I rushed across the vast plains of the Canadian prairies, aided by the monotonous, deliberate passage of the Greyhound bus. The journey from Winnipeg to Sault-St.-Marie is the longest single leg of my Canadian adventure to date, reminiscent of those gargantuan expeditions undertaken in Argentina, when I would cover distances comparable to travelling between London and Casablanca in a single sitting. Ah, those were the days.
The reasoning behind such a hare-brained scheme I have already touched upon previously. There was to be a huge gathering of distant relatives in Sault-St.-Marie and I was set upon attending the action, after being invited by Jacki whilst visiting her out west in Nanaimo. Benefits would include copious amounts of eating and drinking in the company of friendly, interesting and interested Canadians, offering me a wonderful glimpse into a moving picture of one extended family's life in this beautiful country. Oh, and I would also have chance to rendezvous with uncle Steve, aunty Sue and my amazing cousins, Jo and Ali, not to mention Jo's awesome boyfriend Ryan and Sue's fantastic dad Smudge. These advantages far outshone the sacrifices entailed by working to a tight timeframe; namely, spending a mere two days in Winnipeg and then cutting a great swathe through eastern Manitoba and western Ontario - including the dubious industrial merits on display in Thunder Bay - without stopping for more than an obligatory pit-stop at various Greyhound bus terminals. To judge - reluctantly, of course - from the dusty, barren, flat landscape flashing past my window every time I chanced to look outside, these were sacrifices indeed.
I arrived in Sault-St.-Marie after travelling for approximately twenty hours, from late evening to early evening the next day. In all of this time, I simply crossed one provincial border, seeing less than half the width of either Manitoba or Ontario: the sheer scale of this country leaves me breathless. The time had passed rather pleasantly, as I succeeded in enjoying a little sleep and in making a good friend of the chap sat in the seat next to me. Lukas was travelling through Canada after taking time off from his studies back home in Germany and it transpired that we had rather been following one another across the country, having enjoyed the delights of Tofino upon Vancouver Island and then the bountiful orchards and vineyards of the Okanagan Valley at the same time - we had even sojourned at the same hostel hostel whilst in Tofino, but I failed to recall his face, although Lukas was quite sure that he remembered seeing me chatting boisterously in the communal dining area: who can tell if such was the case, after such a portrayal as that? Lukas proved a grand conversationalist and the time passed swiftly, punctuated by the occasional scenic - and, as established above, slightly less picturesque - stops along the way, offering visual distraction and the grateful opportunity to stretch cramped legs and breath fresh air.
I was collected from the bus terminal in 'the Sault' by Jacki and aunty Sue, being transported directly to the house of one of Jacki's brothers, one of Sue's many cousins, where a sizeable party was already in full swing. I announced my arrival with large, decidedly odiferous luggage (and self) in tow, accompanied further by a voracious appetite. Greeted at the door by a plethora of friendly faces, some joyfully familiar, others intriguingly new, I was introduced to more names than I could ever hope to recall (maintaining my unenviable custom of forgetting half of the names roughly thirty seconds after being bestowed with such information) and installed in a seat at the family table, already wholly over-populated, with a great pile of food placed before me, providing handy distraction to both mind and mouth as the conversation swirled round and about. I swiftly gathered a number of comforting things: the food was delicious; the people sat around me were delightful folk to a being; I was in for a good night. The latter point became rather forcefully evident shortly after my arrival, when Smudge - with whom I had enjoyed re-familiarizing myself up until this moment - and a hitherto wholly unfamiliar female companion emerged from a bedroom bedecked in Elvis costume and (I presume here, having little knowledge of such dress) Shirley Temple get-up and launched into 'I'm all shook up'. I suggest that you take me at my word when I write that you should have been there: fabulous stuff.
My belated, hasty meal and the evening's entertainment - for the moment at least - concluded, I wandered outdoors to the backyard, where our estimable hosts Jim and Terri keep a spacious swimming pool, which was at this point in time crowded with my cousins Jo and Ali, Ryan and my honorary cousins Mikaela and Darian, besides a host of further bodies. I returned to my bags, dug around for my board-shorts and dove into the cool water, a welcome tonic to the warmth of the evening air sprawled overhead. I batted a small, inflatable ball around contentedly with my friends, whilst coming up to speed with recent events back home, on the west coast and here in the Sault, swapping my own news from time spent upon the road - in the case of Jo and Ryan, news that stretched back all the way to my initial departure from England back in February 2009; I had not seen them since before then. Tiring of our sport and of the cool waters of the pool, we transferred ourselves lethargically to the hot-tub (yes, hot-tub) to warm up in splendid repose, the conversation continuing animatedly. I was reminded, as I am always, of the wit, intelligence and verve of my cousins: it is ever my pleasure to spend time in the company of Jo and Ali; they are delightful, compassionate, oftentimes hilarious and I revelled in the opportunity to spend some time with them after such a prolonged absence.
The generosity and warm-hearted conviviality presented to me by this fantastic family deeply humbled me during the week that I spent celebrating with them and continues to do so now, as I reminisce over these halcyon days. My nights were spent sharing a room with Smudge at the home of his sister and the family's laudable matriarch, Margaret. I enjoyed the luxury of my own bed, the wonderful company of Margaret, Smudge and a long line of daytime callers, besides partaking in breakfast supplied from Margaret's cupboards and fridge every morning. The remainder of those days yawned invitingly, to be filled with gatherings at one home or other of the family, crammed with good food and drink, excellent company and the occasional mischief, be it healthy renditions of golden oldies tunes or impromptu games of cricket arranged by uncle Steve, displaying his customary love for the game, coupled with an admirable degree of ingenuity in first commandeering enough equipment to furnish a simple game and then in convincing enough people that their time could be best spent either throwing a tennis ball at three wooden sticks, preventing such from occurring with a wooden bat, or waiting patiently for the opportunity to collect the ball after the second activity had resulted in the ball actually being hit by the bat. It was not quite hockey, but it was enjoyable sport all the same.
A firm highlight of the week arrived in the form of a well-attended game of golf at a local green. Though we played only nine holes and adopted the practice of nearest ball, this still constituted my first experience of the game and it was hugely enjoyable, especially once I had actually succeeded in connecting with said ball, an occasion finally becoming commonplace by approximately the third hole. For many, this exciting interlude provided ample opportunity for hilarity and a healthy dose of fun. Whilst this was certainly true for everyone, this would not be a typical family outing without a strong undercurrent of competition: bragging rights were at stake for some and the teams were comprised accordingly. Thus it was that I found myself quite fortuitously in an otherwise all-female team formed from three of the least competitive (outwardly at any rate) individuals in attendance from among those who might be swayed by the opportunity to secure the right to remind other family members of their golfing prowess for a year and a day (or until the next competitive rematch at least). Despite consistently causing more harm to the green round and about the pin than to the ball itself, I remained in jovial yet focused mood, listening to advice and watching my companions intently as they displayed more fluid, more practiced, more successful swings. I had cause to be extremely grateful to be playing the chosen format, whereby each player upon a team takes a shot, after which the shot closest to the desired hole is selected and each player takes their next shot from that position, thereby ensuring - with at least one accomplished player per team - that our game would finish before at least one night of darkness could set in. Eventually, enough advice was able to penetrate my skull, I was able to perform adequately, executing the required number of steps and with sufficient aplomb to connect with the ball more often than not and even, upon rare occasion, to strike the ball cleanly and with the necessary force and direction to render the whole project worthwhile competitively and ensure that my interest in the game flourished for the remainder of our session at least. The advice and encouragement of my team, of Heather, Ria and Marge, was much appreciated and it was my pleasure to complete the round with them.
At the completion of our game, we adjourned to the clubhouse to discover that our team had in fact performed admirably, ending in the middle of the group. Furthermore, we had each of us been responsible for contributing to our success: each of us had succeeded in sinking the ball at one hole or more and each of us had enjoyed the distinction of providing at least one shot from which we had played our next stroke. In conclusion, we were all rather satisfied with our performance, both individually and collectively. Happily, this was the case for many of our number, although there were one or two players returning to the fold shaking their heads wistfully, a distant look in their eye. Prizes were distributed to the winning team, to the worst of the losing teams, to the best shot, to the most outrageously dressed individual, and so on. We relaxed with drinks, post-match analysis and a water-gun fight the equal of the OK Corral in the parking area, bathed in glorious, bright sunshine. Of course, I was soon bathed in something much wetter and somewhat colder than sunshine, leaving me to ponder morosely the passing of my fleet-footed earlier youth. Such sombre sobriety lasted but a moment, as I fell back upon my wiles to lure the hot-headed younglings to their self-perpetrated fate at the point of my own plastic soaker.
There remained further meals to enjoin, parties to celebrate, conversations to enjoy. On the handful of occasions when we ate at a restaurant, our number was liable to fill half of the seating available, turning the heads of our fellow diners and especially that of the proprietor, quite delighted with our boisterous, liberal and - importantly - large-scale patronage. It was at such meals that I enjoyed fascinating conversations with a whole host of interesting, interested and incredibly warm-hearted individuals. I was sorry when talking to Greg and Shirley (the latter a younger sister of Jacki) not to have been able to join them out west at their lakeside holiday home in Alberta: after failing to reach them at the first time of trying, I then failed furthermore to continue with my efforts, instead remaining solely with my friend Kelsey until I departed Alberta for pastures new. Of course, I could not regret such a happy time and my new friends were wholly understanding: instead we enjoyed what time we did now have together and made tentative plans to rendezvous once more when we three arrived separately upon the east coast in September. I took special satisfaction in chatting to Jim about his experiences in the education sector, in particular his current position as headmaster of a local school and being able to commend to him and his wife Terri the pleasure of keeping the company of their two fantastic sons, Ben and Joey, which made me feel decidedly old(er). I was bowled over also by the enormous hospitality displayed by Art and Marilyn (the latter another sister of Jacki and Shirley - is everyone keeping up so far?): these two wonderful characters held the majority of the family gatherings and were also the hosts to many of the influx of visitors from out of town, including Jacki, Mikaela and Darian from the west and my mob from the (far) east. Such fantastic parties and meals would come to a liberal, joyous conclusion, which in reality seemed more like a begrudging pause (to account for the necessity of sleep) ahead of yet more shenanigans to be indulged the following day.
At this point, if we had enjoyed a meal at a restaurant, I would try hopelessly, in a most futile gesture, to pay towards the bill: upon each occasion, without fail, someone - aunty Sue, Greg, Jim - would quietly, utterly prevent my efforts. Over the course of the week, due largely, but far from exclusively, to the magnanimous refusals of aunty Sue, I paid for a ridiculous (but cheap) hair-cut (more like a scalping), my round on the golf course, perhaps a single pint of beer and very little else. Once again, I was completely humbled by this wholesale generosity: I had arrived one week before a strange face in a strange town; I was to leave feeling an integral part of a large and wonderful family. Such thoughts would occupy my mind as I trooped wearily, contentedly back to Margaret's lovely home, to sit with her and Smudge a while, to talk of family connections and their importance, of names and exploits long departed and even some of the finer aspects of socialism. Yes, socialism: what a heady mix indeed so close to bedtime. It was from Margaret and Smudge reminiscing over childhood and their teenage years that I came to learn a little more about my own family, about my deceased grandfather in particular and about the ties and encounters between two great, wonderful families.
The morning of departure, when it came, found me contemplative once more of the sheer joy and bewitching humility that the week had gifted to me. Standing in the warm, mellow sunshine that promised another idyllic day ahead, saying goodbye to a plethora of friends, so far advanced from the selfsame faces that had greeted me a mere week before, I reflected happily upon my incredible good fortune to have enjoyed such an eventful, such a beautiful, such a wholly inclusive week of goodwill, good cheer and great company. I climbed into the family rental car beside Smudge, but not before one final prank in which Jacki took my place and seemed set to abscond with the Painters in my absence. The way was set for the next leg of my adventure: one evening with my relatives in Barrie, to the east, before they headed to the airport outside Toronto and their flight home and I continued upon my way into that great city and a host of new encounters and experiences to greet. We departed the Sault each with his or her thoughts and each with a smile, an incredulous anecdote, a wonderful memory to sustain the journey ahead.
Best wishes to all!