I Wonder Who’s Running the Show

Life keeps amazing me.  How do so many precious moments land gracefully on my lap, without me doing anything?  Perhaps I’ll just rest in the mystery of it all.

It was two days ago.  I was sitting on the terrace of Café Rosario near St. Nicholas Church, watching the trams curve by the Post Hotel and head straight to me.

After breakfast, I started walking towards Albert Heijn, a grocery store.  My friend Marieke was coming over in the evening and I wanted to have a bowl of chocolate yummies for her to nibble on.

And then a far less lovely thought: in my strolling today so far, I hadn’t seen a single seagull.  If you’ve read my stuff recently, you know I have a gull fetish.

I changed course.  Wings are sweeter than chocolate.

The most famous gathering place in Ghent is the Graslei, a wide cobbled stretch beside the Leie River.  It’s perfect for hundreds of bums to plunk themselves down so that their nearby minds can cuddle with other ones.

This day I was the only sitter.  After a few minutes, I spotted a single gull far, far away.  But at least he or she was there.

My peripheral vision revealed a woman putting out a sign by the tiny entrance to the Post Hotel.  It included the magical word “breakfast” even though I was no longer hungry.  I walked towards the door which obligingly opened as I approached.

Then up a winding stone staircase, surrounded by the past.  “And then, to my wondering eyes should appear” The Cobbler.  Voilà:

The faces welcoming me were real.  Two lovely servers.  As I took in the spirit of the room, I saw a well-dressed grey-haired man hanging on the far wall.  I asked one of the servers who that was.  She said the architect of the building, which originally was the post office.  The other woman said “No, the architect hangs on the other wall.”

I jumped up to explore the other face.  A woman had been sitting at a table near mine and she got up too, confirming that the architect was on the side wall.

We got talking, about me having recently moved to Ghent from Canada, and her being the owner of the hotel with her husband!

Her name is Greet.  Its pronunciation is a bridge too far for this recent North American.  Oh well, I’ll rearrange my tongue and throat over the coming months.

Greet offered to show me some of the hotel’s rooms.  “Yes!  Thank you.”  Here’s the light bathing one of them:


It was a sanctuary.  A place to look in the mirror and see who’s there.

Then there was a suite containing an interior balcony that looked down on the bedroom.  I thought of Romeo and Juliet.

Also a tower suite with windows stretching in a circle.  The upstairs bedroom was being cleaned when we visited but the downstairs living room held my gaze.

This morning I came back to The Cobbler because I hadn’t taken a photo of this sweet spot for human beings.  I’m lounging with my latté as I tap.

Greet just came by with a tiny box of chocolates for me.  What I sense in this room from the three people who work here is a natural kindness.  Rather than being kind to get some result, they’re simply living in the moments of being nice people.

Dear Cobbler, I shall return

Julie’s House

Here’s a skill-testing question for you:

Under what circumstances would I write a positive post about a restaurant that I walked into an hour ago and walked out of ten minutes later?

Julie’s House opened at 9:00 am.  People were already flooding in – people with reservations.  Soon Julie’s would be full with folks who had reserved ahead.  Except for a counter … and I didn’t want to sit there.

The cool thing is that two women employees did their darndest to find a solution for me, but full is full.  I smiled at both of them as I went in search of another source of breakfast.

A few days ago, I sat in this lovely spot in Julie’s, sipping my latté and watching Peter cut a cake into slices.  My croissant had just come out of the oven and the raspberry (strawberry?) jam sunk into the hidden places.  An earlier smile.

There is the brick arch, sunlight flooding in, families walking by on the street.  All was well.  And Peter made me feel welcome, as did a female employee whose name I didn’t learn.

I lingered, soaking in the song “Martha” by Tom Waits, feeling the slow … feeling at home.

I looked down at my napkin.  I decided to follow instructions:

The sign on Julie’s window said it all: You are welcome here.  Please join us.

I will … again and again


The population of Gander, Newfoundland is about 10,000.  On September 11,  2001, they had 6,700 visitors.  When terrorists brought down the Twin Towers in New York City, the federal government shut down US airspace.  Thirty-eight passenger jets en route to the States were diverted to this tiny outpost.

In late August last year, I was crossing Newfoundland by bus.  We stopped at the Gander Airport and inside the terminal I found a fitting monument – a twisted girder from the 911 tragedy.  It was a gift from the people of New York to the people of Gander.  As one of the welcomers said in 2001, “We’re all Americans today.”  I looked around the terminal and imagined hundreds of frightened travellers milling around.

There’s been a play created based on those days in Newfoundland.  I’m going to Come From Away in April, and I’m sure I’ll be moved by human kindness and resiliency.  In prep for my trip to Toronto, I bought a book called The Day The World Came to Town.  The same people, the same humanity on display.

Here are a few quotes from the book.  They make real an event of terrorism and emergency because real folks are saying real things.

First, a song:

Raise your glass and drink with me to that island in the sea
Where friendship is a word they understand
You will never be alone when you’re in a Newfie’s home
There’s no price tag on the doors in Newfoundland

There will always be a chair at the table for you there
They will share what they have with any man
You don’t have to worry, friend, if your pocketbook is thin
There’s no price tag on the doors in Newfoundland 

I felt the generosity of Newfies in Port-aux-Basques, Gander and St. John’s.  And not a pretend giving, but genuine.

Here’s more:


The biggest problem facing officials was transportation.  How do you move almost 7,000 people to shelters, some of which were almost fifty miles outside of town?  The logical answer was to use school buses.  On September 11, however, Gander was in the midst of a nasty strike by the area’s school bus drivers.

Amazingly, as soon as the drivers realized what was happening, they laid down their picket signs, setting their own interests aside, and volunteered en masse to work around the clock carrying the passengers wherever they needed to go.


Roxanne and Clark decided to buy something comfortable to wear, a change of underwear, and some deodorant.  No sooner had they returned to the Lions Club than another woman who they hadn’t seen before asked if they would like to take a shower.  Roxanne hadn’t seen any showering facilities but assumed they must be tucked away in a part of the club that this woman would now show them.

“No,” the woman said.  “You can come over to me house and shower.”

Roxanne stopped herself from laughing.  A complete stranger was inviting her to her home to use the shower.  Roxanne and Clark had both grown up in small towns but this went well beyond small-town hospitality.  These were the nicest people in the world, Roxanne thought.


Cindy and Reg Wheaton took Vitale to their home just down the street.  They told him to help himself to anything in the refrigerator and to use the phone to make calls or the computer to send e-mails.  They showed him where the remote for the cable television was located, handed him a clean towel, and left.  He could stay as long as he wanted, and they told him that when he was done he should just leave the door unlocked on the way out.  Vitale was speechless when they left.


Fast found herself on a residential street, where she spotted a man on a porch waving at her.  He asked if she was one of the stranded passengers.

“Yes,” she said.

He explained that he and his family were preparing a big birthday party for his grandson in the backyard.  He asked if she’d like to join them.  She agreed and followed him around the house.  The boy’s parents were still decorating the backyard with balloons and streamers in anticipation of other children arriving.  Fast was introduced to the guest of honor.

“Happy birthday,” she said.

“Thank you,” the boy replied.

“How old are you?” 


Fast was energized by the family’s sense of warmth and their willingness to share this time with an outsider who just happened to be walking down the street.


As its old slogan implies, Canadian Tire is more than just tires.  One of the clerks was able to scrounge up a pair of air mattresses and two sleeping bags and then asked, “Do you want a tent as well?”

Zale said it wasn’t necessary but Wood cut her off.

“Hell, yes, we want a tent,” she declared, her Texas accent almost bowling the clerk over.  It might rain, Wood reasoned, so a tent could come in handy.  Zale and Wood piled their supplies onto the checkout counter and started reaching for their credit cards.

“You’re off the plane, right?” the cashier asked.

When Zale and Wood nodded, the cashier announced that they could just take the items.  Anything the stranded passengers needed, the store was happy to provide.  The store even offered to send one of their employees over to the Knights of Columbus to help them set up the tent.


No sooner had the first planes started to land in Gander than O’Donnell received a phone call from her bosses telling her she had carte blanche to donate everything in the store, if necessary, to the relief effort.  “Anything the passengers need that you can provide, please do it,” she was instructed.  Money was not to be an issue … In fact, if another store had something the passengers needed, and that store had reached its limit in terms of donations, then O’Donnell was authorized to go in and buy it for the passengers.  It was like a scene right out of Miracle on 34th Street.


Newtel, the telephone company for Newfoundland, set up a long bank of tables on the sidewalk in front of its offices and filled them with telephones so passengers could make free long-distance calls to their families.  On another set of outdoor tables, they placed computers with internet access.  Newtel officials kept the tables running day and night for as long as the passengers needed them.


Harris called one of her assistants, Vi Tucker, and the two women loaded up a truck with pet food, water, cleaning supplies, and anything else they thought they might need, and lit out for the airport.  Once they arrived, they began sizing up the situation.  The animals were stowed away in cages in the same compartments as the luggage.  As Harris went around taking a quick look inside each of the planes, she knew these animals were going through their own emotional ordeals.  In some cases, Harris couldn’t even see the animals, as they were buried behind mounds of suitcases.  But she could hear them crying and barking … One at a time, they crawled into the belly of the airplanes, tunneling their way through the mountains of bags, to reach each animal.  As best they could, they would clean the cage and then lay out some food and water.


Following the van driver’s directions, they approached a large house with off-white vinyl siding and white trim.  Mark joked that he would protect them if there was any trouble, and the women laughed nervously.  They noticed an older woman standing in the driveway.

“George invited us over for coffee,” Deb said.

“You must be the plane people,” the woman replied, introducing herself as George’s wife Edna.  “Come on in, my dears.”


Well said, Edna
Come on in

Songs and Smiles

Valerie is a new friend of mine.  We met on Thursday at Anne and Ihor’s B&B in Toronto.  We talked about going to the Santa Claus Parade on Sunday afternoon, and just like that … here was Sunday.

Valerie is a devout Christian and wanted to go to a morning service where people really express their joy in the Lord.  Anne told her about a church on Weston Road with mostly black folks and that sounded good.  Valerie suggested we meet after the service but I said I’d love to come.  Yes, I’m a Buddhist, but I love to hear people celebrating their spirituality.

We walked in the front door and were immediately greeted by an elderly woman with the light of Jesus shining in her face.  Truly, we were welcomed.  A Bible study was going on before church, led by the pastor, who also glowed.  He had an accent (I think he was from Sudan), and he spoke some words loudly, others softly.  The bottom line was that I could only make out a few words from each sentence, and therefore I usually couldn’t follow his train of thought.  It didn’t matter.  Love was the communication and I received it loud and clear.  It also seemed to beaming out from many of the parishioners nearby.  Black … white … who cares?  We were together.

Then it was time for singing.  Two women went to the front, accompanied by a keyboard player, drummer and guitarist.  They blasted out the lyrics and tunes … praising Jesus.  The pastor was dancing.  So, it appeared, was everyone else.  I moved and grooved and sung, without throwing my hands to the sky with Valerie and the others.  We were alive!

One of the leaders asked if there was anyone new in church today and I threw up my hand.  “What’s your name?”  >  “Bruce”  >  “And your friend?”  >  “Valerie” soared from Valerie’s lips.  So cool.

At the end of the service, we were presented with little gift bags, containing a can of pop, a package of potato chips, and a pen.  “Thanks for joining us.  Please come back.”  And I will, when I return to Toronto in January.   I know when I’m wanted.

And smiles come in all colours.