“BonjourHello” to Kingston WriterFest
A gull eyes me as I eat my deli sandwich. I’m taking a lunch break from the Kingston WritersFest and I’ve found a sunny spot on a walkway along the St. Lawrence River. Across the water I see people walking around at the military college and boats go by—a tour boat, a tug, and, farther out on the water, a flotilla of sailboats. Kingston is showing off on this beautiful September day, with its amazing waterfront and a farmers’ market crowded with colorful produce, baked goods and crafts.
But it won’t be difficult to go back inside to my next author event. The schedule lists fifty-two sessions over the five-day festival and during my brief visit I have to choose between twenty. I’ve gone to three so far and they’ve all been excellent.
With clear, warm weather predicted I decided to make this trip into a bicycle adventure as well as a book feast. Yesterday afternoon I parked my car at Cape Vincent and loaded my bike onto the little ferry that plows through the water to a dock on Wolfe Island. For three dollars I got to stand on the metal deck and watch the United States recede across the choppy water. When I walked off the ferry a courteous Canadian border guard stepped out of a tiny building with the standard, “BonjourHello” and looked at my passport. He told me how many kilometers to the ferry on the other side of the island, and quickly converted it into miles for my American brain. I looked at my ferry schedule and calculated. It shouldn’t be any problem to ride eleven kilometers, almost seven miles, in an hour.
Wolfe Island now means windmills, many of them. Their huge white blades mesmerized me with their slow twirl. I pedaled along the narrow road surrounded by windmills and fields of soybeans and corn. It felt like being on another planet, a place I vaguely recognized by the smells of cow manure and apples rotting beneath a tree. But this world had giant white robots as inhabitants and no humans at all.
Though Wolfe Island is almost flat a headwind slowed me down. I didn’t mind as the landscape glowed in the late afternoon sun and I didn’t want to rush. When the first houses of Marysville came into sight I slowed down even more, taking in the old houses, stone library, general store, bakery (closed, unfortunately). But then a sign at the ferry dock informed me that the ferry now landed at a different dock, four kilometers up the road.
This sign didn’t have any conversion to miles but I knew I had no time to spare. I’m not a bike racer but I kicked myself into a higher gear and flew past a marina and a park and a wetlands. I looked at my watch and worried, turning a last corner just as the ferry was motoring in.
Ferries are free in Canada, part of the transportation system. While I stood to catch my breath a long stream of high school students walked down the ramp and on to two school buses. The kids could have been part of a UNICEF ad, their skin colors ranging from the darkest brown to the lightest white. This ferry was bigger and the trip a little longer so I had time to sit down on an upper deck and watch Kingston come into view. A group of matching sailboats did maneuvers, turning quickly as if playing follow-the-leader. And next to them someone in a motorboat pulled in his fishing line. The waterfront at Kingston bulges with several big hotels but across the harbor there’s an old fort, still protected by its grassy bunkers.
After the quiet of Wolfe Island, Kingston practically pulsed with Friday night energy. Groups of people crowded the streets and a bar with outside seating was full. I locked up my bike and headed inside to the sixth floor of the Holiday Inn where I sat in one of the last empty chairs in a big room to hear a panel called “Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Act.” All the authors on the stage had new books out about civil liberties in Canada. Mark Bourrie’s book had the most direct title — Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know. Bourrie was witty and well-informed and shared the stage with novelist Lawrence Hill and journalist Marion Botsford Fraser. I admit to knowing almost nothing about Canadian politics but the censorship issues sounded familiar, and frightening. When someone in the audience asked what can be done to restore civil liberties, all three panelists had suggestions. Bourrie said to get out and vote, and force someone under thirty to come with you.
After the panel I found my friend Naomi Guttman as she left a workshop called “Writing Poetry for Grownups” led by Pricila Uppal. Naomi is a poet and teaches creative writing at Hamilton College and traveled to Kingston with four of her students.
“Have you had dinner?” Naomi asked me and was happy to suggest a place we could eat when I said I hadn’t. We walked to a restaurant that she wanted to try, a place with a long bar and a chandelier, and ordered hard cider, a cheese platter and smoked salmon. The Canadian foods were superb and we stayed late, catching up with each other’s lives.
Naomi and her group has rooms in the Holiday Inn, but NCPR doesn’t give me an expense account so I’d arranged to stay in the home of a friend. It meant a thirty-minute bike ride to the outskirts of the city so I suited up with a bright yellow windbreaker, a headlamp, a reflective vest and front and rear lights on my bicycle.
Night riding is not for the timid but Kingston has bike lanes on many of its streets and now and then I rode on a sidewalk. I passed the long wall of the Kingston penitentiary and parks along the lake then turned inland and pedaled past St. Lawrence College out to a wide road lined with shopping malls. Finally I turned into a residential neighborhood. My hostess was away but we’d exchanged emails and she’d given me the code numbers that would lift the garage door so I could get into the house that way.
I leaned my bike against the garage, punched in the numbers and watched the garage door lift. The garage was neat and the concrete floor swept. This became important when I realized the door into the house, the door I thought would be unlocked, was not. It was midnight, I was very tired, and my lodging choice had just been downgraded.
After a touch of panic I wheeled my bicycle in and shut the garage door. I didn’t need much, just a flat place to lie down on and I had that. Amazingly two Thermarest foam pads leaned against one wall and in a bag of clothes to give to a thrift shop I found a pillow. Further searching revealed a zipped plastic bag with an old duffet folded inside. Perfect! I arranged my bed and on the floor.
Fortunately I’m a person who can sleep well anywhere, and I did.