Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Boonies

When I first came to this picturesque Town in 1976 the most hotly debated topic among me and my peers was whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to live in the country or in the city, the proverbial rural versus urban dichotomy. It’s funny how these things happen. It would be misleading to suggest that my move here was entirely by design. As with most of my adventures and misadventures, I essentially just fell into the scheme without much planning at all. If anything, my progress to the rustic was more noticeable for what I was running from than what I was running towards. When I became disenchanted (such an inoffensive word for such a tortuous reality) with life in the City, I made up my mind that there was nowhere within its caverns that I could escape the haunting recollection of all that then disturbed me. As a result I was determined to project myself as far as reasonably possible from the memory.
You have no doubt heard it said that all things transpire for a reason, as though there is destiny to whatever we may do. To a degree I believe that that is true, at least in the sense that there is likely something in our genetic material which effectively predicts what we will grow to become. Maybe the thesis is more palatable if I simply call it listening to one’s instincts. However it is characterized, the purpose driving me here was not to be ignored. I jumped into my new surroundings with both feet and found the landing most agreeable. Now almost 35 years later I have the privilege of being able to look back upon my entire career as a country conveyancer.

Being ensconced as I have for over three decades in virtually the same place and routine day after day, one tends to lose sight of the features which make one’s particular experience either unique or special. Once again the broad lines of the thing are the difference between rural and urban living. This area, like so many of Ontario’s small country towns, was developed adjacent a river which nurtured the local industry, in this case wool production. I mention this not by way of historical detail but rather to develop the theme of large stone factories (all now converted to condominiums) which yet loom on the landscape. That is, the architecture here is mostly grey stone and red brick, or a combination of the two, creating an environment which has palpable warmth to it. Although synthetics killed the woollen industry, it did nothing but enhance riparian residences. So attractive are these venues that even our Mayor and his wife have opted to sell their shaded street home for a condominium with a view of the River. It naturally will come as no surprise that many of the wool barons constructed magnificent stone homes for them and their families throughout the Town. Having these structures to see at every turn distinctly enhances one’s life, much the way the architecture of New York or Paris is so improving, though admittedly on a less grand scale.

For many people in the City the single most irritating experience is likely the drive to work. I on the other hand can walk to my office from my home in about 15 minutes (5 if I bicycle), including a very pleasant ramble along the River for half the way. Often as I cross the bridge I stop to gaze up or down the River, each time seeing a completely different view depending on the temperature, the mist, the sunshine, the clouds or the current denizens of the River (boaters, bathers, fishermen and the like).

It is considered culturally correct when walking about Town to greet people whom one meets. This of course would be entirely impossible in the City. Sharing “Good Morning!” with one’s neighbours certainly provides a sense of community and belonging. More often than not it also entails a stop along the way to gossip, trade news and to pat one another’s dogs on the head. Occasionally the encounter precipitates some embarrassment if there is animosity between the Parties of the First and Second Part, though such awkwardness is thankfully infrequent.

For most of my life here I enjoyed a highly pleasant gathering every morning at a local restaurant before coming to work. Admittedly the congregation wasn’t strictly social, since I went there to put on the feedbag, but the camaraderie was by no means negligible. This type of daybreak assembly is not unusual in the City, but what is unique is that the majority of the participants were local shopkeepers whose businesses lined the very street on which we met. I should add that there were few tradesmen among us because they were renowned to make a much earlier start of the day, and it would have been considered odd and inappropriate to see them languishing among the shopkeepers, real estate agents and professionals at 8:30 a.m. As an aside, another crowd of mostly retired gentlemen met at the same restaurant later in the morning, around 10:00 a.m. The women on the other hand usually conducted their jamboree over the noon hour.

The axiom about big fish in a little pond is not without its foundation. Unquestionably there were many opportunities afforded me in Town which would have been out of my reach in the City. There is an inclination to attribute this to the fact that one’s qualifications would be lacking for a similar opportunity in the City, but this is most certainly not true. More often it is simply a question of numbers and the odds, which of course are much improved in sparser surroundings. Many of the people who adopt the village are highly qualified and successful, a fact which alone contributes to the huge success of many of the undertakings. Consider, for example, how delightful it is to have had what amounts to an almost private audience with Angela Hewitt performing in the old Town Hall where the acoustics are so highly valued that CBC thought it wise to record the concert.

Many times I have been tempted, in recognition of the talented residents, to create a Who’s Who of the Town but I get diverted by the simple fact that my Rogues Gallery is quickly populated by the many colourful men and women who live here without finding it necessary to have what are considered the usual credentials for such qualification. There is too a tendency for those among us who are especially successful to play down their own importance and defeat any appearance of snobbishness or distance by mingling freely with others at Hospital Board meetings, pubs, summer fêtes, farmer’s market, tea dances, etc. It is elemental to the social fabric that people of every description commune with one another. I think you’ll agree that such egalitarianism is not a hallmark of urban society. This point was nicely captured by my elderly predecessor when I first arrived here, and he asked “How’s trade?” In the City the usual question is “How’s business?” which puts an entirely different spin on things. The prevalence of the trades in a small town is undeniable, a fact which among others speaks volumes about the entrepreneurial spirit. This in turn provokes a keen competitiveness and desire to acquire the good things in life.

It is common knowledge that much of one’s income in the City is consumed by the cost of things which appear to give relatively small value in return. Given the exorbitant cost of accommodation, unless one can afford the higher end condominiums, one is destined to rent an unattractive apartment or live in a shoe-box style home in a remote suburb. Country life is frequently quite different. What one saves on the necessities one can spend on the luxuries. Some city-types would argue that the compromise is not worth it. That is a perfectly acceptable observation for those who prefer cave dwelling in a congested commercial atmosphere. As well, the familiarity among country people is not always an attractive element for some.

On a strictly visceral level it is not uncommon to discover an exceedingly competent chef in a small town. It is no mean compliment to be able to enjoy one’s meal in an historic building while overlooking a rushing waterfall, not to mention being able to find a parking space. This business of culinary delights extends to the many fine boutique bakeries and meat shops in the area. Then there is the advantage of being able to buy produce which was literally picked from the vine or the ground mere hours before.

For good clean fun there are always the country fairs. In our Town we annually host the Highland Games, in addition to ploughing matches and dances at the Agricultural Society Hall (a building which has heritage designation, displaying beam and post construction and balcony all around, with hardwood floors).

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