Walking the Land: a Canada 150 post

Heritage Saskatchewan sponsored film-maker Kristin Catherwood, who made this short film for the Canada 150 year. It features me and Hugh Henry, talking about the importance of the Swift Current – Battleford Trail, the 350 km trek we finished in August 2017. Thanks Kristin!

A Stranger to These Parts

Porter arrival Sudbury

‘I can’t believe you almost stole that scarf,’ the woman in the airplane seat across from me says to an older woman who must be her mother. The two chortle. They like each other, clearly. ‘Well, it just got stuck on the end of my purse,’ the mother laughs back. ‘Is it my fault it was hanging there? I didn’t even see it until the alarm went off!’ She turns, maybe just a bit flirtatious with the giddiness of a weekend away in the big city with her daughter. “Look at me – I’m hardly the type!”

The cabin crew dim the lights shortly after our take off to Sudbury. How miraculous it is to hang thousands of feet above a huge city at night. To watch the glow of human achievement stretch away to every horizon in magnificent strings and squares of bright fires. However snide we Montrealers might sometimes be about Toronto, how impressive is this city on the edge of the Great Lake, how vast a plain of light, of movement and life. And how strange to be a descendent of savannah dwellers, not barefoot and on the ground but suit-jacketed and seat-belted and in the air, climbing Jacob’s ladder like the angels he only dreamt about. Listening to the turboprops whistle, eating almonds, watching from this incredible vantage point I realize that, when you think about it at all, this is so new in human history that however banal it might sometimes feel, we are still among the first generations to be privileged to experience it.

The root meaning of ‘pilgrim’ is stranger, or foreigner. Not all strangers are pilgrims, perhaps. But I think all pilgrims must in some way be foreigners. And to hang in the air at night, above a city, watching the lights….? That is foreign indeed.

It is perhaps because I am a stranger that I noticed the man who now sits in the seat three rows back. Nervous hands, rolling his thumbs against his fingers as they checked out his boarding pass, walking awkwardly, so tall his head, even bowed, slid along the ceiling of the cramped cabin. Unusual black pants and boots. Or the woman one row up and to the right, in a business-jacket, like me a bit unkempt, who had a resume out in the lounge, and is now tapping it absent-mindedly with her pen while looking out the window. An academic, almost certainly, on her way to an interview. Or the child, ten or eleven maybe, trying to take up as little space as possible, perhaps on her way to meet a divorced parent with weekend parenting rights. So much life and drama in such a small metal tube. Life at 8,000 feet and climbing.

There is one light in particular that catches my eye with its brightness and unusual movement. It takes me a minute to realize that it is not, like all the others, following one of the lines that demarcate streets and highways. The way it’s crossing the city, it must, like us, be in the air. Another plane, below us? I watch it move sideways to our path. And then, abruptly, it stops. What?

The flight attendant interrupts my reverie. Your drink? she says. But it’s not a question. I realize that she must have memorized the orders of all twenty or so people on the plane, without paper or pad. I take the glass, turn back to the view. The bright light is still there, still immobilized. Did I miss something? Planes don’t just stop, and there’s no dark strip of a runway. A helicopter, maybe? How strange.

‘So, do you live in Sudbury?’ asks the older woman beside me, when we land and it’s time to get off.

‘No,’ I smile back. ‘Just visiting.’

‘Oh, I thought so,’ she says. ‘A stranger to these parts.’

Toronto from the air

Speed Dating Riga

Freedom

monumental monuments
Trying to see a city in four hours feels a bit like speed-dating: you’ll hear a story, you’ll get an impression, but it’s not enough on which to build a relationship. The cheapest ticket north from Frankfurt to Stockholm is an Air Baltic flight that sticks me in Latvia’s capital for a layover too long to sit and do nothing and too short for a real, proper visit. Where some might find that annoying, I’ve never been to Riga. A quick run in seems the least I can do.

Fortunately, the airport is small. The pretty woman in blue at the city information desk is incredibly friendly and helpful. Yes, I can take a taxi, it’s right over there. But why do that when the city bus is almost as fast and costs one-thirtieth the amount? I don’t want to change money for four hours, so I charge the equivalent of one euro for two bus tickets. It leaves over there, from the other side of the parking lot, she points, handing me a card. In two minutes. You’ll have to hurry. I run out the door and into cool straw-yellow Baltic sunshine, me and my backpack bouncing the 100 meters or so to the waiting bus.

I’m in my seat, still breathing heavy, when I hear someone calling me. “Sir? Sir?” Coming down the bus aisle is the same woman in the blue uniform. Sir, she says, smiling, I forgot to give you your second pass. Here it is. She has run the whole distance behind me, in stilettos, to give me a ticket worth 50 cents.

Bus #22 is half-full. Young men in sunglasses, clearly airport workers off-shift, polished leather shoes and pressed shirts, lean against the windows of the bus with their eyes closed and ear buds in. Small old men sit in suits that seemed as grey as their skin, while several elderly women in shapeless but colourful shift dresses peer into each other’s huge paper bags and chortle in a language impossible to understand. Hipster couples, the men in shorts with deck shoes, the women in red pants with v-necked sweaters, hold swaying baby-carriages in place. Beside me sits a pair that look for all the world like some younger, Baltic version of Brangelina. He a rougher Brad Pitt in a white tee-shirt, and behind her sunglasses, high heels and fur-lined vest, hers an adolescent Angelina smile. We pass by gaunt old concrete apartment buildings, interspersed with modern concrete homes. Occasionally there is an old framed cottage, the wood grey with age, fading paint and single-pane glass, old flowerboxes gone to colourful riot.

At the next stop three men who appear to be in their late twenties step on to my section. They move together, a unit of something that seems, from the reactions of the other passengers, foreign. One of them, bare-chested under an open Adidas jacket, turns on music as soon as they sit down. 60s style Russian, or maybe Ukrainian or one of the Republics, the singer’s voice floating over the seats. The old women stop talking and turn to stare. The three men seem oblivious, talking loudly, looking only at each other. When the Brangelina couple leave the bus, the woman gets caught in the doorway a second, her one high-heeled leg stuck for a second on the inside of the bus the occasion for great hilarity from the Russians.

Where the bus drops me it’s only a few steps to the old town. A group of pre-schoolers, all dressed in bright tee-shirts, straggle at the hip level of their monitor as they pass under a giant statue of two officers in greatcoats and caps, back to back, looking out over the river. The squares are full of people. A Mexican ship is in port: small clean-cut men, their skin olive against the bleached white of impeccable uniforms, carry cameras on their belts and examine the wares of the street sellers. The products are typically Baltic: carved wood, bright, intricate knitted goods, and amber in every possible shape and setting. I’m trapped at one of the tables in front of a statue of the Bremen town musicians. The woman managing the stall seems as excited for a chance to practice her English as to show off the wares, which are beautiful, but exactly the same as at the next table. Further down I notice traditional wooden Russian dolls painted with European soccer players. In one of the shops I come across unique and exquisite ceramic houses like some that I saw coming into town. I’d like one, but where would I put it?

The churches are quiet and simple. I take photos of some of the art deco ornamentation that graces the buildings. The statues and monumental reliefs are…. well, monumental. These are twentieth century work. Big-shouldered men in army uniforms and helmets, carrying rifles. Big shouldered, bare-breasted women, carrying heavy loads. There is another giant statue at the opposite edge of the old city, titled “Freedom”. On top of a granite column high above the street, the two-storey, stylized figure of a woman in a robe thrusts three golden stars up to the heavens. Perhaps it was called “Progress”, I think. Later on I walk by a small triangular shrine, quite different from the monuments, simply titled “1991 Barikades”. There are fresh flowers on it. Here and there I see testimonies of struggle, pocketed between coffee shops and western fast-food franchises. But I’m like a half-deaf man trying to hear a conversation about a subject I don’t recognize.

A tram passes. I think that its compact size, clean lines and wrap-around windows make it look retro, like something from the 1950s, and then realize that it probably is a piece of equipment still in use from then. On the street nearby, a group of women laugh and talk to each other in Latvian as they take turns releasing arrows at an archery range.

I’ve just enough time for something to eat before going back to the airport. There’s an old convent across from the street sellers, converted to a restaurant called “Domini Canes”. I take that as a sign and sit down. The waitress brings me a bowl of ginger-lamb-lentil soup. The presentation looks like something from a flight magazine: trickles of balsamic reduction on the four corners of a large white bowl, traced with herbs and flowers. For a second I could be in Paris or London, Toronto or New York or Hong Kong. Then I take a bite of the bread. It’s thick and brown and heavy, tasting of molasses, spread thick with butter and garlic, and says only one thing: there’s nowhere quite like Riga.

archery

barikades

At Norwegian Customs

When it’s my turn at the customs booth the uniformed official in the booth asks why I’m visiting Norway. “The Saint-Olaf trail,” I say. Then, when her face registers nothing, I add: “I’m going to walk on the St-Olaf way from Dovre to Trondheim.” I’m careful to pronounce the “h” in Trondheim as a “y”, the way I’ve heard it done. “So you’ll be coming back to Oslo?” she asks. She’s not looking at me, making a point of it, flipping through the pages, checking where I’ve been on this passport. “No, flying out from Trondheim.” I get to say that “y” twice, a secret pleasure. “When do you leave the country?” This still looking at my passport as if it contains some secret unknown to me but that she has to discover.
She’s about my age, I realize, or only very slightly older, in her mid 50s, maybe. I think I see in her face the same kind of lines I know from my childhood among the Scandinavian settlers in the Canadian west where I grew up. But maybe that’s the romantic part of me, stretching to make some connection in this land whose people and language seems so foreign to me, even though half my genes come from this soil. “In 13 days” I answer. I wonder if there’s a problem. Then, because my default is always to try to make contact, even when I shouldn’t, I add: “I hope, at least. Depends on how it goes on the Way.” She reaches for her stamp without any indication that she’s even heard what I’ve said. Then, as she pushes the official imprint of Norway down onto the paper, she looks up and, almost unbelievably, smiles, a big broad smile. “So you’re a pilgrim?” she asks. Despite my attempts to introduce just that subject, I’m caught off guard. “I guess so,” I answer awkwardly. “Enjoy your time in Norway. Have a good trip.” She hands me back the passport, the words “Canada” on the top, facing me. Then when she looks up at me, I hesitate in place, wondering if there’s more of this conversation to come, until I realize she’s actually looking through me to the person behind me. “Next,” she calls out.