After finishing my second degree I had a lot to think about. I had been going to school for 19 years and now what was I going to do? I graduated from Ryerson University in Toronto with a journalism degree and was wondering if I should stay in the big city and find a job there or go home to the East Coast.
My mother found a short term answer – a bursary to attend a French immersion program. There were a few places to choose from: Montreal, Quebec City or Pointe-de-l’Église, Nova Scotia. I applied for the money to go to Pointe-de-l’Église.
Pointe-de-l’Église, Church Point in English, is a tiny Acadian town on the French Shore of Nova Scotia. It’s also the home of L’Université Sainte-Anne. The university is home to about 500 students and the campus is right on the shores of the Bay of Fundy. The view from the meal hall of the water is truly magnifique.
The bursary provided money for tuition, meals and board for six weeks. Six weeks where I did everything in French. I went to French classes, made friends in French, wrote in my journal in French and even dreamed a few times in French. It was exhausting. If anyone spoke a word of English they got an advertisement – a warning. Three advertisements and you’re out.
Our instructors handed out these demerits but other people could too. Since the town was small shopkeepers knew who was from the school and who was a tourist. If I had said anything in my native tongue in any store I would get dinged immediately.
My instructor Madeleine was always trying to get us. Especially in the morning before we had breakfast. While in line waiting to be served by the meal hall staff, Madeleine would point to a food item and ask, “Qu’est ce que c’est?”
“Oatmeal,” answered one unfortunate Anglophone.
One warning for her.
By the time I was asked the same question by Madeleine the oatmeal/gruau story had already made the rounds. I was safe with my “sauce au pommes” (apple sauce) reply.
During the last week of school I was paired with a guy in my class to do a project. Shawn and I didn’t really get along and had bickered like brother and sister most of the five weeks that had already passed. I was not looking forward to being his partner and spending more time with him.
That Wednesday he was coming to my residence to work on our assignment. I was the only one in the living room dorm and I just happen to let one. AKA pass gas. Right when Shawn walked through the door. I was mortified. What do I do? I had to get him into the kitchen.
“Hi Shawn, welcome. Let’s go into the kitchen,” I said. All in English.
He looked at me with wide blue eyes, mouth open and said, in French, “That’s the first time you’ve been nice to me. And it was in English!”
Oh mon dieu. He’s going to report me now.
He never did.
The light has changed in Calgary the past few days, signalling the end weeks of summer. When I left for vacation in the middle of July there were still many sunshine days ahead. Now a chill is creeping into August mornings and I saw my breath yesterday when I went out on to the porch to pick up the newspaper. Summer is fading but I’m holding on to the warmth of my holiday memories. I don’t want to leave them behind. Just yet.
My husband Jason and I travelled to see his family in Toronto. Our flight itinerary put us in Saskatoon for a six-hour layover. I had never been to the flat city before so we thought we’d take the bus into town. Easy. Although once at the airport it was pouring rain. And freezing cold. We ventured out anyway and headed for Prairie Sun Brewery, and a nice respite from the Saskatchewan chill.
After missing the bus and finally catching the correct one back to the airport, our flight took off and landed in Toronto just after midnight. We had several days of seeing parents and siblings and nieces and nephews and friends. We went to Milton and Waterloo and hit the west end of Toronto. We even had time to relax.
Then it was on to Nova Scotia. We were going for a special occasion – to surprise one of my sisters for her 40th birthday. I was so excited about the plan I almost texted her while I was waiting for my luggage to tell her I was home. Thankfully I didn’t and she was shocked (in a good way) when Jason and I showed up on the doorstep.
The next week in the Maritimes was filled with party planning, the 40th bash, visiting family, meeting a puppy, catching up with friends over coffee and showing off some of Nova Scotia’s best sights to my husband. Jason and I took a car trip to the French Shore and stopped at Annapolis Royal where Fort Anne sits. The site was established in 1629 and was traded back and forth between the English and French many times during the many wars between the two nations. Annapolis Royal is a lovely town but I don’t think I would have wanted to be a soldier posted there a couple of hundred years ago. Just like I wouldn’t have wanted to be stationed at the Habitation in Port Royal.
The Habitation was France’s first successful settlement in North America and was established in 1605. I had been to the Habitation years ago as a child and while the replica of the fort is the same as I remembered, there was a lot less activity then in the 80s. Actors used to bring the Habitation alive and fill it with soldiers and bakers and blacksmiths. I guess Parks Canada doesn’t have the money in the budget for that kind of stuff anymore. Despite this, the Habitation is still an impressive piece of history. Its drafty and damp rooms wouldn’t be a place I’d like to stay over the winter. The colonists only survived thanks to Mi’kmaq neighbours. (On a weird note, it was funny to watch some American tourists complaining about the reception for their mobile phones. Man, times have changed.)
With that in mind, unlike the Habitation settlers, Jason and I didn’t need to hunt and fish for our food. We only had to stop at a restaurant in Digby. My husband ate world-famous scallops and I had lobster quiche. Mmmmm. We also took a side trip to Bear River. I love this tiny place because some of the buildings are on silts. Bear River is also known as “The Switzerland of Nova Scotia” because it’s in a valley with hills on either side.
Next there was a stop at the Université Sainte-Anne where I went to French immersion in 1997. Sainte-Anne is a small francophone university made up of just over 500 students and the campus is on the Baie St. Marie. We walked around the ground and I found the residence I lived in way back when.
Surrounding the university are the Acadian fishing towns of Clare, Saulnierville and Meteghan –beautiful and unspoiled. It was nice to see all the Acadian flags on the lawns of people proud of their heritage. We would have gone further down the coast but we ran out of time. We will be back. One day.
Now we’ve returned to Calgary. At the fraying edge of summer. With my memories of a hot and humid July. There were many other things I saw and did on my trip but I’ll save them for another time. Today I’m happy I was able to re-visit history and people from my past and make a connection with them in the present. We have so much to look forward to.
As a memoir writer I recount many, many interesting stories. Stories about growing up in Germany during the Second World War. Stories about conducting surgeries in Baghdad when bombs are flying through the air and could hit you and your patient at any time. Stories about escaping Cold War Poland and building a new life in Canada. What all these stories have in common are they are not just about the person telling the tales and anecdotes. These stories are about everyone who came into contact with the narrator, good and bad.
You might think telling your life story means you’re the sole focus of the tale and it’s all about you. But we didn’t shape ourselves. We had mothers and fathers and siblings and relatives and friends and strangers and even animals help make us who we are. Without these people our memoirs would just be one long stream of consciousness. A bunch of thoughts strewn on the page. A journal entry and not a story.
One of my client’s didn’t talk a lot about her father, who has been dead for many decades. Her dad was, of course, a major part of her life but we only had a few anecdotes about him. Then the client’s husband died in May and through her recent grief she was able to tell me about her father dying, almost 60 years ago. The sadness she felt today let her come to terms with what happened a long time ago. She has told me a lot more about her dad and he’s a major part of her story now too.
The characters in our lives come in all shapes and forms – the kind grandmother, the angry aunt, the mixed-up parent, the sarcastic brother and the thoughtful friend. They all feature in our narratives. Use them to add colour to your tales. They’ll make your stories that much richer.
I’m in Vancouver for work and yesterday I had some free time. I hopped on two buses and the Canada Line train to the ferry and took the boat to Victoria where I have an aunt and uncle. Now I have some sunshine-filled and homemade date square memories of a B.C. Sunday.
I don’t want to write a long story this morning so I’m going to craft a nano-memoir. A nano-memoir is longer than a six word memoir but shorter than a lengthy anecdote about almost missed buses and the reminiscing over funny family stories with relatives. A nano-memoir is short and focused. Here it goes.
Before my Victoria trip I googled how to get to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal on public transit. I had it all figured out – or so I thought – until a friend (and a local) told me the night before that my route was wrong. To head down to a busy street, West Broadway, to get the bus to the Canada Line to get the Skytrain to the bus to get to the ferry. Locals always know the best ways to get around in their own city.
But the buses don’t stop at certain stops before 7 a.m. on Sundays. Here it was 5:45 in the morning and no public transportation of any shape or kind had rolled past me. I decided to walk ahead to another stop. Just in case.
At 6 a.m. a bus pulled over. Hallelujah! I asked the driver if he went to the Canada Line.
“Nope. Take the Number Nine.”
Yikes! I’m already running late. And a tiny bit panicked. Where is this stupid bus? Then a woman with a large rolling suit case clomped out of the bus door. Her luggage looked heavy but she was smiling.
“I’m catching the Number Nine,” she told me. “You can wait with me.”
We walked a couple of metres up the street and stood at the sign with a big “9” on it. Hopefully I would have noticed it on my own but it was nice I didn’t have to. My companion was a young woman who was going to the airport via the skytrain. She was flying to Italy and travelling around Milan.
We exchanged some notes about pasta and Italian train travel (I had bad luck in that country with trains) and how delicious a chocolate gelato would taste on a warm continental evening (or even the warm morning in Vancouver we were experiencing.) It was a pleasant conversation for an early a.m. and I was reminded that there are friendly people everywhere – even big and busy cities.
I thought about the woman while I was returning from Victoria via the ferry, the two buses and the train last night. It had been a 12 hour day for me and she had probably just arrived in Milan. Hopefully she was enjoying ravioli somewhere with a good glass of red.
When I got up this morning at my friend’s place I noticed a calendar hanging on the wall in my bedroom. It’s from Milan.
This past week I was in Burlington, Ontario for work. A client had bought my ticket so I could fly to her home and help her dig through boxes and files and root out any stories that had been hiding. We uncovered a few new adventures by looking at old photos as well as added more details to other memoirs. But I didn’t just unearth her family narratives; I also discovered a portal to someone else’s stories.
Southern Ontario was hot, hot, hot and coming from cold Calgary I was not used to the heat and humidity. While sifting through documents and pictures in the basement kept me cool, coming up to ground level took my temperature a little too high. So we decided to take a drive in the air-conditioned car.
Off we headed into the countryside driving past lush green pastures, grand estates with fountains splashing into ponds and rolling hills that make up the area around and past Milton. It was in Campbellville that we noticed a sign on the right hand side of the road advertising stained glass windows. To stretch our legs we thought we might as well stop in and take a peek.
The Stonehouse of Campbellville has over two thousand windows displayed outside on its grounds. (I was actually afraid to walk around because I was sure I would kick and break something.) Some of the windows are pieces of art with royal blues and ruby reds and sunshine yellows shaped into flowers or people or animals. Some glass is clear in its design and looks just as beautiful as a colourful church window.
Inside the small shop there are more windows for sale and a work room where artists make repairs. But there were also two long benches filled with books. Free books!
“Limit five books per person,” said the sign above the tomes of every size and genre. Perhaps I could get a good novel for the plane ride back? As someone once said, “Never judge a book by its cover,” so I looked for a catchy title that interested me. I picked up a science fiction paperback and opened it – three postcards slid out from the pages to the floor.
I picked the postcards up and took a look. They were all from a mother to her grown child, whether a daughter or son I don’t know. The postcards were addressed to Saskatoon Drive in Toronto, an address that still exists. (I googled it.) The notes on the cards were short but sweet with the most interesting one being written on a picture of Gretna Green.
Gretna Green is a town in Scotland known for runaway weddings. In England if you were getting married and under 21 in the 1700s, your parents could object to you getting hitched. Scotland’s law was more lax then so many minors took off to wed in the safety of Gretna Green. (Jane Austen wrote about some of her characters running off to Gretna Green.) The postcard I found wasn’t from the 18th century – it was sent August 14, 1958 – but there been a wedding.
Just had to send this card. We made a group and had a wedding picture taken. Much love, mother
As Oliver Twist (kind of) said, “I want some more.” Some more details to fill in the story. Was the wedding at Gretna Green? Whose wedding was it? Why didn’t the receiver of the postcard attend? Too many questions and no answers. Just like life.
The postcard is a fragment of a much bigger narrative. A piece of a puzzle that I will never put together. But it’s still a delightful treasure to have found and a reminder that some stories don’t have a perfect ending. I left the postcards and the book on the bench for the next person to discover.
It has been a year since the waters of southern Alberta rose, gained speed and rushed over the land. The floods destroyed lives, property and deluged downtown Calgary. Friends were told to leave their homes and watched while the river took over their possessions. Others came home from vacations to find they had nothing left other than what they had packed in their suitcases. It was a terrible time and everyone experienced it, including those who were homeless before the flood. Now a book, Flood Stories 2013, is telling the tales of the people without four walls pre and post the surge of the rivers.
The flood stories and photos were collected by Calgary organization, This is My City (TMC). TMC brings art and people together no matter what income bracket or social status. I have been volunteering with TMC for over a year and facilitate four-week, life writing workshops at the Calgary Drop-In Centre and Alpha House. These two agencies are part of the book and some of my participants wrote about their experiences with the rising waters.
This Wednesday evening, June 25, Shelf Life Books (1302 4 St SW, Calgary) will be featuring the book as well as a performance at 7:00 p.m. Flood Stories is a limited edition, hand-printed book and is on sale for $75.00. Proceeds are in support of TMC programs.
There are so many things to write about but I sometimes get stuck thinking about what to write about and can’t come up with anything. Probably lots of people who are looking to record their corporate or personal stories are in the same boat. They don’t know where to start but given a prompt – their memories will be set in motion.
Writing prompts help get your tale on its way. It gives you a focus such as: what do you remember your grandmother saying? This opens up myriad of possibilities for many people and one particular story for me.
One time my nana, my mama’s mama, come to visit us in Nova Scotia from northern Ontario. My family had driven to Canning, a small Annapolis Valley town, to run an errand and we were parked on the side of the street. My mom went into a store leaving me and my middle sister in the back seat with my nana sitting in the passenger chair.
My sister and I were being bad. We were arguing and fighting and kicking the back of the seats. My Scottish nana turned around and said:
“If you don’t stop that I’m gonna hit you in the lugs!”
That stopped us. Dead. Not because of nana’s stern tone but because – what are lugs? (Her accent lugs turned into loogs.)
“What are loogs nana?” one of us asked.
“Loogs, you know, loogs.”
Legs? Is that what she meant? That made us laugh.
“Haha nana. You say legs funny.”
Not the right thing to say and she was furious and sputtered something else at us.
For years my sister and I have thought lugs were legs. Until one day we were watching Coronation Street, a British soap opera, and one of the characters mentioned his lugs – his ears.
I love hockey. Playing hockey, that is. I like watching the NHL. Especially during playoffs. I can imagine the thrill of each goal that brings a team closer to the ultimate shiny target – the Stanley Cup. I’d like to think I know how it feels to be playing your best and out for the win.
My first hockey team ever was the Fort Smith Fury. I had played hockey with my family on the pond growing up in Nova Scotia but it wasn’t until I went to the Northwest Territories that I ended up on a formal team. It was in Smith I learned how to put on shoulder pads and hockey socks and poke check.
I was a winger my first year. My second year I moved to centre – a good position for a puck chaser. Centre is awesome. You’re half forward and half defence. You skate a lot, which I liked because of the exercise, but you also have to have a good idea about what’s going on around you. It’s your job to feed the wingers (and the points) pucks to get the goals. As centre I did put some pucks in the basket but one stands out for me.
Every year Smith went to a tournament in Fort Simpson, a town about an eight-hour drive west. Simpson is a cool place where the Mackenzie and Liard rivers meet and the Moose Hide Mama’s tourney was so much fun. The hockey was good and the party afterwards included the whole town. It was worth the slog along snow-covered dirt highways with nothing to look at but trees and trees and trees.
Fort Smith made the trip to Simpson as did Hay River. Teams from Yellowknife never seemed to make it to anything not in Yellowknife. Smith and Simpson had a friendly joking relationship on and off the ice. Hay River was different. They were our rivals and always seemed to beat us in this tournament and others. Not this year.
Smith had sent a tiny team and we lost one of our players due to an injury. That meant we only had two subs, one for defence and one for forward. We had managed to win most of our games on Friday and Saturday but heading into the final game on Sunday against Hay River we were tired. We had played a lot of hockey in the previous days and, of course, attended the party the night before. Oh well. Time to hit the ice and win.
The first period went OK. Not smoothly but we were getting into it. Then came second period. This is where we had to hold our own. I was on the ice playing centre when the puck was shot from our side down the rink. Icing would be called – maybe. I was taught to skate hard after that puck in case the call was waved off.
I was deep in Hay River’s zone when the goalie took several side steps out of her net, stopped the puck and…passed it to me.
That’s when I started to feel the pressure. I had an empty net. A wide, wide open net. If I didn’t score on this then I would be scarred for life. I would never live it down if I missed and I did not want to miss this opportunity.
I had to do it. I had to shoot the puck now. For all I knew there were Hay River players about to pounce on me and take away this golden moment. I let the puck go and…she scores!
I did it.
That was one of my most memorable hockey moments. That goal buoyed my spirits and gave me a shot of adrenaline for a few minutes. Then I started to flag as I got tired again. We called the third period of that game zombie hockey. We were so exhausted that we were like zombies. Instead of looking for brains, we looked for the puck.
My goal was not the winning goal, there were far more talented women on the team who took up the score. Despite the game of living dead hockey, we won and were a bunch of happy ghouls.
The pastry crumbled in my mouth like a piece of shortbread. The cheese was creamy with just the right amount of sharpness to open my taste buds. A hunk of bacon sliced through the soft flavours and dominated my palate. This was Quiche Lorraine in Alsace Lorraine, where the French pie was created, and it’s one of my most favourite meal memories.
The cup of hot tea that accompanied my meal was parfait. It warmed me up after a morning of wandering around Colmar, France on a soggy sightseeing day. A rainy grey day better fit for staying inside a café until it was time to head to a bar. (But this was France so bars were probably open earlier than in Canada.) It was the end of December but there was no snow. The weather was more reminiscent of spring, like this past Friday and Saturday in Calgary.
I was in Europe with my friend Digger. She was on exchange with a German university and I went to visit her at Christmas in the mid 90s. Colmar was a short bus ride from Freiburg, Germany and we decided to check it out. The French town is picture perfect: old houses and buildings painted with colours you could eat – mustard and orange and lemon. A canal runs through the village and little postcard bridges span the dark water. A French town that you want to take a million photographs of even though you’d never be able to capture the historic shadows of the street corners and building blocks.
Digger and I were both 21 but only one of us was naïve. Almost every man passing us on foot invited us for a drink. At first I thought everyone was so nice to the tourists when I had heard otherwise about the French. Until Digger told me the guys were hitting on us.
It had been raining in Colmar since we got off the bus. Not full-on pouring but more like little drips here and there. Enough to make us cold after hours of our shoes on the cobblestones. We were hungry too and wanted to take a break.
We found a restaurant in the centre of town. I’m not sure how we picked it. The outside was a dark brown, unlike the other bright buildings, and the inside matched. It was dimly lit when we walked in but a fire was a bright spot in the corner of a room. Zut. There were no tables near it.
The place was almost full but we found a small table in a back room. There I ordered my meal – the one I still dream about today. The incredible Quiche Lorraine. But it wasn’t only the lunch. It was the combination of food, company and history. This was the first time I had been to Europe and I was overwhelmed by the antiquity that was everywhere I looked in France, Germany and Switzerland. I was a history major in university and I studied this stuff but to be this close to it was unreal. Everything was so old (not the quiche I had been served) that it boggled my Canadian mind.
After our lunch Digger and I headed outside and back into the rain. We got dessert to take out, chocolate crepes, from a small restaurant down the street. (You know that European way, it’s cheaper to take food away than it is to eat it in the restaurant.) We stood under an awning of a furniture store and dug into the sweet treat. Chocolate spilling out of the French pancake and dripping down our chins.
“Cochon!” yelled someone on the other side of the street. “Cochon!”
He was calling us pigs.
Alors, there was the rude Frenchman that I heard all about.