THE rainbow bear was a present for my sister, who had emigrated some years before. It sat on my lap throughout most of the eight hour flight, its multi-coloured fur and foolish grin a slight reassurance to nervous travellers. Neither I nor my husband had ever flown in a ‘big’ aeroplane before. Our only experience of foreign travel had been four swelteringly uncomfortable days in Paris, where I had a streaming cold and we had somehow managed to book ourselves into a grim little boarding house in the middle of the gangster quarter. The plumbing didn’t work and my much vaunted A Level French (Grade 2) proved inadequate for – almost everything. Now we were on our way to Canada. It was Christmas Eve. Maybe when we got to Canada it would be snowing.
Funny how some places mean something special. Canada was like that for me. I felt I knew what I would find there. Maybe it was the influence of all those Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot LPs from my hippie days – jumbled images of tall firs, lone skaters on frozen rivers, snow falling thick and silent on isolated townships, the gales of November coming early to the Great Lakes… Canada for me held a cold, pure peace, and I longed for it.
Except that my sister lived on an estate of large, chalet-style houses in Ontario. It stretched away as far as the eye could see, neat and orderly, on roads of grid-iron straightness and symmetry. No frozen rivers, and the only trees were occasional silver birches, gaunt and leafless in the icy air. Cardboard reindeers marched relentlessly across every lawn. Every back door was liberally splodged with cotton wool, every house-front looped and double-looped with fairy lights. Christmas with a vengeance, I decided: the uncosiest, foreignest, miserablest Christmas ever.
But on Christmas morning we awoke to find that snow had fallen in the night; proper, thick, Canadian snow covering everything. Sun sparkled on this new white gown and squirrels streaked through the trees and along the fences in the front gardens, careless of the cold. It was fourteen degrees below.
My brother-in-law drove us (and the bear) out to Niagara. We swept along the broad highways at a majestic 50 miles an hour, through what to our unaccustomed English eyes appeared to be a jumbled, nonsensical landscape. It was as if someone had reached down and gathered everything up, telegraph poles, street signs; little factories; Pizza bars; Donut shops; lumber stores; crumbling, isolated churches; shopping malls surrounded by big, empty car-parks; flat, square fields – and thrown it down again, carelessly, all over Canada. It was worth it, though, just to be at Niagara Falls on Christmas Day. It really exists, I thought. It’s here and it’s now. This is the real place. We held the bear up so that he could appreciate it too. Since he had come all the way from England it seemed only right that he should share the experience.
I could try to describe the height and the depth and the roar and the beauty of the crashing water, the way the sun glinted on every drop, the way the spray froze in mid-air or drifted over to the American side (America, the real America – over there) and frosted the branches of American trees, turning them white like sugar decorations for a Christmas cake, but it’s one of those sights that words aren’t designed for. You need music. You need to be there.
I think I will always want to go back. I will always want to see Niagara just one more time. And I will always feel that my Canada, that dream place with the dark trees and the mysterious frozen rivers, is still out there waiting to be discovered. And maybe it is, though I suspect these dream places are partly symbols; clumsy metaphors for a state of existence known but not understood, half-remembered, yearned for. We search for our dream landscapes in the physical world, but they are landscapes of the soul.