Back in my early 20s, I won the Canadian girlfriend lottery. That is, at the time, I was involved with a woman whose family owned a cottage on what is - or so they said - "the second clearest lake in Ontario." It was at this rugged setting that I, a cottage newbie, got to know her parents and siblings.
If you've managed to land a girlfriend-with-cottage yourself, first of all I want to say, congratulations. Your summers will be infused with cool air, refreshing swims and an endless landscape of trees. Also, you'll be forced - I mean, have the opportunity - to bond with your girlfriend's family in an unnaturally intimate setting where they are seasoned natives and you are a visitor with no escape.
In my case, by the end of the first summer I had learned the ways of the North and was able to earn the family's respect and approval. But there were mistakes made. So that you may learn from those who have trod this prickly path before, here are some things to avoid from myself and a couple other former cottage initiates.
Sucking up too much
First visit to my girlfriend's cottage. My first cottage campfire. Just me and one of her older, idolized brothers, who was playing guitar. This is awesome, I thought to myself as his fingers danced across the frets, I'm so in with this family. When he was done, I gazed across the flames and said to him, with soul: "That was really beautiful. Did you write that?" He looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. "I was tuning the strings," he said. "But thank you."
The next night, while playing cards with the whole family - a game called, improbably enough, Bugger Your Neighbour - I was told that whoever is currently losing had to wear one of the brothers' childhood swim trunks on top of his or her head. I did this graciously and then, of course, out came the camera.
You'll want these people to like you, but remember to play it cool, lest years from now you wake each morning wondering if it will be the day when the blackmail phone call will finally come.
"I'm going for a walk," I told my girlfriend and her parents as they read the newspaper around the table late into the morning. "The bugs are bad," they warned me, but I waved off their concern. I should have listened; lifetime cottagers possess an instinctual internal calculating system that analyzes the direction and force of the wind, the temperature, and the week's rainfall to conclude things such as "the bugs are bad." In non-cottager language this translates to "near lethal conditions." I returned from my nature stroll 20 minutes later, out of breath from sprinting, bleeding from the head and neck, hands covered in black fly carcasses.
On another day in early May, my girlfriend's brothers headed to the lake to partake in their tradition of jumping into the water sooner in the season than they had any previous year. "You joining?" they asked. "Hell, yeah!" I said. I remember clearly diving into the water, but after that my consciousness is limited to the primal thrashings of the wild animal within, which desperately sought dry land to save its life. I spent the next two days in bed with a strained neck.
You'll want to be all woodsy and run with the boys right off the bat, but remember that you are not all woodsy and you cannot yet run with the boys. Take your time - the cottage wasn't built in a day.
Drinking and driving political opinions into the night
From my friend Michael: First time at a cottage he was up for Thanksgiving, had only been dating his girlfriend for a few months. "I was so nervous, I had trouble operating my knife and fork at dinner," he told me. Later, however, at 3 in the morning, he got more comfortable. After drinking his face off, he brashly argued his NDP opinions against her big C conservative brothers. His girlfriend's mother - who heard the whole thing and didn't sleep a wink - was pissed in the morning. Fortunately, the brother at whom she vented her indignation took the fall, accepting all the blame for getting the new guy drunk and goading him on. "Thank God for that," he said. "Three years later, we were engaged and I was sitting on a boat holding her mother's toy poodle in my lap."
As a guest at your girlfriend's cottage, try to contain your unwelcome opinions. If you can't manage that, like any good politician, form a coalition.
Mentioning the cute girl in the bikini that my girlfriend's father and I saw on a visit to the general store, when we were back at the lake, taking a boat ride with my girlfriend
Pretty self-explanatory. A few times, I spoke with my girlfriend's father about the attractiveness of a female we happened to see, each time either a movie star or in the context that she would make a good prospect for one of his sons. Also, every now and then, I spoke with my girlfriend about women, too. But this doesn't mean, therefore, that is was okay to mention the girl in the bikini who worked at the general store with both of them present.
Unless you like your boat rides awkward, keep your observations of the local fauna to yourself.
Helping out at clean up time
As a guest at his girlfriend's cottage, my friend Bob wanted to be helpful during end-of-weekend clean-up time, but quickly realized this created more work for his hosts than if he did nothing. "Everything at the cottage has its exact right place, and you're never going to know where that is," he told me. "And if I'd try sweeping, there was her mother, right behind me with a broom." We both agreed, however, that doing nothing at clean-up time is grounds for cottage exile. Bob's solution: Find a couple coffee mugs to put in your hands and pace the cottage as if you were perpetually in a state of putting two mugs in their exact right place, wherever that is.
And I'll leave you with that. Good luck, scouts!
Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks , will be published in the fall of 2010.