Learning Local Customs

AN IMPORTANT NOTE:  Each year, the Slocan Lake Stewardship Society—which I currently serve as president of the board—hosts a “Lake Lies and Tall Tales” event where community members tell stories and compete for prizes.  This year, the “most fishy” tale was awarded a gallon of fish fertilizer, and the best story won a photo of the lake.  I was drafted, at the last minute, to tell a story, which you’ll find below.  It won the Tallest Tale category, and presumably the prize—two rolls of duct tape—is to help me patch together a more believable presentation for next year.  All I can say is that parts of this story are true…but I’m not telling which parts they are.

When I was a kid, my family moved a lot.  I learned at an early age that the first thing you want to do is figure out the local customs: this knowledge will save you from many embarrassing and painful moments.

When George and I moved to rural British Columbia, to the village of New Denver on the Slocan Lake, I went to work fast to learn the local customs.  We were moving from the States; worse, we were moving from California.  As far as I could tell, the only human that was less welcome in the Slocan Valley than a Californian would be a convicted child molester from Alberta who was using the millions he made in the oil sands to buy up lakefront for condominiums.

It didn’t take all that long to figure some things out.  I learned that if someone takes you to their secret huckleberry spot, you don’t turn around and show it to someone else.  I learned that if you stay on Rob’s good side, you can get coffee before the Apple Tree opens on Saturday morning.  I learned that Agnes Emary really was everyone’s grade school teacher, or at least everyone acts like it.  I learned that there are two kinds of locals: the ones who take part in the Polar Bear swim each New Year’s Day (a hardy handful), and the ones who only swim in August (the vast majority).

And a year or so after we moved to town, on a lazy Sunday afternoon sail hosted by a local politician who shall be unnamed, I learned that middle-aged people in this area don’t wear bathing suits.

Now, I’m on the board of the local lake stewardship society.  Because we love this lake, and it’s so deep and cold and clean and undeveloped, we’re working hard to support research for a lake plan that’ll keep things beautiful and healthy.  What that means is that we are always looking for money: money for water testing, money for fish studies, money for foreshore inventory mapping, money for education about invasive aquatic plants, money for boating guides, money for creel studies, money for study of watersheds, money for preservation of petroglyphs.  You name it, we want money for it.

So a few weeks ago, right about when we had that really hot spell, the board of the lake stewardship society had a great idea.  There were three people, mucky-mucks you could say, that we wanted to get out on the lake so they could see for themselves an area that we think needs study right now. And we thought that a spot of hospitality might just help the money flow.

Somehow the assignment landed in my lap, so I called my friend, the previously unnamed local politician, and asked if he would take me and these three folks out in his boat that Sunday.  He said yes, and I started planning the picnic and the trip.

It was a busy Sunday.  I started off preaching and celebrating communion at the little United Church, which meant the service was a bit longer than usual.  Then one of the nice older men introduced me to his three grandsons, cute little boys all under ten who had never seen a female minister before, so I sat and talked with them for a while.  Then I dashed home, changed into boating clothes, grabbed the picnic basket, and headed to the marina.

The bigwigs were already there.  I won’t name them either, but let me describe them.  One is an employee of provincial government, with lots of power; another holds the purse strings to a large community foundation, and the last, spouse to the second, is involved in regional government.  They’d all lived around the general area a long time, and were acquainted with each other.  I was kind of the odd one out, actually.  And since they spent a lot of the afternoon bemoaning the way that folks from the outside moved in and changed things—the way that outsiders didn’t recognize local customs and traditional usage of the lake—I kept my mouth shut and tried not to display my ignorance.

It was a scorching afternoon.  Do you remember how hot it was for early May?  After motoring around the lake for several hours —there was not a breath of wind in the air—we moored into a little cove on the park side of the lake, and someone suggested swimming.

Yikes, I thought.  Local custom.  We each retired to a corner of the boat to get ready—I was out on the bow, hidden behind the limp sail.  I looked at my right shoe, slowly untied it, took it off.  I took off my sock.  I untied the left shoe. I removed it.  Hesitantly took off the left sock.  Finally I thought, “Just get it over with!”  I stood and shucked my clothes in one swift move.  Then I looked up.

There in the cove, pulled up on the beach, was a boat I hadn’t noticed before.  Next to the boat was that nice older man from church with his three grandsons, all of them staring at me with their eyes like saucers.  I spun around, heading for the back of the boat to tell the others that maybe we should go somewhere else to swim, but what I saw choked my words off.  Four middle-aged people, modestly clad in bathing suits, jaws dropped wide open.

I did the only thing a sensible human being would do.  I jumped in.

Did I mention it was early May?

When they finally got me back in the boat—choking and coughing from the frigid water—someone wrapped me in a towel.  We motored in, pretty much silent; when we hit the dock, all the dignitaries scattered like rats off a sinking ship.  My friend the unnamed local politician seemed very busy putting everything away, so I left quickly too.

I finished up and mailed the grant applications to all those folk the next week, but I’m still waiting to hear back.  All I know is that the next time the lake stewardship society wants a board member to offer some hospitality, I’ll make sure it’s someone who’s better versed in the nuances of local custom.

Copyright © Mary Therese DesCamp 2010

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