Friday 26 July 2019

Review: Come from Away, Melbourne

I first heard of this musical at a business lunch, of all things. As it’s set in Newfoundland, the marketing body Destination Canada invited the producer along to an event where reps from Canada’s different provinces sing their praises to journalists.

Newfoundland’s probably the least known province to Aussies, or close to it, as it’s so remote. But that remoteness lies at the heart of this musical, which tells the story of what happened in a small Newfie town after the events of 11 September 2001.

Gander once had a big and busy airport, used as a refuelling stop by aircraft in the early days of trans-Atlantic flight. But as commercial planes became powerful enough to leap that ocean in a single bound, its airport slipped into irrelevance.

Until September 11. When US airspace was shut down after the terrorist attacks on New York City, dozens of passenger planes in the air were ordered to land at Gander, whose runways were big enough to cope with most aircraft.

It soon became obvious that their passengers were going to be stuck in Gander for an indeterminate number of days. As the town instantly doubled in population with these thousands of newcomers, crisis loomed – until the people of Gander leapt into action, housing the stranded, making them meals, inviting them home, even taking care of the animals that had been overlooked in aircraft cargo holds.

It’s a heartwarming true story, set to a background of tragedy, and it was this example of human generosity that inspired Come from Away’s creators to set it to music. I would never have considered that genre for a drama like this, but it’s perfect – the music and choreography perfectly brings out both the pace of those days and the emotions of all involved.

To the production’s credit, it isn’t at all syrupy. There’s a lot of positivity in the dialogue and lyrics as the startled townsfolk and dazed passengers get to know and help each other, but there are also darker undertones that anchor the story to reality.

These include suspicions levelled at Muslims among the passengers, tensions within frayed relationships, worries about loved ones far away, and always the horror of what has happened in New York. This last factor is crystallised in the form of a woman whose son is a firefighter in NYC, she having no idea of whether he’s alive or dead.

The cast do a marvellous job of speaking, singing, dancing, interacting, at a nonstop pace which reflects what it must have felt like to be in Gander for those four fraught days. Actors play multiple roles, switching from passengers to townspeople to officials via simple but effective changes in clothing or headwear.

There’s some lovely overt humour, including that of the townswoman whose reports to the audience always involve her in an imaginary romantic entanglement with whatever sexy pilot or doctor or teacher she’s been dealing with. There are also laughs from the mild collision of small-town ways with those of the wider cosmopolitan world, re food and sexuality and language.

In the end, Come from Away is a homage to the better side of humanity, while never overlooking its worst impulses. In its portrayal of a crisis that left no one unchanged by the strange interlude they spent in the middle of nowhere in the aftermath of destruction, it’s a potent message of hope and a great mood enhancer.

Come from Away is now playing at the Comedy Theatre, 240 Exhibition Street, Melbourne, Australia. For details and bookings, visit the Australian production’s website.

Friday 19 July 2019

Food and English in Zürich, Switzerland

On this trip I was hosted by Switzerland Tourism, and travelled via the excellent Swiss Travel Pass.

Something interesting I noticed on my recent visit to Switzerland was the prevalence of English language signage. Because the country famously has four official languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), I expected that signs would often be in multiple translations.

In reality though, as I travelled through the mainly German-speaking area of Switzerland, I rarely saw signage in any but two languages: German and English. In fact I was told by a local that English is so well-established as a lingua franca that a Zürich businessperson who phoned a counterpart in Geneva would probably speak in English.

I guess if you're a country that already has four languages, it's not much of a hassle to throw a fifth into the mix.

This was brought home strongly to me at the annual Street Food Festival held under a big top in the ex-industrial-now-hip neighbourhood of Zürich West. The name of the festival itself provides a strong hint at how widely English is used in Switzerland, but as I walked around the stalls I saw English signage all over the place.

Have a look:

Things have certainly changed since I first travelled to Europe in 1990, when you'd have to make an effort to learn some of the local lingo of non-English-speaking countries you'd visit. No wonder we Anglo-Saxon types are so lazy about language learning nowadays.

The Street Food Festival has closed for 2019, but keep an eye on its website for 2020 dates.

Friday 12 July 2019

Glaciers and the Red Bus in Montana, USA

In 2009 I took my first-ever trip to the USA, courtesy of the Montana Office of Tourism and Virgin Australia. My resulting newspaper article about a visit to Glacier National Park never went online, so here it is for your enjoyment...

Everything about Montana is big, from the towering Rocky Mountains in its west to the sprawling plains of the east.

And up the top of its “big” list are the glaciers and peaks of Glacier National Park, a spectacular spread of craggy mountains, glacial lakes and huge chunks of ancient ice nestled between them.

“It’s incredible to first timers,” says our driver and tour guide Jana Grindheim. “People don’t know about Glacier, it’s not as famous as Yellowstone. But it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen, and they’re just amazed at the mountains.”

As we progress into the park past the waters of Lake McDonald I begin to see what Jana means, via glimpses of enormous sharp-edged peaks to the northeast. The evocatively-named Going-to-the-Sun Road may be flat and spacious now, but soon it’ll be transporting us upward, past rugged mountains on one side and a sheer drop on the other.

Though its namesake glaciers are shrinking as the climate changes, those that remain are diverse and magnificent, especially within the Many Glacier Valley in the park’s east.

However, the mountain scenery alone is sensational enough to prompt a visit, and we’ll be getting a full dose of it as we traverse the entire Going-to-the-Sun Road from Apgar to St Mary.

The road is a story in itself, an epic construction project completed in 1933.

It borrows its name from a mountain along its route, named from a Native American Blackfeet legend about a deity who came from the sun and taught them how to hunt, then returned home after leaving his image on the slopes.

We’ll be hugging the narrow road in a vehicle that’s a tourist attraction in its own right, one of the park’s fleet of Red Buses. These bright red open-topped vehicles, resembling an extended car with a fold-back roof, each hold 17 people and have been used for tours of the park since the mid-1930s.

With its sleek lines and a radiator grille that looks like it was swiped from an art deco limousine, our Red Bus is a very stylish way to explore Glacier. On top of all that, Glacier is the only national park to still be operating these classic vehicles, as other parks retired their fleets decades ago (take that, Yellowstone).

The Red Bus drivers are a special breed are known as “jammers”, a name inherited from the days when the gears of the vehicles would grind and jam as they hauled their passengers up the slopes.

Our jammer for the day, Jana, is fond of her daily grind. “I get to drive on the beautiful red buses that everybody loves,” she says, “And I get to see Glacier National Park, the most beautiful place in the world, every day.”

Sounds like a recipe for job satisfaction to me. And as we pass beyond Avalanche Creek and its picturesque boardwalk through the cedars, the landscape opens up, we begin to climb, and I see what she loves about the place.

For it is grand - there’s no other word for it. Beyond the cedar forest the mountain slopes stretch high above us, bare and craggy as they reach sharply defined peaks, tinged purple in the midday heat.

The most startling formation is the Garden Wall, a long narrow ridge of sharp, rocky projections streaked with horizontal bands of colour. It’s so narrow that in places it would be possible to sit astride it, with legs dangling along each slope.

There are also signs of how powerful Dame Nature can be when she rubs her hands and gets down to work. Pausing the bus, Jana points out a massive trail of damage down the slope above us, where dozens of trees lie fallen.

This was the work of a mighty avalanche that plummeted through some time during winter, blocking the road; because it’s closed during the icy months, no-one saw it happen.

To the west is the beautiful Heavens Peak, at 2739 metres one of the higher mountains in the park, with a dusting of snow despite the Indian Summer warmth.

We’re reminded again of the park’s lofty snow and ice as we pass the Weeping Wall, a section of rock constantly flowing with run-off from the glaciers above.

Finally, having passed a profusion of impressive peaks and peered down into distant tree-lined valleys, trying to not think too hard about the tiny stone wall stopping errant vehicles from plunging to their doom, we arrive at Logan Pass.

It’s the highest point on the road and a natural spot for a break, with its visitor centre and sign marking the location of the Continental Divide, which runs right through the park. A geographical curiosity, this line divides North America into two sections from which all water flows downhill toward either the Pacific or the Atlantic, depending on which side it falls.

Logan Pass is also a rest stop along the park’s numerous hiking trails. While the rest of our group troops off to have a look at the neighbourhood, I linger by the bus to ask Jana about hiking. Being Australian, however, I’d be a little nervous about the idea of encountering bears along the way. Has she ever seen any?

“Oh yeah,” she says casually. “In the Many Glacier Valley, just over these mountains, there are a lot of grizzly bears. By the Many Glacier Hotel you can see them, not ten feet away.”

I’d rather be viewing them from a bit further away than three metres, but Jana is reassuring. “I’ve never had any dangerous situations with bears. Usually when you see them they don’t care about you, unless you scare them.”

Making a mental note not to scare any bears, I return to the topic of hiking. Does she have a favourite walk?

“I have several,” she nods. “There’s one, Gunsight Path, which is a 20 mile hike with a backpack. It’s incredible. You hike up past lakes, snowfields, waterfalls, and camp at Lake Ellen Wilson. It looks like an infinity pool, dropping off the edge of the earth.

"You also have an option to continue to a glacier. The other one you can do from here is the Floral Park hike, and you walk across Sperry Glacier on the way. There are rivers and crevasses and it’s amazing.”

It’s almost an anticlimax to get back into our old Red Bus and drive east for the descent to St Mary, sighting the Jackson Glacier as we go.

But I do get a small adrenaline rush when we briefly leave the bus to walk through the trees to look at the tiny Wild Goose Island in the middle of St Mary Lake.

We might see a bear, I imagine. But we don’t, not even a small one.

As we head out of Glacier, I discover that Jana is on her way out as well.

“My husband and I fell in love with the park the first time we came here but now we’re joining the Peace Corps, and we’ve got one last hurrah with the mountains.”

Will she miss being a jammer?

“Yeah,” she says firmly. “Best job in the park. Best job in the world.”

For details of the Red Bus Tours in Glacier National Park, click here.

Friday 5 July 2019

A Walk Through Literary Dublin

Statue of Oscar Wilde
in Merrion Square, Dublin.
On this trip I travelled courtesy of Tourism Ireland and Aer Lingus. This story arose from my 2011 visit to Dublin but never went online, so here it is for your enjoyment...

“We call him ‘the prick with the stick’,” says tour guide Pat Liddy, cheekily referring to a statue of the writer James Joyce which stands proudly in busy O’Connell Street, Dublin.

It might seem disrespectful, but inventing such acid nicknames is a casual hobby to Dubliners, who’ve applied them to many statues in the Irish capital.

For example, a busty statue of Molly Malone, who sold “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive-oh” in the famous song, is commonly known as ‘the tart with the cart’.

It's all in good fun, says Liddy, smiling as he returns to his pint of Guinness in an atmospheric old pub which is, as it happens, an former haunt of Joyce’s.

It seems somehow fitting that we should be on a literary walk that’s immediately ended up at the pub, given the central role of such establishments in Ireland’s social and cultural life.

Pat Liddy outside Mulligan’s, Dublin.
Having left Trinity College, which contains the famous Book of Kells, we were assaulted by a driving rainstorm that appeared from nowhere, and have taken refuge in Mulligan’s until the weather eases.

It’s a classic Irish pub, with a dimly-lit back room where we sit around chipped old timber tables, a huge gilt mirror on the wall behind us.

Mulligan’s has a literary pedigree of its own, says Liddy, as a longtime hangout of Irish Times journalists and of Joyce, who mentioned the establishment in his landmark novel Ulysses.

The outside of the pub is even painted with the date of Bloomsday (June 16th, 1904), the day in which the novel’s story is set.

As we sip Ireland’s most famous beer, Liddy tells us about the wealth of writers that the city has produced. For a city of a million people, Dublin has a remarkable back catalogue of literary heroes, including Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw and Jonathan Swift. And let's not forget Bram Stoker, whose popularisation of the vampire lives on to the present day.

Liddy is a great story-teller, and he’s easily diverted into amusing anecdotes from his life and tour work. He chats about his son’s train journeys through Asia and Russia, and tells us about having to explain Oscar Wilde to foreign visitors. There’s also a witty story about the time he had to sing Handel’s Messiah to a group of German visitors who’d never heard of it.
Oscar Wilde's birthplace, Dublin.

The beer and the craic are very diverting, but we have pavements to pound. The rain clears and we're off again, through the atmospheric historic streets south of the River Liffey.

We’re entering Oscar Wilde territory here; as we stroll, Liddy points out the former St Mark’s where the great playwright was baptised.

Then we arrive at 21 Westland Row, a respectable facade featuring a big blue door beneath a fanlight.

This is where Wilde was born, and an inscription within a stone wreath credits him as ‘Poet, Dramatist, Wit’. Those are words I’d be happy to have on my gravestone, I think, as we move on.

Our next stop is Sweny, an attractive small shopfront which was featured in Ulysses in its then role as a pharmacy. It was here that the book’s hero, Leopold Bloom, bought a cake of soap with a lemon scent. Remarkably, it remained a pharmacy right up to 2009, when it passed into the care of a group of volunteers who run it as a bookshop and an unofficial shrine to Joyce.

You don’t have to be a fan of Ulysses to appreciate the shop’s atmospheric interior, packed both with books and reminders of its apothecary days. There’s even a drawer full of old photos once developed here, to show visiting kids who may only be familiar with digital shots.

Wendy Conroy at Sweny, Dublin.
The remaining space is lined with new and second-hand copies of books by Irish writers of all eras.

It’s a great place for visitors to acquaint themselves with both the classics and the lesser-known gems of Irish lit, and to pick up some reading for their travels.

Behind the counter today is Wendy Conroy, a passionate fan of Joyce’s master work. “There are Conroys all the way though Ulysses,” she points out.

Not that Joyce was the only star of the written word to hang out in this neighbourhood. “Wilde and Yeats may well have stood where you’re standing,” she says.

From here it’s a short walk around the corner to Merrion Square. Opposite the park stands the house where the young Oscar grew up, and in the park itself is a wonderful surprise - a colourful statue of Wilde which was unveiled in 1997, over a century after being imprisoned for his homosexuality.

A symbol of his 21st century rehabilitation and popularity, the unconventional statue depicts Wilde lounging in a colourful jacket on a large rock, a smile on one side of his face and a grimace on the other. The mixed expression may be a reminder of his mixed fortunes, as perhaps are two smaller nearby statues of his wife Constance and an anonymous male torso.

The plinths of these statuettes are adorned with many of his famous sayings, one of which seems to sum up Wilde’s sensational life: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”.

Davy Byrne’s, Dublin.
Heading back toward the bars and restaurants south of the Temple Bar district, we pass another pub mentioned in Ulysses: Davy Byrne’s, where Bloom ordered a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of Burgundy.

Though the pub has been renovated in a swish modern style and now specialises in seafood, it’s still a meal you can order there today.

Then, finally, we finish at McDaid’s. It’s a popular pub which has retained its original character, furnished with bookshelves, tiled panels and a high timbered ceiling.

This was a haunt of postwar playwright and novelist Brendan Behan, says Liddy, at least until the one-time IRA member was barred. It was also, inevitably, frequented by Joyce and the other Irish writers who milled around this part of Dublin.

It’s been a great tour. Via Liddy's enthusiastic and colourful delivery, the city's great books and their writers have come to life - and even though I haven't read all of them, I go away with a hunger for their work and an understanding of how much Dublin loves its stories.

Pat Liddy’s Walking Tour of Literary Dublin is available on request. See for contact details and other scheduled tours.