In the last few days, we have visited our old stomping grounds (Guelph), a teenage beach hangout (Wasaga Beach) and the hometown of Justin Bieber (Stratford). While that town is primarily and justifiably well-known for its world-famous Shakespeare Festival, it is possible to download a Bieber-iffic Map that will show you his school, skate park and favourite ice cream parlour. Just in case you’re interested…
Oh, and soon-to-be-retired Peter Mansbridge lives in Stratford and while there is no Peter-iffic map, he is a familiar face around town. Apparently his home is “impressive.” Stratford is a town full of impressive homes – I wanted to take more photos, but everyone was out working on their gardens. This home is typical:
No, it is not celebrity sightings or nostalgia that have taken us to these places – once again we are catching up with old friends. This has been a full and meaningful week.
We lived in Guelph for 12 years while the boys were growing up. It is a vibrant mid-sized city about an hour north-west of Toronto; home to the University of Guelph, a robust restaurant scene and a thriving music and arts scene. The city’s tree-lined streets are filled with beautiful and still relatively affordable homes.
We lived on a street close to the university. Neither Stephen nor I are handy (beyond being able to paint and hammer a few nails) and in a moment of self-delusion, we bought a derelict student rooming house and spent years renovating it. It was a labour of love, made all the sweeter because we had such wonderful neighbours on our little street. Our house has since changed hands a few times and no longer looks well-loved. I put hours into that front garden – it feels a bit sad to see it now.
Our friends Bob and Trish and their three kids, Fran, Rob and Peter lived down the street and the boys all played together. Seventeen years later, we were back on the street, sitting on their back deck and getting re-acquainted. We were so happy that it was possible for all of them to come together from their various homes to see us. The boys are busy with school – Rob taking his electrician’s apprenticeship, Peter going back for Teacher’s Ed in the fall, and Fran working on her PhD in Music Ethnology. Under the category of “great things one learns from young people”, we found out about “shape-note singing” – something Fran has been involved with for a while now with a group from Alabama. There are a number of YouTube videos or this rather dry Wikipedia explanation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shape_note
From left: Fran, Rob, Bob, Trish, Peter
Our time in Guelph was happy – young family, busy with work and friends and home. Driving around the city brings back floods of memories, since very little has changed. There are lots of new businesses and swank little shops and cafes, but the signposts of the city remain – including the Guelph Farmer’s Market. For five years, I had a baking business there – every Saturday morning I would bring my muffins, cinnamon rolls and cookies to my corner stand, and spend a few hours selling and chatting with friends.
My little stand was at the back right, just past the seating in the windows. There was a coffee stand beside me – a perfect draw for customers.
The next day we drove to Cambridge to visit Robert and Marilena. Cambridge is a small town west of Guelph, close to Kitchener-Waterloo. Southwestern Ontario is a series of small towns and cities punctuated by great swaths of cornfields, dairy and beef herds and markets. This is also Mennonite country – the back roads are shared with Old Order Mennonites riding horse and buggy.
We met Robert and Marilena several years ago in Sayulita, Mexico. They are also friends with Piotr and Ela, our friends from Portland. We would all arrive in Sayulita around the same time – sometimes for 2 weeks, sometimes for longer. It was a time and a place – a lovely shared memory of a favourite destination in Mexico before it became touristy and overly developed. We have all agreed we are unlikely to return there, but we are grateful for the lasting friendships from that time.
We visited Robert and Marilena at their beautiful home in Cambridge – we know our paths will cross again before long.
Back to Stratford. Stratford is a gorgeous town, set on the Avon River. If it did not have the Stratford Festival and the Stratford Chef School, it would still be beautiful, but the tone was set 60 years ago when Sir Alec Guiness performed from a tent on the banks of the Avon River and the Festival was born. As it developed in size and stature, the Stratford Chef School moved in, and innovative restaurants began popping up. High-end shops followed, along with luxe bed and breakfasts and boutique inns. The Stratford Festival runs every year from April to November; set in several theatres and offering a good mix of modern and traditional theatre. Theatre-goers come from all over North America (and beyond) to watch world-class performances. This is the main theatre:
It overlooks the Avon River, home to a famous bevy of swans. I had heard they were bad-tempered and snappish, but I did see one being hand-fed, so perhaps they’ve received the memo from the tourism bureau. I maintained my distance and admired from afar:
Stratford is also home to our friend Dorothy, who has lived here for many years. We all met when we were young, working in restaurants in Toronto. We have more than a few stories of mischief and foolishness before we were all forced to grow up. Amazingly, we have not seen each other since those restaurant days. And yes, of course we have changed, but our 20-something spirits prevail – a good thing, I think.
Dorothy was always brutally honest, witty, and super-smart. I call her Dorothy Parker. She still smokes, unapologetically. We are so happy to have her in our lives again.
And finally, to Wasaga Beach. Wasaga Beach was party central when we were teenagers – a scuzzy hangout for bad bikers and their girls. Tiny little cottages and chip trucks. Tiny little bikinis and the boys that followed them around. Naturally, we wanted to go there.
Sooner or later, everything gets gentrified, including down-and-dirty Wasaga. Forty years after our teenage-hood, my dear friend Nancy moved there. I have known Nancy since Grade 9, which makes her my oldest friend. We were friends, roommates, confidantes and co-conspirators. She is like a sister.
When Nancy told me she was moving to Wasaga, I was a bit aghast. However, she was not the only one with that idea – there are many Toronto transplants and recent retirees, as well as our mutual friend Lisa. The bikers are still here, but so is artisan beer. The little cottages are still here, but so are new resorts and golf course subdivisions. And who doesn’t love chip trucks?
The big attraction, then and now, is the beach. Part of Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, it is 14 km. long – the largest freshwater beach in the world. It is divided into several distinct beach areas – with the party crowd cordoned off into a couple of packed and noisy sections and the rest left for strolling and bird-watching.
Both of those activities have been curtailed somewhat this year due to record high water levels in Ontario lakes. This beach used to go out at least 100 feet further.
We had a very pleasant chat with Braden, the park warden who was cruising the beach. Among his duties were making sure the flats of beer flying out of the liquor store on a Friday night would not interfere with everyone’s peaceful and lawful enjoyment of the beach. He was fully kitted out in boots, flak jacket and baton, but my money would be on the crowds of drunken yahoos if they decided not to play nice. A residue of the old Wasaga still exists.
Braden and my friend Nancy.
Tomorrow is Father’s Day. Lucky me – I will spend it with my dear dad and my dear husband – two very caring, involved, supportive and loving fathers.
To everyone who is a dad, or who has a dad, or who will be remembering their dads – Happy Father’s Day.