Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Homeward Bound

This morning I tagged along with my Man and the Francophone to the St Boniface Museum, where they were speaking to a couple of school groups about the guitar. St Boniface is the oldest building in Winnipeg, the largest oak structure in North America, and was built to house the order of the Grey Nuns, in whose hands it was a school, hospice, and mission. It is where Louis Riel went to school, and it is from spalted oak that was part of this building that the guitar's back and sides are made.

I think the class enjoyed the presentation - they certainly were attentive, and they had a bunch of questions afterward. They really all just wanted to get close to it and touch all the pieces for themselves. This one kid who sat in the corner away from everyone else and looked bored through the whole presentation came up afterward and asked to play the guitar - which he did really well! So that was kind of inspiring.

After the school visit, the lovely Phil drove my Man and I up to the Winnipeg Trading Post so I could loo0k at mukluks. Sadly, they didn't have any in my size. But while I was looking at mukluks, my Man was picking up lunch next door at Kelekis, a Winnipeg landmark, which sells hamburgers, hot dogs and fantastic shoestring french fries. The cheese dogs are diner classics - two per bun, sliced down the middle, smothered in cheese and onions that make your hands stink for hours. The perfect final meal to have in this great town.

My Man had one more school visit, so I headed back to the hotel to pack, and to visit the two other Winnipeg landmarks I'd been told were of note. I bundled up against the - 44 degree wind chill and headed up the road to Reiss Fur Company to feed my new fur obsession. Run by the original family, Reiss is closing its doors this year, when Harry Reiss retires. Mr Reiss very kindly opened up his showroom and gave me a tour of his beautiful coats. Mink, fox, lynx, beaver - they were gorgeous - and at at least a third off their regular prices, a great bargain. Sadly, even at a third off, $2500 is out of my league...and while a fur coat is appropriate for - 44 Winnipeg, I can hardly see myself on a Toronto streetcar in floor-length mink. But it was good fun to stroke all the coats and fantasize.

After Reiss, it was a short walk down to Toad Hall Toys, a sprawling jumble of a place carrying everything from model trains and planes to books and board games. I'm told the staff travel the world to source toys from across the globe - and I could easily have spent hours browsing their crowded shelves.

Back to the hotel for a last drink with the Francophone before hitting the road with Jacques to pick up my Man from the CBC where he'd been conducting an interview for The Nerve with an American general about the use of music in prisoner interrogation. They drove me to the airport, and here I am in the Maple Leaf Lounge, drinking a glass of wine and looking at the Winnipeg sunset across the tarmac.

Winnipeg has been a great adventure. The people we met were charming (and very French!) and the city has a sad sort of charm - I would like to come back when it was better weather for walking, in order to really get a feel for the place.

But I am glad to be going home.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Louis Riel Day

The third Monday in February is a new stat holiday here in Manitoba, and instead of the insipid "Family Day" chosen by Ontario, they've gone with Louis Riel Day. It's a perfect fit for the Festival, and the site is positively hopping - crowds everywhere, and a special ceremony by the Riel snow sculpture on-site.

We're busy with photos again - we make a lot of friends today - and we have the delightful Louane as our volunteer once more. Sadly, we have to close down before the end of the Day as there is only one flight back to Toronto tonight, and the Photographer has to be on it. So at four o'clock we start the tear-down and in half an hour we are ready to go.

This early finish - though disappointing - is a bit of a bonus, as we're all exhausted and looking forward to a nap before our evening event. Once back at the hotel, my Man and I don our bathrobes and swimsuits and head up to the hot tub, which is one floor above our room - on the 21st floor. Twenty minutes in the hot tub and we're relaxed and sleepy. We toddle back down to our room, enjoy a G&T from the minbar, and sleep for an hour.

Our gig tonight is at the King's Head Pub. Run by the delightfully Irish and extremely frenetic Francis (who embraces us when we leave), the King's Head has a huge selection of beer and a great menu with a whole page of curries! (My Man, the Francophone and I have the Lamb Madras, the Butter Chicken, and the Lamb Vindaloo respectively.) The Francophone's sister and husband join us once again, and we all enjoy our delicious food while waiting for the music to start. We were joined by a number of new friends and some old ones - our table was crammed all the way around by the time our meal was over.

Tonight's band is Les Voyous, and their music is a highlight of the festival for me. These musicians could not have been more than twenty-five years old at most - but they were tight, professional and clearly having a rockin' good time up there. The lead guitarist, in particular, is an incredible talent, completely without attitude but clearly enjoying himself. A really great finish to the festival weekend.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Le Festival Continues....

More portraits today - and our volunteers were a mother and son team, Noreen & Steven. Steven was only 13 and bilingual - which is fantastic, as almost all of the festival-goers are Francophones. We're busy, but not as busy as Saturday. It's a long day, though - we start at noon and hardly stop for breath until 6:30pm. Tonight we have to strike our setup at the end of the day; there's a sponsor VIP reception in La maison this evening so they need the room clear. Melissa and Lynn (who seem to run the festival almost single-handed) stop by to help - we're packed up in no time.

The Francophone's sister has been so good to us - today she came by with two canvas bags full of food and drink, including her home-made tourtiere and a local pork pate called cretons. We took it all back to the hotel and the four of us had a small feast in our room. It was delicious.

The band playing the guitar tonight are called Pushing Daisies - dramatic and passionate power rockers who sing in French and English. They play the guitar for a couple of songs off the top, so we stick around for a song or two after that and then head over to the tent next door where the ice bar is for shots of Caribou all round. Still bloody cold out, but the Caribou warms us up from the inside out, and we trundle off to wait for our shuttle back to the hotel.

It's still early by the time we get back, so we share a bottle of wine in the Fairmont lounge bar before turning in.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Vive le Festival!

Another wonderful day at the Festival du Voyageur. The enthusiasm and good cheer of the Festival's staff and volunteers is infectious - we are having a blast.

It's Saturday today, so all the shops that are usually open in the underground concourse are shut - which means there's nowhere cheap to buy breakfast. Our only option is the hotel's restaurant - which is kind of pricey - but the menu looks great, so down we go. We stroll in only to find the Francophone breakfasting alone, so we join him. Here he is enjoying his Ukrainian Eggs Benedict - poached eggs on top of shaved ham on top of a potato latke - all covered in hollandaise sauce). Delicious.

Today was our first day running the portrait studio. We've been placed in La maison du bourgeois - a gorgeous re-creation of the original building that would have been in the heart of this fort. (A re-creation with heat, hot water and toilets, I am happy to report - the rest of the festival-goers have to use the porto-potties - not a fun thing to do in minus forty degree weather!). La maison is huge - we're on the main floor which is a big open room with a huge fireplace at one end and a number of pelts hanging from pegs on the wall. I've never been able to touch so much fur before - there's badger, raccoon, beaver, wolverine, deer, coyote, white, silver and red fox - they are lovely to look at, very soft and so tactile, and I feel a sudden longing for a fur coat. The trimmed beaver pelt, in particular, is so soft it hardly feels real.

On the second floor there are a number of folks in traditional costume demonstrating period crafts like finger-weaving - which is how the ceintures are made, and one of the weavers tells us the "arrowhead" pattern used is unique to North America - something of a coup in the weaving world. Because of this second floor activity, a lot of people who don't know we're here or what we're about are drawn to the building, so we benefit from their traffic.

The room we're in is huge and warm and we took more pictures in the first half hour we were up and running than we ever had before. Public response to the guitar has been very warm - people love the idea of having a memento of the Festival - and we had lineups almost all day long. Our two volunteers, Luaune and Mona, tell us that tomorrow should be even busier...can't wait!

A highlight of the day was meeting the Francophone's sister and brother-in-law (Winnipeg is the Francophone's home town). We arranged to meet them for dinner at their favourite Italian restaurant, Casa Grande, later that evening - and boy, were we glad we did! We had some of the best pizza we have ever eaten! The crust was a miracle - perfect crumb, and light as a feather - and the toppings were generous and well-distributed. My Man had the Calabrese (heavy on sausage and capicollo), the Francophone had the Carne (more meat than I have ever seen in one place), and I had the Napolenata (basically a salt pizza with kalamata olives, capers and anchovies - yum!). Washed down with carafes of house red wine, our tummies were full and warm by the end of the too-short meal, when we had to head back to the festival site for that night's performance. The Francophone's Sister insisted on picking up our bill - yet another example of Manitoban hospitality. Merci!!

The band who were to play the guitar that night were called Venus Murphy - another local band who play a kind of Celtic pub rock with incredible enthusiasm. The crowd loved them. They were very vocal about how thrilled they were to play the guitar - and almost all the band members took a turn on it throughout their set - which thrilled us as well!

Friday, February 15, 2008

First full day in Winnipeg

And what a full day it was! With the aid of two drivers - Henri on the way out and Phil on the way back - I managed to get our two big boxes of t-shirts to the festival site and consigned to the care of Elise in the Souvenir Tent (making a quick stop at the bison jerky vendor on the way...).

My Man and the Francophone spent the day doing school visits, bu
t were back mid-afternoon, when we hooked up with the Photographer and went down to the concourse to find a new winter coat for me. Thankfully, our shopping trip was successful - I am newly coated, and a good thing, too, as last night was fucking freezing. (I'm afraid there's no way to describe the temperature without using an expletive - fucking is the only adjective that can adequately express how cold it was.) In the picture you can see the Francophone's breath!

When we got back to the room we had a call from our good friend the Filmmaker, who lives in Calgary but happens to also be in Winnipeg this weekend working on her show. She stopped by for half an hour with her friend Cameron, to drink some fizz, talk about the Festival and give us a quick tune on the guitar.

We'd hoped to venture out into the city for dinner, but our time was limited by the concert schedule that evening, so we ended up dining in the Fairmont's lounge bar. Their specialty is a creamy soup of locally-sourced wild rice and field mushrooms - delicious.

We spent last night at the Festival site - it's built around Fort Gibraltar, with wooden palisades and heated tents and 40 sculptors from around the world all working on enormous snow sculptures in various roped-off areas. We'll be right inside the fort tomorrow with our photo setup, but tonight was all about music.

The bands play in a couple of different tents - all huge and heated with long tables and benches and food and caribou wine (a mixture of homemade today - the menu last night featured tourtiere, beans, pancakes, maple syrup, ragout....positively drool-making.

The first band to play the guitar w wine and whisky or rum)! (Delicious but deadly.) We can't wait to eat at the siteere the D-Rangers - a fantastic bluegrass band from Winnipeg - they used it for the first couple of songs in their 90-minute set, which was held in the Cabane a sucre (Sugar Shack), where you can also buy maple syrup that has been poured onto snow and twirled onto a popsicle stick. Over at the Trading Post we met the second band of the night - Eagle and Hawk - another incredible local band who rocked the house! We're told they rarely play lived, so their presence at the festival was a special occasion. Their opening act featured a native hoop dancer - and some incredible singing and guitar playing.

We were glad to be back at the hotel by 11pm - it was so cold out by the time we left the site that all anyone wanted to do was go straight to bed.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Winnipeg Airport was small and easy to navigate, and I was met at the gate by some of the Festival's awesome transportation volunteers. Mark (who has been with the Festival since it found its home in Whittier Park in 1977!) drove an Argentinean sculptor named Liliana and
myself from the airport to our hotel, the Fairmont Winnipeg. He wore a fabulous red toque - traditional festival wear and symbols of the original voyageurs, along with the woven ceinture.

The Fairmont is located at the infamous intersection of Portage & Main, right in the heart of Winnipeg. The hotel itself is not the most striking building, but the view from up here on the 20th floor is remarkable. Winnipeg has some beautiful buildings, from
what I can see from here - it's a shame it's so cold, as it makes walking around the city challenging. Below the hotel there is an underground concourse - like the one downtown at home - which then turns into a path that connects a number of shops and buildings a few stories above the street - like the one in Calgary. The Photographer and I spent a couple of hours wandering this maze. He picked up tickets to tomorrow night's hockey game and I picked up shampoo and conditioner (the dry weather sucks all the moisture out of your hair - hotel shampoo simply won't do!).

Back at the hotel, my Man and I drank a little Valentine's Day fizz before heading out to Oui - a new French bistro located in the Exchange neighbourhood - ten minutes' walk from our hotel. And ten minutes was enough! It is bloody freezing out there - especially at night - so cold it instantly freeze all the hairs in your nose.

We had the most fantastic meal at Oui - my Man had the Boeuf Bour
guignon and I had the Cassoulet - French white beans, the restaurant's own garlic sausage, and duck….delicious. And wonderful wine, too.

We were so cold by the time we got back to the hotel (the zip on my winter coat is gone - today I shop for a new one!) that we put our bathing suits and robes on and went up to the hot tub in the hotel's health club. Fifteen minutes in the hot tub and we were nodding off - back to the room, and bed for us.
We're high over Lake Superior as I type this. The Lake looks strange from up here - darkest blue, striated with ice and patches of snow - it looks like the clouds have fallen straight out of the sky and landed flat on the surface of the water below. I've only every flown over it in the summer before - it's vastness never fails to surprise me.

This is a solo flight for me - my Man, his Guitar, and the Franco- phone left yesterday, the Photographer followed last night - and I am the last to arrive - on a flight that should have left at eight-fifteen but which sat on the tarmac until ten o'clock. (I had been thinking, as I sat in the Maple Leaf Lounge waiting for the gate to open, that I had never encountered a significantly delayed flight, in all the traveling we've done with the Guitar over the last two years. I should have known better - I jinxed myself.)

I've been joking all week that some people go to the Caribbean in February - my Man and I go to Winnipeg (Romance Capital of the Canadian Midwest) where last night the temperature with wind-chill reached an inconceivable -50C. The purpose of our visit to Winnipeg on Valentine's Day is the Festival du Voyageur - Canada's second largest winter festival, after Quebec's Carnival.

There should be a shuttle waiting for me at the airport - so odd to be on the other side of the festival service machine - I'm used to being one of the folks who provides the service. We're in Winnipeg as guests of the festival; the Guitar will be officially nicknamed (there's an oxymoron!) - at a press conference this morning, and is the focus of several events over the weekend. We'll have the portrait studio up and running as well - so between taking pictures and participating in the musical events, it promises to be a very busy few days.

We're flying over land, now, and the open spaces of Manitoba lie below, huge swathes of white, squiggles that must be rivers and the occasional straight line of a road. The snow looks lovely - like someone blew hard into a huge pile of flour - enormous white feathery brush strokes drift across the ground below. There's a railway line running straight as an arrow westward. One two-lane highway intersects with another and inscribes a perfect cloverleaf in the otherwise deserted landscape.

As we near our destination and fly lower over houses, I see a deserted ice rink behind what must be a school or community centre. It's perfect, the two blue lines and one red one, the iconic shape - so symbolic of our country - reminding me that I'm travelling toward an experience that will give me another piece to slot into the puzzle that is Canada. This is my first visit to Winnipeg - to Manitoba - and it's exciting to be part of a festival that speaks so directly to the culture and the history of the place.

I can't wait to see everyone, to meet new friends and hear some good music, eat some local food and discover some new favourite haunts. We're nearing the airport - time to shut the laptop and return my seat to its upright position!