Wednesday, August 13, 2014

True North

The travel bug, once caught, may be impossible to shake. I've had the opportunity in the past five years, through work and love, to move about the civilized US and to Asia. It's been wonderous, and much of it has been done with T. We pinch ourselves on these trips, and yet have found the biggest capitals are growing more and more homogeneous.  Sparkling clean hotels and shopping areas dominate the downtown areas, and unless one knows the place, it's hard to find the there there.

Last week, we headed to Canada to visit my earlier life, in reverse. Toronto was where I spent seven years before leaving the nest for Texas.  When I first landed there in 1988 as a university student on summer leave, I knew for sure I'd made it, after a life in rural Ontario. Back then, it was struggling with an inferiority complex (God knows, so was I) but from what we saw, no more. With eyes that have seen Hong Kong, New York, Chicago, Singapore and San Francisco, it impressed me anew. It's a crazy mess of traffic and people, but the food (if you go, try Buca, and prepare to swoon) and the dizzying number of languages spoken in the street have made it an even more exciting place.

An amazing dinner at home with good friends, who always entertain with panache, and a lunch with others in the Distillery District and a walkabout by Lake Ontario rounded it out. Seeing people who've been dear to me for more than two decades moved me enormously. Being so far away means I remember my friends as perpetually young, and I suppose I expected to suddenly be twenty again when we met once more. But what we had was much sweeter than eternal youth: I heard of great strides in careers and places to travel, and got to see children who I met as little kids, now coming into their own. They got to meet T, and he them, and luckily no embarassing stories from my undergraduate career emerged, at least this time. 

Our next stops were smaller cities with my own personal history, and here we found authenticity. All those years of wanting to see the great metropoles, and now I find the littler places drawing me in. We went to Kingston, Ontario, and toured the campus of Queen's University, a place I had the great good fortune to gain admission to, and from which unbelievably (to me) graduate. When I arrived, and when we visited, it was a glorious place, with limestone, ivy-covered buildings. T was charmed by it and the gorgeous lake-front walks. I was thrilled that he was on for the trip I called "Sue, the Formative Years" and felt like a little girl showing him where I came of age.
Ontario Hall in early fall

I also tried to impress upon him that it isn't always that lovely. The man has spent many years in California, so he had a tendency to block out what it looks like for four months a year. And after 17 years in Texas, I don't know that I could bear it myself. All I remember from my winters there is that everything is gray--the sky, the streets, the buildings.

photo of University Ave during snowfall

Still, at an outdoor lunch one afternoon, we heard a strike on a drum and then a firing up of bagpipes. Through the crowd that gathered, it was hard to see who the bearer of those pipes was. Turned out the drummer, a sober wee lad, was around eight years old, the piper perhaps ten or eleven. These little buskers were cleaning up, with what I estimated at a couple of hundred bucks in their case. In deep United Empire Loyalist country (where I came up, the Red Coats were the good guys) this was an Upper Canada moment.

We headed to the nation's capital, Ottawa, to see my parents for a few days. We did the major stuff, Parliament Hill and the farmer's market downtown.  The beauty never fails to thrill me. The next day, we went to Almonte, a pretty town in the Valley, as my parents call it. We all had lunch by the river and looked up at the bridge where my dad had, at age seven, jumped off more than once when he was farmed out from a neighboring town to his grandparents over the summer. I grew up several hours away and moved due to my father's policing career, but this is the land of my people.

The next day, T and I were out for a walk, talking about how we have landed in a long-distance relationship and how far both of us are from our roots. The great part about leaving home is the tremendous adventure that lies in the broader world.  But striving to be a citizen of the world means one never truly embraces any single place. Where do you feel like you're from, I asked him.

Like me, the place where he feels most at home is not where he grew up,  nor where he lives. Much of his family lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and the man does love to fish. Mine is the Ottawa Valley. These places represent the true north on our emotional compasses. Neither of us can imagine living full-time in our spiritual comfort zone, but knowing it is there brings us great comfort.  Things there may change, but so do we. Like reading a favorite novel, re-visiting these places tells us much more about ourselves than it does about the place.

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