Don’t leave the driving to Greyhound

According to its website, Greyhound views itself as an “icon of bus travel, providing safe, enjoyable, and affordable travel to 6.5 million passengers each year.” Count me as one of the 6.5 million who won’t be looking for the running dog next time I want to leave the driving to someone else. An annoying recent experience with the bus company has made the decision easy for me.

I was travelling from Jasper to Edmonton. The bus was waiting at the terminal when I arrived, one hour before the scheduled 1:00 p.m. departure time. The driver was there too, but clearly in no hurry to leave. He kept the passengers waiting more than 30 minutes before allowing us to board. He offered no explanation or apology for the delay. Nor did he tell us what time the bus would now be arriving in Edmonton. He just gave us the standard spiel about no liquor consumption or smoking allowed on the bus, the location of the washroom, and so on.

There were no weather or traffic issues to slow the bus down en route to Edmonton. The roads were bare and dry, and the weather was clear. I assumed the driver would be able to make up for the lost time on the five-hour trip, but no such luck. The bus was 35 minutes late when it left Jasper, and 45 minutes late when it arrived in Edmonton.

If the driver had given us a reason for the late departure, that would have been appreciated. If he had given an apology, that would have been appreciated even more. Where was the common courtesy? Where was the customer service? I wrote a polite letter to Greyhound’s senior vice-president for Canada asking for answers.

He did not bother to reply.

July 26 update: Greyhound’s senior vice-president for Canada – his name is Stuart Kendrick – still has not bothered to reply.

Remembering September 2001

On this day in 2001, Sept. 10, I was at Logan International Airport in Boston waiting to board an American Airlines flight that would get me to Calgary after a plane change in Chicago. The turnaround time in Chicago was just 38 minutes, which left me feeling a bit nervous. Would I make my connecting flight? O’Hare International Airport was notorious for delays because of congestion and high winds.

The American Airlines agent assured me everything would be O.K. “It’s a legal turnaround,” she said. I wasn’t convinced. “Put me on standby for an earlier flight,” I said.

I left Logan two hours earlier than my originally scheduled departure time of 4:23 p.m. That meant I was going to be hanging around O’Hare for a while, but I didn’t mind. I would be there in plenty of time to make the last flight out of Chicago to Calgary.

Just as I had feared, the 4:23 p.m. flight out of Boston was delayed getting into O’Hare. It still hadn’t arrived by the time I boarded the 6:44 p.m. flight bound for Calgary. I thanked my lucky stars because I could have been stuck in Chicago that night.

The following morning, safely at home in Calgary, I turned on CNN after hearing a report on CBC Radio that a plane (originally reported as a light aircraft) had flown into the World Trade Center. A few hours later, all civilian air traffic in the United States and Canada was grounded until Sept. 13. A week after that, thousands of stranded travellers were still trying to get out of the States to their homes in other parts of the world.

CNN anchor Aaron Brown’s first day on the job was Sept. 11, 2001. I can only echo what he said shortly after the second plane hit the twin towers: “There are no words.”

Where the heart is

“Would you ever consider moving home again?” asked the cab driver as we made our way out to the Dublin airport after a short holiday in Ireland.

Home? I’ve lived in Canada for almost 45 years. I spent just 23 in Dublin. Much as I still love it, I haven’t thought of it as home in a very long time.

It is quite a different Dublin now from the city I left behind in 1966. The restaurants are more appealing, the public transit system more efficient, and the place is crawling with tourists, even in rainy June. They crowd into Bewley’s Oriental Café and convince themselves the coffee served there is better than the caffè misto brewed at Starbucks. They have their pictures taken with the statue of “Molly Malone” at the bottom of Grafton Street just like they have their photos taken on the Spanish Steps in Rome or with Eros at Piccadilly Circus. The Irish go to Bavaria for their vacations while the Germans come to Dublin. Go figure.

Molly Malone is the tragic heroine of a popular Dublin anthem called “Cockles and Mussels.” It’s not known if a real person by that name ever existed. Doesn’t really matter. She lives on in song and story like the heroes of renown. The locals, in typically irreverent style, refer to her statue variously as “The Tart with the Cart” and “The Dish with the Fish.” Dubliners love to give catchy names to public monuments. When a bronze statue of Anna Livia (representing the River Liffey) was unveiled in O’Connell Street in 1988, they dubbed it “The Floozy in the Jacuzzi.” Even the sculptor got a kick out of the name. The “Floozy” has since been relocated to make room for a singularly unprepossessing monument called “The Spire of Dublin,” which stands on the site formerly occupied by Nelson’s Pillar. Nelson was blown to kingdom come in 1966. The IRA claimed responsibility but charges were never laid. Nobody expected they ever would be. There was cheering in the pubs the night after the old admiral was finally toppled from his perch.

I climbed the Pillar once. Dubliners used to let the visitors indulge in that sort of activity, like kissing the Blarney Stone or riding in a horse and trap around the Lakes of Killarney. But I wanted to see the view from the top. Joyce used to say that if the British ever bombed Dublin, it could be reconstructed brick by brick from the descriptions in his books. I wonder if Joyce ever climbed the Pillar.

The Pillar and the Theatre Royal are gone, as are the Metropole Cinema and the venerable “Bono Vox” advertising sign on O’Connell Street from which the lead singer of U2 famously derived his stage name. But some things remain the same. The eyeless Bank of Ireland still has bricked-in windows all around, the locals still feed the ducks in Stephen’s Green with stale bread crumbs, and the traditional musicians still jam nightly at O’Donoghue’s Bar in Merrion Row hoping to follow in the footsteps of Christy Moore and Ronnie Drew.

Drew was an unlikely pop star, a basso profundo ballad singer who performed as front man for The Dubliners and knocked the Beatles off the Irish charts with his gravelly renditions of “Nelson’s Farewell” (celebrating the demise of the iconic Pillar) and “Seven Drunken Nights.” The Clancy Brothers did the same, topping the charts with such rebel songs as “The Rising of the Moon” and “The Foggy Dew.” Both the Dubliners and the Clancys wrote the soundtrack of my life during the 1960s and gave me a greater sense of my Irish identity than any of the historical propaganda drummed into me by the Christian Brothers through 12 years of schooling.

Dublin in the 1960s was a sleepy provincial backwater on the western outskirts of Europe. Dublin today is connected, cosmopolitan, and aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world. I like it better now than I did when growing up.

Would I ever consider moving “home” again? In a way I have, by writing about it. My memoirs will be published this fall by RMB. But my true home remains in Canada, in Calgary, where I have lived most of my adult life. Dublin bore me but Canada made me. It calms my nights and invigorates my days.

Gordon Cope’s A Thames Moment

With the help of Apple’s great software program, iMovie, I have created a video trailer for Gordon Cope’s travel memoir, A Thames Moment. Check it out and tell me what you think.


View with a room

The Website ad looked enticing. But then the ads always look enticing. Afternoon tea in the lobby, with the lake in the background, and classical favourites played on the grand piano. Who could resist that? “A visit to the Prince of Wales Hotel is like taking a vacation at a European resort of old,” said the ad.

European resort of old, you say? Now, there’s a concept I could embrace. I close my eyes and think of the Villa d’Este at Lake Como, where the staff serve champagne by the pool and the guest rooms are redolent of what a visitor once described as “gentle breezes, cool linen sheets, satin, silk, and silence.”

I should have read the reviews rather than the ad. “Hated this hotel, not worth the money,” said one. “Visit, but don’t eat or stay,” said another. The Prince of Wales does have the breezes —call them high winds, if you will —and the rustic silence. But for $299 a night plus taxes, you get little more than an eight-by-twelve four-bit room with wafer-thin walls, space for just a single and double bed, and a porthole view of postcard-pretty Waterton Lake. I could have gone for the slightly cheaper room with the mountain view, I suppose. But the hotel ad’s surprisingly candid description of this room as “run-of-the-mill accommodation” didn’t sound particularly inviting. No spa, no pool, no pets. I ain’t got no cigarettes.

No television, no clothes closet, no mini-bar, no Internet connection. Instead, you get what the hotel ad describes as a “quaint” wash basin affixed to the wall at the foot of one bed because there’s clearly no place for a basin in the poky little bathroom between the tub and the toilet. I felt like the guy in that television ad for Canadian Direct Insurance who says, “I can’t believe this, why does my insurance cost so much?” The red-haired woman shouts back, “WHY? You don’t ask WHY! WHY is not something you ask. Hey, Perry, this guy just asked WHY his insurance costs so much. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” I can’t believe this, why does this mediocre hotel room cost so much? You get my drift.

Did I tell you about the stain on the bedspread, or the scorch mark on the dresser, or the interesting paint job on the washbasin mirror? Don’t ask. Or how about the antique elevator that could barely hold two people with luggage, and had to be operated by a member of the hotel staff—if you could actually find one?

The staff were mostly students, pleasant enough when spoken to, but clearly green behind the ears. If you had started to hum Wagner while waiting for a table in the half-empty dining room at breakfast-time, you’d have gone through the entire Ring Cycle before one of these fresh-faced kilted staff would have come over and asked if you were being served yet. Our server at dinner was a young woman from Portland who told us how happy she was to be working “abroad” for the summer. Go figure.

And therein lies the problem with the Prince of Wales, which they say the last prince chose not to stay in when he visited Waterton in 1927. It is nothing more than an overpriced summer lodge, open from early June to mid-September, without any sign of it ever becoming the European-style resort that it purports to be. “They do have a tendency to cut corners,” acknowledged a former staffer who served us at Bel Lago Ristorante, one of the better-value restaurants in Waterton. When the Chateau Lake Louise was open only in the summertime, the level of professionalism and quality there was comparable to what you would have found at such great old CP hotels as the Banff Springs, the Royal York in Toronto, or the Château Frontenac in Quebec City. At the Prince of Wales, you get a bunch of inexperienced kids whose idea of customer service is to keep you waiting forever and then asking you, “How’s your day going so far?” When you tell them that the guest rooms could have a few more basic amenities or that a modicum of efficiency could be brought to the running of the dining room, they simply shrug and ask what part of the States you’re from.

It’s been more than thirty years since I last spent time at the Prince of Wales. It will be at least another thirty before I go back.