South of the railway bridge that divides the city, at the corner of 10th Avenue and 1st Street in Calgary, AB, is Brava Sheesha (1001 1st St. SW, 403-263-1112). I stumbled upon the corner restaurant on my way back from a special, but more typically Calgarian stop, at the Alberta Boot Company (now at 50-50th Ave. South, 403-263-4605). The boot co. is perhaps the best maker and purveyor of cowboy boots in the Canadian west. I had to stand in line, in fact, behind an unlikely aficionado, the English crime writer Elena Forbes, who told me she’d made a special trip to the place.
The corner restaurant I subsequently passed looked as if it had started life as a soda bar decades back, and then became perhaps a bistro. Now it’s a falafel joint with a couple of other Middle Eastern restaurants a few doors down—but with a difference. The red-lit interior and a flat-screen TV showing a Saturday night Montréal Canadiens-Boston Bruins hockey game are what drew me in. So I stepped into a room as cozy as a bordello—where, true to the western gunslingers’ habit, all the patrons were sitting at the tables around the perimeter with their backs to the wall and me, the newcomer, well I had to sit in the centre, exposed.
But they weren’t cowboys, this lot. They were teenagers in running shoes. They were Filipino kids with their baseball caps turned sideways; they were Somali, Nepali, Chinese and plain ol’ white—and they weren’t just boys at the tables but clusters of laughing young women, too. And what were they doing? Smoking hookah pipes. The lot of them was slouching on the benches or in chairs and connected to the bubbling hookahs by long snaking mouthpieces as if the den was in Jordan, or the Emirates.
Only it’s Canada, you can tell, because on the muted TV, the score is3-3 and then, with a minute and a half to go, the Montréal goaltender Carey Price gives up one of the flukiest goals I have ever seen, chasing a puck behind the net that takes a bounce off an uneven seam in the boards and vaults right to the front of the net. The Boston player who’s there taps it in, and all of a sudden the table of Filipino girls screams their disappointment. The white and the Chinese lads right beneath the screen are too busy drawing smoke off the apple-wood and filling their glasses with it to be bothered by the national game, much.
To recap: a Middle Eastern shwarma joint in oil-rich Calgary; the waitress is Albanian; the owner is Somali; Chinese and Filipino and white Canadians are sharing hookahs and the bunch of them are rooting for French-Canada’s hockey team—celebrating its 100th anniversary year and known by fans as les glorieux. Here was not just one of the most outrageous expressions of the Canadian multicultural scene that I had yet come across, but a sign of Calgary’s becoming a bona fide city, finally; the sort of place that reinvents itself in its nooks and crannies—that has nooks and crannies.
Montréal scores on the shootout and now the Somalis are joining in the cheers. Even the white kids who’d been indifferent a moment before turn their heads.
Inglewood is more proof of Calgary’s reinvention. This oldest part of Calgary—away from the dazzling city blocks downtown, where offices dominate and high cranes pull yet more skyscrapers up from the prairie floor—is a mostly single-storey residential neighbourhood. Founded in 1875, it flourished in the early part of the 20th century. It sits the other side of the Elbow river from historic Fort Calgary and the East Village; it’s the part of town pop-rock princess Feist has proclaimed to be her favourite.
Rare in this city, it’s a neighbourhood you can walk. Along its main street are small restaurants, an LP record shop, a bric-a-brac and furniture shop with an excellent café up front and Spolumbo’s Fine Foods & Deli, a renowned stop for locals wanting a meatball sandwich. The sausages are made here by a couple of retired CFL players.
Further down the street, at the end of an alley is Bite Groceteria, a small Italian groceteria and café where, at the back, you can get your knives sharpened or buy the latest and most exclusive Japanese varieties of knives for the kitchen. Calgary has a formidable contemporary theatre scene, and much of it has roots in Inglewood. The famous Loose Moose Theatre Company used to be based at the Garry Theatre here; during the summer, the district is now home to the Calgary Fringe theatre festival. It was here that Feist reconnected with the astounding Old Trout Puppet Workshop and convinced the amazing (travelling) troupe of puppeteers to perform in her new video, “Honey Honey.”
Festivals are easy enough in summer, though Calgary does not let cold weather arrest the arts. Every October, Wordfest plays host to writers from all over the world. In January, the One Yellow Rabbit theatre company, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2008, stages the High Performance Rodeo at Calgary’s International Festival of the Arts. One Yellow Rabbit takes over venues across the city, including the troupe’s home at the EPCOR CENTRE for the Performing Arts. The electric, wide-ranging and dynamic festival suits the city’s well-earned reputation as a partying town. Its Artist-in-Residence for 2009 is the renowned composer Philip Glass. (His Low Symphony, will be performed, as will the Catalyst Theatre’s version of Frankenstein.)
That takes care of the evenings. And, as any High Performance Rodeo veteran knows, what you’ll need afterwards is a good breakfast. Calgary has that, too. Try Avenue Diner on Stephen Avenue Walk. The proprietor, Heather Chell, uses sausages from Spolumbo’s and makes a marvelous and original maple fried oatmeal—just a couple of the items on the menu offering one of the best breakfasts in Canada.