Monday, September 22, 2014

His Name Was Lawrence

I used to call him Larry. I don't think he liked that.

I didn't say it to be mean. How could you be mean to a guy like him?

When Lawrence came to J.S. Woodsworth Secondary School from St. Pius X, he arrived with the disadvantage of joining a group of people who had been together for a couple of years, or longer. Friendships had been developed: cliques formed.

But that didn't seem to matter, for Lawrence. He was immediately likable, could get along with the jocks and the brainiacs, and everyone in between. He had that happy, easy-going air, was always good for a laugh.

And yet, I called him "Larry," knowing he didn't like the nickname. And yet, he never complained.

He did have other nicknames: Chiabs, Char (the second one, I only learned of this weekend). He was good with those names, embraced them as easily as his actual name.

My phone rang one weekend in the first year that Lawrence had joined my school. When I answered the call, the person on the other end said, "Hi, Ross, it's Lawrence."

"Who?" I asked. I didn't ask the question because I was trying to find out Lawrence Who? I knew only one Lawrence. But because he had never phoned me before, because I had never heard his voice through a telephone line, I didn't hear his name uttered. And so I was really asking, "Who did you say you were? I didn't catch that."

But, for a few seconds, the line went quiet. And then, in a loud, clear voice, I heard, "IT'S LARRY!"

I called him Lawrence from that day forward.

R–L: me, Stuart McCook, Lawrence Chiabai, Bruce Holmes, in an impromptu Madness pose (photo credit: David "Sandy" Blair)
While Lawrence was an integral part of my high-school circle of friends, we didn't hang out together, just the two of us. But I treated him as importantly as any other of those friends. When we finished high school, we didn't keep in touch, though we did run into each other every once in a while, and we would chat as though we had only seen each other a few days ago.

In university, we once ran into each other at a party. We chatted about old times and old friends, and shared some laughs. But the party turned ugly when a couple of drunk guys decided to fight. One of the guys was a friend of Lawrence, and so Lawrence got in close, to lend his friend a hand, should things get too bad.

Lawrence was not a big person. And everybody who knew him knew that he had health issues, and so we always were concerned for him. I wasn't much bigger than Lawrence, but I moved in behind him, ready to help, should he get involved.

Another friend of mine, Andy, stood behind me, to help me out, should I become involved. Andy was much bigger.

Luckily, the fight was diffused and the party broke up.

I'm sure that Lawrence could have talked the guys out of the fight. Lawrence had that way of forming friendships and bringing people together.

That sentiment was repeated many times at his funeral, this weekend. And it was so true. This weekend, though sad, still took some of Lawrence's magic of building friendships. I hadn't met his wife, Debra, until this weekend, but like Lawrence, she was immediately likeable. I had met his kids before: his daughter went to the same summer camp, one year, as my eldest daughter; I met his son a couple of summers ago, when my family took a train to Montreal. Lawrence and his son were also heading to Montreal, and we were only a few seats apart. I spent a half hour, chatting, laughing, and catching up. I was also grateful that we were able to connect, on Facebook, and continue to keep in touch.

The silver lining from this weekend, which was filled with tears, both sad and joyful, was that in his death, Lawrence helped me reunite with some old friends, and reconnect those bonds.

His name was Lawrence. I will never forget that, and never forget him.

Friday, September 19, 2014

France Road Trip: Day Four

Typically, today would be a Photo Friday, but because every post for the last two weeks has featured plenty of photos from my family's vacation, I'm dropping the prefix. We all know it's Friday: here are more pictures.

Tuesday morning, I awoke from my third night of camping, feeling I had rested well but that my neck had taken a beating. The muscles on the right side were stiff and sore, and it hurt to turn my head to the left. And I still had four more nights to endure in a tent.

We had a breakfast of cereal and yogurt, eaten out of plastic beer cups that we bought at an Intermarché, along with cold meats, cheese, and a baguette that we would have for lunch. We also bought a four-pack of pistachio pudding that came in glass cups, which would serve as wine glasses when we were done.

Because we weren't changing camp grounds—although, we did move our tent closer to the comfort station—we didn't have to pack up. After eating, we simply hopped in the car to move to our next exploration site.

The Loire Valley (it's kind of funny, calling it a valley, when there aren't steep-sloping hills on either side: the banks are largely flat) is famous for its vineyards and orchards, but more than anything, it's known for its many extravagant châteaux. While I have already said I'm not one for fancy castles, I acknowledge the historical significance of these estates and feel that no trip to France should be without them. We picked four potential châteaux to visit and decided to go to two of them.

The first one on our list was the daddy of them all, Chambord.

Built by King Francois I, starting in 1519, Château de Chambord is one of the most-recognized of the châteaux of the French Renaissance, with its intricate roofline and its double-helix staircase—designed by, if not inspired by, Leonardo da Vinci, who had been invited by King Francois to live in the area. Though Francois never saw the completion of his hunting lodge (he, himself, stayed in Chambord for only seven weeks over the 28 years of construction, and only for a couple of days at a time), the château saw many changes over the centuries that followed.

We spent a couple of hours examining the various floors and rooms, but the rooftop was the main attraction.

We were back at our camp site for lunch, and Lori and I stopped in Amboise to pick up another bottle of the rosé that we enjoyed from the previous night's dinner. We ate our pudding, rinsed out our cups, and savoured the wine.

The kids needed some down time after three-and-a-half days in the car, so we let them relax, nap, read, and play at the camp site while we used the laundry facilities. There was also WiFi access, so I took the opportunity to check in.

Unfortunately, the WiFi was unreliable, and my connection never lasted more than a couple of minutes, so I had to content myself with enjoying the wine and taking it easy. After all, driving is tough work.

In the late afternoon, with clean laundry freshly folded and packed away, we headed out to our second château, Chenonceau.

While this château is considerably smaller than Chambord, I found it visually unique: long and narrow, with the majority of it spanning the Cher River, it appeared more like an elaborate bridge than a Renaissance castle.

I was more fascinated with the outward appearance and spent only a brief amount of time looking inside, viewing the main bedroom and the gallery over the river on the second floor.

In hindsight, it would have been nice to see one more château, possibly Château d'Azay-le-Rideau, but once you've seen one fancy estate, you've seen them all.

We enjoyed a wonderful dinner at an upscale restaurant before calling it quits for the day. We were set to leave the Loire Valley the next day and head to what was to become my favourite region for camping.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

France Road Trip: Day Three

One of the benefits of camping, at least for someone like me, who doesn't like sleeping on the ground, is that you don't tend to sleep in. As soon as you wake up and recognize it's morning, or if your alarm goes off, you get straight up.

Last summer, when my family canoed from Kingston to Ottawa, camping all the way, I was up and out of the tent before anyone else. Some of my best photos were shot as soon as I left the tent.

But when you're doing a road trip and are moving from place to place, you want to get up and get moving as soon as possible.

We awoke before there was any light. The rain fell in almost a heavy mist, off and on through the night, and I could hear the light droplets performing a quiet drumroll on the roof of the tent, moments before the alarm on my smartphone played a soothing guitar rift.

Travelling to famous places in France means that you are going to face hoards of fellow visitors, but you can avoid the majority of them by arriving at your destination early. And on the third day of our road trip, we were hitting one of the biggest attractions along the northern coast.


The shower facilities at the Alet campground were great: lots of shower stalls and lots of hot water. It had been cool during the night, dropping as low as 6°C, and so the steam from the comfort station was apparent—the site being on a former WWII German outpost, the comfort station was built into a sunken area on the hill, not visible from ground level. We showered, dressed, and then disassembled our tent as the early morning light tried to come through an overcast sky.

The gates to the camp opened at 7:00, and we were on our way shortly thereafter, stopping in the town for coffee and pains au chocolat (we could never tire of this breakfast).

It was less than an hour's drive to Mont-St-Michel (even with me missing the turnoff), but we didn't park at the site's huge parking lot—paying 8 € for a couple of hours seemed a bit much. Instead, we parked about a kilometre away, in the north end of Beauvoir, where street parking is free. We left our car in the parking zone that was at the limit of the small town, not far from Alligator Bay Reptile Park, and walked to where the free shuttle buses take you from the site's parking lot, across the causeway, and to the edge of this 11th-century town.

Walking through the town's front gate, you transport yourself into a truly Medieval town. Sure, souvenir shops occupy many of the merchant spaces along the narrow streets, but these buildings have remained relatively unchanged for centuries.

We headed straight to the top where the abbey of St-Michel sits. The rain started to fall steadily on our way up, so we wanted to stay as dry as possible. Though it didn't look it, the weather had promised to clear by late morning.

Standing outside the main gate
Through the narrow streets

The abbey opens at 9:00, and by the time we reached the gates, we had less than a 10-minute wait to get in, and the lineup was very short: by about five minutes past the hour, we had our audio guides and were ready for our self-guided tour.

It pays to arrive early.

The tour is great, though I did find that the English narrator would tend to go on at times. I know that he was trying to inject some levity in his descriptions of the various chambers and halls, the cloister, and the crypt, but at times I just wanted to move on to the next room. Overall, however, it was well done and I enjoyed the tour.

When we had finished exploring every facet of this extraordinary abbey, my family and I decided to walk along the ramparts to get a better view of the town and surrounding area. The weather delivered, with clear skies and a hot sun, and so we decided to picnic in a small park, high above the main town gate.

We could see people lined up outside the town walls, and several more walking along the newly constructed pedestrian causeway, as shuttle bus after shuttle bus dropped off even more.

It pays to arrive early.

Leaving the town was much trickier than coming in, as the narrow streets had filled with shoppers and a long queue from the main gate to the abbey. There was precious-little wiggle room. But we had no problem catching a shuttle back to the mainland, and after a final few photos and a brisk walk back to the car, we were back on the highway, heading south, to the Loire region.

Our planned stop: Amboise, along the Loire River, between Tours and Blois. Our campsite was on an island along the Loire, directly across from the towns castle. The view, Lori promised me, was spectacular.

View from our tent
She was right.

We checked in just before dinnertime (in France, that was at 7:00 or later). Amboise was sunny and warmer than what we had experienced in the north, and the view from the tent area—further away from the town—was across from a small château (small, like Marie-Antoinette's private palace). And as I finished setting up the tent, hot-air balloons floated peacefully overhead.

Letting the kids choose the type of food we would eat for dinner, we found a nice Italian restaurant that served generous portions of comfort food: pizza and pasta. And Lori and I washed down our meals with local wine—a gorgeously fruity rosé.

Amboise: outside our restaurant

I slept like a baby that night, but awoke with a nasty ache in my neck. But I was ready to take on the day.

The story continues tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

France Road Trip: Day Two

I used to like camping. As a kid and in my 20s, I loved it. I loved how I could assemble a tent in five minutes: in 10 minutes, it would be ready for me to crawl into my sleeping back, comfortable and cozy.

In my 30s, my love for camping waned. I found it difficult to get a good-night's sleep, regardless of how thick the mattress or how warm the sleeping bag. Camping for one night—maybe two—was okay. For longer stays, I preferred the comfort of a proper bed.

By the time I reached my 40s, I no longer cared to camp. It wasn't a vacation, but something I had to endure, and I didn't do it well. I didn't sleep and would be grumpy all next day.

I'm close to 50 and I hate camping. It's torturous. No sleep and now my muscles ache.

But I agreed to camp for a week in France because I was promised that the facilities were clean and we would be right in towns. "You can wake up and walk to a café for a morning coffee and pain au chocolat," my wife promised me. Think of the savings, how we could put it toward great meals and fabulous bottles of wine.

The first night of camping was almost our last.

While the town of Honfleur was beautiful, full of history and amazing food, our camp ground was nothing special. The site itself was private, with perfectly groomed hedges partitioning each camp spot. Yet Camping du Phare lacked hot water in the washrooms (you also had to provide your own toilet paper and soap), all of the urinals were out of order, and the hand dryer was broken. The facilities were a little better than had we roughed it in the bush.

But the worst part of our stay were our neighbours. Three young Russians on the other side of our hedge partied all night, speaking loudly, laughing, and clinking bottles. I tried to shush them a couple of times, to no effect. The proprietors of the camp ground, it seemed, had no control or restriction over noise.

By about 4:00, I was struck by a migraine and rushed to get my meds down. Luckily, they worked but the noise didn't help. By 5:15, the noise next door simmered down.

"Thank God," Lori said.

"When we get up, in a couple of hours, I'm letting the girls make as much noise as they want," I said.

"Definitely," said Lori.

The bastards were up before us. I must have only been asleep for a little more than an hour when we heard the familiar voices.

The Russians packed up and were gone by seven.

While I packed up our site, Lori and the girls wandered into town to find a boulangerie-patisserie. By the time I had the sleeping bags and mattresses stuffed in the trunk, they returned with hot coffee (it was hard to find a shop that had coffee to go, they said) and fresh chocolate-filled croissants. We enjoyed them with breakfast cereal, and in less than an hour, we said adieu to Honfleur.

It was a dull Sunday, with intermittent rain and cool temperatures. A somber day, which seemed to match our first destination: Juno Beach.

The D-Day invasion of Normandy beaches is one of the bloodiest events of the twentieth century, with heavy casualties on both sides. And while some of the heaviest fighting and the heaviest losses happened where the Americans and British forces landed, the Canadians played a key role in changing the course of the war.

Growing up, I was fascinated by the Second World War. And finally coming to see where it all happened was something that meant a lot to me. To stand next to a German pillbox and look out into the English Channel, to imagine seeing the countless ships and hearing the roar of planes overhead, to hear the canon fire and know that they were all coming for you. To imagine the young Canadian men, stepping off those boats, storming the beach with nowhere to go for shelter.

We are fortunate to never have witnessed what these men experienced on that day. And we owe them for that privilege of not having to experience it. It's because of these brave men that my children were able to run and play on that very beach.

We took the time to reflect, to visit the monuments and read the names of the Canadian soldiers who died on that beach, to read the names of more who had fought and continued after the battle but who were remembered just as importantly. I promised a friend that I would find her grandfather's name plate, and I did so.

Thankfully, the rain held off for most of our visit, did not hasten our departure.

I'm a history buff, and I particularly love Medieval history. And so, being in Normandy I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see one of the greatest artifacts of that region, the Bayeux Tapestry.

I studied William's conquest of England in university and always wanted to see the tapestry for myself, but never imagined actually seeing it. At the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, the 70-metre cloth is laid out along a wall in a dark hallway. As you enter the hallway, you are provided with an audio guide that activates automatically after you pass through the doorway. Following the guide, you walk slowly down the length of the tapestry, and the whole story is told to you in vivid detail. In 20 minutes, you have observed every part of the tapestry and have the whole story told to you.

I was in heaven.

While photography is forbidden in the museum, I did manage to sneak one shot of a Norman horseman. Seeing him and seeing the weave, the detail of the tapestry is outstanding. It's amazing that this fabric has lasted so long.

The tapestry isn't the only thing in Bayeux worth seeing. The town itself is quaint, there is evidence of gratitude for the town's liberation during the allied forces invasion, and the cathedral is spectacular.

From Bayeux, we continued west, moving from Normandy into Brittany. Our goal was to drive to St-Malo, to find a camp site before it became too late (mind you, with the rain falling off and on and the kids calling for us to find an inn, I was tempted to slow down and lose any available sites).

As we approached the region, Lori called ahead to a camp ground she found, but it was already booked solid for the night. As we reached St-Malo, it seemed like we might have to find lodging, but I spied a sign for a camp ground, called Alet, and we followed the road up a hill that overlooked the St-Malo harbour.

At the camp site, Lori begged me to go in to the office to enquire about available sites. I took one of our daughters, just in case my French wasn't good enough and I needed a bilingual translator.

The young man behind the desk spoke perfect English, and as soon as he heard my awful accent, he spoke to me in my mother tongue. Yes, there were a few sites available. When I asked for a quiet spot, he smiled and said, "All of our sites are quiet. We have a strict rule."

I liked this guy. He said all the right things.

While the sites were unsheltered, we were on high ground. The facilities were clean, everything worked, and the water was hot. But the best part of the camp site was the view. From our spot, we looked down the hill toward a small castle. Looking up, we saw a stone wall with an archway, and once Lori and I had set up camp and the girls went to the site's park, where they took advantage of the swings, we took a walk through the arch.

And stepped back in time.

Tomorrow, for Wordless Wednesday, I'll show you what we found.