Canada, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to Canada.
Okay, a slight exaggeration, but only slight. This is a big country and while you know that inside, it’s only when you’re here that you realise its enormity. Or rather, it’s only when you try to book
tickets to go somewhere and you’re faced with travelling for more than two days by train (not such a rarity with Network Rail, I admit) or flying for five hours just to visit another city. And don’t even get me started on prices. How can a country with petrol at 80p a litre justify almost £400 for a return flight the equivalent of London to the Canaries? My nephew’s flying from Budapest to Milan for a little over 10€. TEN EUROS.
Anyway, to get to the point of today’s blog, when we were leaving Spain, one of the questions I was often asked was what I was most
looking forward to. And there was no hesitation – seeing the second cousins I used to play with as a little girl and, apart from a fleeting get-together in Montréal Airport in 1999, had not seen since 1989. Margaret Thatcher’s Britain had sent them to St John in search of work and from there, they’d ended up in Calgary.
I also had another reason for wanting to see this part of Canada – my Great-Uncle Walter had been here during the Second World War and loved it. It would be very special to go somewhere with so many family connections.
My trip sadly started off with a poignant moment – a visit to my cousin Sid’s grave. He died last year after a valiant fight against cancer and one of the first things I wanted to do was see where he was buried and pay my respects. It was a strange feeling, to see the grave of a boy who’d grown up in the back streets of Byker and was now buried in a land far, far away. However, he’d adored living in Alberta and his spirit was never far away in the many loving tales his family shared with us.
His wife, my cousin-in-law Anne, has maintained her Geordie accent but their children, Vicki and Colin, now speak with a strong Canadian twang (and I did hear the A-word several times). But they still have British sensibilities and, just like when I was a child, laughter and gossip were always on the go.
Calgary itself is not such a pretty city. The downtown area is small and Vicki told me it’s practically dead at the weekend. Being a relatively new city – it was a town in 1864 and a city 30 years later – there are very few places of historic importance to see. Okay, practically none outwith Stephen Avenue, the Canadian Pacific Railway HQ and, of course, Stampede Park. However, it sits nestled into the Bow and Elbow rivers which provide a gorgeous, lush oasis in the middle of this very dry land (it wasnice to escape Toronto’s humidity). Too lush, sadly, as the debris and damage from this July’s Alberta floods could still be seen. There are families in the area still without homes and as we travelled the region, it became clear just how devastating it had been. The floods also showed a
true outpouring of the human spirit, however, as thousands of volunteers turned up to help in the aftermath.
Back to the city, most people seem to live in the suburbs so there’s not a lot to see, although highlights of our visit included a look at their beautiful Chinese centre and the shops for cowboys.
SHOPS FOR COWBOYS.
I mean, how great
is that? We tried on all the hats and oohed at all the Dolly Parton-esque blouses and shirts not just in one of them, but in every cowboy shop I could see.
And of course, from there we had to visit Stampede Grounds, the home of the legendary Calgary Stampede, and…
“What’s that building? Looks like a giant twisty-turny place for skateboarders to practice on.”
“That’s the Saddledome stadium, you divvy,” replied Ged. “Look, it’s shaped like a saddle. It was on the telly all the time because it had been flooded and they didn’t know if they could get it ready in time for the Stampede. And you, a journalist…”
(They did get it ready but repairs are continuing so we couldn’t see much.)
Even though there was no Stampede, it was amazing to walk around the grounds (see gallery below) and see this tribute to Alberta’s colonial past. I have seen First Nations in Toronto – we stumbled onto a pow-wow by the waterfront on our very first weekend and were able to witness the singing and drums, as well as overhear how Velcro was the best thing to use for fastening dresses – but this era of Canada’s history seems very far away in Ontario. In Alberta, it is a living, breathing part of the everyday world and my cousins routinely discussed the conditions on the reservations and the problems facing the First Nations. Their dog, the sloppiest animal in the world, even came from a reservation (and has, according to a vet, some coyote in her. But more on Alberta’s wildlife to come).
The strangest thing about Calgary, however, is how much it reminded me of my native Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Stephen Avenue at times felt like walking down Northumberland Street – that part just around the Haymarket and BHS – and I could see why my cousin and Great-Uncle Walter loved it and felt so at home here. But the next day, we headed into the Rockies and Newcastle and Northumberland were left far behind.
And for that, you’ll have to tune in to the next episode of Canadian Wry 😉