Monday, December 19, 2016

2016 Olson Christmas Letter

Merry Christmas everybody. 

So as you have probably heard we've had a tough year. I am currently typing this on a borrowed computer that I got from one of the host families here in Syria. It was difficult to find a keyboard with English keys as all of them here are in Arabic, but the incredibly resourceful Syrians were able to get one somewhere. This is has also been the reason for the lack of our communication in recent months.

I know a lot has already been said about the unimaginable turn of events in Canada, and there will be much more to come as the world tries to understand what happened and we Canadians cope with our uncertain future.  The most disturbing aspect of this is how utterly unprepared we were as a country for this type of disaster. Were we simply naïve? Too trusting? Stupid? In any case, looking back now it seems that all the United States ever really saw us as was a cheap and handy source of energy. All those decades of friendship, trade and cooperation really meant nothing when it came down to survival.

As it stands, the government of Canada has fallen and the US has appointed an interim leader. Our army, navy and air force have been decimated and the US military has taken over what was left of them. So many people have died. So many people have been injured and disfigured beyond recognition. So many people we knew, and loved. I think we tried our best to put up a resistance, but it was futile in the face of overwhelming odds. All the jokes we used to make about Americans being gun crazy and keeping inventories of assault weapons and ammunition in their houses don't seem too funny now at all. But like I said, I'm sure you already know all of this, and probably more than I do about the current situation.

The good news is that the four of are alive, which is more than can be said for many others who were caught in the first offensive. Unbelievably our nice little town of Paris was right in the path of the army and it was almost completely destroyed. We had already fled our house before the bombs hit, and there is nothing left there now but a smoking hole in the ground. At least I don't have to cut the grass anymore, ha ha. We lost everything besides what we could carry in our backpacks. During the escape two of us were hurt. I was very close to an explosion from a bomb and a piece of shrapnel hit one of my eyes and ruined it. Magnus got shot in his leg and Ana and Stella were extremely close to being killed, but fortunately they were able to hide beneath some wreckage when the soldiers were spraying bullets into a crowd so they made it out ok. Both Magnus' and my injuries were treated so we are pretty much fine now and will both have great war stories to tell our kids and grandkids. Many of our friends and family were not so lucky, and the four of us have literally cried ourselves to sleep many nights thinking of those we have lost, rest their souls. Ana and I are doing our best to be strong for the kids, but to be honest I think they are the ones who have helped us through. Our kids are so incredibly resourceful and emotionally tough that I know in the end they will be fine.

To make a long story short, after we fled our town on foot we met up with Ana's folks and her brother, wife and newborn at a makeshift camp in Brantford (the mobile phone network was still working back then so we could communicate by phone and text, but that didn't last for long). For a while they had converted the Civic Centre into a meeting point for all the people who had lost their homes in the bombing, and that's where Magnus and I were treated as they had a bunch of medical workers there. We were told that the US military was going to take over the building so we had to get out. Now what we Canadians always thought of as a geographical gift of having only one friendly country as a neighbour turned out to be a total disaster as there was no place to escape to when that neighbour turned out to be not so friendly – the only options were three big oceans on all remaining sides. We thought of going to our sailboat on Lake Erie but realized the army would certainly have taken over the Welland Canal, blocking our access to the ocean. The other option was taking the Erie Canal but since that runs straight through the US it didn't seem likely we'd be able to get far.

We bought space on a private bus headed for the east coast where the army was allowing people to leave the country. The UN and a bunch of ally countries had set up a base in Halifax where they were airlifting people out. Luckily when things were looking bad at the start I had taken a large amount of cash out of the bank, and literally the day after I did this the entire banking system was frozen and people weren't able to access any of their money. This is what enabled all of us to get to Halifax, and it wasn't cheap, but at least we made it there. Now don't ask me how this happened, because I really don't understand it myself, but we were put on a series of airplanes that eventually ended up in Syria, of all places. I would have thought we would end up in the UK, France or some other European country but the whole world order and politics are so screwed up at the moment, that's just how it happened, and we were just happy to be getting out, no matter where we ended up. Sadly, we were not all able to go together and the rest of Ana's family was sent to Turkey. They are actually only about 500 kilometres away from us, but we aren't allowed to travel at the moment, so we haven't seen them but we know they are safe and doing okay and we hope to reunite with them sometime soon. Most of my family is still in Saskatchewan, and the last time we were in contact they were fine, but scared as the US army had taken over there too, but there had been much less violence than in the east of the country. My brother from Ottawa and his family are currently in Halifax and trying to get out on one of the planes, hopefully that happens very soon.

So what now? Until the current situation changes, we are living in Syria. It is hard to watch and read the news of what's going on back home, as there is so much death and suffering. We also don’t know what to believe, because the US networks are covering most of it and they obviously cannot be trusted. For now, we still have a fair bit of cash left, so should be fine for the foreseeable future, but we are also getting help from many Syrian families in the neighbourhood in which we are living. Most of the Syrians we have met have been supportive and helpful, while others are suspicious and wary of this foreign family plopped down in their midst. I don't know how long we will be here so we have begun Arabic lessons to try and make sense of this language that is so completely foreign to us. I am hoping that at some point we will be able to access our accounts back home, and if we can then we will probably try to get to an English speaking country, but until then we are just happy that we are all safe, we have beds to sleep in, and are being well taken care of by our Syrian hosts.

Before last year, we lived like everybody else in Canada did, with our luxurious lifestyle and everyday issues that were so minor that it's quite laughable now. Yes, we always tried to take time to stop and appreciate what we had, and we tried to teach the kids not to take things for granted. But now, we are really learning what it means to be appreciative. And when it comes down to it, we have our lives and we have each other, and there isn't anything else that matters. I do not know what our future holds, but I do know that this ordeal will make us stronger, wiser, and better people in the end. In the meantime, we will continue to grieve for our dead and pray for the living.

To our friends, family and countrymen still in Canada and those who are scattered around the world – be strong, be smart, and never give up hope. We will be together again.


Merry Christmas to you all! Count your blessings and here is to a 2017 full of love, peace and compassion.

Kris, Ana, Magnus and Stella Olson

Friday, November 25, 2016

Our Fifteenth Anniversary in Toronto

Anyone who reads these blogs from time to time probably knows that we take our kids everywhere. If I think back to before Ana and I had children I am pretty sure we expected to do what most others do and take short "sanity breaks" from time to time away from the kids, banking on somebody to take care of them so that we could have some time on our own. But once we had kids, we didn’t really do that, and I don't remember us ever having a discussion and making a conscious decision on this topic. On the rare occasion that we found ourselves together without the kids we really missed them, especially as the kids got older, and it didn't seem right that they were missing out as members of the family. It also worked out easier for us not having to find and pay for babysitters!

Now I do realize that we are really in the minority here, and I completely understand the reasons for doing trips without the kids – it's cheaper, it's easier, it is definitely more relaxing, but also it allows the kids to develop independence. These are all good reasons. But we've simply never been comfortable with it. And as a result our kids might be a little less independent than others who have spent more time away from their parents, but on balance we've always felt the benefits greatly outweigh this.

So as our fifteenth anniversary approached we decided to take a short trip away without the kids. We have been leaving them on their own more in the past year since they are now old enough to be at home by themselves, so both parties are getting a little more used to spending time apart. We asked the kids what they thought about this and Stella was pretty sure we should be celebrating our anniversary as a team, but I suspect Magnus may have spoken to her later and convinced her that we should be allowed out on our own.

So on Friday after work I drove over to Glenhyrst to pick up Ana. As she was still finishing up a few things I had a chat with her colleague Yvonne.

"So what are you guys going to do all weekend?" she asked.

"Well, we're going to a Toronto FC soccer game on Saturday, besides that we have no plans so will just wander around and see what happens. Although on the way over I realized I forgot to grab a jacket so I might have to pick one up," I replied.

"Oh, so you'll be doing some shopping?"

"Shopping?? Hell no, we're way too cheap to spend money on frivolous clothing. Ana will probably just steal a jacket from some homeless guy in Toronto that looks about my size. I'll shake off the dirt and grime and it should be fine."

With that we took off, made a quick stop to say hi to the kids and Ana's folks, and were soon on the 403 highway heading for Toronto. After a deadly serious 30 second discussion about the wardrobe situation, we took the next Brantford exit and went straight to Value Village to pop some tags and get properly geared up for the weekend. Now normally I refuse to go into any retail store – especially clothing stores – but in this case I considered it an excellent surprise start to our weekend adventure so I marched in there, went right to the men's section and started trying on jackets, as I sang that awesome Macklemore song out loud, over and over again (I wear your granddad's clothes, I look incredible). I have never enjoyed a Value Village visit as much as I did in that moment. But my joy was short lived as Ana too decided she might like a weekend jacket so we spent the next half an hour going through each and ever ladies coat they had, in an agonizing search for a perfect one. She did eventually find one she liked but it was missing a belt so she sent me gathering all the belts I could find (on the sly). I found it was easier to actually crawl on my hands and knees down the isle because then I could see which jackets had belts hanging off them. I removed each one, walked it over to Ana, presented it to her, got the nay, and then returned it. After a dozen or so I finally found one that was a suitable match, so I dusted off my knees, we paid for our jackets and were on our way.

The drive into Toronto was reasonably non-congested, but since we weren't in a rush the traffic we did hit was less irritating then normal. We found our hotel – a Holiday Inn near the intersection of Carlton and Yonge Streets – and squeezed the car into the underground parking, checked-in and then continued up to our room, which was small but very cozy. I had packed a cooler of drinks so we enjoyed a round of happy hour bevvies while we discussed our plan for the evening. We went with our default plan that comes into effect anytime we aren't sure what do to – start walking and keep on walking until we find something interesting to do.

This moment was the one I had been most looking forward to. Our visits to Toronto are typically day trips, characterized by an endless search for parking spots, manoeuvring our van through narrow streets congested with vehicles, bikes, streetcars and pedestrians, watching the clock to make sure we leave in time to beat the highway traffic, and a generally blistering, frantic pace. What we never get to do is have the time for leisurely exploring, so that is what we did. We slowly walked the streets, checking out some shops, listening to the plethora of languages we heard being spoken by the people we passed who originated from a hundred different countries, and smelling all the big city smells. Some were nice - frying food, perfume and cologne, leather, e-cig vapour, and others not so nice like car exhaust, the ever lurking smell of sewage and the updraft of oil, grease and mechanical smells as we walked over the giant grates beneath which the ferocious, speeding subway trains passed. We saw many young people, primed, beautiful, and looking for a party. We saw middle aged couples and groups of couples enjoying meals and drinks on the outdoor patios. We passed homeless people, and their faithful dogs, sitting together in small nooks between buildings, covered with blankets, sticking to themselves. We passed glamorous couples, looking the part. We noticed tourists, with their maps, and thick glasses, looking around mesmerized, perhaps lost. The sounds of the city were excellent - the screeching of streetcar steel wheels on steel tracks, jazz music, rock music, people laughing, the howling sirens of emergency vehicles, the idling of cars stopped at traffic lights, and the muffled conversations of people inside those cars, the honking horns of impatient taxi drivers, girlie show hawkers enticing young men to come in and enjoy the views, patio waiters taking orders, and their customers telling loud stories to their friends. Everywhere we looked lights punished the darkness. Store lights, billboard lights, headlights, streetlights, traffic lights, and the ever present glow from the ever present smart phones.

We passed many restaurants that appealed to us, but decided on a sushi place, and at 11 we were their last customers for the evening. The staff was all Japanese and spoke little English. I ordered a Sapporo and Ana, a lemon water. Our plate of sushi arrived and it looked and tasted magnificent. The waiters and cooks gathered at a table beside us, to enjoy their own meal at the end of an undoubtedly long shift. They devoured a giant pot of noodles, flavoured with several bowls of different coloured sauces, and ate greedily, spoke little, and appeared very tired. Ana and I talked about things, I can't remember what. But I do know that even after fifteen years of being around each other nearly all the time, we never run out of topics to discuss. There are always ideas to consider, events to be discussed, viewpoints to be presented, decisions to be thrashed out, memories to be celebrated, and plans to deliberate. We talk a lot about our kids, and we love talking about our future, and what it may hold.

After paying the exceptionally modest bill for the fine meal, we turned ourselves back towards the hotel and walked until we arrived there. We were tempted to stop for a nightcap along the way, but decided against it, as a sense of tiredness was creeping in after a long week and a long walk, so we returned to our room and enjoyed a lovely night's sleep in an enormous hotel bed.

Saturday arrived and I switched on the television to see what we've been missing in the cable world. Turn out…not much. I flipped through 50 channels of garbage, and then flipped through them once or twice more hoping something good would appear but it did not. So I finally settled on MuchMusic and watched lame pop videos while Ana went through her morning routine of beautification.

Once we were ready for the day, we left the hotel, looked across the street and saw two breakfast joints – a Cora's and a Golden Griddle. I have been to Cora's on a few occasions and really didn't care for it too much as the amply supplied fruit tends to overwhelm the meaty and doughy aspects of the breakfast, so we decided on the Golden Griddle and got exactly what we were expecting. We were seated beside the window so could watch the city coming to life outside. A group of girls walked by and one of them had somehow gotten part of her shorts tucked into her shirt and half of her ass was exposed to the day. Perhaps party goers from last night?

Directly beside our hotel was the old Maple Leaf gardens hockey stadium that had been retired many years earlier. The rink was still there but is now the Ryerson University's athletic centre while the other half of the building had been converted to a flagship Loblaws grocery store. We went for a walk through Loblaws and it was an impressive store indeed, and huge. We noted that they had a breakfast counter there where you could get breakfast sandwiches and fresh coffee so we marked that as a possible option for the next morning.

Ana's retail radar had been pinging off something big to the west of us and sure enough we found a massive Winners store there. Ana dove into the deals while I had a cursory look for pants, but I followed my usual routine of giving up if I don't find something in the first 90 seconds of looking and then went outside to watch the city. The city was now fully woken up and there were many people on the streets and cars on the road. A group of cyclists pedalled by and they were all wearing helmets with skewers protruding out of the top and sides, and upon each of these skewers was impaled a single marshmallow. I figured this was probably a big city biker gang, maybe called Satan's Shmallows?

We walked up Yonge Street and passed a Nerdery that sold Magic the Gathering cards -  Magnus's latest obsession. If you have never heard of a Nerdery, here's how it works. Remember when you used to play Dungeons and Dragons in your mom's basement back when you were 11 years old? And how you had a massive collection of Star Wars cards that you spent every penny on and fawned over for hours? And how you used to collect figurines and paint them and set them up and pretend they were battling? And how you used to collect superhero comic books and guard them with your life? Well, it turns out you are not required to ever grow out of that. It's called Nerd Culture and they are taking over the world. These little Nerdery shops exist everywhere and are a gathering place for proud, self-proclaimed Nerds who revel in the land of the imaginary. We were the first customers of the morning and the dude who unlocked the front door and let us in was happy to show us the latest and greatest in his inventory of Magic the Gathering card sets. We picked up a set for him, and were tempted to buy an 18 inch tall Wonder Woman action figure for Anna's colleague Yvonne, but when I saw the price tag of over $200 I axed that deal.

We continued up Yonge Street all the way to the main branch of the Toronto public library. Libraries have always fascinated me and since I have never been to a library in Toronto I just had to see it. We stepped through the doors and into a magnificent, multi levelled chamber complete with a glass elevator, book store, fish pond, hundreds of public computer terminals and who knows how many thousands of sweet, juicy books, journals, newspapers and magazines. We noticed there was a free cartography exhibit featured in the gallery so we began there and found an incredible collection of old maps (many of which were of Iceland) that were handsomely displayed and painstakingly annotated.

From here we took the elevator up to the level which housed the library's awesome collection of vinyl records. With the help of the super friendly staff I checked out an old Miles Davis album and we sat down at a listening station, plugged in our headphones, and listened to some fine jazz music. From here we wandered the floor for a while, enjoying the view offered by the wide open central galleria to the levels below. The entire building was so artfully designed, angular, inviting and functional. Another interesting feature was the glassed-in, sound proofed study bubbles, which were futuristic capsules dotted throughout the library, and available by reservation. I was tempted to tap on the glass to see if I could get the attention of the student creatures inside, but I remembered getting into trouble for doing that one time in a pet store, so I restrained myself.

From here we continued to Yorkville, one of the more expensive areas of the city and home to a number of ritzy art galleries. One of these is called Hefels and is also an art auction house and Ana had to speak to somebody there about slogging off some Glenhyrst art they didn't want anymore. As I am unable to participate in art speak without breaking into rude laughter, I excused myself from the conversation and browsed the gallery while Ana did her negotiations with the art ladies. After I had enjoyed all the paintings I slipped outside to admire the Joe Fafard sculpture just in front of the building. It features Emily Carr slouching in front of a dog who is sitting under the legs of a big horse being ridden by a monkey that is not paying attention. The surfaces are all sloppy and creamy and the whole presentation is rather strange, but I loved it. I was to learn many weeks later from my father that Joe Fafard is actually a Saskatchewan boy and specializes in sculpting giant horses, cows, pigs and bison. Just as I was about to hop up on the horse to sit with the monkey, Ana came out so I played it real cool and pretended like I was handling the boredom well.

We continue our walk through Yorkville, and then past the University of Toronto and then found another gallery with a lot of old religious art and stopped in to check it out. The owner was there and tried his best to sell us a hideous ancient painting for fifteen grand but he must have mistaken us for something other than thrifty window shoppers.

We decided to take the subway to Bloor West village, which was new for me as I'd never taken the Toronto subway before. It wasn't as bad as I was expecting as I'm used to hearing the traffic reports on CBC Toronto every morning, and every morning seems to be a disaster on the subway, but I guess it helped that we were traveling on the weekend. I was just happy that we were not in a car fighting the traffic and struggling to find parking. Being on a subway always reminds me of the years I lived in London, England and the many, many hours I spent on public transport there, and really never feeling the need for a car.

We got off at the Jane station and immediately found a Thai restaurant for lunch. As it was already close to 3pm we were the only lunch patrons and were extremely well taken care of by the attentive staff. I ordered up a Singha beer and Ana went for an ice water and we made a toast to a lovely day in such a remarkable city. After a full load of green curry, pad thai and spring rolls we continued on our walk and explored the many shops along Bloor. I didn't actually explore any shops, instead I like to stand just outside the shop and watch the people and cars go by while Ana hunts for deals and squares off with the merchants. She picked up a fancy water bottle for Stella that had this misting feature where you could spray your face – apparently a hot item with the grade five crowd these days. The afternoon had heated up nicely so we found a gritty little pub on the sunny side of the street just in front of a giant intersection. I ordered up a big pint of cheap Moosehead and inhaled that while we inhaled the car exhaust from the hundreds of vehicles passing by. It made me think about how nice it will be when we are all driving electric, emission-free vehicles and can sit and enjoy a beer in a big city without smelling and tasting the spewn remnants of burnt diesel and gasoline. At times like this, I wonder why we get all wound up about battling climate change, trying to convince people it's the morally right thing to do. Instead, why not just stop burning filthy carbon products because it's bloody disgusting and makes a mess out of the places we live?

We jumped back on the subway and returned to Dufferin where we got into the queue to catch a bus to BMO field for the soccer game. As we waited I learned a nifty trick from a homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk right in the midst of the bus queue. He had a plastic donation cup and he slid it out right in the path of the pedestrians who already had limited space to pass by all the people waiting for the bus. Naturally, every third person accidentally kicked over the cup, scattering the meagre collection of coins across the sidewalk. About half of them would stop and help him collect the coins and then drop some of their own money into the cup, feeling guilty. The other half would scoff at the huckster, knowing damn well what he was up to, and they would continue walking. Too bad the homeless dude couldn't apply his initiative and creativity to an actual job, I think he would do well.

A bus finally arrived and we were drawn into a crush of people jamming into it. Once it was packed to capacity the driver lurched forward and we were on our way. To put it simply, the bus was hot, smelly, and extremely slow due to all the construction delays. At one point, when we were a mile or two from the stadium, and had been at a standstill for ten minutes, a guy on the bus lost it and yelled at the driver to open the door so he could get out and walk. Turns out, it was the best idea of the day and practically every person on the bus followed buddy's lead and hit the pavement to march the remaining distance. As we were halfway there the ear piercing roar of a fighter jet pierced through the sky, but we couldn't see where it was coming from. One of the other walkers yelled, "We're under attack!" and pretended to hit the deck. We would find out later that the day's game was dedicated to the veterans, and the CF-18 fighter jets were there to salute our war heroes.

There is really nothing that compares to the energy of a professional sports game. Toronto FC is a relatively new team to the city, and one that has been having an excellent season and is shooting for the championship. We found our seats, which were high up mid field and offered an excellent view over the entire pitch. Toronto was playing Philadelphia and the game was good, but what was even better was watching the insane supporters behind Philadelphia's goal. Every so often somebody there would ignite a smoke bomb that would first blind the choke the goal keeper with a blanket of thick red smoke, and then spread out and gas the entire stadium. It was quite hilarious.

In the end TFC managed a 2 – 2 tie which was…better than a loss. Ana really loves soccer and she went wild every time FC scored. The game was great fun, especially towards the end when the crazy FC end zone supporters pulled out a giant drum and let the crowd in an "Icelandic Viking Clap", made famous by those crazy Icelanders and their magnificent team during this year's Euro cup. When the game was over, the crowd spilled out into the parking lot and started moving en masse through the exhibition grounds. We walked and walked for a very long time and Ana and I talked and enjoyed being outside and not stuck in a giant traffic jam. As night fell we reached King Street and jumped on a streetcar all the way up to John Street. The streetcars in Toronto are a real pain in the ass when you are a driver - as you often get stuck behind them - but as a passenger they are great fun and almost take you back in time as there don't seem to be a lot of electric streetcar systems still in use in cities. Maybe that's because the last time Toronto did any transportation infrastructure upgrades was back in the roaring 20's.

We walked up John, leisurely checking out the many restaurants and their menus and eventually settled on one which didn't even have a sign, but the patio was loaded with people – always a good indication, unless it's a Hard Rock Café, Hooters or Rain Forest Café. The server crammed us into a small table and served us up some beers from their expansive drink menu. There was a big table of Quebeccers beside us who were loud and funny and effortlessly switched back and forth between English and French all night. Ana and I ordered fancy salads and enjoyed our meal as we talked, watched the many patrons coming and going and also the tourists and locals passing by on the sidewalk. It was a beautifully warm September evening and such a great time to be able to enjoy the city at a leisurely pace, on our own terms, in our own way. I felt very much in love with my wife at that particular moment.

We finished up our meal and, though it was getting on in the night, we weren't ready to call it yet so we walked over to the Cineplex cinema and bought tickets to Star Trek! This particular cinema actually served beer so I dished out twelve bucks for a Stella tall can and enjoyed that while Ana munched her popcorn and diet Coke. The movie was mediocre at best, leading me to believe it's time to put this particular Star Trek reincarnation to rest. But I did mange to stay awake…I think.

By the end of the movie, we were finally done for the day so we jumped on a bus which took us back to the hotel. We considered walking but since Ana's phone was reporting that we had already walked over 20 kilometres during the day, we decided that more exercise was not required.

The next day arrived and after packing up and checking out of the hotel we returned to the Loblaws for coffee and breakfast sandwiches and were not disappointed. Here we discussed our plan for the day. I originally wanted to visit the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) or maybe the new Aga Khan Museum but Ana instead talked me into going bra shopping with her. That sounded like a lot of fun. But it really wasn't because she didn't involve me at all. I thought maybe I could help with measurement, cup analysis, closeness of fit, lift judging, handling and ease of removal, but she didn't even let me stay in the bra department after she saw me pick one up and sniff it. So I just waited by the front door and tried to look cool.

By this time we were missing our kiddies so decided to head for home, but we had one last stop to make. We pulled up to Nosso Talho, which in Portuguese I assume means "cheap pork". This is the ultimate Portuguese supermarket and they sell all that weird food I have come to love so much – octopus, pork feet, pork ears, blood sausage, salted cod, little frozen mackerel, and smelly cheeses of all cuts, colours and eye-watering odours. We picked up a few of these goodies, but our main purchase was four huge pork legs with which we would make the winter supply of chorizo sausages with Ana's folks. I had brought along our Yeti cooler but could only fit a single pork leg in there so we laid the rest out in the trunk of the car on plastic bags and I felt like quite the serial killer as I closed the trunk on all that raw flesh and sped away.

Our drive home was fast and smooth and soon we were back in Brantford at John and Maria's house delivering Magic cards, water bottles, pig legs and cod bags and all were overjoyed with their gifts. Although we were only gone for two nights it seemed much longer and we were very happy to see the kids and tell them all about our adventures.

And thus ends the weekend of our 15th wedding anniversary.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Saskatchewan Experience

During our recent week long trip back to Saskatchewan I simply did not make time for writing. One reason is because I usually only blog when on vacation, and going home to visit doesn’t feel like a regular vacation. A second reason is that there was simply no alone time during this trip as we were constantly surrounded by family and friends, which is a very good thing, but makes it difficult to devote any time or energy to the literary arts. Most of my time was focused on the culinary arts (shucking and then eating delicious fresh corn) or the beverage arts (drinking Saskatchewan beer) or the hunter/gatherer arts (shooting guns, catching fish, raiding gardens).

It had been five years since our last visit to Saskatchewan so Stella really didn't have any memories of it and Magnus had only a few. I was quite excited for the kids to spend some time there to get in touch with their "Saskatchewan roots" and believe me, Saskatchewan is a very different place than where we live in southern Ontario. In fact, it's been so long since we've been there that I too had forgotten much. When we lived in Calgary over ten years ago we used to visit Saskatchewan frequently, so it did feel like our second home, especially since we owned a cottage there. But at that time the kids were infants, and the trips back home were usually characterized by excruciatingly long and boring car trips, episodes of vomiting (the kids, not me.), sleepless nights taking care of babies, busy and chaotic days as we worked tirelessly fixing our cabin, and only rare moments when we could relax, visit and take it easy.

Well, this time all we did during the entire trip was relax, explore, visit and basically just goof around, which made it a whole different experience. We spent the first few days at my Mom's place in Clavet, Saskatchewan which is located just ten miles from Saskatoon. The last time we visited my mom and Rick they were at the peak of their tomato and herb farming career – they had five giant greenhouses, worked 15 hours per day and grew thousands and thousands of pounds of vegetables, selling them to local restaurants and at farmers markets for highly inflated hipster-friendly prices. At some point they must have realized they were working themselves into the ground (not to mention getting tired of tomato and cucumber sandwiches), so they sold the business and equipment, and are now back to an easier pace of life.

When we arrived at Mom's (it happened to be Magnus's birthday) we were surprised to find my aunt Tammy and her kids there, as well my aunt and uncle from Regina, my aunt and uncle from Saskatoon, and my grandma. So we had a great birthday party and did some long overdue visiting. My brother Curtis and his kids were also there, and would end up spending almost the entire week with us, so the cousins kept very, very busy.

Saskatoon has changed a lot since I lived there. For one thing, it has grown like mad. There are new subdivisions all over the place, new office buildings, traffic everywhere and so many visible minorities. When I was in high school, there was a single black family and a small group of Salvadorians that kicked everybody's ass at soccer. That was about as exotic as things got – everybody else in the school basically looked and acted like regular Saskatchewan urban cowboys. Now, arriving at the Saskatoon airport was hardly any different than arriving in Toronto – a colourful and vibrant collection of saris, hijabs, turbans, shalwar kameez and people of all races. It was quite honestly mind-blowing for Ana and I to see such diversity in my old hometown. It seems Saskatchewan has finally been discovered.

The highlight of our time in Saskatoon for me was the day we went to the beach. "Beach?" you may ask. Yes, there's a beach; actually, several of them. We packed up Mom's giant motorhome early one morning (this thing is longer than our boat, maybe longer than our house) and she drove us battle tank style down fifteen miles of exceedingly dusty gravel roads with soft shoulders and space for 1.5 vehicles at the widest. We arrived at the Fred Heal canoe launch and squeezed our magnificent vessel tight into the shrubberies on the outside ring of the roundabout that we barely fit around. We unpacked all of our gear (and Rick and my mom have more gear than anybody I know) and carried it down a short pathway through the trees and onto the expansive, clean, marvellous beach on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. We were simply amazed to find such a lovely beach so close to the city, and before long the people started streaming in and claiming their own plots of beachside real estate.

We had a terrific day.  Curt brought his paddleboard and we all took turns going for rides, even all the kids, who seemed to have no trouble at all keeping their balance and paddling up and down the river. Of course we had soccer balls and Frisbees for the land entertainment, and a nice Bose speaker with fine tunes pumping all day. The water was a little chilly (maybe just for us as we're used to balmy 29 degree water in Lake Erie) but very clean and the current was not too strong. At midday a colourful platoon of paddleboarders appeared upstream and arrived en masse to the beach – there was probably close to a hundred people in the group. We learned they had left Lake Diefenbaker two days previous to this and were paddling all the way to Saskatoon, something like a 120 kilometre run. Funny how we never though of doing something fun and adventurous like that when I was in high school. Back then, our standard idea of adventure was walking drunk down the train bridge in the middle of the night, clutching bottles of rye and hoping to run into a gang of horny females with shockingly low standards…which never happened. Not even once.

owards the end of the day we went back up to the parking area to survey the possibilities of getting our massive RV out of there, and the possibility was zero as there were vehicles jammed in everywhere, on both sides of the road, and in places they shouldn't have been. So we returned to the beach for a couple of hours longer, hoping it would clear out. Eventually we were left with what looked like a possible path out, but it would rely on some clever manoeuvring of our land based airplane carrier. I had offered to be the designated driver (it's always good to try new things) so I sized up the available space between the idiot who had parked his car right on the roadway and the car across from him and there seemed to be sufficient room. I was feeling pretty confident, maybe a little overconfident. We all piled into the motorhome, I fired her up, and with spotters looking out the windows on both sides, we slowly creeped forward. It was all going great until I started turning the beast and the back end, which hung about 15 feet past the rear tires swung over and creamed the front corner and bumper of the poorly parked patron. Shit!!! After surveying the damage to the car, and finding nothing but a small scratch on our behemoth, we managed to squeeze the beast through the rest of the cars on the narrow gravel road and got her parked safely near the entrance, and then walked back and left a note on the smashed car with our information. The note read: "Hey dummy, you shouldn't park your car in the middle of the road in front of a giant motorhome. Signed, Count Chocula, 555-1212".

One evening we went to my aunt Maxine and uncle Ron's place and met my cousin Jason there. Now Jason and I were attached at the hip for most of our childhood and even into early adulthood too, but these days we don't get to see each other too often. He and his wife Nicole have twin daughters who are the cutest and goofiest little girls you can imagine. While we visited with the adults, Magnus and Stella played with the girls and when it was time to leave those little girls followed them right out the building and wanted to go home with them! Jason had to peel them off the kids and physically restrain them while we made our getaway.

On the Wednesday we packed up and drove out to Fishing Lake where my Dad and step mom Loretta live. It was Stella's birthday that day so they had arranged a huge birthday lunch for her, complete with balloons and presents so she was very happy. Fishing Lake is very close to Foam Lake, 250 kilometres south-east of Saskatoon, and is where both of my parents grew up. As kids we spent every summer at the family cottage with our cousins and friends and the days were filled with golfing, swimming, fishing, wandering from cabin to cabin looking for sugary treats, and spending an awful lot of time on the bunk beds reading Archie comics. Those truly were some of the best days of my childhood. When Ana and I lived in Calgary we decided to buy our own place at Fishing Lake so we purchased a lot and also a house about 150 kilometres away which we had moved onto the lot. This resulted in a massive amount of work, such as building a foundation, getting permits, rewiring the house, repairing all the plaster walls that cracked during the move, repainting, fixing windows, landscaping and furnishing the entire place. So the time we spent out at the lake during those years were the opposite of carefree. Our typical trip to the lake was making the 9 hour drive from Calgary with an SUV and Uhaul trailer jammed full of crap and baby Magnus barfing in the back seat, and then once we arrived we would work 12 hours a day fixing the cabin. Just as we got the cabin into reasonably liveable condition we decided to move to Ontario, so then used it as a rental for several years. So these years of lake visits bring back many memories, but none of carefree and fun variety.

This trip was different as we had no cabin to fix, no work to do, and Dad and Loretta had arranged for meals and had the family cabin all ready to go for us. It was glorious! We spent the days doing things we used to do and simply had so much fun. Curtis and the boys were out there the entire time so we got to spend many hours with my nephews and the cousins had so much fun together, especially when they were ripping around on my Dad's quad. Ana and I saw old friends out there that we hadn't seen in many years and enjoyed some nice long walks, many hours sitting on the beach, an afternoon session on the legendary "Ford diving board", and some evening campfires. We caught many, many fish so one afternoon we had a giant fish fry and the aromas from the deep fryer attracted all sorts of people to stop by for a snack.

In the lead-up to the trip Dad had promised the kids that he would take them out shooting, so one afternoon he gathered up a few guns and a pile of ammo and we took the kids out to a field to blast the hell out of some targets. We set up some cans and bottles with a giant hay bale as a backdrop and the kids let loose. Now this is why I love the prairies – regular rules just don't seem to apply. Magnus even got to fire a shotgun!

The time went quickly and soon we were in Saskatoon spending our last day and night at my brother Curt's place. They arranged for a final get together with a bunch of family and we enjoyed a last meal together and plenty of laughs. We flew out Monday morning and on the way to the airport the kids were already asking when we would be able to visit again. I am hoping that sometime soon the kids will be ready to do a trip on their own and we can send them out to Saskatoon for a longer visit during their summer vacation.