My name is Brenna Holeman and this is a travel blog that focuses not only on the where and the how of travel, but the who and the why. I write mostly about what it feels like to be a traveller, and the lessons and self-reflection that come with that role. I've been travelling the world solo for over eleven years.
I met Johan* on one of my last nights in Paris. Tanned and muscular, I spotted him across a half-empty bar, sitting with a couple of his mates. My friend and I conveniently found empty seats next to them, and soon we were all chatting, a group of tourists in this foreign land. Johan was not only handsome, he was funny in a charmingly blunt way, throwing in a few Swedish words here and there to mess me up or to see my reaction. At the end of the evening, he asked me for my number.
After a series of very flirtatious texts over the next two days, we finally arranged to meet for dinner. I was returning to London the next morning, but he insisted on meeting up before I left. We spent some of my final hours in Paris eating escargot and steak tartar in a little bistro in the Latin Quarter, drinking far too much cheap wine out of glass jugs. Because it was a warm evening, we decided to go for a walk along the Seine; we walked hand in hand all the way to the Eiffel Tower, watched it glitter in the black sky. I swear to God that when we first kissed, I heard accordion music, as if a Parisian soundtrack was cued up and ready to play at any romantic occurrence.
“I’d like to come see you in London,” Johan nuzzled his face into my neck, his stubble brushing against my cheek.
“Really?” I laughed as coyly as I could. “Maybe. That might be nice.”
And inside, I was thinking: holy shit, can you imagine if I landed this hot Swedish dude as my boyfriend and we met in FUCKING PARIS?! And our first kiss was beside the EIFFEL TOWER, like something out of a made-for-TV movie?! DON’T SCREW THIS UP, BRENNA. I mean… c’mon. I was mentally high-fiving myself while simultaneously planning my new summer home in Sweden.
The next day I was beaming from ear to ear as Johan and I texted the entire time I was on the Eurostar back to London. And by the time the train had pulled into St. Pancras, Johan had booked a flight from Gothenburg to London in two weeks time. I was literally buzzing.
The next two weeks dragged; I simply couldn’t wait to see “the hot Swede”, as my friends and I had dubbed him. I bragged about him at the pub, I told all the juicy details to my coworkers, and I allowed myself to daydream about all of the fun things we’d do in London. Johan and I continued to text every day, and I got a rush of adrenaline every time I saw a message from him come through.
Finally, the day arrived. I was a bundle of nerves as I took the train to Heathrow Airport, constantly checking my phone and applying layer after layer of powder (this is why I never give myself too much time to get ready for a date; I’ll just nervously apply layers upon layers of makeup until my eyelashes are glued together and I have so much foundation on that I need a chisel to remove it). As crowds began to emerge from the baggage claim doors, my heart beat faster and faster still.
And then: I saw him. I was almost worried that I wouldn’t recognise him; we had only met a few times, after all, and had only exchanged texts since then. He walked toward me somewhat slowly; we had an awkward hug, but at least my nerves subsided a little bit.
“It’s good to see you,” we smiled at each other, still unsure what to do and say. We chatted about his flight, and about the train to London, all small talk to fill the air between us as we walked toward the Heathrow Express.
I can’t tell you the exact moment I realised I had made a huge mistake. Was it his orange track jacket and intentionally ripped jeans? No, I’m not that superficial, am I? (Don’t answer that) Was it the way he barged onto the train before me and a woman with a pram? Hmm, getting warmer. Was it when he told me he DIDN’T LIKE CHEESE OR… wait for it… DOGS?! Um, yes, we’re getting hotter still. Or perhaps it was this:
When I told him what I had told my friends – that I met a handsome stranger in Paris, and he had swept me off my feet – they all thought it was incredibly romantic that we were meeting for our second date in London. Some thought it was a bit crazy, but everyone said something cute or funny or encouraging.
“What did your friends say?” I asked him, smiling, obviously hoping for a similar answer.
“They said, ‘Good job, you’re going to get pussy’,” he responded, unflinching. I thought I had misheard him. Surely nobody in their right mind would admit that to someone they barely knew, even if it was true… English as a second language be damned. Right?!
Awkward as all hell, I laughed. “Um… really? That’s what they said? Were they joking??”
And in my mind I thought, Please be joking, please be joking, this might be an OK joke if he’s like, “No, of course they wouldn’t say that, we’re not Neanderthals,” or, “Gotcha! No, I’m not an asshole,” or “Ew, gross, no, who says pussy?” oh sweet Jesus, please be joking.
“No, they weren’t joking,” he reiterated, looking at me with nary a wisp of sarcasm.
So I take it back. Remember when I said I couldn’t tell you the exact moment I had made a huge mistake? I LIED. IT WAS RIGHT THEN – less than half an hour after greeting him. It was going to be a long 48 hours, I thought, as I stared straight ahead, my holiday goggles firmly ripped off.
I wish I could tell you that Johan was an anomaly – that these kinds of occurrences are few and far between. But I don’t hide the fact that I’ve enjoyed having travel romances over the past 12 years of solo travel; I often find it much easier to meet men when I’m travelling than it is when I’m settled at home. And while a lot of the travel romances I have stay exactly that – travel romances – a few have followed me home. But you know what they all have in common? Those damn holiday goggles.
Bear with me. You know the phrase beer goggles? Apparently, with each beer you drink, the person in front of you becomes more and more attractive. I’ll be the first to admit that this has happened to me once or twice (*cough* a dozen times *cough*) – emboldened by a few drinks, I’ll flirt with someone, agree to go out with someone, or even make out with someone I may not have been attracted to without the help of alcohol. Inevitably, the next morning, reviewing the conversation in my head, I’ll wonder what on earth I was thinking.
In those 12 years of travelling to nearly 100 countries, I’ve obviously met quite a few people I probably would have never met had I stayed in Winnipeg my entire life. While I feel incredibly grateful for all of my travel experiences, at the top of the list of my reasons for gratitude are the people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made. I have also met a handful (I can fit a lot in my hand, OK?) of people who have become romantic partners, some even turning into serious or semi-serious partners.
Through all those backpacking adventures, there were dozens of flirtations and brief encounters (though most of them have been firmly PG-13… hostels are great for meeting people but not for actually having any alone time). I’ve kissed a Serbian in Myanmar, a Welshman in Poland, a Kiwi in Colombia, a Dane in Tanzania, an Argentinian in Norway, and a Norwegian in Argentina. I’ve dated a good chunk of representatives of the Commonwealth. Although I’ve dated Canadians, I’ve actually never had a Canadian boyfriend.
There was the American I met in Denmark; we made long distance work for nearly eight months. He was the first guy I was ever crazy head-over-heels for, and we would write these insanely long emails to each other every day. I wrote this story about him, and the first half of this post, too.
There was the Aussie I met in Vietnam; we only knew each other for two days, and then, over daily Facebook chats, we arranged to meet up again in Sri Lanka. He later moved to Japan to be with me. We lasted over a year – I wrote this story about him, and it remains one of my favourite posts on this blog.
There was the other American I met in Thailand; although he was interested in my friend at first, a month later I found myself sitting beside him on a bus to Cambodia, and from then on we were inseparable. He even came to my dad’s wedding. We were together for eight months or so, and I wrote this story about him.
But there were lots of misses, too.
There was the Turkish man I met on Koh Lanta, Thailand, the first travel romance I had on my grand backpacking adventure of Southeast Asia. He wooed me for a full week, and then told me he had a fiancé back home. Four years later, back on Koh Lanta, I met an Englishman. He wooed me, too, even keeping up the charade for a couple of months when we were both back in the UK. After coming to visit me in London, he too confessed to having someone else in his life. Needless to say, I’m avoiding all travel romances on Koh Lanta from here on out.
In Cape Town, I made out with a hot cricket player that is apparently super famous in South Africa. All night people were coming up to us (let’s be honest, they were coming up to him) and buying us (him) drinks. I googled him the next day and found out he’s MARRIED. Married… WITH CHILDREN. I felt awful after that one, even though I couldn’t have known the night before.
A couple of years ago, there was an Italian. You didn’t think I kept going back to Italy just for the pasta, did you? OK, fair enough, the pasta actually is that good. He ended up ghosting me after months of daily conversations and international rendezvous. I was over the relationship at that point anyway, but I still expected a civilised goodbye.
And then, of course, there was Johan and his vomit-inducing remarks.
And while some of those travel romances – the American, the Aussie, the other American – turned into longterm things, the majority of the people I’ve met while travelling turn into nothing but a fun memory (or a good blog post, hah).
Let’s face it: most travel romances are doomed to fail. When you travel, your senses are heightened; you’re open to new things, eager to experience it all, and everything and everyone seems exciting. Everything sparkles, everything feels shiny and new. You’re not just picking up girls or guys at your local bar, you’re chatting to strangers with accents on beaches and mountaintops and in cities you’re not quite sure you’re pronouncing properly. It all feels so terribly intoxicating, an unfamiliar rush of emotions and hormones. Like, as much as I’d love to say that a Canadian accent does it for me every time, the fact is, if you take an OK-looking guy with a dull personality but give him a Scottish accent, I’ll probably propose marriage within the first five minutes.
In my experience, all of these intensified emotions mean you’re not necessarily analysing your new potential partner with the same eyes. Would I still have been attracted to all of these men if we met at the grocery store down the road? I doubt it. With my holiday goggles removed, I understand that, for example, I was attracted to the Italian because he spoke Italian and lived in Italy. It sounds so horribly trite, but it’s true; we had almost nothing to talk about, and I found his opinions quite boorish and antiquated. Once the charm of the accent wore off, I was left feeling bored and angry with him. That dull Scottish guy I mentioned above? Maybe I’d propose immediately, but I’d probably ask for a divorce a week later once the pheromones wore off.
Combine those feelings of intense lust and longing with the time limit of a looming plane ticket home? Turns me into putty, every single time.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that holiday romances NEVER last, nor am I discouraging anyone from having them. I just know from *ahem* a bit of experience that there are plenty of other factors at play, ones that add up to an equation that means not all travel romances are destined for the long haul. While long distance relationships are certainly difficult – I’ve been in four – they are also doable if both parties are equally invested. I also have to admit that some of the people I met travelling made for amazing holiday flings, but once we met up at home – without the palm trees and the suntans and the laid-back holiday attitudes – I felt that the magic was missing, and I’m sure they felt the same way. (I wrote a story all about that phenomenon that you can read here.)
Can you spot me, braces and all? I kinda wish I still had that corduroy shirt
The year was 1997. White eyeliner was in. Spice Girls were on top of the world. I burst a blood vessel in my eye from sobbing during Titanic at the cinema. And while other pre-teens were possibly doing cool things like skateboarding and hanging out at the mall and prank-calling boys (oh, what an innocent time), I was most likely sitting in front of an old TV in my parents’ basement, watching Fried Green Tomatoes on VHS for the hundredth time.
I’ve talked about how much I love movies briefly on this site, most recently in this post and this post (where it is revealed how often I went to Blockbuster, and hint: it wasn’t always necessarily for the rental tapes). It doesn’t really fit into my usual “travelling/getting drunk/getting dumped” narrative that seems to permeate this blog, but I have watched an extraordinary amount of movies in my lifetime, many of them more than once. Trust me, if you are playing Heads Up, Charades, or any sort of movie trivia, you want me on your team. I even minored in Film Studies for the first year of my BA, though I switched to Music History after working for Miramax one summer and realising I never, ever wanted to work in film. I was content just to watch them.
Although I often fell behind on my movie-watching while travelling – for the love of all that is holy, I DO NOT need to see another Hangover movie played in a hostel common room – since spending more time in Canada, I’ve found myself once again getting into film. I like to watch it all: action, comedy, foreign, romance, drama.
My favourite genre of all time is probably 90s-era thrillers/suspense movies; think The Usual Suspects, Kiss the Girls, To Die For, The Pelican Brief, Fear, Primal Fear, Cape Fear, Sleepers, The Client, Seven, The Fugitive, A Time to Kill, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Double Jeopardy… man that was an amazing decade for thrillers. Also a fantastic decade for teen comedies and teen horror, I might add. The genres I watch the least of would be fantasy, horror/torture, and anime.
Even if I know before watching the movie that I won’t like it, I still often watch it just to feel on top of current movies. I’ve also made it a point to watch as many of the classics as I can – Some Like It Hot is my favourite movie of all time, though I hadn’t discovered it at 13 – and I’m often shocked by how many people refuse to watch a movie in black and white (this is one of my quasi-dealbreakers in relationships; you know, not a big enough dealbreaker to actually dump the guy, but often the rotten cherry on top of a mouldy cake).
And while I have watched literally thousands of movies in my lifetime, there are few films that have affected me as much as those I watched when I was younger. My parents were always pretty easy-going about which films I watched; they encouraged my love of film and knew I was mature enough to handle most movies (so The Usual Suspects = OK, Last Tango in Paris, maybe not so much).
Recently, I decided to embark on a film journey that would take me through viewings of all my favourite movies from when I was 13. Would I still like them? Would they stand the test of time, even 20+ years later? Would I still get all hot and bothered and suddenly feel the urge to leave the room and replenish the popcorn whenever Brad Pitt came on screen? Here’s what I discovered.
Please note a lot of fantastic dramas came out around the same time as these (The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, Pulp Fiction, Heat, The Usual Suspects, and so on, but I wanted to keep this list fairly light. I also didn’t really get into drama and more serious film until I was naturally a bit older).
Fried Green Tomatoes
Fried Green Tomatoes - Trailer - YouTube
Fried Green Tomatoes was my JAM. Seriously, this was my favourite movie for at least a decade of my life, if not longer. Even watching the trailer makes me tear up. I absolutely loved the strength and loyalty portrayed by these women, and the female friendships that develop in two separate eras.
My diary from age 10, in 1994
Something interesting I learned fairly early on in rewatching all of these films is that, without knowing it, a lot of my favourites as a kid were movies that passed the Bechdel test. For those who don’t know, the Bechdel test examines whether or not the work presented includes two women – two women who should have significant roles and/or at least be named in the work – talking to one another about something other than men. That’s it: two named women have a conversation about something – anything! – other than men. Easy, right? Hmm.
Studies show that up to 50% of films fail this test, including movies like The Avengers, Lord of the Rings (any of the films), Avatar, Slumdog Millionaire, 21 Jump Street, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2)… even children’s films like Ratatouille, Toy Story, and Finding Nemo don’t have any dialogue between two female characters. Like… seriously? You can’t have two female fish just chat about coral or something?!
That’s all to say that Fried Green Tomatoes very much passes the Bechdel test. And you know what else I wasn’t consciously aware of when watching it as a kid, although part of me must have known?
Ruth and Idgie aren’t just best friends. They’re in love. Watching this again as an adult… it is SO OBVIOUS. The honey? The food fight? The kiss on the cheek as they’re literally dipping their toes in the water, seeing if they should give it a go?! Reading the book a while back cemented this for me, as in the book they openly have a romance.
It pisses me off that that this message was suppressed in order to make a “family-friendly” movie (big, big air quotes with that one) but if you watch this movie as a romance developing, not just a friendship, it does make the movie that much sweeter (and sadder) to watch as an adult. I still cry like a baby at least five times throughout the film, no matter how many times I watch it. This movie also addresses race – the KKK scenes are incredibly unsettling – and I loved that there was a message of finding your family and staying loyal to them, even if you aren’t related by blood.
Is this movie still good? Yes. It’s even better if you watch it as two women falling in love.
Legends of the Fall
Legends Of The Fall - Trailer - YouTube
I was ten when this movie came out. I probably watched it that year or the next with my parents, didn’t understand what was happening to me whenever Brad Pitt as Tristan came on screen, and then religiously watched this movie ~in private~ every week for about the next three years. I mean… LOOK AT HIM.
That being said, I watched this movie again at 34 and… yes. He is still mind-bogglingly beautiful. But… how on this good green Earth did I think he was a dream man?! He’s incredibly complicated, is dealing with (understandable) inner demons, and essentially ghosts Susannah (it was happening even in the 1920s, folks). Why didn’t I like Aidan Quinn as Alfred? He’s loyal, charming, loving, dependable, successful, AND he has those baby blues.
I am going to say it here and now: Legends of the Fall set me up for a lifetime of chasing Tristans when I should have been looking at the Alfreds. Damn it!
Is this movie still good? Yes. It stands up. I still weep and still ~feel feelings~ for Tristan. Now where the fuck is my Alfred?!
First Wives Club
The First Wives Club Movie Trailer (1996) - YouTube
Kind of an odd choice for a 13-year-old girl who has, you know, never been a middle-aged woman or divorced, but I LOVED THIS MOVIE. It was so funny to me then, and I used to LOVE seeing the women get justice on their husbands (again, I’m not sure what that says about my current dating life, but let’s not dwell on it). Much like my other favourite movies from this time, this movie focuses primarily on female friendship and how important it is for women to support one another. Plus it stars Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton, so HELL YES TO THIS MOVIE.
Is this movie still good? Fuck yes. I still watch it every six months or so. The way Diane Keaton says, “Is she a gift?” (you can see it in the trailer above) still makes me laugh.
Death Becomes Her
Death Becomes Her (1992) Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis - Official Trailer (HD) - YouTube
This trailer does not do this movie justice AT ALL. This movie was so ridiculous – and it stars THE Meryl Streep! – and yet I probably watched it at least fifty or so times when I was growing up. Much like The First Wives’ Club, I definitely did not understand the pressure placed on women to look young when I watched this the first time, but watching it again now, it’s an interesting take on the lengths people will go to be young and “beautiful”, and the devastating effects that can have. All of that aside, Meryl and Goldie are absolutely delightful, and are obviously having so much fun in these roles. There isn’t some major “ah-ha” moment or lesson to take away from this movie… it’s just really, really fun. Oh, and I still want to look like Isabella Rossellini when I grow up.
My diary at age 10. I hope I got a new bathing suit. Also… I like that I was trying to prove how cool I was with my music choices here
Also, I TOTALLY didn’t “get” that that was Bruce Willis when I was younger. I just didn’t put him in this movie and him in Die Hard together, and I don’t know why.
Is this movie still good? Yes. This is one of those movies that I could start watching at any point throughout the film and totally enjoy it.
Now and Then
Now and Then (1995) Official Trailer 1 - Christina Ricci, Rosie O'Donnell Movie HD - YouTube
But then I remembered… I DID own this DVD! Back in the early aughts, I would buy DVDs and CDs like nobody’s business. I’m snatch up 10 DVDs for $30 at big chain stores, or buy copies of my favourite movies no matter the cost. Back then – let me just get out my rocking chair here – the only way to watch movies was to catch them on TV, rent them from a video stores, or own the videocassette/DVD.
I dug through a huge box of DVDs in my basement (fortunately or unfortunately, I’m a bit of a packrat) and finally found Now and Then. I didn’t even have a DVD player hooked up to my TV, but I found that, too.
Again, this movie reiterates just how important – and just how complicated – female friendships are. What is a story of one summer is also a story of grief, maturity, disappointment, betrayal, and more. Watching them reunite as adults is equally fraught with sometimes uncomfortable and awkward moments, just as it would be to reunite with my best girlfriends from over two decades ago (with the exception of those I’ve kept in close contact with, of course).
Is this movie still good? Yes, most of it. The constant fat-shaming of Chrissy bothered me a lot, but overall I found the movie to be a lot deeper and sadder than I remembered it being.
A League of Their Own
A League Of Their Own (HD) Trailer - YouTube
The fact that I named my dog after this movie’s main character should probably tell you everything you need to know. I fucking love this movie. I realise now that so many of my favourite movies as a girl were setting me up for a lifetime of being passionate about women’s rights and feminism, as well as setting me up for valuing my female friendships as much as I do. I love that this movie also easily passes the Bechdel test – it’s kinda gross to realise how many movies DON’T pass this test – and that the women in it discuss real, relatable issues, including wanting to be taken seriously. I loved the message of this movie then, and I love the message of this movie today. I actually got the idea for this blog post by rewatching this on a plane recently (thank you, WestJet, for having an awesome selection of movies).
A major issue that I feel I should address is that this list is very devoid of people of colour, as there are very few (barely any) main characters in these films that aren’t white. 21 years ago, I didn’t notice this. Now, of course, it is so blatantly obvious just how whitewashed Hollywood was (and still is). I mention this under A League of Their Own because there is a scene where a baseball rolls over to young black woman who throws it back to the catcher with power, causing all of the other (white) players to gawk.
Listen, us Manitobans all know… when you ask the average non-Canadian to name a Canadian city, we’re going to hear Toronto, Vancouver, maybe Montreal. But if my last six months in Manitoba has proven anything, it’s proven that there is a whole lot more going on in Canada, with so many incredibly beautiful, incredibly fun places to visit. When Travel Manitoba asked me to explore more of the province, I jumped at the chance.
I was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and lived here for the first 18 years of my life. My grandparents had a cabin at Winnipeg Beach, about an hour north of the city; I have many fond memories from there as a child, including swimming off of the pebbled beaches and watching the fireflies light up the night sky. Every time we’d visit the cabin, we’d make a day of heading to Gimli, too, a small town just north of Winnipeg Beach.
To visit Gimli again, at least twenty years later, was not only nostalgic but eye-opening; sure, I remembered visiting certain places with my grandma, but to see it as an adult made me realise just how special and charming Gimli really is. Sometimes it takes travelling the world to make you realise all of the treasures you have right there at home, and Gimli is definitely one of them.
With that in mind – and because it is now one of my missions to get you to want to visit Manitoba as soon as possible – I thought I’d write a list of all of the best things to do in Gimli, Manitoba.
The Best Things To Do in Gimli, Manitoba
Learn about Gimli’s Icelandic culture
If you’ve heard of Gimli before, chances are you know that there is an extremely strong Icelandic presence in the town. This is noticeable almost everywhere you go, with nods to Icelandic culture in shops, restaurants, and even street names.
In the mid to late 19th century, thousands of Icelanders left their home to start new lives abroad. It reached its peak in 1875, when economic conditions and the eruption of Mount Askja forced many Icelanders to emigrate. Many chose Canada, Manitoba in particular, and “New Iceland” was founded. That’s where we find Gimli today.
To celebrate the area’s Icelandic culture, the Icelandic Festival is held every August; make sure to also visit Viking Park as well as the New Iceland Heritage Museum. Visiting Gimli is a really unique and lovely way to celebrate all things Icelandic without actually stepping foot in Iceland!
To truly get a taste of Iceland while in Gimli, also stop by Sugar Me Cookie bakery in order to buy a piece of vinarterta cake; traditionally made from prunes, it’s both authentic and super delicious.
Attend the Gimli Film Festival
This year, I was lucky enough to attend the Gimli Film Festival. I was incredibly impressed by the diversity of films presented at the festival, and loved the intimate, personal feel of watching the movies in sometimes very small venues (such as a small chapel). The film festival had both an Indigenous Film Series as well as a Future is Female Film Series this year, which I thought was a great addition in order to support equal opportunity and showcase as many voices as possible.
There are tons of fun events surrounding the film festival – think movie trivia nights and, my favourite, nightly screenings on the beach – so it’s the perfect way to spend a long weekend.
Eat to Your Heart’s Content
For such a small town, Gimli has no shortage of wonderful places to eat, especially if you’re after local food. I tried the fresh pickerel fish and chips from Kris’, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. I also ate pickerel tacos at The Ship and Plough… Manitobans seriously love their pickerel, me included.
Finally, you have to stop into my favourite Gimli coffeeshop, Flatlanders. Delicious coffee, fantastic baked goods, and a really relaxed atmosphere! I hung out there every morning.
Please note that I attended Winnipeg Folkfest on behalf of Travel Manitoba as part of a paid campaign with Travel Manitoba.
I was lying in the grass with my eyes closed, the sun hot and heavy overhead. There were a few trees to my right, offering spots of dappled shade, and the blue sky swelled with clouds. Once in a while one of the clouds would pass over the sun, creating a brief moment of shadow.
On the stage in front of me, one of Winnipeg Folkfest’s Saturday workshops was in progress. These workshops were a chance for some of the featured bands playing at the festival to collaborate on stage, playing individually or together. It was a different vibe than the main stages that played at night; these workshops were much more intimate, and it was fun to see how the bands interacted and played together.
As I laid in the grass on a blanket, surrounded by hundreds of others doing the same, I was listening to the Free Fallin’ workshop, a performance by Ashwin Batish (a sitar player), Rising Appalachia (folk/soul/spoken word sister duo), Genticorum (a folk trio from Quebec), and Huun-Huur-Tu (Tuvan throat singers). As Huun-Huur-Tu played, I felt a peace I hadn’t felt in a very long time, almost as if time stood still for one perfect moment. Perhaps it was the summer heat, or the slight breeze, or the feel of the grass beneath me, or the hundreds of other people around me quietly enjoying the same song; whatever it was, it brought tears to my eyes, this magical, beautifully overwhelming moment. Music can do that to us from time to time, and I basked in the feeling. As the band finished their song, the last notes ringing out into the field, I didn’t want the moment to end.
And as I packed up my blanket, still flying high from the previous hour and a half, I realised something: I hadn’t taken any photos of the performers. In fact, I thought, I hadn’t taken many photos at all over the past three days at Folkfest. I had brought all of my camera equipment, made sure every battery was charged, every lens cleaned, and yet… I had barely thought to take my camera out of its bag.
Say the word “Folkfest” to just about any Winnipegger and you’ll get a reaction. “I love Folkfest,” they’ll say, or, “I go every year.” Known the world over as being one of the best folk festivals – or perhaps one of the world’s best outdoor music festivals, period – it has been an institution in my hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, for 45 years. Despite that, this year marked the first time I attended, even though it had long been on my “must do” list. As I haven’t spent a summer in Winnipeg since I was 18, attending Folkfest for the first time in the first official summer I moved home seemed fitting.
Winnipeg Folkfest is known for its incredible music, of course, but it not only covers folk; it also showcases musicians with backgrounds in rock, R&B, soul, jazz, gospel, hip hop, country, electronic, world music, and just about every genre you can imagine. It attracts some of the world’s very best musicians, with this year seeing Sheryl Crow, Bahamas, Elle King, Passenger, John Butler Trio, and A Tribe Called Red take to the stage. In the past, artists such as Joan Armatrading, Billy Bragg, Feist, The Shins, and legendary folk singers Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie have all performed at Folkfest.
Huun-Huur-Tu playing on the main stage
On top of that, the festival strives to be both as inclusive as possible and as green as possible. Gender parity is the goal, as is representing artists from a wide range of backgrounds. The festival promotes safety, accessibility, and sustainability. I’ll be writing an article about Winnipeg Folkfest for first-timers soon, and everything you should expect, but for now: I was extremely impressed with the organisation of Folkfest. With over 2,700 volunteers, the festival felt extremely safe, clean, friendly, and, most importantly, totally inclusive of everyone, no matter what age or background.
Though camping is an option, I decided not to camp, as the drive from the centre of Winnipeg to Bird’s Hill Park is easy and parking is a breeze (though there is also a free shuttle from the city to the park). I went for all four days of the festival, getting there especially early on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in order to catch as many of the workshops and day performances as possible, then staying as late as I could in order to take in all of the action on the two night stages.
I was absolutely entranced by the heart and soul of The War and Treaty. I was moved to dance by Las Cafeteras and Elle King. I bowed down to the talent of Courtney Barnett, Jadea Kelly, Amythyst Kiah, Taylor Janzen, and Mo Kenney. I immediately looked up recordings of St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Lanikai, Mama Kin Spender, nêhiyawak, and Gaelynn Lea. I could go on and on about the artists that played this year, but I would sound like a broken record; I was completely and utterly blown away by the sheer talent across the board. No matter the time of day, no matter the stage (of which there are nine), you are going to find an amazing concert.
But all of that doesn’t quite explain why I didn’t take any photos at Folkfest, even though I knew I’d be blogging about it. I’ve long established that I’m not the greatest blogger, not by a long shot; I hate most social media, I am far too lazy to attempt video, and I still don’t quite know what I’m doing right whenever a post of mine is shared or found on Google. I also find it difficult to get motivated to take out my camera or phone when I can just live a moment. When I’m in it, I want to be in it.
The War and Treaty
More and more I’ve found myself wanting to be as present as possible. And at Folkfest, you want to be present all the time; there’s so much to see and do, so many people to talk to, and so many good vibes and great music to keep you entertained, to keep you happy. When I was dancing and talking and laughing and listening, the last thought on my mind was to interrupt that moment by taking out my camera. I didn’t take photos of many of the performers. I didn’t take photos of the sunsets, or the beer tents, or any of the friends I made or ran into. I didn’t even take photos of my delicious food, damn it… and I’m a blogger! While I did take the occasional photo from time to time – mostly when I was walking from stage to stage, in between sets – I spent those four days soaking it all up, soaking it all in, and I can’t say I regret it in the slightest.
You might say that Folkfest, though it highlights artists from all over the globe, perfectly exemplifies what Winnipeg is all about. There was a feeling I had there that’s difficult to explain, just as it’s difficult to explain why Winnipeg itself is so unique, so appealing. It’s the feeling that I could say hello to anyone at Folkfest and they’d say hello back, just as everyone says hello on the sidewalk as you walk past. It’s the feeling that all of these people came together in these green fields and lush forests to listen to music, to dance, to make friends, to experience just a little bit of magic in those prairie sunsets. Just as I can’t exactly explain why moving home to Winnipeg feels so right, Winnipeg Folkfest gave me the same feeling; as I laid there in the grass, listening, at peace, I felt it just as strongly as ever.
Home. I’m home.
That’s what Folkfest offers: that indescribable feeling you get when you find a place that just fits, that just feels right. That’s why I forgot to take photos; I was too wrapped up in how good it all was, how happy I felt. And while I barely took any photos, that’s why this Folkfest first-timer just became a lifer.