I was talking with Harland Ryan, a childhood friend, about a trip Joyce and I were planning to Ireland. As I was starting into a very amusing story about an incident that had taken place on an earlier trip, he seemed to be dozing off. Then, suddenly, he was alert.
"Ireland," he said. "Listen, as long as you're going to be in the neighborhood anyway, I wonder if you might do me a favor?"
"What kind of favor?"
Harland wanted us to take some pictures of his alma mater, St. Francis Xavier University. "Have Joyce take them," he said. "Her pictures are better than yours."
"Where is this school you're talking about?"
"It's in Antigonish," he said.
"Antigonish?" I said. "That's not in Ireland!"
"It's an old Micmac Indian word," said Harland. "It means 'Fountain of Wisdom.' You'll love it. Many famous people have gone there. We all called it St. Ef-ex. Actually, I believe I'm quite well, and affectionately, remembered there."
The Light Dawns
The light began to dawn. "Micmac! You're not talking about Ireland. You're not even on the right continent. You're taking about Nova Scotia."
"It's right on your way," he said. "You'll love it."
No objections were acceptable. Joyce and I had been to Ireland before, but had we ever been to Nova Scotia? How could we call ourselves Americans when we had never even seen the land that was almost our seventh New England state and America's 14th colony?
What kind of a person was it who wouldn't make a brief pause in a journey to take a few snaps for a boyhood friend?
Halifax is a little like San Francisco, with maybe a touch of Edinburgh. It also seems to generate, at least for people from the States, a special kind of warmth. There is a reason.
In 1914 a munitions ship in the Harbor of Halifax exploded, killing and severely injuring thousands and exposing thousands more to a killing winter cold.
The people of Massachusetts, particularly Boston, responded immediately with shiploads of aid and expert assistance. The people of Halifax never forgot that kindness.
To those of us from below the border it almost seems as if we have been granted dual citizenship, that we're accepted not only as Halgonians but as Nova Scotian as well.
Just about everybody we talked to knew we were tourists, and nobody seemed to be able to ask us if we were from the United States without smiling. If there's anything better when you're a traveler than being made to feel welcome, I don't know what it is.
It was equally true that Nova Scotia really is New Scotland. We were driving our rental car around the city, sightseeing, when we turned a corner and were confronted by what sounded like the screeching of tires on pavement and a truck crash. I hit the brakes and sat there breathing hard. It was only a bagpipe band. We sat there till it passed.
"Isn't it wonderful?" Joyce asked. "What do you suppose they're playing?"
I almost said that it sounded to me like a bunch of guys in kilts strangling a flock of geese, but I didn't have the guts. You don't bad-mouth bagpipes or make jokes about our feathered friends in front of Joyce.
We saw some of the sights of Halifax--The Citadel, Dalhousie University, the waterfront, the covered walkways--and heard words that made us want to come back, like Evangeline, Peggy's Cove, Annapolis Royal and Cape Breton Island.
Iron Men, Wooden Ships The next morning we drove to Lunenburg, a beautiful little town along the coast, noted as one of the last centers in the Western world for the creation of fine wooden sailing ships.
A restaurant there, The Compass Rose, had a few things going for it, too. It was recommended by "Where to Eat in Canada," and would accept all major credit cards. We had a dinner of scallops only a few hours out of the sea. The two of us ate about five pounds of them.
As I overdosed on a creation called "Chocolate Torte Charlotte" with raspberry cream, one of the other customers leaned over from another table.
"You know, of course," he said, "that you've just eaten over a lethal amount of deadly poison."
The information, along with his Bela Lugosi-like smile, were starting to shut down all my digestive systems when his wife explained. "He thinks that's funny. The floor here is made of hemlock. I think it's an old ship's floor."
"Deck," the man corrected. "Technically," he went on, "you've just eaten over a ton and a half of the stuff. It's death on bugs, ship's worms and ancient Greek philosophers."
He reminded us that Socrates' death sentence required him to drink a potion made of hemlock. Well, now, if that kind of information doesn't beat brandy and a cigar to sweeten your stomach after a big meal, I just don't know what does.
"Antigonish" is not Micmac for "Fountain of Wisdom." It means "The place where branches were torn off the trees by bears gathering beechnuts." And it wasn't close to Halifax. In fact, it wasn't close to anything at all except Harland's alma mater, St. Francis Xavier University.