The professor and I headed out on Thursday morning for our pseudo-weekly coffee date. I’d recently loaned him my Fitbit and he’d become subsequently obsessed with checking his steps; to achieve the coveted 10,000 every day. ‘You want to get a coffee and go for a walk,’ he offered by way of suggestion. ‘Sure. Where?’ ‘The place with the houses and the bridge that washed away.’
This being directionally challenged, professorial shorthand for Elbow Park.
I was still considering the matter of where to get the coffee when I found myself driving past Phil and Sebastian’s coffee shop and happened upon a generously sized parking spot right by the front door. It’s basically the Marda Loop equivalent of winning the lottery. With a surprising level of skill I eased my unfashionable minivan into prime parking real estate and we headed inside for a latte.
When the barista announced ‘lattes for Jason,’ (because I always defer to my companion’s inevitably easier to spell or pronounce name) I left our table to pick up the beverages. They were in paper cups. This, to me, is a profound disappointment and reason enough for crossing coffee shops off my ‘list’. Because if I’m going to park my car and snag a table in a hipster joint, I’d like the added luxury of porcelain over paper, thankyouverymuch.
I glanced at the other occupied tables in the shop. Paper cups perched on all of them. (Did all the cups break? Did the dishwasher die?)
‘Well, we might as well just take the coffee and go on our walk,’ I grumbled and the professor, who lives and breathes deadlines these days, was happy to oblige.
We parked by the formerly flooded, under construction, Elbow Park School, and crossed the bridge to Riverdale Avenue, where multi-million dollar homes line the streets, many of them still paying for the privilege of being a stone’s throw away from the river. In the span of two blocks we gazed upon ornamental Buddha statues, a would-be Italian villa whose drained fountain gave the entirely concrete front space a slightly Stalinist, East-Berlin vibe, boarded up homes whose owners possibly took their insurance settlements to higher elevations and fully functional homes whose facades resembled those I drew as a kid.
A not-particularly-artistically-inclined kid.
Yes, Calgary has an architectural style unlike any other I’ve witnessed. We climbed a rather steep hill to Britannia Drive where a replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple kept company with old-fashioned, siding-clad bungalows sporting walk-out basements and city views, and updated take(s) on the cavernous Sleeping-with-the-Enemy dwelling. (Yours for only $5.75 million. Don’t waste your time looking for the pool. Or the tennis court. Or the carriage house.)
We walked past a construction site where workers were putting the finishing touches on a very large house with a balcony over the garage. For a glorious view…..of their neighbor’s domicile. Because sometimes you might think: ‘Today I want to drink my coffee and stare at the house across the street.’ And you’ll have just the balcony for the occasion.
[Full disclosure: I live in an old-fashioned white bungalow with a dorm-sized refrigerator. And no views of any kind.]
Looking at other people’s homes got me thinking about a larger question that had plagued me in recent weeks. Stemming from a Brandi Carlile song and a playground conversation with a mom I’d just met. ‘Where are you from,’ I’d inquired, partly because she spoke with an accent, and she’d mentioned being relatively new to Calgary, and also because it’s one of a go-to list of standard social inquiries drawn upon when making small talk. The others being ‘hihowareyou, howmanychildrendoyouhave or whatdoyoudo‘. All of them, I’ve come to conclude, well-intentioned landmines to the person struggling with the particular answer.
The new-mom gave a roundabout answer, the kind only given by someone who has lived in a lot of places. ‘And you?’ she
retaliated reciprocated. I gave the same vague response. Because 9 cities and 4 countries (5 if you count a brief stint in Berlin) later, your guess is as good as mine. In terms of longest tenure in a single city, it’s Johannesburg. Even though I haven’t been there in nearly two decades. But in terms of most time spent in one country (albeit in 5 different states), it’s the U.S.
Maybe I could come up with a Tiger Woods-esque answer to sum up the range of my cultural heritage and influences. Or maybe my boys, who insist I’m from ‘South America’ have already done it for me.
Naturally I married a man with an equally complicated answer. ‘What do you say when people ask you where you’re from,’ I asked the professor. ‘I say I was born in Duluth,’ he cited the birthplace on his passport. ‘But you lived there for like a year,’ I disagreed. ‘Yeah, but it’s an easy answer. There are no follow up questions. It shuts down the conversation.’
I knew what he meant.
If I say I’m ‘from South Africa’ it elicits at least five more questions slash comments, all of which require additional explanation: 1) What city (which is an improvement from my junior high days when people would say ‘yes, but what country?’) 2) But you don’t speak with an accent. 3) Oh, were your parents doctors/diplomats/missionaries? 4)How old were you when you moved? 5) Do your parents still live there?
But if I say I’m ‘from the U.S.’ it feels like a half truth. Not to mention I’d have to say my hometown is Muncie, Indiana, which is not a particularly cosmopolitan answer and accounts for less than a third of my time here on earth.
In recent days I’ve begun to wonder if it even matters, this answer to what is ultimately a perfunctory question.
‘I was born in Duluth’ seems as good an answer as any.