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