Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bite Me, Down Under

You’ve got to love winter in Manitoba – when it arrives, there’s no mistaking it. Like awaiting a federal election, in the days before it arrives you get that cold chill creeping down your back and you can just feel it sneaking up on you, like it or not. And then BANG! It's arrived. Thankfully, unlike politicians, winter makes our world fresh, it does actually go away after a while, and doesn’t make promises it can’t keep.

I’ve always been fine with winter arriving. Not just because it’s new and brighter and fun with winter activities like skiing, tobogganing and skating, but also because I know everyone else is suffering through the cold, JUST LIKE ME.
But stop the presses – this has all changed!
For those of you who are living north of the equator, like me, did you know there are other people in the world who aren’t suffering through this right now? Really. They might even be reading this blog while we speak (and you know who you are…). Do you realize that while we’re here reluctantly anticipating three or four solid months of long johns, bulky clothes and frozen extremities, they’re acting all crazy, doing things like planting flowers and getting their lawn mowers out? 
Okay, so I know our winter’s not too hard to escape, with places like Mexico, Hawaii or Florida all within a half dozen hours on a plane, but hey, they’re just places full of people visiting with no intentions of ever staying longer than their budget or all-inclusive plan will last. Plus, you know that sooner than later you’ve got to climb back onto a plane and come home again. And no one really lives for longer than 2 weeks in these places. With that many tourists continually arriving, especially the bright white-skinned crazy Canucks, really, who’d want to endure all that?
So here’s where I made my mistake and my view of winter changed, likely forever: two and a half years ago, I took a trip with my wife to Sydney, Australia, to attend a conference. It was actually our first day of summer when we traveled there, so when we landed, it was their first day of winter. But when I stepped out of Sydney airport, in June, into the crisp cold air, for the first time ever it came to me that while we’re experiencing summer in Canada, on the other side of the world, they were just starting their winter! Conversely, and much to my dismay, I also realized that while we’re enduring endless weeks of minus temperatures, they are not. It's actually quite the opposite. Not much gets past this blogger’s investigative eyes…
What does this mean? And why should we care? While we’re shoveling snow in the cold with wind-chills that put the temperature into the minus 200-range, people in Australia, whom I mean absolutely no ill-will especially if they'd send me a ticket to come visit sooner than later, are doing this:

And when we’re freezing and our glove-covered hands while scrapping our windshield in the dark, they’re doing this:

It’s gets worse. When our televisions are telling us that if we dare to go outside, our skin will freeze in less than 10 seconds, people in Australia, thinking specifically and only of us are doing this:

Winter is so much less fun now because I now realize that I’m not suffering with the masses - and I don’t have to be because other people aren’t. There are places to go for expanded periods of time - places where you don’t have to wear long johns or ear muffs or tell people where you’re going in case you get stuck somewhere in the middle of nowhere and freeze to death, just because your car ran out of gas or you happened to decide that this day would be a good day to explore a ditch full of snow with your car.
Maybe global warming is going to mess with this one day, but I’m guessing it won’t in the near future, or soon enough for my satisfaction. My only consolation in all of this is to know that while I’m trudging through the snow and risking frost bite, people on the other side of the world are wading through their warm and salty ocean waters, putting themselves in danger of shark bites (hot chocolate does nothing to make that kind of bite feel any better - ha ha!). It’s petty, but it does make me feel at least a little better.
So for the time being, the best I can do is throw on my faux-fur lined parka, extra-insulated gloves and touque, get my car warming up well ahead of heading home in the dark, and then do my best to grin and bare it - or more accurately, bare as little as possible until our spring comes, yet again.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

November 11th - A Day of Canons, Exploding Sheep and Remembrance

Growing up, whenever Remembrance fell on a weekend, I felt deprived of a day off during the school week. Plus, I also knew that this meant that I’d have to sit through a Remembrance Day ceremony in our school gym on the cold, hard floor and do my best to keep silent, something that a grade school kid (with friends who could make the funniest of faces at a moment’s notice, and would) will never excel at, particularly under those circumstances. To make it worse, when I found out that we wouldn’t get the following Monday off in lieu of it falling on a weekend, I felt even more ripped off! It was sad, but this pretty much was my attitude through the educational years of my life.

When it did fall during the regular school week, it was a great day as we weren’t at school, but unlike a Saturday or Sunday, there really wasn’t much to do. Stores were closed all day, movies theatres didn’t show any films, and most of what you had on television involved politicians, soldiers, and people uncomfortably standing out in the cold. The cannons they shot off at 11:11 am were cool, but after wondering a) where the cannon balls would fly, and b) if they’d actually hit something in the city (my school, for example, which would be really fun to discover the next day), finding out there weren’t actually any cannon balls loaded into them was quite a let-down, so I lost my interest in that too.

Through those years, we still pause to remember the significance of the day, but now I find that so much has changed with the way we handle what can be open for business that day, and what can’t. Back then, it was customary that businesses would not be open on November 11th, in respect to those who had fought and fallen for our country in World War One. Now, looking through our local newspaper this week, I see that this has changed – even though businesses can’t be open until early afternoon, it’s become a big shopping day in the shadow of the holidays to come.

Given the experiences I had as a child, you’d think this would be good news to me. But my perspective of Remembrance Day has changed, and it’s all because of a trip I took in the summer of 1990.

Funny things can happen when you travel, and when you’re traveling to Europe as recently graduated university student, times that by 10, at least.

I had just left for a 2-month, mostly-unplanned journey across as much of Europe as my Eurorail pass, my backpack and my bank account could handle. My buddy Jamie and I flew into London on a cool and grey early June afternoon, and soon after landing and making our way to the white cliffs of Dover, we found ourselves crossing the English Channel by ferry (pre-Chunnel days) on our way to Calais, France, where we’d spend our first of many nights in Europe.

When you travel without much of a plan, you have to expect the unexpected. Not necessarily the Spanish Inquisition (cause nobody expects that and that was much more south than we were), but when you’re willing to open yourself up to new experiences and meet new people, it’s amazing what and/or who will cross your path. One of the most limiting things I believe you can do for nearly any travel holiday is to plan your trip down to the last hour of every day. You need to provide yourself with the opportunity to make spur-of-the-moment decisions, especially in a close gathering of countries where if you happened to decide to head east for 2 hours you’d be in the mountains of Germany, or if you head south-west for 2 hours you’re in the vineyards of Spain - or in the middle of the Mediterranean if you go a little too far and can’t recognize the difference between land masses and water.

On our boat crossing, we happened to meet a few other travelers from North America, one being a fellow Canadian, Jeff, who wasn’t backpacking across Europe as we were, but was working as a guide at Vimy Ridge, a memorial site in France dedicated to the memory of Canadian Expeditionary Force members killed during the First World War.

The morning after arriving in Europe and we're just about to take our first train ride, from Calais to Arras, France. From left to right: Greg (Seattle), Jamie (Winnipeg), Rob (Seattle), and Jeff (Canada), our Vimy guide.

While celebrating our landing in our first French pub - we agree to follow Jeff, diverting ourselves towards the town of Arras, where we’d find a room for a couple of nights and visit the memorial, just a short distance away. We were easily convinced as we were seven time zones away from home, looking for some adventures, and hadn’t slept for over 30 hours.

The view of Arras from the top of their main church, taken by Jamie as I'm not great with heights and couldn't make it up the old wooden and metal stairs that lead to the tower!

Posing in front of our hotel, facing the town square.

So there we were – fresh and eager to explore Europe, and with the guided visit to the memorial a day ahead, we had so much to anticipate. The timing of our meeting with Jeff was also fantastic as he became a guide and connection to many locals residents and establishments in Arras where we would soon enjoy local homemade cooking, learning some local drinking songs in the pubs where as regular travelers we likely would never have entered, and we also learned the art of ordering and consuming a ‘meter of beer’ with your traveling buddies. But at the end of our few days there, nothing would compare to the experience of being guided through the Vimy Memorial.

Driving in through the multi-acre property, one of the first things we saw in the grassy hills was the occasional collection of sheep, quietly grazing as if they were in the middle of a farm. This seemed like an unlikely addition for the attraction of tourists, but it turns out that they graze in the ‘red zone,’ which are areas where there are suspected buried munitions from World War One that have yet to explode. I’m not sure what animal activists in Canada would have to say about this set up, but knowing French unions and their policies, I can’t see them cutting the grass weekly either. Our friend did say that every so often they’d be guiding a tour and from off in the distance they’d hear a muffled ‘boom!’ No comment was made though to the existence of any short-notice lunch specials in the cafeteria that may or may not involve recently deceased wooly animals.

Having just arrived at the Vimy Memorial, this sign explained why we saw sheep grazing in marked areas that were definitely NOT open to the public. No explosions were heard this particular day.

We walked up to and explored the sculpted memorial, which reaches endlessly towards the skies. It was an amazing sight – its size and grandeur was stunning, but at the same time it brought about feelings of peace and calm. Serving as a place of commemoration for the Canadian soldiers who fought, were killed or presumed dead in France with no known grave, it’s a moving tribute to the soldiers who were here and fought and died for our freedom.

Walking the steps to the tallest point of the memorial.

I had studied in Art History in university the significance of many of these sculptures, but of course, when there, I was completely blank as to their meaning. Being there though, you couldn't help but feel their significance.

Also on the grounds are some of the original tunnels, craters and trenches that you can explore with a guide. When in one of the tunnels, Jeff explained to us that there usually were two separate tunnels –the first, the one that we presently were in, would serve as a main route to get the troops quickly and safely to the front, and the second tunnel would be the way back to triage for the seriously injured, and as well for the dead they were able to retrieve when it was safe. It was something I had never thought about, but when seeing the system in person and trying to imagine how terrifying it would be to be traveling through these trenches to the front, hearing the bomb blasts and gun fire above, for morale alone, I could see why they would want the routes separated.

When we explored the tunnel that lead away from the front, we were led to a holding area for the wounded, and when our eyes adjusted we could see hundreds of hand-made scratches on each of the walls – these scratches were messages made by the injured solders who were on their gurneys, positioned close enough to the wall for them to reach out and leave behind the thoughts of likely their last moments in the war, and potentially in their lives. At this moment our guide told us a story that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

A year or so before, he had taken a group of Canadian war veterans through the very same tunnels and into this holding area, and one of the gentlemen, a guy who had said very little up until that point, walked over to one of the walls and found a message carved into the wall that was made by his best friend – a friend he had fought with at this very location, a friend who never made it back from the war. This was his first time visiting what was the original battlefield, and the first time he had seen the words left by his friend nearly 76 years before. I can only imagine what that would have been like – never having been able to say goodbye when they were originally there and now seeing his dying words. He was the lucky one, living on and having the chance to return so many years later, while for his friend, his body and his words will live on in the spot where he died forever more. Then I realized just how lucky I was. I came to this place by my own free will, and could leave when I wanted to, and safely. The freedom I had was due to the soldiers who originally fought at Vimy and from those who had written on these very walls.

Some of the many unmarked graves of fallen Canadian Soldiers.

At the end of our visit, we were all a lot quieter and certainly more reflective than we had been since we landed in London. I don’t think that when we were planning our trip to Europe, pinching ourselves about visiting places like Paris, Rome and London, we’d ever have expected that our travels that were so far from home would teach us so much about our own country and history, and the debt we owed. I never again would see Remembrance Day the same way.

Our group including a new friend who we had met the evening before. She wrote for the "Let's Go" book series, and we therefore referred to her as the "Let's Go Girl!" Sadly, I've forgotten her real name!

Now it’s 20 years later, and since that remarkable visit, my impressions of Remembrance Day have changed significantly. On Thursday, November 11th, 2010, as I’m taking the day off of work, I know I will be thinking about the significance of the day and what it means to me to have the freedom that we do and so often take for granted.

And in a couple of years when that day falls on a weekend, I won’t mind at all and I certainly won’t feel ripped off. I’ll remember the freedom I have in life and how easily I can travel to most places in the world. I’ll also remember and celebrate what others sacrificed for us to have peace.

Lest We Forget

God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Capturing Those Vacation Memories

“Those were the days.” How many times did you hear your parents say that growing up, and how often do you find yourself using it now when referring to something from your past? What was it about ‘those days,’ and have things really changed so much that we no longer enjoy life as we did back then? Maybe so – but I believe there’s hope for us all.

I think it’s safe to say that life has changed a significant amount over the decades, but I’m glad to see that though some traditions, things that were present when I was growing up (I’m all about traditions) are coming back, or at least have the potential to, particularly when it comes to vacations and how we remember or re-live them.

Let’s travel back in time 30 years or so and look at photography and how we took pictures on family trips. As a family, we didn’t fly very often, so most of vacations involved stuffing the five of us into our station wagon, garnished with a fake wood-grained exterior, stiff vinyl seats, roll-down-the-window type air-conditioning, and a radio that only picked up stations when you were within 10 miles (back then it was miles of course, not the silly little kilometers we have today) of a major city, and even then you were lucky if it wasn’t complemented with a good layer of static. Or worse-yet, if it was a choice of Country-Western or Country-Western! No offense, but when driving down highway number one from Winnipeg to Vancouver, you didn’t get a heck of a lot of choice when it came to radio stations.

Heading west in our 'trusty red steed'. I can't remember if this was our camping spot, but I do remember at times in some camp sites having to pay extra for trees.

On these yearly family trips, our dad was always the official photographer. Mom occasionally and reluctantly had the camera in hand, but when asked to take a group photo, she had a nasty habit of loping off peoples’ heads about half way down - using the viewfinder interior framing, of course! I also have a great aunt who, no matter who she was taking a picture of, managed to somehow include her favourite china cabinet in the background, always exclaiming to her husband afterwards with innocence, “now how did that get in there?” That comment was always followed by a sheepish yet sneaky furniture-loving grin.

Sparing the heads, this time my mom mercifully cut my Uncle Bill, Uncle Mike, Auntie Lorraine and my dad off from the waist down rather than cutting off their heads.

So for our family, the duty ultimately fell to dad, and it was a task that he loved. He equipment consisted of an old Pentax SLR carried on a thin strap around his neck, a side-mounted flash, and a tripod, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Everyone in life has their talents, and my dad – his calling in life was the art of lining up our family members at any significant occasion or family gathering in a snap. Just to note - I’m not quite sure if our dad would take pictures because we were dressed up, or if we dressed up because our dad was taking pictures. I may never know. Not cause my dad’s no longer with us – he is (with a fancy new digital camera of course, never far away). He just doesn’t give away his secrets easily, especially when it comes to photography…or mushroom picking spots.

A classic 'family with Western visitors' shot in front of the house. I don't know exactly what had pissed off my brother (far right) to get him to make that kind of expression, but if I knew what it was, I'd gladly do it again just to see if he'd have the same look. I'm the innocent looking one with the lego creations.

Under the guidance of our father, our posing for the camera became a family ritual. When on vacation, if we happened to pass by an outrageously sized icon of our current or past culture (for example: Babe and his Blue Ox, a giant fish posed as if in mid-leap from the water, a giant moose outside of Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, or even the world’s largest Ukrainian Easter egg at Vegreville, Alberta), we stopped - and we posed. If we were on a ferry crossing from the mainland to Vancouver Island, we posed. If we were driving along a mountain highway and there was a grizzly bear with a sledgehammer breaking into someone else’s station wagon parked in the lot of a hiking trail, we’d stop and pose for that too. Of course that never really happened, but I’m pretty sure my dad secretly would have loved to have arrived at such a scene, and I know his camera would be ready with a fresh roll of 36, locked and loaded.

Above: Mom, Paul Bunyan and his oddly small feet. Below: The giant Easter Egg (also known in the Ukrainian community as a pysanka) in Vegreville, Alberta. As you can see, any obscenely-sized easter egg always brings eternal happiness and blissful dancers.

For the majority of families on vacation back then, taking pictures was very different. Without the ability to preview what you just took, you never knew what you were going to get until you had the film developed. This in itself made each frame of film more valuable than a room full of gold, and we knew that when we were given the extreme and rare privilege to hold the camera and actually take a picture, it wasn’t something we’d waste on silly or stupid faces (no matter how goofy my brother could look in a moment’s notice), not if we valued the idea of celebrating our next birthday. In our family, wasting even a single frame in a roll of film was on the same level as the rare treat of eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and not cleaning the meat down to the bone – it just didn’t happen, or you knew there would be serious life-altering consequences.

A rare family trip to Hawaii when I was in grade 5. With years of experience under his belt, my dad would seek out interesting architectural elements to 'frame his subjects'. We were just happy to have something to hang off of.

Ultimately the vacation would unfortunately end, and we'd arrive back at home, where we’d peel our sticky legs off of the car seats and unpack our luggage from the back of the station wagon. The camera was quietly put away in the top shelf of the front closet, and the trip was declared officially over and usually soon forgotten as we’d get back into the routine of every day life at home. It was always so good to get back home, especially being the kind of kids who would typically sleep in late and then sit around the TV like summer-time zombies, wasting away most of the beautiful summer mornings watching shows like The Wheel of Fortune with Pat Sajak hosting. Hmmmm, maybe some things don’t actually change after all…

We’d be back into our regular lives, but about four or five weeks later the experience of being on holiday would all come back, usually complements of Canada Post. In the mail, wrapped neatly in a golden coloured envelope, the slides would arrive. We didn’t do prints in our family - we were full-bore slide projector aficionados with a giant white pull-up screen that as kids we loved to do hand shadow puppets in front of until the picture show started (I never could do anything better with my two hands than my impression of a duck, which, if it was ever manifested to life, would surely be shunned from any duck colony as the most horrifying and un-duck-like thing ever seen).

With the lights out and the soft hum of the projector, our dad would walk us through our vacation experience once again. It was glorious. Nearly life-sized on the screen, and sometimes with conveniently placed scar-like dust on the slide that made us look a little more dangerous than we normally were, we were there - and in the background, were all the wonderful and amazing places we had been.

My dad actually went through the pains of transferring each slide into a separate slide tray, labeled the paper guide as to who was in each photo, the date, where we were in the world, and then added the new collection to the racks of other collections sitting on his office shelves like over-sized Lego pieces, stacking their way closer and closer to the ceiling with each passing year.

The collection still exists today and is contained in about 3 very large boxes in my basement, sitting and waiting for the day when I decide to finally digitize them all so that I can have my own slide shows for my family. There likely will be no prints here I’m happy to say. We’re also really bad for taking hundreds of pictures on our digital cameras and letting them sit either on our flash cards or on the hard drives of our computers. It seems like the process of selecting images and uploading to a print service site is much more arduous than what we used to have to do when we’d take the roll of film out of the camera, drive it down to the photo store, fill out the pouch, then come back anywhere from one hour to one week later to pick up the slides or prints. Who says modern conveniences are actually convenient? At least that’s my excuse.

With computer monitors coming in at 20 inches plus and TV screens in the 40 to 60 inch range, I think it’s our chance as a family to take our holiday pictures and re-live them as I experienced pictures as a child. Of course we’re in the habit of previewing what we took in camera once we’ve taken a shot, but having it displayed in such a large size, complete with a fatherly narrating, is what truly makes it a wonderful experience.

And then I’ll be able to say, with pride, these are the days. Indeed.