On being ... my Uncle Bert

By Ingrid Sapona

My late Uncle Bert has been on my mind lately. He was the husband of Tante (aunt) Eva, who was a first cousin of my mother. Uncle Bert and Tante Eva lived in Stuttgart -- my mother’s home town. When I was 17, as a graduation gift, my mother took me to Germany. We stayed with Tante Eva and Uncle Bert.

My aunt and uncle were generous hosts. Besides putting us up, Uncle Bert took it upon himself to tour us around throughout southern Germany and even into neighbouring countries. He loved driving and he loved showing off his homeland. We logged hundreds of kilometres in his luxurious Mercedes sedan.

Having done similar tours with my mother and my older sisters, by the time Mom took me to Germany, Uncle Bert’s tour guiding skills were well honed and the itinerary well planned. He wanted more than anything to make sure I learned about German culture, history, agriculture, industry and, of course, food.

Living in Toronto, from time-to-time I find myself in the role of tour guide -- whether it’s showing visitors things here in the city, or venturing down to Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. A couple weeks ago friends came into town for the day. They’ve been here many times but this time they brought with them four teenagers: one of their daughters and a friend of hers, as well as a couple of boys who were foreign exchange students – one from Chile and one from Sweden.

My friends had a general plan for the main sights they wanted to show the exchange students. Given that my friends had already seen the key tourist sights before, to try to make the day as interesting as possible for them, I suggested a few places they’d never been to. I love sharing my city and showing off its many hidden gems.

Because I had been given notice about the exchange students, I even managed to find a Chilean restaurant. The neighbourhood the restaurant was in has lots of character, with off-beat shops, inexpensive restaurants, small grocery stores, second hand stores, and hippy-like hangouts. I kind of thought my friends would find it interesting. As we were walking around, though the boys didn’t know I could hear them, I was a bit hurt by some of the comments they made to each other mocking out different things they saw, but I figured it was just boys being boys.

After lunch we headed to the CN Tower, which is one of the “must see” tourist attractions. Because I and my friends have been up to the top of the tower before -- and because it’s a bit expensive -- we sent the kids up while we had a coffee and some time to chat. While we were waiting, I remarked to my friends that I thought it was very nice of them to bring the exchange students to Toronto. I also commented about the fact that I was finding it hard to tell whether the boys were enjoying themselves or finding it particularly interesting -- and that they didn’t seem particularly appreciative. My friends, who have teenage children and who have been the host family for exchange students a couple times, assured me it’s par for the course when it comes to teens. After dinner and a walk along the harbourfront, they dropped me off and headed home.

The next day I remarked to some girlfriends that I was a bit disheartened that the visiting teens seemed so indifferent, if not ungrateful, and yet my friends who brought them up took it all in stride. As we were chatting, I started thinking back to how I was at their age, wondering if I had ever behaved that way.

That’s when the travels with Uncle Bert came to mind, for I was about the same age on that trip as the teens who had just visited. As soon as I thought back to that trip, I cringed thinking of one particular episode when I behaved so poorly, it’s a wonder my aunt and uncle didn’t send their ungrateful niece packing.

Uncle Bert had driven us to some far away park to show us some waterfall. When we got there, to actually see the falls we had to walk up a long, narrow, steep path. I complained the whole way, mumbling about the fact that it’s not like I’d never seen a waterfall before. Then, when the falls finally came into view, adding insult to injury, I let him know, in no uncertain terms, that it paled by comparison to Niagara Falls.

After hearing my story, my girlfriends shared cringe-worthy stories about times they misbehaved as teens, taking something for granted or assuming an air of entitlement about something. One of them -- the mother of teens herself -- chalks it up to early attempts at asserting oneself in the world. I suspect she’s right, but that doesn’t relieve the embarrassment or guilt I feel now – more 30 years later – over not showing more appreciation to Uncle Bert for all his thoughtfulness.

That said, I think I’ve tried to make up for my reprehensible behaviour by doing my best to live up to Uncle Bert’s legacy of enthusiastically showing people around and trying to make sure they leave with many special memories. And, I can’t help think that Uncle Bert didn’t make a fuss about my rudeness because he knew that someday the shoe would be on the other foot and I’d be the one going out of my way for a seemingly unappreciative teen.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a missed turn

By Ingrid Sapona

A friend and I went on a road trip last week through Vermont. I had never been there and I have to say, it’s as lovely as everyone says. Every town and hamlet was quaint without seeming fake, and all the homes and buildings were well looked after.

We purposely had few plans. We had a map of the state and a Tour Book from the automobile association. My research was limited to going on-line to find out where the Ben & Jerry’s factory was and whether they give tours. (They do.) The only accommodation we had booked was for our second last night (including dinner) at a Relais & Chateaux group inn. (After all, this was vacation, so I could justify one night of luxury.)

We basically planned our route from meal to meal. Whenever we’d stop we’d look at the map and decide what road we’d take from there. Sometimes we’d read the descriptions of towns in the Tour Book -- but more often than not we read about places we had just driven through, rather than places that lay ahead.

Once we realized distances on the map weren’t as far as they appeared, we decided to stop and see Montpelier. With a population of about 8,000, it’s the smallest capital city in the U.S. The capital building itself is very nice and surprisingly accessible -- no metal detectors or security checks to get in and visitors are free to roam the building on a self-guided tour.

With the Green Mountains running north-south, the main roads parallel the mountains. On the map we noticed some winding roads through the mountains and on our second day we decided to explore one. Well, what a ride it was. Curve after curve heading up the steep mountain. At the top we pulled into a scenic lookout.

By the time we parked, we noticed the truck we had been following on the way up was already far down in the valley below. My heart sank knowing that if the truck was already down there, it must be a pretty swift downhill ride. We snapped a picture and continued on our way. The first half mile or so down was smooth but straight downhill. That quickly gave way to a series of hairpin turns, all at grade and fairly rutty. The entire journey across the mountain was only about 15 miles, but it was an invigorating ride from top to bottom. (I don’t even want to think what that road is like in winter!)

The next day, headed south on Route 100 toward the inn, at some point we realized we had missed a turn so we stopped to check the map. We had seen a sign for Route 100A a couple hundred yards back but down that road we noticed a huge, orange Road Closed sign, so that wasn’t an option. We could turn back, but that meant a fair bit of back-tracking. Since we pulled over by a general store, we went in and asked for directions.

The clerk pointed us toward Route 100A and said it would eventually take us back to 100. When we said it looked like the road was closed, he assured us it wasn’t. Though we both thought 100A might be a bit rough, given the road closed sign and all, we decided to try it. To our amazement, as we approached the sign we found that, in fact, the road wasn’t closed. The misleading sign actually related to the fact that one lane on the bridge that leads to 100A was closed.

So, we proceeded with caution. As luck would have it, beyond the bridge the road was freshly paved. It was a beautiful road and a pleasure to drive -- curvy but mainly flat and scenic. I noticed a historic plaque on a clearing on a hill. I glanced at the map and saw something about Calvin Coolidge State Park. As we drove passed the plaque I thought I read that it was his birthplace.

A few hundred yards beyond the plaque we noticed a few buildings back in a clearing. Curious, we decided to turn around and go back to see what it was. Hidden from view of the road was Plymouth Notch (population about 300, but in Coolidge’s time it was about 1500). It was, indeed, Coolidge’s birthplace, as well as the place he was inaugurated as 30th president, and where he’s buried. Many of the buildings in the town, including the general store, which Coolidge’s father ran, are original with original furnishings. Neither of us knew much about Coolidge, and we ended up spending a couple hours looking around and learning.

Later that afternoon, when we were back on Route 100 headed to the inn, we talked about the happy accident of finding Plymouth Notch. We both remarked about the fact that it all happened because we missed the turn and because we followed the stranger’s advice to disregard the Road Closed sign.

On the way home I was thinking about how relaxing the trip was and why. Besides the fact that Vermont is lovely, I think what made the trip so pleasant was our willingness to let the road take us where it did, instead of us taking control and using the road merely to get from place to place. So much of our daily lives is focused on getting from one point to another (not always geographic locations – but surely from task to task to task), that we often don’t even look up en route from one thing to the next. This trip was a good reminder to me that life’s about the journey, not the destination and that missing a turn, getting off your planned path -- and even ignoring road signs (or at least looking beyond them) -- can be invigorating, enriching and enjoyable.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona