I’m back in Aberdeen. Aberdeen in all its grey, granite glory. Sometimes described as the ‘armpit of Scotland’ (or far worse), it is not the most glamorous place. When I tell English people I’m living and working in Aberdeen, they invariably wrinkle their noses and say something disparaging about the city. One woman I met at a conference (who is affiliated with a very prestigious UK university) commented “Aberdeen isn’t a place one generally travels through” when I offered to host anyone traveling in the area. Well shiver me timbers, I forgot that it was a hardship to set foot in the old ‘Deen.
Last year when I was visiting a dear friend in Yellowknife we got to talking about home and the places we choose to work and live. Both of us love the north, and after a few years out of the ‘Knife she made a conscious decision to move back. Something about those endless subarctic skies, the wide views of Yellowknife Bay, snowshoeing under the stars and impromptu canoe rides to visit house-boaters just spoke to her in ways that raw food restaurants and endless yoga classes (Vancouver), or upscale establishment parties and pundits puzzling over rescinded bike lanes (Toronto), or rubbing shoulders with frantic political hangers-on and oil-barons (Calgary) didn’t.
She paused for a moment as she thought about why she had deliberately chosen to make a life in Yellowknife, instead of any one of Canada’s larger southern metropoles, and she summed it up succinctly: “I guess I like ‘the struggle'”.
The Struggle: the decision to live in a place that is challenging. To be happy without upscale clothing stores or industry parties. To make the effort to create your own social environment, to focus on people and place and how you can contribute to your city (or town, village, hamlet). The knowledge that a city is what you make it, and sometimes you will be faced with obstacles (there might not be daily flights to London, or access to the most current trends. C’est la vie).
This conversation made me realize that I love ‘the struggle’ too. Too much time in a metropolis like London or Montreal and I’m aching for home. My favourite cities: Edmonton, Winnipeg, Yellowknife — they are all home to the ‘struggle’ in different ways. Edmonton is by far the most glamorous of the three, with its booming economy, own fashion week and an evolving sense of self. But I secretly love Winnipeg and Yellowknife for not needing to be as flashy. Winnipeg blows me away with its arts and architecture community, the heritage buildings still standing downtown and throughout the city, and the vibrancy of the Indigenous community. Also, the river seems to freeze over enough to allow events on the ice, something I’ve wanted to be able to do in Edmonton since I was a little girl. (And they’ve been doing a warming hut contest forever — with some stunning results). Winnipeg struggles with poverty, violence and many of the things that Edmonton deals with. But I still love it. I love it for having The Forks set aside as a National Historic Site. I love it for being able to walk down Portage to a tiny, undeveloped piece of the land my great-great-great-great-grandfather was granted near the end of his time with the Hudson’s Bay Company. I love it for not taking itself too seriously. I’ve heard that sometimes companies market-test their stores in Winnipeg, because if a store can make it in Winnipeg’s humble economy, it can make it anywhere. There’s an honesty in that.
Yellowknife has the raw beauty of the Canadian shield, a strong sense of its Indigenous history, and a little bit of that swagger that comes with people united in ‘the struggle’. It certainly has its problems, like any city, and friends point out that they can always see the newly arrived lawyers, bureaucrats or researchers because they still dress like ‘city folk’. A fresh suit is a dead give-away. At a party in October, I walked in and every single man in the room was wearing a plaid shirt, skinny-ish jeans and a beard (unironically). At one point in the evening we talked about setting nets and hunting (be still my heart). Now, I’ll admit that the city is also pretty keenly divided. Not that many of the white collar workers I know hang out with blue collar workers. And there is also a pretty clear divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities sometimes (at least amongst some communities, such as the transient office workers from the south), which is hard for me to reconcile, in my heart, in a city built on Dene land. But then again, I think there is a difference between how the transient work force (both blue and white collar) and the ‘lifers’ who have lived in YK for a lifetime (or for many generations) relate to the city and its community. Much like Edmonton, different connections to the city yield different experiences of place-as-home. And, let’s face it, my experience in YK is limited to my short visits over the last five years. I am hardly qualified to speak at length about its dynamics and demographics.
Yellowknife has the Snow King and his festival. It has a small but fabulous Folk Festival. Last year I commented in a post that Yellowknife felt like Edmonton did when I was little. A cab driver I met in June said exactly that — he moved to Yellowknife because Edmonton was getting too big, too overwhelming. He wanted to be somewhere quieter, and what he perceived as ‘safer’.
Maybe I unconsciously root for the underdog. Well, anyone who knows me could tell you that. Last year, as I lived in a small community of less than 400 people, I thought about how I enjoyed the peace and quiet, being invited to go out and pick berries or fish at any time. Knowing people, being able to pop in for a coffee after my afternoon run. These are things that endear small towns and cities to me. There’s comfort in everyone knowing your name, in running into friends when you head downtown for a show, in being able to reach out to networks and work together to make things happen. Todd Babiak has written eloquently about this on his blog.
It would be easy for me to dismiss Aberdeen as just ‘an armpit’, and to yearn for the glamour and gloss of London or Edinburgh or any other bigger city. But I think it’s the struggle that I like. It’s cold, it’s grey, it’s love of oil and gas makes it gritty like home. It’s desperate to be seen as world class, and yet some of its best attributes are its quirkiness — the love of butteries, the thick Doric dialect, the sweeping skies that stretch out along the North Sea coast. It’s no New York, but if it was, I wouldn’t really want to be here.
Give me a walk along a quiet northern Scottish river or a fishing trip on glassy water or a thanksgiving dinner and charades in a leaning houseboat. These trump big city living any day.