It didn’t occur to me that our story was perhaps a strange and startling one. Did we really all meet online? And after only a few short months of knowing each other, we thought we should travel to Nashville for the weekend? Together? We immediately sounded like a reality TV show full of guaranteed fireworks, bitching and someone crying into their margarita by night’s end.
Last summer I remember reading Rona Maynard’s article “Online Bonding” (Best Health, Summer 2008) in the fluorescent lighting of the Shoppers Drug Mart in Abbotsford, in one swallow. I identified so closely with her concept of the “virtual community” and its merits that I bought the magazine. Finally, I had found someone who understood the comfort, intrigue and network that can be discovered through social media forums like Facebook and Twitter.
I emailed Rona immediately and said I wanted to be part of her virtual neighbourhood. She wrote back and we got on like a house on fire. Her words were amplified when I spent four months in Africa, and longed for the connection of friends so many oceans away. Although the internet connection was as reliable as public transit, I was able to send daily ‘postcards,’ if you will, to all my friends flung worldwide. And because I was falling asleep in Uganda just as Canada was waking up, I had constant companions into the wee hours to chat with.
As a kid, I had over 40 pen pals at one point. I went to several summer camps and picked the very best of the lot to keep me from being not so “campsick” (my version of homesick) over the too-long winters. There was a girl in Korea who sent me traditional dresses, Marco from Quebec who I met in the Bahamas, Dan from Boise, Idaho and a few others that I still keep curious tabs on.
The pen pal process has definitely been updated and refined, and the likelihood of meeting Facebook and Twitter ‘pen pals’ is tangible, doable and the obvious next step in online friendships.
I haven’t actively searched out strangers online, more often they are friend suggestions from someone near and dear to me who says, “Hey, this person is really cool. You should add her, you’ll love her humour.” And with a virtual introduction and handshake, the friendship is kick-started.
It’s almost like online dating, but for friends. And why not pull out the weeds before deciding which flowers to keep as perennials? The most remarkable people have shown up in my inbox–like when Jules Tortolani wrote me a random note to say, “Hey, we share a lot of letters in our name in common. We should probably be friends.” I initially had my Nut Bar Radar on high alert, but I couldn’t pick a more perfect soulmate than Jules.
I only have seven other ‘never-mets’ on my Facebook list, but I know these face-to-face encounters will happen because I have to meet Rob Peace. One night he was creeping through my old Toronto brownstone neighbour Ryan’s Facebook friend list and found me. He recognized my name and made a miraculous connection to a wall mural I had painted in Dunnville, Ontario a decade ago at a pizza joint called Godfathers. Rob had stopped for greasy pizza after a wedding and sent me a photo taken that night—of him and his then-girlfriend at Godfathers, with my mural and name in the background.
And this is why I love Facebook and its zero degrees of separation.
Which brings me to Nashville and the firepit where Andrea asked, “So, how do y’all know each other.”
Well, Heidi and I had been emailing back and forth like a tennis ball in a Serena and Venus finals game since March. A mutual friend had virtually introduced us and I was told that Heidi had been to Africa, and anyone that’s been to Africa is good in my books.
And Pam, another online friend said, “Leslie, she’s the real deal. Add her. Funny as hell and not a wacko.” So, Leslie and I started our bantering late August and met weeks later at a concert at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. Her potential probationary Nut Bar status was removed just as quickly as Jules Tortolani. I sat at Leslie’s table with a cardboard cut-out of Heidi’s head (semi-long and separate story), because Leslie and Heidi were also linked together online, about a year before. And then Leslie introduced me to Kelly at the concert, who played Proline football with Heidi in Nashville, and the Twittering began.
As someone who loves to write (anything really—from grocery lists to erotica to emails longer than a Charles Dickens novel), Leslie and I outdid each other with our essay-length get-to-know-you question and answer sessions. Mid-September she asked me what my biggest regret in life was, as one of her daily five questions (we liked to keep things light and fluffy). This was after Leslie told me that she and Kelly had decided to visit Heidi in Nashville in November.
“My biggest regret is not going to Nashville with you two,” I responded, half- joking while sipping merlot on my brother’s floor, and sorting out where to work and live as I had just landed back in Toronto. When I woke up in the morning, there were almost a dozen emails from Kelly and Leslie insisting that I come to Tennessee with them, to meet Heidi and see a football game of all things, and in less than an hour I had a flight booked on expedia.ca
Naturally, one would think such a random get together would be a train wreck in slow motion. What we didn’t realize was how perfect we all were for each other. I’ve gone camping with friends who I’ve wanted to leave out for the bears to eat on the first night.
I uesd to know a woman who would end all her relationships (not intentionally) when she planned an overnight camping trip with them. She convinced me that maybe this was the best way to filter out the gal and friends that are going to work. If you can set up a tent together, eat sloppy S’mores, sleep in soggy sleeping bags, piss in a beer can in the tent because it’s raining, wake up smelling like bacon bits and still respect each other in the morning, the partnership/friendship would definitely work.
And maybe this was what Nashville was for us. It was our camping trip to ensure that we had the vital elements for continuing the friendship that had started online.
But I knew. I knew Kelly would be like a golden retriever—happy to follow any of us wherever we wanted to go. She used to do stand-up comedy, so she was a logical choice to spend life on a desert island or a weekend in Nashville with. I was also confident that Leslie was solid, despite her warning that she sometimes turned into a Greek man when drinking.
The bigger question was whether Heidi could handle Team Canada on her Nashville doorstep.
Emails full of anticipation were sent back and forth, fast and furious. We nearly laughed ourselves hoarse the first night in Detroit (and Leslie returned with no voice to speak of at all!). And when we finally met our Nashville ambassador, Heidi, we laughed even more. The ‘reunion’ was without awkwardness or oh-my-god-she-didn’t-tell-me-about-that-annoying-quirk revelations. It was like a mutual sigh and sense of relief–“Finally, we get to be together!”
The November Nashville sun was like a summer’s day. We had lunch on Ted’s sun-kissed BBQ patio, feeling the southern hospitality instantly–bison meatloaf sandwiches, Flying Dog Pale Ale, sliders, Auntie Faye’s squash casserole and the company of ‘strangers.’
We had so much to talk about and I left Nashville after four days thinking, there just wasn’t enough time for all the conversations, pancakes and pork rinds that needed to be ha
I had no idea that Nashville was going to be such an epicurean pleaser either! I have a list of things I still need to eat there—like the four pound burger that’s free if you can eat it in an hour, deep-fried pickles, fried catfish sandwiches, grits and Jack’s BBQ! But, when you travel, you always need to leave a reason to return.
The highlight was unanimously Arrington Vineyards, founded by country artist Kix Brooks (of Brooks & Dunn fame). What a magical place of storybook quality. Heidi insisted that we arrive just before the sun set to fully experience the charm of Arrington. At Arrington you can buy a bottle (Viognier, Reisling, Muscat, Syrah, Cabernet) and find a place to picnic on the property. And the picnicking is serious—linens, candles, charcuterie, cheese wedges worth more than the bottles of wine and artisan crackers. We’re not talking about cold KFC and a bag of stale Doritos. Arrington wine sippers know how to picnic.
There are dozens of picnic tables, huge swings in the handsome trees, a wrap-around deck and a welcoming hillside for casual wine drinking while reclined in the grass. The vines were scarlet red in the fields, and so striking against the horizon. When the sun dropped in the sky that night—it was like God was showing off his best brushstrokes.
Heidi introduced us to her favourite, the Syrah—black tea, exotic spice, pepper, blackberry jam and mocha flavours. It was a gentle collision of sensuality and silkiness. We talked into the darkness, sharing the intimate conversations that the night pulls out of you before you even realize it. A bonfire was lit at the top of the hill and was licking the belly of the stars when we left.
We continued the wine-tasting theme at The Wine Loft, a swishy tapas-style resto with thimble-sized stools and small, cozy tables that add to the contagious vibe. I was still full from the stack of Cracker Barrel blueberry pancakes 10 hours previous, but managed to eat almost an entire wheel of vanilla-infused baked brie with crostini. The tapas were almost too pretty to eat as the Loft takes pride in constructing appetizers suitable for hanging on gallery walls.
On Sunday, after crappy football nachos with congealed cheese at the Titans vs. Bills game (16 rows up from the field!), Heidi made sure that we had the finest tortilla chips and love potion margaritas in town at Cantina Laredo. Let me tell you, even the forks are bigger in America, and for good reason.
My vision of Nashville was largely of 10 gallon hats, spurs and a lot of Marlboro men leaned up against pick-up trucks, but I was pleasantly surprised. The Cumberland River splits the city in a reflective divide, and minutes from downtown, the manicured properties and drool-worthy plantation homes elicit constant oooohs and ahhhhhs.
The grounds of the Steeplechase and the local parks with spun-gold maple leaves brighter than the sun, where we took Heidi’s retrievers for a swim, were the best bits of America. And with the Southern drawl, everyone we talked to had us at “hello.” Really, I can’t remember visiting a friendlier state. Even the homeless are hospitable and willing to sing a hurtin’ country song for spare change. Kelly and I decided we could easily live there. She would require season’s tickets for the Titans, and I would simply need to add more mileage to my morning runs to keep pace with the butter intake.
There was a palpable sadness in leaving Nashville and saying goodbye to Heidi (who definitely passed the weekend camping test). I am so grateful for the virtual introductions (thanks J.) and for the beautiful connections that have been made in a world that really is not so big after all.
God bless America, Facebook and Rona, for reminding us that it’s not about where you find your friends, it’s where you keep them. And I’m keeping these women closer to my heart after this weekend.
“Welcome to my online community. Instead of wine or coffee, I’m serving stories—the kind women tell among friends.” Visit Rona’s brilliant blog— http://ronamaynard.com/
All things Nashville–