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Ask Someone Who Recently Visited Calgary

Jane, you recently went to Calgary for a folk festival. Is that a sentence I never thought I’d be saying to you?

Ha! Is it? Well, the lineup looked half “huh” and half “Beirut/Iron and Wine/Blitz the Ambassador,” you know? Like, I get it. Plus, you already know this about me, but I go iiiin for a music festival. It is my natural habitat, or was. This one was very, very different! “Countries are Different” could be the slogan for this trip.

So yeah, I spent four days in and out of the Calgary Folk Music Festival. There were six stages spread out over the lovely little Prince’s Island situated just north of downtown — and by “just” I mean yards. Calgary is a totally walkable city. Anyway, they made the festival kind of interesting by not only having everyone do one or two solo shows over the course of the long weekend, but also most musicians participated in multiple “workshops” which were basically jam sessions with other acts. I liked those the best since you could sit in one place and see a handful of musicians you’ve never heard of rather than running from tent to tent. Here’s a terrible-sounding video I took of my favorite workshop. Rae Spoon is the singer, this dude Shad is a guitarist and rapper, Shooglenifty is the unfortunately named duo with the fiddle and I think mandolin over on the end? And then there were a few other people whose names I didn’t catch. Oh, but first, why is the sound so bad? Well, there’s a “no standing” rule at the festival so that everyone can see — which is like WHAT? NO STANDING AT A CONCERT? Countries are Different. — and I had to perch off to the side which was near the speakers. Some tents had tiny, signed, gated “Dancing Areas” on the sides. Anyway, listen to Rae Spoon’s voice (and here’s a studio version of this incredible song):

I could just listen to this all day. Rae was definitely the best thing that happened to me in Calgary.

Were there hot guys? Hot girls?

I actually fact-checked this with other out-of-towners, and we all agree: Yes. I theorize that folks in Calgary are generally taller and more fit that the rest of the planet. Not sure if or why that’s true, but it seemed true. If you’ll allow me to make some more oversimplified, judgy, sweeping generalizations: I’ve found in my Canadian travels/living that there are two “looks” up there that really stand out to a foreigner: “Big Oil Money” and “Funky Activewear.” The former are rich, beautiful women in proper suits and heels — but wearing a little too much makeup — and men in dress shirts and boot cut jeans with those big embroidered pockets. That kind of kills it for the dudes, who are generally chiseled, broad-shouldered, and well-groomed. The accent can be confusing. I met a number of straight, married dads that I had pegged wrong at first, ifyouknowwhatImean. And then the latter look is like when you wear Lululemon to the office, and everywhere else. And cropped cargo pants. And backpacks. And Crocs. Very active! There are definitely regions of other countries where you see these looks side-by-side, but it’s a Canada-wide phenomenon, according to this unaccredited anthropologist.

Best/worst things you ate?

Calgary, along with every other large city (they have a million people in Calgary!) in North America, is on the whole “farm to table” bandwagon. (Dear Servers Everywhere, Especially LA: You can stop saying “Have you visited our restaurant before? No? Well, we do things a little differently from other restaurants: we’re what’s called “farm to table” and…blah blah blah.”) So I had some damn good salads, like this beet one at Charcut with house-made goat cheese and a free shot of beer that I can’t remember what it was called but the Beer Sommelier (a thing?) told me it would be great and it was. Nothing revolutionary, but delicious and fresh.

The broccoli and quinoa fritters and the bison burger at this restaurant called River Cafe that everyone kept saying was a “good place to lunch when someone else is paying,” were delectable. And I loved a newish tapas joint called Ox & Angela, even though they put this in my drink:

Like a lot of cities in Canada, Calgary goes kind of INSANE with the outdoor seating during their short summer, so it feels hustle-bustley because everyone is sitting outdoors and waits for those tables can take hours. It stays light out in the summer until nearly 11 P.M., too. I looked up the average sunset and technically it’s more like 9 P.M., but I think that’s just when the sun hits the horizon. After that it sort of hovers there feeling like dusk until you are drunker than you meant to be. And in Canada most drinks are very carefully measured, which can be annoying, but cocktail lists at the better restaurants offer a few different sizes along with the number of ounces of liquor or wine in each.

At the other end of the spectrum, Calgary recently permitted food trucks, so those are a big deal right now. There were a bunch at the festival and someone recommended I try the pulled pork sandwich on a maple donut at Jelly, but it came out on an un-sweet, unglazed donut, so that was a let-down. Still delicious, if only I hadn’t been expecting frosting on my sandwich.

Describe one person there who kind of epitomized the entire experience. Like what were they wearing, how were they BEING, etc.

Everyone at the folk festival kept talking about what a young city Calgary is, but how it’s kind of expensive to live there, so people hustle. And also the attendees at the fest were so nice and humble and unassuming and earnest. And a lot like the show Portlandia. (Don’t worry, I ran that by them and they mostly agreed.) So I’m going to choose Kelsey Fraser who was a delightful person to talk to — very quietly and giggly — while she drew and painted my portrait.

Kelsey is a recent art school grad from another town, which is why Calgary is such a youthful place: apparently everyone from surrounding areas moves here after graduation because there are jobs. It was the last day of the festival when I met her and I was wearing a T-shirt I’d gotten for free at another festival — I’d given up by this point and just wore jeans and sneakers IF YOU CAN BELIEVE IT — and of course she focused on the message of the free T-shirt. Adorable. She wanted me to tell you that the rosy cheeks are her signature and not my actual makeup. And that she’s in an arts collective galled Magpie & Friends. They put birds on a lot of things.

Did you know where Calgary was before you went? BE HONEST. I ask because I thought it was … somewhere it is not. Haha. (I’m an idiot.)

I did, because I’ve lived in Canada. If you had asked me if I knew where any other city on Earth was, I’d have said, “I did, because I’m a geography wiz,” which is also true, but the reason I answered the way I did is because if you spend a significant amount of time in Canada, you spend a significant amount of time talking about Canada. Everyone there knows everything there is to know about all the other major Canadian cities: all the industry, all the politics, all the dramas. I think that’s because of the size: Canada contains a manageable amount of people and information. The flip side is that then Canadians assume folks from the States care as much about our politics and stuff, and we don’t, so we seem stupid and disinterested. Which we are? Anyway, so yeah, I’d heard a thing or two about Calgary. (Which is, if you didn’t know, a bit north of western Montana in Alberta. It’s where the dudes in Lonesome Dove would’ve ended up if they kept going north for a few more months.)

Briefly summarize Calgary’s history. 

I’m not looking it up; this is all what I gathered/assumed from talking to people: Calgary is a very young city in another sense: it was formed sometime in the 1880s or 1890s? Alberta is oil country, so that’s the foundation. That and cattle. There’s a festival every summer called Stampede which is all about cowboy stuff — they celebrated their 100th anniversary this year. And Calgary has a young, hip, Muslim mayor, Naheed Nenshi, who has a donut named after him. According to everyone, he’s the best and the opposite of Toronto’s mayor who is supposedly “a dumb Chris Christie.” Ta-da! Calgary.

Did you make any new friends?

I think this shy girl Caitlyn who is from Brooklyn would maybe meet me for a glass of wine if I asked her next time I’m in New York. You can see her in this DRAMATIC FOOTAGE I captured during a rafting trip. We were prepared for rapids, but instead it was mostly calm and a family of ducks followed us the last few miles.

What was the most embarrassing thing that happened to you while you were there?

[See above.]

When I picture Calgary I picture like a very clean field with nice clean buildings around it. That’s probably stupid. Tell me something TWISTED about it.

That’s not far off. It’s super clean and the city part is new and shiny and compact and then there is green stuff everywhere, for now. See?:

And also they have these nice things on the sidewalk grates so your heels don’t get stuck in them:

But, okay, you want twisted? Everyone and everything in Calgary has a major guilt complex about the oil and natural gas industry. The money makes the city lovely and gives everyone jobs and houses — though those cost a ton — but it also just feels terrible to be a part of it, you know? Like to the Earth and humanity and whatever. So, for example, the Folk Festival accepts funds from these energy companies, but they do their best to make the festival super eco-friendly to offset it. There was no bottled water sold at the fest, just refilling stations. Some of the tents were solar-powered. There were trash and recycling and COMPOSTING bins. The neatest thing were the plates: you gave a $2 deposit for a real plate and then got your money back upon return.

So yeah, everyone was extra-proud of how eco-friendly and sustainable everything was and that was really nice. The closest I’ve seen here in the states is that “50 empty cups for a cup of beer” cleanup program they have at Lollapalooza. I’m not sure they still do that though because no one in the U.S. brags about that sort of thing for very long.

The best thing about Calgary is:

They have a huge Holt Renfrew and it is glorious.


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