Sights for sore eyes. And eyesores

(Catching up: A version of this appeared in The Sault Star Sept. 20.)

Some of us hiked up the trail to Robertson Cliffs the other day, something I heartily recommend for anyone able to make the effort. 

I also recommend hiking back down.

By the way, many thanks to that teenaged girl (actually, I believe it might have been several teenaged girls) many years ago who suggested I take a hike. Good advice.

From the brink of Robertson Cliffs, north of Sault Ste. Marie and about five kilometres east of Karalash Corners, you can see more of the Goulais River valley than you ever wanted to.

I say that not to disparage my neighbours the Goulaigans. It’s just that I have vertigo, so some of what was visible over that precipitous drop set my innards a-shivering.

Anyway, partway along the trail we stumbled upon a discarded takeout coffee cup, even though we had not yet rolled up to the rim of the cliff. 

The environmentalist in us was suitably outraged. 

Why would someone make the effort (the trek can take more than a couple of hours, not to mention the drive to get there) to bathe in nature’s grandeur, then defile it by littering?

Beyond that, why would even a Tim’s freak want to down his or her double-double whilst dodging roots and feeling for firm footing on rickety rocks? 

Especially a cold coffee. The nearest chain coffee store would be a long drive away in the Sault.

But soon flights of foolish fancy set in and we began to hypothesize that Canada’s favourite Brazilian-owned coffee shop had opened an express outlet at that scenic vista. Tim’s seem to pop up overnight, as ubiquitous as toadstools.

And just a few aging hiker perspiration drops farther up the trail lay another puzzle: a plastic bag holding Styrofoam containers for take-out food.

Discarding anything, let alone non-recyclable petroleum-based non-reusable products, didn’t seem to fit with the traits of the demographic who might embark on a Robertson Cliffs hike.

What kind of hiker would eschew the traditional trail mix for room-temperature takeout tacos (or whatever) in any case?

And why stop to nosh at an undistinguished point along the path when you could enjoy a sit-down meal with a coveted view at the summit?

But once again imaginations began to outstrip our pace along the path.

Could this be evidence that Skip the Dishes, the dinner-delivery service just now finding a foothold in the Sault, has already taken root in the backwoods of Goulais River?

I’m not a hiking purist. My attire looks like it came from the thrift store rather than one of those places where moisture-wicking undergarments cost $300.

So I’m not about to look down my sweat-dripping nose at anyone who won’t forgo the North American habit of constant food and beverage consumption while taking in some natural beauty, even if it isn’t the traditional way of hiking.

Sometimes it’s a good thing that times change.

Like, wouldn’t it be great if the hiking world adopted some of the comforts enjoyed by golfers.

I’m thinking a beer cart would seem mighty welcome to many of those who finally make it to the top of Robertson Cliffs?

I’d even pack down my empties.

House of Terror holds up the past as a mirror to the present

Its name sounds like a cheesy haunted house from a 1960s midway.

It’s not featured prominently in most tourist guides, if it appears at all.

But the House of Terror offers what might be the most important and emotionally moving couple of hours any tourist spends in the city of Budapest.

Beautiful, friendly and fascinating, Hungary’s capital has been one of the world’s most important cities since the beginning of humanity. 

Victims or perpetrators?

Like many European cities, its architecture outlived whatever political dynasties created it and its culture is an amalgam of the past.

But Budapest also strikes me as a city still rubbing its wrists from chains that bound it for the better part of my lifetime. 

There was the brief but deadly pillaging of the nazis. Then there was the long communist oppression, interrupted by the brief flowering of the Uprising in 1956 and ending with Soviet withdrawal in the 1990s.

Freedom remains fragile. Its democracy has become so eroded that Hungary was rated only “partly free” in a think-tank report this year.

For a westerner such as me, whose country’s battles against 20th century tyrannies were fought on foreign soil, it’s hard to share the perspective of those who persevered for most of their lives under repressive regimes, or even those who were born into the uncertain freedom of the past two decades.

But it’s almost as impossible to avoid coming face to face with their sad reality.

During a recent visit I stayed in the seventh district, the “ruin” district, of Budapest. It was the Jewish section before tens of thousands of Jews were deported and most slaughtered during the war. Then Roma were forcibly relocated there in the 60s to 80s to occupy the abandoned houses. Once a ghetto . . .

Today it’s a trendy area of “ruin pubs” — bars that look like they were set up by squatters — and quaint restaurants and bakeries and the like.

Stroll up the river for a kilometre or so and you come across the sculpture Shoes on the Danube Bank, 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes memorializing ghetto dwellers who were marched to that bank by the fascist Arrow Cross militia, ordered to remove their shoes and then shot so their bodies fell into the river. 

Then make your way to 60 Andrussy Street, which was Arrow Cross Party headquarters. That far right regime, German puppets, held power for just six months toward the end of the Second World War but managed to murder upwards of 10,000 Jews and Roma and deport 80,000 more to concentration camps in Austria.

A lot of Arrow Cross’s interrogation, torture and killing took place in that building and its basement cells.

That suited the building’s next tenants, the AVH, just fine. They were Hungary’s secret police, a branch of Russia’s KGB. 

Secret arrests, torture, secret trials, show trials, purges, concentration camps — all were run from Andrussy Street for another decade. The AVH was reined in but Soviet satellite status persisted until the 1990s.

In 2002, the House of Terror moved in. And 60 Andrussy Street suits it just fine as well.

Critics find the museum a bit disorganized. I’d call it impressionistic.

The impression begins with the T54 Soviet battle tank in the foyer. 

It builds with hundreds and hundreds of mugshots of victims splayed across the exterior and interior walls, with the information sheets and projections of facts and numbers that seem impossibly high, the thousands and tens of thousands tortured, tried on trumped-up charges, sent to work prisons or otherwise “disappeared.”

In video after video after video, older men and women who survived talk dispassionately about being hunted down or betrayed or slaving in gulags or having their farms confiscated or making an untimely joke that cost them a lifetime.

We forgive, they say, but we don’t forget.

And then there is the room full of mugshots of the perpetrators, those who killed or tortured or betrayed or ordered — people who don’t look any different than those they have victimized no matter how much we want them to.

Overcome with the immensity of this inhumanity, we take a slow elevator ride down to the cells where the bodies were tortured and the wills were broken.

We’re free to leave whenever we want.

Forgiving the unforgivable is understandable. How else does one resume any semblance of a normal life after the terror ends?

Forgetting is both impossible and unthinkable.

House of Terror prompts many to recognize how our society is flirting with a world in which 60 Andrussy Streets are no longer museums. In our time, power justifies the means, truth is whatever you want to be true, states vilify and persecute groups for invented or exaggerated outrages, few of us agree to disagree.

And yes, though it never appeared in the House of Terror, the word “Trump” was on the lips of many saddened souls as they left.

I’m missing the point of high heels

(A version of this post appeared as a column in The Sault Star)

The teetering question one recent Saturday was if a bunch of men could Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.

Suffering Sault Ste. Marie males donned two-inch red high heels and strutted or stumbled to raise funds for Women in Crisis (Algoma) Inc., to combat violence against women and children.

I did not take part. I need heavy-duty orthotics just to walk down a supermarket aisle. But reading about the event I couldn’t help wonder this:

Why would anyone — male, female or the gender of one’s choice — want to walk even a few paces in those instruments of tootsie torture?

Consider that 1.6 kilometres (a mile) is not a taxing distance; according to my Fitbit I tread nine or 10 Ks in an average day.

Yet the Walk a Mile site promised “a variety of foot care items” at a first aid station and suggested wearing band-aids to prevent blisters. Safer to play goalie without a cup, methinks. Or take up foot-binding.

Consequences of wearing heels can include lumbar spine flattening, posterior displacement of the head, spasm-producing spinal nerve conditions, bunions, tendonitis, heel spurs, stress fractures and, for relief, pulsing, constrictive, numbing pain. 

Sounds like giving birth through your arches.

So I think we can safely assume that physical pleasure has nothing to do with strutting heels.

Even women who wear heels daily tend to have a pair of flats in their locker, their desk drawer or their humongous purse to change into with groans of relief audible in the next building. 

Flats are part of the uniform of maids of honour and bridesmaids at weddings, to be donned as soon as the half-day of formal photographs is over.

Now, I would not dream — not nightmare — of telling a woman what to wear on her feet, even though dictating what women do with their bodies seems to be all the rage these days.

I know a few women with a cornucopia of high heels spilling from their closets; these women might chew up a scoffing male and spit out his pathetic bones.

But why wear them? It’s OK to ask, isn’t it.

There might be two reasons, not necessarily unrelated: femininity and power.

Scientists, apparently to satisfy my curiosity, conducted this experiment:

They attached glow-in-the-dark dots on women in both heels and flats, filmed them walking, then showed the images of just those moving dots to both men and women, asking them the gender of the walker.

Every single image identified as male was a woman wearing flats. Both male and female viewers found the walkers wearing heels unmistakably feminine.

High heels exaggerate how women walk, reducing the stride, increasing the rotation and tilt of the hips. As the Walk a Mile web page advises, put your shoulders back, tuck in your stomach, stick out your chest and heel-toe-heel-toe.

Other scientists, bless them, had women drop a glove. A man retrieved it 60% of the time, but that rose to 95% if the woman was wearing heels.

Then they watched women in bars (I guess that makes you a scientist, buddy). Women wearing heels were approached twice as fast as the same women in flats.

As for power, well, heels are the foundation of the power suit for female lawyers, professionals, executives.

They reason it doesn’t hurt to cushion the blow of bossing men around by displaying a feminine walk. And it doesn’t hurt to be four inches taller, because the business and professional worlds tend to give bigger salaries and better jobs to tall people. Scientists have studied that to death as well.

To put a point on it, I’m told spiked heels are the footwear of choice of dominatrixes.

So the answer to why women wear high heels might be “beats me.”

But men, if a woman should dangle a high heel from her stockinged foot and invite you to drink alcohol from it, as was fashionable a century ago and persists in frat houses today, tell her to forget it.

You might choke on a band-aid.