Category Archives: Canada

A finely stacked woodpile, skating in the Canadian outdoors…welcoming the New Year

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“Birch is most definitely the cadillac of wood, kept us warm growing up,” Ian tells me, fondly recalling winters of his prairie youth. We and a dozen others are gathered around a crackling bonfire in British Columbia on New Year’s Eve day. Stacked in the fresh snow is a pile of wood …readied to keep the fire ablaze.

Despite a temperature of -12 Celsius, the late afternoon gathering is lively and it feels perfectly natural to socialize in the beautiful outdoors. Neighbours wander up with a drink and a ‘Happy New Year’ on their lips, many clutching a pair of skates.

For beyond the fresh air and the chance to greet friends, the other attraction is the open-air skating rink. A few meters from where we’re gathered, the glassy stretch of ice beckons as keenly as a deep-blue pool of water…if you’re a skater that is.

Skating on outdoor ice is a hallmark of Canadian winters, about as idyllic as it gets. Two of my sons are with us and they can’t get their skates on fast enough. Having played hockey in various countries we’ve called home – Oman, Dubai, Norway, the U.S. – the opportunity to strap on the ‘blades’ in the Canadian outdoors is part of their identity. But perhaps that is over-thinking it… it’s just unbridled joy.

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Snow shovels ready at the outdoor rink, near Kimberley BC

They glide and weave effortlessly over the frozen pond. They and longtime friends grab hockey sticks and shoot pucks at the net, shouting into the cold December air, Feels so great to be out here! For a longtime hockey mom, it is music to my ear-muffed ears on this last day of 2016.

We’ve delighted in seeing countless outdoor rinks this holiday season in the small towns in our area…Cranbrook, Fernie and Kimberley. This is what you do. It’s how many families spend time together, building traditions all the while. Perhaps the rink is the setting for a date or where you just ‘hang out’ and meet friends. Or maybe you play a game of shinny – pond hockey – with whoever happens to be around. It’s all of this and more; it’s part of being from the ‘great white north’. This is where the deep and abiding love of skating and hockey is born in the hearts of many Canadians.

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Skating in Fernie, BC

My own boys learned to skate on Grandpa’s pond. On visits home for Christmas the first question was usually, “How’s the ice Grandpa, can we skate?” If the answer was ‘yes’, out came the wide snow shovels. Back and forth they were pushed, clearing the snow for action…anticipation rising as each strip of ice revealed itself.

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A Sunday afternoon in Cranbrook, BC

Countless hours were spent with family on that frozen wonderland. The grind and rasp of metal blades on the uneven surface, the crack and thunk of a flexing ice sheet, the elated shouts of kids at play, the bark of dogs chasing the puck…the sounds of winter ingrained in our memories. And now for life, the guys can enjoy a day like today and feel at home on the ice.

With dusk approaching, more people arrive and I smile at a small girl on the bench at the edge of the ice. Her mother is lacing up her figure skates and she’s clearly excited. The ice is busy, yet the skaters will be mindful of a beginner; memories of learning how to skate stay with you. It’s tough. You stumble, you fall, you get back up over and over again until you get it. And then, like riding a bike, the sense of freedom and satisfaction it brings is thrilling.

Back at the bonfire, I continue the discussion of wood with Ian and our good friend Nolan.img_1740 The brothers grew up in Saskatchewan where a weighty stack of wood got you through the biting cold winters.

“Birch is ideal,” the two confirm, adding some science to their assertion. “It doesn’t spit, good energy density and it burns hot.”

I admit that I had ‘smuggled’ some ornamental birch logs into my shipment when we left Norway and on reflection, it had always burned well in our classic Norwegian fireplace.

Some treasured pieces of it now happen to be part of my decor in India, of all places. Perhaps like the wooden skis propped in our office, the birch reminds me of my roots. Of growing up in cold winters; in the snow, on a ski hill, on the ice and yes, often huddled cozily around a fireplace. But there’s far more to wood than meets the eye. “Did you know that the chopping and stacking of wood can be a bit of an obsession in Norway, even takes on an art form,” I offer as someone adds more pinewood to the bonfire.

Yes, apparently it’s common knowledge that wood will dry well if there’s enough space for a mouse to run hither and tither throughout the pile. And stacking that wood is not to be taken lightly. Different types of wood should be stacked accordingly and in Norway, besides the practical piles like a sun-wall pile, there’s a round stack, a closed square, a standing round stack or the v-shape pile. Who knew?

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There are also the sculptured woodpiles. I have learned that wood, with its complex hues, also offers an outlet for creativity that one might not expect. The end of a pice of oak is a deep brown. Pine and spruce radiate yellow tones with a little help from the sun, whereas cut ends of elm, aspen and maple display as muted whites. And apparently the rich alder is also a sought-after shade for stacking aficionados.

It seems there’s no end to woodsy creativity, One might ‘sculpt’ a massive fish or even a portrait of the king and queen. I recall that while we lived in Stavanger a retired engineer had created a woodpile portrait of Queen Sonja and King Harold V, in tribute of the king’s seventy-fifth birthday. This masterpiece had been preceded by a portrait of a composer and a likeness of the local mayor. How wonderful to find creativity in wood (and gain a bit of notoriety!)

Yet if it that all sounds a little mundane, there is something far more rousing about woodpiles. “Ok gentlemen,” I joke with my friends at the bonfire, “by any chance did your prospective wives happen to inspect your woodpile before they said yes?” There’s a reason I’m asking of course.

In the late nineteenth century in the American state of Maine, it is reported that young women might determine the suitability of a husband by the condition of his woodpile. Call it a folksy tradition or not, but the general rule was thus:

img_3066Upright and solid pile: the same could be said of the man.

Low pile: a good cautious man but could be shy or weak.

Unusual shape: freethinking and maybe an open spirit but construction could be weak.

Not much wood: be ready for a life from hand to mouth.

Unfinished pile, some logs here and there: unstable, lazy, maybe prone to drink?

Old and new wood together: be suspicious, might be some stolen wood there.

No woodpile: forget it, there must be more suitable candidates!

I think of the wood pile at the back of our mountain home. No it surely isn’t perfect, but the wood has been enthusiastically chopped. At our house you never have to ask twice to have firewood, our guys relish the opportunity to channel their inner woodsman. There’s no question they find a certain satisfaction in the process.

It is said that chopping your own wood is therapeutic and contemplative, even atavistic. A chance to wield an axe, use brute power – a gratifying correlation between effort and output.

Back in 1854 in his book Walden, Henry Thoreau extolled the virtues of not only chopping wood but living a simple life in natural surroundings. It was Thoreau who observed that wood warms twice over, once when you chop it and again when you burn it.

A seemingly simple observation that just happens to be inscribed on a small cushion in our home. Filled with pine needles, it evokes the spirit of the outdoors and nature’s simple pleasures.

I’m curious to see how our neighbourhood measures up in the wood stacking department. I notice finely-stacked woodpiles and logs waiting to be split and chopped, all protected by snow-clad trees and cabin eaves. This is the kind of place where snowboards, skis, snowshoes and sleds lean against houses, fond embrace of the mountain lifestyle. It’s where snow piles high, gathering on roofs and resting on tamarack, pine and birch. Indeed, the reminders are everywhere…embrace nature’s beauty.

We said our farewells, hung up the snowshoes and covered our not-so finely stacked woodpile. Now from our other home in India, restored to face the challenges and the new opportunities the year will bring, I wish you all a joyful and fulfilled New Year. I hope you’ll revel in the beauty of nature…wherever you may be…Terry Anne

A Snowy Winter Collection…an antique fur & the new year that awaits

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‘Doll-like’ buildings in Lubeck, Germany

My winter collection isn’t one of lavish coats and fur-lined boots that protect from the frozen air; it’s more a collection of memories. ‘Doll-like’ European buildings dusted with powder-fine snow, simple wreaths bidding welcome to candle-lit homes, snowshoeing through fairy-tale pines.

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Wreaths bidding welcome

It’s usual for me to be home this time of year, in the mountains of British Columbia. I’m mindful that many of my favourite places, my most cherished memories, are of cold countries where a chilled climate quickens the pulse and deepens the senses. Even as the dream-like scenery fills me with wonderment and exhilaration, I yield to the serenity of wintery landscapes.

In a month or so we depart for warmer climes, to our next overseas posting. With endearing memories of the holiday season, these first weeks in January find me calm and peaceful as I’m surrounded by feathery snow, bluebird skies and stately stands of larch and pines.

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Old Stavanger, resplendent after a snowfall

At the turning of the year, WordPress has reminded me of the year passed, of the one-hundred and some countries where my blog was read and of those places that I wandered to in 2015; Kazakhstan, Spain, Malta, Thailand, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Malaysia. Most of those destinations are in fact warmer climates, yet Kazakhstan and Canada indulged my penchant for snow.

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An antique fur to warm

In Kazakhstan my recycled fur coat from the ’50’s was donned once or twice, melding with the local fashion to combat deep-freeze temperatures. The coat embraced me as we lingered alongside frozen inlets of the Caspian and trudged through snow-hushed Soviet-style streets. Ironically, that coat is packed in a shipment awaiting the next posting, one in which fur will be as useless as cozy mittens and hefty snow shovels.

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Powder-fine snow in Stavanger, Norway

I find a photo of myself snug in the antique fur in another country that I associate with glorious winter days…Norway.

Old Stavanger was resplendent after a snowfall, its wooden buildings a serene backdrop for shades of ethereal whites, contrasted with sprigs of heather and fresh pine on door stoops.

And of that old Winnipeg fur, ideally it should be here in Canada as I enjoy these last winter days before we transition yet again. Instead, I’m gathering my wardrobe of summery clothes to be shipped along with the things we need to build a new nest; collectibles, furniture and books. All that is important…except for our three sons. At this stage in our lives we live in different countries for much of the year; we’re proud of them and supportive, we’ll miss them dearly.

Our family has been happily ensconced under one roof over the holiday season, the first occasion since this time last year. We’ve seen each other throughout the year at various times and places, but to all gather around our table to dine and linger over conversation that we’ve waited a year to enjoy…well, it’s very cherished.

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Tranquility in British Columbia

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Fairy-tale pines

The season has seen us skiing and snowshoeing, playing games, making merry…being a family. We’ve regaled each other with stories and shared plans for the upcoming year. For me the next four months will be busy and challenging; a mentoring role in Amsterdam at the FIGT Conference and shortly thereafter, a trip to Malaysia to collaborate on a book project.

And not forgetting, the move in February to the ninth country that we will call ‘home’. So it seems my new year is to be filled with inspiring ventures and challenges, and most certainly some interesting travels. I wish my readers near and far, a fulfilling year in all the ways you wish yours to be.

But for now, for a few more precious weeks, amidst the planning and preparations, visas and packing, I’ll embrace the treasure that is winter. My crackling fire will warm me and these comforting walls that have welcomed us safely home, will give strength to embrace the endeavours ahead.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the destination of the impending move…it’s Bangalore. It’s India!

 

I’ll most certainly keep you posted,

Warm regards and a very fulfilling New Year, Terry Anne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ktunaxa people, Gordie’s story…part two

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The former St. Eugene Mission School on an autumn day

This is a continuation from part one

“My grandmother brought me to the school, it was 1957. We pulled up in a horse and buggy, my brother and sister were already here which helped a little.”

I’m standing with Gordie at the bottom of the steps that lead to the imposing door of the St. Eugene Mission, once a Residential School. It is easy to imagine the foreboding, the instinctive fear that young Native children like Gordie felt when they entered the school for their first ten month term.

“I was frightened and remember the feeling of resentment towards my grandma. She had helped raise me. It wasn’t until later that I realized she didn’t have a choice but to let me go.”

Gordie is tall and lean, his long greying hair topped by a baseball cap. It’s the tradition of many First Nations to keep their hair long, it’s an extension of their spiritual self.

Having offered to give me a tour and talk about his time at the school, Gordie greets me warmly this cool autumn morning. He’s just finished his shift as the night-time superintendent of the St Eugene Mission Resort. As a student, Gordie lived and breathed this school, his memories are deeply etched. He now walks through it with some measure of peace and acceptance.

From 1912 to 1970, more than 5000 First Nation children were removed from their families to comply with the government assimilation program and brought to this school, one of eighty former schools across Canada. However, its perfect postcard setting in the interior of British Columbia is deceptive.

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Refurbished and renewed

“I suppose I was lucky, I was dropped off by a family member. Some kids were left here by Indian Agents, whisked away before their families even knew they were gone.”

Gordie explains the cruel truth that Agents were often paid to ‘round up’ ‘Indian’ children, especially in remote areas. The children were sometimes taken when they ran to a plane that had landed, then spirited away with the promise of a ‘ride’.

“They were given a number, with no consideration of their name, then placed in a Residential School.”

Gordie will tell you that this was by no means the worst of the Residential Schools. The entrance of the former St . Eugene Mission School is now a hotel lobby. It has a welcoming and dignified atmosphere, vastly different than it once was. Solid in their longevity, the red brick walls are invisibly marred with strife and untold hurts. People like Gordie are now willing to tell their story.

“Our hair was chopped off, and from that moment the school did its best to eradicate our language and culture. This is where you waited to be taken away by the nuns to the dormitories.”

‘Indian Hall’, I believe Gordie called it as we begin a tour and conversation that lasts five hours, but felt like just a few. He points to a black and white photo near the front desk. The image shows a group of older girls gathered in front of the school, smiling proudly astride their horses.

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Gordie Sebastian with a plaque that pays tribute to his role in the refurbishment of St. Eugene Mission

“Do you know anything about horses?” Gordie asks, pointing to their bridles and saddles. “Does this look like we were poor or wanting? No we had a culture, a life, it was taken away.”

I’m instinctively drawn to the collection of photos in the nearby corridor that I had been so taken with the previous day. Gordie reveals parts of his story through them, bringing the images to life with his narrative.

A seemingly typical school is portrayed; a hockey team, the school band, a choir, children in uniforms seated at their desks.

“It looks like you were involved in a lot of activities?”

“We were. Saturday was hockey, we also had a baseball field,” Gordie tells me.

“Are you in any of these?” I ask as my finger scans over children positioned in front of the school steps. Standing behind the children are a number of priests and nuns, some dressed in black habits, others in white.

“No I usually had some kind of injury when it was time for photos. One time I had a bruise on my eye from a hockey puck so couldn’t be in the photo. It might have looked like I had been hit by one of the staff…”

Gordie is referring to the now well-documented mental, physical and sexual abuse, even death, that students suffered at the hands of the priests and nuns who came from afar to work in these schools.

“I didn’t have as many issues as some. I was from one of the more respected Native families so was usually safe from the abuse of the staff and other students. My dad held some sway.”

Gordie Sebastian comes from a long line of prominent Ktunaxa who owned and bred horses. He points to a photo of a group of men, four sit on their horses. One of them wears a blanket, tucked-in at the waist.

“That’s my great-grandfather, Sabas, Joseph Sebastian. He was a medicine man.”

A medicine man was a highly respected member of an Indian tribe. They were healers or ‘shaman’ who did not believe in bloodshed.

Gordie explains that Sabas and the tribal head at the time, Chief Isadore, believed that no man had the right to erect fences on the Ktunaxa land. This held fast until European and Canadian settlers usurped their ancestral land following the signing of Treaty 7 in 1887. This treaty confined the First Nations peoples to Reserves, where many of the Ktunaxa stil live today.

Gordie gestures to the photo of St. Eugene Mission, the once cluster of tipis and houses around the church where his forebears would have gathered.

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Red brick walls

He shows me a detail that had escaped me. A house stands with the top of a tipi sticking out from its roof. Like most First Nations, the Ktunaxa people didn’t adapt well to the confines of a house.

“That’s Indian Pete’s house, set his tipi up in the middle of it.”

In another photo dated 1887, a man dressed in baggy trousers and a waist coat stands in front of the St. Eugene Church. He smiles widely, beside him is a priest. They seem to know each other.

“That’s Father Coccola and Indian Pete. They paid to have the church built. In fact Indian Pete paid our way into heaven,” Gordie says with a  chuckle.

Gordie is open and candid as he explains the more serious and devastating impact the Residential Schools have had on generations of First Nations people.

“But I’ve also been told by some people that these were the best of days, away from poverty and their alcoholic parents on the Reserves.” Gordie explains that many parents weren’t well adapted to parenting as they only saw their children during the two-month summer break and perhaps for a few hours once every three weeks. Also many of them had been students themselves; their own wounds ever present.

“My father was a student here, he never told me but I think he had been sexually abused. He always checked us for signs.” Gordie says quietly.

We talk about the Priests and the Nuns whose frequent indifference to their students’ humanity exacted so much pain.

“Some of the priests weren’t that bad, but the nuns were battle-axes. Some of them could teach well enough but they had little or no compassion. Through their actions we were taught hate. It was drilled into our heads that we were useless…little more than savages.”

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The healing power of the tipi

Perhaps because of Gordie’s influential family, he reports having pushed the envelope a little further than other students. By the time he was a young teenager, he railed against his situation.

“One time I argued with a nun over a basic fact that she was teaching,” Gordie confided. “Now you know that St. Eugene Mission sits between two mountain ranges, the Rockies and the Purcells. Well she had the two ranges mixed up and I told her so. We argued back and forth, I wasn’t backing down. All of a sudden she hit me and I pushed back.”

Gordie was made to sit in the Priests’ office for the day as punishment. Once he told his side of the story, he wasn’t reprimanded further.

“Did she teach the correct mountain ranges after that,” I ask.

“Oh no, she kept telling us the wrong thing,” he says, making light of the story all these years later.

But not all punishment was that easy. Male students who ran away from the school were often found again by the Indian Agents and returned to the school. For the next two weeks they were forced to dress as girls. As shaming as this would have been, it pales into comparison of other punishments that Gordie leaves untold.

I’m particularly haunted by his accounts of the tuberculosis outbreaks. Nodding to a photo of a clearly ill student, his head bandaged, he precedes to tell me of the infectious conditions that existed in the school.

“That student had TB, he shouldn’t have been with other students,” Gordie says matter-of-factly. The rate of deaths in the schools from influenza and TB far exceeded that of elsewhere in Canada.

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The St. Eugene Mission Resort and Golf Course

Unlike many Residential Schools, only one death occurred here.

“This is her,” Gordie says pointing to a young girl. “She died when snow fell onto her from the roof. It’s good that her relatives have been here. Her name was Anette.”

Late in the interview, Gordie and I have coffee in the former chapel. It’s being readied for a function and we sit at a long table that will soon be set with linen and fine china. I’m told that healing occurs at St. Eugene on a regular basis. As painful as it is, many former students and their families return to confront the hurts of the past.

“The tipi outside is there for a reason. Even as the school was being re-purposed, it was provided for prayers and counselling.”

We glance out towards the tall white canvas. I learn that the poles of a tipi represent the different spiritualities of all people, yet they are bound together as one.

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A painting of Elder Mary Paul

“Facing the past is difficult, but it brings peace. Just as Elder Mary Paul gave us the permission to do so.”

Gordie had pointed out the painting of Elder Paul as we entered the lobby. It is with her blessing that the re-construction of this building was undertaken.

We make our way upstairs to the ‘inner sanctuary’ of the school. Now mostly hotel rooms, Gordie points out the areas which were once dormitories, kitchens and mess halls. The rooms of the nuns and priests were close by.

My sense of this building’s history is suddenly very real. I’m shown the place where Gordie’s bed had stood. We look toward the window and beyond, where the road lies.

“At least I was able to look out of the window and see my father or grandfather pass on the road once in a while. Many kids were far, far from home.”

I’m shown where a young boy stood on a precarious ledge while attempting to run away. I see the burn marks from two arson attempts on the school. I become emotional as I contemplate the daunting stairs that girls as young as four had to negotiate in the middle of the night to go to the washroom. I feel their loneliness, the longing for their home, the yearning for a mother’s touch.

“There are 68 stairs,” Gordie tells me. “I should know, it was my job to sweep and scrub them.”

He tells me it was here that a young student was kicked down the stairs by a priest, tumbling helplessly to the bottom. Thankfully he lived.

a-first-nation-partnership-success-story-8-638“One of the workers saw it happen and pinned the priest up against the wall by the throat. He warned him never to hurt a student again,” Gordie recounts. “The next day we noticed that all of the straps had been removed from the classrooms.”

As the students reached their mid teens, I imagine control must have become more difficult. By the time Gordie is this age, one of the ‘Fathers’ uses government money to fund a swimming pool and provide horses for the students. Gordie takes on the role of the ‘horse guy.’

“Finally on Sunday afternoons we were allowed to leave the school premises and ride free on our land.”

I agree with Gordie how important that must have been; that sense of independence and freedom. This also evolved naturally as the older students were sent to a local school to complete their education.

“It didn’t get much better for us. We weren’t Native anymore and we weren’t ‘white’, so we didn’t fit in. We were ‘apples’…white on the inside but red on the outside.”

Gordie was eventually asked to leave his new school over an incident that he didn’t explain. When his father found out, he was also told to leave the house. He was seventeen and on his own. Gordie went north to work in the logging industry.

I don’t hear the entire story of the years between then and now. But I know a number of family members passed away due to alcohol abuse. And I know Gordie is raising the young daughter of a relative who still battles with the trauma of Residential School.

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Solace and Peace

I also know that Gordie is one of the good guys. Not only is he helping to heal his own family, but also many of those who walk through the doors of St. Eugene Mission. They seek solace and peace from the past.

I admire Gordie greatly.

An autumn of colour, a discovery of the Ktunaxa people…part one

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“Dappled with crimson, copper and golden leaves”

There are times when a story travels along an unexpected path, bringing you to a place you were hesitant, yet curious to venture into. Once enveloped and drawn into its emotion, you know you must share it.

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Fall, against a blue metal roof

I set out with the intention of writing something less significant than the story that unfolded. I simply wanted to convey the splendour of autumn in Kimberley and the East Kootenays.

This broad valley, book-ended by the Purcell mountains and the Rockies, is ablaze with colour. Nature has dappled crimson, copper and golden leaves onto a backdrop of stately pines and tall firs…a vast Monet canvas, breathtaking in its scale. Evening skies parade spectacular vistas as alpenglow brushes lavender and indigo over jagged peaks. Each dusk comes just that little bit earlier as autumn settles in and winter looms.

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Hues of autumn

It’s unusual that I’m here to appreciate this season. This time last year I had just joined my husband in Kazakhstan and recall yearning for the hues and trappings of autumn.

It’s now before me; a riot of nature, a time of harvest and impending hibernation. I marvel at the changes in our yard/garden where deep ruby leaves cling to barbed branches, nature’s natural deer proofing. Delicate red maple leaves flutter onto the lawn, each one cookie-cutter perfect. I see the familiar doe grazing nearby. Her two fauns have grown through the summer, their white Bambi-like patches now replaced by a thick coat that will warm them through the first winter.

A trail of delicate leaves

A trail of delicate leaves

And so I’ve revelled in these tranquil days…treasuring time with friends and family, savouring walks through fallen leaves, climbing the ski hill to be awed and inspired. An early dusting of snow on the mountains hints at nature’s march of the seasons.

In the spirit of autumn, I sign up for a canning workshop. We chop plump tomatoes, garlic, onions and luscious peppers. Large steaming canning pots transform the colourful chunks into flavourful homemade salsa. We work together to sieve the recipe into tiny mason jars, dunking them back into boiling water to preserve.

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Plump tomatoes and luscious peppers

Mason jars of prized preserves

Throughout the evening we laugh and learn with new people. I meet Dirk from Wildsight. He and his colleagues work within the community to protect regional ecology and promote sustainable lifestyles. Organizing grass-root events and workshops along with the Kimberley Farmer’s Market, Wildsight champions many issues that locals are passionate about.

As we leave the workshop with our prized preserves, Dirk implores us to use the Open Gate Garden, a communal vegetable patch.

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Kimberley Open Gate Garden

“You don’t have to work in it, but there’s still vegetables to be had,” he says encouragingly. Taking him on his word, the next day I fill a small basket of tasty sharp arugula and leafy kale. I chide myself that I hadn’t known about the garden throughout the summer but resolve to do some weeding here next summer. A meagre contribution for the opportunity to pick fresh produce at will. Vegetable gardens in Kimberley are typically fenced from the groups of deer that roam and help themselves to weeds, flowers and those elusive veggies.

The mingling of reds

The mingling of reds

Colours beckon at every turn. Metal roofs of reds, greens and blues cap many buildings in Kimberley; vivid backdrops for the changing foliage. More importantly metal sheeting is practical, helping shed the thick blankets of winter snow…to be honest the odd spring or autumn snowfall as well!

“Vivid backdrops for the changing foliage”

This technique of roofing, adapted in Quebec in the late 18th century, was referred to as ‘metal roofing Canadian style.’ Wonderfully they suit this mountain town. Actually Kimberley is a small city, competing with a few others as the city with the highest elevation in Canada.

On one of those rare Sundays that I’m alone, I drive a short while and take a walk on a warm, cloudless afternoon. With my tinkling bear bell and pepper-spray ready at my hip, I climb a butte, an almost conical hill rising from the valley floor. It’s a walk that invites reflection…it overlooks the traditional land of the Ktunaxa, the Kootenay.

I gaze out over barbed wire and faded green fence posts, out to distant horses grazing in tawny fields. The majestic Rocky Mountains rise above this ancestral home of the Ktunaxa. I’ve tramped through here before but today I linger, conjuring an image of a time when horses roamed free and tipis dotted the landscape.

Looking out the land of the Ktunaxa

Gazing out to the land of the Ktunaxa

A mere 130 years ago, this land was all theirs. They were not nomadic people ‘just passing through’. They had hunted, fished and gathered in this territory for more than 10,000 years. The Ktunaxa lived a spiritual life, in complete rhythm with the land. Obtaining all their food, medicine, clothing and shelter from nature, their reverence for this land was rooted in their culture. Then it all changed…abruptly.

A few days later, I find myself on their reserve, ostensibly to take a few photos. Or was it with the hope that I’d learn something, draw someone into conversation, make a connection?

St. Eugene Mission Church

St. Eugene Mission Church

I meet Dorothy Alpine.

I drive into the ‘new’ school yard of the Ktunaxa. The playground is alive with chatter. The school is attractive with its basic architecture, standing in the shadow of St. Eugene Mission Church. I take photos of the church and its fading white facade. Its precarious yet enduring steeple and crosses, all set against an impossibly blue sky. Built in 1897, it seems out of place on this patch of open prairie, encircled by low rolling hills that merge into the mountains beyond.

I soon chat with a lady enjoying the afternoon sun and casually ask about the history of the church. I broach that other subject; the old school, the former ‘Indian Residential School’ across the road.

“You’re in luck!” she tells me. “There’s Dorothy driving up, she’s the one you should speak to.”

I’m introduced and Dorothy graciously invites me into the school. As the Traditional Knowledge and Culture Instructor for this tribe of the Ktunaxa, the St. Mary’s band, she is committed to preserving the history and culture of her people. She is petite with a warm smile and kind eyes.

A steadfast steeple and crosses

steeple and crosses

“This was all the St. Eugene Mission,” Dorothy says, the sweep of her hand indicating not only the church, but also encompassing the cluster of wooden houses and tipis that surrounded it at the end of the 19th century.

“Right here was the meeting place of our people, the tribes of the Ktunaxa whose land stretched to the areas of Creston, Fairmont, Windermere and into Alberta, Montana, Washington and Idaho.” I would later read it was a vast 70,000 square kilometres of land; the size of Scotland.

Dorothy takes the time to write the names of the other ‘bands’ in the Ktunaxa language. Zaq’am she writes for St. Eugene Village.

Dorothy Alpine, framed by a colourful rendition of the 'new' school

Dorothy Alpine, with a colourful painting of the ‘new’ school

“Back in my grandfather’s time, about 1884, there was already a one room school that the missionaries had set up. Eventually Father Coccola was put in charge here.”

Father Nicolas Coccola was French and ventured to the ‘wilds’ of Western Canada in 1881. He would ultimately spend 63 years as a missionary, working with eight different First Nation Tribes. Tasked with the charge of St. Eugene Mission in 1887, Father Coccola also taught, provided medical attention and built houses. He had the help of the Sisters of Providence.

“They did a lot of good,” Dorothy says, “but we didn’t adapt well to houses. Our houses were mostly tipis, we had the first mobile homes after all,” she quips with a chuckle.

“Is it true that Father Coccola built the St. Eugene church, I hear most of it was transported from Italy?”

“Yes that’s true but it wasn’t just him, there was Indian Pete as well.”

I learn that soon after Coccola arrived in the area he staked a claim with a partner, Pierre Cronin, or Indian Pete as he was known. They had discovered valuable ore. Before long the St. Eugene mine yielded a good return, allowing both men to contribute to the the building of St. Eugene Mission Church.

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Explaining the creation story of the Ktunaxa

Dorothy explains that despite the Ktunaxa’s creation story, they believe that different beliefs are all under one God. Going to church was therefore a continuation of their spiritual experience to some extent and most importantly, a meeting place.

The Government and the arrival of European settlers had not only stripped the First Nations of vast amounts of land (which led to Indian Reserves) but also of their right to hold traditional gatherings and ceremonies, such as the potlatch. Thus for many of the Ktunaxa, the church was very much a compromise for what they had lost.

The Mission grew into a self-supporting community with the first flour mill in the region, a school and hospital. Yet I know that things changed drastically in 1912; the year that St. Eugene Mission School was built.

Residential schools were established by the government with the intent of ‘taking the Indian out of the child’ and assimilation to the ‘white man’s culture’. The St. Eugene Mission was the first comprehensive ‘Industrial and Residential’ school to be built in the Canadian West.

It’s a striking Spanish-Colonial style building that rises abruptly out of the prairie, incongruous even in its stately beauty. I’m well aware that the walls of these former Residential schools hold stories that are difficult to comprehend.

“Dorothy did you go to the school?”

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St. Eugene Mission area in the late 1800’s

“Oh yes and my two sisters as well, we had no choice. Our parents would have gone to jail if we hadn’t.”

I learn that Federal law dictated that all First Nation children were to attend Residential schools; to be assimilated and stripped of their language, culture, even their families.

But Dorothy relates mostly good stories of learning the basics and valuable skills.

“Some of the nuns were better teachers than others, I remember singing away most of grade 5, didn’t learn much that year.”

When I ask how often she was allowed to see her parents, Dorothy tells me that it was only the third Sunday of each month, and two months in the summer. She doesn’t dwell on it and brings the conversation back to the present-day.

“Things are getting better. Our children are learning but also exposed to their own language and culture again. We hold pow wows every summer, we’re trying to move forward.”

After expressing my thanks and taking leave, the storied building across the road beckons to me. It didn’t close until 1970 when the government changed their policy. A plan to turn it into a facility for psychiatric care faltered. Stripped of its original fixtures and artifacts, it lay abandoned for more than twenty years; a constant reminder for the Ktunaxa people of that dark period.

Eventually the Ktunaxa, the Samson Cree Nation and Chippewa’s of Rama First Nations formed a partnership. Since the early 2000’s, the transformed building has welcomed people far and wide as the St. Eugene Mission Resort, Golf Course and Casino.

It’s a success story of healing, through rebuilding. By sheer determination and tenacity, an old Indian Residential School has become a powerful economic engine, but not before families and former students were invited back to confront and lay the ghosts of the past.

Dorothy had made this very clear. “Our beloved elder Mary Paul gave us the strength to go forward.” In 1984, Elder Paul had declared, “Since it was within St. Eugene Mission School that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within that building that it is returned.”

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The St. Eugene Mission with Fisher Peak rising in its shadow

It’s late afternoon by now and I walk almost reverently through the Resort. The walls of the former school have been stripped down to the original reddish brick and they do seem to talk. Many beautifully framed black and white photos from the school days are arranged along the solid walls; I have a thousand questions. I sit in the cozy Fisher Peak lounge, the Peak itself framed brilliantly through the tall paned windows.

I ask the waitress if she knew what this room had been in the school.

“If you want to know more, you should speak to Gordie, our night watchman. His father came here, as did he. He knows pretty much everything.”

At that point, I want the full story to unfold full circle. Around me people are dining and enjoying a drink, staff members both First Nations and non, work side by side. Great strides have been made.

I leave my number, hopeful, but not fully expecting a call. My phone rings at 7:15 the next morning.

It’s Gordie. “I just got off work and was given your number. I hear you want to come for a tour and talk.”

I arrive at 10 that morning, notebook in hand…I leave at 3 in the afternoon.

To be continued….

Alpenglow on the Rockies

Alpenglow on the Rockies

A bicycle built for two and a Dutch fiets…exploring on two wheels

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Bikes and canals in Amsterdam

I’m the proud, new owner of a tandem bike, a bicycle built for two. It’s old, a classic Canadian made CCM and I can assure you that it’s rather cumbersome to ride. Yet somehow it evokes the romance of cycling experiences enjoyed around the world. Bikes have been our conveyance of choice in many places, affording glimpses into varied, everyday cultures that could not have been replicated by car, train, or even on foot.

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Options for transporting on a Dutch bike

We’re in Canada for a number of months awaiting our next overseas posting and I’m sure we’ll master the tandem. Yet in our mountain city of Kimberley, BC, most townspeople either own a mountain or road bike. Cycling is a way of life here and like most locals, I took to biking on the wooded trails this summer. I enjoyed it, yet admit that my active imagination was preoccupied with the thought of bears, moose or deer crossing my path. Admittedly, part of me is more at home cycling in urban settings. I love the vibe of a bustling city; even better if you can discover it on a bike.

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Artful in Denmark

On a recent trip to Amsterdam I wanted to get to the root of cycling; how does a society embrace it so completely as a mode of transportation? It’s common knowledge that bikes have evolved into the daily fabric of Dutch life. The Netherlands has one of the most efficient cycling infrastructures in the world. Many cities enjoy similar accommodations for cyclists; Copenhagen, Stockholm and Montreal for example, but the Dutch have truly mastered it. Almost 70 % of all journeys are made on a bike, or as we say in Dutch, a fiets.

I fondly remember taking to my fiets daily when we lived in Holland. Through the cobbled streets of Oudewater I cycled, my first-born strapped into a seat slung from my handle bars. A wicker basket attached at the back, ready to carry home the daily shopping. No helmet, even on my little guy, and yes the thought of it now alarms me. It seems I became complacent to the obvious perils or simply, I adopted the Dutch culture.

Bike stories from previous generations in Holland abound in my family. During war time, my grandparents improvised using garden hoses as tires when none were available. My mother and grandmother had a narrow escape when mercifully they hesitated to lean their bikes at a neighbour’s farmyard, then saw from a distance the building destroyed by a bomb a short time later. But there are also fond memories; three generations of us cycling across the border to Germany, evenings out in Amsterdam then cycling back to family along moon-lit canals, absorbed into the pulse of the city.

“Build paths and they’ll be used”

I visited the Amsterdam Museum and discovered that the bike culture is not simply happenstance. Of course the flat landscape has long been ideal for biking, but by the 1960’s new found wealth and progress came in the form of increased car ownership which marginalized cyclists. Quaint town squares were transformed into parking lots. Historic buildings were demolished to widen roads for the burgeoning car culture. Deaths from car accident deaths increased alarming; thousands in 1971 alone, tragically 400 of them were children. This along with the 1973 oil embargo prompted the ever-pragmatic Dutch to protest, ‘stop the slaughter of our children and end the car culture.’

The Government responded and promoted cycling as a mode of transportation; bike paths, junction lights and bike parks were built.

“Build paths,” said one official, “and they’ll be used.” As the Dutch rationalize, “Is biking not the fastest, cheapest, healthiest way to get around? Why would one not take to two wheels when given the opportunity?”

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A type of child carrier in Christiania, Denmark

In fact today, there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam. About 800,000 of them, and as 84% of people have more than one bike, it’s fair to say the city is a ‘sea of bikes’. I still bemoan the loss of my beloved Dutch fiets that transported me along many charming streets. It had been stored in Amsterdam in my great-aunt’s shed but was eventually given away. How I wish it was in my garage today, at home with our seemingly endless array of bikes; if only for posterity.

On my fiets with a great-aunt in Amsterdam

On my fiets with my great-aunt in Amsterdam

Those solid Dutch bikes are ‘people-movers’ as they’re pedalled with one, two, three, even four children at a time. Riding in any Dutch city during rush hour is a sensory experience. It’s terrifically busy, a constant flow of solo commuters as well as parents transporting their youngsters as they chat about their day. Sitting on the bike or in a cargo box (a bakfiets) the weather is of little consequenceAfter all, there are rain/cold weather covers which help during inclement weather. Especially when the family dog, the daily groceries or a case of Heineken is stuffed along-side the kids!

Additions such as bakfiets are extremely functional but would have been unimaginable when two-wheeled machines first emerged in 1817. The invention is credited to Baron Karl von Drais from Germany. Drais invented the ‘running machine’, called a draisine. It was human-propelled and with no pedals, it was more walked than ridden. Hence it’s nickname of hobby-horse.

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A typical sight in Sweden

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A vintage penny-farthing

Eventually came the bone shaker, then the oddly shaped penny-farthing with a large front wheel and much smaller rear wheel. Rubber tires replaced steel-lined wood and in the 1890’s the safety bike evolved. It was the first machine to be called a bicycle; similar to the design we’re familiar with now.

Many variants of the bicycle have evolved; to road and touring, mountain bikes, unicycles, rickshaws and back to fixed-gear bikes. ‘Fixes’ are single speed and use back brakes, stripped back down to the basics. The zest for simplicity has created a new subculture of riding ‘fixies’ in urban settings.

I came across such a group in Montreal, long a city of cyclists. They posed willingly for my camera but it wasn’t until later that I discovered they were sporting ‘fixies’. Chatting with a young man at a cafe in Calgary, he told me that he was studying in Montreal. I mentioned my blog and showed him my photos. “Ah, they’ll be on ‘fixies’ for sure,” He explained the new subculture that these riders have created with this retro trend; the old will be made new again it seems.

'Fixies' in Montreal

‘Fixies’ in Montreal

For many of us who grew up in Canada, our bike experiences started with a trike, graduating to a set of rattly training-wheels, then onto a ‘banana seat’, and finally the thrill (in my day) of a 10-speed. We cycled endlessly. We got ourselves to school, around town and to our friend’s homes on our bikes. Whose front lawns didn’t have bikes splayed on them when friends came over?  We would also jump on our 10-speeds after dinner, eager to see what was ‘going on’. “Be home by dark,” our mothers would holler as we sped off.

Once you become a parent yourself, teaching your child to ride a bike is a rite of passage for you, every bit as it is for them. I recall the joy as my children balanced their bikes for the first time as I reluctantly let go. Running nervously behind them and anticipating the fall I’d exclaim, “You’ve done it! Don’t forget your brakes!”

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Our youngest, left, and friends out for a pedal

Even today when my grown ‘kids’ hop on a bike, I find it heart-warming. Perhaps it evokes memories of those carefree childhood years, yet I believe there’s more to it than that.

Riding a bike allows us an elemental, exhilarating connection with the world. No hard shell around us, no peering through a window, we are at one with our surroundings; and what surroundings we’ve been fortunate to have explored.

I leaf through my journal from our six month backpacking trip in ’89. I find enticing cycling entries.

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We cycled to the non-tourist view

Agra, India, February…We chose the non-tourist view of the Taj Mahal today. With rented bikes we cycled through a small village along a train track to the nearly dried Yamuna River. There we beheld the most wondrous sight, the Taj Mahal to the south, the Agra Fort to the west. We were transfixed, not able to pull ourselves away from the view. At twilight the moon rose creating an ethereal mistiness that mingled with the Taj; regal and impossibly beautiful. We finally had to pry ourselves away to return our bikes, pedalling home with the moon guiding our way.

 

Kathmandu, Nepal, April…We managed to find bikes to rent and cycled from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur. The Nepalese greeted us as we passed, children ran behind us with mischievous smiles and antics. The friendliness continued as we rolled into the medieval city of Bhaktapur and got swept up into the improbable spectacle of the ‘Biscuit Festival’. An immense, brightly painted wooden pagoda was hauled through the street with much excitement. But the side streets we later cycled were the highlight for me with stunning intricate carvings of Nepalese architecture.

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Offering a ride in Yangshuo, China

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The evening of the Tiananmen Square massacre

Beijing, China, June…Last week the experience of Bruce offering a ride to a rice farmer cut through culture and language. Against the emerald green rice paddies in Yangshuo, with water buffalos ploughing the fields, we cycled in bewilderment. It was as if we had been dropped into a National Geographic article.

Contrast to today, we tackled ‘bicycle kingdom’ as it’s called. There are 4 million bicycles in Beijing! We dodged and weaved. We passed locals going home from the market with upside down chickens tied to handle bars; their squawking adding to the cacophony of tinging bike bells and incomprehensible Cantonese. I can’t believe we found our bikes after we had stopped for lunch, for there must have been thousands of them alongside each other.

Our cycling experience in China would become far more dramatic as shortly after that diary entry, we were trapped in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Our bikes played an integral role in planning our escape; that however is a story for another time.

Cycling the Islands of Norway

Cycling the Islands of Norway

We gladly embarked on an overnight cycling trip while we lived in Norway, only bikes and ferries on that adventure. Along the shores and through the islands we meandered, only sheep impeding our progress. The Norwegian cycling infrastructure is also superb; paths routed along lush green fields and colourful fishing villages nestled tidily beside icy fjords.

But unlike the Dutch, appropriate gear and helmets are the norm, one does not casually jump on their bike without paying heed to their attire. And I’ll give the Norwegians credit, there isn’t such a thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing.

By the time we had left Norway, I had acquired the requisite rain pants, jackets, boots, reflectors, even a ‘rain cover’ for my backpack. It all makes good sense when your bike becomes your chosen mode of transport.

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World Bicycle Relief

As I wrote this blog, I was conscious of the millions of people that don’t have the privilege of owning a bike, despite the vast improvement it would bring to their life. I came across World Bicycle Relief. This organization believes that a bicycle in the hands of an African student can change many things, and it does.

Bicycles for Educational Empowerment Program provides bikes to students, teachers and healthcare workers in rural Africa. 70% of the students this program donates cycles to are girls.

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Students with a WBR bike

In places such as Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, to name a few, students using bikes mean covering greater distances, arriving safely at school on time, less fatigued and ready to learn. Grades and attendance improve for those students that have received bicycles.

I listened to the story of Ethel, a vibrant fifteen year-old. Before owning a bike, Ethel walked more than two hours each way across hilly terrain to attend school. Now on two wheels, she is able to dramatically reduce her commute time, allowing more time to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. Ethel also helps others in the community by offering rides when possible.

I’ve decided to donate to World Bicycle Relief, to give someone like Ethel the opportunity to improve their life. I think of it as paying homage; to all the cycling experiences that have enlivened, coloured and enriched my life. I wish the same for them.

Our tandem, bicycle for two

The tandem, a bicycle for two

They’ll be home…where the garden is, where memories live

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The pond, for fishing and skating

Our evening stroll offered swooping owls, waddling ducks and darting dogs. The sun sunk low into a newly planted field that borders the acreage, we call it home…’the farm.’ I’ve made my way back to Canada to surprise my parents for their 40th Anniversary, returning to a plot of land that embodies nature’s bounty, a lifetime of work and more memories than can be captured on film. But there’s no need; the images are imprinted on our hearts, embedded into our collective family memory.

This land, a grain field forty years ago, is now an oasis with towering blue and white spruce, and ponderosa pine that shelter from howling north winds. The grass is verdant this spring, its rich emerald hue a backdrop for flowers in bloom, golden spurge and delicate May Day trees.

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At the garden shed

These are the prairies of Western Canada where settlers have arrived for the past few hundred years; enticed by fertile farm land, hopeful for idyllic homesteads and new beginnings.

From their European homelands they ventured by ship, uncertain of what the future held. They journeyed onward by train, along the newly laid Canadian Pacific Railway, disembarking at communities across this vast country.

As with my mother’s family in the ’50’s, many arrived from the Netherlands, risking all for a new life; hard work and toil yielded success. Proud, new citizens in a welcoming land. Some settlers trekked from the east or the U.S. in caravans of wagons, stacked high with furniture and family. The wagon parked on the acreage from my father’s family, is a proud reminder of their storied journey. Now a backdrop for a yellow rose bush, it was once a means of transport. A working wagon for hauling hay, feed, grain to elevators.

Quiet country roads

Quiet country roads

In my family, you garden, work in the yard, grow things, landscape and stroll the land; just as our ancestors have done. Is it in your blood, this need to commune with the land, I feel it is. I felt it wouldn’t be spring for me until I could dig a little, plant, walk the dogs along scented lilacs and quiet country roads.

And so, I’ve come home to my parents and I find them where they should be…where I’m delighted to be.

They’re ambling below dreamy blue skies, dogs nudging at their sides and geese gliding over sky. I’ve found them plucking asparagus, planting gladiolas and poking hollyhock seeds into tilled earth. It’s time to cut first grass, take the ‘storm plastic’ off and let the deck breath, prepare the planters and the ‘beds’. Soon the kitchen table will display their bounty; bouquets of lupins, tulips, dahlias, peonies, lilacs and glads.

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Tulips in bloom

My parents awaken, work and stroll to a symphony of cooing, cawing; a melody of birds. Plump robins, doves, meadowlarks and elusive owls. Partridges, pheasants, hawks and cowbirds chirp and squawk. Butterflies flutter and bees flit past, en route to blossoms and buds.

Where grandchildren played and played

Where grandchildren played and great- grandchildren now play

Under billowy clouds, skunks duck into warrens and gophers tunnel, deer prance through fields past gangly hares. The dogs wait patiently on a weathered deck as we have a ‘wee dram’ at dear, long time neighbours. Storm clouds brew, awakening our senses as we rush home through the shelter belt of trees.

These glorious days of spring find us reminiscing of grandchildren that grew up in this haven of outdoor activity. My children who were raised on different continents, came here…to be home.

Towering elms

Towering elms

Here, with cousins, they learned how to skate on a frozen pond and ‘hold on tight’ for tractor-drawn sleigh rides. How to build snow forts and duck snowballs. Summers passed in perpetual movement…running barefoot over green lawns, soaked and squealing. ‘Secret missions’ played out through trees and fields. Golf carts, bikes and trikes circled the yard, eager for an adventure.

It’s here they played ball, built campfires and gazed at a million stars. Where Grandpa taught them how to fish, to golf, to ‘drive a standard’ in a rusty, green pickup truck. Where Grandma ensured they knew how to play ‘Texas Hold Em’, sing ‘Hollandse leidjes’ and bake waffle cookies. Yes, it’s here they came to bond with family, find their roots, to become…Canadian.

This oasis has been a constant in our lives, a refuge on the beloved flatlands of the prairies. I find my parents offering the same inviting hospitality that has always been for my family, since the day I was married…here, on this land. The elms and pines are taller now, the wagon more weathered and the kitchen table a little scuffed from hearty meals and lively gatherings.

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Grandfather’s wagon

And as it was recently when I crept into their home from halfway around the world, it was as always, gezillig…that Dutch word for cozy. The surprise was genuine; as were the friends and family here to celebrate these two special people. I know we’re fortunate to live and travel the world. Yet, we have a haven to come home to…it’s just east of Barnwell*, Alberta, Canada. And my parents, I’ll find them here…home.

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An Anniversary surprise

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The colour of beehives

*Barnwell is not named after a barn and a well, but after William Barnwell who immigrated from England. His family dates back to the Baron de Barnwell who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror in 1066

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An early spring bouquet

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The neighbour’s barn

Snapshots on the road to Tofino…

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The Amphitrite Lighthouse, Ucluelet

“Would you like to take their photo,” the dog owner asked without hesitation, already reigning in her three large pets. We had stopped to take a photo of an ageing wooden boat on the main street of Ucluelet.

“That would be great, if you’re sure?” I asked. But the lady, who introduced herself as Janice, was already scooting her three dogs up on the bench that was positioned in front of the Evelyn May. Its once brilliant colours still brightened up the otherwise ordinary street. The fact that it had become an unintended focal point on main street in a small Canadian town, didn’t surprise me.

Scooby, Honey and Keyna

Scooby, Honey and Keyna

Vancouver Island is that kind of place, comfortable in its unpretentiousness, resplendent in its natural beauty; an incomparable delight at the continents edge. It took ten minutes or so to get the dogs positioned just right, but Janice didn’t mind. She was more than pleased to display her three adorable hounds and they just happened to be wearing colours that complimented the faded hues of the Evelyn May.

It had been like this, the last 24 hours, chance encounters with many friendly folk. We had made our way from the structured elegance of Victoria and woven along the Pacific Rim Highway towards the ocean, to the wild margins of Canada’s most westerly point.

We had purposely taken our time, stopping frequently when our curiosity was piqued. And there’s been much of that. Sites that we were pleased to have stumbled upon; people with whom we were thankful we had stopped to share a moment.

For Canadians, visiting this part of the country is on most people’s wish list. The surfing, kayaking and whale watching, the seamless marriage of ocean and rainforest, the inviting harbours and superb seafood. The island is a living picture of ethereal beauty, but also home to thriving trade and industry. In the small harbours and hidden inlets are lumber mills and mining, fisheries and canneries, fishing trawlers nestled beside gleaming white yachts.

Cowichan Bay

Cowichan Bay

We chanced upon one such place; Cowichan Bay with its long history as a fishing destination. From the early 1900s, Cowichan Bay attracted sportsmen from all over the British Empire for superb salmon fishing, earning the name of Salmon Capital of the World. It also beckoned celebrities such as Bing Cosby and John Wayne in the 50’s to fish for sport. Tales abound at the renowned local hotel of legendary fishing conquests from those days. It’s a peaceful bay where whales are said to wait patiently for the salmon run; anticipating the feast that will come their way.

The drive took us onwards to the the small city of Duncan, home to more totem poles than anywhere on earth. This is the land of the Coastal First Nations who carve their legends and lore into towering cedar logs. I am transfixed by the vivid colours and enchanting stories that inspire this unique art. It’s here that we met Robert from the Cowichan tribe, one of the ‘people of the warm land’. Robert sat on a bench surrounded by the symbolism of his ancestors, backdropped by a bright red Canadian National railcar. He lamented wryly that despite being drawn to this spot for inspiration, ironically, because of an allergy to cedar, he could never linger long.

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The totems in Duncan

Robert told us that his great regret was never being able to give ancient stories life through wood carving. He took the time to relate his painful upbringing in a residential home, of the wayward ways of youth in his tribe and of better times now emerging in Duncan. I pointed out to him that Mr. Duncan himself was carved in the tallest totem towering nearby, a reminder of the confluence of tribal and settled lands. I asked him whether he regretted living here.

“No, I’m happy in Duncan, it helps me forget the past. I hope you like our town.” Robert said to me with an appreciative smile. “Where are you from?” Skirting the complexities of my life, I told him that I didn’t live in Canada full-time, but that I loved being here and learning about his history.

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Colourful snapshots

“In fact,” I told Robert, “I’m from Alberta originally and hadn’t quite appreciated the vast differences between the coastal and the plains First Nations people.” I was really only now coming to appreciate this. Instead of hunting and subsisting on the buffalo as the tribes of the plains people had, the coastal people had relied on the ocean, primarily on whales. Given that the whale hunt was crucial for survival, whalers were the one of the most honoured members of the tribe. The expedition to intercept, kill and tow a whale home with a canoe in the open ocean was perilous. Not least of which was first the necessity of stitching up the mouth of the whale, so as to not take in more water and thus sink the crew and canoe. Every part of the whale was instrumental for survival. As with the plains people, I sensed there are many aspects from these former days that are keenly missed today.

On we went from Duncan to Parksville where we walked on the tidal flats of Qualicum beach. Rippled sand, Brant geese on their grand migration gorging on eel grass and sea lettuce, the moon pulling on the tidal waters. At dinner our waitress asked where we were headed. “We’re on our way to Ucluelet.” I replied.

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Strolling amongst the ancient cedars

“I hope you’re staying at Black Rock,” she said expectantly. “I just stayed there on my honeymoon, it’s the only place to be.”

“Yes that’s where we’ll be, glad to hear that.” We chatted a little more and I asked where we should stop along the way. She told us the drive was beautiful and not to miss Cathedral Grove.

As we cut west towards the Pacific, we soon found ourselves there. Captivated by the beauty, we ambled through old growth forest where 800 year old Cedars and Douglas Firs tower over ferns and mossy, twisted branches. As eagles swooped over dizzying tree tops, I could appreciate the reverence for the cedar tree. Every part of it was used by the First Nations. The inner bark was woven into mats, baskets, even waterproof clothing. Branches became ropes and the rot resistant wood was fashioned into canoes, houses, totems and ceremonial masks. In fact, the regions first inhabitants simply called it…the tree of life.

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Angelo in Port Alberni

When we got to Port Alberni it was very much in the clutch of a spring chill; a counterpoint to the budding cherry blossoms, the bright daffodils and lime green willows. We walked along the harbour, the pulp mill belching into the misty air, snow lingering on distant peaks. We came across Angelo, sitting on a bench with binoculars, spying across the inlet. He was keeping an eye on the logging unit he had worked with for 38 years.

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An iconic Canadian train station

“I moved here from Italy after the Second World War, through Ontario but I eventually found work here. The pulp mill was hiring,” he told us, his handsome face belying his 80 some years. When I asked Angelo if he had any regrets that he moved to Canada, he shook his head. “It’s been more than a happy life and besides, I have too many Canadian grandchildren to ever return to Italy,” he told us fondly. We talked awhile and shook hands. I sensed he was pleased that we had taken the time to chat, as were we. If I’ve learned anything at this stage in life…it’s to take the time to converse. Connecting with people and hearing their story is always a privilege.

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A colourful snapshot in Port Alberni

We also took the time to slowly cruise the back streets of Port Alberni, chancing upon colourful, striking everyday images. Port Alberni also retains its original train station, a design that is emblematic of most small towns in Canada. Constructed from the same blueprint, these iconic structures have welcomed people like Angelo as they arrived from afar to build a new life in Canada. Now the train tracks are less busy, with once useful cars spruced up for museum pieces or left to rust. A reminder that few things stay the same in life, but also that there is beauty in the old and abandoned, as well as the vibrant and living.

Onwards to Ucluelet where we planned to spend some time, between here and Tofino. As we checked into the Black Rock Oceanfront Resort, a welcoming young man, Mustafa opened up a local map to show us the region.

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On the road, Vancouver Island

“The Wild Pacific Trail is right outside, if you’re lucky you’ll see whales as you hike along it,” he offered.

“Wonderful, we heard the Pacific Rim Whale Festival is on this week, hoping to see some! Are you from this area Mustafa?” I asked.

“I’m originally from the Middle East, I came to work for a summer and never left.” I looked past him to the massive windows beyond the lobby. They frame the Pacific ocean as it pounds against the craggy black rocks.

“I understand why,” I said, full with anticipation of the stay ahead.  Full of new found appreciation for this special place on earth.

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Surfers in the Pacific Ocean

A poppy for Sarah…

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A haunting line in Sarah Jane’s letter spoke to me as I stood at the Tower of London this September. “I picked up the paper and the wind turned it over, when to my dismay Will’s name stared me in the face, he had been killed.”

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The Tower of London with its sea of poppies

As I watched volunteers ‘plant’ ceramic poppies into the grassy moat, I felt her devastating loss, as must the other families represented in the 888,246 poppies. The artistic installation entitled ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ filled the Tower’s moat, creating a powerful visual commemoration for the First World War Centenary. Each poppy symbolizes the life of a British or Commonwealth soldier, like that of Sarah’s young husband killed in France. It was 1916 and the young widow was left to raise their four young children alone; Sarah was my father’s grandmother. Her letter penned only two months after William King’s death, reveals a loving, brave young woman. I wish I could have known her.

Dated October 25th, 1916, Sarah wrote to her family in England where she had been raised in Marsh Gibbon, Buckinghamshire. The letter is soulful and poignant, a young mother finally able to convey on paper what had befallen her happy family, “like some horrible night-mare that is past but not forgotten.”

Sarah and William with their four children, my grandmother lies on her mother's lap

Sarah and William with their four children, my grandmother lies on her mother’s lap

That long ago day in August 1916, after stepping onto her porch to fetch the newspaper, a gust of wind opened the page that revealed her husband’s name…deceased. She kept it to herself, willing it to be a mistake. Sarah wrote, ” Still I had nothing official, so I did no more but wire to the War Office and ask for information at once, but the torture of suspense of two days and three nights, no sleep nor could I eat. But you could not wish for a more merciful death. He was shot through the heart, he was not fighting.”

Sarah would soon learn that William had died from a sniper’s bullet as he dug trenches; those muddy, rat infested warrens that offered scant protection for the front line troops. She would receive a cloth game of checkers that was found in her Will’s front breast pocket when he perished; his blood staining the centre of it.  I like to think that it was a comfort to her, holding something of his that had been with him at the end.

I also imagine the desire for her to return to her family in England must have been overwhelming at times. She wrote, “I don’t know what I shall do yet, but I shall not come back to England to stay, for Will took every precaution to leave us comfortably provided for in case of him being hurt or killed. It would be silly to wave it all on one side.” She seemed resilient and practical, all the while ensuring her husband’s efforts were not abandoned in death.

Sarah's letter dated 1916

Sarah’s letter dated 1916

I envision her sitting down to write after tucking her four children into bed, perhaps the cloak of loss and loneliness slipping off her shoulders ever so slightly. “I’ll tell you I am very proud of him and hold my head very high for he was one of the very best of husbands and fathers…I was simply awful for weeks and I didn’t care what became of us. We have four bonny children and I marvel sometimes that I ever lived through it.”

Despite her grief, Sarah wrote that she hadn’t been against William going to war if he wanted to and that “someone must step in to defend the atrocities, we would find it difficult if no one came to our assistance.” Even with her loss she was able to reconcile the sacrifice, as so many women were forced to do during the First World War.

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Sarah’s grandchildren with their father Albert, my father is far right

Women suddenly joined the workforce; they became munition workers and bankers, took over the fields and shops, drove trucks and became postmasters. They had no choice but to join the war effort, urged on by Queen Mary’s appeal to the ‘Women of the Empire” which urged all patriotic women to do their part in the war. She encouraged women of all ranks and ages to unite for the cause in the Mother Country and the Empire. Women’s participation in the paid workforce between 1911 and 1921 increased dramatically as they learned trades and skills. Widows like Sarah were often thrust into challenging new roles, while also having the daunting task of raising their children as single parents.

And yet Sarah wrote, “I don’t get much time to get blue, I can always find something to do to help others. I have two babies extra now as their mother has been taken to the hospital…and I went for them and thought how helpless and forlorn their house looked without a mother. And so I thanked God it was Will taken and not me and we should not grumble.”

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Sarah Jane’s sampler, stitched in 1893

I find it remarkable that these selfless sentiments were written only two months after her husband’s death. I picture Sarah busy with her four young children, able to reconcile her situation as she went about her daily tasks. The loneliness of the evenings however must have weighed heavily, and I suspect she spent many of those nights darning, knitting or stitching. She was a cross stitcher above all, a skill she learned at the age of eight as her sampler* stitched in 1893 declares. Her name, Sarah Jane Parker, is stitched proudly at the top, followed with a prayer. It is proudly displayed in my parents home, brought with her Sarah when she boarded the ship that carried her to a new life in Canada. Perhaps it was stowed in her steam trunk with the expectation of it decorating the bride to be’s new home. Her love of this craft was passed on to her daughters including her youngest child Sadie, my grandmother, who has also left a legacy of beautifully stitched works.

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Albert Campbell, a WWI veteran who would marry Sadie, some twenty years later

What Sarah couldn’t know at the time of William’s death was that her youngest, Sadie, would one day marry a man twenty years older. This man had fought in the same war as her father and it’s extraordinary to me that both my father’s grandfather and father, Albert Campbell, fought in World War I. Only one came home. Through the bravery shown by Sarah, her children had the love as if of two parents. Sadly however, that would be short lived.

In 1923 at only thirty-eight years old, the local newspaper announced that ‘Veteran’s Heroic Wife is Buried.’ It reported that many journeyed to attend the funeral of the late Mrs. Sarah Jane King. She had undergone a serious operation five weeks earlier, but succumbed to complications. The article mentions that ‘she had strived heroically to keep her little family together after her husband’s death.’

Sarah’s letter is one of many written archives that live on, as well as countless poems from that time. I’ve come across a young Canadian woman Phebe Florence Miller, a poet and postmistress from Newfoundland. During a long artistic life, she wrote many poems that capture the tragedy of the ‘Great War.’ Her poignant verse captures the courage, hard work and stoicism of many women. She echoed Sarah’s words when she wrote..

Can we have lived through it all?

Or was it some dream we dreamed?

Gleaming memorial shafts give us our answer.

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My father, Curtis King Campbell at William’s grave in Ypres, Belgium.

Those Memorials exist in almost every Canadian community and ask us to stop and remember, to respect the sacrifices. My parents have visited Yperes, Belgium, where William King was laid to rest. Every evening since that war’s end, a bugle mournfully calls out to honour the fallen. Sarah did not visit nor her children, yet I know my parents felt the weight of all the loved ones they represented as they stood at Corporal William King’s war grave.

I felt it as well as I gazed out over that ‘sea of poppies’ in London, knowing a family member was represented.  I’ve since claimed one for the family…one of the almost 900,000 ‘remembrances’ that have been boxed up and shipped out to the ‘Colonies’. It will be a remembrance in my parent’s home…a tribute to that handsome young man who gladly answered the call of duty to King and Country.

*A sampler is a stitching that was common for young girls to undertake at school, teaching them the skill of cross stitching.

Snippets from a Sojourn in London…of tales and tours

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A typical London street scene with the iconic red phone box; the first one appeared in the 1920s

Ten days of re-connecting with friends, of culinary delights, of sightseeing and incongruously, of waiting for a visa to live in Kazakhstan. Of glorious weather, museums and navigating London’s underground until I no longer had to consult whether it was the Piccadilly or the Bakerloo line that I needed to hop onto…I was rather chuffed with myself! With so much that inspired me, where does one begin to write? This trip revealed some fascinating aspects of London; mostly because of a tour, three in fact.

Thanks to my friend Patrick who currently lives in London, he arranging a tour the day after I arrived.  It wasn’t surprising this is how we chose to spend time together as we had been colleagues as tour guides in Norway. But now instead of Vikings, we were focusing on more literary matters, on Charles Dickens. The tour was of Dickens’ London. It was fascinating as we wandered the streets that had shaped the authour’s life. One such spot was the wall of Marshalsea Debtors Prison where Dicken’s father had twice been imprisoned. This would greatly impact the young boy and these early experiences would manifest themselves in his classics such as David Copperfield (his thinly disguised autobiography),

The Red Cross Church that pays homage to Octavia Hill

The Red Cross Church that pays homage to Octavia Hill

Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol.  During one of his father’s terms in prison, the young Charles laboured in a shoe blackening factory. The harsh conditions would render him rather OCD later in life with regards to cleanliness. He would become an ostentatious dresser as well. All to wipe away the painful childhood memories of wearing rags, of filth, of poverty.

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A view of the river Thames

Years later, Dickens would also become a generous philanthropist which was evident when the tour wound its way past the simple Red Cross Hall in Southwark. It pays homage to social reformer, Octavia Hill. Dickens supported her initiative, ‘The Cottage Movement’. Hill endeavoured to instill self respect and responsibility to ‘fallen’ ladies by providing small gardens for them to work in. The gardens were also places where the poor could commune with nature and escape the harsh, everyday life of Victorian England. Octavia Hill is said to have coined the phrase ‘green belt’ as she campaigned to save many green spaces in the London area. This intrepid lady was also a co-founder of the National Trust.

An after tour lunch with Patrick in the lively Borough district

An after tour lunch with Patrick in the lively Borough district

As we made our way through the Borough area, close to the south bank of the River Thames, our guide relayed another interesting, yet this time gruesome scenario for us. Bodies have always washed up ashore along the river; even now as many as fifty a year are recovered.

In Victorian England, muggings were rife with the victim’s bodies often dumped into the murky Thames. But not before their hair had been shaved and sold for wigs, their teeth pulled for dentures and the corpse stripped of clothing. The bodies would become known as…whoppers. These whoppers were prone to clog up in a sharp bend in the river, much to the irritation of the Kings as their flotillas tried to make way. That term for a bend in the river is Charing, as in Charing Cross. A bend that certainly has a colourful past.

Referring back to Charles Dickens and on a lighter note, we have that great novelist to thank for the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’…it was coined in A Christmas Carol in 1843.

On another day I found myself in Kensington on a tour with London Walks. A few minutes into the tour, the guide held up a book and read aloud, his booming voice rich with expression, “…you’ve got a millennium of Kensington in the palm of your IMG_3300hand. You can peel the centuries off like the layers of an onion.” I realized that I had read those words that morning before the tour. The penny dropped. This was the fellow that had written much of the book that was now tucked away in my bag, its pages already dog-earred from my continuous reference to it.

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David Tucker of London Walks

David Tucker’s tour was just as compelling as the book he and fellow guides had compiled. Lively and filled with history, its anecdotes and personal perspectives meld the past and present.

As we traversed through Old Kensington Village, it indeed revealed intriguing periods over the bygone centuries. The name itself? Well, the ington ending means an estate associated with someone and in this case it was a man named Cynesige. Sadly nothing else is known of him. Since then, it has been home to countless artists and writers such as Thackeray, Virginia Wolf and J.M. Barrie. It’s believed Barrie met a young boy here that would inspire his character, Peter Pan. Winston Churchill lived and died in Kensington and of course Princess Diana called the nearby Palace her home. The Palace gate is still adorned with flowers and tributes. The Princess and I share the same birthday and I wasn’t the only visitor to stop and peer solemnly through the stately gate.

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The gate at Kensington Palace with tributes to Princess Diana

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A Kensington townhouse with curved balcony

One of the oldest squares in London lies here, its tall townhouses commanding some of the most expensive prices in the city. Many are decorated with wrought iron balconies. They billow out, curving slightly at the bottom. In the 19th century, ladies wanted to stroll onto the balcony and the curved iron accommodated their round crinolined skirts. Allowing more room to stand, it makes perfect sense once it’s pointed out to you.

As do the coal hole covers that decorate older, wealthier streets of London, such as Kensington. Some of them survive from the mid 1700’s and they are trod on daily, with all but a few oblivious to their significance. At the time, all heating was fired by coal.  The cast iron covers protected the chutes through which the coal was delivered to wealthier homes. Though locked from the inside to prevent theft, apparently the odd lithe child was able to infiltrate them. Yes London was ‘foggy’, not only from the weather, but also from the soot, from all that coal.

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A fine example of Cottage Mews

Kensington is also known for its mews and David revealed their history. In present day, cottage mews are charming terraced cottages but originally they were not quite as sophisticated. In the 18th and 19th centuries, London’s housing for the wealthy generally consisted of streets of large terraced houses, IMG_3316with stables at the back for horses. Carriages were kept on the ground floor and traditionally a ramp would lead to the second floor where the horses were stabled. As David quipped, “It’s far easier to drag a horse up to the second story than it is a carriage.”  The third story was for the stablemen.

Interestingly however, mews derives from the word for mewing or moulting as in feathers. From 1377 onwards, the king’s falconry birds were kept in the King’s Mews at Charing Cross. The name remained when it became the royal stables in 1537 during the reign of King Henry VII, I though it was later demolished to make way for Trafalgar Square. The present Royal Mews was then built in the grounds of Buckingham Palace.

As is typical in London, Kensington is not without its fair share of pubs. I was curious why they are so prevalent, often with intriquing names. During the Middle Ages, a large proportion of the population was illiterate and so illustrations on a sign were more practical than words. One could distinguish a duck and dog, or a dragon being slain, for example. There was often no need to write the establishment’s name on the sign and pubs sometimes opened without a formal written identity. That ‘minor detail’ was often derived later from the picture on the pub’s original sign.

 

An example of a pictorial sign 

As for the vast number of London pubs; we partly have the great fire of 1666 to blame, or thank for that. After the devastation, the city was rebuilt and the workers that did so needed food and ale, even better if they were situated on corners for convenience. Traditionally ale was much safer to drink than the water; this also applied to children who drank ale at a young age.

 

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A pub on Fleet Street, rebuilt one year after the Great Fire,

The last tour I enjoyed in London is a must. My dear friend Kristen had joined me from Norway and it transpired that the London Food Lovers tour is how we spent our final day together. She’d return to Stavanger that night and I’d depart to Frankfurt, Istanbul and finally Aktau, Kazakhstan. Needless to say, a lot of emotions were surfacing and I was thankful for a good friend by my side…and some wonderful food.

Sarah is the founder of London Food Lovers and a knowledgeable guide who led us through the streets of Soho. Oh the culinary delights we encountered!

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The Italian shop, Lina’s on Brewer Street

The Golden Square in Soho, where the walk originates, encapsulates the spirit of the tour. This square, tucked away behind Piccadilly Circus, was farmland until Henry VIII tacked it onto the Palace of Whitehall as a Royal park in 1536. The origin of the name? It was a hunting call before the hunt, SOHO, and off they galloped.

Fast forward and it became an area that immigrants gravitated to for cheap housing, especially the French Hugenots which is why it became know as London’s French quarter.

 

Many of those immigrants shared their culture and unique food. Today this is still what Soho is known for, as well as entertainment and business. In the early 20th century, cheap eating-houses were established and the neighbourhood became a fashionable place for intellectuals, writers and artists. From the 1930s to the 1960s, Soho folklore holds that the pubs were packed every night with creative minds. Many of whom, legend has it, never stayed sober long enough to become successful.

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Fresh Ravioli with a multitude of fillings

Today the area is a culinary delight as the wonderfully detailed tour would reveal to us. From the divine Italian chocolate shop, SAID, to Lina Stores where the freshly made ravioli was displayed as perfectly as it tasted. To Govind’s, a vegetarian spot where we sampled scrumptious samosas on the street. All preparations in the restaurant are first offered to Lord Krishna before being served; indeed they were heavenly. Another stop was at the Mexican restaurant La Bodega Negra (a favourite haunt of the A list), the margaritas and food were excellent.

On we went to the Dog and Duck (yes, the afore mentioned) where we not only sampled three different ales, but discussed the importance of ale in society as noted previously.  As someone who enjoys wine over ale, I can admit I actually enjoyed a ‘wee jar’ in the setting of an old, classic British pub. Two very enticing stops were yet to come.

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Perfection at Corinthia Hotel with Kristen

Kristen and myself had intended to include a traditional British tea into one of our afternoons, but had run out of time. Wonderfully this was taken care of with the unexpected visit to the Corinthia Hotel for tea and cakes. The breathtaking setting caught us all off-guard and our small group of ladies was captivated by the perfection of it all. The lobby is an oasis of beauty, as is the tea service, as were the delectable cakes. We pictured ourselves in a movie set perhaps, or even Downton Abbey when we heard the hotel was once the Metropole and referred to in the series. We would have been delighted if this had been the final stop, yet there was one last quintessential London sight to experience.

 

The grandeur of The Corinthia

The grandeur of The Corinthia

Each stop had been carefully chosen by Sarah, an American that had left home early and headed to Italy to discover her roots. Along the way she trained as a sommelier, gave food tours in Italy and later decided that London was calling. This tour is a unique (and delicious) experience in London. Try to book the tour at the start of your trip however, so you can actually return to some of the spots.

And so our last location was Gordon’s Wine Bar, reputed to be the oldest in London and just a stone’s throw from the Embankment tube station. We entered the cavern-like atmosphere; redolent with centuries of conversation prevading the musty air. As the candles illuminated the dark recesses, we toasted each other with wines from around the world. Four hours previous we had chosen to come together because of our love of food and we unanimously agreed that we had experienced a side of London we pleased to have seen and tasted. Uncharacteristically, I actually had to tear myself away and leave a wine bar early. My flight was only hours away.

The perfectly aged, Gordon's Wine Bar

The perfectly aged, Gordon’s Wine Bar

With hugs all around, I dashed onto the nearby tube station, fetched my luggage. On to Heathrow where flights awaited to journey me to Kazakhstan, yet another country to add to our list of countries of residence. The distraction of the tours had been crucial for someone venturing to an ‘unknown’ country.

It had been a great sojourn and wonderful to see friends and spend time in lovely England. And to London, that grand city to which I can’t wait to return and peel away more intriguing facts, more layers of that onion. I certainly know where I’ll be dining next time as well!

 

 

 

 

 

*London Stories by David Tucker and The Guides, Virgin Books 2009

 

Ode to a vibrant city, recalling transition and the help of serendipity

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‘Dining’ in Memorial Park at Boxwood Cafe

Sadly, my new found love affair with Calgary is to be interrupted; for now at least.  Having returned not quite a year ago, I’m about to pack up again. Yes it’s all too soon, but simply, my husband and I aren’t prepared to continue living at the opposite ends of the earth.  He’s been commuting from Kazakhstan, which is where I plan to join him at the end of August. Admittedly, I can think of far more ‘exotic’ places to become acquainted with, but adventure comes in many forms it seems!  That, however isn’t what this post is about…not quite yet anyway.  It’s about this great city, the transition woes that I’ve experienced and the start of settling and healing, thanks in part to a chance encounter.

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The cupola in James Short Park, now surrounded by glass. It marks the spot of the James Short School from 1905

Calgary was my home from 1982 to 1989.  After College, I loaded up my ’77 Camaro and headed to the ‘big city’, knowing it was where I wanted to be.  I’m living relatively close to where I was then, in the inner-city.   In my opinion, it’s the only place to be for someone who is often here on their own, as I’ve been this past year.  It’s vibrant and interactive.  It’s ideal for walking and cycling.   And it’s a changed city since I left when a mere  600,000 people called it home.  It’s now much more international and ‘hip’ with endless festivals, markets, and events.  Yet at the same time, it’s still a city that is caring and personal, despite a burgeoning population of 1.2 million.

I’ve often wandered to sit and write in one of the many vibrant cafes, which seem to be in endless supply along with bars and restaurants.  I’ve looked at this city from the viewpoint of ‘someone that returned after 24 years’, but also as a newcomer.  Inevitably, I meet people eager to chat, many of whom are from elsewhere but have chosen to call Calgary home.  I’ve been charmed by people’s warmth, the small town feeling and sense of cohesion and belonging.   That cluster of a fort and tents that would become Calgary, was established by the North West Mounted Police in 1885 and initially called Fort Brisebois.  This settlement at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow River has come a long way indeed. It was recently named by the New York Times as one of the world’s top sights to see, imagine that!

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The Barley Mill in Eau Claire. Reminders of the wooden buildings that were built during the time of the nearby Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Company

I was on my own this past weekend and found myself out exploring in the gorgeous weather.  People were reading, playing and ‘dining’ in the park.  Kids played in water parks, people enjoyed music festivals and markets.  I experienced a city in perpetual motion of cycling, walking, long boarding and busking.  People of all ages but definitely many young and hip.  The average citizen of the city is now in their 30’s. They are active, globally conscious and oh so ‘switched on’.

I spoke to one such ‘hipster’ only in his mid twenties, at a 17 Ave. restaurant. He told me they were endeavouring to only use produce from a nearby flood affected area; to help them get ‘back on their feet’.  He then proceeded to point out the elements in the restaurant that have been reclaimed so as to minimize their carbon foot print.  I’ve noticed this change in attitude time and time again here.  I don’t think many of us had those concerns at the same age as we partied through the ’80’s.  I’m impressed!

Outwardly, it’s also a vastly altered city from when I Ieft in 1989.  The landscape is rapidly changing with an increasing number of tall towers and condos soaring over the compact inner city.  In fact the skyline is dotted with cranes, building for the future.  But thankfully there are still some charming vestiges of the ‘old’ Calgary and I sincerely hope they remain. Stately homes and buildings from the early 1900’s

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Beaulieu or Lougheed Mansion, 1891. The Lougheeds hosted many social gatherings and visitors, including the Prince of Wales in 1919

such as the Lougheed Home and Memorial Park Library (the first library in Alberta), not to mention many that  proudly still stand on Stephen Avenue Mall.   And there’s also the quirky and timeless images to be found such as the Galaxie Diner, the Plaza in Kensington or the wooden Barley Mill at Eau Claire that is now dwarfed by skyscrapers.

And as I cycled along the Bow River on Sunday, I mused over the phases that I’ve gone through in settling here. It hasn’t been without its trials, despite seeing family more often.  One would think being ‘home’ should be an easy adjustment.  But, we know from writers like Robin Pascoe in her book Homeward Bound, that repatriation is often a struggle for expats. It warrants the need for discussion and understanding of what re-entry has in store for us.  “It has a cycle of its own and mercifully, it ends.  It just doesn’t end overnight…”, Robin reminds us.

How true that is.  For me, it was last September when the ‘honeymoon period’ came to an abrupt end and I found myself in ‘crisis mode’, about two months after I had moved back.

The irony wasn’t lost on me. Early one afternoon that month, I had cried on my son’s shoulder.  I was an emotional wreck as I sat at my desk trying to concentrate on work.

“What am I doing here, not that it isn’t great to be here with you, but..?”

The iconic Plaza Theatre in Kensington

The iconic Plaza Theatre in Kensington

With more tears falling from my already swollen eyes, I lamented that I was missing my life of four years in Norway, my friends, my job, not to mention my husband.  And for the first time in 20 some years, I didn’t have a return ticket for the end of the summer; that seemed to be what pushed me ‘over the edge’. Normally at that time I’d be departing from our vacation home in Kimberley after an eventful summer, off to my ‘other life’. No, now I was staying put, in Calgary and I wasn’t coping very well.

A festival and Market in Haultain Park

A festival and market in Haultain Park

 

 

 

In a role reversal, my twenty-two year old had comforted me.   Heeding his heartfelt and sage advice, I had no choice but to pick myself up and get on with the task at hand. I had a deadline to meet. A cross-cultural presentation to prepare and here is where the irony lay. I needed to research and prepare a one and a half hour presentation that would inform and inspire a client in the Oil and Gas industry who was soon moving to Calgary. It would be a synopsis of life in the city, the advantages of what this ‘Cowtown’ has to offer. And so in tears and overwrought, I began the work, perplexed at the irony of doing this just as I was experiencing the worst day thus far of repatriation.

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A wooden ‘cowgirl’ sign that has survived, for now.

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The city skyline, looking out from Mount Royal

However, as time passed and I worked into the wee hours of the morning, my mood changed. Yes, I could attest to the colourful mosaic the city embraces due to people here from all over the world.  Absolutely, the restaurants are second to none.  Naturally, the Calgary Stampede attracts people worldwide as does the nearby Banff National Park, and so on and so on.   By the time I finished at 3 a.m., my mood had lifted dramatically.  I pressed the ‘send’ button and the presentation was transmitted to, of all places, Norway. Four days later, I presented to a delightful gentleman from Bergen. With each of us focused on my presentation on a computer screen, I would do my best to convince him that his two year stint in Calgary would be an enjoyable experience.  Of course he was a skier, being Norwegian, how far was Banff?  Yes, he was looking forward to dining out without it costing a small fortune  (no, I wasn’t missing that aspect of Norway!)  And yes he loves cycling and are there bike trails?  ‘Only’ about 800 km. or so I happily assured him.  And so the presentation went well and it helped remind me that there was so much to do in the city. I had to accept where I was, move forward and take advantage of it.

I return to the day after that 3 am. finish.  And this is where serendipity comes into play and how it also helped pull me out of my melancholy state, out of that ‘crisis stage’.

A  ‘wee’ story within…

I decide the next afternoon that I need a walk but don’t get very far.  I’m tired from the 3 a.m night before and still emotionally jaded, so decide to turn back and have a late lunch on 17th Ave.  I make my way to our new ‘local’, 80th and Ivy. Serendipity is a wonderful thing that thankfully seems to present itself at times most needed, for on this particular day, the friendly manager greets me and we chat. Normally, I, (we) sit in the bar but today he suggests I sit in the restaurant. It’s comfortable in a trendy, minimalistic way and it just so happens to be six dollar wine and twelve dollar pizza Tuesday. Perfect, it’s now 3 in the afternoon and I’m looking forward to a glass of Shiraz and a small designer pizza (the pear and gorgonzola is amazing!)

I’m seated at a table for two on a long, leather bench seat that extends to other tables, one of them being where two lively women are sitting.  Once I’ve eaten, I pull out my Moleskin and proceed to write.  As I do so, the chatter and laughter of the two ladies, one empty table down from me, happily pervades  my concentration. They’re infectious and admittedly, I begin to eavesdrop just a little ( please tell me I’m not the only one to have ever done this!)   I notice a colourful gift bag perched on their table. Something is being celebrated and when I hear snippets of a new romance, I’m curious. I look over and the older lady of the two meets my curious glance. She has vibrant eyes, framed by a stylish, short haircut. Her strawberry blonde colouring is similar to mine and I’m soon to discover that her trendy hair style is thanks to the other lady of the dynamic duo.

The Calgary Tower

The Calgary Tower

And they will tell me that though they’ve been client and customer for almost twenty-five years, this is the first time they’ve gone out together. That’s clearly a shame as they get along fantastically and I’m soon to join the fray.

Karen and Melissa Jean are intrigued by my story that begins to enfold an hour later. I’m impossibly happy to have met these ladies and I feel comfortable enough to share my ongoing ‘transition blues’.  I’ve now joined their soiree and as it’s already 6p.m., the dinner crowd is making their way to the nearby tables. By our lively chitchat and uproarious laughter, it’s clear we’ve been there awhile. Blame it on the six dollar glasses of wine and the endless stream of stories we all have to tell, but it feels like we’ve known each other longer than a few hours!

Through the trials of cancer and divorce, of retirement and leaving the suburbs, of relocating internationally, of leaving the city to a small town to be with that long lost high school sweetheart (who does look pretty hunky on that little i phone screen), it was one topic after another.   At one point, I suggest to Patricia that her accent is twinged with a note of Scots, ” I should know I’m married to one”, I say.  

“Aye lassie”, she says mischievously, laying on a thick Scottish accent, “I’m originally from the West Coast.”  

80th and Ivy, our 'local' now decorated for the upcoming Stampede

80th and Ivy, our ‘local’ now decorated for the upcoming Stampede

“Small world”, I reply excitedly “that’s where my husband is  from.” And there we go, off on another tangent.

“Terry Anne, you’re a gift from above”, Karen would quip intermittently as the evening wore on and the wine kept flowing.

“No, you two are the gift I needed today. You don’t know how I needed this respite, the laughter and the friendship”.  I tell them genuinely.

“Oh no”, pipe up my new friends, “it was meant to be, it was serendipity!”

As we all live in the same neighbourhood, we walk Melissa Jean a few streets down to her high-rise apartment. She laughs endlessly like a love-struck school girl. In two weeks, she’ll be happily ensconced in a new relationship at 50 something.  A new lease on life through decisions made on her own accord when she faced cancer and decided life was too short to settle for second best. I admired her as she was bold enough to take the plunge to a new life; a sentiment not lost on my ‘supposed hardship’ at the moment.  It brought me to my senses so to speak and I realized I had to make the most of my situation, despite living apart from Bruce.  It was time to ‘turn the page’.

The downtown city lights twinkle behind us, a reminder that the reason we live in an area where you can readily walk and you just might chance upon an afternoon and evening like today. A chance encounter where the joy of women and friendship revitalize a confused soul. The joy of having conversations you didn’t know you’d be having, with people you can’t imagine not having met. Twenty-four hours ago, melancholy had gotten the best of me.  The transition of the move had overshadowed the simple pleasures of being home; I felt the anticipation of not knowing what was around the next corner. As we neared my townhouse and said our goodbyes, Karen promised we’d meet again soon.   Perhaps a monthly ‘Tuesdays at 80th and Ivy’ we both agreed.

 

And since then, there’s been mostly joy and contentment being here with family and friends in this fair city. Yes there have been some lows on the roller coaster as I coped with some family issues over the months, but I know I needed to be here for those and I’m so thankful that I was. In retrospect, there isn’t any place I would have rather been.  I also had the privilege of being able to hop on a plane and ‘escape’ to visit Bruce in Europe.  What we have found however, is that each time he’s returned here, it’s becoming more difficult to part.  It’s time to live together again and let a new chapter begin.

globally-ranked_peace-bridge

The Peace Bridge designed by Calatrava

I know after spending August in Kimberley, I will again be on a plane.  That old familiar transition stage will start all over again as I move to the ninth country I will have lived in.

This time I’ll be missing Calgary. However, we’ve invested in a modest pied-e-terre that will perhaps become our emotional anchor to the city.  One of our sons will live there, but there’s a ‘wee’ room for us to call our own for when we visit.  And just outside the door are the walking and cycling trails, great places to wine and dine, we’ll be able to hear the Calgary Folk Festival from our balcony, the lights will twinkle on the frozen river and on and on. I truly now appreciate the privilege it is to come from this part of Canada, from this city. I’m grateful to embrace it as my own and hope it will give me the solace I’ll need, for the ‘interesting’ days ahead.

 

 

*Calgary was initially referred to as Bow River Fort then named Fort Brisebois by Inspector Ehphem Brisebois. He was the Mountie overseeing the new fort at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow River, during the brutally cold winter of 1875 – 76.  Colonel James Macleod then renamed it Fort Calgary after Calgary Bay on the Isle of Mull in Scotland.