In 2003 my husband and I left Toronto and a house that we and our children loved and had called home for 23 years. We were leaving family and a wonderful group of friends that we’d met through our children, work and community. We’d enjoyed all the riches the city had to offer – culture, restaurants, the ethnic communities, markets and parks – and were now moving 200 kilometres away to make a new home in the country. Fortunately for us the transition was an easy one since we were moving to an area that my sister and two friends had moved to many years earlier, Prince Edward County. There was a lot we were leaving behind but the elements that make a place ‘home’ were all there and waiting for us in the County.
For me, continuity between past and present is an integral part of creating a home, so we bought a large 19th century farmhouse that accommodates family and friends for weekend visits. This makes for richer and more intimate times together and we actually spend more time with our city friends. When we lived in Toronto we tended to go away on weekends to a cottage so our social life in the city had declined somewhat. Now, after the initial excitement which occurs within the first few hours of people walking through the door – lively chat, laughter, good food and wine – there is a delightfully relaxed and, at times, silent co-existence as everyone takes time to explore their new surroundings or just sit with a book. And, if it’s my wonderful city book group friends, well, there might even be some terrific singing with piano accompaniment. Unfortunately, however, the group we have lost contact with are our city neighbours – the people who had become, over many years, familiar faces and casual friends. Here in the County our closest neighbours are a quarter of a kilometer away. Though I love the privacy and the open vistas of our new home, I do miss stepping out my front door and waving across the road or better yet walking over for a little spontaneous chat, even it was a seasonal activity. We used to joke that it wasn’t until spring that we’d appear, along with the daffodils and crocuses, to speak to one another again.
Because we moved to a thriving and growing community of not only well established families going back generations, but many ‘imports’ who share the same interests, I have made many new and interesting friends. In particular, my circle of friends quickly grew when, shortly after moving here, I was invited by a small group of women of diverse professional backgrounds to join their ‘workgroup’. Every Tuesday morning six of us gather at one of our houses to help with whatever task might benefit from a number of hands. Since all of us have huge gardens – 2500 square feet or larger – May through September is usually taken up with tilling, spreading manure and compost, planting, weeding and harvesting. There are two vineyard owners who need help with pruning, bottling and labelling and one with a small bee product company who appreciates help with soap production. The amount of work we accomplish together in two hours is phenomenal and every work session ends with a delicious potluck lunch.
It’s a lovely concept, this ‘workgroup’ idea, and is reminiscent of barn raising projects or quilting bees, and though these two activities are obviously related to country living, it’s interesting that no one does anything similar in the city. Perhaps because we devote so much time to our professional lives in the city, any spare time is given to either relaxation or cultural entertainment. And maybe the constant proximity to so many people leads to a more insular and private home life. In other words, people not only feel they have less free time to maintain their homes and properties, but the spare time they do have becomes such a precious commodity that they prefer to deal with paid workers with whom they have a less personal relationship. There’s a very different energy that comes with working on a group project for no financial remuneration. Because it is also looked upon as a social gathering, work time is always accompanied by lighthearted conversation and laughter. It would be wonderful to think that city people could adopt such a practice, especially in their retirement years. There is no end to the benefits.
I find friends and community are always interconnected and one of the highlights of country living is participating, with my fellow workgroup friends, in one of the numerous fairs that take place throughout the year. Using the organic produce from our gardens, we create fusion fillings for the empanadas or tortillas that we make and sell at a booth with all the other home food enterprises and craftspeople at the Milford Fair. Though some of the locals are a little more comfortable buying their lunch from the chips and hot dog wagon, they always stop, if somewhat tentatively, for a little peek and a chat. Of course the highlight of the day is the delightful parade that precedes the ‘opening of the gates’. A very energetic bagpipe band; open convertibles carrying local police officers, the mayor, and the County clown (all familiar faces to the locals); and the ever popular procession of antique cars and ancient flatulent tractors which are always a big hit with the crowd. In fact, this year women drove all the antique cars – a pleasant change. And then there is the dog show, the log sawing contest and the competition to see who grew the biggest garlic or the most perfect tomato, just to mention a few.
Culture flourishes here as well. Obviously there are not the big stars of the music, theatre and art world of Toronto but there is still much to enjoy. In the County’s biggest town, Picton, the old theatre was renovated and now provides us with live entertainment, current movies, award-winning international films and documentaries and live satellite performances. All this, including the renovation, was, and is, made possible by the work of volunteers and fundraising by the community. Two years ago, virtually all the artists – and there are many – submitted a piece of work for a fundraising event. Each one was an affordable $50 and all the proceeds went to convert to digital projection. It was a huge and fun event, open to anyone who was interested and though it would never have made it into the Society section of the Globe and Mail, it was a great success.
What I do miss very much, however, are the many museums, galleries and theatres, including the large art institutions such as the AGO, the ROM, and the Sony Centre, and the immense cultural diversity of an urban population made up of many ethnic and religious backgrounds. To set out on foot, with the option of jumping on a streetcar or the subway at any time, with or without a destination in mind, wind my way through different ethnic neighbourhoods, check out shops and restaurants and people watch, is just not possible in the County. And yes, there are some wonderful restaurants, but when I crave some good and inexpensive Thai, Middle Eastern, Indian or Chinese food, it is nowhere to be found.
What I don’t miss is winter in the city. Trying to navigate through poorly ploughed, narrow and slushy streets, for me, was a nightmare. And, though in the County there is a definite sense of hunkering down for a few months, I’m not sure that that leads to a greater feeling of isolation than it does in the city. Country life is in many ways a microcosm of city living so when there is an attack of stir-craziness, one can always go to town or call friends for a social get-together. What is a treat here in winter, and not so visible in the city, is the dramatic landscape and ever-changing, beautiful sky. I have come to love the pinks and mauves of a winter horizon, a soft palette of colours I never appreciated before.
This new home of mine is so rich, so familiar and yet so different. My neighbours – local farmers – don’t just give us a battery boost, they plough the snow from my long drive, cut and bale the hay in our front ‘yard’, till my huge garden and deliver fresh eggs and bread to our door. In the summer months the tai chi classes I attend take place under maple trees in a community fairground overlooking beautiful farmland interrupted only by the squawking of a mother osprey and her offspring. My husband has built a lovely and simple Zen do in an out building where he leads a Sunday session, well attended by men and women interested in meditation and Zen practice. As for traffic problems, the most frustrating is the sense that you are driving through town with overly polite and considerate drivers in a never-ending funeral procession. However, having just driven to Toronto, I will take country driving any day over city driving. In the County, my worst fear is that I will drive into a ditch as I take in the scenery on the long, winding roads. When I am desperate for a more cosmopolitan experience, I make a short trip back to the city for an exhilarating ‘shot in the arm’. What I have come to appreciate is that at this stage of my life, I prefer my more peaceful and quiet existence
– Mary Lou McQuillan
Photos by Mary Lou McQuillan