There was an odd quality to the downtown mise en scene today. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was going on until I realized that it was Thanksgiving weekend, and the university students were home.
When we first moved to Prince Edward Island, in the spring of 1993, we though that perhaps there had been a strange plague that had killed all of the people between 20 and 30. There were young people — high school age and younger — and middle aged people, and senior citizens. But no hip young’nes.
I think much of our feeling comes from having moved from Peterborough, Ontario, a city where the life of the city and the life of the university are inseparably fused, to Charlottetown where the university is an isolated academic colossus that happens to live within the city limits.
In Peterborough you can’t help noticing, walking downtown, that you are in a University Town, whether from the people that you meet walking down the street, the plethora of student-focused businesses, or the colourful posters that grace every telephone pole.
In Charlottetown you notice that you’re in a town that happens to have a university only if you happen to be outside Myron’s at 2:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning or in the University Ave. Subway sandwich shop after dining hall closes for the night.
This is not to suggest that UPEI isn’t a vital and important school. It’s simply that it’s a vital and important school that doesn’t have much to do with the community that surrounds it on a day to day basis. This is partly due to its location at the edge of suburbia in a city with no public transit, partly due to the inordinate number of Islanders who attend while living at home, and partly, I think, due to a difference in the role of the university.
My sense is that, in large part, people go to UPEI to get an education and move on to the real stuff of life; many at Trent saw the education in itself as part of the real stuff, and revelled in it (and often hung around in it for a decade in the process).
In any case, the result is that when you’re sitting downtown drinking coffee in Charlottetown your table mate is far more likley to be a computer programmer from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs than it is a proto-anarchist animal rights activist.
But to my original point…
This weekend is the weekend that the teen Islander diaspora, freshly packed off to universities across the country, returns home for the first time.
And in the arc that is the life of the educated Canadian middle class, there is no more transforming an experience than the first taste of freedom that the first month of university affords.
You leave home a shy, dependent, cloistered teen waiting for your life to begin and, blamo, one month later you’re happily discussing the impact of Satre’s thinking on the neo-intellectualist peace movements of 1950s Berlin while drinking a double espresso with an absinthe chaser.
The radiation given off by this collection of teens with newfound freedom is palpable, and it’s this that I picked up on this morning during my short walk up University Avenue through the left bank of Charlottetown.
On Tuesday morning everything will return to normal.