“How blessed am I?” or “Having awesome friends is awesome”

I first became friends with Jim and Liz by dint of being friends with their daughter Sarah.  I have written before of the delightful welcome they offered to me when I tipped up at their home in Saint John, New Brunswick, on the eve of Sarah’s wedding in August, 2008.  As a complete stranger to them, known of only via what Sarah had told them about me, they welcomed me into their home and startled my reserved, British little self with their easy going nature and generosity, though I like to think that I got into the swing of things before my brief stay with them ended.  The following year they invited me back, this time for Canadian Thanksgiving, and I spent some time at their camp on the Musquash, near to Saint John.  I have to say that, amongst other delights, I enjoyed the best nights of sleep I have known in adult life there, the most tranquil and peaceful place I have ever spent any reasonable amount of time.  Have a look for yourself (this is a photo I took in 2009)…

Lee-Anne and I saw Jim in 2011, he stayed with us for a couple of days on his way back from the Bi-Annual Balloon Festival in Chambley – need I mention that amongst his many talents and surprises he is an accomplished hot air balloon pilot – and it was really great to renew our friendship, sit and talk about his recent adventures in France, and reminisce about times shared in New Brunswick.

Last year, when I was in New York for work in October I was invited to renew my acquaintance with the Musquash, once more for Thanksgiving, but it just seemed too difficult and too expensive to get there; I was offered a 14 hour flight, via Toronto, to Fredericton New Brunswick (about an hour from the camp by road), for $850, which seemed like a lot of money to be there for 12 hours all told.  I looked into hiring a car and driving up to the camp through Connecticut and Maine, but there are strange rules about foreign nationals and taking rental cars over the border, so that idea got shelved too… (As it happened, Sarah came down to NY from Toronto and we raised a glass to all in the Musquash, so in a sense we were there).

Cut to yesterday, when after a bit of texting back and forth during the previous few days, my family and I pulled into the Citgo station in Calais, Maine and parked up our rental car next to Jims truck.  After transplanting the car seats and then the kids into the back, we loaded up and headed over the border and thence to the Musquash to spend a delightful and peaceful evening with Liz, Jim and Libby (their dog) in a magical, wonderful place where there is no electricity, no TV, no plumbing even, and all of those things seem to make the place even more perfect.  A combination of their lovely, easy-going and friendly way – and let’s face it, with our two kids running around and making noise and generally breaking the place up they must be saints to have taken so much pleasure in it all, let alone putting up with us – and the glory of the woods and the lake and the quiet and the full moon…  Once more I experienced a brief spell wherein I felt as though I had left the world behind and entered a more real one.  I cannot describe it more plainly than that.

And so my contention is that I am blessed.  Once more a fabulous, nay priceless, experience has been laid out for me all through the kindness of friends and I have no doubt that I will never forget it, nor ever be able to properly thank them for it.  Not only that, but this time they welcomed my wife and children with the same generosity and friendship that they have always shown me and the impact that it had on them was so plain for me to see that I now want to thank my friends for giving this gift to those closest to me as well.

If nothing else, this last couple of days has reminded me not only how lucky I am for this one thing, but how lucky I am to have the other friendships that I have.  It has reminded me of all the amazing things that other people have done for me out of fellowship, friendship and love that have kept me sane, alive and afforded me the chance to experience some amazing and wonderful places, things, emotions and times.

Friends are awesome, and I want anyone who knows me and knows that I call them my friend, that I not only value their presence in my life, but that I am truly thankful for it.  Let’s spend more time together when we can…

Right, must sleep – tomorrow there is more of Maine to explore!

Travels with my camera… Part II

(I realise that this is called ‘Travels with my camera…’ and as yet there are no pictures in the posts, but this __will__ change as I get my shit together… In the meantime, please look at this Flickr Set to see some pictures of San Francisco.)

So, after a night out with the boys, the day of the wedding was upon us. As previously stated my head was throbbing, keen to let me know that there had been too much Alpine in my life and I needed to get my shit together. Luckily Noel had seen this syndrome before and kindly offered me coffee and then the best anti-hangover breakfast that I have yet discovered; toasted english muffins with cheese-whizz and crispy bacon. Oh yeah, that sorted me out right good!

So that and a quick shower out of the way and I felt human again, and so I started taking pot shots (with the camera) at the various members of the bridal party as they got ready. Have you ever seen the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”? Well there is a scene in that on the day of the wedding with bridesmaids and mothers and brothers all running around, trying to get ready, and I had had the fear that I would be trying to take pictures in that kind of circumstance, but in truth it was a lot calmer. I mean there was still some of the attendant stress and nerves that probably should go along with the whole wedding day thing, but it was possible to talk to the people involved and I was able to get a few, nice, candid shots of their preparations.

It was around this point that a jolly nice fellow, whose name I have shamefully forgotten, who was up for the wedding from Halifax and had driven Noel, Dean and I home the night before, arrived outside the house with a cooler full of Alpine in his trunk / boot and I was able to finally consign the hangover monster to the pit of forgetting with the hair of the dog. If you ever get the chance to have some Alpine, take it – it really is the bomb.

Anyway, I grabbed some pictures quickly, for Noel, of him and his partner Laura, and then we were off to the races, photographing Sarah coming out of the house, then darting over to the church to photograph her arrival. At the church I touched base with Craig and we agreed on a strategy for shooting during the ceremony, which the presiding priest had said was perfectly acceptable as long as we didn’t blind him.

It was a lovely service, that would have brought a lump to the throat of any but the hardest of heart, and as an added bonus it was very short; all was done in twenty minutes. I was glad of the brevity, particularly because of the intense heat I was experiencing being in there – it may indeed have been my soul burning in response to my heretical ways, but I think it was actually because there was no air conditioning.

Next stop, after some candid shots by the church, was the beach near to Jim and Liz’s house that Sarah and Eric wanted to use for some of their wedding photos. Craig and I snapped and directed away for what must have been almost an hour in the end, trying to capture the fun, happiness and ‘Saint John-ness’ of the whole affair, which included shooting into the mist / fog. The thing that shone through all of this was Eric and Sarah’s capacity to not only have fun together, but to simply roll with things and be happy to just be together. There were minor tensions, and also some funny moments – like Sarah being toppled over on her arse by her little cousin Bridget, on the wet sand in her wedding dress – and yet through it all there was laughter and fun… It was very cool to see.

Then on a final stop before heading to the Fowlers’ home (Eric’s parents’ place) in Westfield, we headed up to the house one more time to photograph Sarah and her Dad on one of the motorcycles that he had renovated from scratch. Oh yeah, did I mention that Jim is not only a Hot Air Balloon Pilot, but also a keen biker with an amazing collection of vintage bikes that he is restoring / working on? I know, the guy is a legend…

Anyway, we got the photos and then headed out to Westfield to spend some time at the Fowlers’ before the reception at six. What can I say the house and the view are just astounding, and their hospitality was more than in line with what I was now coming to expect – there really is something about Atlantic Canada. We hung out, took some more photos and chatted to people in the glorious sunshine, eating up the beautiful surroundings, and I added two more close-up portraits of women with amazing eyes to my growing collection – these will be posted at some point in the near future…

Then it was off to the reception, to eat, drink and generally be merry. Dinner was of interrupted by the tapping of forks on glasses, to demand that the happy couple stand and kiss – much to the delight of the gathered throng. The speeches were amusing, touching and not at all over the top, and then there was a chance to hear from the Happy Couple themselves – all of which were turned into photo opportunities by Craig and I.

We made a brief excursion onto the golf course to visit a memorial bell that had been erected for Noel and Sarah’s uncle when he passed away. We went out there in a convoy of golf carts, a hilarious proposition in and of itself, and it was a real joy to see the Rogers clan happy and joking and making a positive memorial to their missing member, and it was a real privilege to be asked by them to take photos of them all gathered at the bell.

Once we returned to the club house, the cake was cut, the first dances were had and then the party began in earnest. There is no doubt that these people know how to party… There was drinking, dancing, and even fireworks in the parking lot. I was dragged onto the dancefloor by Anne, Laura and Sarah on different occasions and it soon became apparent that it was time to stow the camera and just have fun. I even garnered a little interest from a young lady at the party, but decided in the end to gently and kindly demur, as she was more than a little drunk and I could not help but think that her interest would have evapourated come morning 😉

Among the many cool people I met, I spent a long time chatting with Noel’s cousin Alan and his partner Janet(?) about music and all things cool, and buying each other drinks. I also go to catch up with Janice, Adam’s (one of the groomsmen) partner, with whom I ended up dancing to Kid Rock before I bowed out at half one with the prospect of a couple of days of traveling ahead of me. Adam and Janice confirmed their offer to run me back to Halifax the next day and let me crash on Adam’s couch, and then I jumped in the car and Jim ran Liz and I back to Saint John.

My night would have ended there, had it not been for the Alan Factor

In chatting to the others later on Sunday morning I managed to piece the following together…

After I left, the party continued at the Westfield Golf Club for at least another hour and a half, during which time the whole affair became positively Roman in its debauchery, with the ladies (including the bride) dancing on tables and everyone generally consuming a lot of beer. Once the party left the club there was more drinking in the parking lot, and at some point in there Alan had stayed with the party and Janet(?) had headed home – this will become important. Anyway, at around 0330h the remaining revellers that were due to crash at Jim and Liz’s (where I was already sleeping) piled eight-up into a cab and came back to the house. They continued to party in dribs and drabs until the sun was starting to threaten to come up and it is at this point that I re-enter the story…

I was sleeping soundly, peacefully one might say until I was roused by the following shout from the foot of my bed (please imagine a strong(ish) Atlantic Canadian accent):

“Olly! You’re sleepin’ in my Nana’s bed! Come on, get up!!”

Alan had decided that I could not possibly need any more sleep, and that I was being denied fun… I was so shocked by this wake-up that I sprung out of bed and was on my feet in seconds. I then padded, bleary eyed, into the downstairs sitting room to find Laura trying to escape and sleep on the couch, and Alan and Noel drinking absinthe and listening to really quite loud music which I was immediately amazed had not woken me. I sat up with them for about half an hour, during which time Alan also managed to drop Laura flat on her back while attempting to transfer her to her / Noel’s bed so that she would not wake up all twisted up and stiff on the couch. I managed to escape back to my own bed when Alan headed upstairs calling to Noel over his shoulder:

“Let’s go and see what your Mum and Dad are up to…”

The next morning I awoke and rose to discover that Alan had in the end climbed on top of their bed, woken them both and then fallen out losing his money and cellphone all across their bedroom floor. It was at this point that Jim had taken Alan outside to watch the sunrise and play with Libby, their lovely, if manic, spaniel.

We sat around the table downstairs, reminiscing about the night before, looking at some of my pictures, drinking coffee and eating fantastic French Toast (try it with Maple Syrup – amazing!) that Laura very kindly made, and again I was struck by the easy familiarity and friendliness of these great people who had known me for all of 48 hours. I was pleased to be able to honestly say that it reminded me of my own home life, and I could not help but be put in mind of big group breakfasts in my parents’ home when my brother or I had filled the place with friends. Sarah and Eric came back from the hotel and we got to spend an hour or so together before I was picked up by Adam and Janice and once more I was on the road. As we drove away from Saint John, back towards Halifax, I knew that I was going to come back and spend more time with my new friends there, and see more of the beautiful country that surrounds their home. If you have the chance to visit the Maritimes, do it; there is no greater welcome, no more beautiful country, and no better local beer 😉

The drive back to Halifax was filled with good conversation, good music and full-fat Coke out of the bottle – Awesome! Adam and Janice were the perfect travelling companions, the chat roaming from food to music to partying and even into areas of politics and the world at large. We even stopped off in Truro to visit Janice’s research project so that she could collect samples that she would need later in the week. She is involved in a research project about using sand filters to filter septic tank outflow, and that is as much as I really understood, but it was cool too see the research centre, which was set in the most gorgeous grounds that were lovely to just take in, in the evening sun.

We got back to Adam’s place and ate together; peperoni, brie and an excellent corn and black bean salsa, and we split a Fullers ESB (I was really not expecting to drink beer from Chiswick in Canada) and then finished off some spare cans of Alpine. I waved them off as they went to crash at Janice’s place (more convenient for their morning requirements of getting to work etc.) and set up my alarms and set about getting some sleep before being up at five to shower and catch a taxi to the airport. The only other excitement of the night was being awoken just after midnight byt he unexpected return of Shawn, Adam’s housemate, who I had been briefed might appear, but most likely was in Ontario. We briefly said ‘hello’, and he assured me that Adam had let him know I would be there, and then I went back to sleep.

Rising at 0500h was still sooo much better than staying up all night in the airport, so thanks again to Adam and Janice, and I felt almost completely human when I climbed into the cab for the ride down to the airport. The time until my flight to Edmonton flew right by and soon I was in the air once again, leaving the Maritimes behind and chasing the sun; go west my son!

The flight to Edmonton was uneventful, but that is no bad thing let’s be honest, and we arrived on schedule, giving me plenty of time to make my connection to SFO. The weird thing about entering the US from Canada is that you actually, legally enter the US before you leave Canada physically, and so the entire rigmarole of getting into the US was already dealt with before I even set foot on the plane. I spent the flight down to SF with a lovely lady called Chris who was accompanying a friend of hers to SF for a marathon later this week, and they were making a little “girls’ trip” out of it, which I thought was cool. We spoke of ships and shoes and ceiling wax, of cabbages and kings, and then it was all over and I was on the ground in San Francisco.

I left the plane, collected my case and headed out onto the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), to catch a train to Mission / 24th and to meet Kendal for the very first time. Kendal and I have been in touch, corresponding occasionally and blogging near to each other on Vox since late summer of 2006. I may have mentioned the table, chopsicks, platter (that I bought for my parents) and spanking paddle (called LoveTap(tm) ) that I have bought from her during that time, as she is a carpenter and furniture maker by passion, and when I first got to know her she was doing that full time in Hawaii. Well anyway, last year she made the decision to move to San Francisco to be with her fellah, Steve, and early this year they became engaged. I don’t think that it’s any state secret that they are planning to move back out to the islands, but for now their lives are here, living just off Mission and working in the City. Kendal told me that she would meet me in Carlos’s, a cool bar just by the BART station, and so I wandered in there, ordered a beer and waited for her to arrive…