V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Cabin Fever
Published in The Toronto Star, August, 2009

MUSKOKA–I'm trying to refrain from sounding smug, but even I can hear the forced tone of nonchalance in my voice.

My hairdresser is making idle chit-chat and has asked me what I'm up to on the weekend.

"Oh," I say casually, "I'm just going to the cottage."

I hear my words bounce back to me – I sound like a woman who dismisses compliments on a newly purchased, exorbitantly priced dress by saying, "Oh, this old thing," while picking nonexistent lint off her shoulder.

When arranging dinner plans with various friends, I make sure to point out that I will be unavailable over the weekend as "I'm going to the cottage."

I volunteer information about my excursion at every opportunity to people who haven't even inquired about my whereabouts, all the while knowing these words sound haughty and self-important coming from me.

First off, I had always understood "the cottage" to be an exclusive club where membership was limited to those with money and connections, akin to the way New Yorkers talk about going to "the Hamptons."

To call it "the" cottage also implies it's mine. But it belongs to a close friend, who has invited me to stay at her family property in the Muskoka area along with her husband and two other couples.

Second, I'm a bit of a fraud, uttering that phrase as though I've been saying it all my life when in fact I've only come to discover the cottage experience recently.

My hang-ups stem from an old childhood memory. As a Canadian-born Korean kid in a predominantly white, suburban elementary school, classmates would come back from summer holidays and gush about the time spent at their cottages.

Girls would return bronzed, the peach fuzz more pronounced atop copper-tanned arms. Brunettes would return with sun-kissed auburn tresses, while the little blond girls would toss their sun-bleached, gold-spun hair.

I, on the other hand, would return in the fall pasty and fair, hair black as night, and a few pounds heavier, as my summers were invariably spent watching an unhealthy amount of TV in a small two-bedroom apartment, taking care of my little brother.

What, I wondered, is this magical place called "the cottage" from which classmates returned an improved version of themselves? Where you spent all day swimming in the lake and came back with mosquito-bite war wounds to show off to your friends, not random bite marks you tried to conceal because they were made by a little brother.

It wasn't until my dear friend Anita invited me to her family's summer getaway two years ago that I understood what the cottage experience is all about.

Like most of the cottages along Lake Muskoka, hers is a fully functioning, four-bedroom home, with a dishwasher, washer and dryer – and flat-screen satellite TV. It's a complete opposite of my girlhood fantasies of a cottage. There is no musty, old smell of being lived in, or iconic trophies of dead fish on the wall. There are no outhouses that require the company of mom and a flashlight in the middle of the night.

Rather, it's easy and comfortable. Time is elastic here, dictated by the setting of the sun and our hunger.

This latest weekend marks my fourth visit to the cottage. I watch enviously as little kiddies at the cottage next door leap fearlessly into the lake, while I am buckled securely to the neck in a life jacket – I don't know how to swim. Despite this handicap, I splash away shamelessly, oblivious to how ridiculous I look trying to propel myself across the lake using unorthodox, flailing moves underwater.

I volunteer to be towed behind a speedboat in a blow-up tube, and squeal with girlish delight as large lake waves swing us from side to side by. I "swim" with Anita across the lake and am always the last one to leave the water.

At night, we leave the TV off and play competitive, merciless, rounds of dominoes and board games, with spouse pitted against spouse.

We nosh on strawberry pie, shish kebabs, peaches-and-cream corn, and grilled steak. Vanity has no place at the cottage, so not a stitch of makeup is applied all weekend.

It's also worth noting that Anita is Chinese Canadian. In my childhood, an ethnic cottage-goer would have shattered every notion I had of the cottage as an exclusively white tradition.

But when Anita and her husband Randy start a family, their kids will spend their childhoods summering up north and become intimately acquainted with this quintessential slice of Canadiana. These children will also share the cottage experience with their friends, showing them how to dock a boat and hook fish bait. And perhaps at least one little girl can escape a summer month of being cooped up with a sabre-toothed little brother.

Vivian Song is a freelance writer and can be reached at vivsong@gmail.com.

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