The last time we’d seen Dominique and Lancelot was in a place you might expect to meet two such romantically named individuals. Two years ago we sat together at an outdoor table overlooking a canal in Venice, Italy, toasting the end of Dominique and Magda’s MFA program in Berlin and their newly achieved status as Masters. Afterwards we walked through cobbled streets under the light of antique street lamps, headed to the Grand Canal where we’d say our goodbyes. I’d been wearing ill-fitting shoes and my feet were blistered and sore, so I walked barefoot and communed with the time worn texture of the old sinking city.
Winnipeg, Manitoba was cold and I was glad my feet were long healed as we walked to the porch of a darkly painted house, almost black, and rang the doorbell. Inside was a glowing fireplace, a labradoodle that tilted his head at us suspiciously, and the couple we’d last seen disappearing into the Venetian night, Dominique and Lancelot, all smiles, all hugs. We settled into this setting of domestic warmth with mugs of frosty beer and a taco dinner Lancelot had whipped together, spending the evening reconnecting and describing our journey so far. They pointed out the postcard we’d sent them from Antarctica that was stuck to the refrigerator door. Another jolt of nostalgia silenced me for a while, thinking about the day we’d written and mailed the card from aboard a ship on the Southern Sea.
As is our habit, we made ourselves at home and instantly decided to extend our stay. Theirs was another in a lucky string of homes that have been opened to us, and the lure of home is becoming heavier the closer we come to Alaska.
We’d just managed to get a glimpse of the city when the snow caught up to us again. We’d outrun winter for all of a day when the sky darkened and a fine powder collected on the frozen ground. By the next morning it was thick and still falling, giving Magda and I the perfect excuse to take a break from shooting architecture and worrying over the next New Yorker entry. We drove the empty, snow covered streets to the Winnipeg Art Museum, Winnipeg’s world class art venue and, not coincidental to our visit, a fine example of brutalist architecture. Inside a dark theater while a howling wind piled drifts outside, we watched Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’, a montage of movie clips showing different clock faces amounting to every minute of the day. The acclaimed movie runs for 24 hours and you can set your watch to it, or like we did, simply sink into a trance and literally watch the hours flash by. Magda had seen parts of the movie two years before where it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. After two hours I agreed it deserved a prize, if only for the shear impossibility of its creation. It took the artist and his assistants three years to find and compile the footage, a staggering amount of work.
We also took in a ballet with our hosts and Dominique’s mother. The house was packed to watch three experimental pieces directed and choreographed by Peter Quanz. I couldn’t quite believe there were enough talented dancers in Winnipeg to justify the attendance, but like so many times before, I vastly underestimated this city. The performance was great. Two traditional pieces were followed by a theatrical murder mystery done as modern ballet which made us laugh out loud. It was brilliantly danced and choreographed. Dom and Lancelot knew Quanz so we got a chance to tell him as much after the show. He bowed slightly, gallantly overlooking the fact we knew almost nothing of which we spoke.
Magda and I took a long trip north to Lake Winnipeg in order to capture Manitoba’s landscape without the pressure of constant motion. We stopped often to shoot, and tried out the Subaru’s handling in the bigger drifts of snow. Despite the beautiful wintery surroundings, we were feeling anxious. Either we weren’t getting the shots Magda wanted or there was something else on her mind.
She’d learned in her research about Manitoba, just before we arrived, that it’s usually possible to take a train northeast from Winnipeg to a town called Churchill in order see the world’s southernmost polar bears migrating across the tundra. Unfortunately the season’s last tour was leaving an hour before the only train we could take would arrive. This unfortunate quirk of timing took on greater proportions as we passed beautiful scenery that looked like so much of the beautiful scenery we’d already passed. Soon, Magda had Polar Bears permanently on the brain, and there was no immediate cure.
The next day we were both feeling grumpy due to endless discussions about polar bears (or lack there-of) and began snapping at one another as we started a trip to an interesting sounding old concrete dam. Low on gas and patience, we aborted the drive twenty minutes in and turned around. A long silence fell over the Subaru as each of us wondered how to end it.
I was driving aimlessly towards home, feeling my way through now slightly familiar streets, when we passed a huge white kwansit hut with a mural painted on its side. Above the mural, in big bold letters in read: St. Vital Curling Club. I suggested we go inside for a look. Still in a funk, Magda agreed. What we found inside knocked the big polar bear stone out of the bull’s-eye of Magda’s mind. Here was a huge field of ice, covered with elderly Manitobans sliding curling stones down long slick runways. In each lane, chasing the stone, two sweater clad men slid and madly brushed brooms before the sliding rock with surprising dexterity.
Soon enough we were adopted by an incredibly kind gentleman named Earl Stephenson who realized with some delight that we didn’t know a thing about curling. It would be as if someone walked in on a basketball game and squealed with delight over the quaint nets hanging on either end of the court. Earl led us down to the ice and insisted we throw a few stones. With my first hurl, I knew I’d like this game. The big smooth stone sailed gracefully down the length of the ally and stopped dead near the goal, a yellow spot in a blue bull’s-eye. I pronounced myself a natural and Earl grinned like a new father handing out cigars.
Earl left us to go eat a grilled cheese sandwich before his tournament began. He wished us luck on our journey, but not before describing the road as far as he’d traveled it which was until about Edmonton. After that we were on our own. After that the North began, not some sissy north, but the north of legend. I guess he didn’t envy the task we’d set about for ourselves and right then neither did I.
In the afternoon, our spirits lifted, we visited the U of A campus where Dom and Lancelot both teach. Lancelot gave us a tour of his facilities at the architecture school and impressed us with a visit to the CAST lab, where he and others investigate a revolutionary type of form creation that relies heavily on fabrics impregnated with liquid to solid substances: concrete, fiberglass, ice. Their stretched canvas creations are designed in three dimension without aid of computers, built within a wood frame as fully scalable ‘sketches’. Check out the link before I thoroughly confuse and misrepresent what is an incredible process with much, much potential for inexpensive, strong and beautifully designed buildings.
Dom had arranged for Magda to give a lecture in her digital photography class. The visiting photographer got up and recapped our journey and showed her work. When she showed the route, starting in Chile and temporarily stopping here in Winnipeg, the otherwise taciturn students let out an involuntary gasp. Looking at the map, in my already nostalgic state, I too exhaled. It isn’t easy to imagine how far we’ve come, but looking back over the trip as a continuous line seen from space, I felt a bit of pride followed by the edge of weariness that’s been discoloring the corners of our conversations and leaving great gaps in our communication. Our time in Winnipeg, in the company of friends, great art and ideas, simultaneously invigorated us and wore us down with its comforts. Knowing that tomorrow or the next day we’d be on the road once more, with a route north, yes, but a very unclear future ahead of us.