Part 8 — a trilogy of salmon, dead elk and the raj

Victoria: dry. For the moment.

Not that it matters a lot as we’re on Malahat Drive, north of Goldstream Park, stuck in traffic. An accident has made the two lane road impassable. For several hours, the ignition is off. I alternate between reading and painting my toenails loganberry.

Later, at dinner, we’re zonked and amuse ourselves by guessing what’s up with the people next to us, who we’re pretty sure are divorced but get together and play nice occasionally for the kids—a mixture of hers, his, theirs. It’s the dad’s birthday and the woman has got him a sheepskin jacket and a belt which makes quite a large parcel to open at a small table full of place settings and other dining debris. The man is very cool to everyone and the woman cuddles and kisses only a young girl, ignoring the other two children, one of whom is most certainly only his because later on he and that child leave and then he, the man, returns alone as if having returned the child to its rightful mother. Soon the whole gang leaves. Frankly, whatever the deal is with these people, I don’t think it’s going to last.

Our B&B is named after a small white dog; it has the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in [I make note of the mattress but find that it’s been discontinued], a lovely shower and is in a great neighbourhood with good book shops. The only oddity is the owners who, each morning, deliver our breakfast trays to the room, a nice but unusual touch given that they linger just a little too long as if having a look around to see what we’ve been up to in the past 24 hours. I find myself tidying the place before they arrive.

There seem to be no roads that run at right angles in Victoria, nothing east, west, north or south. This plays havoc with my almost non-existent sense of direction. We’re told that when the city was planned by the British, it was considered lower class to have streets running on a grid. So it’s all upper class circles and lanes and things turning into other things without warning or signage. Apparently it doesn’t get better when you live there—they say you can tell the tourists: they’re the ones without the maps.

At the gallery are Paul Drury etchings, my favourite of which is the Old Man Reading in which the man remains exactly the same but the background changes, which completely changes the mood, what we assume he’s doing, everything. Here is the picture: old man sitting at table, head in hand. In the first frame the background is that of a cafe, a newspaper is on the table in front of him. In the next, the walls are blank and on the table is a book, not a newspaper. He has a pipe in his mouth. In the first picture he seems poor, working class, perhaps even out of work, distraught, head in hand as if to say woe is me, I’m rotting away in this grotty cafe, reading yesterday’s paper. In the second, although neither his expression nor his clothing is different, he seems privileged and content, possibly sitting in a library reading Homer, head in hand because he’s so intent, absorbed in its brilliance.

Also at the gallery, a samurai exhibit. Quite a poetic lot, it seems, between bouts of slaughter. The epitome of this class was Miyamoto Musashi, who wrote The Book of Five Rings in the 17th century—it’s still used today to teach business strategies.

Lunch at the Wharfside Restaurant, a little commercial but right on the water, plus we get a window seat. Peter has a wild mushroom pizza and I have the salmon trilogy, which is how I learn I don’t like candied or pickled salmon. The remaining third of the trilogy—smoked—is lovely. Two very small people at the next table order The Dim Sum Experience, The Seafood Platter for Two, which is enormous and on top of which they have a whole lobster each and then share a pizza. They drink beer with gusto and laugh non-stop.  Peter leaves to make some phone calls and I linger, watching yet another table… an elderly man and what I assume is his granddaughter, a girl of maybe seven. He tells her stories and she smiles, listens intently, then when he’s finished they chat up a storm and she asks mile a minute questions that seem unconnected. At one point she says: “Are you farsighted?” Eventually I settle down with notebook and pen and for some reason remember a dead elk we passed in the back of a pickup on the way to Tofino. I connect this to baked spaghetti and pickles and somehow manage a short story before Peter returns.

We don’t want to but feel we must visit the Empress Hotel. The whole waterfront area is a bit too touristy if you ask me. Glass bottom boats and Madame Tussaud’s, double-decker buses and Beefeaters in cheap uniforms fit only for photos. A teenager curses us for not giving him bus fare to Port Hardy. Inside the hotel, there’s a great memorabilia collection—photos and menus with food items I’ve never heard of, old registry books [most guests were from the States even then], and my favourite: dance cards listing waltzes, foxtrots, etc., with a space beside each to check ‘taken’. The architecture and the history are worth absorbing, but then there’s something called the The Bengal Room, which strikes me as everything that was wrong about the Raj. All those dead animal heads on the walls, skins, whirring fans, dark panelled walls, serving boys… So dark inside it hurts my eyes to come back into the light of the real world.

Dinner is at Sooke Harbour House where the waiter explains that the menu is ‘nature driven’. By which he means they have a garden. When serving the wine [Sandhill ‘One’ from Phantom Creek Vineyard] he warns that it’s ‘inherently schizophrenic’ and checks back later to see if it [the wine] is becoming ‘unified’ on our palate. For some reason he, or the owner, or someone, takes a shine to us [because we have put up with phrases like ‘inherently schizophrenic’?] and at the end of the meal we’re treated to a couple of glasses of ‘Cobble Hill’—a truly exquisite nectar made by accident in the process of making vinegar. It is sweet and rich and creamy and perfect with the blue cheese and walnuts that are served along with it.

We’ve been on the island eleven days. Most of which have been rainy. It’s raining still on the morning we’re set to cross by ferry to Vancouver and while I’m expecting a rough sail, it’s completely smooth and strangely pleasant; there are very few passengers and so we move through heavy fog in silence, like a chilly meditation.

[Part 9: Last stop—Vancouver, which renders me speechless.]

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