Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Small World Problem -- or-- 6 Degrees of Separation

It's a common catch phrase with us. You'll mostly hear it when Dad is around and you're discussing a landmark, one of the United States or Canadian provinces, a country, museum, mountain range, or body of water.  Dad has traveled to a lot of places in this world, either through his career with Norton Company or his adventurous travels over his many years.  There are few places on the map that you can point to that he won't say, "Been There!"  When we all sit to watch a movie, frequently while mostly amusing himself he'd blurt out, " BIN 'DERE!" when he recognized a familiar scene.  He's also met an awful lot of people.
It happens when we're among our friends and acquaintances, usually during animated conversation, that the name Wallace West will invariably come up.  So often, in fact, it became a sort of running joke among us  later becoming a challenge to see who would bring his name up in a topic first.

Our friends Jos and Darcy first became acquainted with Dad in his book shop at Cleveland Place.  Darcy was visiting Alma and getting re-acquainted with her ancestral home after many years of absence.  While talking in the bookshop, Dad learned that Darcy was a professor at a small college in central Tennessee where my sister's son was a student, not far from where my sister was living.  While Darcy and her family were getting more familiar with Alma, they often relied on Dad for his knowledge of the area and its long-time residents, seeking homeowner advice for their 100 year old home, enjoying each other's company with a shared devotion to Fundy.  Eventually, Darcy left Tennessee and accepted a teaching position at a university in Abu Dhabi, and traveled back to Alma to live with her family during the summer months.

After Dad moved to The Farm, we became friends with Darcy's family during their short time spent in Alma each year.  During the months she was teaching in Abu Dhabi we stayed connected through e-mail and she would recount their experiences and adventures in the United Arab Emirates, sharing exotic tales of visiting neighbouring countries while they immersed themselves in the culture, food, and surroundings of the residents there.  Darcy wrote that she'd been introduced to a fellow at the university and in the course of their conversation they each described their lives and where they lived when they weren't living and teaching in the UAE.  Darcy told about the Fundy area and Alma Village and her new acquaintance exclaimed, "Well, you must know Wallace West!"  Over 6,000 kilometers away, but just one degree of separation.

Several years ago, Dad and his friend Gerry built The Gazebo; an octagonal cottage at the edge of the Bay of Fundy --one of the few areas in North America where the eastern shore is still pristine and undeveloped.  We've hosted guests at The Gazebo from all over the world.  One was a fellow who found his way from the west coast of Canada to the east traveling by bicycle to celebrate turning 55.  As he passed through Albert County, he eventually landed at The Gazebo since he was rain soaked, tired, and the rural area offered few overnight accommodations.  It took one call to reach Dad who opened the door and offered a snack of peanuts and a respite for the weary biker.  Later, when Henk wrote a book about his travels, he told about his encounter with Dad and The Gazebo. 

With our New Jersey friends, Jim and Jen, bringing up Wally nearly became an eye-rolling annoyance that I was becoming self-conscious about.  Once, within just a few hours spent together over dinner at their house, we counted three times that Wallace West had been introduced into the conversation:

  • His acquaintance with author E. Annie Proulx and her visits to Dad's book shop at Cleveland Place.  Having read all of her books, we shared his excitement and brush with fame (I later met her myself on two of her subsequent visits).
  • His travels with my mother in a soft-top Jeep Wrangler to The Yukon and The Northwest Territories.
  • His scuba diving adventures in Michigan and Canada and a spoiled diving expedition when Canadian customs officers released all the air from their scuba tanks after a traveling companion got arrogant with an agent. 
We all decided enough was enough. Though Wally's exploits and life stories were entertaining, we had to start drawing on our own experiences to fuel conversation and so we made a friendly agreement: we would not bring Wally into conversation again.

Weeks later, we met Jim and Jen for a fine meal.  We'd been anticipating  the grand opening of an authentic Greek Restaurant in central New Jersey.  We knew the owners as we'd become frequent customers at their other business; a small specialty market that featured Greek imports and fine wines.  One hard-to-find item that they carried was slivovitz, or plum brandy.  On one of our visits to the shop, Dad bought several bottles to bring to Canada with his new wife, Anna, who'd left Bratislava many years earlier and happily recalled the memory of her father making slivovitz when she was a young girl.  Tassos, the owner, chatted with Dad enjoying the novelty of meeting a Canadian foreigner.

When Tassos bought the adjacent building and announced the opening day for the new restaurant, we eagerly made our reservations, anticipating Jen and Jim's impression with the new taverna and its Athenian decor with enticing aromas from simmering pots of rich Greek cuisine, and our ability to get a table on a busy grand-opening night.  When we arrived we were immediately seated by fresh-faced expectant servers to our reserved table in a very lively and crowded restaurant --every seat filled.

Not long after we'd settled at our table, and perused the menu options, I leaned over to Jen and reminded her that since we hadn't seen each other for several weeks, we had a host of topics to cover, adding that none of them involved Wally.  Remembering our previously agreed upon pact, she laughed, said, "We'll see" and continued to read the menu.  Moments later, when our wine was opened and poured, we toasted the evening just when Tassos caught Stephen's eye and approached our table with arms outstretched, beaming a welcoming smile, and loudly said, "Hello!" while eagerly shaking Stephen's hand thanking us for coming out.

His next words were, "How is your father, Wallace West?"

I experienced my very first spit-take.

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