The Wizard of Oz

One of several musings on transatlantic strangeness, you can find others at Looking BackImmigrationThe Eternal Language Barrier, Tradition TraditionAn Old Story and Cicadas and Alarums.

I’m making this beanbag. Why? Well we are in the process of rounding up furniture for Ben’s student house. This is a bit of a shock, since in my head I haven’t quite outgrown my own Young Ones phase yet, and I seem to have reverted to 70s thinking as a result. “You should have a beanbag chair! Students must have beanbags.”

Well, thanks to the wonder that is the internet it is possible to Google, download and print off a pattern for pretty much anything, so not long after the thought was formed the pattern existed and we were off looking for wacky fabric. Now, this is Mennonite Country. The best fabric warehouses are in the outlying villages, where every farming family boasts at least one old-time quilter, and this is how Ben and I ended up on a short road trip out of town.

I travel the back roads quite often for work, trundling from farm to farm with Lifeline buttons, so I have probably become too familiar with the strange beauty of this region. The old-time charm, peace, general niceness and polite affability of the area’s Mennonite roots bring themselves into town in so many subtle ways that it is easy to settle into being happily ensconced in a new life, without giving much thought to what drew you here in the first place. Waterloo may be the home of the Blackberry, of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the new home of Google; finalist in the ‘World’s Most Intelligent Community’ year after year…but Waterloo Region is, has been and always will be just Mennonite. The Old Order farmers manage without electricity and phones, fields are ploughed with horses, maple trees are tapped by hand and our roads have extra wide hard shoulders to accommodate the horse-drawn buggies. Supermarkets have buggy parking, covered, to shelter the horses.

Taking Ben with me made me see it all again. Bunches of flowers at farm gates, with an honesty box to pop your money in if you choose to take some. Horses pulling ploughs, girls in bonnets and mop caps picking vegetables. And of course, the symbol of our region, the horse and buggy road sign. “It’s like the Wizard of Oz,” he said. “We’re only 20 minutes out of town and it’s a whole fairy tale going on.” He is right, as ever. The girl who served us with our fabric requirements wore the traditional dress and cap, and the biggest, most genuinely happy smile. I have noticed this a lot, the smile. I have a sense from people who live in Pennsylvania, in and about Amish country, that the Amish keep themselves to themselves, disapprove a little of non Plain folk and come across as a little dour. Not our Mennonite neighbours. Big smiles, fabulous pies, syrup and flowers… quiet friendliness.

You can visit the farmers’ market and sample different grades of syrup, or different family recipes for ‘summer sausage’, the local salami. You will be chatting with the person who learned how it’s done from the generation before. You can take a guided buggy ride around the region or visit the Information Centre in St Jacobs, the village that has styled itself the centre of Mennonite Country, and learn all about their culture and history. My personal favourite trip is to the tiny Maple Syrup Museum. Free, of course. When visitors come to stay we do all these things, but a drive around the cornfields and sugar bushes teaches just as much about how to live well. I am reminded why we moved here.

I should add that not all Mennonite families farm in the old ways. Some have become more urbanised, a little more modern. Most of the larger local firms were begun by part of a Mennonite family moving into the city. They tend to retain a work ethic and sense of duty to the community which wouldn’t make much sense elsewhere. Charities and fundraisers don’t go short of sponsors; the Mennonite Central Committee sends teams of workers to disaster-hit areas all over the world. Everybody volunteers. And I am reminded why we moved here. So finally, after 7 years, I have got round to taking a pic of the road sign that defines why we sold everything to try and make a life in this corner of Ontario. Since I am no longer a trucker in any meaningful sense, it will top the blog for a while.

I sat with a new Lifeline client last week, taking details for our records and asked him who his family doctor was. “Oh I don’t have one at the moment, he’s a Mennonite. He’s in India building a hospital.”

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