s usually because I have scraped up some assignments to write about it and/or submit photographs.  Being of a generally destitute demeanour, I’m not sure I’d go if I had to pay $30 (or whatever it is, these days) to get in the gate, but if I have a press pass, as I have had for the past 20 years or so, that makes it a smidge more affordable.

Secondly, despite the fact that going south on I75 through Ohio is one of the most stultifying stretches of driving in the world (and that includes the notoriously soporific Hwy 401 between London and Windsor, a drive I have done many, many, many, many thousands of times), it all begins to improve as you approach Cincinnatti.  The endless stretches of flat, nothing farmland give way to rolling hills and blooming redbud trees along the highway …and your snow-numbed Canadian brain goes, “Yes!  Spring!  Foliage!  Signs of life!”

It can be very refreshing to see a bit of green, a couple of weeks early.

Tragically, though, I no longer get to enjoy one of the legendary landmarks of I75 near Cincinnati:  The Big Butter Jesus (just typed “Big Bugger”, oops — my bad), aka Touchdown Jesus, who used to emerge like a 60 foot Lady of the Lake, from an artificial pond in front of the Solid Rock Church right by the interstate.  Jesus used to tell me I was just an hour and a half away from Lexington.  But that was before he was struck by lightning and went up in flames a few years ago, leaving behind only a macabre metal skeleton.

Heywood Banks explains in song:

(Ooh, had to edit to add:  Big Butter Jesus has his own blog!  Dayam!)

The third reason for going to what is always called just “Rolex” by its aficionados: I like eventing.  To me there is absolutely no piece of horseflesh more thrilling than an upper-level event horse, usually a big strapping, ridiculously fit Thoroughbred with veins busting out of his coat, eating up the ground  in a nice easy gallop and jumping humongously massive, diabolically evil things that don’t come down when you hit them, like it was child’s play.

I also like the horsemanship and the mindset of eventers. Even at the international level, they’re all pretty self-deprecating, down-to-earth folks.  They like to party and they know every square centimetre of their horse’s bodies better than they know their own. You can’t ride cross-country with a stick up your ass, which is probably why I would much rather interview eventers than dressage riders or showjumpers, any day of the week.

If there’s a downside to covering eventing, it’s that the sport is dangerous. As much as the high muckety-mucks of the game have toiled (and they have toiled, tirelessly) to improve course design, equipment, and the rules over the last few decades, shit still happens. Not often. But it happens. Horses get injured. Rarely, they get killed, usually by catastrophic injuries such as when Laine Ashker’s horse, Frodo Baggins, flipped over a fence a few years ago and broke his neck. And because, at the three- and four-star level it’s just about the most strenuous thing you can ask a horse to do, there’s the odd aortic rupture, too, resulting in a horse’s sudden death. It’s devastating, just devastating.

And yes, riders get hurt and killed too, though I confess it’s the horse injuries that trash me … perhaps because, although (contrary to the perspective of the great unwashed who have no background in eventing) you cannot force a horse to jump cross-country fences, and the ones that rise to this level do it for the sheer joy of doing it, at the same time you can never really sit a horse down and explain the risks to him. Riders go out on course knowing full well what obstacles lie before them, but the horses just go out trusting their riders. But damn, that’s also what makes it heroic.

Every time I do witness a crash, and get that horrible sick feeling in my stomach over it, I swear I’m never going to cover this sport again. I just can’t deal with the downside.

But I always end up coming back.

(As an aside, when a wreck does happen on course, and I’m not ridiculous miles away from it, I always try to make my way over there as quickly as I can.  Some of my fellow photographers on course have accused me of being ghoulish for doing so.  But honestly, I’m not ambulance-chasing.  When an accident happens and it’s something relatively serious, the announcers usually go all quiet.  The competition stops while the emergency personnel get to work, and there’s no blow-by-blow update over the loudspeaker.  The longer the silence drags on, the more ominous it all becomes.  And because I am generally writing about the event as well as taking photos, I know I will eventually have to report on what happened.  There will be an official FEI press release about it at the end of the day, but generally these are so vague as to be useless.  So I would rather see firsthand what the situation is, as much as it makes me feel ill, than have to report based on rumour and hearsay.  And I do take pictures, but I NEVER publish those.  They are for my own information only.  Just in case you were wondering.)

Now it occurred to me that some (both?) of my gentle readers might not have experienced what, to me, has become normalcy:  the slightly surreal world of the horse show press tent.  And who am I not to share my delight with the universe?

I’m sure that, depending on the sport(s) you cover, you have different levels of expectation for the facilities set up for journalists.  Those who cover Formula One racing or pro football or yachting, for example, likely get wined and dined on a regular basis, courted with swag from Nikon and Canon, and take home little sponsor’s bags full of goodies. At least that’s what we idiots who cover eventing, jealously suspect.

Equestrian sports may have a hoity-toity reputation, but the reality for horsey journalists is more about leaky wellies and muddy  jeans, plastic bags duct-taped around your camera because you forgot the fitted little raincoat at home, surviving on granola bars, coffee, and overpriced bratwurst that repeats on you all afternoon, and waddling around the back forty of a cross-country course lugging three camera bodies and six 40 kg lenses wearing every single item of clothing you brought with you because it’s suddenly -5 Celsius.

And then there’s the sunburn, the shin splints, and weighing whether you can sprint to the extremely nasty porta-loo and back with all your equipment in the three minutes between horses on course … because of course the one single horse you don’t shoot in seven hours of competition, will inevitably be the one who wins and the only one anyone wants to purchase a photo of.

Oh, the glamour!

I can see this is going to be another one of my novel-length rants, so I’m going to save the particulars of the press tent for another post in the very near future.  Meanwhile, here’s another gratuitous eventing shot.

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I Am (Briefly) the One Per Cent

I’ve dabbled in a number of different forms of journalism over the years.  I’ve covered advances in veterinary medicine, described how to shop for a manure spreader, written how-to’s and op-eds, provided blow-by-blow event coverage, and even poked a few hornet’s nests.  But unless you count Big Name Trainers (BNT in horsey chatboard vernacular), I can’t say celebrity profiles have ever been much on my radar.

I do, however, now know where to go should I ever hanker to veer in that direction.

A few months ago, I won a little contest.  It was the sort of web-based form you fill out when you’re procrastinating about finishing an article that bores you to desperation.  You know — name, address, age, e-mail address so that We May Spam You Unmercifully in the Future.  That I have won a small handful of these contests over the last few years is probably an indication that I am devoting way too much time and energy to this particular variety of procrastination.

My prizes, in this case, seemed to have been tossed together in an effort to clear out some 18th floor closet at the Toronto Star (not that I’m complaining, they just didn’t appear to have much coherence).  I received two $50 Visa gift cards, which I used to buy feed for the beasties.  There were also two tickets to a play called The Blue Dragon (love me a night at the theatre, so that was much appreciated).  And there was a huge and unwieldy “wine package” which, when I finally got it all unwrapped, contained decanters, glasses, several corkscrews each more elaborate than the last, a massive coffee-table book about grapey beverages … but no actual wine, which struck me as a bit peculiar…

The piece de resistance, however, was a one-night stay at one of Toronto’s ’boutique’ hotels, the Windsor Arms, in an uber-swanky corner suite equipped with (no foolin’) a grand piano.  I may have mentioned before that I am not generally in the habit of booking boutique hotels, being generally destitute and all.  I like a bit of luxury as much as the next person … okay, given that absence makes the heart grow fonder, I probably like a bit of luxury more than some people do.  But throughout most of my adult life, my budget has been rather more Motel 6 than Relais & Chateaux.

So this sounded potentially amusing.

I’m only an hour north of Toronto, so it’s not that the destination was exotic for me, but since perks, relaxation, and pampering have all been in shockingly short supply thus far this year, I decided I’d book the hotel stay for the weekend immediately following my birthday, and pretty much wallow in it as fully, completely, and decadently as I could.

This was after I determined I couldn’t exchange the prize for its cash value — which, let’s be honest, could have paid my rent for the month, covered at least two of my overdue vet bills, or flown me to Europe.

The thing about Motel 6 and its ilk is that it’s pretty anonymous.  Some bored employee takes your credit card imprint, hands you a key, and then pretty much ceases to care whether you exist unless you call the front desk 15 minutes later to complain that the wi-fi secret code isn’t working.  You can come and go at any hour of the day or night without anyone even looking up from his/her video game.  But the Windsor Arms is a different sort of critter, as the squeeze and I realized when we pulled up for the valet parking (the only option offered, at $35 a night, not included with the package).   Hello, welcome, how wonderful that you’ve come, may I help you with your bags, is this your first time staying with us?  (Um, yes, and almost certainly the last, given my station in life.)

The squeeze and I immediately realized that we had neglected to factor in the sheer number of people here who would have their hands out expecting gratuities.  Eeek.  And me with $6 in my wallet.

We got a very gracious tour of the place anyway, courtesy of Sal.  Herewith some not-very-fabulous pix which are the product of my little point-and-shoot rather than the decent camera (I was trying fruitlessly to travel light).

Strangely enough, they did not grab me by the scruff of the neck and turf me out onto the street, which is what I always expect to happen when I step into this sort of foreign environment.  The squeeze and I kind of poked around all the vastness and tastefulness for an hour, feeling staggeringly silly about it all.  We were careful not to lay hands on the not-at-all-complimentary contents of the mini-bar, or the snack basket in the ‘family room’.  The latter included, rather mysteriously, along with the Pringles and M&Ms, an “intimacy kit” for $12… this was a discreetly plastic-sealed black box with neat lettering and absolutely no indication of what it contained, which of course led to about 20 minutes of fatuous speculation, cuz that’s what we do. (Breath mint?  Edible undies?  KY?  Pamphlet from Birthright?)

We admired the opulent bathroom (oh, for an expansive jacuzzi tub in my day-to-day life) and the fact that every room in the place was equipped with a TV.  We noted with some befuddlement the phones hanging by each toilet (really, that call just couldn’t wait?), and I was mildly affronted by the quality of the paper products (standard-issue scratchy hotel loo roll — I have to say I expected better) but impressed with the big fluffy towels and the terry robes and slippers.

Took a dip in the (deserted) salt-water pool, but decided to forego the exercise room in the end because, as the squeeze observed, “When you come to a place like this, you don’t come to sweat.”  Watched some TV, had a soak in the big tub, goofed around with programmable bossa-nova beats on the fake piano, and had a very pleasant sleep followed by a complimentary buffet breakfast downstairs (the breakfast was actually fairly meh, as well — what, no waffles? — but free is free and they did toast my bagel to perfection).

And that was pretty much that.  The equivalent of $1750, blown in one rather over-the-top evening.  It provided a lot of amusement value, and a bit of decompression, but didn’t really make either of us angst for what we’d been missing … at least, not on the hotel side.

As we checked out, the reporter in me kicked in, as it inevitably does.  I felt compelled to ask the front desk staff who their regular clientele were — since, clearly, it was not me.  “Some international business travellers, but mostly A-list celebrities,” admitted the woman printing up our bill for the valet parking.  I had rather figured as much, knowing that the hotel is very close to the centre of activities during the Toronto International Film Festival, colloquially known as TIFF ’round these parts.  But the stream of actors, directors, producers, and other entertainment types isn’t limited to September, apparently.  “I’ve been here two months,” one of them confessed, “and I’m amazed at the celebrities I’ve seen here already” — though of course she was far too well-trained to name names, and I really wasn’t paparazzi-ish enough to prod her.  (Good to know that Toronto’s film industry isn’t dead, though.)

Given that the suite had two rooms equipped with sliding, frosted-glass doors, I had an immediate vision of Hugh Grant.  Remember that scene in Notting Hill where he walks into the middle of a media scrum in Julia Roberts’s hotel suite, and has to fake being a reporter in order to talk to her?

Remember how he claims to be a correspondent for Horse and Hound?

Well, I’m the genuine article.

And the front desk staff strongly implied that, should I ever desire to ambush and interview a celebrity, that hanging around the lobby of the Windsor Arms just might be a way to do that.

If they try to kick me out, I’ll just tell them Sal said it was okay.

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Champagne Taste, Kool-Aid Budget

Reconnecting with travel writing has brought home to me just what a nasty, mean, cheap little life I’ve been leading.

Not that I have high expectations.  I’m a barn rat, after all — wind, rain, exceptionally unglamourous (and oft-times unflattering) clothing, all manners of filth, and wheelbarrows full of shit and shavings have all been a life choice for me.

I had a solid middle-class upbringing.  Wasn’t deprived of very much (although my parents didn’t exactly encourage my riding career and forbade me to get a horse of my own until I was 16 and could drive myself to the barn — I thought it was severe deprivation at the time but you’ll be ecstatic to know, Mom and Dad, that I Get It now).  I was encouraged to work to pay for my passions, if only by digging dandelions or flinging the Globe and Mail onto people’s lawns at some ungodly hour of the morning … and we had vacations, generally of the Holiday Inn rather than Hilton variety.

The truth has been whacking us all upside the head for decades now, and still neither my generation nor my parents’ can quite wrap our gray matter around the fact that I (and my generational compatriots, for the most part) are never going to achieve the financial or social status our parents found relatively easily, by getting degrees, landing jobs, doing those jobs for three to four decades and then retiring to a modest, but adequate pension and a great, wallowing RV that gets 50 yards to the gallon.  That dog no longer hunts.

And yeah, I didn’t exactly help myself by continually bucking trends.  Everyone else got an MBA.  I had to pursue microbiology, of all things (and that was a second choice when it turned out that astrophysics and I weren’t as compatible as I’d hoped).

Hey, at least I had the foresight not to go after that BFA Music Theatre degree.  Couldn’t see that feeding the horses for any length of time …

But I did end up in journalism, and seriously, that’s just about as practical.  Way to go, girl.

I can’t say it’s inevitable that you develop a bit of a disconnect between your income and your appreciation for the finer things, when you’re raised by academics, because my brother had essentially the same upbringing and (unless this has recently changed and he has failed to disclose it) he has absolutely no interest in going to museums or the theatre, much less the ballet.  Culture just didn’t stick with him, or if it did, it was totally outranked and ground into the dirt by football and hockey.

Maybe that’s not so much upbringing as testosterone, come to think of it.

Me?  Love me a good museum.  Practically grew up in an art gallery.  Would spend my last dime on a ticket to a musical.  (Have, on occasion.)  Yearn hopelessly after a nice ballet, tickets for which have ascended into an unreachable (for me) stratosphere.  And I don’t really see the point of having a totally mediocre and uninspiring restaurant meal at, say, Swiss Chalet, when for a dollar or two more (if you’re clever) you can find a little hole-in-the-wall bistro which serves up the most astonishing phyllo pastry fennel arugula seabream confit confection, with foam (or is foam declasse now?), that you’ve ever had dancing on your tongue.

Life, as they say, is too short to drink cheap wine.

The gulf between my hankerings and my budget, these days, is ever-widening, I fear.  A global warming thing, perhaps?  (I have this vision of being one of those hapless polar bears, floating on a little patch of ice in an endless, melting arctic sea.)  More likely, an economic downturn thing, with me circling the drain perhaps just a wee bit closer to the hole than most people.

Gradually, I have been forced to pare away all the little joys of life.  Eating out.  Movies.  Vacations.  Satellite TV (I get by with an antenna these days).  The National Ballet keeps calling, the merciless bastards, asking in the sweetest British dulcet tones whether I would like orchestra seats for Giselle.  Or better yet, a season subscription, which is such a great deal and allows you to exchange your tickets for a different evening should your schedule change, all to accommodate the modern ballet patron.  Arrrrgghh.

Yes, I would like orchestra seats for Giselle please.  My birthday’s coming up … just tuck a couple into an envelope for me, won’t you darling?

No?  Then at least do me a solid and stop tormenting me by calling?

Though a host of horoscopes keep promising me that things are going to get Ever So Much Better Really Really Soon (I’m sure the astrological forecast on the day of my death will be particularly rosy, and I am tempted to leave instructions to etch it on my tombstone), the financial angst that comes with freelancing seems to have taken up permanent residency in my squishy bits.  It knots my intestines all my waking hours and keeps me up at night.  (Don’t ask what time of the morning I am writing this damn thing.)

This past week, I was briefly able to leave it behind, or at least loosen the knots just a smidge, thanks to the exceptionally kind folks at Charlevoix Tourism, who invited me on one of their midwinter press junkets to experience that region of Quebec.  I’m not going to get into the specifics of the trip because that’s for the paying customers, i.e. the magazines and websites who I hope will be fascinated by my adventures, and gobsmacked by the sheer street cred I earned by peeling off a staggering number of layers to squat and pee bare-assed in a blizzard (behind a spruce, my feeble attempt at privacy).  This was an act of desperation, I assure you, and has nothing to do with this whole Champagne Taste, Kool-Aid Budget theme … but I mean, what editor could resist a story like that?  Seriously.

I promise I’ll post links (um, not to the peeing specifically, because I rather hope that was not caught on film).  Update:  you have a link! — ed.

As I’ve mentioned previously (and I know you read all of my blog posts religiously), I am not one of the big players in travel writing, so to get this invite was a very pleasant surprise.  Do NOT get me wrong, because these FAM trips are so, so, so not a vacation when you’re taking notes and shooting JPG+RAW and hoping the damn light will cooperate and that your camera sensor won’t freeze in the blizzard, and setting up shots and asking questions of the proprietors and collecting press kits and such … but they still are such a wonderful change from regular life at the home office.

There were very nice hotels.  With turn-down service and little treats on the pillows, and actual big fluffy towels that actually dry you.  Given that my standard hotel these days, when I am forced to use one, is more of the Super Eight variety or worse, a king-sized bed with a goose-down duvet almost borders on the ridiculous, but by gawd, I’m gonna sleep in it anyway.  And given that I usually tote my own towel to these Super Eights because the ones they provide are several lightyears beyond parsimonious and useless, it was the height of luxury not to have to put a nasty, damp towel back in my suitcase.

And there was food.  OMG there was food.  Again, without blowing my wad on the story here, Charlevoix, Quebec is an undiscovered foodie paradise.  Venison carpaccio.  Quite possibly the best onion soup gratinee I have ever picked out of my teeth.  Amuse-bouches of wild mushrooms on phyllo pastry (you might have noticed a certain obsession with phyllo pastry … truth is, I’ll eat just about anything if it comes on, or in, phyllo).  Tender, tender escargot swimming in garlic butter and cream.  And wapiti (that’s elk) Wellington (ooh, more pastry). Maple sugar breakfast crepes.  Duck foie gras.  Artisanal cheeses, and of course proper croissants with proper butter.

I vowed to myself to revel in the experience as fully as I could and eat everything that was put in front of me, even stuff I normally don’t like — and I did, and all of it was wonderful.

And I put on four pounds in six days, but WTF.

So now it’s back to the afore-pictured Kraft Dinner, angsting about all my unpaid bills, and doing incantations at the mailbox every day, hoping a cheque will arrive which will forestall my landlord evicting me.

But I did bring home a little slab of incredible sheeps’ milk blue cheese, and a tiny pot of the most exquisite strawberry jam with cinnamon in it.  Which might just get me through.

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FIVE Strange Travel Experiences to Which No Writer Should Ever Be Exposed

So with travel writing on the brain lately, I’ve been reflecting on some of the weirder experiences I’ve had on FAM trips.  Not that I’ve been on a whole lot of them, but it seems weird comes with the territory.

To some degree, this is good.  I know the people who put these things together work hard to show travel writers, and travel agents (who are often on these tours as well), anything unusual they suspect might sell the destination.  But there’s weird, and then there’s just implausible, freaky, off-putting, or a little too scary for prime time.  I’m almost always up for a bit of weird.  I just don’t want to get killed doing it.

#1:  Orlando As A Cultural Destination

Upside of this trip:  wow, swag out the wazoo.  Not only is the hotel a five-star wonder, with those crazy 7000-thread-count sheets and a plethora of complimentary rubber ducks floating in your sink and your bathtub every night (I was very, very popular with all my friends who have kids after this trip), but upon my return to my room each night, there was a new giftie basket of some sort resting on my pillow.  I do not expect swag, other than lots of informative literature, on press trips, but being a starving freelancer I’ll sure as hell take it, whatever it is, if it’s being offered.  I know, call me shallow and unprincipled.

Downside of this trip:  No matter how hard they tried — and believe me, they DID try — it was pretty much impossible to wrap one’s head around the trip’s theme, “Orlando as a cultural destination”.  We toured a former artist’s colony/kibbutz sort of thing.  A huge art museum (fifteen minutes, no loitering, have a complimentary cracker and everyone back on the bus, please).  The home of  Zora Neale Hurston,  author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and other chronicles of black folklore.  The studio of a ballet company (did you know Orlando has TWO ballet companies?) where we bellied up to the barre and practised plies we hadn’t done since we were collectively 12.  (Soooo not pretty, folks. I have the unpublished pictures to prove it.)

Attended a production of La Boheme which I quite enjoyed.  (My parents would be so proud of their little opera rebel.)  And would you believe.  A holocaust museum.  Yes.  In Orlando.

But the thing about Orlando is, you cannot, cannot, cannot escape The Mouse.  No matter how hard you try to pretend the place is about something beyond that.  He’s there when you get off the plane and he’s in your face every second until you get back on another plane.  And that’s how every single editor I pitched felt about it too.  Not one of them believed I could sell Orlando as a cultural destination, which made it all an epic fail because I let down the kind folks who flew me down there and even hosted me (and the other journalists) an extra day at said five-star hotel avec ducks when the flights home didn’t work out.  To this day, I’m hoping someone will buy the story, but it’s just too big a stretch.

#2:  The Barns of Southern Kentucky

So here we all are in unexplored southern Kentucky.  Land of bbq and coal mines and billboards promising you that Jesus will strike you dead for your sins.  Land of former coal mines now, optimistically but spectacularly unsuccessfully, being turned into questionable tourist destinations.  (SEE … the, um, coal mining equipment, now on display in our Coal Mining Museum.  SEE … the entrance of the mine, but don’t go in because it isn’t safe.  SEE … the coal miner’s one-room cabin which we will now rent to you for $1500 a week if you have a hankering to be somewhere completely deserted and uninteresting so you can write that novel without fear of distraction.  SEE … oh, never mind.)

At one point we all emerged from the coal mine attraction and were taken on a tour of southern Kentucky’s charming rural barns.  Now, all the other writers on the tour likely rolled their eyes at this point (don’t remember for sure), but this was where my ears (figuratively) perked up.  Horsey girl like barns.  Horsey girl can sell story about barns.

I’m not sure what went wrong with this part of the tour, but we got to the little town where we were supposed to pick up the local expert who was going to tell us the gripping history of these century barns and explain the architectural features which made them unique to the region.  I could barely contain myself.  Seriously.  The expert, however, was a no-show.  Instead the local tourism and convention board had sent along a woman who very obviously had only been informed she was being pressed into service about 10 minutes before we pulled up in the town square.  She was fumbling with a map where barns were clearly not circled.  Off we went onto the back concessions of Kentucky, while she gamely tried to remember where these barns were, and failed, for the most part.  I think there were 10 that were supposed to be on the tour and we found three of them in the end.  Did a lot of pointless driving up and down dirt roads, though.  And as for the three we did find … well, they were charming century barns with some rather unique sort of overhang things in the front that I would dearly have loved to know more about.  Function?  Origin?  But she didn’t know anything about them.  Nada.  Zip.  “I think this one is pretty old” was about the wisest thing she contributed in three hours.  Total fail.

#3:  Taxidermy and Torture:  How Restful

Still on the southern Kentucky tour.  I alluded to this hotel in my last post, and thanks to Wikipedia being my friend, I have finally come up with its name for you:  it’s the Cumberland Inn in Williamsburg, KY. A Must-See Destination.  If you are less easily creeped out than I am.

So we land at the Lexington airport and then drive about five hours straight south down I-75 (if I’m remembering correctly) and I am running on about 45 minutes’ sleep and I start to nod off in the mini-van.  Finally we pull into the parking lot for some huge white colonial thing which we are told is the bedrock of local employment round these parts, because it not only is the finest hotel in the region but it provides training for the local kids who are enrolled in the Hospitality Program of the adjacent University of the Cumberlands.  Okay, that’s admirable, thumbs up to that, especially when we are told that the region is otherwise pretty much devastated and jobless. (If I hadn’t been zoned out I probably would have picked up on that by the vast quantity of beaten-up mobile homes visible from the highway.)

This hotel also has Something Special, though, and although we are all fried and absolutely starving, we are all scheduled to take the tour before we are fed.  The Cumberland also fancies itself a museum.  And as we wander from room to room, we’re all pretty sure we ain’t in Kansas anymore and that Toto has met with a horrible end.  Mercifully, my brain has blotted out a lot of it, but in addition to the previously-referenced collection of  miniature Bibles, there is also a room full of crucifixes.  And by room, I mean the “Carl Williams Crucifix Collection”, with over 7000 individual depictions of a human being writhing blissfully on a cross with nails through his hands and feet.  Surrounding you.  On every surface from floor to ceiling.  Collected by an Air Force chaplain who thought they would be soothing or inspirational to future generations.

If you’ve been reading this blog at all (and I have no idea why you would, but thank you all the same) you probably have a sneaking suspicion by now that I am a godless heathen, and you’d be right on the money there.  But even if I did buy into the Christianity thing, I cannot imagine in a million years how this room could be inspirational to anyone.  It was, frankly, horrifying and beyond disturbing, and now I can say it.  At the time, I was trying to be a gracious guest tiptoeing semi-respectfully through the Bible Belt, and I kept my mouth shut (and booked it out of that room as soon as I could locate the door — only to find myself in an almost equally horrifying space full of stuffed dead things with glass eyes).

Hey, dead Jesus times 7000, followed by dead animals in grotesque poses.  Thanks for the great night’s sleep, Cumberland Inn.

#4:  Puddles O’ Fun

Same state, different tour.  I seem to have spent a lot of time in Kentucky.  Hmm.  Wasn’t deliberate.

Anyway.  This FAM tour was more central Kentucky-ish, and for the most part it was really good.  We had an extremely personable guide who was well-prepared, knew the region and had a sense of humour, thank Christ (see above).  If you haven’t seen the Mammoth Caves or any of the plethora of other caves down that way, I highly recommend them, kitschy though they might be … and I will more than likely expand on that experience in future.  But I’m going to tell you a little about the cuisine of Kentucky, which as far as I can determine is designed to kill you with surgical precision.

Ever have something called a Hot Brown?  This is a diabolical open-faced sandwich.  Turkey, ham, bacon, a huge hunk of bread, and enough cheese sauce to throttle the arteries of a humpback whale poured over top.  It is absolutely fucking delicious for about six bites, and after that you want to hurl at the sheer, stratospheric trans-fat content of it.  If they could do a version on one quarter of an English muffin, it would be just about perfect, I figure.

Then there’s the local version of barbeque.  Now the whole barbeque thing is an American cult, or rather a series of cults because each region has its own special way of making it.  At Billy Bob’s Belly Bustin’ BBQ (I kid you not) the barbeque sandwiches themselves are yummy, but the sides that come with it are:  fried green tomatoes.  Fried potatoes.  Fried sweet potatoes.  Fried pickles. Fried zucchini.  Fried okra.  Fried mozzarella sticks.  Fried coleslaw.  You name it, it’s breaded and fried for your nibbling pleasure, and the folks serving it up have clearly been living on a steady diet of it since 1946.  Eek.  It’s rare that I hanker for a small green salad, but this place stirred up a hankerin’.

The piece de resistance was being treated to lunch at the original restaurant of Colonel Sanders hisself.  Well, actually, his wife, Claudia, who apparently was responsible for most of the actual cookin’.  At the Claudia Sanders Dinner House in Shelbyville, one can partake of the ‘real’ recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken, which tastes a whole lot like the franchise stuff, and I guess that’s oddly reassuring.  But at a franchise KFC, you can’t get the truly unique selection of vegetables and sides you get at Claudia’s.  As I recall, there are eight, and they all come in one texture:  liquid.  You can get a puddle of creamed corn, a puddle of creamed spinach, a puddle of something called “mock oysters”, which I gather is really eggplant (well, okay then …), a puddle of squash, a puddle of … something sort of gray … and I don’t remember the rest, but trust me, teeth were superfluous.

My digestive system did not handle it well, and that’s all I’m gonna say about that.

On the upside, the whole restaurant is adorned with photos and paintings of champion Thoroughbreds and Saddlebreds, which I grooved to.

Oh, and finally, there is Kentucky bourbon.  Which I’m sorry, call me a philistine, but it’s undrinkable.  Though the distillery tours are fairly interesting.

#5:  Lethal Weapons

Not so much about the FAM tour, which was brilliant, orgasmic even (again, figuratively, since I don’t recall getting laid there).  A riding and gastronomic tour of Tuscany.  Oh, it was loverly, except for the timing.

October, 2001.

Ruh-roh.  International air travel a bit of a bother at the time.

All okay on the way there; once again I thank all the imaginary deities, past and present, for my Canadian passport. But on the way back I nearly get cavity-searched at the Frankfurt airport because I have a pair of eyebrow tweezers — the scissory-y kind — in my carry-on bag, along with the blush I hope will keep me from looking like death warmed over by the time I get off the bloody plane 17 hours hence.

I am told I am packing a lethal weapon with malice aforethought.

Actually it had never occurred to me to try plucking someone to death, but I suppose it could be done, if you’re bored with waterboarding and you like detail work.

Narrowly escaped incarceration (and German incarceration, at that) as well as missing my flight, by surrendering my very best, uber-reliable eyebrow tweezers to the Authorities.

Okay, lame ending.  But I wanted to have five.

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