A Canadiana Christmas & A Happy New Start

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In the month of November of my seventeenth year, I left the Canadian metropolis of Montreal to go inhabit the lunar landscapes of Northern Alberta. My knack for adventure had propelled me to subscribe to a youth program where locations were picked for the participants after their acceptance into the program, which was aimed at a bunch of 17 to 21 years old who were about to live three months in three different Canadian locations for a total of nine months. It was not the first time that I ever left home without any family, but this time, it was about to be a long and far-flung adventure, and anything seemed possible. At the Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, I instantly recognized two girls from the same program as me because of their badges sewn onto their backpacks and tuques, and so the three of us embarked on our first flight of the day together. We landed in the snow in Calgary, quickly grabbed a coffee and boarded another plane to Grande Prairie. The plane was noticeably smaller that its predecessor, and its passengers consisted almost exclusively of fellow young participants and their accompanying authority figures. We talked, laughed and interviewed each other. Me and the girls even did rounds to get a view from the window. Of course, we were a very excited bunch, deserting our hometowns, starting ourselves anew. It was the beginning of what already seemed like a year-long summer camp for late teens.

We arrived in Grande Prairie at night in the tiniest airport, one without chain stores, long corridors or hundreds of people. Instead, the airport consisted of one huge room and a snack bar atop a mezzanine. There were now about thirty to forty participants hanging out there, clustered on leather seats in the common public space next to the greasy spoon. The bunch of young folks, waiting to depart to their respective destinations, was sprawled in different directions, speaking French or English, and more rarely both. One of the purposes of the program was that the participants would become bilingual by the end of it, which was bound to happen, but as nerves were sensitive and travel exhaustion felt, most people kept to themselves.

A couple of minutes later, I embarked on a couple of charter buses and, while the first group was dropped in Grande Prairie, mine stopped at Falher and the other group was bound to settle in Peace River. The first thing that really hit me was the lack of light: there was not a single spot in sight in the few hours of bus after Grande Prairie. The only lights came from oil tanks at the side of the road and even more rarely from garages and convenience stores. The moment was quiet and kind of scary. I felt like I was about to live in the middle of nowhere (which wasn’t that far from the truth, come to think of it), while also feeling incredibly tiny in the infinite land.

We finally made it at the house, bleary-eyed, and were divided into three different rooms: three girls in two rooms, and the boys downstairs. The beds, made of white-painted metal, were noisy and uncomfortable. We were just about to start our own family in this house as we got accustomed to live together in it, doing various volunteer jobs during the day, and coming back at night. There were always a team of two that had to clean the house and make food daily, and we even learned how to bake our own bread.

The times were the most joyful with the group. There wasn’t a city to discover, and that helped us to bond. We were always playing in the snow like there was no tomorrow: having snow fights, making angels in the snow, going for walks. At one point, we even witnessed white and green Northern lights on a nightly walk. The sky was gigantic in proportion to the flat land and the connection to it was primordial in a way that doesn’t happen when surrounded by tall buildings.  The sense of space was all-encompassing, as if the sky could dictate our moods and lifestyle.

The program was a moment of togetherness, despite our differences of language, culture and hometown. We were always traveling in a mini van, doing various activities such as swimming or thrift-store shopping. Alas, the summer camp for late teens also came with a downside and its share of boredom:  the volunteer work I was doing involved too much time spent on MSN chatting with my friends back home and not enough time being challenged.

I learned to become happy in everyday life, with such small events as coffee breaks with fellow coworkers, but my gut was telling me that I needed to get out. As days went by, I realized that although I loved the group, I didn’t like how the organization was ruling our lives. I increasingly started feeling like an inmate living by strict regulations instead of living a grand adventure. I thus announced my departure and then, two days before Christmas, I was officially kicked out of the program. Luckily, I was taken under the wings of my lovely coworker, Yvonne, who had the same age as my dad’s but was already a grandmother many times over. Yvonne and her retiree husband’s André lived in huge house and they even had prepared a plush guest room for me. After sleeping on a bunk bed for weeks, the queen-sized bed felt like a dream.

I spent Christmas Eve with the couple’s family: their children and grandchildren came along for an evening of fun, gift-giving and card-playing. The whole family made me feel more than welcome, and it was the best gift I could have received that year, miles from home. It was another kind of Canadiana Christmas, not the typical Québécois one I was used to, but still one where food was abundant (there was a chocolate fountain!) and laughs galore.

On Christmas day, I returned to the group’s house to hang out with everyone. It was beyond frozen, and energies at the house were low as we watched movie after movie. I felt a tinge of melancholia as I saw the group together for the last time, while simultaneously feeling ready to face loneliness, challenges, and independence.

On December 26th, around 5 AM, Yvonne dropped me to the bus stop, direction Edmonton, where I had a plane to catch. I was so lucky that, when transferring my ticket booked by the organization to my hometown, an engaging young man decided to give me a first-class seat, with the explanation: ”it’s Christmas, right?”. In the bus, sunrise was starting to work its magic. For the last time, I got completely immersed in the boundless landscapes of the Northern part of the province.

I made it to the airport, and it was the first time that I was boarding a plane on my own. I remember writing in my notebook, sitting in the luxury lounge, feeling so many emotions at once, something that was to become frequent in following trips. The plane ride was short and sweet, under an hour and a half and filled with fresh coffee, crudités, the Vancouver Sun and a warm towel to watch my hands. I felt like I was becoming a grown-up.

I arrived in Vancouver in a overcrowded airport, and got picked up by a friend of my mother’s, who lived there since years. That night, at his place in the suburbs, I went to sleep with a smile on my face, proud of such a huge change in a matter of days. The next morning, I woke up at dawn armed and ready with a considerable pile of CVs. I walked outside, looked at the lush West Coast vegetation, embarked on a bus and went on exploring. It was a brand new day,Vancouver was just about to be discovered and I was learning (somewhat intensely) how to be a grown-up.

Lili Monette is a born-and-raised Montrealer and an artist by DNA and by choice. She holds a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Theatre and Development from Concordia University and can be found around the world entertaining people and gathering stories.

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Fall’s Phantoms (Win Some, Lose Some)

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We go through different phases in life. I believe in astrology, which I’m aware some people might find totally foolish. I’m not one hundred per cent sold on everything astrology tells me, but generally, I believe it explains a lot of the emotional upheavals people are going through and where they are situated in the sentimental calendar. I was reading an interview with Katy Perry in Elle Canada yesterday, and it totally synced with my current state-of-mind.

‘’I don’t know much about planetary phases, but I looked it up. In fact, the Saturn return is described as a bracing cosmic wake-up call, when youth’s charms fall away to reveal adulthood’s sobering realities. I think it’s a very important time, when you kind of let go of childish things and accept the wisdom that comes with age, ‘’ she explains. ‘’That’s where I am now’’’ (p. 123)**.

Word. I felt exactly at the same place right then, as things are moving quickly, dissolving and reforming under a more adult perspective. There has been a lot of change in my life this year: I graduated from university, I was employed at new jobs, moved to a new apartment by myself, and started yet again another school. Right now it’s pretty much autumn and while I do enjoy crispy leaves, it is a period of the year where I always feel reminiscent. The topics of nature, identity, phantoms, costumes and the dead come back every year, like haunting thematic musings. In 2013, I met a heap of new people, rekindled old friendships, and stayed true to my old friends. As I usually keep my friends forever, I got confused and frustrated recently when I lost a friend. She didn’t die, we did not have a cat fight or insulted each other over the phone. It wasn’t highly dramatic, it was a low blow: she simply deleted me from her Facebook friends.

To further explain, I’ll get to the bottom of the story. I met my friend, Diana*, in a South London bar where we were both working at in the summer of 2009. We instantly bonded over the fact that we were both Canadian, around the same age, and had a lot in common. Plus, she seemed like a lot of fun and as it happens in some encounters, we were instant friends. I was twenty-years-old, she was twenty-three. We partied tons and we loved to dance. She had this habit of going AWOL in the middle of the night, leaving me worried and trying to call her to no avail. For example, I remember an instance on a boat party where my then-boss (a terrible man, which I just started to realize then) offered her some cocaine and she subsequently went missing. I tried calling her hundreds of times, to no reply. I stayed up all night and ended going home along two Spanish girls on the top storey of the double decker.

Mine and Diana’s conversations often revolved around boys. She kept me captivated with her stories of lovers since I was in a long-term relationship at the time. We went to St. James’s Park  in the daytime when we initially said goodbye: she was returning home as summer had ran its course and I was staying a little longer in London, but was on my way out as well. She was bummed out by the fact that another friend we were working with didn’t pay much attention about her imminent departure. As we sat on the lush grass, her speech went to sad to sassy as she told me about her next move: running the marathon back in Canada.

When we saw each other a year later in Ottawa, much had changed, mostly my relationship status and her just-graduated one, but our friendship remained intact. We met at a Scottish pub to speed-date: she was between meetings, hence we had to catch up quickly, right under a three-hour slot. We had a beer and the most gigantic nachos platter I have ever eaten (there were still nachos left!). We talked about one of our favourite topics again; boys. My London boyfriend had morphed into a Montreal husband and that exact summer, we broke up as he went back to Britain. She kept asking me questions, as if she was shocked that the breakup happened so suddenly, while simultaneously being very receptive of the whole story and, like any great girlfriend, totally supportive. At the opposite end of the spectrum, she was in a  happy new relationship with a boyfriend who seemed loving and available: they were both going to England for graduate school. She was beaming and I was genuinely happy for her. We splitted ways and I went to see another old friend in G-Town (or so I like to call Gatineau, Québec).

When I came back to visit London last summer, it was exactly three summers after we first met, and we were very excited to see each other again. She was still calling me ‘’babe’’ and letting me know that it was important to hangout before my forthcoming flight . We met on the steps of the fascinating St-Paul’s Cathedral, coincidently right next to the first hostel I’ve stayed in upon my initial meeting with the city at nineteen, fresh off the boat. She hurried to meet me and took me straight to meet her colleagues from a posh law firm outside of a pub (so much for one-on-one girl talk, I thought). Those people were glossy, smart, powerful and posh but somehow flirty and false. As we left, she had to bike home, so I took the Tube to meet her at the South London abode she was sharing with her younger brother. It was hilarious moment: as I was looking for the place, I heard my name from above: she was screaming from the third floor. After I made my way in, I met her brother (very handsome) and we all had a drink (‘’those beers were left by my friends who came to visit’’). The plan was to go to a bar in West London where my friend James, a British boy I met in Montreal and whose family I was staying with, worked  and could get us free drinks at. The brother wasn’t too keen on going out, since he had been looking for work and going on too many mad benders, but a little convincing from both of us went a long way. We bought beer, drank on the way and finally made it to the bar. The bouncer checked my name off the guestlist and we drank solid drinks and danced the night away, getting increasingly inebriated. I told my friend ‘’I like your brother’’ to prevent a future fight and/or to make things clear at that dizzy moment in time. Things started going sour when everyone was drunk: me and the brother kissed as Diana was into an engaging conversation with another fellow. She went AWOL and we looked for her everywhere. Her brother kept calling her, to no avail. We made it to their place on the deck of a night bus around 3:30 AM, as most people were coming home from partying, inebriated, tired and happy. We smoked weed out the window, kissed and went to bed, lovingly.

We woke up the next morning, both very enthusiastic about the prospect of breakfast. We got dressed, ready and out to find a restaurant. As we were walking down the road, we ran into Diana, who was in the most terrible hangover haze ever. She told us that she went to the boy’s place but that nothing happened: she did not sleep with people anymore, she was okay, and that was it. She was sipping on a gigantic bottle of water and carrying two tabloid magazines as hangover transit reading. She redirected the breakfast quest: she argued that we should all go to this pub that did Mexican breakfast, so we walked back and up the road. The place was weird and fun in many ways: it was a huge industrial pub with a little kitchen dedicated to Mexican delicacies, and the food was indeed very satisfying. I had a chicken and avocado sandwich, and while it was flavourful and filling, it was also the absolute worst food to eat elegantly in front of a boy I fancied.  We walked back to the main road, and the brother bought us blue slushes at the Tube station, which was a very refreshing idea from Diana, especially in the sweltering  heat mixed with summer smog. I hugged them goodbye and made my way into the Tube, feeling a little worse for wear.

A few short days after, the day before my takeoff, was full to the brim with emotions, action and adventures. After meeting with my ex-husband in Regent’s Park, whom I hadn’t seen for two years, I hung out in a Notting Hill mansion with friends and then made it to Diana and her brother’s place around 1 A.M, as he managed to convince me to come back to spend my ultimate night with him. I had a feeling that maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do but genuinely, I liked the guy. I also wasn’t aware of any objection from the part of my friend,  so I went ahead. The next morning, as I was about to leave her a note that was mostly saying: ‘’I love you and goodbye’’, I intercepted the brother’s phone (‘’you received a text!’’) to unfortunately glance at it and see ‘’WTF Lili was here? It goes both ways’’. I blushed and felt terrible. Since I suddenly felt like an intruder in their living space, I instantly told him about it. ”Don’t worry”, he said. The conversation switched on the topics of girls: they could sometimes be too catty and manipulative. He replied: ‘’yes, and they say things like ‘’it goes both ways…’’’’.

We parted ways at a South London station. We hugged goodbye for a long time, and, just as I stepped down on the escalators, I started sobbing. I went back to James’s place to last-minute pack (stress! silly girl!) and pick up my luggage. After I said goodbye to James, I took a bus to Heathrow, in which I cried again. I was feeling simultaneously sad, exhausted, happy, blessed and bummed about my four fabulous months in Europe coming to an end and the imminent going-home scheme that was already in motion. London is home now, just as Montreal is home, and it felt like home all over again last summer, as I was strolling down roads, lanes, parks, markets, neighborhoods and spending fun-tastic time with a plethora of fabulous friends. I didn’t feel like quitting my dreamy European life just yet, not for the second time around. Not surprisingly, I cried all over the British Airways flight home again, exhausted from an emotional overload, sad about coming home to the same old life style, and slightly drunk on free white wine. I switched my attention onto happier and sillier mediums, such as episodes of Absolutely Fabulous and American chick flicks, and then my dad’s jokes as he picked me up at the airport. The next day, I wrote to Diana, telling her I was home safe and sound and also that I was sorry for any harm I could have had done. I hoped for an answer.

I really believe in sisterhood, so seeing the ‘’Add Friend’’ icon the other night was a real shocker. The fact that my friend decided to put a virtual blow on our friendship seemed too much for me to fathom. It seemed absurd, as if she would have to ‘’kill’’ someone to eliminate danger, and since her ties with her brother are blood-related and necessary, she decided to ‘’kill’’ me. I was very hurt, my solar plexus started burning like a gunshot in my heart. If there was a sudden silence, I was to go on a quest for answers, so I decided to write her a last note explaining, simply, that I wanted to talk to her about it and most importantly, that our friendship meant a lot to me. The message was seen, to no reply, thanks Facebook for letting me know . There is a limit to what a girl can do, and indeed, there was a limit to her love.

I took my courage out and about and into my heart again. I decided to let the weight of that relationship drop,  with the ghost that goes along with it. Of course, it will always remain an unfortunate mystery, and one that might unveil one day, but I believe the moon phases have now changed. There is enough love inside of myself and into every amazing person  in my life to stop looking for it where it’s evaporated. There is a t-shirt that my friend  was wearing to class this winter that comes to mind as this story ends: it said ‘’hi hater!’’ in the front and ‘’bye hater!’’ in the back. Well, that kind of sums up my state-of-mind now: if you can’t be a sister, then bye, hater!

*Names have been changed to protect the author’s friends’ identities.

** p. 120-121. Hudson, Kathryn. Elle Canada. NO. 148, October 2013. Toronto, Canada.

Photo: Old Ladies, 2013. By Olivier Gariépy. http://ogariepy.tumblr.com/

Lili Monette is a born-and-raised Montrealer and an artist by DNA and by choice. She holds a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Theatre and Development from Concordia University and can be found around the world entertaining people and gathering stories.