By Madonna Hamel
That’s just one of the questions you get asked in Val Marie when the tourists start arriving in the summer. It wasn’t one I personally had the privilege of responding to, but I was in the hotel last night, waiting for my specially ordered bowl of hot and sour soup to chase away this six-week-stubborn-cold and I was trolling for stories. Sitting at the table were the usual suspects: Paul, Cal, Gerald and Gene.
“C’mon, you guys, help me out, you must have some “Only in Val Marie”, stories to share.”
“Well, fer crying out loud, we just had the Ladies Bonspiel, what else do you need?” says Gene.
“I know, I know. I hear stories about bonspiels past, and this one didn’t quite measure up to standard.”
“Naw, the young ones just don’t have the same… not sure whatcha’d call it… like the ladies in the past.”
“Really? Tell me more!” I egg Gene on.
“Nonono,” warns Paul, “you don’t wanna give any names.”
“Let’s just say it got a little crazy in here,” says Cal.
I’d heard stories from other sources, who shall remain nameless. The first time I saw the handwritten sign: “Absolutely no photos allowed!” posted on the hotel entryway I assumed it had to do the usual bar room etiquette – people do stupid stuff when they drink, and with all the wrong people. But, apparently it wasn’t a generic warning; it referred specifically to an event that occurred one Bonspiel Saturday oh so very long ago, when “them older gals really cut loose.”
“Now, it wasn’t any of our ladies, mind you, it was them Americans!” I was told. Of course, it’s always “them Americans”. Ever since my first year at community college when I wrote a term paper entitled “Anti-Americanism: Defining Canadian Identity”, I’ve noted and counted the ways in which we can revile the States (and now we have so much more material, we’re good for another millennium).
Anyway, let’s just say, the American ladies had a bit too much to drink and took to dancing lasciviously with husbands who were not their own … or something like that – everyone’s a little foggy on the details so I’ll just leave off right there. Suffice it to say, this weekend’s bonspiel gave no cause to rankle hubbies from either side of the border.
However, it was explained to me by one bar-tending spouse at my first Ladies Bonspiel that “this is the girls’ one chance to use their Get Out of Jail Free card all year so we just step back and let ’em have fun! They earned it”. The men tend bar, watch the kids, “step back”. In fact, one guy told me as he was entering the bar one night and another guy was leaving he was told: “You don’t wanna go in there, those women are animals!”
And, for the most part, the men do stay away. Because by Saturday night the girls are ready to part-ee! This year they rigged glitter balls to the hotel ceiling, plugged a 50 into the new jukebox and danced the night away.
The most entertaining aspect of Ladies Bonspiel for me is the costumes, but that’s because I don’t really understand how the game is played. I did take lessons one weekend and managed to remain upright after Caitlin politely told me that I don’t have to do pigeon pose when I throw a stone, it’s not yoga. But my focus was entirely on: A) not falling on the ice and knocking myself out, B) keeping the stone from hitting the sideboards and C) throwing it so it made it more than halfway down the ice. As for form: dignity or elegance didn’t even enter into the picture. Besides, how does one look dignified or elegant dressed as a ninja turtle? Or in a bald man’s fake scalp with fake eyebrows the size of giant caterpillars stapled to it?
Saturday morning I went walking, as I do most mornings, with Caitlin along the Frenchman River. Just a few days earlier I’d snow-shoed the river to Edna and Arthur’s and then knocked on Ervin’s door and made him make me tea. He took one look at me, hair frozen into white icicles and announced, “I’m driving you home, you’re not walking home in those. I didn’t argue.
Caitlin and I were standing by the bridge and I was proudly pointing out my snowshoe tracks when a truck passed over the bridge, honking and a crazed face with a lightning bolt painted on it stuck its tongue out at us.
And shortly after that a small car spun around us and Charlie Chaplin waved maniacally and spun off down Centre Street.
“Who the he-?”
“It’s bonspeil,” Caitlin reminds me. “I’m headed over to Stella’s after our walk to dress in a coat of many colours. We’re doing a tribute to Theresa, you know, her favourite song was ‘Coat of Many Colours’.”
“Right. So, who’s Joseph?”
“No one. But Stella’s dressing as Dolly Parton, ’cause she’s the one who sang it, right? She’s got a set of boobs and a blonde wig.”
“I’m just not into it this year. I still miss Theresa too much, she was always sitting up there in the stand, waving, cheering us on, y’know.”
“Oh well… Que sera, sera,” and off she went to get all coloured up, quoting Theresa’s other favourite song.
“Yep,” I muse to myself, “what will be, will be… and only in Val Marie”.
The lightning bolt face belonged to Jennelle, Ervin’s daughter, who came down from Swift for the bonspiel and managed to rope in a friend from Capetown who’d never even seen snow before, let alone experienced the exhilarating sport of curling. This year’s theme being celebrity curlers, they were dressed as members of the band Kiss. And Charlie Chaplin was Christine, Grasslands National Park’s finance officer. And she wasn’t Charlie, as she explained to me, she was a member of Canada’s men’s curling team. Upon closer inspection it was obvious, wasn’t it? Her jersey was covered in sponsor logos, attached with safety pins. Other costumes included women in orange jumpsuits representing the cast of “Orange is the New Black”, and women in hospital greens and wearing white masks, portraying members of the cast of ER, I think. I haven’t owned a T.V. in years.
Back at the bar, devouring my bowl of hot and sour soup, nobody seems to have any intriguing stories of shenanigans at this year’s bonspiel. But then,
“We wouldn’t know, we don’t go! Us men, we know well enough to stay away!” says Paul.
“Nope. Guess you’re outta luck if you come looking here for stories, Madonna,” says Gene. “You could talk about the cold. It’s been really cold. And snow. Lots of snow. Yep.”
“Thrilling. Thanks for this.”
“Guess you’re just gonna have to wait for the tourists for the good stuff,” offers Cal.
“Yeah. True. Like the guy who wanted to buy some booze but it was Sunday so the grocery was closed but he figured, hell, he can just pick some up at the duty-free at the border!” I laughed. We all laughed, imagining the shock when he gets to that one little garage door that closes at 7 p.m., 9 p.m. in the summer.
“I shouldn’t laugh. I never quite understood the size of this place when I first got here, either. How there’s no place to fill up with water or gas or food for miles, especially on a Sunday. Or, especially in my case, how we “blow-ins” from cities don’t realize how speedy we can be, expecting things to happen at a certain pace. Like, I just couldn’t quite believe I was gonna be able to move into my apartment when every time I drove by I could still see the stove sitting on my living room carpet. Finally, I accepted Maurice Cotes’ philosophy: “Prairie Time, you’re on Prairie Time now.” Now, over at Prairie Wind, when people start tapping the counter waiting for their coffee I just tell them they’re on Prairie Time and they take a big sigh and relax.”
“Yeah. Takes some adjusting, I guess.”
“But they sure don’t like it if there’s something they can’t just go to the 7-11 and get, any time day or night. Or a drive through. Or any of those conveniences we take for granted, which actually I don’t miss, now that I realize they were things I never really needed in the first place!”
“Yeah. Except for smokes. If you smoke and the store is closed where you gonna get them?” says Cal. “The funniest thing I ever got asked by a tourist, and you can write this one in your column, is ‘Do they sell cigarettes in Prairie Dog Town?’
Yep, that got the whole table laughing, including me, like I was never one of those tourists in the first place.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.