Magic Carpet Rides

Even if the Turkish sun is hot, my trusty Tilley hat should do the trick, even if it’s old and battered, like its owner. Looking in the mirror, I pretended I was on camera, and gave myself a wink.
“Straighten your hat,” Brenda advised me. “You look like Jed Clampett.”

Istanbul must not have much of a welfare system, because everyone that you inadvertently make eye contact with is on the hustle like a Turkish Sammy Glick. They are certainly a likeable bunch, however. After putting our shoes back on and stepping outside the Blue Mosque, we realized that we had lost our bearings. Our confused predicament was picked up on by a personable young passerby, who we took to be a local guide. After pointing out the quickest route to the Basilica Cistern, he ‘fessed up to his personal sin. “I’m a carpet salesman,” he stated without embarrassment, not knowing that I would have felt more at ease if he had admitted he was a serial killer. I grabbed Rachelle’s arm and started scuttling off in what I hoped was the direction of the Cistern. The poor guy didn’t realize that he might as well have told me that he specialized in selling Florida swampland.

Ah, carpet salesmen. My first encounter with the beast was in 1996, when we spent a year teaching in France. Brenda thought that our February break would be best spent by driving through Spain, leaving our car in Gibraltar and taking the ferry into Morocco. It was our first foray into a developing country and it opened my eyes as to what people, especially children, could learn when they possessed the intrinsic motivation. Little boys standing no higher than your waist were pushing in front of each other in order to be your guide, each one hustling for your business in English, French, German; all of which they could speak fluently as well as their native Arabic. After days of resistance we finally succumbed to the salespitch of one establishment, whose proprietor charmingly told us that we had been such sharp negotiators that he would be forced to make up his losses on our deal from the next rich Swiss businessman who stumbled into his shop. To celebrate the deal we all sat cross-legged on the carpet and a large bowl of couscous was brought out. Excusing myself to wash my hands I descended the rickety staircase into the basement where the only facilities were an ancient Turkish toilet and no sign of any running water. I returned upstairs to find everyone digging into the bowl with their right hand. I’m not squeamish by any means, but I can’t say that I dug into that particular bowl of couscous with too much appetite.

The Basilica Cistern was cool in every sense of the term. The ancients’ sense of architecture and engineering never fails to awe me, even if the primary architect seemed to have a fetish for Medusa heads. We weren’t turned to stone, but we were conned into the very modern practice of having our photos taken in mid-thirteenth century sultan-like garb, even if I don’t particularly want to show those photos to anyone.

Last stop in the late afternoon was the Grand Bazaar. I was exhausted from a hot day spent sightseeing after an all- night flight with no sleep. I had run an eight hour gauntlet of vendors, hucksters and con-men and I was now content to throw my wife and daughter to the wolves by themselves; they seemed more immune and better equipped to deal with the hurly-burly of the marketplace than I did anyway. By now I felt as skittish and nervous around vendors as an old carthorse making a delivery to the glue factory. I waved them off, bid them good luck and plunked my weary derriere on a bench outside the bazaar where I promptly fell asleep and probably started snoring.

I came to a little while later and found a young woman seated beside me, texting. She must have noted that I didn’t look Turkish because she spoke to me in English. “You are very tired,” she said, smiling.
I wasn’t sure what was up because I was more used to being conned by men and not women. “I was on an overnight flight,” I said in response, as naïve as if I had just rode into town on a load of watermelons. She smiled, pleased to have stumbled across a pigeon ready to be plucked, and continued to text.
“What’s the name of your hotel ?” she inquired.
By now even I was beginning to catch on and with my usual sharp repartee answered, “Well, I,uh,hmm… don’t know,” was the best I could do. I wasn’t playing dumb; I truly didn’t know. I was squirming in my seat when I saw Brenda and Rachelle approaching from the bazaar. So did the uh, young lady, as she speedily rose and hurried off without so much as a fare-thee-well.
“You should have come into the Bazaar,” both Rachelle and Brenda exclaimed at the same time.
It had been a long day. “I’m hungry,” I answered, “and the only thing I want to haggle over now is supper.”

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On the Road Again

We were given the last two seats on the Air Canada flight; backing right on the restrooms.
“It smells like an outhouse back here,” Brenda remarked. Normally such an odour would bother her, but she was heading out for a five week international trip. With her single-minded intensity my wife is the equivalent of a Muslim extremist when it comes to travel. We were rolling through the Canadian Rockies seven years ago when we got the message at breakfast that a storm sewer on our street had backed up and our basement was flooded.
“I’ll get our return tickets’ date changed,” I said, jumping out of my chair. “No, no,” she retorted. “Finish your pancakes. Paul will take care of it.” Paul was our next door neighbour and Brenda saw no need to rush back when we were still scheduled for another two-and-a-half weeks and hadn’t even reached Yoho National Park as of yet.
The stewardess approached me with a large, very-full glass of red wine. (Oops – I mean flight attendant.) “We’re so sorry that we had to stick you back here… and your screen won’t be working either. So there’ll be no movies, but I hope you like red wine.” She looked at me and smiled. “You look like someone who does.” I didn’t know what that meant. “I’ll keep the wine flowing all flight.” Our daughter Rachelle had walked back to see us from her seat half the plane up. “I don’t like sitting by myself,” she exclaimed. Then she took in a deep breath. “But it stinks back here.” The flight attendant, however, had some good news. “Once we take off you won’t be smelling it anymore.”
She was as good as her word. The wine never stopped but the nauseous odour disappeared and the flight held no new surprises. But the first day after an overnight thirteen hour trip is never easy, especially with a fanatic as your travel planner. We collected our baggage and then Brenda said, “I’ll find out where we catch the subway and then the tram to our hotel.”
Despite a long night of red wine I was suddenly alert to the danger. “Jeezus Murphy,” I exclaimed, even though Rachelle doesn’t like me to use anything approaching profanity. “Why can’t we ever take a vacation like normal people ? We’re on a holiday- not a Crusade.” Two of our last three trips had been Christmas excursions to Cuba and I had grown used to the soft life. Brenda must have had almost as many libations as I because she was unexpectedly accommodating to my whining. “Okay- we’ll ask these taxi drivers.”
One of the points of ‘discussion’ in our marriage is our sometimes differing views on travel . I like it, at least I’ve always been told that it’s good for me, but I’m not a fanatic about it. My view is that we go for two weeks, three at the most, and we travel in a comfortable, accustomed manner like most sane people. Unfortunately, Brenda begs to differ. She would stay away for her whole ten week summer, which is what she used to do before she met me. And she would pay for this by pinching pennies as only a Scot with the maiden name Laird could do. (No offense intended.) I’ve seen her negotiating for a deal on bottled water with Buddhist monks in Burma. Luckily for me I’m writing this so I don’t have to include what she sees as my so-called weaknesses.
After approaching four different cabbies we had to submit to what the going rate to our hotel would be. It was a twenty five minute ride. He let us off at the bottom of a very steep cobble-stoned street. “Your hotel up there,” he pointed. “Cars not allowed.” It was a very hot morning and a very steep climb. My role on holidays is car driver and pack horse. We wouldn’t pick up our car for the first five days, so I hoisted the heaviest bags out of the trunk. “We can check in right away, but I don’t want anyone falling asleep on the beds,” my wife instructed. “We’ll be going out to see the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Basilica Cistern and the Grand Bazaar.” Rachelle looked over at me and rolled her eyes. I winked back at her. We’d have to stick together.

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Take-off to Turkey

Forgetting my sunglasses for my three week trip to Turkey was not smart, even if it was typical. My wife Brenda had packed another pair, however. She pulled them out of the backpack/suitcase that we had carried around the Camino three years earlier. “Wear these.”
Even being a beggar in this instance did not stop me from being a chooser. “I can’t wear these,” I protested. “These are ladies’ glasses. I’ll look like one of the sultan’s eunuchs.”
That was about all that I could say that I knew about Turkey; that it was once ruled by sultans, and that castrated eunuchs took care of said sultan’s harem. Oh, and that the Greeks and the Turks disliked each other intensely, going back even before the times of the Trojan horse. I had learned that during my first trip to Greece with my wife, back in 1988. We had just gotten on a bus in a hot coastal town and were setting off into the mountains. My wife and I were sitting in the front seats, opposite the driver, in order to get a prime view of the upcoming countryside. The bus driver climbed aboard and started the engine just as the last passenger, an old man in his seventies, took his seat directly behind the driver. He leaned forward and quietly whispered something in our driver’s ear. I could hear it, but of course I didn’t understand a word of the language.
The bus driver understood it, of course. Even as he pulled out of the parking spot he started yelling at the old man, sometimes turning completely around in order to make sure that the old fellow could correctly hear every syllable. We started to climb, but the driver’s anger only seemed to fuel itself as we climbed the switchbacked road which wasn’t encumbered by any guardrails. The old man sat quietly with a straight and expressionless face, completely unaffected by the Pandora’s box which he had opened. I wasn’t quite so calm. I looked over at the steep cliffs we were mounting and tried to steer my eyes away from the abyss, hundreds of feet below, where we were most likely to end up. The bus driver’s diatribe lasted a good twenty minutes before he finally calmed down and the old man had not said another word, sitting silently in his seat without any change at all to his placid demeanour.
I regained my breath, and then turned back in my seat to speak to the young guy behind me. We had talked together in the ticket line before boarding the bus. He was Greek, but could speak English quite well after spending a couple of years in the United States. “What did the old man say?” I whispered very softly. I didn’t want anything to set off another ranting rage.
The old man said, “Your mother is a Turk,” was the reply.
So that was what I figured I was getting myself into. The slaughter of the Aussies at Gallipoli during World War I, the massacre of the Armenians at about the same time, the 1970’s movie Midnight Express about two young Americans put in a Turkish prison, my own nightmarish experiences with Turkish toilets in France; the Turks should surely fire their press agent. But what I saw and experienced of the Turkish people during the past three weeks changed my outlook entirely. My trip was a wonderful experience. But there’s an old expression that I first heard when I was just a young kid and that I didn’t fully understand until I had gained some experience with the passing of time. Like most old sayings it’s probably judged too politically incorrect to blurt out anywhere within earshot of anyone under fifty years of age : “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”
To which I will add an adage of my own making: Beware of Turks selling carpets !

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Turkey

I’ m leaving tomorrow for three weeks in Turkey. Nothing will be posted during my trip; but hopefully there will be tales to tell upon my return. But not too exciting ; I want to be writing the stories, not have you reading about another unfortunate Canadian caught in an unfortunate predicament !

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A Far-Off Kingdom

It’s easy to have an opinion when you don’t have to take any responsibility for it. I’ve been dining out on that concept for over fifty years. So settle back and remember; you don’t know where I live.
Once upon a time in a land far removed from this one there used to be a school which graduated a lot of students, many of whom went on to become very successful; it was called Hard Knocks. If you’re over forty years of age then you know the drill. There was no degree to put on your office wall at the end of the ordeal, and that’s the thing. Your lessons didn’t stop when you left the classroom. Your teachers weren’t always kind and gentle and they didn’t write nice things on your report card about all the great potential you had even if you were often disruptive in class and seldom did your homework.
It started with the neighbourhood kids on the street or in the yard at recess. Your mom hadn’t phoned her friend and then driven you across the neighbourhood because there were rumours that some middle-aged pervert in a white van was cruising your street offering Smarties to stray young innocents. The neighbourhood gang probably included one overweight kid who was known as Fatso or Tubby, another boy who wore glasses and was called Foureyes and if there was a disabled youngster included he was known as Crip. Most of your time was spent running around playing Cops and Robbers or pickup sports and if you just weren’t very good at that stuff you were picked last, probably damaging your psyche for life. The littlest brother was called ‘Kid’ and he was always put in the nets or in the outfield and had to chase the ball down the street or to the far reaches of the park when it went astray. I’m just talking boys here; girls were alien creatures who were always put in separate lines at school and to tell you the truth, I really don’t know how they amused themselves. To be totally honest, I still haven’t figured them out to this day. Most women who know me could vouch for that.
Your dad had lived through the Depression and may have fought in the Second World War and now he had a house full of kids, some of whom he didn’t know what grade they were in. You didn’t have a lot of heart-to-heart chats and he didn’t have to drive you to the arena an hour before the game so that you could jog around with the team trainer in your team warm-up suits and get “mentally prepared.” In fact, there probably wasn’t an arena in your town. The hockey season started after Christmas and wound up by the beginning of March.
And so there you go. Another time and place. People didn’t wear seatbelts and bike helmets and there were things called ashtrays lying around the house and offices that were always filled with cigarette butts. I shared a bedroom with one brother for nineteen years. That doesn’t necessarily make for a close family; I haven’t seen him in over two years. Another brother died five years ago and probably some of those lifestyle patterns mentioned above had something to do with that. Even the humour was a lot more rough around the edges. What kid didn’t love watching The Three Stooges calling each other names and cuffing one another on the head. And could Jackie Gleason get away with threatening his wife and promising such repercussions as “One of these days, Alice! To the moon!” My siblings used to love listening to my father talking to service people on the phone, where he would meet up with one bumbler after another. “You don’t know very much, do you?” he would growl into the receiver, blowing cigarette smoke out through his nose. “Put me on with someone who knows something !”
The older I get, the more I understand the old man. I try to keep most of my opinions to myself; I don’t want to get committed. Like my mother before me, the older I get, the less sure of my opinions I am, but the less I care what others think of me as well. But there is always my daughter to keep me in line.
“Have you ever known me to be wrong, Boo?” I have a nickname for everyone.
She looks up from her texting for a second and rolls her eyes. But what does a kid know !

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Signposts

There is nothing new under the sun. Somebody said that, anyway. I was thinking of that expression the other day, because Ontario goes to the polls in just two days. And that led my thinking to another famous axiom, by Hippocrates: Do thy patient no harm.
So what the hell is going on here, old man ?
Politicians have been insulting each other up ever since one australopithecus hominid held up a coconut and said that it reminded him of his rival’s brain. Really, as far as that goes, we haven’t progressed too far up the evolutionary ladder. And did the new guy, who probably bashed in his rival’s head with said coconut, provide any better leadership ? The historical record just depends on whose memoirs the tribal historian got a hold of and published as his thesis at old Precambrian U.
Which brings us to June 12, 2014 in the province of Ontario. Who to vote for ?. I’ll admit that I am a small, selfish and self-serving man. Having made my living at the public trough for the past thirty one years, and now dining out on the Cadillac of public pensions, I have never, and will never, vote Conservative. It makes about as much sense as a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders. Tim Hudak saying that he will improve the economy by cutting one hundred thousand jobs seems to me like the Romans saying they are only trying to help out their conquered enemies, the Carthaginians, by first salting all of their fields.
So sorry, Tim, but I’m not voting for someone who not only will spear me in the solar plexus, but promises that it will be the first thing he will do. I like Kathleen Wynne, she seems like that patient, sincere, hard-working and well-intentioned teacher that I wish I had in Grade Four, but never did. I know you are not to blame for wasting over a billion dollars of tax-payers’ money just so that you could try to win a majority government, but Kathleen, you might have been in the room while the heist was being planned. And as for your party’s big accomplishment; the improvement in high school students’ graduation rates ? Sorry, Kathleen. I know that’s only because your administration made it impossible to fail anyone in a high school class, even if they couldn’t spell CAT without spotting them the C and the T. It’s hard to scam someone when they were in the room while the plot was being hatched.
So that leaves me with, realistically, the New Democratic Party. I know…I know. I haven’t voted for the ‘socialists’ since my naïve student days when I thought they would provide me with peaches and cream every night. And they didn’t exactly cover themselves with glory in those early years of the 1990s when they swamped the province with debt. But as a teacher, they did provide me with a good living. And before I pay off the deficit I have to feed my family.
Jennifer MacKenzie, their candidate for Ottawa Centre, came by my house last night. She could see by the voters’ list that we have four possible votes under one roof. I told her what I thought; she agreed with me ! Imagine that ! Because she is such an intelligent woman I allowed her to put an NDP sign on my lawn, the first time in my life I’ve gone public with my vote. The only other Jennifer MacKenzie poster belongs to my next door neighbour, a man who has invited in two street people, a crackhead and an alcoholic, to live with him in the past four years with, ahem, rather mixed results. This man is already in deep trouble with his neighbours for, shall we say, compromising the neighbourhood. Maybe the villagers will also now be at my house with their pickaxes and sharp-edged spades, ordering us out of the neighbourhood.
But as Hippocrates warned his brethren thousands of years ago, the Number One priority of any physician is, if you can’t help the poor devil, at least don’t harm him any further. And as the case currently stands, that’s all I look for in my elected officials as well.

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Guaranteed Long-Lasting

After 8 a.m.
You may want to start yourself up with…
A Bloody Mary
A Bloody Caesar

That’s what the breakfast menu said at the Jay Lodge Inn, I think it was called. I’m a little foggy on the name, and no, it’s not because of the two breakfast specials. I may be able to remember the name of every schoolteacher I ever had, but it’s the recent past that sometimes escapes my memory banks. My daughter and I were attending her hockey tournament at Jay Peak, of all places. It’s not just the National Hockey League who have pushed the hockey season up to St. Jean Baptiste Day, all in the pursuit of perennial profits. Every kid’s sport runs year-round now, and parents are encouraged to sign up quickly, before all spots are filled. How else will your kid make the big-time, ensuring themselves (and you) the equivalent of King Solomon’s riches ?
And just behind the Holy Grail of never-ending overflowing coffers lies our elusive search for eternal health and youth. We all love to laugh at the old travelling circus hucksters selling Snake Oil, guaranteed ‘to cure what ails ya.’ But any glance at any sort of media, from mailbox stuffers to the internet, shows that our self-delusion did not disappear with bowler hats and handlebar moustaches.
Back in the early eighties I remember reading the biography of Jim Morrison, entitled ‘No One Here Gets Out Alive’. I was in my mid-twenties then, and I thought it was a great title. Not applicable to me, of course. Your correspondent is as delusional and optimistic as the American novelist William Saroyan, who put into words what so many of us secretly believe: “I’ve always known that everyone must die, but I just think that an exception will be made in my case.”
P.J. is a young guy that I play hockey with once a week. Like many young athletic kids of today he is into working out and drinking protein shakes: low-fat, high carb, probably gluten-free for all I know. We shared a good laugh in the dressing room the other day.
“You know,” he confided to me,” when my dad was younger he worked out with the weights as well. But in those days after all the lifting they would refuel with a couple of cheeseburgers and a milkshake.” I guffawed right along with the young lad, then added, “No, that’s not exactly right. I would also have an order of fries or at least some potato chips as well.”
But the thing is, no matter what we do we always end up looking our age. The Hollywood set may have access to the latest diets, personal trainers and best skin care products in the world, but when even the best of them reach the age of fifty-five they are no longer playing the romantic lead. Okay, well, maybe they can if they are both producing and directing the movie. And even a quick glance at the aging beauty queens making the presentations at the Oscars proves that too much botox and one too many facelifts aren’t going to help land any prominent roles. Not unless you want to play the lead in the next sequel of ‘Aliens.’
There is a special locker room at the YMCA I frequent called the ‘Men’s Plus’. I’ve always avoided the place and it’s not only because of the extra charges. But because of renovations to the regular Men’s Room’s shower floor I’ve been allowed into the exclusive confines. These men are older, wealthy, prominent figures in the business and government world of Ottawa and I’ve been privileged in the past few days to see them shaving, naked, in front of the mirror.
Yikes !
So relax, everybody, relax. Even though I can’t realistically recommend the breakfast special at the Jay Lodge Inn I would probably venture to say that unless you really enjoy eating seaweed and drinking carrot juice that it’s not really going to help a lot in the long run. Have an extra glass of wine and unwind. We’re all a little too uptight as it is. Just remember to enjoy yourself and not to stray too far from the basics. Jim Morrison may have been a little excessive in some of his habits, but his basic philosophy applies to all of us.

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