As I never cease to remind anyone who cares to listen – this trip is not a vacation: I’m working. And because I’m working, I don’t get to see many “sights” of the cities and towns and villages I stay in. That having been said, even if I weren’t working, I think I’d be hard-pressed to find a sight actually worth seeing in Winnipeg. Now don’t get me wrong – I kinda like this place. Not as much as liked Ottawa (there’s no Whole Foods here), but certainly much more than, say, Toronto under a smog alert.
I went for a long roundabout walk today to the post office, the bank, and the bakery, and then to pick up a few things at the grocery store. It struck me, as I was walking, that this place is very walkable, mainly because it’s so flat (which also makes it very bike-able). Mind you, it was a sunny day at the end of August, and a warm and gentle breeze was blowing. I’m not sure how walkable Winnipeg is in winter, when the arctic attack winds are unleashed and come howling down Portage Avenue. There’s no place to hide from those winds in “Winterpeg”, other than to hibernate, and I already do enough of that in Halifax.
The fabled dry heat of the Prairies wasn’t much in evidence for the three days I’ve been here. On the contrary, it’s been quite sticky and humid, with threats of thunderstorms every afternoon. But the threats never actually led to anything except for increased humidity and some impressively ominous dark clouds. The big prairie sky sure makes big clouds.
One Winnipeg tradition I did participate in, though – even while working – was mosquito swatting. Dear God in Heaven – how do all those mosquitoes get into a house that’s sealed up tight for air conditioning? But in they got, and straight for me they came. I was greeted by several members of the Mosquito Welcoming Committee within a few minutes of my arrival at the hostel, and they’ve been very attentive ever since. They never leave my side, and as a special souvenir of Winnipeg, they’ve given me dozens of itchy bumps to take away with me when I leave. How generous of them!
Another pleasant oddity is that I haven’t yet been panhandled in Winnipeg (not even by a seagull). Mind you, I haven’t been downtown except to hail a cab in front of the train station, but even there I didn’t see any beggars. In Halifax and Toronto, I can’t get away from them, but here, I haven’t seen a one. Maybe panhandling is illegal in Winnipeg? Or maybe people here don’t give to panhandlers so no-one bothers doing it? Or maybe I’ve just lucked out by staying in an area that’s not a typical panhandling zone? Whatever it is, it’s a welcome change from being harassed for spare change everywhere, all the time, even while waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk.
Or maybe the mozzies have something to do with it – it’s hard to hold out your hand for money and swat at mosquitoes at the same time.
The last thing I’ll say about Winnipeg is that the locals are friendly, almost in a small town kind of way. I’ve done my usual stopping and asking random strangers for directions and information about bus routes, and everyone has done their best to help me out. The people at the stores are friendly, too, not in a phony Stepford Wives kind of way, but low key and genuinely warm. I’m not sure I could see myself living here (the winters are just too cold and the summers too buggy), but I can definitely see the appeal it has for those who do choose to live here. It’s a livable kind of city, much more so than Toronto. Livable and walkable. And bike-able. Plus, there’s an amazing organic bakery just a stone’s throw from an amazing organic food co-op which is also just a stone’s throw from a bi-weekly outdoor farmers market (which I unfortunately missed yesterday so I can’t really say whether or not it was amazing, but I’m guessing it probably was). I didn’t have to wander very far from the hostel to find everything I needed during my stay here, even though my food and water needs are highly specialized.
I’ll be back in Winnipeg in the fall for a few days before I go up to Churchill and again when I come down from Churchill, so it will be interesting to see if my positive first impressions still hold. The mozzies should all have passed on to their great reward by that time (post-first frost), which in itself boosts the attractiveness of the place exponentially. Winnipeg may not have any great “sights” to shock and awe and draw visitors, but it does have a laid-back down-to-earthness, like a favourite armchair that’s seen better days but is too comfortable to throw out. Winnipeg simply is what it is; it’s not trying to be something it’s not. If they got rid of the mosquitoes and opened a Whole Foods, I could see myself spending a few months a year here (during the summertime, of course), chasing down that elusive dry heat on my bicycle.