Ormstown’s demolition derby marks the start of my summer

ORMSTOWN, QC. — My birthday weekend includes the Ormstown Fair. It’s been a family tradition for years and years.

We don’t just love the carnival rides and cotton candy and funky chickens. We also love a good old-fashioned demolition derby. Sometimes it’s the only one I get to all year and sometimes, when it’s a really good year, it takes me three vigorous shampoos to get the smell of burnt oil out of my hair. I live for those years.

How to have fun in Ottawa for less than $10

Recently, Melani and Jilly joined me in Ottawa for a working weekend. It was one of those weekends where we were a little short on cash, but it’s a small and family-oriented town, and we were staying in a downtown hotel half a block from Parliament Hill. Here, in Melani’s words, is a tiny guide to having a blast in our nation’s capital on less than $10. 

How to have fun without spending (much) money: Talk like a pirate. (Photo provided by Melani Litwack)
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Talk like a pirate. (Photo provided by Melani Litwack)

How to have fun in Ottawa when you’re three and Mommy is beyond broke

  • Watch the changing of the guard at the war memorial.
  • Check out the “castles,” statues, 3D map, people, canal, things to climb on and pedestrian tunnel between your hotel and the bookstore.
  • Spend Mommy’s bookstore gift card. Then have a tantrum because she won’t buy you a scooter.
  • Scream all the way to the market.
  • Stop screaming and have a photo op on the nice policeman’s motorcycle.
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Talk to a cop. (Photo: Melani Litwack)
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Talk to a cop. (Photo: Melani Litwack)
  • Go to McDonalds for the food that would have prevented the tantrum in the first place.
  • Start walking back to the hotel taking pretend pictures with a cardboard camera. Greet EVERYONE.
  • Sneak into the biggest castle through the spinny door and peek in the ballrooms.
  • Find a bowl of candy and take one.
  • Climb on more things.
  • Meet a man with parrots and have a complete stranger pay him so you can have your picture taken.
  • Discover a reflective wall.
  • Climb on even MORE things.
  • Meet a nice lady who’s staying in your “hotowel” and strike up a conversation. Find out she’s there for the same reason you are.
  • Play with all your loot.
  • Go swimming.
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Have a tea party in the park with Dad, who Melani and Jilly stumbled upon by chance in a park across from the hotel. (Photo: Melani Litwack)
How to have fun without spending (much) money: Have a tea party in the park with Dad, who Melani and Jilly stumbled upon by chance in a park across from the hotel. (Photo: Melani Litwack)

A walk in the park: Alexandria’s Festival of Lights

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s parks.

alexandria lights festival (6)

“Mum, can I come with you?” Jilly asked in her sweetest sing-songy voice when she saw me grab my car keys.

“I don’t know,” I said, a little cruelly. “I don’t enjoy driving with screaming little girls.”

“But I’m not screaming anymore.”

The tantrum was still echoing down the hall, but forgiveness comes as quickly as temper. Jilly and I were sick and had spent two days inside the house. She wasn’t the only one who’d had a tantrum that day; we needed to get out of the house or break down in tears. So we gathered all the hats and mittens, stopped to pick up Grandma and headed west toward the Ontario border.

Alexandria’s Festival of Lights is a showcase for community involvement. It was founded in 2006, when an enterprising citizen drafted people from the neighbourhood to create 22 light sculptures. It nearly came to a dramatic end that first year when an ice storm struck the day before the grand opening. The hardy residents banded together to get things back in ship-shape and the festival was inaugurated with a parade.

alexandria lights festival (5)The town of 3,200 people is a little more than 100 kilometres west of Montreal and it takes Christmas seriously. Strings of red lights spell out NOEL above the town sign and Main Street—in fact, dozens on dozens of houses on the way to Main Street—compete with constellations to light up the county.

The festival’s website does not display very nicely on mobile, so we weren’t completely sure whether the light show was still going on, or what park it was in. We drove slowly and pointed out every bright reindeer and slightly creepy crèche—like the heavily shadowed one that appeared to have a faceless Mary and Joseph—we saw along the way. We cruised along with our eyes peeled—“There’s a park!” I said happily, but it was just a monument on a hill—until we hit the back end of town and looped around to a gas station.

“Turn right at the second traffic light,” the clerk told Melani, though from my spot inside the warm car, her gestures told a much more complicated route.

alexandria lights festival (8)

Indeed, we’d missed a step because we somehow ended up at the back end of Island Park. We shrugged, left the car there and snuck in. And by “snuck,” I mean we took five minutes to get all our hats and mittens on and grab the camera and giggle a little bit before slipping through the half-open gate.

Such pretty lights! The whole town—and beyond—is represented here, from schools to hardware stores to the pharmacy. A funeral home’s memory tree was especially touching. Along the shore of Mill Pond, a line of trees is reflected on the ice. If your gaze should wander upward, the stars seem to be just another part of the festival.

There is free hot chocolate to be had in the little kiosk and a donation box at the entrance to the park. All money raised goes back into the community, for next year’s festival and for improvements to the park like a sound system for the bandstand, the kiosk itself, a security system and lots more.

The Christmas season has blown past in a flurry of dinners, and flights to and from home, presents and colds, tree-shopping and tantrum-holding. Here it was quiet, despite us and without much snow to crunch underfoot. This small pause was like the deep sigh one indulges in before rolling up one’s sleeves for the next big thing.

Happy 2015, all.

You only have two more days: The festival of lights in Island Park runs from 5 p.m.-10 p.m. till Dec. 31. New Year’s Eve, get there by 6 p.m. for the fireworks celebration.


Soul food and mid-century adventures

SWANTON, Vt. — This year the trees have put on a particularly spectacular show, slowly and brightly changing into an autumn quilt draped over the gentle, low Appalachian mountains.

We’re fortunate enough to live in a place where we witness at no charge one of nature’s most lovely events and we’re not so jaded that our breath doesn’t catch as the car lifts over a rise and the entire world is spread before us in yellows and reds and oranges, pitted with green and canopied by blue and white.

fall colours

We were day tripping — during leaf season, room rates in northern Vermont more than double — and had promised Jilly an adventure. After a brief interlude at a friend’s cottage overlooking the mountains, we dipped father south to St. Albans where we got lost looking for a big-box store and ended up instead in the sweetest little shop. Vintage Vibe was packed with mid-century delights at mid-century prices and manned by the possibly the funkiest lady in all of Vermont. We left the store with crowns, costumes, antique furniture and a sense of gratification.

Yet Jilly was still asking whether we were on an adventure. An adventure to the nearest Denny’s is what I was thinking as I filled the tank with good old cheap American gas in a tiny border town. After all, all that socializing and shopping makes a family hungry. But Melani was looking across the street at Swanton Memorial United Methodist Church.

“There’s a church supper tonight,” she said, even though she knows I’m not comfortable with churches or strangers. “The second sitting starts about now.”

memorial united methodist church swanton

I didn’t make any cute jokes about the second sitting. I was still thinking about Denny’s as I clicked my seatbelt into place and pointed the car toward the border.

“Ten dollars a plate,” she added, appealing to my frugality.

I slowed the car. “You really want to do this? It won’t be weird?” She shrugged in that way that means “it won’t be weird unless you make it weird, dummy. And I’m hungry.”

memorial united methodist church swanton (2)The church itself was built in 1895, about 90 years after the first Methodist meeting in Swanton. It was the fourth official meeting place for Methodists. In 1826, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Friends, and Methodists built a brick church, according to the Swanton Historical Society, and in 1848 the Methodists constructed their own building. It was torn down and replaced in 1886. That one was destroyed in a fire, but rose again a year later. That’s a lot of history for one little church, but frankly we were more concerned with our growling stomachs.

I think they were surprised to see us. But their welcoming smiles and almost uncomfortable attention put us somewhat at ease. The lady who seated us apologized that we’d have to sit alone — the only other occupied table was already full. We were brought cider and buns, then potatoes and mashed squash the deliciousness of which I can’t even begin to explain. Biscuits and chicken were the centrepiece of the meal, with more gravy if we wished, and my favourite kind of cranberry sauce — the kind where you can still see the bumps created by the tin it came in. All were served on mid-century church dinnerware by a kind lady and her sweet, round-faced daughter, who might just be running these church dinners herself ten years from now.

church dinnerA handwritten sign on the back wall said “All are welcome at God’s table.”

The pastor came over to personally welcome us and we nodded and smiled — none of us really knew what to say or how to go about this, this whole thing where complete strangers drop in and sit at a table alone raving at the deliciousness of the food in a small-town church basement. And yet I thought of our friends over at Meanwhile at the Manse, who I think would have been tickled pink to have travellers drop in to one of their church suppers.

Just outside the door, with our bellies full of soul food, Melani put her hand in her pocket and withdrew a bundle of crumpled cash. We’d be home in just a few miles. “What should I do with this?” she asked me.

I shrugged. She’s the one who’s involved with the Unitarians back home, not me. “What would you want some stranger to do with it?”

And so she slipped back in and dropped it in the church basket. I hope they’ll put it toward the next church supper.

Blue skies and rain in pursuit of my zen


The text, sent from the office near the end of my shift, was shorthand for “Let’s run away for a few hours. This reality sucks donkey balls.” Or something along those lines. She understood.

The point was to find a little zen on the highway, get a little peace on the open road. When I nearly succumbed to road rage just a few minutes into the drive — resulting in photos taken of licence plates and an in-car call to the highway police just as a torrential rain started to fall — I was about ready to turn around.

cars trafficMelani, my compass, kept me calm and we kept going. And sure enough, things started to turn around as soon as we hit the border. Our border guard was sharing his little booth with another red-headed guard who looked exactly like him. They were mid-conversation — “…so he was just living in this van…” — and didn’t really have time for us. “Where are you going?” he asked, scanning our passports. “Plattsburgh.” “Okay. Have a good day.” Just like that.

The baby had stopped chattering and had fallen asleep. It was one of those times when you had to put on both your wipers and your shades, what with the sun arriving of the (literal) blue through the clouds to the west. We got on twisty Hwy. 9 and wended our way through Chazy, taking imaginary pictures of the fallen-down or boarded-up buildings that line that part of the road.

The roads were a little slippy, but we were alone on them. The spectacular fall leaves were washed out under overcast skies, punctuated with blasts of orange and red on the mountains on the horizon.

I was almost there. I’d almost found my zen.

And then, off to the left and dropping without fear into Chazy Lake, was the most perfect rainbow. Ah. There it is.

This rainbow dropped behind the cornfields right into Chazy Lake.
This rainbow dropped behind the cornfields right into Chazy Lake.

A walk in the park: Île Ste. Hélène/Parc Jean Drapeau

ile ste helenePart of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

ÎLE STE. HÉLÈNE – I went for a stroll through time last weekend, but I didn’t gather stories of long-dead grifters or tragic railway men. The history I went tramping through was my own.

From my last year in high school through my failed career as a college student, Île Ste. Hélène was my refuge as much as it was a breeding ground for youthful melodrama. I’m not a native Montrealer, so the little island-just-off-the-island, home to Expo 67, wasn’t on my radar until my mid-teens, when I met a freckled, gap-toothed redhead who taught me the finer points of playing hooky. (I’d eventually marry that girl, of course.)

We spent an entire spring forgoing Friday classes. Those Fridays found us at the Westmount tree or greenhouse, or wandering the myriad tangled paths of Île Ste. Hélène, being silly and talking about important things like boys and V. We climbed trees and rocks and swam in water so cold I’m still chilled, 27 years later.

When we left high school, we shared our special island to our next generation of friends, instituting (using the power of Dawson Sci-Fi and BBSes) Fireworks GTs. These drama-filled get-togethers were fraught with romance, comedy and other theatrics: The Summer I Prayed He’d Notice Me. The Summer He Did. The Summer It All Fell Apart.

An afternoon in the park stretched into nighttime on the Jacques Cartier Bridge watching the International Fireworks Competition, then the long slow stroll back to the métro. Too-loud giggles. Frantic whispers. Stolen kisses. Aching hearts.

Île Ste. Hélène had a hand in raising me, in shaping my history and awkwardly directing my future. There’s a little bit of me in every particle of soil here.

two wheelsNostalgia aside, Parc Jean Drapeau gets two stroller wheels. My instinct was to give it only one, but there are a ton of family-friendly things to do here, like the Biosphere, La Ronde, a spectacular playground and seasonal favourites like the Shriner’s Circus and Féte des Neiges. There is always some sort of activity or event going on on the island.

But because of those many things and because it’s just a small island, it’s impossible to lose yourself here as you might on the mountain or even Angrignon Park. The buzz of the city is always there and walking trails bump into roads at nearly every turn.

Thanks to big events like Piknic Electronik, Heavy Montreal and Osheaga, it’s also dirty and litter-filled. I took a shortcut through the brush in a couple of places and stepped over beer bottles, empty energy drink containers, red disposable cups and all sorts of other detritus. This is not the sort of place you can safely wander off the path.

I hope it finds a way to clean up its act, so maybe my daughter can live out a few dramas here one day.