On Going Back to Winnipeg
I was 18 when I packed my bags and flew across the country to go to university on the east coast of Canada. I thought I knew everything. And what I really thought I knew is that I needed to leave, to escape, to see more than my hometown.
And after university, when I realised maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, I packed my bags again. This time I flew across an ocean. I spent the next eleven years travelling across nearly 90 countries on six continents, making new homes in Asia and Central America and Europe. There was a time when I didn’t touch down on Canadian soil for over two years.
I grew up in Winnipeg, a city known for hockey and wheat and winters so cold I didn’t realise that not every city has electrical outlets in their parking lots until I was nearly an adult (hint: we have to plug our cars in to keep the engines from freezing during the winter months). My childhood home was on a leafy street parallel to the Red River, a wide, roaring entity that froze over each winter, allowing us to cross-country ski all the way downtown.
Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, is a prairie city; if Canada was an open book laid flat, Winnipeg would be in the spine. My summers included bike rides to the convenience store for Slurpees and days at Grand Beach on Lake Winnipeg, all sticky ice cream cones and soft white sand. Sometimes, my family would take road trips further afield, to Fargo or Wisconsin Dells or even Minneapolis’ Mall of America, giving me my first glimpses of what travelling was like. In winter we’d go skating and tobogganing, warming up with hot chocolate while our mitts and toques dried on the radiator.
I loved my childhood in Winnipeg. But for as long as I could remember, I wanted to leave it. I studied atlases and maps, watched as the Soviet Union split into 15 countries. I dreamed of visiting places purely because of the way they sounded on my tongue: Rio de Janeiro, Kathmandu, Zanzibar. I’d lie in bed at night and make lists in my head of all the places I’d go, all the cities I’d live in.
And so, when I finally left Winnipeg, it felt like a new beginning. There was a whole world to explore, new countries to see, new languages to learn. “I’m not looking back,” I’d tell myself defiantly. “I’m only looking forward.” And over those eleven years after university, I backpacked, and then lived abroad, and then made travelling my career as a travel blogger. I spent a week or two in Winnipeg each year; once I went back for a few months to work at a bar and save some money for the next adventure. Winnipeg was always there when I needed it.
Recently, it hit me. The same thing that had happened to me as a kid in Winnipeg was happening to me in London. The same thing had happened to me wherever I went, no matter how old I was. It was never Winnipeg I wanted to leave; it was simply that I wanted to leave, period. I wanted to have adventures, to see the world, to experience new things. That could have happened if I was raised in New York or Tokyo or Paris. Even living in London, arguably the most exciting city in the world, sometimes all I want to do is leave it all behind, to strap a backpack on my back and see what might happen.
And with this realisation, Winnipeg began to change each time I visited. I started noticing the details, started seeing what a beautiful and diverse place it is. I started truly appreciating all it has to offer: the fantastic array of restaurants, the incredible music and arts scene, the Museum for Human Rights, the Exchange, the Forks, Folklorama, the Festival du Voyageur, the Folk Festival, the Fringe Theatre Festival… the list goes on and on. Winnipeg didn’t suddenly become an interesting, fun, multicultural city; it always was. I had just finally opened my eyes and seen it for myself.
These days, I miss Winnipeg. I miss those leafy streets and green parks, I miss walking down Corydon Avenue for a gelato, I even miss the feeling you get when you breathe in deep on a cold, snowy day. I know that my time in London is probably coming to a close; those itchy feet are at it again, and the road is calling. And while I’ll probably always dream of sailing in the South Pacific, or studying Spanish in Bogota, or doing a road trip through Tuscany, I’m drawn more and more to going back to Winnipeg, to going back to my roots. To going back to the city that I’ll always be proud to call home.
Have you been to Winnipeg? Have you ever experienced this with your own hometown?