Date: 11 December
Location: this dodgy little Indian place off Swanston, waiting for my Thali plate.
The smell of burned toast and wet food scraps in the sink always reminds me of my time living in Canada.
This might seem a bit unfair to Canada — a country known for its great natural beauty, its air crisp with mountain frost and scented by crushed spruce needles — but the senses will do what the senses do. (If it makes you feel better, Canada, the USA always calls to mind old car leather and traffic fumes from one horrific summertime cab ride from JFK to Dowtown; Japan smells like steamy rain and airports and sweetened milk, Vietnam like fresh baguettes and dust, Bermuda like frangipani and the rum on a pub floor the day after a big night. And India? I’m not going to lie or even get poetic with the truth here: its all curry powder and cows. It just is.)
My most significant trip to Canada was in 2009. It was a pre-work, post-breakup snowy mess-fest. The whole 5 month escapade was like one wanton winter on a messed up, drugged up, drunken school camp.
I so wish I’d kept a diary of that time because I know that, in my mind, I’ve rewritten it into something that Makes Sense. A story with a protagonist, with a beginning, a middle and an end.
The first chapter opens with our heroine, a broken-hearted and self-destructive young woman of 23. She’s one long month into her first breakup with the guy she then thought that she’d marry. Her parents, no doubt tired of their eldest and best educated daughter slinking in at all hours on all nights then waking up still drunk, of having complete strangers crash in every available spare bed on a regular basis and of their daughter’s new ‘balanced’ diet (WINE IS FRUIT, VODKA IS POTATO) send her to Canada to stay with her cousins. There, undoubtedly a hideously sulky guest of her most gracious relatives, her appetite returns and the awfulness subsides a little. With the February snows, something miraculous happens: she starts to forget. She goes ice skating with her aunt. She freaks out when she first sees snow fall. She attacks her cousins with snowballs. Most significantly, she learns to ski. She falls in love all over again, with the simplicity of the picturesque Canadian winter. End chapter.
The girl comes home. She finishes her law degree. She gets a job at a prestigious law firm but has 6 months before she starts it. She decides to spend it in Canada, to find a job on a mountain somewhere. How hard can it be? She books flights and, a week before Halloween, she leaves the country.
She wakes up on a couch in a youth hostel on Granville St, Vancouver — at the dodgy end. Her neck is sore because she’s been using her ski bag as a pillow. Her head is sore because she’s jet lagged. Her mind is sore because this is as far as she’d really planned. The strangers sitting around her are clearly stone out of their minds. It’s 10am. She panics.
In the next chapter, our heroine — sometimes pigheadedly brave, sometimes skittish as a kitten — makes some new friends in the kooky, huge hostel. She spends too much time on the smokers’ balcony with the bad boys and learns too much about how to buy good E on the street, hears mind boggling stories of stupidity and drinks a lot of tea.
Come Halloween she parties with the best of them in The Cellar, a cavernous space below the local Irish pub. She kisses one of the bad boys, a British one who is anything but conventionally attractive but seems to just see into her the way no one at home ever did or would want to. Hers dressed as a road-killed cyclist. She’s Pochohontas. The next day he sends a text to her dinky new Canadian cell: want to go for a walk in the park? She does, and they do. He takes her to the Stanley Park tea rooms and, over ‘proper tea – thank God!’ they discuss books, music, drugs, life, family, death, happiness, pain, plans, travel.
A lot else happens in the next few weeks: our girl parties a lot and spends a lot of time with her Brit, doing absolutely nothing in the way that she so despised — in herself and others — back home. She also gets a job as a maid in a 5-star hotel at a mountain called Silverstar. Conventiently, the dodgy hostel that’s grown to feel like home has a sister hostel on that very mountain. She books three days accomodation there, her flights and a bus ticket, then tearfully kisses her Brit goodbye for now.
In the next and much slower chapter our girl finds the ski mountain almost deserted, quickly learning that the resort won’t open for a fortnight, and finds life at this hostel a great deal less exciting than it had been Vancouver. She misses her quick-formed family terribly. She makes friends with her roomate, but it’s not the same. The snow keeps falling though, and she loves that.
Much happens in the weeks before Christmas. The hostel fills up, the mountain lights up with parties and ski days and she realises that she hates being a maid. She quits dramatically. Instead, she strikes a deal with the hostel owners: free accomodation for 25 hours work a week. She gets used to hostel living: to sleeping in a giant room with 8 (rotating) girls, to communal kitchens and bathrooms, to people coming and going. For two such people, their reputations precede them. One of the fellow hostel workers mentions two idiots from Perth who’ve bought a 1993 limousine and are driving it all around Canada. Everyone assumes she’s lying. She’s not. These two larrikins turn up at Silverstar. One of these becomes our heroine’s closest friend in the country.
There’s romance too, of course there is. There’s this guy who’s always on the second floor doing yoga in the evenings. He’s gorgeous beyond belief: pale as a Cullen, long-limbed and shaggy haired and incredibly tall. They formally meet at the Saloon’s annual White Party. He’s dressed as a Backstreet Boy. She’s a nurse from an insane asylum. They’re introduced (‘FINALLY’, her brain says). A scant half hour later she trips in a puddle of melted snow and splices her chin wide open. There’s blood everywhere. At the white party. Someone takes a wildly humiliating (/hilarious) photo of her with her head wrapped in toilet paper in an attempt to stem the bleeding. The next day she goes down the mountain (in the 1993 limousine!) to hospital and gets five angry, messy stitches in her chin. She runs into the boy in the kitchen that afternoon. He compliments her on her beard.
Finally, in the next chapter, there’s some real romance. It’s the night of the Saloon’s annual Ugly Sweater Party. Our girl has spent the afternoon in the communal bathroom cutting out her own stitches and is left with ten little scars. The boy is in a pale blue thing with fluffy baby ducks. Our heroine is wearing something with a pumpkin on it — but she’s working, sitting up at the hostel reception desk and miserably streaming back episodes of Friends while everyone else pre-games wildly down in the rec room. She hears the reception bell and comes out to see a beautiful man in an ugly sweater, bearing a bowl of ice, a bottle of lemonade, a mini bottle of vodka and two glasses. It’s difficult to imagine anything feeling so luxuriously perfect in this run down hostel. The snow comes down so heavily. The night is a white blur.
It turns out that this boy of interest is a neversummer creature who chases the ski seasons from Canada to New Zealand and then back again. A jaded engineer of 29, he saw a Warren Miller film, quit his job, moved to Canada, learned to snowboard and now teaches it every day. ‘Why work for a happy future — a job you hate, a crushing mortgage,’ he asks her often, ‘when you can wake up and be happy every goddam morning?’
Then it’s Christmas. And, he breaks the news gently, his parents have bought him flights home for Christmas and he won’t be back until early January.
Christmas is still wonderful. She and the staff and friends cook a big orphan Christmas lunch and then ski all afternoon.
The night before New Years Eve is the Rail Jam. The best boarders and skiers show their stuff on the rails while everyone drinks and yells. Afterwards they kick on at — where else — the Saloon. It’s Ladies’ Night so all drinks are free for her. A guy comes up behind her and offers to get her a drink. She snorts it off but then it’s Him and she’s never been so happy at a surprise. He makes some joke about New Years Eve midnight kisses and hands her a pack of Australian Tim Tams right there in the bar. She falls in love yet again.
But the book is getting thin at the back now and February rolls around again. She does a lot of things. So many that it seems impossible that they all could fit into so few months. She and the limo boys take a trip to Jasper, then to Whistler for the Winter Olympics. In the limo they get waved right through Olympics security and, when accomodation on the mountain proves too expensive, they just sleep in their ski gear in the car. She learns to snowboard (poorly, and not from the boy — he says that’s the stuff break ups are made of), sneaks into many a hot tub, cooks a lot, cleans a lot of gross boys bathrooms and filthy communal kitchens (the soggy leftovers and burned toast smells will stay with her) at the hostel. She catches a couple having sex in the communal showers one night and steals their clothes. They have to come to reception to get them back. She does endless loads of laundry, makes countless beds. She sees her cousins and aunt and uncle again and skiis with them, so much better this time! She and the boy stay up late a lot, read a lot, watch terrible movies, aggravate his roommates. She skis black runs now.
And so, finally, she has to tell this boy that she’s leaving because she starts ‘proper’ work, of the sort he utterly derides, on 1 March. It’s awful. She won’t let him drive her to the tiny local airport but makes her friends do it instead. Even then, they’re all crying so much (in the horrid Kelowna airport Tim Horton’s) that she misses her flight to Vancouver.
Eventually in Vancouver, she gets a text from him: ‘If you were an animal, know what animal you’d be?’She texts back. But the plane boards on time and she has to turn off her phone.
Days later she’ll discover that her crappy Canadian cell can’t receive messages back home and that his response is lost in the ether.
Then our girl will start work as a lawyer. Her Uggboots and distinctive banana ski jacket will lie under her bed, abandoned, for now. And she’ll throw herself into the world of suits and lunches and corporate law with fizz and zeal, for now.
The End, for now.