Farmboy in the city

By Phil Bird

I grabbed my freshly laundered clothes, took them out the door of my house and put them in my car. The house I had lived in for the past 12 years of my life. The house that would no longer be home in a few minutes.

I said my goodbyes, noted the warmth of the hugs I received from my family, and was out the door.

I drew a slightly shaky breath and headed down the dusty country road I had ridden my bike on as a kid and teen. I passed the spot where I put my very first car into the ditch, not five minutes from the house.

I tried to wrap my mind around the journey I was about to begin. I peered out the car windows, looked out at the ripening wheat and canola fields, at the smoky horizon from the fires in British Columbia, and sighed.

There is a special tranquility about country living on the prairies that is never so poignant until you’re moving away to the "big city." Something about the clean skies, friendly neighbors and the fact the nearest house is at least half a mile away.

I hold in my mind’s eye the breathtaking vista one views as they crest the Buffalo Hills and look out onto the prairies. On a good day you can spot the rural communities of Gleichen, Arrowwood, Cluny, Bassano, Strathmore, Carseland and, of course, Calgary. On a clear night you can look up to the sky and see the Milky Way in all its splendour. On nights with a full moon, you can see the fields bathed in a silvery glow, interspersed with the seemingly random light of a farm.

Nature has a way of working into your bones when you grow up in the country. There is that special feel of cool black dirt as you work it in your fingers, or the smell of ripe durum fields, the coltish dance of a week-old calf. You gain an appreciation of hard work when you lug a half-frozen newborn calf into the barn while the mother anxiously lows behind you, all the while enduring a -40 wind spearing you through your coat. Or the special way barley dust coats the back of your sweaty neck and itches like hell when you’re sweeping out grain bins. Or cursing the small engine connected to an irrigation wheel line that won’t start after repeated pulls–after several repeated pulls. Or going to sleep with the sound of crickets chorusing at night. Or the breath-stealing awe of seeing a prairie sunset setting the sky aflame.

I made it through Calgary traffic with nary a mishap, swung into the university, grabbed my rez papers and keys, drove my car up to Rundle Hall and began to unload. I was surprised and grateful for the hand the CA and SR’s–that’s Community Assistant and Student Representative respectively for the uninitiated–gave me carrying my things up to my room on the fifth floor. I unpacked, set up my half of the room, met my roommate, and proceeded to get my life organized.

I was quite familiar with Calgary, as it’s the city closest to the farm where I live–or used to live–and I kinda knew my way around. I’ve found cities have a unique flavour, distinct from each other but similar in many ways.

I went to Germany for a couple months in a student exchange while in high school. Berlin has a feel of impersonality, heightened by its graffiti-blighted streets and the dreary sameness that fills you as you travel among the hoard of stuccoed condos, interspersed with fascinating Renaissance architecture, construction cranes and the marvelous glass and steel edifices occupying the city centre. It’s still a city divided. Not necessarily into east and west, but rather into modern and ancient, the roots of the latter still lying latent below the streets.

Frankfurt seemed a bit quainter, even a touch Mediterranean, with its red-tiled roofs and apfelwein cafes, its large student population adding to the mix.

And what to say about Calgary?

There is a kind of freshness, maybe even an innocence to it. Its streets haven’t bathed in the blood of protestors or witnessed the oppression of tyranny. The worst has been a few shaken fences at the G8 summit, a summit that wasn’t even in Calgary.

There are also those not-so-nice characteristics common to all cities. The street teens sleeping on park benches between fixes, the homeless guys outside the bar pressing you for spare change, the cigarette butt-littered bus stops, the hookers on street corners at night. But you see each in every city.

There are also those limits to nature. The stretches of concrete and asphalt that seem like scars, the brown smog hanging over downtown taking the view of the Rockies away, the simple oppression of personal space.

Yet I can appreciate its energy, the availability of the places you can go, see, shop or visit. I appreciate the closeness to all of my friends in Calgary, the guys on my floor in rez (yeah 5R!), the ability to do things at 11 p.m. or later.

Despite its newly minted freshness, Calgary has a unique flavour. The cultural diversity at its core, the relative friendliness and politeness of the stranger passing you on the street. Places like the Falafel King downtown, or cheap Chinese at midnight (try asking the waiter to read the Fok Kin fried rice on the menu. You connect the dots).

My coming of age story is no different from many out there. I can look forward to the year ahead with hope and the pleasant surprise of finding what’s around the next corner. City living and university life might not be so bad after all–even for a farmboy.

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