Apr. 13th, 2014

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We have done quite a lot, this week. I don’t really know where to start. We walked all around central Vancouver – Gastown and Yaletown and Chinatown, and a whole day in Stanley Park walking the Seawall. It poured with rain the first day we arrived, and after trying to Do Tourism a bit with umbrellas, we spent most of the afternoon hiding in a branch of David’s Tea (which is great, by the way. I am now feeling a lot more optimistic about the tea situation in Canada). But we were lucky – although all the other days were grey and smelled of rain, the water mostly stayed in the sky and we could walk around the city for hours and hours without getting soaked. I can confirm the reports of everybody else who has ever been there: Vancouver is very scenic, and the food is amazing. Especially the sushi, which is cheap and plentiful. Om nom nom.

My favourite part of Vancouver was either Stanley Park or the Museum of Anthropology. We accidentally turned up at the museum on First Peoples Day, which meant there were a lot of First Nations people around dealing with excitable schoolchildren and trying to encourage bored teenagers to react to something. There were dances and presentations and harrowing Q&A sessions about residential schools, and it was amazing, and in between the presentations we wandered around the actual museum and looked at an awful lot of beautiful and interesting stuff. My favourite artefacts were the huge dishes that coastal peoples used to serve food for potlatches – they were shaped like boats and dragons and other fun things, and they were so enormous that their owners’ children used to play inside them (there were photos <3 ). Some of them even had wheels.

We spent the day at the museum on Tuesday, and late in the evening we packed up all our stuff and headed down to Pacific Central Station to take the train to Saskatoon. It was dark when the train left Vancouver – we went to bed fairly soon after leaving, curled up in one wide sleeping berth, and in the morning I lifted the blind and saw the sunlight hitting the green forested hills outside, and everything was just how I imagined it would be. The mountains got higher and higher until we were properly in the Rockies, and there was snow everywhere and the sky looked white. I stared out the window all day, stopping only for meals in the dining car (when I also stared out of the window as much as I could without being rude). I listened to ‘Canadian Railroad Trilogy’ and tried not to cry (I’ve been listening to that song all my life – my dad used to dance with me to Gordon Lightfoot to get me to sleep when I was a baby. In fact I sometimes wonder if that’s where this whole thing came from). We met some great people – an elderly Australian couple who told us about their own working holiday experiences in the UK when they were our age, and about all the many places they’d travelled to together since (I would like to be like them when I am old), and a guy in the Canadian Navy travelling back to Halifax after visiting his mother in Kamloops, and a couple of people from Winnipeg who gave us tips for things to do there and shared our enthusiasm for the Jets. When I pulled the blind down to sleep that night we were travelling through tree-covered hills, and in the morning when I lifted it again I saw the sun rise over the prairie. The wide, flat landscape flooded with light in just a couple of minutes, and the sight took my breath away. We were in Saskatoon right after breakfast, getting off the train at a small station seemingly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by farmland and prairie and vast, vast blue sky.

You may remember that we were in Saskatoon due to a rather bizarre set of coincidences which led me to have a very kind and welcoming friend living there. She’s a teacher and she was working all day on Thursday, but she’d asked her son Mike to meet us at the station and take us around Saskatoon. We’d seen his picture before and thought he looked nice, and we knew he was an engineer who did stuff to do with energy efficiency and environmentalism, so we thought we might have something to talk about. As it happened, we clicked with him pretty much immediately, and spent the whole day walking around Saskatoon together talking about music and sustainability and board games and politics and urban renewal and other topics of mutual interest. He’s the guy I mentioned last time, who’s designing the houses – he told us about Saskatoon’s recent economic and population growth, and about the people who wanted to put the money from that into filling in some of the vacant space downtown with affordable housing and building a better public transport network in the city core, and the other people who wanted to just keep spreading out into the suburbs and turn the city into a car-dependent sprawl ‘like Calgary’. Everybody in his social circle is passionate about making it into the former, and I was so, so inspired by his attitude to his home city and his commitment to staying in it and taking a part in creating its future, rather than moving out to somewhere like Vancouver or Toronto where the environmentalist weirdoes are plentiful and the public transport network is already good. It made me think a lot about what kind of city I want to live in, long-term, and whether I have the strength and the drive to pitch in and help create something like he’s doing, or whether I’ll always be somebody who moves to where Stuff is already and takes advantage of what’s there. He told us three of his housing units were still available, and his girlfriend (who works for the city) told us they were looking for an accountant at City Hall. So we thought about that for a bit, and we might think about it some more later. Shame there aren’t many publishers in Saskatoon. Also it gets to minus 40 in the winter and until they do actually improve the public transport network we’d probably need to get a car. Still, though.

In the evening we met Gayle, and she took us up to her farm about an hour from Saskatoon, and we met her husband Danny, who is sensible and kind and very down-to-earth, and runs the farm he grew up on, and is also a socialist who makes his own pesto and is always on the lookout for interesting new foods to cook with, because of course, Saskatchewan. We rode horses for the first time ever, and we took a drive around their little town and out onto the prairie to look for moose (we didn’t see any, but we did see plenty of deer and maybe an elk), and we saw a couple of other little towns, each with a squat little onion-domed Ukrainian church standing amid the single-storey farmhouses, and we visited Danny’s mother who is eighty-six and spends all her time ice fishing, baking cookies (which she freezes in huge batches and then defrosts when guests come round) and making rag rugs. I think she came to Canada as a child from Hungary, or possibly Ukraine (I lost track of which family story was which). She gave us endless cups of tea and let us choose one of her rugs for our new home, and to the many relatives who popped round during the afternoon she introduced us as the people who’d ‘come all the way from England to eat my chocolate-chip cookies’.

Yesterday we woke to about twenty centimetres of fresh snow (in April!), and the news that Mike and Shannon had got us tickets to the Symphony, where one of their friends was playing the viola. Gayle drove us back into the city, and we had a wonderful night out with a whole bunch of really great, interesting people. The performance was great, and afterwards we went out to a bar which Shannon at first pronounced ‘too crowded’ on the grounds that there was only one small table free to sit at, but later relented when another table opened up. It was at about this point when I decided I never want to go back to London to stand in corners of crowded pubs and yell at my friends of a Saturday night while trying not to get beer spilled on me.

While I was with Mike and Shannon it was actually really hard to believe that it wasn’t them we’d come to visit, that we hadn’t in fact been friends for years but had actually barely been aware of each other’s existence until a couple of days ago. I loved the way we fitted in with them and their friends in the city, and also with Gayle and Danny on the farm – we always had something to talk about with everybody, and the whole time we were in Saskatchewan there was never one awkward silence, and all in all it was honestly more like a visit to family I hadn’t seen for years than it was like meeting people for the first time ever. I kind-of feel like they’re my family in Canada, now, and I hope they feel the same way about us. I know that I’ll see them again, at some point somewhere, and I’m looking forward to it already.

Now we’re on the train to Winnipeg, and I’ve somehow managed to tear my eyes away from the prairie long enough to write this blogpost (it helps that the train stops every so often for about twenty minutes to let a freight train go by). I honestly can’t imagine how anybody could ever find this landscape dull. I love the subtle colours of it this time of year – yellows and browns and greys and whites, changing constantly as the sunlight moves across it. There’s the occasional bank of snow amongst the trees, and elsewhere there are pools of snowmelt reflecting the clouds, like huge puddles of sky amongst the grasses. I’d love to see how it looks in other seasons – Gayle tells me it’s most beautiful in summer, when the canola and flax are in flower. The horizon just goes on forever here, and the sky above it is so overwhelmingly huge. My one regret from my time on the farm is that it was cloudy both nights, so I couldn’t see the stars. Maybe next time.

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