This article was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Cottage Life magazine.
Here’s a dark little secret: I have never eaten a s’more. Not a single one. While I realize the sickly triumvirate of chocolate, marshmallow, and graham cracker is widely revered as one of the holy pillars of cottage life, I’d rather have a hot dog. Or a carrot stick. Or nothing. Since I’m already committing cottage apostasy, here’s another personal revelation: the idea of the cottage as an intergenerational base camp where 30 of my friends and relatives can frolic in the water with their unruly pets, play board games, assemble regrettable potluck meals, and overload the septic system isn’t my idea of fun—it’s a waking nightmare. After all, I bought the place to get away from these people. There, I said it. My second act of cottage thought crime in just one paragraph. And though I can hear the loon-call sirens of the cottage police closing in, I know there are others out there just like me. Others who have dared to look inside the Shiny Happy Cottage Construct—it’s like the Matrix with more comfortable clothing—and seen the truth.
If you swallow what the designers of the Construct want you to believe, the cottage is the very best place in the whole wide world. The air is pure. The trees are majestic. The water is perfect once you get used to it. Cottagers are all carefree and golden brown. Laughter ripples through the air by day, and age-appropriate campfire songs brighten the evenings. Each night a single heartsick loon calls plaintively for its mate.
As a professional observer of the cottage condition and a reformed contributor to the Shiny Happy Cottage Construct, I know stuff. But as the meat guy at a cottage grocery store, I hear the truth from actual cottagers when they share a confidence over my counter or when I eavesdrop. The cottagers I see aren’t always shiny and happy. And they don’t look like the cottagers on TV or in this magazine. Many are sunburned or bug-bitten. Some wear sweat-stained office clothes and have a thousand-yard stare after their northbound commute. Many are bickering with their spouses or their children or both. A good number are suffering debilitating hangovers. So, basically, they are completely normal people, and what they’re saying is that life at the cottage isn’t all sweetness and light, despite the Construct’s lustrous promise. Cottagers are actually an angry lot, ticked off about a multitude of irritants, including the weather (always), the insects, lake levels, pollen, unreliable tradespeople, crazy drivers, crazy boaters, and crazy cyclists. They are not happy about the municipal, provincial, and federal governments. They are irate about neighbours and renters and property taxes and get positively incandescent when talk turns to hydro rates. Not shiny. Not happy. Just normal.
Fortunately, a sleeper cell of the resistance exists within this very magazine. “I totally don’t think the cottage is the best place on earth. There’s a lot to complain about,” says the managing editor I will call “Jackie” to conceal her identity. “My time at the cottage is mostly a lot of bug bites, greasy hair, and Kraft Dinner.” Jackie confirms my suspicion that advertising is one of the most powerful tools used by the Shiny Happy Cottage Construct to lull us into ignorant bliss. “The cottages in TV commercials are always filled with beautiful people dancing on the dock and looking cool, waterskiing, and successfully wearing tube tops. With really nice hair. And then a golden retriever wearing a neckerchief runs into the scene, and it’s all awesome. That’s not my life at the cottage.”
Though I am one of the lucky few who can successfully wear a tube top, we must still learn how to discern between real and fake in cottage land. The secret is that, whether on TV or in print or digital form, cottagers in the Construct do not look or behave the way real cottagers do. Here are some points to consider. Fake cottagers always look beautiful and wear stylishly casual clothes at cool-looking outdoor cocktail parties. Their hair is casually exquisite. Real cottagers wear flannel pyjama bottoms, a sweatshirt, and rubber boots to go grocery shopping. Hair is a bug hat.
Fake cottagers have dogs that return sticks. They (the dogs) have soulful eyes and no hip dysplasia; they can do backflips and catch Frisbees. Real cottage dogs bark at passing boats before rolling in dirt and running inside. They stink and will eat anything in your kitchen if left unsupervised. Often carsick.
Fake cottagers exist solely on improbably complex and perfect-looking salads and enormous platters of grilled meat. Real cottagers have a more varied diet that can include beans and wieners, potato salad, macaroni, and peameal on a bun. The presence of bacon, potato chips, and sticky buns are sure signs of a real cottager. See where I’m going here?
You can often identify the Shiny Happy Cottage Construct by noticing things that are absent: plastic lawn chairs. Beer empties. Peeling paint. Children complaining about Wi-Fi. There are no overweight people or crappy old gas barbecues or family squabbles. There is also no you and no me.
The big tell is that fake cottagers are one-hit wonders. The next time you see Jasmine, the sun-dappled beauty in strappy sandals cooking paella in a designer cottage kitchen, she will be dressed office casual and supremely happy about her new X-Bank line of credit. Same goes for Todd, the slender beard handler with the million-watt smile who is pretending to fix a deck. The next time you see him he’ll be choosing affordable eyeglass frames. Shiny Happy cottagers are single-use items, but real cottagers—gripe as they may—are bound to the cottage by tradition and long habit. They are in for the duration. Never mind the weather or the bugs. You’ll see them at the dump. And on the dock. And out in the boat, trying to get away from annoying relatives. I see them every day at my meat counter. Sunburned. Sometimes hungover. Just happy to be here. Vive la résistance!