“Why are you two moving anyway?”
The question is posed often. Why would we want to leave our sweet little stone cottage now that we’ve groomed the grounds and painted the entire square footage to our earthy palette specs?
‘Here’ was always temporary. We had to stay within a radius that was commuting-friendly for Kim—not some banging-head-on-steering-wheel drive that sucked up three hours of her day (*factoring in 12 hour shifts to boot). With retirement on the shiny horizon, we will be untethered. With friends and family scattered across the map with equal density, we’re truly free range chickens.
In three years, we’ve taken full advantage of this area. Like small town Lonely Planet writers, we’ve been in and out of every curry house, bake shop and pub, scribbling our own notes (mental, and on tripadvisor). To live somewhere, anywhere—there’s a responsibility to deepen the relationship. And we have.
It’s the familiarity that we will miss—but, we also know that it can be created so easily with time, networking, serendipity and on-foot wandering. It’s reassuring to have that Norm (of Cheers fame) rapport, and connect. Whether it’s the bubbly as Prosecco staff at the liquor store, the smiley guys at the Diva gas pumps, the Home Hardware paint department or plugged-in librarians, we have built our own custom community framework. Each person has been like an essential Lego block in our construction.
Sure, there are many that we only know on a first name basis, but Franco (who is doing woodwork in the century home beside us—like clockwork…no, really. His station wagon rolls into the drive at 10:00am, departs at 12 for a 30 minute lunch and leaves again with precision at 4pm), Cheezy (not his real name—but he owns Cheezy’s Variety across the street), Dee (of Dee’s butter tart empire) and Nonna (not her real name either, but she’s the perennially kerchiefed Polish woman in the stone house across from us) are quintessential Galt. There’s John who lumbers down the sidewalk with his makeshift cart to collect beer bottles on recycling night, Heather the chatty pilot, the Quaker girls and our now departed favourite neighbours who went west by three blocks—Dawn and Eric.
I’ve previously showcased Dawn as the baked good angel who actually smells like wedding cake and routinely drops off a dozen chocolate chip cookies—stuffed with Oreos. Or coconut lime loaves iced in heavenly confectionary. Then there’s a whole crew of dogs that make this neighbourhood distinctly ours. Meet Penny the Beagle, Porkchop the English bulldog, lanky Scout and two husky pups, still with little razor puppy teeth. They are pure Galt too.
Even the squirrels are familiar here (I feel like Dian Fossey, recognizing and charting the squirrel family tree)—one of the grey brood has ears that are seemingly dyed Billy Idol blonde. Chipper the bachelor chipmunk, runs along the foundation of our house like a streetcar line. Margaret, the toad as big as a Whopper hamburger patty, spent most of the summer with us until she hopped somewhere new.
Our backyard has been a pure recalibration zone after being sequestered in a basement apartment in Toronto, and a suburban peekaboo in Oakville (where all surrounding eyes are upon you in a tiny no-trees-yet just-sodded backyard).
But the best part? Exploring and exposing. Moving is like opening a blank journal and running your palm down the seam. (*Here’s your preliminary homework: Visit Maclennan & Baetz Publishing House and purchase a hand-sewn journal online. As the founder insists: “Making notebooks in a garage in Waterloo, Ontario is our life’s work. You can fill them with yours.”)
Start with a to-do list like ours, searching for the best tiny cupcakes and Jamaican patties in town. Sketch your favourite places like Joe Forte has done in Key West, Greenwich Village and Cambridge. (He took it a step further by living out of his van for six months at a time, all ink, passion and pro bono vino nightcaps from the neighbouring Italian restaurant). Go for a walk without destination.
Certainly, moving out of this area is a swan song of sorts, but, it’s a dance that starts all over again. And, I’m no dancer, so that’s as far as that metaphor is going to go. A few weeks ago, Kim and I sat around our black walnut harvest table (that will come with us as a reminder of the mighty walnut trees rooted a century deep in our yard) and randomly started rhyming off all that we had done in this area. With the enthusiasm of Girl Guides trying to attain fifty badges in a summer, I think we’re close. And, it doesn’t matter where you live—stuff is there. You don’t need the neon lights, Michelin stars or trendy cafes or roadside attractions. Poke around like we did. This is what we did and found….and I challenge you to do the same.
Bat-tagging (yes, tagging bats to track their migration patterns) at Shade’s Mills Conservation Area. The Grand River Conservation Authority offer public programs that run the gamut from star gazing to crash courses on salamanders to snowshoeing. Or, owl prowls…see below.
Owl Prowls at Pinehurst Conservation Area—armed with flashlights and a throaty whistle, you can tromp into the woods and try to attract screech and great horned owls, responding to calls in defense of their territory or, hoping to find a sexy mate.
A Bee Symposium. At city hall, local honey producers and all-around bee enthusiasts and activists shared the skinny on how to attract bees to your garden and create orchard mason bee “houses” out of scrap wood or PVC pipes.
BEER classes! We attended every class (high achievers, I know) at the Grand River Brewing Company. Each night featured a theme from pilsners to spring beers to stouts and porters. For $20 a class, it was a near PhD dose of beer intel —paired with cheese from a local shop or catered by Kiwi.
Monigrams Coffee Roasters Backlot Sessions: Coordinated by local guitar hero Eric Bolton, the Backlot Sessions are an intimate experience, just upstairs from the hive of Monigrams coffee shop. Featuring local and travelling musicians like Glass Face, it’s the perfect venue to take in the acoustics and feel-good coffee sourced from a women’s farming collective in Burundi, Africa.
The Cineseries: My greatest trepidation in moving from Toronto was leaving the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Queen Street Video and matinees at the Carlton. Lucky dogs that we are, the Idea Exchange (our local library), brings celluloid to Cambridge. We’ve been able to catch the TIFF film circuit just blocks from home.
The Grand River Film Fest: The venues this year expanded to include the U of W School of Architecture. Sponsored by Langdon Hall, the film For Grace (about Curtis Duffy, a Michelin-star ranked Chicago chef and restauranteur) was upgraded with the likes of caramel pumpkin-seed studded popcorn and Pellegrino from the Langdon kitchen.
The Library: I have a serious love affair with this place. We’ve attended a dozen events—pop-up Christmas marketplaces, printmaking demonstrations, live music, poetry slams, live painting competitions—all part of their carefully curated Friday Night Art Live series—because who doesn’t love the idea of drinking beer, in the library?
The Lavender Farm: as part of a “Road Trip to Wellness” article I wrote for Grand magazine, Kim and I went to visit a nearby lavender farm—that was once a pig farm! The owners are in their sixties and, you can tell, are in their groove and happy to share their genesis story.
Beer Baths: Technically these are outside our hometown boundary, but, just a half hour drive away on at the Grand Wellness Centre in Brantford. For $50 you can soak your weary bones in a cedar tub filled with lava hot water, two pints of beer, hops and hop flowers—all while sipping on a glass of Ramblin’ Road from Simcoe.
LPGA at Whistle Bear. If you’ve only watched golf on TV (yes, nap-inducing, right?), it’s way more engaging up close and personal with the players. Sit at a tee box and watch the big heavyweights discuss clubs and yards with their caddies and watch the grass blades take to the wind with a Big Bertha.
Sheave’s Tower: Built in 1876, this tower was the powerhouse for the nearby Blair Mill. Painted oxblood red, it’s a secret sitting in the woods. And if you are a fan of bacon lore, the Blair Mill generated power to grind corn for Schneider’s peameal bacon.
Comedy at the Gay Bar: Now shuttered, sigh. The Robin’s Nest was a landmark, even for big city gays. The old agricultural building on George street housed a rough dance floor that saw many a line-dance courtesy of the DJ who still spun records well into the 90s (and her nineties I think). It changed hands and names to Sizzle, and then it went fizzle. The Nest was like the very best gay reunion on a wintry Saturday night. The ladies that owned it sold hot roast beef sandwiches at midnight and there was always an urn of coffee and store-bought cookies for designated drivers. The new owner introduced live music, drag shows and a comedy night, but steep and climbing rent snuffed the legacy.
Canoeing the Grand: There are few outfitters based out of Paris, and the float from the old Cambridge GTO gas station on Highway 24 to Paris is the quickest way to channel Bill Mason. The nearly 300 km long heritage Grand River (on its way to Dunnville where it dumps into Lake Erie) is swift and gorgeous as it cuts through the Carolinian forest of the area. In Glen Morris there are some Class 1 rapids even, to give your adrenalin a stir. Don’t miss pulling over to check out the German Woolen Mills on the east bank of the Grand near Glen Morris.
German Woolen Mills: You can also check out the historical walls and foundation of the mills on foot or bike by taking the Trans Canada Trail on the east side of the river to Paris. Kim and I have walked to the mills and, on one day, all the way to Paris (19km). We’ve seen American redstarts, Green-backed herons, deer and even an indigo bunting.
Ghost Tour of Old Galt: McDougall Cottage offers various walks that focus on the heritage and history of this area. We’ve walked them all—from the Dickson Hill neighbourhood to industrial Galt to the Halloween ghost walk. It’s a fun way to hear about all the hangings, murders, love affairs gone astray and lingering spirits of the town. For Joleen, the affable guide—this is her ultimate Jeopardy category. You can’t stump her on Galt history. The cottage has a broad program of Scotch tastings, live fiddle, odes to a “love carrot” (long story), and demonstrations on baking all sorts of marvellous things for a small donation.
Jane’s Walk: The citizen-led tours in honour of social mover and shaker Jane Jacob take place in cities all over the globe. The humble purpose is to remind you to connect with your city and communicate with your neighbour. You’ll learn neat trivia and often, it’s those joining the walk that have lived in the area for seventy years that chirp in with the most surprising gossip.
Preston Heritage House Tour: I rounded up my mom and bro to join us on this self-guided house tour that let us snoop inside a stone farmhouse, famed downtown hotel/watering hole and church conversion. A house tour is like getting permission to read someone’s diary. Go!
Christmas Eve Cocktails at Langdon Hall: Add a just-fallen blanket of snow, soft carols and a snapping fire. Order something fancy from the cocktail list or a hot spiked beverage and take in the opulence, history and postcard that the country house hotel is. It’s been our tradition for the last three years.
Little Louie’s Burgers and Soupery: On the complete flip side, this kitschy joint is a wonderland for those who like burgs with a twist. Our real estate agent Jane Gardner, had insisted we go when we first moved in. It took us three years and now we are kicking ourselves—they grill the best burgers possibly ever (though I have special attachment to a reindeer burger from Hofn, Iceland). Load it up with Hickory Sticks, volcanic mayo, grilled pineapple or pulled pork. There are no rules, and for sub $10 you get a gut-busting lunch with a side!
Barnacle Bill’s Fish n’ Chips: Despite not having a religious bone in my framework, I’m all for the Catholic tradition of fish on Good Friday. Beware—this greasy landmark will leave you smelling like a piece of fried halibut—even if you take your order to go. There are picnic tables by the river—but we just walk the block home and let loose on the malt vinegar and double-dipping of the tartar.
The Knox Church Christmas Bazaar: Again, one doesn’t have to be Catholic or Presbyterian to take advantage of all those sweet little church ladies selling their baked goods and preserves. Kim’s mom and aunts make divine mustard pickles and jams, but, visiting the east coast just once a year puts a damper on importing more as the rations run low. The Bazaar is our in-between for seedy raspberry jam, some imperfectly shaped shortbread and pickled beet jewels.
Music on the street: Whether it’s the Portuguese parade, Folk Fest or Galt on the Grand with Pauly and the Greaseballs cover band rocking it out, we’ve supported all the local fests, grabbed grilled cheese sandwiches and warm beers from the food trucks and mingled as one should.
We’ve drank every craft beer on tap at our nearby pub, Café 13; picnicked at the lake at Shades, found 8 lost dogs, snagged hardware and corbels from Southworks Antique Market, pewter barn owl salt and pepper shakers from The Green Spot and kept our house chronically scented like a cedar cabin courtesy of Art of Home’s line of Whitewater poured candles. We’ve dragged out-of-town friends to our favourite shops: Blair House Gifts, Willow House and Cornerstone and the Farmer’s Market where they went home with an organic local turkey, a bundle of sunflowers, garlic dip and six chairs for their dining room table.
Gosh, we’ve earned our badges, haven’t we? I didn’t even mention hosting the Galt Horticultural Society tour (and 100 green thumbs—or, 200 I guess) in our backyard. Or, our participation in the Holly Jolly House Tour that saw over 1,200 people traipse through our house, tricked out for Christmas.
Have we done it all? Of course not. We still have to try the poutine at Stoli’s where they load the fries with stuffing and turkey gravy. And I would like to get to the drive-in theatre to kick it old school with a fountain root beer and butterball popcorn.
When we do move, it will be confidently, knowing we treated this little town like a new love interest: it had our undivided attention, curiosity and affection. It’s been a wonderful love affair.