London, Ontario - I was cool when I heard the initial response.
"London? Ontario? What the hell is in London?" my friend asked.
"Don't know. That's why I'm going."
On a cold November Thursday night, after a few pints of bitter at our favourite watering hole, my good pal was inquiring into my plans for the weekend. Did I want to party? Go to a concert?
Normally, either would have appealed, but the ants-in-pants bug had come back and I felt the need to seek out some local adventure. My grandfather had invited me to visit him at his new house in London, Ontario. Oddly, the invite sounded alluring, and within three weeks I'd committed to making the trip.
Getting to London isn't hard. A Via train makes the trip three times daily from Toronto, and Greyhound runs multiple express buses. I choose the bus and pay a very reasonable $45 for a round-trip ticket. Two hours after boarding, I land at the bus terminal right in the heart of London.
Before heading to Grandy's place on the city's north side, I go for a little orienting walkabout. There's a hipster bookstore, record and CD shops, fast food joints and the largely abandoned Galleria mall. Also, downtown sports many historic buildings and heritage homes built after the turn of the century.
Feeling a bit claustrophobic - the buildings block the sun - I head west. There's not much doing, but eventually I come across site of the large farmers market just off the main drag of Richmond Street.
It's closed, but because I love fresh butter tarts I file their weekend operating hours away and catch the local, round-the-clock bus to my grandfather's house.
"Let's go for a drive," the man of the house declares the next morning.
As we drive eastward and the newer, copycat housing projects disappear, I see why London has a farmers market in the first place. There are miles of hay, corn and canola fields.
As my grandfather points out, London was at one time the centre of southwestern Ontario's farm sales - lumber, feed, cattle, fruit. While the area has now been overtaken by industrial and suburban sprawl, its struggling agricultural hinterland provides the city with a more organic and human richness. The yuppies need the farmers, and vice versa, my grandfather declares.
We pass through Dorchester, Aylmer and several other small communities. These hamlets still contain old feed mills with concrete silos, many wood-panelled houses and occasionally an old-style general store. A few more kilometres down the road, we come to a sparsely populated intersection where my grandfather stops.
"Let's get out here."
There are a few farms, with old sheds; a small sand-brick community hall at the crossroads ties the community together.
"This is Harley."
I recognize the name. This is where my grandpa grew up and worked for his first 20 years. He surprises me when he says that, aside from the newer buildings and the absence of some old houses, the community is still very much intact. People still work their farms for their livelihoods, and many of the mailboxes still bear the same last names. The family-oriented community spirit has been retained. I see an expression of comfort on my grandfather's face.
We head back to London to the farmers market that plays host to many of London's earthly riches. Knitted sweaters, Mennonite furniture, pecks of apples and, of course, butter tarts - three for $2 - are all in large supply. As I pop a tart into my mouth, I take in London's rare urban/rural duality and hope it can survive.