‘Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.’
Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
‘Can we go now’, Amy and Sydney asked in a hangdog kind of way as they sat in the snow at the top of the toboggan hill. Amy looked like she’d had enough, which is not how a kid is supposed to look at the top of a toboggan hill. A kid at the top of a toboggan hill is supposed to look like… like Emma, Peter, Andrea and I did – ready and raring to go, thinking only of how far you can push your luck whipping down the slope!
‘Ah, no not yet’, I told Amy distractedly, because I didn’t want to go even if that was what my parenting instincts told me we should do. Peter and Andrea were determined that our final week of travel would be the best week of our trip. I know this because they said so while proposing a toast for Emma’s birthday a few days earlier and they had gone to great lengths to make it happen.
We clambered aboard a big blue sled, much to Amy’s annoyance I’m sure, and steadily folded our middle-aged limbs on top of each other until we were held fast in an interwoven embrace. Then we pushed off and gathered speed, ploughing aside the soft snow that had fallen the night before with our combined weight. We couldn’t see a thing as snow spewed forth and we ended up at the bottom of the slope grinning inanely and three quarters buried. Then we did it again.
In case you can’t tell, that’s Greg, Andrea and Peter
Greg and Peter got some air, and some Greg got some bruises
This was before we learnt the mantra, buff up, goggles down
Tobin and Oliver over the jump
Maybe Sydney and Amy should have gone with tobbogans?
It was more fun than four forty-somethings are supposed to have and it briefly occurred to me to wonder where we would have been at that time had we not met the Douglas-Grants all those months ago back in Cambodia.
We didn’t know where we would end up by this stage of our trip, but if you’d asked me to guess, I would have said somewhere in South America, not Chelsea in Quebec, which just goes to prove the adage that a trip takes you more than you take a trip. From the heights of the Himalaya’s to the highlands of Iceland, we have the Douglas-Grants to thank for some of the most memorable moments of our year and there was nowhere we would have rather spent our last week on the road.
Of course, it helped that they live in a winter wonderland. Their house sits on a 2-acre block half way up a hillside which forms part of the Gatineau River valley. From their living room, and Sydney and Tobin’s bedroom which they very kindly gave up for us, there are views over and through the surrounding woodlands and down to the frozen Gatineau River.
Three feet of snow covered the ground the evening we arrived and the temperature was frigid. Their home however was warm, in temperature and in character. We spent pleasant hours drinking coffee or wine (depending upon the hour), working on a jigsaw of ourselves sitting on a hill in Iceland (a gift from the Douglas-Grants) and watching the world outside, particularly when the snow was falling. Canadians, I suspect, take all this for granted but for us, or me at least, it was special.
From the time we arrived in Chelsea, seven days stood between us and the end of our trip. It seemed almost unimaginable when we stepped onto the plane in Sydney in January that we would ever see it come to an end. A year seemed like a lifetime, but it turns out it’s not. It’s a year and they come and go regardless of what you are up to.
Fortunately our friends had an action-packed week planned for us and there was only a little time here and there to dwell on the fact that the next flights we took would take us home. Months of forethought had gone into our stay and for that we owe Peter and Andrea huge thanks.
With seven days to go we built a luge track in Peter and Andrea’s front yard, although it took a while just to get out the front door. As in Toronto, there is a bewildering array of clothing required to safely and comfortably spend time outside and it took the best part of an hour to arrive at the appropriate combination of people to boots, thermal underwear, ski pants, jumpers (aka sweaters), coats, toques (aka beanies), buffs, gloves and mittens. Andrea and Peter remained good humoured fitting us all out, long after I would have gone spare.
Once we were appropriately clad we set to building berms in the snow to whiz down on toboggans. At least Peter and I did. Andrea mostly threw shovels full of snow on my head while Oliver and Tobin sampled the track at various stages of construction. Emma, Amy and Sydney threw a few shovels full here and there before retreating for hot chocolate.
With six days to go we set out on a cross country skiing expedition into Gatineau Park. Skis, poles and boots added to the gear confusion but by lunchtime we were clipping in and getting underway. The four of us looked very Nordic. Until we moved and then our Australasian heritage was revealed through flailing limbs and wayward poles.
We spent the night in a toasty cabin warmed by a fire while the temperature outside plummeted. I awoke in the middle of the night to stoke the fire and visit the outhouse. The weather forecast said it would hit a low of minus 18 and a starry night shone down through a canopy of bare trees to illuminate a snowy path to the loo. It was so cold the snow screeched underfoot in protest.
With five days to go we skied back from the cabin in falling snow. Andrea took advantage of a momentary lapse in balance and pushed me over. It was revenge I’m sure, for hitting her in the head with a ski pole when I got carried away trying to race along a flat stretch of trail. It was brutal out there.
That night we headed off to the Jeffries residence for a New Year’s Eve party, Chelsea style. Family groups performed skits and songs and other amusing acts while the snow got deeper and deeper outside. My camera however tilted towards the entryway to the house to capture the acres of floor space occupied by the afore mentioned boots and winter woollies. The only way to find the road on the way home at 12.15 in the morning was by the absence of trees blocking the way, otherwise all was white.
With four days to go we hit the toboggan slopes, as described, before heading down to an ice skating rink on the frozen Gatineau River for an ice-hockey game that seemed very much the Canadian equivalent of backyard cricket at Christmas in Australia. Peter assured me that it was a game for all skill levels, but I don’t think all skill levels extended to Australians that have skated twice in 20 years.
I laced up a pair of skates while sitting on the side of the rink, but by the time I was done I had decided to take them off again. It was a pretty spot though. Amy and Oliver skated with Sydney, Tobin and their new friends from the night before while Emma and Andrea took Weston (the dog) for a walk. We were there all afternoon because the game only stopped when the light failed.
With three days to go we went snow shoeing through the woods to a frozen lake on a gorgeous, sunny, still and warm (it hit 1 degree) day. The lake was on a property owned by Peter and Andrea’s friends Andy and Vanessa. I presumed we were just tagging along on a long organised day out, until a comment by Vanessa made it clear that it was all part of audacious Andrea’s masterplan.
We snow-shoed in from the road on a single trail. Even with snow shoes, whoever went first had to squash down or push aside about a foot of snow for those who followed. A kilometre or two through the trees and up a hill we came to the lake which was only distinguishable because of how flat it was and the fact there were no trees. Andy and Vanessa had constructed a small cooking shelter which overlooked the frozen water, now covered in several feet of puffy snow.
An axe was taken to the lake surface to check it was strong enough to explore before hordes of kids, ours included, set about leaving their mark on the pristine surface. We cooked sausages on sticks around a fire, watched in amusement as Andrea and Tobin hunted far and wide in search of Jazz (a dog they were babysitting who had run away), laughed as kids and then adults tobogganed down a short slope and over the edge of a short drop-off and teased Peter because he had towed in everything we needed for the day on a sled that didn’t fit between the trees. He didn’t get the memo about no sleds.
It was the Canadian equivalent of boxing day at the beach and the sort of experience you’d pay big dollars for in the absence of friends. We felt incredibly grateful for the effort Andrea and Peter had gone to on our behalf.
With two days to go we did very little other than sit around playing board games, until the evening when we took a snowy drive and a cheek stinging walk into Ottawa to check out the Canadian parliament. The temperature remained warm, in relative terms, and instead of snow ‘freezing rain’ fell and clung to everything it touched.
On our final day, we woke to the most gorgeous winter scene I’ve seen. Trees were covered from head to toe in ice and snow from the freezing rain the day before. The world had become a black and white photograph. It was stunning. We went skiing again, this time to a different cabin in Gatineau Park where we ate chilli, drank whisky (well some of us did) and played Clue (Cluedo for Australian readers).
We had a celebratory dinner that evening complete with fancy dress hats and or fairy wings (I was captain Canada) before retreating to pack our bags for the last time.
It was hard not to feel a little nostalgic. Not to look back longingly the way we looked forward before we left. Not to think about waking up in the middle of the night to see the Himalaya’s illuminated by moonlight; watching glacial ice carve off in Iceland; spotting a wild tiger in India; eating fondue on the banks of the Mekong; or watching Oliver play Connect Four with a monk in Luang Prabang.
Terry Pratchett says that, ‘Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving’. How or why is difficult to say but probably has to do with the apparent conclusion of journeys that began long before any of us boarded a plane.
For years before we set out, Emma and I were plagued by an awareness that there is more to the world than our little world. We had this notion that for all the freedom life in Australia affords too many people are held firm by the expectations of career, schooling and spending that renders actual freedom unavailable. We also railed against the unspoken, unlegislated rule that says the fun stuff in life must wait until we are old and grey and Amy and Oliver are unable or uninclined to share the best bits with us.
All of this was ultimately good because it motivated us to think twice before we bought anything, to rethink whether school is the only way to receive an education and to loosen our grip on stuff… to loosen the anchors which held us in place. It also helped overcome our doubts because it would be untrue to say we were completely relaxed about what we were about to do.
Between us we worried about all manner of things including getting sick in a random third world country; that someone would kidnap Amy or Oliver or both (ok that was me) and about having sufficient funds to complete the journey because I couldn’t reconcile all the variables (also me). I even worried about family dynamics descending into misery through stress induced by not knowing where to go, or what to see or even where to sleep.
None of these concerns stood up to reality. Hand sanitiser worked a treat and no-one got sick. The world could care less whether we were passing through and no-one was interested in snatching Amy or Oliver. How much money we spent was a question of how much we had available and we cut our cloth accordingly as we went. The hardest part of the trip was the formal part of home schooling. This wasn’t always plain sailing, but we got better at it as we went and we now know Amy and Oliver’s proclivities far better than we did before.
On the upside, we found friends we didn’t know we had, from Denmark, the USA and from Canada. They lead us to new and unexpected places and the shared experiences added imeasurably to the destinations. We also discovered the simplicity of a life structured around where to go, where to stay and how to get there and that the world is more wonderful than Lonely Planet said it would be.
The only downside to all this was the creeping sadness that came from seeing first-hand the pressures bought to bear on a highly improbable planet endeavouring to sustain the lives of so many people. I felt acutely my insignificance and powerlessness to affect any significant change, but did resolve not to turn a blind eye and to do whatever I could to reduce our own impact.
While we were away our time was our own and slowly but steadily the wallet hugging, penny pincher in me learnt, as Rolf Potts writes in Vagabonding, that ‘money is what you need to survive, but time is what you need to live’.
Time is what you need to get away from transport hubs and out to where the good stuff lies. Time is what you need to stumble out of bed at an hour of your own choosing and to wake up not knowing what the day will bring. As Andrea told me, time is what you need to have more than a superficial interaction with people, places and things and to reflect, absorb and integrate these things into your life. Time allows space and room for growth, for experiences to have meaning and people to have impact.
‘Coming back to where you started’, then, ‘is not the same as never leaving’ because everything that lead us to leave in the first place and everything we experienced along the way adds up to a different way of looking at the world to the one we had before we began. Coming home is not the same as never leaving because it is the apparent end of a lifestyle that emerged as an extension of a longer-term shift in the way we see the world.
It is not too hard to see how this could become a problem. How it could be difficult to reconcile the experience of a way of life the world does not advertise or condone with the one that it does. To reconcile ‘living well’ with ‘doing well’ (in Rolf Potts words) once we are firmly ensconced back within our brick walls.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be a conflict. Maybe our experiences will manifest themselves in other ways in the future. Maybe the adjustments that lead us to go away in the first place will lead us to other adventures. Maybe those adventures include more travel, but maybe they mean navigating the day to day in a different way.
We rose early on the day we flew home and Andrea kindly drove us to the airport. It was cold, as you would expect, and our plane was delayed which hasn’t been as common as you might think. We visited 24 countries while we were away; slept in 156 different places; drove 13 hire cars; took 30 flights; made 1899 financial transactions and moved 57,749 kilometres. Grandpa Bruce met us at Sydney airport where he dropped us exactly one year ago. It was the same… but I’m not sure we are.
We scoured the city from the plane as it came in to land, looking for signs of the snow that we hoped would be there, but there wasn’t much to be seen. Not that it wasn’t cold enough. A thin draft of icy air blew between the plane door and the aerobridge as we alighted and reminded us just how far we had travelled from Belize.
The train from the airport to Union Station in downtown Toronto held us in its artificially warm embrace and it wasn’t until we had to leave the station and make a dash for the subway that the cold had a chance to bite. We donned what coats we had, inadequate as they were, and stepped into the city at night.
It was only 50 metres until we were indoors again, but that short dash was enough to confirm that this was not winter as we know it. This was the big league, a proper chill, a chest freezer on high. I loved it as soon as my cheeks started to sting. It’s been 20 years since Emma and I last spent a winter in Toronto and the unaccustomed cold was just as much of a novelty now as it was then.
We made our way through the metro system to Broadview Station, our disposition diametrically opposed to the commuters who have seen it all a thousand times before. At Broadview we skipped across the road and were warmly welcomed back to Jill, Anthony and Jackson’s (Emma’s cousin, husband and their son) place where we checked into our regular suite on the third floor.
Toronto survival gear (coats, scarves, gloves and mittens) were issued while we scoffed down grilled cheese sandwiches to make up for the meals we had missed while flying that day. I don’t need a scarf I thought. A coat… of course I’ll need a coat. A toque… (beanie) of course I’ll need a toque. Gloves… of course I’ll need gloves. But a scarf… I’ve never seen the point.
The next morning was a little over two weeks before Christmas and there was a tree to be procured to help make the season bright. We donned the afore mentioned Toronto survival gear and ventured forth for a stroll down the Danforth, a trendy street in inner Toronto lined with specialty shops and restaurants. Jill and Anthony had put in an order for snow in anticipation of our need for a white Christmas and almost on queue little white flakes were wafting from the sky. I zipped my coat as high as it would go. It was snug and I was warm but a cold draft slithered down my neck.
After collecting the tree, hot dogs needed BBQ’ing for lunch. Volunteers though were hard to find despite Jill’s insistence that BBQ’ing in the snow is a Canadian tradition. I agreed to take on the task because it was a good excuse to stand outside in the falling snow. I clad myself in Anthony’s bogs (big winter snow boots which he occasionally insisted belonged to him), my coat, toque and tongs and stepped out into the freezer where a cold draft ran down my neck.
After lunch we all took Roscoe (Jill and Anthony’s cocker-poo) for a walk. I’ll try the scarf I thought. Snowflakes the size of dinner plates kept on coming and the grey city was beginning to look like the winter wonderland one imagines when singing Christmas carols. It was a delight and the scarf around my neck kept the minus eleven-degree air from where it wasn’t supposed to be.
‘Scarves are beginning to make sense to me’, I commented to Jill.
‘You should call your next blog scarf enlightenment’, she replied.
Amy, Oliver and Jackson made snowballs and threw them at each other before discovering that of the adults I yelled the least when errant missiles headed my way. Scarves, I discovered, are especially useful in a snow fight, though they don’t do much for your face.
By the time we got home sufficient snow had accumulated for shovelling. Amy and Oliver set to but without any clear intent of clearing the walkway. A snowman was the real objective though Anthony declared it to be the wrong kind of snow. ‘It’s not packing snow’ he said and he was right. It was all fluffy and soft and wouldn’t stick together like a snowman should.
The next day was a more sombre occasion. Emma’s grandma Evelyn passed away earlier this year and with ourselves and other Australian relatives scheduled to visit at this end of the year, her memorial service was held over until our collective arrival.
Family and friends gathered as families do, in Oakville, to farewell one of their own and I pondered whether our sadness was because someone we love had died or because we who remain are poorer for their passing. Probably it’s both and probably the point is moot. The emotions we experience when we say goodbye strip away the day to day, remind us that our day is coming too and nudge us to hang on that much tighter to everyone still here.
An early Christmas back at Shirley and George’s (Emma’s aunt and uncle) after the service was the perfect way to do just that. I haven’t got the words to describe how great it was to see family from home that we haven’t seen since January and family from Canada we haven’t seen for much longer than that. Neither do I have the words to describe the happy contentedness that came with sitting in their company while the afternoon wiled itself away.
It would have been nice to all spend a few more days together, but there were so many visiting Australian’s that George and Shirley’s house was bursting at the seams. We returned from Oakville to Toronto along with Jill, Anthony and Jackson and got back to some serious touristing while they got back to school and work.
Jill and Anthony and Shirley and George had given us Toronto City Passes and so we headed off to the Science Centre one day and then the aquarium with Brendon, Kathleen and Isaac the next. Later we also visited the Royal Ontario Museum and took a trip up the CN Tower for the second time in a matter of months, this time for the winter views.
The aquarium was unexpectedly excellent and had me happily snapping away at jellyfish, clown fish, seahorses, rays and other curiosities. It took us hours to get through, though that may have been because our progress was stymied by happy chatter and a quest for the perfect selfie with a shark.
At the end of the week the family was reunited for an axe throwing party. It’s what Canadians do to let off some steam I suppose. In a big warehouse in a seemingly abandoned part of town we gathered, regaled in our best lumberjack shirts, to compete for the title of trans-continental axe throwing champion (yep… I just made that up).
Axe throwing is like darts… with axes. Not full axes, but little ones. Hatchet sized, not that the smaller size makes it any easier. ‘The trick’, Anthony told me, ‘is all in the follow through’. I believed him because he was the reigning transcontinental axe throwing champ. I endeavoured to study his movements as he demonstrated how to do it in kitchen one morning while preparing a batch of ‘world famous scrambled eggs’.
To throw an axe you lift it up behind your head and fling it forward while simultaneously lunging forward and sticking your chest forward and swinging your arms down past your side. Easy right? Not so much as it turns out. It’s tricky to get the axe rotation right and a foot placed slightly forward or slightly back from the mark can be all it takes to turn the rewarding ‘thock’ of a hatchet lodging in timber into the frustrating ‘ping’ of metal as it rebounds and skitters across the floor to land somewhere near your feet.
Fortunately there were coaches on hand to help us through it and after the warm up I was feeling quietly confident. My confidence however was misplaced as it quickly became apparent we were in the company of some skilled practitioners. Uncle Ewan and Uncle George are the true lumberjacks and their age should fool no one. Their consistency left me trembling in my boots, and the more I trembled the more my axes behaved like boomerangs. Anthony too, the reigning champ, was having a bad day.
We went round for round in an action-packed tournament until scores were added up and the final eight revealed. George was minor premier and unquestioned favourite for the title but in an unexpected turn of events he was upstaged in the first round of the playoffs. Ewan threw consistently while George suffered an uncommon bout of the hee-bee-jee-bees.
At the end it was Ewan, and Anthony’s nephew Nick who played off in the final and they went axe for axe until someone called out, ‘Bring out the big axe’ (a full size axe used to break deadlocks). The threat of the big axe broke Ewan’s mojo and his next offering pinged off the target like a basketball off a backboard. Nick capitalised on the error and a new transcontinental axe throwing champ was crowned.
We got up to lots of other things during our second stay in Toronto – too many to describe. They included a day of indoor mountain biking, ice skating at Nathan Phillips Square, tobogganing on the slopes of Riverdale park, a day trip to Niagara Falls and time spent wandering the malls of the city looking for Christmas presents.
In between times the wine and laughter flowed freely at Jill and Anthony’s place as we sat around listening to old vinyl, playing Mario kart with Jackson on the third floor, watching The Eagles and Led Zeppelin in concert in the basement, playing a dice game called Farkle, and on Christmas day… racing wind up reindeer across the kitchen floor.
Alas all good things come to an end and on the 27th December (Emma’s birthday) we packed up our things for the second last time and eagerly awaited the arrival of our friends from Ottawa to whisk us away for our ‘Grant’ finale. Just one week separated us from the end of a year roaming the world, and what a week it was, but that’s another story.