I’m going to break with tradition with choosing a Photo of the Day from our Flickr pool and post a photo from on location. I’m currently traveling on the Mediterranean island of Gozo, Malta, staying outside the small town of Xagra (oh, the things we do to bring new destination content to our readers!). Each night, I walk to the town square with my husband and baby and watch as the whole town assembles for eating, gossiping, and apparently, bingo. At first we thought the church was setting up for an important religious ceremony, as hundreds turn out each night and wait expectantly for the church bells to sound at 9pm, but it’s just good old-fashioned bingo. Old ladies, teenagers, and couples arrive with their markers, hoping for their number to be called.
For many Americans, dream trips involve far-flung international destinations. Traveling thousands of miles from home to a foreign land just seems more exciting. You get to experience a new culture, sample unfamiliar cuisine, and of course, get that all-important passport stamp to add to your collection.
A trip within your own country just can’t compete with that. The food is the same, the history is shared, the language is (usually) easily understood and you don’t even have to exchange money. There’s nothing exciting or exotic about that. Or so you may think.
But travel around your own country with open eyes and an open mind and you may realize that the good old US of A isn’t as homogeneous as you thought. Approach your homeland with the same anthropological curiosity and cultural hunger than you do to foreign lands and you’ll see that there may be as much to learn about different regions in your own country as there is places on the other side of the world.
One of my favorite sources for inspiration to explore more of the U.S. is William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey into America. Down on his luck Heat-Moon takes off on an epic journey around the country, sticking only to the two-lane country roads called blue highways. Along the way, he finds solace in the road and in the characters he meets on his journey. He explores the cultural differences that can exist between people of the same country and paints a captivating picture of life in rural and small town America. If you’ve never had much interest in traveling the lesser-known routes of the U.S., just wait until you see the country through Heat-Moon’s eyes. I know that I can’t read the book without feeling an urge to hit the open road and discover my own America.
It was 6:45 a.m. and I had no idea why my dreams had been rudely interrupted. My eyes were open but not seeing anything; everything just felt foggy. The alarm clock, expertly placed out of reach, was ringing from across the room. It took me and my exhausted body a few moments to realize that this was the day of the “girls-crash-the-small-town-breakfast” party at the local general store.
Ah-hah. Dalkeith to be redefined. Get up, stand up.
Even if I go to bed early and sleep a full night’s sleep, I still find mornings tough. I consider early morning to be around nine o’clock. Maybe eight thirty if I’m well rested, but anything before seven seems completely counter-rhythm to my overall late-night musician’s life. As I rolled out of bed and padded to the bathroom to splash water on my pillow-creased face, I was sure that I was crazy to have suggested this.
Seven a.m.? What was I thinking?
My neighbours, Diane and her daughter Amanda, arrived at seven to pick us up and we were ready, nearly. I threw on a cap and laced up my shoes and apologized for my inability to speak. Had I been more rested, I may have been able to say the word “monosyllabic” but since I was exactly that, I couldn’t have said it if I’d tried. I was still asleep with my eyes open when we pulled up in front of the general store three kilometres later and got out of the car on that sunny summer morning.
It was walking across the road and marvelling at the thirty or so cars parked up and down this main street (there is no parking lot at the store) that I started to wake up and remember our mission. Yes, the crashing of the boys’ club: the combined forces of the transplanted ladies of Glengarry county coming into the general store in the morning to have breakfast and alter the course of Dalkeith history.
Right. I remember now.
(Okay, I’m being a bit dramatic, but the fun was in the imagining.)
I rubbed my eyes and opened them a bit wider as I stepped into the store to an already buzzing morning. One of the larger tables was actually still free at that hour and the five of us sat down and took up our positions. Jenny, the storeowner and cook, was behind the deli counter in the kitchen as usual and when she saw us come in she called a huge greeting. After claiming my chair, I went back there to say hello just as she was coming out from behind to do the same.
She was taking off her apron when she burst with, “Oh it’s so nice to see you all! I never serve women in the mornings!”
“I know,” I replied as I gestured with my head to the full corner of hungry farmers, “that’s why we’re here! We figured it was about time!” And she laughed.
She gave hugs all around and then disappeared out the front door. I wondered who was watching the sizzling skillets in the back, but she returned within a minute having just gone upstairs to where she lives. Her arms were laden with fruit as she hurried back to her steaming pans. Five minutes later, she plopped an overflowing plate of cut fruit on the table in front of us and the men in the neighbouring tables leaned over in curiosity.
“What’s this?” asked one of them in French, with laughing eyes. “Special treatment, I’d say!” said another and he smiled at me. I suppose we were being taken care of. I didn’t mind! Special treatment for the special ladies, perhaps?!
Throughout the whole fifteen minutes or so while we were waiting for our breakfasts to be cooked, several men arrived to the store for their morning ritual. They noticed that their chairs were occupied and they were visibly dishevelled. Twitching, I’d say, as though we’d upset the natural order of things. Other chairs were procured and the neighbouring tables just overflowed a little more than usual, but in the end everyone had a seat for their breakfast. It just wasn’t the same seat and I suppose that’s the point. We were here to shift the balance a little and that clearly included the seating arrangements!
Two other women and friends in the community, Myria and Louise, were there with us and Myria had brought a bottle of champagne. We popped the cork with a loud burst and passed champagne all around to mix with our orange juice. It was truly an occasion. The men eyed us with kind curiosity. The champagne was making a splash, literally, and we were definitely not quiet diners.
Suddenly, John, a horse farmer from up the road and a super nice guy, was standing over our table with a poised coffee pot raised and ready in his right hand. “Coffee, ladies?” he asked and he filled some of our empty cups. Another man who I didn’t recognize was the one who carried our plates to our table and then cleared the table when we were done. We all laughed at this amazing service, wondering if Jenny had roped them into helping or if they were just helping out naturally like they would any morning. Either way, it was fun to be served and we laughed at their over-the-top gallantry. It was especially perfect alongside of their crinkled farm clothes, muddy boots and unshaven chins.
We were there for two hours. We watched most of the farmers leave and then were still chatting with Jenny by around nine a.m. when we all realized that we needed to get on with our days. The whole experience was a great laugh, though, and the potatoes I ordered (the only thing vegan possible) were delicious and local. In fact, they were just grown less than a kilometre from the store and had been picked the previous day. Can’t beat that!
These pics are from when the breakfast hour is over, but you can tell just how diverse this little store is. The post office in one front corner, the dining area in the other, the kitchen and the rubber boots taking up the rear. The shelves hold many items but only one or two of each – never more than five – since things don’t get purchased very quickly in here. If you get the last bottle of ketchup, for instance, Jenny just orders another two and they sit there until they are bought by other ketchup-desperate locals. It makes the shelves look nearly empty but I love them this way. To me, it’s even more evidence of this store being more about the characters that run it and come into it than the products it offers. It’s a social space more than anything. Oh, and let’s not forget the pet turtle as well as two dogs underfoot. They take up their positions as the animal representatives of Dalkeith General Store.
We all waved our goodbyes from the street outside the store that morning. We piled in with our nearest neighbours for the short lift home and the others got in their cars and went in their opposite directions towards their homes.
I was fully awake at this point and maybe even a little tipsy to start the day. I was happy and my belly was happy. Getting up early has its perks when there’s local food and champagne involved!
I will officially never worry about coming into the store in the morning again. The great breach of boys’ club breakfasts has been boldly enacted. Mission accomplished.
And the fruit tray was delicious.
Next time, we’ll have to get aprons for the wait staff!
I can’t remember the animal’s names but I’m sure they have them…)
So, in between touring and festival weekends in the summer months, what does a musician do with herself? Well, there are lots of answers to that question, but lately I have had red fingers, aching knees and scratches all over my skin. What have I been doing?
(That’s what you were thinking, right? Right.)
This is the time of year when wild berries are all in season. Not to mention strawberries, which are farmed around where I live and readily available. I have picked my share of organic strawberries and now they lie bagged and frozen in my freezer ready for winter smoothies. Recently, I have also gathered gooseberries, blackberries and currants (both red and black).
For me, activities like berry picking are just a means to writing lyrics. I find long bike rides are the same; they each give space and time in my head to just get into a zone and piece words together. Picking berries is not the most inspirational of activities, but it’s the repetition and the quiet that inspires me. I can kneel in the shady overhang of a berry bush for hours and come out with a bowl (and a belly) full of sweet goodness, not to mention a brain full of new ideas to scrawl down on the first piece of paper I can get a hold of once I return home.
I’ve also been out with my neighbours in this endeavour. Getting to know the women in this area has been great. Despite living around here for three years, touring can sometimes keep a person from developing fast friendships with neighbours and I’m glad to say that this is starting to change. All of us neighbours are so different and from so many different places, but together we find ourselves having landed in this same community and then crouched under the same currant bush gossiping about the town and the culture here.
We talked about how we (as outsiders: i.e. those who didn’t grow up here but were drawn here) will always be the “transplants” according to the heritage farmer families. There is definitely a divide going on and we all hoped to build more bridges rather than widening that gap. And, it’s true really. We will always be transplants, but we’re here and we love it here too; we’re all part of this colourful whole that makes up this wee place nestled in the farthest eastern counties of Ontario.
Our town, the town of Dalkeith, has about fifty inhabitants and I am not technically one of them. Living three and a half kilometres out of town makes me a “surrounding area” resident. There are about two hundred people in total if you count all the in-towners and out-of-towners. So, there are a lot more animals and square footage than there are humans, if you know what I’m sayin’.
Dalkeith has a little general store at its centre. This store is also the post office, the animal feed supply store, the local nursery (seeds, plants and fertilizer), the video store, the butcher, the baker and the heart attack maker. By the latter, I mean it is also the greasy spoon restaurant that specializes in a big farm breakfast.
Every morning, the farmers gather for breakfast at around seven o’clock and the place is hopping until about eight thirty or nine a.m. The owner of the store, Jenny, is also the cook and she is usually the only woman in there until the breakfast crowd clears out.
Once, last fall when we were leaving early in the morning for the airport (en route to a gig far away), I stopped into the store with a letter to mail at about eight o’clock in the morning. The place was packed and clanging when I opened the door, but when I stepped in through the threshold it all died out to an eerie silence. A hush literally fell on the place and it felt as though all movement froze with its weight. Thinking of it now, I think I saw an overflowing fork in midair and a farmer’s open mouth, all locked up like a statue. All the men, scruffy-faced and wrapped in bulging plaid flannel shirts and dusty denim jeans, turned and stared at me like I was an intruder.
Jenny was in the back in the kitchen in her apron and she called a greeting to me over her shoulder from behind the butcher counter. Seeing the letter in my hand, she told me to just put the mail next to the cash and said she’d collect from me later. I thanked her because I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. As the door swung behind me, I heard the action resume. Talk about a men’s club!
(And they say men don’t gossip.)
Well, there I was picking berries with three other women in the community, two of whom have young families and husbands and longer histories here than I have, and I asked them about the General Store breakfasts. They laughed knowingly and recounted similar tales of the hush and the feeling of intruding on a secret society. They just shook their heads in amusement.
That’s when I got a great idea. “Let’s go!” I said, standing up. “Let’s gather a bunch of women together and go for breakfast!” Everyone stopped picking berries and looked up at me. “Okay,” said my one neighbour Diane after that momentary pause, and then everyone started talking at once.
So, we’ve got plans to go. And don’t worry, I’ll tell you all about it. I’m sure it’ll be the talk of the town!
I came home buzzing with words in my head with images of gender chaos in Dalkeith, which makes me laugh out loud even now. My new lyrics may not amount to any new song, but the smear of berry juice on the page where they were scrawled will always remind me of the day I spent gathering. Gathering food. Gathering ideas.
Gathering courage to shake it up in a small town.
Without getting on stage.