How I Learned the Ukelele on a Train (and other transient tales)

My ukelele was out of tune.

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I was sitting on the train; alone in my section, as far as I could see. I had given up wrestling with the strings, and was resting my head on a soft area of my backpack.  An older woman came by, saw the instrument and asked if I wouldn’t play a song.  “It’s super out of tune,” I explained, sitting up and fiddling uselessly with the knobs.  “My little brother got a hold of it.”

That was a lie.  My little brother hadn’t touched the uke.  The screechy, stringy sound was entirely my fault–I had tried to tune it by ear in Toronto, and  failed miserably. But, oh ego, I didn’t want to admit that. “Maybe I’ll just get the musician to help me tune it when she’s done her set, if she knows how.”

“The musician?” The lady asked. I smiled and explained.  Along with wine tastings and trivia-filled talks, Via Rail hosts Canadian musicians who perform shows throughout the commute.  My train had enlisted a retired postwoman from Kingston, Ontario who played folksy guitar.

I found the musician sitting in the “Activity Car” after her set, and approached her cautiously. “‘Scuze me. Can I ask you something, maybe?” As if she could say no. As if we weren’t stuck on a train together for two days.

“Mhm?”

“I have this ukelele, with me, I’m trying to tune,” I stumbled, repeating the lie about my brother. “Do you know what notes the strings are supposed to be?”

She looked confused.  “Oh!  Um, well, the bottom string is an A, and…hold on.” She dug into the seat beside her, pulling out her own small ukelele case.

“I could bring it here, if that’s easier?” I offered. “It’s just in my car, back there.”

She nodded in my direction. I power-walked to my seat, snatching the pale brown uke. I gave it a quick strum–wow, that is really, embarrassingly bad. Like,  I can’t believe I’m even going to show this to someone bad.  I braced myself for condescension, the way I do when I’m going to the dentist and haven’t really been flossing, or when I go for a haircut with major split ends.

“Oh, wow, this IS out of tune,” she said, twisting the strings into sanity. I sheepishly agreed and apologized because, well, that’s what you do when someone smarter than you shakes their head and tells you what you already know. She just laughed at me.  “No, I mean, it’s fine, it’s just really out of tune. It happens.” She finished screwing a few knobs and handed the uke back to me. I exhaled, relieved to have a working instrument.  I strummed a C, then a G, then an A.  In response,  the musician produced her own ukelele–the same type as mine, a Mahalo, but hers was green.  She picked a few strings. “Wanna jam?” She asked.

Shit. I DID want to, of course, but now I really had to paint myself amateur. When I told her I was new to the insturment–really, really new–she smiled at my insecurity once again. “So then, you want to learn something?”

And so we sat, for thirty minutes (probably longer), patiently strumming through folk songs. She sketched out chord diagrams and we played and replayed. I finally mastered “Home on the Range.” We hi-fived.

“You know, George Harrison always traveled with two ukeleles.” She said. “He would just hand one to someone in an airport, or something, and they would play. Can you imagine that, being that person, doing this kind of thing with George Harrison?”  She grinned, satisfied that we were somehow part of a great tradition. Later, I would hear her recount our lesson to another passenger and cite the same Beatles story.

Beautiful meals, on board wine tastings, champagne and h’ors d’oeuvres, live entertainment, and now a free music lesson…that train ride was the real deal. Most of  this was because I was traveling in “sleeper class,” which is a big step up from “economy class.”

Seriously though.
Seriously though.

When I told her about my trip, my friend Caitlin all but demanded  that I travel in sleeper class, because “Shauna, it’s SO worth it.”  I refused at first, my budget was too tight, but there was a sale and the trip from Toronto to Winnipeg included two overnights, so I splurged for that portion of the trip.  I’m riding Economy the rest of my trip (en route to Saskatoon as I write this!), and it’s more than fine.  Still, “sleeper class” was a serious experience.

Economy class. Still awesome.
Economy class. Still awesome.

When we reached Winnipeg, I really didn’t want to get off of the train. I was having way too much fun aboard, and the city outside looked dingy and construction site-esque.  I struggled to find a Tim Horton’s upon arrival (somehow, I thought it would be easy), and struggled more to find a place which sold bus tickets. Finally, I made my way to the bus–I was staying with a woman from Couchsurfing, whose house was about a 10 minute ride from downtown.

I sat myself down at an empty seat near the back. The bus was nearly full, and it wasn’t long before someone sat down next to me: a young boy, maybe a year or two my junior, with sharp aboriginal features and faded brown skin.  He struck up a conversation by showing me his hand, which had scabs all over the knuckles: “See this?” He grinned. “Don’t drink and drive. Not any vehicle.”

“Oh. Dear. Ouch.” I threw him a polite smile, then looked out the window as the bus tumbled down a rough-looking Main Street.

“Yeah, yesterday was a shitty day for me,” He continued, clearly wanting a conversation. I motioned politely to his hand.

“Because of your accident?”

“No, no, that was last week. Yesterday, I was about to smoke a bowl, right, and I had it all packed and everything, right, and then, like, I just dropped my bong right there on the floor,” He mimed the accident.

“Oh. No. That…sucks. Was it expensive?” I had no idea what else to say. The woman across the way shot me a look; you aren’t from around here, are you?

“Naw, it was maybe like 30 bucks but like man, I was about to smoke a bowl and then–” He acted out the accident again. I watched as others on the bus nodded sympathetically, and tried to nod the same way.  Unfortunately, I am a terrible actress.

“Well, I guess, I mean, that gives you an excuse to buy a new one?” I offered. The world’s most house wife-y response to a broken bong.

He shrugged. “Guess, but it sucked. Where you from?” At this point I was pretty sure this kid was high, or drunk, or something. Even through his haze, he could tell that I was no local.

“Ottawa,” I said, then quickly added. “I’ve been here before, though. Visiting a family friend. Just busing to her house.” The lie slid off my tongue and covered me uncomfortably, like a heavy invisible armour.  I hate lying. Between the uke story and this, I was up to two falsehoods in one day.  I contented myself that this was just a safety precaution, that didn’t want to publicly proclaim my vulnerability. The woman across the way finally spoke up.

“Well, be careful ’round here. Like, y’shouldn’t go walking down Main Street by yourself any time of day, especially at night.” She said. I looked out the window at the street in question. Her advice was pretty self evident. “Winnipeg isn’t the most dangerous city in Canada anymore, but like, I’m pregnant right? So I’m still pretty nervous walking down the street after I babysit my niece.”

I wanted to congratulate her on her pregnancy, or thank her for her local insight, but instead I just sat there looking like a frightened kitten. I pounced off the bus like one, too, scurrying towards the street my host lived on. I saw the street sign and turned.

Houses. Pretty little houses. Cut grass. Laughing children.

I exhaled.

You guys, I have never been so excited to see suburbs. It was ridiculous.

A French couple opened the door upon my arrival. They were staying under the same roof–live in travel buddies!–and had actually been on the same train as me.  The host had left a note and snacks for the three of us in the kitchen.  My room was cosy and comfortable.  I felt safe. And when you’re traveling around, talking to strangers, STAYING with strangers, and sleeping on a different air mattress every other night…feeling safe is something you never take for granted.

You don’t take showers for granted, either. And you certainly don’t take live-in travel buddies or beautiful, free-spirited hosts for granted. Getting clean and walking about was just about all I did in Winnipeg, but I was fine with that (most of the time, anyways).

Now for a series of confusing images which sum up my time in Winnipeg:

Kareoke and Bubble Tea. For those lunch breaks where you really just want to sing alone in a creepy room.
Karaoke and Bubble Tea. Open noon to 11 pm. The home of Asian small business stereotypes.

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Terrifying stained glass.
Terrifying stained glass.

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I never did fall in love with Manitoba. This sucked more than it should’ve, mostly because I have silly expectations and want Canada to be magical and beautiful and happy all the time. Sometimes, though, it’s just real. Or weird. Or even a little dangerous.

But I wanted to see all of Canada, even the STI ad campaigns and rough streets and suburbs and shopping malls.  And it’s nice to know that, no matter where I seem to go in this country, no matter how comfortable (or uncomfortable) the place, I always seem to find somewhere to temporarily call home. For that, I am incredibly grateful.

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“Home” in Winnipeg, thanks to my amazing host.
And
And, of course, “home” on the train.
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