Saturday, 18 June 2011

Brandon - The Friendliest Place In The World?

Some of the places we've visited (and are still to visit) are absolute must-see locations, e.g. Niagara Falls, New York, Ben & Jerry's. But North America is a big place and, even though we're only covering a tiny part, some of the distances between the "must-sees" have been too big to cover in a day. So to break the journey into manageable chunks we also needed to stop in places we'd never heard of, but we always tried to find something of interest at each destination.

Thanks to the power of the internet we discovered that, on Saturday, Brandon, a small town in Vermont was celebrating its 250th birthday as well as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War (who knew that word even existed). This felt like a great opportunity to really get to the heart of small-town America. It also provided an opportunity to sample another American institution, The Motel. We've stayed in Hotels, Bed and Breakfasts and a log cabin, but having seen so many movies featuring a Motel (perhaps most famously, Hitchcock's Psycho), it felt like we needed to experience one ourselves.

So on (yet another) glorious sunny day, we arrived in Brandon and found a group of men dressed in Civil War uniforms and ladies in big dresses and bonnets.

Various old houses were open to the public and volunteers were showing people around and pointing out interesting features. One of these volunteers showed us a room where, allegedly, Martin Cruz Smith wrote the novel Gorky Park. We got chatting, established that we'd come all the way from England to honour the town's birthday, and he encouraged us to check out some of the other events that were happening today - in particular, the silent film screening that evening. We'd already considered this but he spoke so enthusiastically about it that we were now definitely going to give it a go.

As we left the final house on the tour, we were briefly transported back to Niagara - the sky had darkened, we'd heard distant rumbles of thunder and then a downpour refilled my poor shoes (the ones which had only just dried out after the Maid Of The Mist). We ran to the Town Hall and, despite looking like refugees who had crawled across the Atlantic sea-bed in search of freedom, we were ushered in to a talk being given on Vermont's part in the Civil War. This included incidents from Gettysburg, which we could picture vividly having already visited the famous battlefield. The speaker concluded with the Gettysburg Address which felt quite moving and served to further enhance the feeling of pride and all-round-American-ness, and by the sound of it, had been enough to bring a halt to the rainstorm outside too.

Feeling even more knowledgeable about the Civil War, it's time for something a bit more practical. We've been on the road for a couple of weeks now and two pairs of socks can only take you so far, so we decide to take advantage of the local launderette (laundromat?). We're about to head there when we realise we're being followed. "Is that my English friends?" - It's "the silent movie guy" we met in the earlier house tour. He asks if we're heading over to the square to hear the singing. We weren't, but it seems rude not to now he's mentioned it so we accompany him to swell the small crowd which is standing in front of the church, waiting for a choir of 250 locals (at least that's how many they'd hoped to recruit) to burst into song.

Our new friend introduces himself as Gary, and then introduces us to his wife Nancy who's one of the choir members. We talk a little about the town and as the music starts he explains the background to some of the songs we're hearing. There are evocative songs from the Civil War followed by rousing patriotic standards and even a song about Brandon itself, written by the conductor of this musical extravaganza.

I feel a huge sense of pride as the small brass band begins to play God Save The Queen, but to my dismay, they've changed the words to something else - this has nothing to do with The Queen being saved by God - this is treason! I shall be writing an extremely strong letter to the editor of the Brandon Times about this insult. I sense that Gary realises how upsetting this is for us and tries to smooth the whole incident over - I choose to keep a stiff upper lip and not jeopardise the "Special Relationship".

We end with highly charged and emotional rendition of The Star Spangled Banner and the audience join in with their hands pressed firmly against their chests. Lumps appear in our throats and for a moment, Justine and I feel proud to be American, until we both realise that we don't know any of the words!

Some of the singers taking part in Brandon's 250th birthday.
It's time to return to the laundromat to collect our washing. As she's unloading the contents of the machine into a big basket, Justine is shocked to hear the now-familiar voice of Gary. He's followed us here… is he stalking us?

Well apparently, he and Nancy have had an idea - why don't we come back to their house, put our washing in their dryer, they'll get pizza, and then we'll come back in to town for the silent movie. Now if this happened in England, I would immediately assume that they were deranged axe-murderers (or worse) and run screaming to the authorities. To be honest, if someone in a laundrette in England even spoke to me, I'd be highly suspicious. But hey, we're on "vacation", it's been a heart-warming day, and they seem nice enough - what's the worst thing that could happen?

So while Gary heads off to buy pizza, Nancy rides with us in The Black Slug and shows us to the way to their lovely house, tucked away in the woods - you'd sure find it hard to call for help around here if something bad happened, like an axe murder for instance.

The biggest pizza I've ever seen arrives and we all eat, drink and chat about stuff. It turns out that Gary is a world-renowned (I hope he won't mind me saying that) conservation biologist who has had books published on the subject and has travelled the world lecturing. I have an 'O Level' in Biology (grade 'C'), so as you can appreciate, we had a lot in common. (I probably would have got a grade 'B' if our teacher hadn't left to pursue a career as a TV weatherman but hey, that was a long time ago - I'm over it now).

The friendliest people in the world?

After we finish the excellent pizza, Nancy retrieves our dry washing from her laundry room (I'm wondering if it would be rude to ask her if she'll iron it all - that's probably going too far isn't it?) and we all drive back to Brandon Town Hall just in time for the Buster Keaton double-bill.

Apparently this has become a monthly event - the Town Hall is turned into a makeshift cinema, a silent movie is projected onto a screen on the stage and a chap called Jeff Rapsis from New Hampshire comes along with his keyboard and provides a live music score. It's fantastic. The first film is a short slapstick-style affair from Buster Keaton's earlier work, but there are some very clever touches - Keaton manages to appear on screen as multiple characters at the same time - that would be easy using today's CGI techniques, but this was from the earliest days of cinema.

The second film is called The General and is based on an incident from the Civil War, in which a railroad locomotive (The General) was stolen from the Confederates by the Unionists. It's a much more sophisticated feature-length offering with a really engaging story. All the stunts and "special effects" had to be performed live, and you had to keep reminding yourself of that as you watched. One scene included a whole train being driven onto a collapsing bridge and plunging into the river and a second take would have been out of the question. It was a great atmosphere - the hall was full and everyone laughed out loud or cheered in response to the film. I could now understand why Gary had been so keen that we attend - we enjoyed it way more than we'd hoped we would.

But the most impressive part was the soundtrack - as the opening credits rolled the orchestral score burst into life and I had to keep reminding myself that the music was being created live by one man at the front of the hall. And I'd expected it to be a kind of Keystone Cops jangly-piano thing, but it was a much more modern film score that wouldn't have sounded out of place alongside a contemporary thriller, and the guy just kept playing for the duration of the film - I'd have been exhausted after 5 minutes!

At the end, Gary and Nancy took us up to the front to introduce us to the one-man orchestra and we promised to send more people over from England for next month's screening. Then we said our farewells to our new friends from Brandon, satisfied that they had not turned out to be axe murderers - just really nice people.

Or were they? We return to the Brandon Motel, it's dark, and eerily quiet. We tiptoe into our room. The ceiling fan spins slowly, and could do with a drop of oil - it makes a scraping sound, a little reminiscent of a large knife being repeatedly sharpened. I'm sure I hear a noise coming from the bathroom and gingerly push open the door. I sense that there's something behind the shower curtain. Suddenly my mind conjures up an image of Gary and Nancy standing in our shower, armed with an axe, or a machete, or both. I snatch back the curtain… thank goodness… it's just Norman Bates!

Friday, 17 June 2011

At The Drive In

We're spending our first night in Vermont with llama farmers in South Hero. I'm not making this up. South Hero is situated on an island in the middle of Lake Champlain and it's such a quiet and picturesque setting - the only sounds you hear are the water lapping at the shore, the birds singing and the llamas… erm… a-llarming?

Two snooty llamas
The couple who run the farm also raise pigs, make their own maple syrup and wool from the llamas - just to be clear, it's the wool that comes from the llamas not the maple syrup.  Having said that, if bees make honey and earwigs make chutney, who knows what llamas are capable of!

One snooty llama (bottom left) and a big sky
As we head out for the evening and ask for a key for the front door, we're told that we won't need one. It seems it's so quiet around here that they don't bother to lock the doors - it feels like we've travelled back to "the good old days", which is where we're off to next.

We've never been to a drive-in movie theater (sic) before - I don't know anyone who has (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong). The north of England is not famed for it's drive-ins so the opportunity has never arisen. Well, it arose tonight in the shape of the Sunset Drive-In in Colchester (Vermont, not Essex).

We "drive-in" at about 8:15pm and the friendly man in the booth hands us a little leaflet detailing the films that were playing on each of the 4 screens. We choose our movie, pay our $15 and, after thanking us for choosing his drive-in, (I think he actually was the owner) he directs us to screen 4.

Screen 4 is a big flat piece of corrugated iron, painted white. In front of it, people had already parked on a series of grass ridges - we select a spot between a couple of very large 4x4 SUVs.

On an open bit of grass over to the left, a man is throwing a ball to his son, who is catching it in his baseball glove. Then two couples roll up in a station wagon and lay blankets on the bonnet and roof. They proceed to spray themselves liberally with insect repellent before taking up positions on the car, the lads on the roof, the girls on the bonnet.

We tune the radio in to the frequency shown on our leaflet and are greeted with the sound of Sunset Radio. The Everly Brothers fill the car with their close harmony wholesomeness and are followed by a spot of Buddy Holly. It already feels like an American movie, and the American movie hasn't started yet. If only The Black Slug was an open-top Chevy and my hair was long enough to style into a "quiff".

In need of food, we walk across to the snack bar (shed) where we join a queue (should that be a line?) of families who are ordering burgers, hot dogs, popcorn and pretzels. These people are probably very nice and friendly but everyone looks kind of tough, no-nonsense, monster-truck-wrestling types to me and I'm careful not to make any sudden movements that might result in a brawl or a shootout. We order burgers, fries and onion rings and return to the safety of The Black Slug.

Just before sunset, the movie begins (we've chosen to see Super 8). Watching a film on a massive sheet of corrugated iron, thorough your windscreen while the soundtrack plays from your car radio works surprisingly well. The burgers and fries are kind of McDonaldsy but suit the mood. I've bought 12 bottles of beer from the Long Trail Brewing Company - I'm not intending to drink them all, but one or two go down well while Jus enjoys a cream soda. The fireflies dance around between the cars and Steven Spielberg keeps us entertained.

When "Super 8" has finished we have the option of staying for the second film "Thor" but quite honestly, going back to the 50's is quite tiring and it's getting late, so we return to South Hero and climb under our handmade patchwork quilt. We decide we quite like "the good old days".

Chilling Out With Ben & Jerry

As we cross the border back into the US of A, the only French thing is the name of the state - Vermont which is just as green and mountainous as you would think.  To satisfy my inner child, we take a trip to the Ben & Jerry's factory at Waterbury.

The very sight of the place is enough to make you smile - with oversized cartoons and bright colours (or should that be colors?).  As we purchase our tickets, the guy asks us,  "Why do cows wear bells?"…  "Because their horns don't work of course!!!"

The tour begins with a short Moo-vie which tells us the Ben & Jerry's story - this moo-vie contains a number of other bad cow puns. Then we're taken to a viewing platform which allows us to look down on to the factory floor and as our guide explains the process, we can see the various pipes, conveyor belts, pumps, vats and the people that make it all work. A guy who's looking after the machine that puts the lids on the tubs looks up and waves - they're either really happy in their work, or drugged up to the eyeballs for our benefit.

Finally, we're taken down to the Flavor Lab (notice I've got bored of correcting the spellings), where new and exciting blends are created. And it's here that we get what we've all been waiting for - some ice cream. Today's new flavor (sigh) is "Late Night Snack" and it was inspired by Jimmy Fallon of "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" fame (no, we'd never heard of him either - I suspect he's like Jonathan Ross, but not as highly paid).

Late Night Snack is basically vanilla ice cream with caramel and, wait for it… ready salted crisps covered with fudge. Yep, fudge covered crisps - and I thought we couldn't beat chocolate covered bacon.

But it's really quite nice, the saltiness of the crisps offset by the sweet juxtaposition of the fudge, perfectly balanced with the ice cream creating an explosion of flavours and sensations. Sorry, went a bit Oz Clarke there, but it was good.

We finished the tour with a few more cow gags.

Q: What do you call a cow that's just given birth?
A: De-calf-inated.

Q: What do cows have for breakfast?
A: Moosli.

Q: Why do milking stools only have three legs?
A: Because the cow has the udder.

Anyway, time to Moo-ve on!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Bienvenue à Montréal

As we leave Gananoque and head northeast along the edge of the St Lawrence river, our radio roulette game takes an alarming twist. As "91.5, Moose Creek Classic Hits" begins to falter and then disappears, we press the seek button and are confronted with the unthinkable - French pop music.

Now it is a well known fact that the French can't do pop music - in general it sounds ridiculous - like something that Antoine de Caunes would have introduced and then danced awkwardly to at the end of Eurotrash. So the thought of wall-to-wall Charles Aznavour makes me shudder. We notice that the road signs are suddenly all in French, including stern looking matrix signs warning us that "Rue De La Ponte Du Marie-Claude n'est passable" whatever that means, or ordering us to "Fermez La Vache". This is outrageous - they should be speaking the Queen's English - we didn't come all this way to be insulted.

As we approach Montreal, the "Eurotrash Channel" begins to break up and we flick up to the next one which is in English. Which is good, because we're hitting Montreal in the rush hour and the regular traffic reports brought to us by our two chirpy drive-time presenters (Ken and Donna if I remember correctly) will prove invaluable. Or at least they would, if all the road and bridge names weren't French and weren't pronounced at breakneck speed (in order to be able to squeeze in the vital information that this traffic report had been brought to us by Zak's Tattoo and Piercing Parlour, or something). As we continue to speed through Montreal at 0.000005 mph, (even The Black Slug can cope with this speed) Ken and Donna continue to reassure us that it really is as bad on the roads as it appears to be through our windscreen, and that the temperature really is as hot as it feels.

The hotel we've booked in Montreal (the Chez Swann) is very cool and contemporary. In fact it's so cool that it doesn't feel the need to display any outward indicators that it is in fact a hotel; so when the sat-nav finally announces we've reached our destination, Jus has to go wandering up and down the street asking if anyone knows where it is. Meanwhile, I sit in The Black Slug, hoping that I'm not violating some old Montrealian by-law which forbids english speaking drivers from parking on the left on a Wednesday. Eventually we find it - glass doors open into a long concrete corridor with some big piece of art and a reception desk with a couple of MacBooks sitting on it, and an arty girl with bleached hair behind it. It just looked cool (but then I can be very superficial!)

All the trendy types seem to be whizzing around on bikes, so, to get a feel for the city, we hire a couple of retro-urban-roadsters and take advantage of the large number of cycle paths (including some impressive two-lane bike motorways).  We then spend the next couple of days pretending to be cool, arty kids living in this cosmopolitan place.

We browse the old city which is lit by gas lamps at night, wander through leafy parks, and take a brief look at the "underground city" which is a bit like the London Underground but with shops and hotels and museums and apartments as well as the trains.

To really satisfy our arty pretensions, we wander into L'Hotel Montreal which houses a collection of pop art originals from the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Damien Hirst and even a David Hockney (though we've got loads of them in Saltaire). I'm feeling so arty that I'm almost getting used to the strangeness of being in North America, but having to greet everyone with a cheery "bonjour" or thank people with a badly pronounced "merci".

Montreal. Frencher than a baguette being carried by a man called Pierre with onions round his neck?
Montreal seems to be a big festival city and they frequently close off many of the streets to accommodate them (which probably explains why the traffic congestion is so bad). We've arrived during "FrancoFolies" which, according to the organisers, is the biggest music festival in the French-speaking world. No sign of Charles Aznavour though, I may have to revise my opinions on French pop.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Thousand Island Distressing

What goes well with Ice Wine? Well it's a dessert wine (or pudding wine as the northerner in me would rather call it) so something sweet would do nicely. And as we walked throughout Niagara On The Lake's small high street we saw a display of chocolate toffee apples in the window of a chocolatierisserie (if that's the right thing to call it).

Inside was a huge array of hand made chocolates, popcorn with interesting coatings and lots of toffee apples and "marshmallow kebabs" dipped in chocolate and coated in sprinkle-stuff. As with many situations we've found ourselves in on this trip, we felt a bit out of our depth by the language differences. Yes, it's English, but there are words we don't use in the same way and it can lead to confusion. So amongst the array of sugary delights in here we had clusters, brittles, bombs, barks and moguls and we weren't sure what we wanted. We naively asked the girl behind the counter about the bacon moguls, imagining it was some quirky Canadian joke, but no, the bacon moguls are little discs of chocolate with bits of bacon inside. Chocolate… coated… bacon…?!? She persuaded us that they taste delicious so we bought some (because we're daft like that).

OK, so we've tried it, and it tastes of bacon which has been covered with chocolate, but it somehow seems to kind of make sense, although I'm not sure it was what the Pilliteri Winery would have suggested to accompany their unique sweet ice wine.

But while I'm happy to try one Canadian delicacy, there's another one which we keep seeing but which I won't be trying. Poutine is, according to Wikipedia, "a dish consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds, covered with brown gravy or sauce and sometimes additional ingredients". So, cheesy-chips in gravy, but give it a French sounding name and they think they'll get away with it.

Wikipedia goes on to say that "The dish may include additional ingredients such as lobstermeat, rabbit confit, caviar, and truffles". So cheesy-chips with caviar, in gravy! The next time any of my French colleagues says anything derogatory about English food….

Anyway, we've arrived in Gananoque which is on Lake Ontario in the Thousand Islands region, so named because there are well over one thousand islands. This is where Thousand Island Dressing was created and all this food talk is making me hungry. So we push the boat out (or push the boot oat if you're Canadian) and try "fine dining" at the Gananoque Inn. I'm thinking it's going to be good as I order the duck breast with ginger marmalade and the waiter informs me that the chef would suggest it is cooked medium-rare. Well the chef probably know what he's talking about so I'll go with the recommendation.

I'm not sure the chef did know what he was talking about, and if it costs the best part of forty Canadian Dollars to produce some dry slices of overcooked duck breast and a couple of microscopic drops of jam then frankly, I'm going to stick to my chocolate covered bacon chunks!

Gordon Ramsey - if you happen to be reading (you never know) then this place is screaming out for you to come and sort oot. Nice view though.

A Short Guide to Toronto

Avid readers (my Mum) might remember a post from our World Tour where we managed to take in the city of Los Angeles in a mere 24 hours. Well we needed a new challenge, so we've beaten our previous best and ticked off Toronto in 24 minutes.

Now I must point out that this is no reflection on Toronto. It may well be a lovely city, worthy of spending days, if not weeks to appreciate everything it has to offer. But we simply didn't have any time to spare on the journey across the top of Lake Ontario. However, seeing as we were so close, we decided to drive through it rather than around it, and once in the middle we thought we might as well make a brief stop. So, for armchair tourists with short attention spans, here is my 24 minute guide to Toronto;

It has a car park.
It has a really big tower.

Hope you find that useful.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Long And Wine-ding Road

Niagara On The Lake is surrounded by huge vineyards and over the years, more and more wineries have opened up, some of them creating a particular regional speciality - ice wine. Ice wine is made from grapes which have been allowed to freeze on the vine (temperatures get chilly round here) and the resulting wine is supposed to have a very intense sweet flavour - we needed to try some.

Fuelled with enthusiasm for all things cycle related, we hired a tandem and started our training for next year's Toronto-to-Niagara event with a tour of the wineries, stopping occasionally to sample their isotonic sports wine.

We're becoming old hands at the whole tandem lark, and the 30 odd miles we covered were mainly on flat roads, so didn't pose too many problems. The only real challenge we faced was one we'd never encountered before. Long, straight, flat roads quickly start to feel quite dull, and this area is big on long straight flat roads. We got to a point where even Jus was starting to hope for a bit of a hill, or the odd hairpin bend just to give us something different to think about.

But the wine was good, the weather was perfect (again) and our B&B has a beautiful garden with a hot tub that you could live in. Mmmmm, time for another "sports drink" I think.

Elite athlete recovery facility, Niagara On The Lake. Hot tub on top deck!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Niagara Crawls

We left Niagara Falls (USA) and drove across the Rainbow Bridge to enter Niagara Falls (Canada). After facing more questions from a trained-to-be-miserable border guard ("look this place is practically ours, you've got The Queen on your money… just let us in"), we drive along the other side of the river and can see the falls from a new angle. This is a better overall view in many ways, but the surroundings aren't as nice as on the US side and we're glad we chose to stay over there last night.

But the traffic is absolutely unbelievable. We're sitting in a jam which stretches all the way along the promenade (or whatever you call the pavement alongside one of the natural wonders of the world) and we're wishing that we'd grabbed a parking space we saw just after we crossed the border. As we crawl along, with The Falls to our left, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary Sunday lunchtime at Niagara. There's loud music pumping out of a serious PA system up ahead, while a guy booms encouragement down a microphone - "here's number 2182, it's Dave, give him big hand… good job Dave"

It appears that we couldn't have arrived at a better (or worse) time as this is the finish line for the annual "Ride To Conquer Cancer", a 2 day, 200 mile or 200 km (depending on how energetic you feel, and also where you stand on the whole metric/imperial political divide) cycle ride from Toronto to Niagara Falls. There's a fantastic atmosphere, thousands of people and it feels quite emotional to see cyclists, many in little team groups, coast across the finish line cheered on by family and strangers.

Our first night in Canada is spent at a B&B in Niagara on the Lake (a very pretty little town right on the edge of Lake Ontario, about 30 mins drive from Niagara itself). Over breakfast we meet a couple who took part in the event. They set off from Toronto, having loaded their luggage into a massive truck, cycled the 100 miles to Hamilton, camped overnight, along with the other 4500 participants and then resumed on Sunday morning to do the second 100 miles to Niagara. I did a 100 mile cycling event last year, but believe me, if it's a choice between finishing at a leisure centre car park on the outskirts of Bolton, or cheered on by thousands as you glide past Niagara Falls, I know which one I'd choose.

What a finishing line
But I may have been a little over-enthusiastic when I told them I'd love to do the event next year and they gave me their e-mail address so we could get in touch and they'd help us sign up.

Cliffe… Adam… Arms... Any of you up for joining "Team Crabsticks" next year?