Monday, February 8, 2010

Our Canadian Christmas: epilogue

.All good things must come to an end and like all those other good things, peanuts roasted in their shells for example, our time in Canada inevitably drew to a close. And suddenly I realised, looking through the viewfinder of my camera, that it would be some long while before Andrea stood in this spot again. I don't know if the ground will be covered in snow or grass and I don't know if she will be making the trip here on her own or whether I'll be able to go with her. But it made me quite sad to have to live in that moment of departing from a place where I really enjoyed being and where I was connected to so many great people. I felt that I had not wasted my time and yet two weeks was not long enough for me to get to know the people living in this other world on the other side of the globe - Andrea's world.

There is no substitute for time spent in the same place as the people you love. I remember hearing in a podcast about a contemporary immigrant family living in America who had set up video conferencing in their kitchen, including a projector that displayed the incoming streaming video onto a large screen on the wall, and every morning the family would sit down and have breakfast with a grandmother who lived in Italy, combining the two dining tables across the world with only a magical transparent wall separating them. I guess that's about as far as you could go with contemporary technology. By the way, I'm not suggesting that we need to have breakfast with Andrea's parents every morning.

There will be other christmases in the future. We'll probably all be sitting at the same table again and it will be laid with cracker bonbons and there will be a lot of what people do at christmas time; laughing and talking and discovering new things about the people they already know so well. People enjoying being with other people. Friends and relatives getting together to share old times and create new ones.

My memories of this christmas seem quite vivid. How could they not be? This was a christmas unlike any other that I have had. The color of the memories in my mind are very different from the usual colors of my christmases. It was all so cold and so warm at the same time; so happy and so sad. I'm already looking forward to my next Canadian christmas.

Daybreak over Sturgeon Lake. The frozen surface of the lake is textured by the blanket of snow that has fallen on top of the ice. The clouds swim in a puddle of oranges, pinks, blues, and whites behind the filigree of branches. This is Canadian winter.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Our Canadian Christmas: a walk on the lake

One day, sometime after christmas, Lynn, Andrea, and I took a walk along the edge of the lake by which they live. When I say "along the edge of the lake" I mean on the frozen surface of the lake itself but remaining, all the while, close to the shore. While we had seen ski-doos (snowmobiles) racing across the lake for at least a week, local wisdom said that when walking on frozen lakes you should stay near the edge just to be safe. In a landscape full of holes full of water that freeze over in winter it is no surprise that local lore is rich in tales of those who didn't make it all the way across but drowned in the icy water beneath the hard crust. During my stay in Canada I heard many stories of people ending up under the ice, either as a result of ignorance, stupidity, plain bad luck, or things just not being what they appeared to be. I think I became a bit paranoid about the ice breaking up under my feet and me falling into an icy-cold bath and being paralysed by the cold shock and unable to react to save myself. However, we never strayed very far from the lake shore and so I was always reminding myself that if I did go through the ice, I would probably be able to stand on the lake bed.

On this particular day the sun was shining down from out of a deep blue sky. I don't think there was anyone else at home that day and so the three of us went out for a walk with the two dogs, Mila and Nabi. On one hand it was just a walk on the lake, something that people who live in these places can take for granted having grown up with such things as frozen water in (seasonal) abundance. But for me there was something about this particular walk that, in hindsight, seemed to catalyze the foundation of a real relationship between me and this foreign landscape. I think that it was after this walk that this landscape, so different from the place where I come from, finally started to feel like a home.

Ready to start walking: Mila, Andrea, and Lynn. Nabi has already run off somewhere. Notice the edge of the frozen crust just behind and to the right of Lynn. It has cracked and the pieces have been forced upwards, exposing the rocky lake bed underneath. Apparently after the lake had begun to freeze, the authorities lowered the water level in the lake although I can't remember why. The crust of ice also moves and cracks over time and so you get some interesting features showing up along the edge of the lake and on the surface. One of the most interesting things I learned about the frozen lake was that the lake will groan, or sound like it is groaning, as the ice moves and I did get to hear this during my time here.

A beautiful image. The distant lake shore divides the lake and the clouds.

This tall tree provides a perfect platform for an eyrie. In seasons gone by a family of large birds lived atop this tree. Now all that is left is the nest.

Between the lake and the hills, strange shapes can be seen.

This was once the home of a colony of paper wasps, now departed. [Wikipedia on Paper Wasps]

I'm really not sure how the snow and ice get into these amazing shapes and forms.

Lynn on the government dock.


Up close at the edge of the ice under the trees. Perfect fragile slender icicles stand straight and tall. This is a microworld of wonders.

The forest looks particularly wild and forbidding as Lynn and Andrea gaze in.

Back to where we started by the wooden dock outside the family home. I knelt down on the ice and tried to take a good photo that would capture something of the hidden landscape under the ice. During the other seasons this rocky lake bed is under water and even in winter it is usually hidden but the weird movements of the ice sheet have allowed me a glimpse of what lies beneath. You might say that it's just a bunch of rocks after all but there's something timeless about the bed of rocks that lie sleeping forever under the water. There's something timeless about the lake and the ice and the change of the forest from green to brown and gray to green again. In this place the changing of the seasons is stark and vivid. In a few months everything will be water and green again. We'll have to wait until next winter to hear the lake groaning in the still night.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Our Canadian Christmas: The [inexact quantity] days of Christmas

Christmas came to us on a variety of days, in a variety of locations, and varied in content with each rendition. The photos in this post aren't in chronological order and don't really form a narrative. For me, Christmas actually encompassed a lot of what we did in the entire two weeks that I was in Canada and covered everything from the eating and drinking to visiting friends and relatives, and witnessing and participating in christmas traditions. Christmas in Australia is a bit different from a cold christmas in the northern hemisphere and a lot of the cultural baggage that comes with the idea of christmas actually makes sense in a place like Canada: snow, snowflakes, making snowmen, deer, sleighs, very warm clothing, big hot meals, stockings, and the tradition of going out to get a tree to put inside the house. It was wonderful to experience my first white christmas knowing that all over the country people dressed as Santa Claus ringing their bells were warm and comfortable rather than sweating themselves into a puddle as they might back home in Australia.

You've got to have a christmas tree. This one was grown in a plantation of some sort and bought at the garden department of the local supermarket. It has been laded with an array of shiny baubles, ribbons, and ornaments, and of course there's an angel perched upon the very top. If I appear more stylish or chic than usual in this photo, it's probably because I am wearing my new Pierre Cardin pyjama pants.

Lynn and Jim check the state of the turkey while I meander around aimlessly with a glass of wine in my hand. For a good christmas you need food and lots of it; special food and lots of good drink. I have to say that I probably used the word "feast" and it's variants more during these two weeks than at any other time in my life. A typical usage might have been something like, "Ah, more feasting. Again.". There really was a good deal of feasting.

Another christmas tradition, the wee drop o' drink and cookies for Santa Claus. These were duly left on the mantle above the fireplace and had disappeared when I woke up the next morning. I suspect that they were consumed by representatives of yuletide tradition, be they Santa Claus or otherwhose.

More important feasting: Andrea and her grandmother, Pody, enjoy a hot drink topped with whipped cream and a couple of home-made cookies (or biscuits, depending on where you come from). Home-made cookies usually taste a lot better than what you can buy in the supermarket.

Fireplaces are also very important at christmas time, especially in Canada and other cold places. This one even has stockings hung upon it.

And more of that critical element, feasting, this time at a proper dinner table. This table is laid with a big white tablecloth, special golden platters, and cracker bonbons - very festive.

I really like this picture despite it being a little bit blurry. Three generations blow out the candles on uncle Dan's birthday cake. One of the many christmases was held to coincide with the celebration of Dan's birthday. This shot is post-cracker-bonbon-pull and Andrea is wearing the party hat from one of the crackers. Birthday cake counts as food and so this shot counts as one more photo included here to celebrate the feasting aspect of christmas.

You've got to have gift-giving too, of course. Andrea tells Jeremy about her gift to him: a sake set from Taiwan.

Dan admires the wonderful geisha costume worn by the puppy. Andrea's family runs an annual Secret Santa/Kris Kringle/Chris Kindle wherein everybody's name goes into a christmas lottery and everyone is allocated one family member for whom they should buy a christmas gift. I think that's a great idea as it deters Christmas gift-giving mania, allowing the focus to remain on other aspects of christmas (such as feasting). This year I drew Joey for whom I bought a puppy costume and an ice-block tray that produces ice-blocks in the shapes of the Titanic and icebergs; great idea but a pretty lame gift.

More gift-giving, this time from Andrea's father Roger. Some things are universal and translate from one side of the globe to the other without impairment. I could replace Canada with Australia and USA with New Zealand and I might as well be having christmas back at home.

Andrea and her grandmother Pody. Another critical element in a goodly christmas is visiting friends and relatives. If you're lucky the visit coincides with a feast and you can experience more of the feasting that I so enjoyed at christmas time.

Andrea's other grandmother Ruth. I was glad to be able to spend some time with both of Andrea's grandmothers while we were in Canada. They are very special to Andrea and I'm glad to know them.

Christmas wouldn't be complete without a compelling reason to stay indoors and the winter cold and snow gets pretty compelling if you stay out in it for very long. This is Roger and Bernie's house and I have always known what I wanted to say about this photo when the time came to write a comment about it: look at the size of that tree! That is a two-storey house.

More visiting (feasting not included in this photo although it was had and enjoyed). Andrea and I stand between Roger and Bernie in their dining room. Roger doesn't always look like that; he had just received this survival suit from Dustin and now they're ready to go ice-fishing together.

Dustin, Andrea's brother; I want to go fishing with him sometime when I get the chance. Perhaps not in winter. I think he's just come back from feasting elsewhere. I only just managed to keep the angel on the tree in the frame of this shot.

More visiting, this time at the Burns' residence. Erin and Andrea catch up with their cousin David. The glass in Erin's hand hints at the feast that was had.

And of the last image of this post is devoted to... feasting. Ahh - christmas.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Our Canadian Christmas: cross-country skiing

According to that digital doyen of internet information, Wikipedia, cross-country skiing evolved in Fennoscandian countries in prehistoric times and was used to hunt deer, elk, and the like. The sport was apotheosised in 1924 when it became an Olympic event. I don't think I'm Olympic material. I don't think I'm even go-fast-downhill-on-skis material. However, these crushing realities didn't prevent me from thoroughly enjoying myself when given my first opportunity to try cross-country skiing. I would have tried it sooner but we don't have an awful lot of snow where I come from in Australia. In fact, my first experience of snow on the ground was as recently as 2007. [This guy has put together a comprehensive summary of all things snow in Western Australia, just in case you were interested]

I would have started this next paragraph with, "One fine December day in Bobcaygeon..." but, that day being well into the Canadian winter, your evaluation of a December day anywhere in Canada depends a lot on what you are used to and what your reference for comparison is. Therefore, going on my personal experience, I will have to begin differently: One freezing, chilling, toe-numbing December day in Bobcaygeon Andrea and I went to see her friends Paul and Val with big plans to do some cross-country skiing so that the non-native (me) could have the experience and also, of course, because it's fun and people like an excuse to have to leave their houses and do something. Paul and Val are very nice people and lent me some special skis, shoes, and ski poles. Andrea, being a local, had brought her own from home after extracting them from the garage in a fit of rummaging.

I'm sure I was trying to look charming and sophisticated here but I somehow come across as looking a bit drunk and clueless (but warm nonetheless and that is the important thing). This is me standing in the living room of Paul and Val's parents' house. And that's not a glass of alcohol although I don't know what it is. The beanie (or "tuque"), snow pants, and heavy jacket are all borrowed from Andrea's home base. At this stage I had consolidated my expectations about cross-country skiing under the banner Expect to Fall Down a Lot (but falling down a lot is okay).

Paul and Val. Nice couple at the start of a very promising life together and living in what seems to be a beautiful part of the world. We're at the start of our skiing trek here. I'm being generous with the word "trek". For everyone else it was a walk (or ski) in the park but for me I guess it was a gruelling trial by fire where I could only expect to get burned. Ouch! Okay, it was actually not bad at all. In fact, it was a great experience but more on that later in the wrap-up.

Val helps me lock my shoes into the skis. These skis are not smooth all the way along the underside: in the middle there is a section of tread which provides traction when pushed down against the snow and ice.

It's another beautiful day in Ontario as Paul tutors me on some of the basic principles of cross-country skiing.

Summer's crop has been harvested leaving the dead stalks standing in rows in the sleeping field. The frozen lake beyond remains frozen under the winter sun. And under that cold sunny sky we made our way through the landscape on pieces of fibreglass. As I was saying before, too early in the piece, I guess it was a gruelling trial by fire where I could only expect to get burned. Ouch! Okay, it was actually not bad at all. In fact, I really enjoyed having the opportunity to try skiing; it was fun and I barely fell down at all. Why? Because it was too late in the year for a fall. [that's a joke]