Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Something a little fishy

“So you’re the newspaper guy. You got your pen with ya? Better not have!”

I stood in the doorway, looking into the small main room of a hunt cabin. Looking back at me, menacingly, were 13 of the biggest, meanest, roughest looking fellows that this writer has ever had the dubious pleasure of meeting.

White haired and lacking teeth but with forearms like Popeye’s and a wicked gleam in his eye, one chap stepped forward and with a scowl relieved me of the two large tubs of butter tarts I was carrying. “Si’ down over there,” he said gruffly, pointing to a small space on a sofa almost entirely occupied by two glaring giants. “Shall I frisk him for recording devices?” growled one. “I could skin him like a rabbit,” snarled the other. As I turned to make my escape the entire room erupted with a roar of laughter. It was then the guy who had invited me on this ice fishing trip, popped his head around the door. “They’re looking after you, I see,” he grinned.

And so began a weekend in which I learned as much about rural Haliburtonian life as I’ve done in my previous eleven months here.

We ice fished, for starters. A sport entirely new to me, I initially thought the tiny rods were for children. Now, a number of my new angling companions could easily have felled a tree and used it as a fishing pole, so to see these fellows handling such dainty piscatorial tools was quite a sight. As each took two tiny rods from his backpack I smiled as it brought to mind the image of grizzly bears knitting. 

We ate very well. Or to rephrase that, I ate while my new friends gorged themselves. Fresh air gives any man a good appetite, I know but the amount of food that these fellows packed away in a weekend could have fed the Boston Bruins for a fortnight. Paper plates were piled high and silence descended on the hunt camp. “Seconds?” barked the cook after a few minutes. A crescendo of scraping chairs, groans and expletives erupted as fourteen men all vied for first to the moose stew leftovers. “Pudding,” came the order not long after and I watched in awe as 40 butter tarts were consumed in a matter of seconds!

We drank plenty, too. In camp, the preferred beverage was rum and coke, although some of the party insisted on mixing clamato juice into beer. Just because they did it does not make it right, though!

Out on the ice the choice of alcoholic tipple became more exotic, and a little bit girly, if I can say that without offending female readers. Amaretto, peach schnapps, Irish cream, orange liquor… This parade of sickly sweet cocktail mixers was proffered to me by ruddy faced men mountains, now colossal in size due to the extra layers required to sit for hours poised over holes bored through the frozen lake. I smirked at the choice of drinks initially but soon came to appreciate their sweet energy boost and warming alcoholic kick. When the ‘skidoo oil’ was passed around I almost baulked but on trying what turned out to be a mix of whisky and cherry whisky I realised that this lethal concoction was the best of the lot. Faces glowed, the sun shone, we caught almost no fish.

Best of all though, we, or rather they, told stories. There was the one about the suicide deer, who kept coming back to be shot – told much to the chagrin of the fellow who kept missing it. It seems one poor chap once fell asleep drunk and in wet clothes, only to wake up frozen to the cold cabin floor. Not being able to move his legs he screamed like a banshee until he realised he wasn’t paralysed. And then there was the newcomer who, not knowing how to drill through the ice with a power auger, first pussy footed with the trigger, to no avail; then wobbled the machine a bit, no luck; finally, he gave the trigger a good squeeze, the auger bit hard into ice, spun him around and sent him skidding across the lake on his backside.

Unfortunately, that last chap was me. How my new chums roared with laughter.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Precious time

Living in any major metropolis from Toronto to New Delhi, New York to London is a grand experience and one that I’d exhort anyone to try for a little while at least. It is exciting, frenetic and enthralling. There is more to do than you could fit into two lifetimes: so many stores to shop, places to dine; galleries to peruse and theatre to bemuse; sights to explore and people to ignore (please refer to my previous column on friendliness in the city).

But, amidst all of this feverish living of life, the one thing that you can not easily find in the city is peace: time to relax, to sit back and contemplate your life. And so, I packed my knapsack, slung it on a pole over my shoulder and headed out from London to come live in Haliburton. I came here to gulp down the clean fresh air, to wander through sweet smelling woodlands and to find a more sedate way of life.

That was easier said than done. The trouble is, all you folk are rushing around, taking one, two, three jobs; ferrying the kids from baseball to hockey, to ballet and curling; campaigning for council office, collecting for charity, cutting logs and careering around in speed boats.

We live in what the marketing men of the metropolis would call ‘a time-poor society’. Now, I don’t like the phrase but I get the meaning. There is too much going on in almost all of our lives. We need to find time to go slow every once in a while, to take the weight of our feet, to ‘just chill’, as I believe the young folk are apt to say.  

And so, I recommend to you all a trip to the barbers. There is but one in the area, Bruce’s. It can look intimidating from the exterior, and the clientele will give you a long hard stare when you enter but the proprietor, yep you guessed it, Bruce, will smile offer you a seat and then with a ‘where was I?’ continue his current yarn.

You can join in if you like, or simply sit back and enjoy the banter. It’s blokes’ stuff mainly – the nuances of hunting by bow or catching lake trout; the hopeless state of the Maple Leafs and the best satellite channels to tune into to be mortified by their current form – it’s anything and nothing, the whole world encompassed in conversation that is apt to be peppered with expletives and more than one tall story. The important thing is, though, that you aren’t doing anything else. This forced relaxation. And that’s good.

You can’t book an appointment at Bruce’s but you can calculate the approximate length of your stay by counting the number of gents already seated when you enter. Multiply that number by 15 minutes for each haircut, then add another ten minutes per man as a sort of time-out for Bruce to finish each story. There, you have your duration at the barbers figured out. But that’s not the point and neither is the haircut, really. The joy of visiting the barbershop is in knowing you are in for an hour or so of rib-tickling chat about everything other than worries and work. You’ll leave with a whole host of new knowledge (not all of it trustworthy) a joke or two and a short back and sides. There’ll be no perms, highlights or gel applied at Bruce’s!

Now, our local barber only cuts men’s hair, so ladies, unless you want your nose, ear and eyebrow hair trimming I’d avoid Bruce’s. However, don’t despair, simply pop into your local hairdresser without making an appointment. Turn up a couple of hours before you anticipate needing the haircut and say to the dumbfounded receptionist, ‘oh it’s OK, I’ll wait’. Then, sit back, relax and enjoy time well spent chatting about whatever it is that women chat about in hair salons.

And, if by chance you get any good tips as to where the trout are to be found in spring let me know because no one at the barbers can help!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Just another day

Now, right from the outset I have to admit to being the Scrooge of New Year. I’m the fellow whose frown deepens and hackles rise at the excitement and sense of anticipation that tends to afflict folks in the run up to the Eve celebrations. It’s not that I don’t like a good party; more the fact that folks get so so overly excited about a night that all too often fails to deliver the drama expected.

Bah Humbug.

However, just like Scrooge I have been forced to reassess my views on the aforementioned festivities: not by ghosts of New Years, thankfully, but by writing this column and so let us start with New Years Past.

Copious amounts of alcohol inevitably contributed to my New Year’s Eve frivolity in years gone by. Tony, you’ll always be remembered for the flaming absinth incident and Liz, I still feel I need to apologise for the hours you spent in ER following our drink fuelled tom-foolery. And, then there was Tim.

At one memorable bash Tim was bet he couldn’t drink a pint of lager from a glass without using his hands. The first sips, easy. As the level dropped, he slurped with the tilted glass propped against his chin. But how to finish the last half pint without spilling it? The answer: press face against glass, take a couple of good inhalations and cause a vacuum. Now, with the glass stuck to face proceed to empty it, head thrown back glugging beer down merrily.

Oh how we laughed on seeing that the vacuum glass trick had pulled Tim’s lips deep into the glass. On prising it off his face Tim found that his lips were as if distended to perhaps ten times their normal size. Speech was nigh on impossible unless you count the rubbery-lipped mumblings from Tim and squeaked expletives between rowdy guffawing from us his so called friends. We hardly stopped laughing long enough to chink glasses at midnight, while a wobbly mouthed Tim blubbed (that’s all he could do) about explanations and an impending visit from his grandma.

Now to New Years Present. While my little son can be quite silly at times he is as yet a tad young for the type of antics mentioned above. And, in moving an ocean away from long-time friends just a few short months ago, I imagined New Year’s Eve 2010 to be a quiet affair with my lovely wife and a bottle of fine French wine for company. And I was looking forward to it, too! The trouble is you Canadians are far too friendly and so this Scrooge was bundled off to a party, grumbling about not sharing his wine.

At said party, we ate and drank with a gay abandon that only parents of small children who’ll be up at six the next morning no matter how bad your hangover know how to do! We performed ancient family rituals (if I told you I’d have to kill you), periodically persuaded the kids to stop chasing the cat and wished for luck and long life over the year to come. The upshot: the Scrooge in me was banished and we had a great time with new Canadian friends.

And that brings me to New Years Future. Perhaps this lovely relaxed evening in Minden did it, may be it is the fine new land that I find myself in at the start of 2011, but what I have come to realise is that my grouchiness about New Year’s Eve is an anxiety born of how successful, how raucous, how legendary this most celebrated night of nights should be. And you know what, I now see that New Years Future need not be the annoying must-go ‘celebrations’ that always end with heart ache, hangovers and fat lips (sorry Tim).

Instead, I’m looking forward to relaxing into each New Year that my middle age brings; getting firmly acquainted with my new Canadian friends; learning their New Year’s traditions; and, hopefully laughing loud and long at the occasional geriatric drinking game gone wrong in years to come.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Keep it in the family

We, my cousins and I, waited impatiently outside the living room door. “Are you ready yet,” shouted little Jonny, “Oh hurry up!” The door was duly opened and in we scuttled, a cluster of kids, our eyes darting around, searching excitedly. And the assembled oldies, they started to sing: “how green you are, how green you are…” to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. The nearer we got to our prize – traditionally a walnut hidden in plain sight – the louder the singing became, if we moved away the volume decreased.

Childhood Christmas in England meant for me, grandparents, uncles and aunts, plus a scrum of cousins of varying ages descending on our house throughout Christmas Day and my Mother rushing around ensuring no one could ever be described as anything less than absolutely stuffed to the gunnels. The focus of the day would gravitate, almost as predictably as the film repeats in the TV scheduling, from the frenzy of present opening, to a mountainous Christmas lunch and on to after lunch recovery, which can be best described as lounging on the sofa groaning in mock pain while the Christmas pud went down. Fortunately, before pangs of hunger had even thought of panging party hats were donned and Christmas tea appeared: towering plates of turkey sandwiches and mince pies, washed down with cups of milky tea. And then, finally, it was time for the games, the part that us kids and I suspect the adults looked forward to the most.

This was and still is Christmas to me. I do acknowledge the religious connotations; the Midnight Mass, Nativity and all things to do with Jesus (I’m all for anyone who can turn water into wine), and, when still young we would accompany my Mother to church for candle-lit carols and the Christmas Day service. That is until my Father was forbidden from attending any longer. You see, the reverend made the mistake, after a particularly lengthy sermon, of asking my Dad what he had thought of the service. Never one to mince his words, he said simply: “Boring, vicar. I thought it was rather boring.” 

Dad still revels in the fact that he was banned from church, thirty years on.

This year, however, all has been different. Our recent emigration has put 3000 miles of Atlantic Ocean between me, finding that walnut – the singing will be very quiet indeed – and my parents, siblings and relatives. Christmas has instead been an intimate affair. Waking on Christmas morning with just my lovely wife and baby boy, it’s been much quieter (I’m not putting batteries in any of his new toys) and the realisation that we miss our family more intense than at any time since we arrived in Canada.

But don’t think we’re feeling down. Our first Canadian Christmas sees us celebrating our new lives. It’s the first year that little Z set to unwrapping the pile of presents under the tree with gusto; and, we have made wonderful friends who took it upon themselves to show us just how Canadians celebrate Christmas.

And so to everyone, I say thank you for making our time so far in Canada an enjoyable one. I bid you a very Merry Christmas and insist that you play silly games, sing till you’re fit to burst and revel in the best company you could wish for, your family large or small.  

By the way, there was no prize for finding that walnut: other than the elation of plucking it from its hiding place amongst Uncle Robert’s bouffant wig (you could guarantee it was hidden there at least once a year). The singing, which had risen to a cacophony, would explode into a rousing cheer; we kids dancing joyfully around the living room for a just moment before demanding: “PLAY AGAIN! PLAY AGAIN!”