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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Until we meet again

We have said goodbye to our ninth and tenth International students. Mina has returned to Norway, and although Tega will not be returning to Nigeria, she has left our home to live with cousins in Ottawa for the summer. Tega will be living with another family in town when she returns in the fall for a few more Grade 12 credits to set her up for university in Canada. Mina has one more year of school in Norway – they do 13 years there, like we used to do in Canada.

Over the past six years we have hosted students for periods of one to ten months from the following places: China, Columbia, the Basque region of Spain, Brazil, and now Norway and Nigeria. Our first international student was John from the seaside city of Suzhou in China. He chose our home because he liked the idea of living on a farm. I think it is safe to say the novelty began to wear off after the first time he mucked out a horse stall. And it was definitely gone by the time he had to help use the snowblower on our long driveway.

John’s best friend from home was also in the area: Jerry was being hosted in Carleton Place. Jerry was really homesick, so the agency decided to let him move in with John at our house. It very soon became obvious that it wasn’t the greatest way for the boys to improve their fledgling English skills. They just spoke Chinese all the time at home. They did their year and went home for the summer. John didn’t make it back for year two. His poor study habits and introverted social nature made it impossible for him to have a successful international experience here in Canada. Apparently his father cancelled his return visit so that he could work in the family construction business and ‘pay back’ what had been spent on his year in Canada.

Jerry, on the other hand, took his summer back home to study English with a tutor. He returned to Canada confident and determined to succeed. He didn’t win any academic awards upon graduation from Grade 12, but he did win an award for his attitude and hard work. He was accepted to Algonquin College for Business, and returned a year later to the farm to show off his shiny new BMW and girlfriend.

The many local families who host International students (we have about 600 in the Upper Canada District School Board – UCDSB - alone) know it can be a challenge to get the kids out of their rooms, socialized, and living their Canadian experience. Teenagers prefer to be left alone in their rooms for the most part. Add to that the language barrier and social challenge of living in a new culture and you have quite a job on your hands. Sometimes it takes the full year to get the kids comfortable in their new environment – right before it is time to go home.

The students on the one-month ‘cultural exchange’ were a lot of fun because they didn’t have the same pressure on them as the school year kids. The short-stay students were just here to observe and experience. Every weekend they had activities planned with others from their group. They were basically on leave from school at home and never really had to study here. They had great attitudes, they didn’t really get homesick, and they were up for anything.

If you are considering hosting an international student in your home, I would suggest you do your research first. Introducing a new culture to your family can be an enlightening and educational experience, particularly for your own school-aged children. Check out Canada Homestay Network and MLI – Muskoka Language Institute. Those are two of the agencies that have placed students locally, both in the public (UCDSB) and the Catholic (CDSBEO) system.

If you take the time to make sure you are matched up with a student who fits well into your lifestyle (whether you are on a farm, into sports and family camping, etc.), you will gain a temporary new family member and if you are lucky, a lifelong friend.

The Farmer prefers to take his vacations in the dead of winter on a beach in the sunny south but after getting to know Mina and her culture I might be able to convince him to visit Norway someday. I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights.


What's your story?

Hi there. I’m an Aries. Therefore, it’s safe to say I’ve been through a number of dramatic changes in my life – all self-imposed. You see, I’m what they call impulsive. I act on impulse. It’s in my nature to pursue my ideas before I have thought them through.

It’s how I ran off and got married, at 19, after six weeks of dating the boxing instructor at the gym where I was teaching aerobics.

My impulsive nature is what led me to move to Taipei, Taiwan in 2003.
Both of these decisions led me down paths that dramatically changed my life. But I have no regrets. Good things came out of rash decisions. I have been lucky.

Everyone has a story. If you’re like me, you write them down. I have been compulsively writing my life story every week since I was about 12 years old. In 2003 I started writing a column about some of the crazy things I experienced while living in a different culture in Taiwan. Those stories were printed twice a month in The Kemptville Weekender.

People started following my stories, and writing me letters with questions. They wanted to know about the food, the language, the cultural differences, and the living arrangements. Rather than responding to their emails, I answered by writing a column. My experience in Taiwan seemed to boil down to three main elements: the traffic was nuts, the food was mysterious, and the culture was a bit stifling.

In Taipei City at rush hour, two lanes of traffic can become four, before your eyes. Scooters are forced up on sidewalks and you have to look both ways before stepping out of a shop – never mind crossing the street.

Taiwanese food is very Americanized but the traditional Chinese fare can be a bit scary. You never can be sure what you are eating. My trick was to ask what part of the body this dish would improve. For example, if they say the food will give you better eyesight, chances are you are eating something with the eyeballs intact. If they say the dish will give you a clear complexion, you are likely eating pig skin or chicken skin. It’s a pretty easy way to find out what is on your plate when it isn’t immediately identifiable.

Taipei hosts 4 million people in an area the size of Ottawa. This makes for some very cozy living conditions. People give up their sense of personal space – or maybe they never had it in the first place. They look in your shopping cart to see what you bought. They stand right up next to you on the bus or train – I mean you can feel their bodies pressing up against you. I guess it’s just a fact of life in an overcrowded space. But it is something I never got used to.

I never felt unsafe in Taiwan, - perhaps because I was a gwei-lo, or “white ghost”. It’s bad luck to mess with one of us, so I was left alone. It’s a great experience, to live in another culture. I think everyone should do it, at least for a few months. Learn about what makes other people tick, and you will learn about yourself at the same time.

Back in Canada, I became reacquainted with an old family friend – a professor and colleague of my mother’s at Kemptville College. We spent a year entertaining, carpooling and coordinating our five teenaged daughters and barely had time to get to know each other. Finally, after a year, he proposed. A few months later, I became The Accidental Farmwife – once again documenting my daily life in a weekly column.

My columns have been published online and in two books and I have followers all over the world. I get emails from people who are fascinated by my experience, and people who are going through a similar experience.

My life is not that extraordinary. We all have grand stories to tell. The trick is to tell it well. Record the moments using all your senses: sight, sound, smell, hearing and taste. Lead the reader through your experience. It will be therapeutic for you, and it will connect you to a community of likeminded individuals by a common keyword or phrase.

You don’t have to write a column or publish a book of your life story. Just start a blog. I would read it. I find personal experiences to be fascinating. We are all on different paths, according to the decisions we have made, impulsive or not.

Plans for a do-nothin' summer

Summer arrives this week. This year, I’m planning to make the most of it. I find if you don’t plan ahead for this sort of thing, you blink and just like that, summer is over.

Each summer we pack our weekends with a number of events that take us away from home. We go camping, we rent a cottage, we visit friends and we travel to take part in festivals and celebrations. Even if it’s just for a few hours and not overnight, it takes us away from a day on the farm. This year is going to be different.

I’m not at the Farmer’s Market this year. I gave up my market space so that a farmer who is working hard to produce local food can reach his customers on Sunday afternoons. I used to schlep my tent, tables and boxes of books out to the car every Sunday and spend approximately five hours of my weekend in the hot sun. While sales were good, I really wanted to be at home. Reading a book. Weeding my garden. Sitting on the porch with my husband.

I’m also not working weekends this summer. Last year my job was busiest on weekends – working at the liquor store – so although I saw most of my friends and knew where the parties were each week – I didn’t have the energy to go anywhere.  This year I’m sleeping in on Saturdays. Making a big breakfast on Sundays and enjoying my coffee on the porch. I’m parking the car on Friday and not moving it til Monday morning unless I absolutely have to.

Things will come up. They always do. And we have certain things we are looking forward to – like the Kemptville Live Music Festival – which will take up the majority of one weekend in July. But for the most part, if you’re looking for me, I’ll be home. With my dog. He’s tired of being shoved in his crate while I hop in the car and zoom from one event to the next. He wants me to stay home too. It’s no fun playing fetch by yourself.

This plan will take a little organization and creativity, I know. And I might have to turn down the occasional invitation if it’s going to mean I have zero downtime on any given weekend. We are going to stay local when possible, even when we are ‘going out’.

I even found a way to get my International students to Parliament Hill on Canada Day without having to take them myself: my daughter is going via Uber and they can come along. That’s great news to me because I don’t do well in crowds and the last time I was on the Hill on July 1st a flying beer bottle hit me in the back of the head.

The Farmer has his summer project – he’s building a house on Bass Lake near Lombardy. That means I will have someplace to go if I really want to get away from home for a day – but it also means he will be happily occupied doing his favourite thing so I don’t have to worry about entertaining him. I can do my own favourite things. One of them might be sitting on his newly built dock, my toes in the water, while I sip a cold beer and read a book.

We do have one week-long getaway planned that I am really excited about. We will be renting the same cottage we rented a few years ago, on the Big Rideau. I do love me a cottage getaway. It’s a heckuva lot of work, because you have to pack up everything you might possibly need for every kind of weather, activity, menu plan and surprise guest. Then you have to clean the place top to bottom when you arrive, because mice nest in the weirdest places (like the stove – which you won’t discover until you are heating it up to cook Sunday dinner…). Then you enjoy yourself for a few days, floating around the lake on an air mattress, roasting marshmallows and singing around the campfire at night, sleeping in each morning. And before you know it, the week is over and you have to do everything in reverse in order to go home.

Summer in Canada. It’s arrives this week, and aren’t we happy to see it. My goodness you are a beautiful season, Summer. Let’s just hope you are in a good mood until the end of September. We have plans – to do nothing.

The world is a small place when you are an Internet scammer

I have a pretty public online profile. I’m easily searchable and complete strangers can discover quite a few details about my daily life just by reading my blog posts. I’m an open book, so to speak. This is what makes me such an ideal vehicle for an Internet scam.

Having been in the media for over a decade, I’m pretty good at spotting a scam when it arrives via email or telephone call. That’s why I’ve never been a victim myself. However, last week I was notified that my name and photo had been used in a scam to defraud someone of quite a bit of money. This revelation kind of makes me sick to my stomach.

It’s called a romance scam, and it comes in a number of different forms. Sometimes the fraudster will actually meet their target in person and invest several months in a fake relationship, pretending to fall in love with their victim before taking them for a hefty chunk of change. In this case, the scammer just used my identity to fool someone into giving up the dough. Here’s how it works:

The scammer looks for an ideal personality online – someone who has provided a number of specific details about their family, their lifestyle, their likes and dislikes. Then, adopting the name and photo of that person, they contact someone who appears to be lonely and looking for love. Often the profiles of these victims reveal that they are not exactly fluent in the language of social media. The have limited activity online and they most likely aren’t familiar enough with fake posts to know when they are being scammed.

The scammer has nothing to lose – and could walk away with quite a bit of money, if everything goes in his favour. I say ‘his’ because the stereotypical Internet scammer is a young man from Nigeria. There, the community of people who do this kind of thing for a living has actually grown to sub-culture status. They are known as the 419’ers – or The Yahoo Boys – because 419 is the code for fraud in their country, and their vehicle of choice was originally email. Now they are taking their trade to social media, such as Facebook.

I could have been chosen because I have a Nigerian student living with me. Perhaps a friend of a friend of one of her friends found me on her list of connections. Or maybe it’s just an unhappy coincidence that I was chosen. In any case, it was unlucky for a certain man named Michael from Riverside, California.

Michael reached out to me via Messenger last month to let me know that he had been scammed. Someone contacted him, using my name and photo. They started an online relationship. At some point, after their emotional ‘affair’ became quite intimate and a certain amount of trust had been developed, the scammer went in for the kill – and asked for money. Perhaps he (posing as me) said his mother needed an operation – or he needed money to travel to see his dying father. Pulling on the heartstrings, he manipulated the emotions of his victim until he got what he asked for. Michael immediately wired a rather large sum of money to the scammer, thinking he was helping a woman he had developed feelings for. The scammer took the cash and then likely closed both his bank account and social media account, and disappeared.

Upset that he relationship had ended so abruptly, Michael began an online search and found me. In his message, he revealed exactly what had happened to him. Then, showing that he was still quite upset and confused, he wrote, “by the way, I am not getting in contact with you for the purpose of getting any monies back or to continue any ‘romance’  that I perceived we might have had…”
I felt really awful to hear that my name and image were used to cheat someone out of money. I know from covering these scams in the media that there is really no recourse for the victim. The scammer typically uses a computer at an Internet café – or on a burner phone that cannot be traced. I told Michael that he should report the incident to his local anti-fraud centre, and I told him I would do the same.

He may not get his money back but if the investigation leads to an IP address in another country – like Nigeria – maybe he will at least get some closure on the situation, and stop looking for the ‘woman’ who stole his money.

The stars aligned for a perfect June wedding

Two years ago, a little photo popped up on my Facebook feed. It was a close-up of my daughter and her boyfriend and they were holding up a little heart that declared the date “5.12.2018.”

My heart leaped into my throat and I immediately thought, “BABY.” I don’t put a whole lot of thought into my immediate reactions. Of course they weren’t announcing a pending delivery. The date was two years off. She isn’t an elephant. And although my daughter has occasionally announced something to me via social media – like that new tattoo – I would like to think that the announcement of a coming grandchild would be done more privately. In fact they were announcing their coming wedding day.

The date was significant because he likes the number 5 and she likes the number 12. But when Mother’s Day weekend rolled around, chilly and wet, they decided to move the date forward by a bit – to the long weekend in May. That got changed again in order to match schedules with the photographer. Paulina wanted Elenora Luberto to take her photos because she is a friend of the family and has taken our photos – both personal and professional, for years.

The couple decided to choose a date two years away because Paulina needed to finish school and get a job. They had been living together for years so there wasn’t any rush. The bride-to-be opened up a Pinterest account and got started choosing wedding décor in her spare time. And thus the royal wedding planning began.

Little did I know, by May 2018 I would be ready to hunt down the people who inspired her on Pinterest. The ideas she found looked simple enough: a swing made of grape vines (we have tons of those hanging from the trees on our farm), charcuterie boards with live edges (the Farmer offered to make some) and a photo backdrop covered in peeling vintage wallpaper with an overstuffed chair in front. They turned out to be much more difficult to create than I could have imagined. It’s very difficult to pull grapevines out of trees in the spring. Those fresh new vines are hanging on for dear life. And do you know how difficult it is to find wallpaper these days?

Paulina bought a wedding dress at the very first sale we went to in the spring of 2016 – but one month before the wedding we were hunting for accessories and she found the dress of her absolute dreams at Bridals By Almor in Winchester. That’s the thing about wedding dresses. You don’t know what you want till you try it on and discover how it transforms you into a svelte goddess – a hippie bride – or a woodland fairy princess. We all agreed it was the perfect dress for Paulina – but it was four sizes two big and there was no time to order a custom made one. This dress had to be completely rebuilt.

In the last few days leading up to the wedding, it was all hands on deck. We had to wait until the day of the wedding to actually set things up because it rained like crazy the day before. But we made it, with just a few minutes to spare. I think everyone was a bit shocked that we managed to keep the bride and groom (who are rarely on time) on schedule. And just like at Christmas when Paulina keeps shopping until the stores close Christmas Eve – she seemed to keep adding ideas to her wedding plan right up until the final moments. I was so happy when the day finally arrived, so we could stop planning.

This event was so meaningful – from the seedling trees that were given as guest gifts to the locations themselves (his family farm for the ceremony and tree planting: our farm for the reception). At the end of the day the Farmer and I looked around and realized that every single person involved in the wedding – from the caterer to the musicians to the guy who put up the tent – were connected to the bride and groom in some way. There were no strangers at this event. It was on our farm. And yes, it took a great deal of planning and effort on the part of many but as one of the groomsmen said a few times, now we have the memories. We can look around our property for years to come and remember this moment. I’d have to say it was worth every moment – but no, we don’t want to do it again anytime soon. Next time we’re hiring people to do all the things. And no, the farm is not for rent as a wedding venue. Not yet, anyway.

It's time to launch my 2018 campaign...for a goat

When we had sheep, horses and cattle keeping the thistles, grasses and weeds down on the pasture were not a problem. But now that we have no grazers amongst us, our property just beyond the house yard is looking rather wild and unkempt. In my opinion, what we need is a goat. I may start a campaign.

My campaign will not go unresisted. The Farmer has a vendetta against goats, with good reason. When he was working in Manitoba for the government he drove a rental car to various client farms. One hot day, he left the windows down on his Kia to circulate the air. While he was inside speaking with the property owner, a tribe of unruly goats took advantage of the situation and climbed into his vehicle. They didn’t just scratch the exterior of the car doors with their sharp little hooves on the way in the window. They ate everything they could find on the inside.

When my husband (who was not my husband at this time) returned to his car, he was amazed (among other emotions) to discover that his briefcase had been chewed apart, and the contents had been reduced to crumbs. Worst of all, the upholstery on the seats of the government-issued vehicle had been ripped apart with tiny goat teeth and the stuffing eaten or thrown about the car. One goat was still inside, gnawing on the coffee cup holder which no doubt had added flavour from daily use.
The Farmer opened the door, grabbed the goat by the horns and removed it from the vehicle. Then he sat down on his hollowed-out car seat, slammed the door and drove away, vowing to never deal with goats again. This is what I am up against.

The Farmer’s case against goats was compounded one day when we visited friends who used to own them. Jennifer told us of when they had guests over for a barbecue, and one man parked a shiny classic sports car in the drive. Don’t worry; the windows were up….but the curious goats could not resist the temptation to confront the other goats they saw reflected in the gleaming exterior of the car. While the owner was enjoying a beer and burger on the back porch, they quietly and repeatedly dented in the doors and side panels of the circa 1968 Mustang. I think the man switched to whiskey after he saw the damage.

But seriously. Goats would be perfect! They are much like sheep in their temperament, only they are far more intelligent. They are quite mischievous and get bored if you don’t provide items for them to play with, climb on, chew and head-butt. So you build them ramps and plateaus and hiding spots and leaping platforms. You give them chew-balls and tug ropes. You let them be goats. Then you sit back and enjoy the show.

Our property beyond our half-acre of yard is basically glacial moraine. It has huge rocks embedded in and protruding from the earth, as deposited there centuries ago by a sliding glacier, apparently. This makes it nearly impossible to cut the grass, even with a bush whacker. Those rocks would destroy any equipment. Goats, however, would be thrilled. Fresh grass, meadow flowers and thistles, and rocks to climb on! Heaven. And a happy goat makes delicious milk, I’m sure. I wonder if I could figure out how to milk one. Perhaps there is a YouTube tutorial on that…

I have launched successful campaigns in the past. The trick is to let the Farmer believe getting a goat is his idea. We need two, because one would be lonely. Also two would stand a better chance against a roaming coyote, and they could keep each other warm in the winter.

This farm is pretty quiet without livestock. Our guests will be bored while poolside this summer if they don’t have anything to watch and comment on. Fergus the Golden Retriever can’t be a one-man show; that is exhausting. And the turkeys, while entertaining, won’t be here for long!

This is my proposal. I think it’s fairly convincing. Goats are entertaining, they provide milk (who knows – maybe I can even learn how to make goat’s milk soap!) and they keep the weeds down so we don’t have to.

Wish me luck in my campaign. I’m goin’ in.

Your Thanksgiving turkey is growing in our barn

I was running our Golden Retriever, Fergus, in the back field the other day when I noticed that the sweet, fresh honeysuckle smell had returned. I love to fill my lungs with that scent. I thought of Paulina’s wedding we would be hosting in less than a month, and hoped the fragrance would linger at least until June. Then I had a disturbing thought. What if a nearby farmer decided to spread manure that weekend? To those of us who live on farms it can be a slightly annoying, off-putting odour. To some of the gentrified city folk who will be attending our celebration, however, it could be extremely offensive.

I can’t control the actions of neighbouring farmers. I can barely control my own Farmer! A few weeks ago we discussed where to put the incoming chicks and poults. My husband had ordered several dozen of each, as we do about every second year. I told him he couldn’t put them in the barn closest to the house, because the bride and her party plan to take that building over for a wedding bar. We are going to move all of the horse tack and workshop tools to one side, cover the walls and ceiling with diaphanous white wedding tulle, and set up rough-hewn boards of charcuterie for guests to snack on while they order a drink. That is no place for a brood of smelly, ankle-biting chicks.
“No problem,” he said. “I decided I’m going to cancel the order.”

So a few more weeks went by, and turkey poult day arrived. The Farmer got a call that his order was ready for pickup. He had to sheepishly admit that he had forgotten to cancel it. He set up a heat lamp and a coop for the turkeys, up on the table in the shed. The same table where we plan to serve drinks in less than a month. I stood and watched, silently. Then I picked up a peeping bird and made eye contact. I had forgotten how much I enjoy having tiny creatures on the farm to care for and love. Ok. The little twerps can stay. But we are going to have to move them to the bigger barn, as soon as we are sure they are all going to make it.

The first few days of a bird’s life outside the incubator can be quite precarious. The slightest draft and they huddle together for warmth. Not all of them survive that smothering situation. The first night, the temperature dropped to just above zero. I woke at about 2am and pulled another blanket up over me. I thought about the turkeys, and hoped their heat lamp was enough. I could see the red gleam through the barn window.

The next morning, all birds were present and accounted for. Now we just have to ensure they are in a place that is secure from marauding racoons, skunks and weasels. It’s quite a responsibility. So they have to be close enough to the house to keep the predators away, and far enough away that we cannot smell that distinctive chicken poop smell at the wedding. This will be a challenge.

We have a fenced area next to the barn that was once a kennel for a sheepdog. I suggested putting the chickens in there and building them a coop for shelter. The raccoons can’t get in, there is a door on it and we can stretch chicken wire over the top like a roof. Raccoons can climb. The Farmer said, “if the raccoons want to get in, the raccoons will get in. Remember our camping trip?” He raised one eyebrow at me.

Of course I remember the camping trip. I had left my bag of trail mix in the ‘front room’ of our tent, where we had been playing cards after dinner. That room had no floor so the raccoons easily lifted the walls up with their little hands and crawled in for a bedtime snack. When the Farmer unzipped the tent to see what that horrible crunching and gurgling sound was, he came face to face with Ricky Raccoon. That was alarming. Raccoons are quite resourceful. I don’t know how to keep my turkeys and chicks safe from them.

The spare room in the basement is beginning to look rather appealing. I kept 37 kittens in there once. I’m sure it could hold a few dozen birds. At least until after the wedding.