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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How I Learned the Ukelele in a Laundromat (and other East Coast stories)

An update on the “vagabond chic” look: My original “disheveled at the airport” collection is so last week. Make way for the super-sexy “laundromat after a rainstorm,” fashion fans…

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I try, really.
Features of the collection include a messy ponytail, rolled up jeans, and tired, wet feet. I’m also pretty sure there’s sand in my backpack–a souvenir from two beachy days in Prince Edward Island.

I modeled the collection in Moncton. The small, humid laundromat was stop #2 on a quest for clean clothes, and I greeted it by getting barefoot and playing the ukelele with a friend I met two days ago. Stop #1 had been a shop on the corner with a large sign reading “LAUNDROMAT.” That place, they told us, was actually not a laundromat. It was a cool-kid cafe/bar called “Laundromat.”

I’m not hip enough to understand these things.

Pictured here: Not actually a laundromat
Pictured here: Not actually a laundromat

When we finally found a place with quarter-devouring washing machines and dryers, we made ourselves nice and comfortable. Waiting for our clothes to wash, we braved the stormy (and very empty) streets to seek out cheap pizza, shitty wifi, and a compact, Disney-themed umbrella from the drug store.

Finally, it was time to say goodbye to my new friend and jump on a train to Quebec. I actually jumped, you guys. It was a thirteen hour train ride and, oh-my, was I ever excited for it.

The train is the real heart of my trip. All these big adventures and bigger revelations are just spaces in between.

I made small talk with the cute guy in front of me at the station (“Oh, you’re from Ottawa? Me too!”) and, as he briefly disappeared from sight, I jumped on board with a wicked smile on my face. I bought a ham sandwich and little container of white wine on the train, and “je m’excuse, je m’excuse” passed by the friendly French man beside me. The man smelled like smoke and had a giant skull and crossbones inked onto his leg, but his voice was gentle and his smile was genuine and –yes! He kept speaking French to me even after hearing my troubled accent.

And so begins my life for the next month:

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The train reached Quebec at 6 am, and I dragged myself through the tourist-covered streets until hostel check-in time and–oh! Here I am! Sitting at a hostel bar in la belle province, reflecting on the last two days.

(That’s a lie. I’m actually sitting here feeling way-too conscious of my feet, way-too happy about this beer, and way-too guilty that I fell asleep during a bus tour today. For the sake of the segue, though, let’s just say I’m reflecting on the last two days.)

To be reflected upon.
To be reflected upon.

In the days since my last post, I finished up in Halifax and headed to Prince Edward Island. I arrived in Charlottetown at noon(ish) Wednesday, and left at 8:15 Friday morning.

Translation? I had 44 hours in PEI. Ready, set, go.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I scheduled my trip. I’m pretty sure I was bitter–I always hated labeling the damn province in grade school geography. Or maybe I looked at the province on a map and said “Psh, that’s small. I could walk across that in 44 hours.”

Either way, I didn’t give myself enough time on the Island. Not even close.

Thanks to the people I encountered, however, it was (limited) time well spent. I suppose that’s part of this whole traveling thing, right? “What was your name, again? Right. That. Let’s do something cool.” My people-luck went as follows: I crashed on the air mattress of a wonderful girl I knew in high school (thanks, Alex and Danny!). I adventured with another girl I met on couchsurfing, Amy, who was being toted around town by a local named Bob.

(Amy was crashing in Bob’s spare bedroom. Everyone, it turns out, crashes in Bob’s spare bedroom. If you’re ever in Charlottetown, you should too. More on that later.)

On Thursday morning, I walked past an old Protestant cemetery. An artist, Carl Philis (potter by trade), spotted my interest right away. Carl had a paint can in his hand, and was working on the cemetery’s restoration. “If you come by some time later when you’re free, I can give you a tour around.”

I knew there would be no later. “Well…I’m free now, I guess. Can you give me a tour now?”

And he freaking did. His boss stood by smiling as he spent at least an hour showing me the history of PEI, stone by stone. I wasn’t used to such unscheduled hospitality.

“In Ontario, everyone’s just in a hurry to be late,” he explained. “It’s not like that here.”

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He was right. When I arrived an hour later than expected to visit my Islander aunt, she was only happy I was there at all.

Bob was most flexible of all. From beginning to end, his main priority was for Amy and I to have a good PEI experience. I told him I was an Anne of Green Gables fan as a kid, and he happily drove us to Cavendish for the day. He showed us the tourist-y “Avonlea Village” and the trails around Green Gables in the after-hours, saving us from paying for the tourist traps. Bob was a Green Gables tour guide in a past life, and is an expert host in this life.

People-wise, I hit the jackpot in PEI. When my aunt told me she had sending me prayers for “travel mercies,” I practically fell all over her.

“It’s working! It’s working! Keep it up!”

Poking my presence into Bob's "map of guests"
Poking my presence into Bob’s “map of guests”
Yeah. This guy hosts hardcore.
Hardcore hosting.

To recap, a few pieces of advice if you ever visit Charlottetown:

  1. Stay with someone awesome and central.
  2. Look up Bob. Seriously. I will put you in touch personally, just drop me a line.
  3. Eat potatoes. And seafood. And donair. Dude, just eat.
  4. Go to the beach. This will be easy, since it seems that a good chunk of PEI is straight beach.
  5. Clap your hands and stomp your feet at a Ceilidh. If you don’t know what that is…look up what a Ceilidh is first. Then go to one.
  6. Talk to any and everyone. Chances are, they will talk to you right back (and then some).

And with that…

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Hammer Quebecer time.

The Journey Begins Before it Even Starts (wait, what?)

I learned awhile ago that the “journey” was a significant part of any voyage.  Maybe even the most significant part.

I know this is not a new idea.  I just Googled the thought and came up with a whole bunch of cutesy quote pictures to back me up (always a good sign…right?)

The clichés are with me.

Usually, my definition of the “journey” has to do with road trips, running for trains, and airplane (mis)adventures.  When I was 16, I decided to sleep on a bench during a twelve hour layover in France–and classy is as classy does, that is now the sum total of my Paris experience.  Total strangers on train rides have offered insights on communism, abusive relationships, grieving, and the Beach Boys (you know, typical polite conversation).  Confusing maps, broken down buses, tight connections and “Oh! Finally! Coffee!”  are all memories. They’re good memories. They’re funny.

The actual “traveling” is always at least half the fun.

Currently, though, I’m becoming acquainted with another side of “the journey.” This part is happening at home, in Ottawa. No wheels underneath me. No open road or visible sky. Instead, this part involves sitting on my couch with a mug of hot tea. (I should point out that it’s not really a couch. It’s a futon mattress propped up against a wall. Again, classy is as classy does.). Music is playing, a YouTube lyrics video of a catchy song on repeat for the 10th time. And browser tabs. So many browser tabs.

Train schedules. Tourist destinations. Hostels. Bus fares. Airline discounts.  Local blogs and forums. Festival lineups.

Oh-my-goodness, am I really doing this? Am I really taking a month off to travel across Canada? More importantly, how do I even start planning for this?

Props to my brother Mike for wood-burning my awesome Canada flag.
Props to my brother Mike for wood-burning my awesome Canada flag.

I have a plane ticket to Halifax. I have a 21-day train pass, scheduled to start as soon as I’m done with the Maritimes. My family and friends across the country have been warned.

I’m scheduling, scheduling, scheduling. It’s a lot more work than I thought it would be. It’s a whole lot of fun. And it’s definitely part of the journey.