Saturday, September 5, 2015

Over half of my life...

I was 3 months shy of my 18th birthday when I left the sleepy prairie town of Killarney, Manitoba to come to the University of Ottawa. I stuffed everything that I owned - which at the time consisted of clothing, my c.d. collection (made up mostly of REM, the Tragically Hip and Pearl Jam), and 17 volumes of my adolescent diary - into the back seat of an already-crammed 1980-something Ford Mustang. Already crammed because my friend Harley, the owner of said mustang, was coming with me to Ottawa to attend Carleton University (where the K stands for Kwality, as we UofO'ers like to say).

The night before we left, a tornado ripped through Harley's family's farm, knocking down trees and whipping bails of hay around like ping-pong balls. But that little mustang survived unscathed, and we pulled out of town on the eve of September long weekend, 1994 with not a c.d. or diary out of place. Perhaps this was an early sign that Ottawa was my destiny. Even though I didn't know it then.

Frankly, I didn't know much then. I was, after all, only 17 years old. I was a small-town girl. I had a high-school sweetheart. The school from which I had just graduated had 700 students from kindergarten to grade 12. The town's population hovered around 2,000 people - 1,996 of whom were white-Anglo Saxon protestant (the Chinese restaurant was owned by a Vietnamese family). There was nothing by way of cultural diversity. There was nothing remotely metropolitan. There was nothing to prepare me for a move halfway across the country to a campus that I would share with 40,000 or so other students from every corner of the world.

I was scared shitless.

Those first few weeks were difficult. I missed my boyfriend. I missed my high school friends. I missed my parents. I missed my dog. I even missed my pain-in-the-ass siblings. I missed looking up at night and seeing a million stars. I missed wide-open spaces and big prairie skies. I missed the sound of silence. I missed dry heat and dryer cold. I felt like a complete stranger everywhere that I went. I kept getting lost on campus because I couldn't (and still can't) read maps. I was no longer one of the smartest kids in any of my classes. Everything was just so different. I was just so different. And I felt alone.

But that loneliness didn't last. Ever the extrovert, it didn't take long for me to start reaching out to the people around me. In the process, I met some wonderful people who introduced me to new cultures, taught me how to play euchre, got me into a lot of trouble, and nursed me through heartaches. Block by block, I explored the city of Ottawa and discovered its many treasures: the locks of the Rideau Canal, Parliament Hill, green spaces like Strathcona Park, the nightlife of the Byward Market, unique neighbourhoods, the hiking trails in nearby Gatineau Park. I voted in my first election. I became an adult. I got my first real job as soon as I graduated, and rented my first apartment all to myself, becoming an independent, contributing member of society. Eventually, I joined the public service. Not long after that, I met Hubby. We bought our first house together in Little Italy. I went back to school at St. Paul University for a Masters degree. Hubby and I got married. We adopted our pets. I chose the REDBLACKS over the Blue Bombers.

I don't remember the exact moment that I decided to make my life here in Ottawa. (Although I suspect that meeting Hubby tipped the scales heavily in that favour). But at some point I just knew that this is where I was meant to stay. I still miss the dry cold and the stars and the wheat fields and the skyline of the Prairies. I still miss my family fiercely. But I can't imagine a life that would take me away from this city. The place where I truly discovered myself.

Twenty-one years ago, on the eve of September long weekend, a girl climbed into the passenger seat of a crammed 1980-something Mustang to drive halfway across the country. Little did she know that this Mustang was taking her home.