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the gypsy years

August 14, 2016

You guys! Something AMAZING has happened. No, we didn’t win the lottery. No, I haven’t landed my dream job yet. No, we haven’t sold our house and found the perfect home! None of those amazing things happened, but the next best thing happened, which is that I found old blog posts, posts that I thought I’d lost forever, posts that were eaten up by a nasty virus in 2007 only to be spit out by the Wayback Machine last week. It felt like stumbling across my very own flux capacitor. Wayback Machine, I love you! I knew I’d written all about my gypsy years on the old blog and having to write about them all over again (with way fewer brain cells and little time to go down memory lane) brought up all the bitterness I’d felt at losing them nearly ten years ago. And then suddenly, there they were. Like magic. Wayback magic.

I was going to simply copy and paste what I’d written at the time but… Oh! I don’t think I can do it, you guys. Anything that starts with “the adventures of Bohemian Girl and Pagan Pal continue” makes me cringe and kind of want to hide under a rock, any rock, any object large enough to shield me from my 32-year-old hippie self (not that there’s anything wrong with hippies, I love hippies, it’s my mediocre writing that I have a problem with).

So I kept the facts, got rid of the fluff (so. much. fluff.) and adapted the text for 2016. Here we go, part three of all the places I’ve ever lived. If you fancy playing catch-up, here’s part one and part two.

Rue Fredmir, Pierrefonds, Québec
Soundtrack: Blackstreet – No DiggityBarenaked Ladies – One Week

It had been almost a year since we’d graduated from uni and we were those students. The fresh-out-of-uni-jobless-twenty-somethings coming to grips with the fact that maybe their chosen degree wasn’t synonymous with a career in their chosen field and therefore facing the inevitable question — Fuuuuuuck! What do I do now? — that comes with that realisation. Graduating from university is a bit like being in a dark room for days on end and then coming out into a bright sunny day, blinded and a bit disoriented. I’d been a student for so long, I felt disillusioned by the real world.

My ex-boss offered me an office  job and K went back to work for Pfizer. We figured we’d make a bit of money then mosey on down to the next destination.We lived at his parent’s place while we figured it out, because we didn’t have a place to live or a pot to piss in. A while turned into a year, which was about nine months too long. Don’t get me wrong, K’s parents were the sweetest, most generous people I know but we mostly lived in his bedroom in the basement and it was so dark and cold down there that I actually had a hard time physically opening my eyes in the morning. The TV was always on, the air conditioning too. The lights were always off. Perhaps I was depressed. Was this the bright future I’d been waiting for?

We had to do something. We couldn’t live in that basement forever. So we started to scour the Ornithological Newsletter for internships, a last-ditch attempt at doing work that was related to our degrees. We figured it would be a stepping stone in the right direction.We found a scientist that was looking for two interns in Jamaica and we applied as a couple.

Cockpit Country, Jamaica
Spring 1998
Soundtrack: Bob Marley (of course) – Three Little Birds

I found this poem the other day, in my archives, on the old silver hard drive that threatens to die every time I boot it up. I wrote this poem in 2002, while living in Nelson, BC.  I was stoned a lot and taking Creative Writing at the Kootenay School of the Arts and I nearly shit myself every Tuesday night when I had to read my assignment out loud, in front of the entire class.

I lived this poem in the spring of 1998, while volunteering as an Avian Field Biologist for the Wildlife Preservation Trust. K and I spent three months roughing it in Cockpit Country, often regarded as Jamaica’s most inhospitable region, where we studied Yellow-Billed and Black-Billed Parrots. It was the first time I experienced being a minority and it is also where I became an expert at spotting, identifying and removing ticks in places one should never have to find and remove ticks, ever. I came out of it humbled and grateful for things we all take for granted, such as running water and electricity and not having to worry about a finding a giant centipede in your backpack.

This poem is not a staggering work of genius, far from it. But it’s the closest thing I have to describe the three months I spent in Jamaica, all those years ago.

Driving Home

I drive inland behind a small taxi
cramped with ten passengers
some hanging out of the windows,
past lobster huts and ice markets
where men lift frozen blocks
with picks like beaks of hawks.

I turn left at the last electrical pole
where shoeless children,
bare feet powdered with silt,
walk miles from school to home;
they wave and chase me down
narrow winding roads.

Past the local bar,
a rainbow painted shack
with a hot tin roof and Red Stripe on tap.
Blue smoke sways over dreadlocks,
over the woman with buttery cheeks
who tells jokes with a spirited belly laugh
while Leroy, red eyes stained with yellow veins,
rolls a fat reefer using a brown paper bag.

I cross the stone bridge over the river
where women scrub laundry
upstream from the neighbour’s rotting cow
until their fingers are raw,
until nothing is left but white.

Parrots fly overhead
whistling apple green wings
past ashen houses and burnt cane fields
where black stakes stand
and men carry sugar sticks on bare backs.

Two donkeys saunter
down the middle of the road.
I honk,
they pick up speed but stay
in the middle of the road.

Near home
boys climb coconut trees,
cattle egrets perch on brown cows,
Miss Rose, the English man’s maid
chases roosters and chickens
in a mustard-coloured year.

Sun burns into earth,
the blue tint of night swallows the jungle,
a thousand bats spill out of the wide mouth
of the cave up the hill
beetles fly with eyes lit like headlights,
the sky looks like a highway
a traffic jam of miniature cars.

Brown lizards flaunt egg yolk throats,
the ruby eyes of pottoo birds float
above fence posts.
Toads surface by the hundred,
fat and flat,
they cover the entire road.

They all lead me home.

Rue Fredmir, Pierrefonds, Québec
Summer 1998
Soundtrack: Jewel – Foolish Games

When we came back from Jamaica, we lived at my in-laws* again, partially to look after K’s mom while she recovered from an operation, but also because: no pot to piss in. We also realised that sitting under a tree in the jungle for eight hours, waiting for a parrot to fly in and out of its nest perhaps wasn’t the career we’d imagined for ourselves. Maybe I didn’t want to be the next Jane Goodall after all (nobody can be the next Jane Goodall, there’s only one Jane Goodall). Fuuuuuuck! What do I do now?

The previous year, when I’d returned from my Hawaiian internship and we’d taken a month-long road trip across Canada, we stopped in Calgary and ate a steak at Earl’s Kitchen. We hadn’t seen each other for months, we were fresh out of uni and high on life and the steak was so damn good and the wine too and we were chatting with the waitress who was telling us we should move to Calgary, the booming land of opportunity, a city built on oil and agriculture and internet technology, where yuppies and cowboys mingle at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. And that’s when a seed was planted. The seed stayed dormant for a year and then started to grow during the summer of 1998. By fall, the branches were overgrown and heavy with fruit, ripe for the picking. K’s brother knew a couple of people just outside of Calgary who offered us a place to stay and that settled it. We packed what we could into K’s car and headed west.

A trailer just outside of the Rockies, Alberta
Autumn 1998
Soundtrack: Jann Arden – Good Mother

We spent the autumn of 1998 in Bob and Brenda’s Jayco trailer on their land at the outskirts of the city. We helped in the greenhouse, planting and harvesting lettuce and basil, while we searched for a job. We spent a lot of time in their Jacuzzi, watching the sun set behind the mountains, smoking cigars (as one does) and drinking fine wines. The wonderful thing about having older friends is that they usually have refined taste and they introduce you to so much amazing shit! It is in that very hot tub that I fell in love with whiskey. It’s a love that will last a lifetime. We made homemade ravioli, went for hikes in Kananaskis, fed their pig, ate a lot of fresh lettuce and basil, walked their dog and met their niece Andrea and her husband Jeff (this serendipitous encounter will ultimately lead us to our next move).

I eventually got a job as a receptionist for an internet company in downtown Calgary, where I dressed the part (read: stupidly uncomfortable shoes) and spent my days repeating “Good morning/afternoon, Net Shepherd, how may I direct your call?” and drank way too many hazelnut-flavoured coffees. I worked with redneck Bills and Dicks who were quick to tell a woman where her place was but I learned to stand my ground in this land of macho, macho men. Kev waited tables and made fancy martinis in an upscale restaurant.

Eventually, winter set in and it got mighty cold in the camper van. It was time to leave our tin house and find a proper apartment.

16th Avenue SW, Calgary, Alberta
Soundtrack: Ani Difranco – Your Next Bold Move

Our apartment in Kensington Village was sparse. We didn’t own a single item of furniture. All we had was what we’d packed in the car. We borrowed one bright yellow couch for the living room, a pullout couch for our bedroom, a kitchen table and two chairs. Besides that, there was nothing. No art on the walls, nada. We may have had a TV that sat on a milk crate. The details are fuzzy. It was a long time ago. Christ, it was in the NINETIES!

We both walked to work every day, just across the Bow River, right in the city centre. We spent many nights at the Kensington Pub down the street, watched indie movies at the Plaza Theatre (I saw Life is Beautiful with a girl from work; it was the first time I’d ever watched a foreign movie), bought a shitload of used CDs, jogged along the river at 6am, did Tai-Bo (remember that?) at Heavens Fitness, ate breakfast at the Galaxie Diner most Saturday mornings and enjoyed about a thousand Kitchen Sink muffins from the Good Earth Cafe at the Eau Claire Market. Calgary, for us, was about making money and spending it. We made money, ate amazing food and made more money to eat more amazing food. We didn’t even bother to buy any furniture for our apartment because we were hardly ever there (might have had something to do with our crazy downstairs neighbour who banged on her ceiling every time I so much as farted in my sleep).

I got all my wisdom teeth pulled that year — I have a picture somewhere of me looking miserable, sat at our kitchen table, doing a puzzle, face puffy like a chipmunk storing nuts for the winter.

By April of 1999, we were done with Calgary (just like that) so we quit our jobs, packed up the car again and escaped. We drove down the west coast of the states, tasted wine in Sonoma, walked amongst giants in the Redwood National Park and felt equally small walking along Rodeo Drive, spent five bucks in Las Vegas, ate spicy burritos in New Mexico, hiked down the Grand Canyon… and headed on to our next destination (via another quick pit stop at the in-laws).

Herkimer Street, Hamilton, Ontario
November 1999 – April 2001
Soundtrack: Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name; Sarah Harmer – Basement Apartment
Paul Oakenfold – Silence (Delirium)

Our next destination, of all places, was Hamilton a.k.a. The Hammer, Ontario. During the summer of ’99, we visited Jeff and Andrea, who had moved from Calgary to Hamilton and we thought “Hey, this looks like a nice place to live.” I must have been desperate for change to think that Hamilton looked like a nice place to live. Don’t get me wrong, it has its charms, but I might have thought otherwise had I driven past this prior to moving there: steel town. Explains why we found black suet on your windowsills most mornings and why I suddenly developed a mild case of asthma (which I’d never had before living there and which has since left). Having said that, I do like to believe that things happen for a reason and although The Hammer wasn’t paradise, it was the Universe’s chosen location for some serendipitous encounters, friends I still cherish to this day. 

Hamilton was the hub of our yuppie years. I was a Coordinator for the Planned Giving department at McMaster University (read: drinking lots of tea and asking elderly alumni if they’d like to leave a little something for McMaster in their wills). K was a fitness consultant at Curzon’s Fitness, making an insane amount of cash doing next to nothing.

We lived on the second floor of a house and the downstairs tenant was none other than our landlady. She was a small, wiry, Greek lady. She must have been in her 70s but had the energy of a 30-year-old. She’d walk on her heels, bang, bang, bang, from one end of her apartment to the other, bang, bang, bang, like a drill sergeant, and her bedroom was right beneath ours so we had the pleasure of hearing her clear her throat every night just as we were getting ready for bed, as if to say “In case you feel like having sex, just know that I’m right under you and I can hear you.” I can assure you nothing kills the mood more than knowing that a 70-year old lady is listening to your every move.

We did enjoy some things in Hamilton. Like going to the Locke Street Bakery on Saturday mornings for fresh bagels and meeting up with Jeff and Andrea on Thursday nights to share a couple of pitchers and way too many spicy 10-cent chicken wings at the Gown & Gavel Pub.

I joined a triathlon group. I trained like a mofo, running, swimming, spinning, several times a week with the ultimate goal of participating in the Around the Bay 30km Road Race, which I completed in March of 2001.

On the weekends, after training, we’d smoke weed in the attic so that our landlady wouldn’t catch a whiff and evict us. I went to my first rave while living in Hamilton. My life was a dichotomy.

We were making more money than we’d ever made (and ever would for the next decade) but we felt empty. I was 25 years old, attending conferences, preparing financial illustrations, giving seminars about bequests and working 60 hour weeks. I felt like Edward Norton in Fight Club. You know the scene where he’s lying on his couch floating in a world of IKEA furniture? That was us. Our IKEA nesting instinct had taken over and we felt psychologically castrated by our jobs.

You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple of years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.

I was Jack’s raging bile duct and I needed to get the hell out. So in the spring of 2001, we did what we do best. We packed all of our IKEA possessions, stored them and hit the road. We had loose plans. We thought we’d end up in Vancouver where there was a potential job waiting for me, but on the day of my 26th birthday, we crossed a bright orange bridge and entered a town called Nelson, nestled in the mountains. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you that it had just finished raining and the end of a bright rainbow pointed right there, in the lake under the bridge and I, naturally, saw it as a sign. We stopped in Nelson and didn’t go any further.

Within a couple of months I went from wearing high-heeled shoes and corporate suits to living a simple back-to-the-land barefooted hippie life, volunteering on an organic farm and adopting a dog named Dylan. Next up: the Nelson years.

*Note: The term “in-law” is used loosely in Québec, whether you’ve been dating a guy for six months or you’re married to him, his parents pretty much become your in-laws the moment you meet them.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. Alison permalink
    August 16, 2016 2:47 am

    I am so thrilled that you found all your old blogs. I remember how sad your were when they were lost. Excellent news! 🙂

  2. August 16, 2016 1:08 pm

    Finding what was lost is like winning the lottery! And, to think it was just what you needed. I think you were (and ARE) so brave to be letting your whims lead you through life. So many cool experiences! I just started working when I graduated, and got married. Same old, same old… I like living through YOU in these posts!

  3. August 18, 2016 12:09 pm

    I’m absolutely loving this series. Your writing is so evocative, I feel like I’ve been transported back to the 1990s! And wow, Jann Arden, haven’t listened to her for yonks. *sings* I thought that you might haaaaaave…..some advice to give….on how to be….insensitiiiiiive! xxx

  4. Karin permalink
    August 18, 2016 8:44 pm

    Enjoying this so much! I wish I’d have done an eighth of the things you’ve done. I did more like Megsie. Not that there’s anything wrong with Megsie or what she did 🙂 Point is, well, the point is all those experiences have helped make you the awesome person you appear to be. And I bet you are really brave and strong! Also, I listened to some of the music, too, which is a cool element to this. No Diggity!!! Yah!

  5. Anonymous permalink
    August 19, 2016 12:34 am

    Oh my God J, I was absolutely entertained by the story of your nomadic journey. So funny. I can’t wait for the rest. Ginormous hug. Amy AKA your cous’

  6. August 24, 2016 9:39 pm

    Loved, loved love this. Your poem – so beautiful!!! You’ve had such a fun, colourful and interesting life and you write about it so bloody well. I was born and lived in Calgary until the age of five and my dad still lives there, so was fun to see it emerge as part of you story xx

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