My wife and I took a little break this week: we joined a couple of friends up at a cottage they were renting.
The image you’ll have of that may vary quite a lot depending on where you’re from. In Ontario, though, and especially southern Ontario, that means we went to a country vacation house, likely on a lake (it was), with a certain rustic charm – though perhaps not all that rustic.
This is not a universal Canadian thing, though some people seem to think it is. I grew up in Alberta, and there was no idea of people having “a cottage” and “going up to the cottage” and so on (though some people might “go to the condo,” meaning a vacation property near a ski resort – or “to the chalet,” if they had even more money). No, to us in western Canada, cottage was (and I suspect still is) just a word for a little house, possibly (though not inevitably) in a rustic setting. Sure, some people might have a cottage as a second property, in the same way as some people might have a boat on some area lake or a Cessna at the local small airport. Nobody assumed it was a usual thing.
Not that having a cottage is a usual thing, even in Ontario, no matter how much some people seem to assume it is. Sure, there was a time when vacation cottages were within reach of ordinary working-class people. My wife’s family had one up near Lake Simcoe; it was a fairly simple, not-too-large place where they would spend a relaxing time doing fairly simple things not in the city. It didn’t even have a telephone. (It sounds like a couple of houses my family lived in when I was little. Only they weren’t vacation getaways. They were our homes!) But that was also a time when the standard guideline was that your car should cost a third of a year’s salary and your house should cost three years’ salary.
Anyway, cottages up in “cottage country” in Ontario almost never list for less than a million dollars now, no matter how small and basic they may be, and some are selling for more than ten million dollars. And while the standard image of a Muskoka cottage (Lake Muskoka is cottage central, though not the only place for them) is a single-storey woodsy place of less than a thousand square feet (a hundred square metres), many of them now are multi-storey showpieces, much more impressive than the average urban house.
In short, if you don’t already have a cottage in your family, and you don’t have access to several million dollars, you’re not going to own a cottage. You can still rent one if you can afford it – or you can stay in a swanky hotel somewhere nice for less. Nonetheless, especially since the pandemic hit, cottages have become very popular. Which has driven the prices even higher.
Depending on where you’re from, this all may sound familiar, or it may not. Russia famously has a cottage (dacha) culture – people who can afford it often have dachas out in some rustic location. Finland, Sweden, and Norway also something equivalent. So do some parts of the US. And, apparently, so does Hong Kong. In England, a rough equivalent would be bungalows, but there are also summer cottages. But of course there are cottages everywhere English is spoken; it’s just that in many of those places, they’re nothing more or other than little rustic houses. A poor working person might live in a cottage. But in Ontario? Nah, they’re for people with money now.
Where, by the way, does this word cottage come from? The -age gives a hint that it might be from French, and it sort of is; English got it from Anglo-Norman, which got it from Old Northern French cot or cote, also as in dovecote (you know, where you keep your doves – you do have doves, don’t you?). But that traces back to Proto-Germanic, and may be related to hut.
I know you’re wondering, so I’ll tell you: cottage cheese is so named because it’s a simple, inexpensive cheese originally made with left-over dairy. It’s curds and whey, originally for people whose incomes consign them to a humble existence. And of course now it’s often eaten by fancy people too.
No, we did not eat any cottage cheese at the cottage we went to this week. Lots of other kinds of cheese, though. And plenty of other good food, all of which we cooked ourselves.
This cottage wasn’t all that large: its main floor area and plan was similar to that of a house my family lived in when I was eight. The resemblance stopped there, however. The house we lived in didn’t have Scandinavian modern décor, or a basement, or a bunkhouse, or a large patio, or a dock on a bay. (But on the other hand, this cottage didn’t have an outhouse. Didn’t need one, either.)
Why are vacation cottages popular? I guess people like to be able to get away to a simpler kind of life. Just as long as it’s by choice. And maybe – at least for some – not all that simple, really, either, when you come down to it. But relaxing.