Northern Hospitality After The Floodapocalypse

This blog entry about the events of Thursday, June 27, 2013 was originally posted on June 29, 2013.

PART 1 (DAYS 1-4): “Get ready to be killed with kindness,” Leigh-Anne said as she picked up from the airport, referring to the Canadian reputation of being amongst the nicest people on earth. “And I don’t mean that southern bitchy kindness.”

I’d met Calgarian Leigh-Anne on Easter Island during New Year’s of 2010-11, and leave it to Facebook to keep us in touch since then. Earlier this year, she was on a trip to New York City with friends, but made time to catch up with me. We started things off in the Big Apple by drinking the bottles of Mahina beer (a microbrew from Easter Island) that I’d been saving in my fridge for over two years, to drink with the first person I met on that trip that came to visit. Fortunately, it didn’t really go bad at all (minus some sediment) and we didn’t die from drinking it. In fact, it started to get us drunk.

Fast forward a couple of months, and that brings me to my visit of reciprocation to her hometown of Calgary. I had always meant to visit Calgary during its famous Stampede festival ever since I heard about it in 2002, and this year would be my last opportunity to see it with a local friend; Leigh-Anne had plans to move to Ottawa in a couple of months. I arrived a week before Calgary Stampede was slated to begin so that Leigh-Anne could play host and show me around the city and above all, her favorite spots in the backcountry nearby to hike and fly fish.

However, all those plans hit a snag on June 21, 2013, the day the big flood came, just six days before my arrival. If you’ve followed the news, Calgary and the surrounding area in southern Alberta had been hit by a historical flood that submerged many parts of the region, causing major damage and road closures. Many have dubbed the overflowing of the Elbow and Bow Rivers (picture above) the “Floodapocalypse” for its destruction, and perhaps the only awesome part about the event was the set of photos of Momo the cat and her owner swimming to safety, which went viral across the country.

Around this time of year in late June, Calgary is usually buzzing with people getting ready for Stampede by decorating buildings and storefronts with western cowboy decor, however, it’s been a week of surveying damage, coming back home after having been evacuated, and clearing away debris. In fact, Leigh-Anne had been volunteering the day before I arrived, clearing wet drywall out of a building whose entire ground floor had been submerged. And she wasn’t the only volunteer; like with the aftermaths of many tragedies around the world, there has been a huge outpour of support and generosity in solidarity.

“[I’m not really sure what to do now,]” she told me as we drove towards downtown Calgary. Many of the things she had in mind for us to do or see were suddenly closed due to the flood.

“It doesn’t matter. I have no expectations,” I told her. “When you have no expectations, everything is amazing.”

CALGARY, ALBERTA IS CANADA’S FIFTH LARGEST CITY — big and relevant enough to host the 1988 Winter Olympics — with a population of just over a million people, most of which are really friendly. As an American, I’d think to group all Canadians into the friendly and good-humored category — and from my experience that is true — but this Canadian midwestern city doesn’t seem to have that reputation, at least by people in Toronto. In a recent VICE article, Torontonian writer Katie Heindl explains how many people out east consider Calgary to have a bad reputation, until you go there and realize it’s “actually nice.”

However, Calgary is not without its rich assholes and douchebags. It is after all oil rich, a city where every oil and gas company has a presence, and each of those companies has its the high-rollers who like to show off their money with sports cars and arrogance. Add in the fact that they have a huge cowboy heritage, and you realize it’s the Dallas, Texas of the north.

“Calgary has the largest per capita of Bentleys in North America,” Leigh-Anne told me as we ate delicious burgers at Clive Burger, a sort of Canadian In-N-Out. We were sitting on the patio overlooking the sidewalk, people watching, as random beggars asked us for change once every 15 minutes.

“This is [also] the kind of place where there’s a beggar on one side, and an investment banker on the other.”

We were on 17th Ave in Southwest’s RED (Retail & Entertainment District) that first evening of our reunion, one of the city’s main drags for bars, restaurants, and sidewalk cafés — conveniently a short walk from Leigh-Anne’s apartment, where she had a cat named Maddy and a taxidermy piranha in her bathroom (both awesome). By the end of the first night we were drinking on the patio at the Ship & Anchor pub, although it was barely “nighttime” for most of it since the sun didn’t set until about 10 p.m. It was at the bar that we caught up, and made small talk with the friendly strangers sharing a table with us. It amazed me that I was with “my people” — and by that I mean people who can talk about specific episodes of the old Degrassi shows of the 80s, which apparently is the bond between Canadians and people who grew up in New Jersey. (Degrassi: The Next Generation wasn’t that bad either.)

IT HAD BEEN SHIP & ANCHOR’S FIRST NIGHT OPEN SINCE THE FLOOD, which was evidence that Calgary was slowly, but surely on the mend. During the days, the skies were blue and the sun was out, drying everything back into a state of normalcy — which made my first few of days more pleasant than anticipated. Leigh-Anne and I walked around the city, ran errands, and bought provisions for our proposed trip to the backcountry. In terms of food, we ate Holy Crap - “the world’s most amazing breakfast cereal” and Cheezies (a Canadian junk food staple), and embraced the concept of “breakfast beers” (and wine). For an upcoming article, I ate a few bull testicles, after interviewing the chef of the local culinary “Testicle Festival.” We also had a couple of meals at her uber-friendly parents on the other side of town. included mouth-watering Alberta beef, local Hutterite chicken, and wines from the Canadian Okanagan Valley wine region.

Leigh-Anne’s parents’ northern hospitality didn’t stop with food. When her stomach wasn’t feeling well, her father Tom took me out to McMahon Stadium (both shared by the CFL and University of Alberta) for the season opener of Canadian CFL football: the Calgary Stampeders vs. the B.C. Lions. Canadian football, I learned, was pretty much like American football, only with more yards (110), less downs (3) and many people in the stands actually ending sentences with “eh?” Calgary beat BC 44-32, with touchdowns that always erupted in fireworks and a horseman riding around the field with the team’s logo on it.

Leigh-Anne’s stomach illness, possibly caused by cleaning up contaminated debris (many cases were popping up around town), was thankfully short-lived, and things were finally back on track as planned. Leigh-Anne looked up the road conditions of the highway to Banff. “Looks like all four lanes are open,” she told me.

The people of Calgary were slowly but surely getting back on their feet — so they could slip into their cowboy boots for Stampede in a week’s time. For me and Leigh-Anne, we’d go out the backcountry for a few days of hiking and camping in the Rockies, but be back in time for the start of the Stampede festival, one that would be a heartfelt tearjerker after a tragic event that united the city..

As the chef I interviewed quoted the city’s new motto to me in an email, “Come hell or high water, the show must go on.”


FUN FACT:

When Leigh-Anne felt ill, she showed off the Canadian healthcare system that would astound most Americans. “I just spent 30 minutes on the phone with a registered nurse who got me an emergency appointment in 20 minutes.”

When I was explaining her how things worked in the US, I mentioned co-pays.

“What’s a co-pay?” she asked me.

“It’s like, hmm… it’s like paying a deductible, and then the insurance covers the rest,” I answered.

“But that’s how you should insure cars, not people,” she commented. She also told me that the show Breaking Bad, in which a high-school chemistry teacher starts to cook meth to pay for his cancer treatments, wouldn’t work in Canada.

“That’s the joke in Canada,” she told me. “You have cancer? Treatment starts next week.”





Next entry: The Wows of Canada Day

Previous entry: So, Where Was I?




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This blog post is one of fifteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Cowboys, Duk-Duks, and Kiwis," which chronicled a five-week trip through the Canadian Rockies, followed by Calgary's Stampede rodeo festival, an assignment through different regions of Papua New Guinea, and a wintery jaunt to New Zealand's South island.

Next entry:
The Wows of Canada Day

Previous entry:
So, Where Was I?




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