This is the story of my adventure to Winnipeg — so far.
My dad and I left Ottawa at 9 AM on a Thursday morning in June. It was sunny and cool, surprising after a heat wave that had just ended. My back was bothering me as I drove. I wondered how I would make it for the 20 or so hours of driving ahead. We didn’t listen to any radio because Dad had a conversation with his sister on his cell phone but also, it was the beginning of the trip and I think, though we didn’t say so, I at least wanted to save radio for when we really needed it, when the road would get really boring.
The sides of the highway were green with trees, alternating with rockscapes. We passed lakes and small towns. We stopped to eat just shy of North Bay, facing a beautiful lake. I’m trying to remember its name – Lake Nipissing? The picnic site strangely had a big fence that obstructed the view of the lake. It was lovely to get outside and stretch our legs, though. My back was starting to feel better. By the end of the trip I hardly noticed it. I guess I adapted to the seat.
As we drove through North Bay and by highway signs for Sudbury and approached Sault Ste. Marie, all while listening to CBC radio’s northern Ontario coverage now, I was amazed that this part of Ontario really is called “northern Ontario.” It’s just a few hours’ drive from Ottawa. Real northern Ontario is up near James Bay. But I guess not many people live there and what we call northern Ontario is really the northern part of inhabited Ontario.
Even from listening to the radio, though, it felt like we were in a land far away from Ottawa and all that Toronto-Montréal corridor. One of the biggest news items was a tiny ceremony about Franco Ontarian culture – I’m sure it was an important event, but it sounded very small; it made several newscasts as a prime item. Another story was a senior citizen who was approached by a credit card fraudster, but was saved by a bank teller when the senior went to transfer the money. At noon that day, we listened to Ontario Today with Rita Celli. The topic was addictions to prescription medications. Caller after caller phoned in from around Ontario with horrific stories of relatives and friends becoming shells of people because of these drugs, seemingly acquired very easily. It’s inspired me to look into it here in Winnipeg, since I seem to have some time to look for my own stories when the editors haven’t assigned me anything.
We got to Sault Ste. Marie a lot earlier than we thought. We had planned to spend the night in Sault Ste. Marie but since we were there I think around 6 PM, we decided to keep on going. I was driving as we went through Sault Ste. Marie and across the bridge into the US, but from what I could see, I was amazed at the industry. Huge metallic and concrete buildings on the water. I’m not sure what they were, but it felt like I was at some big manufacturing hub. Not what I think of when I think Sault Ste. Marie.
We drove for another day and a half, mainly through the States, where small towns intersected the highway a lot more often and we had to slow down to go through them. The speed limits were lower. It felt like we were less isolated than we were driving through northern Ontario. A lot of the little towns seemed fairly non-prosperous. Maybe that’s the effect of the economic crash. Maybe not.
Flash forward to our arrival in Winnipeg. Sheri and Ian, my new roommates, welcomed us warmly to their house, my new home for three months. The streets are lined with elm trees throughout the whole Wolseley neighborhood, as many neighbourhoods are in Winnipeg. It reminds me a little bit of the Annex in Toronto. These bulky trees add such character to the place. Sheri and Ian’s house is a lovely old blue and white clapboard (I think that’s what it’s called?) one that apparently has been standing for many, many decades. Sheri and Ian brought us out to lunch at a tasty restaurant nearby called Stella’s. We walked there, going by bakeries, coffee shops, and little unusual stores that sell things like wool or herbal remedies.
Sheri and Ian have made the transition to Winnipeg so smooth for me. They always offer to share their cooking with me, they’ve filled me in on all the details of the city that I need to know, and they’ve basically been omnipresent cheerful presences to have around me in a new city where I know very few people.
They’ve just left for a month-and-a-half European bike tour. So for the past week I have been guarding the house on my own. It’s been very different. I had looked forward to the freedom of having the whole house to myself, but by the time I came home to an empty house for the first time, I wished that Sheri and Ian were back. I’m getting better at living alone, though. It gives me a lot of time to think — though what I’ve thought about, it’s hard to remember now! I thought about how cool it is that I’m in the city on my own reporting for a daily newspaper, but also whether I want to do journalism for a living (this article is a great read on that question — but I have to say I am still excited about journalism), and especially if the thrill of the summer is worth the wear and tear on my repetitive strain injury in my forearms. At the end of the day though, I’m happy here and happy with my decision to come.
Today, a day off, I read the paper and baked muffins.
Sheri and Ian also helped me plant a vegetable garden in their raised beds in the backyard, and it’s been a real joy to peak in on the zucchini and tomatoes and watch their progress. Sheri and Ian even recommended to me that I should pollinate the zucchini flowers by taking a Q-tip and dabbing pollen from one flower on one plant to another flower on another plant. I’m not sure if this works, but I have followed instructions. The three of us think because Sheri and Ian put their compost into the raised beds every spring, the soil is incredibly nutritious for these plants, because the three zucchini plants are growing like they are on a power diet. The 10 tomatoes are also on their own, much slower but steady growth path. What’s funny is that there are a whole lot of little mystery plants that have come up, we are thinking from seeds in the compost. We’re pretty sure they are potatoes and some form of squash. In fact there are so many of them that I’m going to have to pull some out because of overcrowding, but I’m not sure yet which ones to take. Nothing seems to have been overcrowded yet because everything is just growing up, up, up. Well, the potato stalks seem to have overreached their might because they have kind of toppled over. But still seem to be growing, sideways.
Working at the Free Press is a privilege. It definitely is a very well-respected paper here. It also treats its interns very well. We get lots of bylines in the paper plus they don’t overwhelm us with work. There is time to research your own story ideas. Now if only I knew more about the city or alternately if only if I knew how to research story ideas! I feel like I’ve been going up and down all kinds of paths without finding anything.
I did get one of my own stories published this week, about the struggle to attract a certain kind of business to Provencher Boulevard. I was out in the neighbourhood talking to business owners for another story when I learned about how the street’s developers are trying to define it as a very trendy place but are having trouble.
Newspaper reporting is definitely solitary work. At the same time you get all kinds of control over your work. Plus I love the craft of writing. I kind of like sounding a little bit more pretentious than I would probably be allowed to sound if I were having to use “broadcast language.”
Winnipeg, as a city, has basically the same culture as Ottawa, but it feels completely different in some ways. People seem to drive here even more than they do in Ottawa. There is a sign on the street near here that says: “Attention cyclists: motorists have the right to use the road too,” as if there were all these bikes barrelling down the road crowding out the cars (there aren’t). There are some really poor, crime-ridden areas and stabbings are seriously in the news every weekend here. You hear the names of a few very rich, mover and shaker families mentioned now and then, like the Aspers and the Richardsons. It feels more like a private enterprise type of town, rather than government town Ottawa. But then, you have an NDP government in power at the provincial level — yet a conservative mayor.
There is a lot of culture here. I was at the Folk Fest yesterday, a five-day nonstop music event in a provincial park 45 min. north of here. Thousands and thousands of people either camp there or go up there for a day or the whole festival and it’s this little bubble of soulful music and friendly people. The Free Press’ tagline is “It’s a Winnipeg thing,” and it is, but I never felt like I was in Winnipeg more than when I was at the Folk Fest yesterday. Everyone seemed to be running into other people who they knew – another trademark of Winnipeg – everyone knows everyone, at least through a friend. People told me I could leave my stuff in the field in front of a stage and no one would take it – an anomaly in Winnipeg, where I’ve been told not to leave anything visible in my car, ever, not even a toonie, because of rampant theft. (On a side note, Winnipeg has one of the worst car theft rates in all of North America).
The food at Folk Fest was overpriced like at any special event, but it wasn’t fast food – it was all Winnipeg restaurants that set up little stalls at the festival. You could get Indian curry or souvlaki or flat bread or pasta, all kinds of things. And all day long, people just wander around, from stage to stage (there are six of them) with their little lawn chairs, which can’t be too tall, so as not to block people’s views, sitting down, sampling artists, staying if they like them or moving on if they don’t. I actually didn’t fall in love with any of the singers that I heard, but I just appreciated getting to hear so many different ones in one afternoon and evening. The weather was perfect, hot, sunny, cooling off in the evening with a breeze, and since the event is in a provincial Park, you really feel like you’re outside the city. I could see myself coming back to Winnipeg just for the five days of the festival. There is a really good deal where you can volunteer and experience the whole festival for free.
A final note is that in the evening there is also a DJ set up at one of the stages and the crowd dancing was terrific. People were really into the music and the DJ did this amazing bass-filled version of Rolling in the Deep by Adele.
Now, there is a fringe festival starting up which I’m also excited for.
As for those famous mosquitoes, they really haven’t been bad yet, knock on wood. I was definitely a little worried. On my ride to work I go by a big billboard advertising Off! repellent. Sheri and Ian’s patio furniture is surrounded by a huge mosquito net. And one night I heard the fogging trucks going by – trucks that drive up and down most of the streets spraying a “fog” of insecticide. Real healthy, right? Well, right now if you don’t want your house fogged you can get a 100 metre buffer zone around your house that is fog free. But if you live next to one of these houses that has requested a buffer zone and you do want your house fogged, there’s nothing you can do. One of the big issues in the news last month was whether people should have this right to a buffer zone. For the moment, the buffer zone is going to decrease to 90 metres I think, but there will be no further changes yet.
Apparently some years mosquitoes are not bad, while others they are unbearable. Here’s hoping for a good summer, mosquito-wise and in every other way too.
It’s been a good adventure so far.