My time exploring this country, in all its beauty (imperfect, tree-and-rock-and-tree based beauty, but beauty nonetheless), is far from over. Last week, I found myself on the East Coast of Canada once again. This time, though, I was exploring THE BEAUTY OF FRIENDSHIP.
(I also just threw up in my mouth, dun’worry. )
I share enough of my ridiculous awkwardness with the people who read this blog that I figure it’s worth throwing up some of my happiness, too. This one is profound, in the most simple way. I have friends, lovely friends. To me, they are home. They moved. I visited. They’re still home. And that’s awesome. It’s just awesome.
I repeat: I am also throwing up in my mouth.
With the right company, I imagine someone could be anywhere in the world and be happy. But the seafood, fall colours, ocean, and calmness of the East coast made the experience next-level relaxing. This was vacation. After the last post, there’s no doubt I needed one.
It’s different, traveling with friends. My last Canadiana experience was selfish…because, well, traveling alone is selfish. It’s supposed to be. That’s the point. That trip was all about experiences, about learning and bucket-listing; short-term connections, life lessons, et cetra. And I loved that. I’m sure I still would.
But last week, I was visiting old friends. I was traveling with my plus-one. This trip was all about people. It was about sharing experiences and sitting around the table. It was just friendship. Not the one-week-long Hostel kind of friendship (which is beautiful in its own way, no doubt), but the kind that makes you think “This. Is. Home.”
Of course, there is nothing, nothing, like experiencing a brief breeze of “This. Is. Home.” while sitting around with a bunch of strangers in a new place. It’s literally worth traveling around the world for. It’s emotional tourism. But sitting around with people who have been there for awhile and just drowning in the “Home” feeling–even in a someone else’s “house,” even after a long flight–that’s new.
As usual, my love for this country is on overdrive.
Despite the dark parts of our history (there are many, no doubt), I do hold a lot of hope and pride in my heart for good ol’ Canada. It’s nuanced and critical, but it’s there.
This is my first Canada Day since I did my cross-country train tour last August. I suppose that should make me feel like I have some level of insight on this country. Not so much. The more I have learned and seen of this country the less I want to make general claims about it. Even writing this seems a bit strange.
BUT BUT BUT, there are five things that I observed that felt pretty solid. So here goes. Just for you, just for Canada Day. Let’s listicle this bad boy.
1. Canadian humour? I think it’s a thing.
I met a lot of funny people on my trip. Good storytellers, great attitudes. At the Just For Laughs festival, I tried (with little success) to crack the code of Canadian comedy. While that experiment fell flat, the people I met as I traveled across this country gave me more of a clue.
The humour in Canada seemed to be a really unique mix of joy and sarcasm. I know satire is often characterized as a dry, cold humour, but the sarcasm I felt throughout Canadian seemed almost warm. I met so many people across this country who looked at everything with a wink of “Eh, this is life! And it’s ridiculous!”
Which it is. Living in Canada is kind of ridiculous. The weather, the empty space, the strange array of cultural indicators (a leaf and poutine and hockey and whatnow?). Canada also has the unique position of having a lot of rural spaces, small towns, and harsh winters…while also having a literacy rate of 99% and high scores on international education rankings. I’m sure the doesn’t hurt the development of a unique kind of outdoorsy wit.
2. Community is everywhere.
Everywhere I went in Canada, the communities I visited seemed to offer community in relatively the similar ways–survival, sports, music, food, drink, repeat. Obviously events varied based on size and geography, but generally it was pretty status quo–downtown parades and fireworks on special occasions, community theater in the warmer months, concerts in the park, sports bars with hockey specials. In Halifax, the experience made me seriously question why I didn’t just do more of these things at home.
That said, I found that community often wasn’t a super important value for folks in Canadian cities. I’m guessing that’s because “survival,” which is historically at the heart of most Canadian communities, has become less and less an issue (thanks, indoor heating and modern medicine). We all are relatively free and mobile and proudly different, so sometimes it feels like we don’t seek each other out as much.
But we do still need each other. And the lucky thing is that community is available, and it is worth pursuing. I found it literally everywhere I went, and it was awesome. .
3. Oh, and French is also everywhere.
My whole life, I was fed this ugly lie that there are only French Canadians in Quebec. No where else.
Turns out, that is so very wrong.
Seriously, if I ever have kids, I’m raising those buggers to be bilingual. I underestimated the Frenchness of this country so much. It’s everywhere. When I went to the French quarter of Winnipeg, no one was speaking a lick of English. Not to mention New Brunswick, or Northern Ontario. I even met a tour group of French first language kids from British Columbia recently.
Yes, Quebec has a lot of French people. But it also has more people, period. I loved Quebec culture and deeply enjoyed my time there, but I was wrong to assume that different versions of French Canadian language and culture didn’t stretch from sea to sea.
4. So. Much. Patriotism.
Oh, you thought Americans were proud?
Yes, the United States is known for having overzealous residents who are patriotic to a tacky degree. But when I worked and lived in the States, it turned out that I was the one who patted myself on the back for my citizenship on a daily basis. Gay rights? Medicare? Cool looking federal police officers on horseback? Canadians think they are the coolest.
It can be annoying, I’m sure. I was basically like that pretentious friend everyone has who proudly collects records and forces obscure music on everyone…except instead of indie tunes, I was dealing out ketchup chips and maple syrup. .
5. We don’t really go to church.
Empty pews are certainly a major theme throughout the country. I don’t totally know how I feel about that–the United Church of Canada is a big part of my life, and I think the church can be a wonderful and remarkable space for people (see point #2). But I’m not necessarily disappointed in our emerging “churchlessness.” I’m mostly just curious about it.
I’ve heard a whole host of reasons for people moving away from the church, most of which are not only confined to Canada: Corruption, postmodernism, the perceived conflict between science and religion (or between social justice LGBT/women’s rights and religion), individual spirituality over community practice. I get all those things, I do.
But Canada is an interesting study simply because recent generations have been so privileged, so lucky, so educated and connected, so blessed….and so secular. I often wonder if there is a connection. Either way, it will be interesting how churches and people transform in this environment.
– – –
Basically, I learned that Canada is the True North strong and free…and funny…and diverse…and proud…and changing all the time. All the time. Like, right now.
So, I guess we should probably go out and look at it pretty seriously and take good freakin’ care of it. Because whatever this country becomes…we’re a part of it.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint, the greats were great because they paint a lot..,’
I was listening to Macklemore when I first set foot in Quebec City. It was 6 am, and I had “slept” on an overnight train–the music wasn’t for entertainment, it was a much-needed pep talk.
“I will not be a statistic, just let me be…”
The streets were empty, steep, and (of course) uphill the whole way. I trudged forward with the song on repeat, clinging to the words. I’ve listened to this anthem countless times. It has been good to me. I’m lazy and insecure and my creativity needs constant motivation, so songs that kick my ass are more than welcome. Plus, Macklemore is just fantastic. Plus, I like the themes: Hard work. Potential. Passion. People.
This time, though, my brain didn’t connect the message to creative endevours. It didn’t motivate me to learn a new chord, or write a semi-meaningful poem. I had one thing on my mind: le français.
I was in Quebec. I have been studying French for…a long time, at any rate. The last 5 years I have put crazy effort into it. I take a third of my University classes in French. I do customer service-lite in my second language. I claim bilingualism on my resume (then explain it away at interviews).
This was the test. Would I be able to speak French in this province, or would they snarl at my messy accent? Would I shrivel into a poor, defenseless anglophone? It wasn’t impossible. This was Quebec. I was one mispronunciation away from an eye roll and the ever-deameaning “Eez h’okay, vee can speak anglais.”
Ten thousand hours felt like ten thousand hands, ten thousand hands, they carry me.
Ten thousand hours, the song repeated to my tired brain. If you’ve practiced for ten thousand hours, you should be an expert. That’s how it works, right?
I must have spent ten thousand hours speaking French by now. In that moment, I decided I needed to find out.
I sat down on a bench and pulled the phone from my sweater pocket–20% battery, draining with every stroke. I pressed my thumb to the calculator icon and began to tally up the time I’ve spent studying French.
One hour a week from Grade 1 to Grade 6, is 1 x 42 x 6, is…only 242? Maybe it was two hours a week. 484. Okay.
Around 500 hours of class in high school. About the same in University. What about those 3 months in France? Can I put that down for 2,000 hours?
All my totals were a stretch. I added up the liberal estimates, pushing the “equal” button firmly. The number on the screen mocked me. I scrunched up my face. 3500 hours. Not ten thousand.
Not even close.
I mentally scanned through my short life, realizing that “eating,” “sleeping,” and “talking” were the only things I have practiced for ten thousand hours (which, my calculator informed me, is an enormous 416.67 days, or 1.14 years).
Great. I’m not even very good at those.
I’m no Outlier, and I’m certainly no language scholar.
My feet were heavy as I moved further uphill. This was just another chapter in my weird relationship with bilingualism. Terms like “studying French” or “learning a new language” always sound so simple–they don’t properly embody the embarrassment, frustration and word-wrestling I’ve been doing these last few years. It’s a rewarding process, but it always plays games with my confidence.
Or, at least, I always play games with my confidence. This time, I used a calculator and arbitrary standards in a rap song. Ten thousand hours? I thought bitterly. How is that possible?
By the time I reached the Quebec hostel, I had successfully chewed away most of my second language confidence. The words “Parlez-vous anglais?” practically fell out of my mouth. The lady at the front desk smiled back at me. “Yes, of course,” she responded, helping me check-in and stowing my bag. I told her thank you–didn’t even attempt a merci– and headed out the door.
I immediately felt bad about it. One of my personal rules is “love > fear.” It’s a cutesy and unspecific rule with about a million flaws, but I use it all the same. I use it because, in some moments, it’s a solid reminder. It was certainly a solid reminder as I stepped down the sunny Quebec City streets in search of breakfast. My fear of francophone judgement was overriding the hours (albeit not 10,000) that I’ve put into learning their beautiful language.
So I ordered my breakfast in French. They served me right back in French.
I asked for directions in French.
I went back to the hostel, and spoke to some francophone roommates. They asked if I could switch rooms so their friend, in another room, could bunk with them. I agreed. We sorted out those details in French, too.
I even met a friend from Ireland who couldn’t eat gluten, and inquired about the menu for him at a couple restaurants.
Not bad for 3,500 hours.
And so, as I get ready for my government bilingualism test and my fourth year courses en francais next year, I’m feeling just a little bit more confident. Just a bit. But for me, that bit is a really big deal.
So thank you, thank you Quebec. Thank you for not laughing at my accent, or switching to English when I mixed up my pronouns. Thank you for understanding when my imparfait was particularly imperfect. Most of all, thank you for serving me in French–and for smiling at the fact that I’m trying to speak your language.
Thank you for a great 3 days, Quebec. You’re really not as scary as everyone seems to think.
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…
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.
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:
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.)
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.”
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!”
To recap, a few pieces of advice if you ever visit Charlottetown:
Stay with someone awesome and central.
Look up Bob. Seriously. I will put you in touch personally, just drop me a line.
Eat potatoes. And seafood. And donair. Dude, just eat.
Go to the beach. This will be easy, since it seems that a good chunk of PEI is straight beach.
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.
Talk to any and everyone. Chances are, they will talk to you right back (and then some).
1. This city smells so, so good. Even as far out as the airport, your lungs and nose are filled instantly with the ocean breeze. I wish I could bottle up and take it with me.
2. Seduced by the scent, I headed down to the Halifax boardwalk right after checking into my hostel. I had a book with me, thinking I might be able to find a place to read. Instead, I was greeted by crowds and music and stages. Halifax Buskerfest was in full swing! Fact: the only thing better than a magic show is a magic show with a lively East Coast audience and a beautiful ocean backdrop.
3. Okay, so it was only day one, and I’m not usually inclined to feel homesick, but…if I do get to missing Ottawa, turns out the taste of home isn’t too far away.
4. Public transportation rocks out here. Besides having the world’s nicest driver on the bus downtown from the airport, Halifax also offers a ferry ride across the harbour as part of their public transportation for $2.24 (take that, overpriced Toronto Island ferry). I was extra spoiled yesterday, because for the Natal Day festivities the ferry was free!
5. Oh yeah, Natal Day. Totally didn’t see that coming, either. The day I arbitrarily chose to fly in (because, honestly, the plane ticket was the cheapest) turned out to be right in the middle of Halifax’s birthday party. Natal Day, a huge commemorative festival for Halifax-Dartmouth, is on all weekend. I had no idea! And a kickass festival “created with a commitment to provide low cost/no cost activities wherever possible”? Basically a backpacker’s dream.
6. All this came together when one of the buskers, a percussionist, pulled out his drumsticks for an impromptu performance on the ferry ride to Dartmouth. Using everything from seats to the ceiling to a woman’s wheelchair, street performer Peter Rabbit spontaneously took over the boat with his drumsticks as everyone watched in awe. I got a clip of it on my phone for you; Check it out:
6. Seafood is obviously a staple of any coastal visit. I kicked mine off with something called “Maritime Poutine” from a street vendor. It was just like any other poutine, except topped with some way-too-good breaded fish. Amazing. Possibly heart attacking inducing, but amazing.
7. Thanks to last night’s Natal Day festivities, I was able to check out some awesome free music, including the end of a free Joel Plaskett show and Slowcoaster (check them out in the video below). I’m always a sucker for a great concert (or two, or three…). It probably goes without saying, but the energy of the audiences out here is just amazing.
8. Fireworks, you guys. On my first day in town, they were putting on an epic fireworks show off the bridge. So much luck.
9. On the ferry back to Halifax after the fireworks and the music, I got to talking with an outgoing group of people–two of whom, I learned, had lived in Ottawa for a solid chunk of time. They invited me to come out with them for a few beers at a patio bar along the boardwalk. The live music and completely mixed crowd (everything from college kids to middle aged couples) was absolutely perfect, and my new friends couldn’t have been friendlier. I wasn’t even allowed to buy my own beer that night; “East Coast hospitality,” they argued, ensuring I always had a Keith’s in my hand.
10. After splitting a cab with my unexpected hosts, I returned to the hostel I’m staying in. I really, really like hostels. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I know I kinda have to like hostels. This one is kind of divey, small, and old, but…I really like it. The couch I’m sitting on as I write this is soft and springy from overuse, and the walls are marked lovingly with pen and stickers. It might not be luxury, but it’s a great place to lie my head (though I might need some earplugs to sleep through the snoring roommate tomorrow night!).
I am thoroughly convinced of two things: Life is a joke. And life is sacred.
Because of this, I love-love-love my education. But also because of this, I have a habit of taking courses because they sound funny.
Just funny. Not relevant to my interests (though, usually, they also fall into that category). Certainly not relevant to my degree. While sifting through possible electives, I eagerly dropkick away any chance at learning “something important” in favour of being able to chuckle inside my head.
Life is sacred; Life is a joke.
Last year, I took a class called “Jesus of Nazareth.” I could have taken something in my program. Or, if I felt so inclined, checked out comparative religion, the history of Christianity as a whole, or really anything with a more convenient time slot.
Instead, I chose instead to sit in a windowless lecture hall from 4-7 pm every Wednesday, tracking the historical Jesus and wishing I could read Coptic.
Why? Because I wanted to be able to yell “I’m going to Jesus class!” to my roommate as I sprinted out the door at 3:30.
She laughed. I laughed.
Tuition well spent.
This summer, I decided to take a class called “Canadian Society” for this same reason. It’s not as funny-sounding as Jesus class, I know, but between “Canada class” and “Cold War class,” I am getting a few of the raised eyebrows and “*snort* what?!” that I so crave.
Of course, my incessant need to bring out the sacred/funny in everything isn’t the only motivator. Canada Class is also supposed to prepare me for my trip across the country in August. Not because I expect travel advice from a jeans-‘n-teeshirt wielding sociology prof, but because it relates to the whole point of my trip: to crack the code of the “Canadian experience.” I want to understand what it means wear my Maple Leaf with so much pride. I want to come home with a nuanced, complicated, amusing, and (hopefully) optimistic view of the country. Somewhere in there, I hope my jokes about Canadian-isms will improve.
A little bit of funny. A little bit of sacred. A whole lot of time on the train.
I pulled out the term Canadian identity while discussing my plans with Michelle last week. “Our Grade 12 English teachers would be so proud,” she grinned, tossing me a friendly eyeroll.
This is the price I pay for hanging out with people I knew as a teenager. Michelle can pinpoint the exact childhood influence which planted the words in my mouth. In this case, my summer plans are the victim of too much Rick Mercer, a Grade 12 English unit, and hundreds of hours spent standing for the national anthem in public school.
I’m sure studying Canadian history for several years helped, too.
So did living in the United States, answering questions on behalf of “Canada” and “Canadians.” I leapt eagerly to represent my country, but I often fell flat. I filled my friends in on Ontario 101, disguising it as Canada 101. Sure, I had studied other areas using geography textbooks and google searches, but who am I kidding? I haven’t seen this country. I love it, it’s a part of me, I talk about it all-the-freakin-time, but…I haven’t seen it. My insights are incomplete.
I want to get it right next time.
So here I am. Taking Canada class. Taking a train across the country. Sociology is new to me, and I find it frustrating at times–I like patterns, but my brain tends to reject most large-scale generalizations. I’m much better at finding the exception to the rule. So I sit in fifth row, silently Wikipedia-ing counter-arguments to what the professor says (I don’t bring them up, not in a 100 person classroom, but I like to know that they exist). I wince every time someone makes a massive blanket statement or misconstrues a historical event.
But I’m learning about Canada. I think I am, anyways. At the very least, I’m learning how to think about Canada. I’m learning that approaching the collective identity of a MASSIVE nation won’t be easy. Especially not in a single month.
This is all to say that, yes, there is a reason behind my crazy plan to take a month off and backpack across the country. Yes, I am doing the prep work to make it happen–and that prep work includes “Canada class.” I guess we will see how that goes.
The prep work also includes booking train rides. This I have been able to (finally, finally) figure out.
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?
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.
As I walked down the neon city streets on Thursday night, the words ‘How DID I get here?’ went through my head. And they stayed there. And repeated themselves, over and over and over.
I don’t have a lot of clear, I-can-see-the-words-in-my-head thoughts, but these words were bold–big letters dripping with disbelief (sans serif letters, for you typography geeks).
‘How DID I get here?’
It wasn’t the defeated kind of ‘Ungh, HOW did I get here?.’ I know how that kind goes. That kind is behind the way-too-long minutes (hours?) spent sitting barefoot on the bed, ‘oh, I don’t even know. Maybe I should read a book or move to a different country or something.’ That kind has seen me walking uncomfortably to the edge of nowhere (which I have yet to find, by the way), face buried in cheap sunglasses. That kind powers searches for nearest place where it feels okay to cry out “Um, God? Hi. Can you or your kid or someone who knows what they’re doing please take it from here?”
No, on Thursday it was nothing like that.
But it wasn’t the excited ‘WOW, How did I get here?,’ either. I have had a few of those moments recently. When Sex, Lies, and Storytime started spinning around the internet and loading up with comments, I literally ran into the bathroom and freaked out in front of the mirror: “Ohmygod. Am I actually a writer now? I’m a writer now. People are reading what I write.” (<< that is the toned-down, less embarrassing version.). Two weeks ago, I was sitting in my little DC room, practicing guitar and keeping up with some internship work, when I was suddenly overwhelmed by the power of music and ‘Wow!’ the fact that I was a part of it. I felt lucky. I felt good. ‘How did I get here?’
Thursday night was fun, but it wasn’t profoundly exciting. Nor was it profoundly upsetting. It was ‘How DID I get here?,’ a mix of amazement and…confusion, I think. Not good confusion or bad confusion, just the genuine I need to place this moment somewhere in my brain. Where do I place it? Where does it fit?
The thought wouldn’t budge.
‘How DID I get here?’
I haven’t faced those words a whole lot these last few years. I used to play the ‘How DID I get here?’ game all the time–when growing pains meet the travel bug, you rarely know completely where you are, how you got there, or what to think about it. But the last few years, I have just been living in Ottawa. Ottawa, which feels so strongly like Home. I never really had to consider my life there through the disbelief lens. It was just “adjusting,” and then “adjusted.” There were times I felt a little lost in what my life looked like, but I knew exactly how I got there. And I knew exactly where I was going.
Except, I didn’t. Because it turns out, I was going to the United States. I just never knew it.
I didn’t know I was going to end up in Washington DC….I still don’t understand quite how I ended up here, really. I know I applied for a few internships. I know I got a position at the Smithsonian. My days are spent in an office across from the National Mall. I eat breakfast every morning. By 5 pm, I have usually overdone Diet Coke and brainpower. My Saturdays are spent at the Holocaust Museum. My Sundays are spent spiritually addressing the fact my Saturdays are spent at the Holocaust Museum (easier said than done, but it’s important for me to be there).
It’s not a particularly mind-boggling lifestyle, but I can’t quite figure out how it ended up being my lifestyle.
I guess I’m asking you, then…Do those words (or something similar) ever go through your head? Do you ever go hunting for a comprehensive narrative as to why-how-why your life is what it is?
Here’s my theory: Most lives don’t fit into any sort of beginning-middle-end box. Even if they do, most of us are probably just hanging out in the “middle” looking for reasons and analyzing our lives like it’s the “end”. And most people don’t quite fit where they are, at least not all the time.
I think a lot of us look for timelines and reasons why-how-why when really, it’s not supposed to make sense. Not as much sense as we would like it to make, that is. And so I go back to this, as I always do:
“You are where you were always going, and the shape of home is under your fingernails.” – from the poem Transient by Al Purdy
Let’s start by addressing a point one reader/friend made after last week’s post – “You gotta stop stomping on all your prized possessions, dude.”
As much as I would like to defend my trademark…he was right. Here’s how that one ended:
[If you missed part one of “Things I Couldn’t Live Without (and the lessons they taught me),” you can read it here.]
What it taught me: Don’t underestimate “amateur.”
This is the latest and greatest lesson I have picked up. Seriously, if you only read one of these, read this one.
The record company I’m interning for has the single greatest outlook on music, art, and culture that I have ever experienced. The people who have made Folkways what it is (guys like Moe Asch, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger) are wholly inspirational. Take one of Guthrie’s famous quotes: “Anyone who uses more than two chords is just showing off.”
W.G. keeps it real.
A few days ago, the interns all started talking about their musical backgrounds–the instruments they played, the classes they took, even the degrees they held. I tried to slide in under the radar with this one, but we’re a small group. The conversation eventually turned to me.
“How about you, Shauna? Are you a musician?”
Awkward. “Well…I mean…I play music, sometimes. I picked up the keyboard, and I sing I guess, and I’m learning guitar. But…I’m not any good.”
You know that feeling in the air when you’ve just said something out of line? The chatter stopped. One of the interns, a guy who had gone to college for music, turned to me sharply.
“Don’t say that. Seriously. Don’t say you aren’t ‘Good.’ Do you love music?” I started to answer, but he did it for me. “Yes. Do you play music? Yes. Do you love it?”
“Absolutely. Yes.” I rubbed my thumb over my fingers, blistering from practice the night before.
“Then you’re a musician.”
You know what? He’s probably right. Sure, I have only had a guitar for a month now. I learn how to strum from YouTubers with cute accents. I know a few songs… if you count slamming down G & C chords over and over while reciting the lyrics to Thrift Shop.
It’s perpetual amateur hour in my bedroom, and that’s totally okay.
The fact is, I listen to, learn about, and talk music all day. I get inspired. When the clock strikes 5, and I race home so I can get to my own instrument. I play, and it’s good for me. It’s sometimes even good for other people–I recently received an anonymous message from someone who was at a New Years party where I played the keyboard :
A friend of mine from the New Year’s party (you haven’t met him) wanted me to tell you that: “[you are] really talented and really made [his] new years to hear [your] performance.[you] resparked [his] passion for music, [he’s] re-picking up piano again… after a 12 year break”
Is that not the most beautiful thing? I guess that in the end, loving and sharing music is what it’s all about.
6) Curling mousse
What it taught me: Embrace what’cha got.
My hair. Oh goodness, what to say about my hair?
Well, I guess the first thing to say is that I have hair at all, which hasn’t always been the case.
Yeah, I shaved my head in high school. We’ll call it an exercise in philanthropy, since I raised a bit of money and donated the hair to charity. Mostly, though, the head shaving was a result of the same “Well, why the heck not?” attitude that landed me in DC. It’s a repeat of why I dyed my hair brown: I told someone in passing that I would totally do it. The opportunity presented itself. I totally did it.
Most. Freeing. Thing. Ever.
The whole process was a pretty big deal for a 15-year-old girl, especially one with braces and glasses (the word you’re looking for is “teenage heartthrob”). Up until that point, I had all but hidden behind long blonde locks. If my haircut was half an inch shorter than necessary, there would be tears. My 9th grade email address was busy_being_blonde (heh. this was also my creative peak). Not surprisingly, the head shaving was liberating. My hair doesn’t define me. Imagine that.
Since then, my hair has been just about every length. It has been most styles, too. One of the many things I’ve learned from all this is that my hair is irrevocably curly. I mean, it’s really, truly, naturally curly. It’s not going to be un-curly without a fight…and I do not have time for a fight. All I have time for is a mousse.
When it comes to my curls, I can’t beat ’em, and I’m no longer in the business of shaving them right off. The only option left is to join ’em.
7) ‘Senorita Margarita’ body wash
What it taught me:Smell is associated with memory. If you’re moving on, change it up.
New body wash is my #1 weapon against homesickness.
I first discovered this trick in high school. I was headed to France for an exchange, and was terrified of myself. I figured France would be awesome, but it was my first time away from home and I didn’t want to mess it up with my emotions. I wanted to be able to take advantage of all that awesome. I needed to make sure I didn’t get homesick.
I knew smell could trigger nostalgia, and I wasn’t taking any chances. I very deliberately left my collection of vanilla soaps at home. It was a great call.
Smell and memory have the craziest relationship. I know you cannot completely hide from scent-triggers, but when you move to a new place, it could be worth it to smell like a new you.
(And hey, you never know…maybe I’ll end up bringing Senorita Margarita home with me.)
Remember, this is the second in a series of three posts on “Things I couldn’t live without (and the lessons they taught me).” What would make your list? Comment below with your list, or blog your own version and throw up a link!