Sunday, August 23, 2009

Cicadas and alarums.

It’s an unusually cool summer for Ontario. Normally August is notable for the sort of disgusting humidity that ensures you spend all outside time cocooned in a mobile warm bath of your own sweat. Everywhere is air conditioned though, which makes it easier to cope with than an unseasonable heat wave in the UK, where nothing is built for heat and relief is impossible to find. Indoor ‘climate control’ as we are supposed to call it these days, is one of the novelties I take most delight in when I am considering the luxurious essential non-essentials of transatlantic life. It is like the water softener and the reverse-osmosis filter, a guilty pleasure that the British me didn’t know you needed. Not only can I select the temperature I would like my controlled climate to sit at, I can tell it my preferred percentage of humidity too. Very useful when trying to prevent the icing on a wedding cake from sogging into a heap before the big day, but actually ( and there is a guilty secret about to emerge here) I much prefer open windows and fresh air.

This summer therefore has been heavenly. Apart from a week, which did have more to do with wedding cake survival than personal comfort, the windows have been open. Which means that the exotic sounds of Canadian wildlife have been filtering through Radio 4 and Test Match Special to remind me how odd it all is, having living things share your space even in the city. It’s cicada season just now. Late summer, hot afternoons, and their songs are deafening. Which leads me to muse on the original effect of such a sound on a Londoner with minimal exposure to exotic climes.

The first cicadas I heard were in 1998, on my first trip over here. I would sit outside on hot days watching over the elderly lady I cared for back then, making sure she didn’t wander too far around the neighbourhood on her weeding binges, and listening to the sounds of living in Canada. One of these was an odd noise that sounded for all the world like the humming of an electricity substation, only louder. I would look about at the pylons and overhead cables and wonder how come the heat seemed to make them sing. And how come no-one had found a way to stop it, and whether it was safe and why no-one else thought it was odd. The sound was high up. And very electricy.

I know now that my brain had nothing in its sound library with which to compare the cicada’s song other than previous experiences of similar noises. We had a substation in our garden while I was growing up that used to sing the same sort of way. City kids oughtn’t to travel late in life, it causes far too much embarrassment. I did however, by dint of keeping my ears open, nodding sagely and looking up cicadas on the internet, manage to avoid having anyone witness the cringeworthy moment when I realised I was listening to insects. But not so with the frogs.

There was this odd noise you see, in spring, at the B&B. Our fabulous garden backed onto a series of lakes that formed the flood plain for the Grand River. It was a protected area for all manner of rare water species and unutterably lovely. As soon as the weather perked up enough to sit outside, I sat outside. And pondered the odd noise. Did I think 'wildlife' after my previous cicada stupidity? Of course not. This odd noise matched nothing in my internal sound library quite so closely as the wailing of masses of car alarms all set off at once, a long way away. The sort of thing you hear when approaching the scene of an IRA bomb blast in an ambulance, say.

‘Gosh,’ I thought to myself, ‘something big must have kicked off in downtown Kitchener. I’ll pop the news on later and see what’s happened.’ But nothing had happened. And the noise went on night after night. How could a sleepy little town like ours have so many extra-sensitive car alarms? And how come the wind was in the right direction to carry the sound over my garden every night at the same time? It remained a mystery, dangling around on the edge of my mind - not important enough to intrude on the million real worries of trying to make a go of a business I had no aptitude for – but hanging on in there awaiting attention.

Then Theresa came to call. As my first best friend in this country, it was usually Theresa who witnessed the sillier aspects of having no idea how to be Canadian. She walked into the garden with her head on one side, ears pricked up. ‘Oh how lovely to hear the frogs singing. You’re nearer the river than we are, we don’t hear them.’
‘Is that what that noise is?’
‘Yes, it’s the frogs making whoopee because it’s spring. What did you think it was?’
‘I don’t really want to tell you.’

And a tale of almost pumpkin pie proportions was born. I can recognise the sounds of blue jays now and cardinals, mourning doves, chipmunks and raccoons. I know why you shouldn’t go near a snapping turtle and what skunks smell like. But cicadas and singing frogs will always take me back to the inexpressible weirdness of trying to be an adult citizen of the world when you are, in reality, just a city kid who knows nothing.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Wizard of Oz

I’m making this beanbag. Why? Well we are in the process of rounding up furniture for Ben’s student house. This is a bit of a shock, since in my head I haven’t quite outgrown my own Young Ones phase yet, and I seem to have reverted to 70s thinking as a result. “You should have a beanbag chair! Students must have beanbags.”

Well, thanks to the wonder that is the internet it is possible to Google, download and print off a pattern for pretty much anything, so not long after the thought was formed the pattern existed and we were off looking for wacky fabric. Now, this is Mennonite Country. The best fabric warehouses are in the outlying villages, where every farming family boasts at least one old-time quilter, and this is how Ben and I ended up on a short road trip out of town.

I travel the back roads quite often for work, trundling from farm to farm with Lifeline buttons, so I have probably become too familiar with the strange beauty of this region. The old-time charm, peace, general niceness and polite affability of the area’s Mennonite roots bring themselves into town in so many subtle ways that it is easy to settle into being happily ensconced in a new life, without giving much thought to what drew you here in the first place. Waterloo may be the home of the Blackberry, of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the new home of Google; finalist in the ‘World’s Most Intelligent Community’ year after year...but Waterloo Region is, has been and always will be just Mennonite. The Old Order farmers manage without electricity and phones, fields are ploughed with horses, maple trees are tapped by hand and our roads have extra wide hard shoulders to accommodate the horse-drawn buggies. Supermarkets have buggy parking, covered, to shelter the horses.

Taking Ben with me made me see it all again. Bunches of flowers at farm gates, with an honesty box to pop your money in if you choose to take some. Horses pulling ploughs, girls in bonnets and mop caps picking vegetables. And of course, the symbol of our region, the horse and buggy road sign. “It’s like the Wizard of Oz,” he said. “We’re only 20 minutes out of town and it’s a whole fairy tale going on.” He is right, as ever. The girl who served us with our fabric requirements wore the traditional dress and cap, and the biggest, most genuinely happy smile. I have noticed this a lot, the smile. I have a sense from people who live in Pennsylvania, in and about Amish country, that the Amish keep themselves to themselves, disapprove a little of non Plain folk and come across as a little dour. Not our Mennonite neighbours. Big smiles, fabulous pies, syrup and flowers... quiet friendliness.

You can visit the farmers’ market and sample different grades of syrup, or different family recipes for ‘summer sausage’, the local salami. You will be chatting with the person who learned how it’s done from the generation before. You can take a guided buggy ride around the region or visit the Information Centre in St Jacobs, the village that has styled itself the centre of Mennonite Country, and learn all about their culture and history. My personal favourite trip is to the tiny Maple Syrup Museum. Free, of course. When visitors come to stay we do all these things, but a drive around the cornfields and sugar bushes teaches just as much about how to live well. I am reminded why we moved here.

I should add that not all Mennonite families farm in the old ways. Some have become more urbanised, a little more modern. Most of the larger local firms were begun by part of a Mennonite family moving into the city. They tend to retain a work ethic and sense of duty to the community which wouldn’t make much sense elsewhere. Charities and fundraisers don’t go short of sponsors; the Mennonite Central Committee sends teams of workers to disaster-hit areas all over the world. Everybody volunteers. And I am reminded why we moved here. So finally, after 7 years, I have got round to taking a pic of the road sign that defines why we sold everything to try and make a life in this corner of Ontario. Since I am no longer a trucker in any meaningful sense, it will top the blog for a while.

I sat with a new Lifeline client last week, taking details for our records and asked him who his family doctor was. “Oh I don’t have one at the moment, he’s a Mennonite. He’s in India building a hospital.”