Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Leaving Winnipeg

My friends and I were desperate to get away -- yet here we are, right back where we started

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For a long, long time, I wanted to leave Winnipeg. Everything I wanted to do in life couldn't be accomplished here, I once thought. We were a city that boomed a long time ago, and now... now it's bust.

So, I left. I went as far as I could afford -- to Ottawa, to the Netherlands, to the U.K. and to Rwanda -- and found myself traveling in some never ending loop where I always landed on my feet in Winnipeg.


How did this happen? How can you desperately want to leave one place only to find yourself right back at the start?

Looking around at my other Winnipeg chums, I found the same sort of loop. We're all twenty-somethings still trying to figure out what we want to do and what life is all about, but here we are, going as far away as we can and ending up right back in Winnipeg.

"Why did you decide to go in the first place?" I ask my friend Jannelle Van Den Bosch, who went to Dalhousie University in Halifax to study community design.

Of course, being an urban planning graduate, she gives me an urban planning answer. "I felt like people complained a lot here," she says. "The buses, the building projects, the traffic... we seem to find fault with all aspects of our city's layout.

"Originally, I thought I'd go and stay anywhere as long as it wasn't Winnipeg," she says.

"Then why did you come back?" I ask.

Love and money, are the easiest answers -- her boyfriend is finishing up school here after living in Halifax with her for a few years. Then, there were the rude awakenings about how Halifax wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

The buses, she says, were atrocious.

"We have a really good bus system here," she says. "Especially with rapid transit."

And the cost of living also made things strained. Rent is a lot lower in Winnipeg. Groceries too, she finds.

"The longer I stayed out there, the more I saw the good things about Winnipeg," she says. "Winnipeg has a lot of cultural events, too. That's what's going for it."

So, why did I leave? I went to Ottawa to pursue journalism at Carleton University because the program seemed to suit me, but also because I thought anywhere was better than here.

I dabbled around Parliament Hill, attended sleepy cocktail parties and walked along the always spotless streets around Parliament Hill and the embassies. It was all rather milquetoast.

Then, on returning to Winnipeg to visit months later, I found myself driving through the downtown core at dusk. I was in awe of the Exchange District juxtaposed with the skyscrapers; the faded advertisements on the sides of turn of the century buildings. In it's own gritty way, it was so wonderfully beautiful; the wide open sky, and the way the Prairie sunset seeped in-between the buildings. Anything but milquetoast.

Sky -- that's one of the important aspects of the city to my good friend Kevin Mogk. It was one of the things he kept coming back for, he says.

"Living in other cities, I felt choked when I couldn't see the sun or the sky. There is something nice about being in the downtown of the city and being able to see the sky and not being loomed over by buildings."

Kevin has gone far afield many times. To small towns across the country for Katimavik, to Douai, France to teach English, then to Ottawa for a diploma program after his degree at Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface.

"It was an uncertainty of where to go in life. I needed some direction that I wasn't getting in Winnipeg," he says.

"Did you get that direction?" I ask.

Kevin thinks for a second before answering. "Through the various programs, it did give me direction," he concludes. "I got to experience cutting the apron strings. If you stay close to home and with family, you can't spread your wings."

So why did he come back? Money was one of the reasons. Cost of living is lower here and job prospects also seemed a bit better, he admits. However, there was also the city itself.

"In almost all of the cases there was a draw back to the uniqueness of Winnipeg, but you need to try those unfamiliar things first," he says.

What that uniqueness means to Kevin are the cultural activities, and, most importantly for him, the open sky. He is looking to go back to university for astronomy, after all.

The city is a good place to be young, he says. There's always a festival happening, the art scene is alive and well, and you can live relatively comfortably within your means.

I think about whether I got direction by leaving Winnipeg. I've been fortunate to live in many different places and in three other countries, even if only long enough to slough off the characteristics of the last city.

What I discover is that I found more direction by coming home. It gives me time to reflect about what I've learned and what matters and stop taking for granted the place where I grew up. It's not so bad to end up back at the start.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 12, 2012 A8

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