car trials

So, Montreal has been experiencing temperatures well below negative twenty – as low as negative forty with windchill – and when the weather stays cold, the snow just ACCUMULATES. Piles and piles of it. Hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of frozen precipitation being compacted by a million booted footsteps, churned by a million winter tires, and pushed from side to side by plows that seem increasingly ineffective as you realize that there is no longer anywhere for the snow to go. When I first dug out my car from its arctic tomb in December, I realized that I didn’t know what to do with the shovelfuls of snow I was excavating: onto the road, where it would impede traffic? The sidewalk, where pedestrians would give me dirty looks? The cars parked in front of and behind me, whose owners would then have to move my snow, in turn, to get their own vehicles out? WHERE TO PUT THE SNOW?!?!?

As it turns out, the snow is simply removed from the streets by this delightful machine, a new addition to the taxonomy of trucks in my head:

And this, ultimately, is where it goes:

Montreal Snow Dump - Montreal Gazette / Vincent D'Alto

Montreal Snow Dump – Montreal Gazette / Vincent D’Alto

 

A SNOW DUMP. OBVIOUSLY.

Yesterday I went to check on my car and observed the fluorescent orange temporary no-parking signs which indicate when you will have to move your car to make way for the magical snow-removal machine. Digging out my car this time was much more of a mission than before: like an archaeological dig, the layers of snow revealed the weather that had been. First, on the streetwards side of the car, a clear 2-5 mm layer of ice coating the windows and doors. On the body of the car, several inches of fluffy snow that had fallen in the past couple of days – the kind of snow that hasn’t even come close to melting in its lifetime, slippery and almost squeaky, like styrofoam or aspertame. Below that, an inch of ice from the day of freezing rain that I broke off in jagged sheets and tossed to the ground. The pieces hit the sidewalk and shattered with a fragile sound like breaking lightbulbs. Below that, another layer of snow, and then a thin, frosty ice on the body of the car itself.

I swept all of it off and then chipped at the ice surrounding the tires and the ugly conglomerate of ice, snow and gravel that was shored up against the street side of the car. It took me an hour to clear it. Then I spun the tires. I chipped the ice again. I snugged my snow chains up against the tires in hopes that they would provide some traction. Spun the tires. Looked worriedly at the car in front of me, a red mini with three people chipping and pushing and revving and getting absolutely nowhere. Eventually I went back to the loft and recruited a friend to help me, and when we’d pushed my noble steed out of her prison, there were sparkling smooth wells of ice where the wheels had been.

Ice in Montreal

ice-covered tree, montreal

On Sunday, freezing rain fell and covered the trees with a coat of ice. Every twig was like an eel in a diving bubble, sealed off from the world and gazing outwards from its separate space.

ice-covered tree, montreal

So much beauty! Today it’s -15 and I walked two kilometers to Fairmount Bagel, bought a dozen perfect inimitable Montreal bagels to take back to the loft plus one just for me, to scoff from my gloved fingers on the walk back. Being cold makes me panic but I could love winter for giving me afternoons like this, bundled up in down and wool and wandering through a gallery of ice.

ice on st-laurent, montreal

ice on st-laurent, montreal

happy new year from canada

TRUE STORY:

When I was an undergraduate student, I had a friend who lived down the hall and was prone to asking well-meaning but clueless questions. One day we were sitting in the lounge on the fourth floor and he turned to me and said, “Jenn, I have a question.”

“Sure, A,” I said, looking up from my textbook.

“Well, I was talking to S. And, you know, she’s on the golf team. So she was telling me that while she was at home in Ottawa over the break, she’d been doing some golfing…”

Long pause. “Yes?” I prompted.

“So, I was just wondering… do you have indoor golf courses in Canada?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “Did she say she was at an indoor golf course? I would have assumed she was just outside, like normal.”

“Right,” said A, leaning forward earnestly, “but how could she be golfing outside? I thought that you didn’t have any… you know, grass. In Canada. Isn’t it all just ice and snow?”

I corrected him, but now I’m wondering if he may have been right after all. I come from the weather-privileged enclave of the Pacific Northwest – Cascadia, if you will, the enchanted emerald region that my friend G hopes to one day be president of – and we do not have snow. We have a couple of inches of slush that melts long before Vancouver Island’s single snowplow can make a sad attempt at pushing it off the road and onto the perennially green grass. We have rain, and also drizzle, and clouds and mist and fog and a general sense of majestic gloom. If you happen to be looking out at the ocean or the forest, you might experience it more as an ancient, implacable fecundity – the mossy faces of evergreen islands being covered and uncovered by mists that obscure the division between shore and sea so that the swelling kelp forests unfurl like shining roots below the firs. Everything is alive and in motion, from the rain dripping off of mushroom caps to the tiny fronds of barnacles’ fingers combing plankton from the tide. Green and growing, 24/365.

This is the Canada I grew up in. Canada for wimps. As soon as I crossed the Rockies the snow began to fall, and temperatures were in the negative twenties all through the Prairies, causing my car to make an unpleasant strangled screeching when I started it up. This seemed like a reasonable protest. I had never even contemplated driving a car in such conditions and I remain faintly amazed that these ever-so-ordinary machines continue to get us from place to place, nobly skidding across frozen roads and breathing gasps of hot exhaust into the frigid January air.

Below the border, though, things were WARM. I spent Christmas in upstate New York enjoying bizarrely spring-like temperatures, even getting a brief lesson in barefoot running which included prancing across a muddy field on nothing but the tender soles of my own two naked feet. We wore cotton instead of wool and vetoed a Christmas fire because it was simply too warm outside. My car did not sound like an angry robot baby when I started it up.

Very relaxing. Then I drove back up to Montreal for New Year’s, and experienced what A might have been imagining when he thought of Canada: temperatures steadily dropping as I approached the border, snow accumulating on the ground throughout New Hampshire and Vermont, and then BAM – Quebec and -14°, frozen fields and snow in the forecast. It felt like I was heading into the Great White North, my foot on the accelerator speeding me away from positive temperatures beneath the wide gray sky. When I arrived in Montreal, I parked my car near the mountain and stepped out into the cold. CANADAAAAA!!! No golfing, and easy to imagine that the transition northwards is like this year-round: bare feet in New York, snow globe winter wonderland in Quebec. I spent New Year’s Eve bundled into a firelit chalet on the edge of a frozen lake, keeping warm in a variety of old-fashioned ways and sending up prayers of ardent appreciation for my homeland: her kelp forests and shivering frostbitten birch trees, her teeming Pacific shoreline and black, bubble-starred frozen lakes. Her jagged mountains and vast open prairies and deep woods and her people, her people most of all. The First Nations to whom the land first belonged to, and the generations of immigrants who have made our homes here, all of us shaped by this land as much as we allow ourselves to listen to it.

I am so grateful to have driven across this great country (well, almost across – apologies to Atlantic Canada, I promise to visit you in the future). Happy New Year from Canada. And farewell, Canada – in a few days I’ll be shooting southwards and not looking back.

Brooklyn

DSC_1849

A few photos from Brooklyn. I dashed in for a night to see a friend I met on the set of a Bollywood film in 2008, then to Princeton, then back to Brooklyn, then Pawling for the holidays. I forget how much I love urban landscapes until I’m back in them.

DSC_1837

Scraped layers of paper and paint, rust, patched asphalt. The clatter of New York’s old subway system, which still seems to me like the only real subway system, so that Vancouver’s skytrain always felt like a slightly dissatisfying pale vision from the future.

DSC_1854

DSC_1857-001

I love how haphazard it is – the logic of continual addings-on.

Tomorrow, I start driving back to Montreal for New Year’s. I hope you had a wonderful holiday, wherever you were.

arboretum

arnold arboretum of harvard university

Taken at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University while stomping around with an old old old friend. He runs a new company that produces films of medical procedures. We took the T to Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital and I sat in on a meeting, nodding, giving good eye contact and firm handshakes, quietly taking notes: masquerading, again, as someone who belonged.

Written mostly from a table in the Frist Campus Center, Princeton University

When I was admitted to Princeton, I didn’t want to go.

I was in grade twelve, sixteen years old and attending Esquimalt High School, and I lived in horror of snootiness and conservatism. I had only recently found the courage and inspiration to express myself exactly as creatively and freakishly as I wanted to, and it was making me happier than I had probably ever been. There was a scruffy-headed artist that I was innocently in love with. I played the double bass and danced with purposefully bizarre motions to any live music that could be found. Together with my best friend, we designed treasure hunts and performed nonsensical skits in the hallways and prank-called our friends. And then into this paradise dropped the famous Dean Hargadon “YES” letter: not yes from Yale, which I thought seemed vaguely arty, or yes from Harvard, which at least was HARVARD, but Princeton.

Princeton – the good ol’ boys club that I had visited during a school break, when the only student to be seen was the bland tour guide who told us the same things as the brochure and convinced me that I wanted to be at absolutely any school on earth other than Old Nassau. The prestige did not change my mind. Reading Fitzgerald did not change my mind. I wanted to go to McGill, live in Montreal, and be BOHEMIAN, for fuck’s sake. Beret and baguette and bottle of ink. What was the point of escaping the torturous doldrums of adolescent bullying and awkwardness, and Discovering Yourself as the kind of girl who wanted to wear four different skirts in four different colours, all at the same time, only to squander it on the toniest and most soul-crushing of all the Ivies?

Not that, as a sixteen-year-old native British Columbian, I had any idea what an Ivy League school even was. But I knew I didn’t want Princeton. I’m not sure if I would have actually refused admission; most likely my parents would have exercised their judgment and insisted. What happened instead was that the school flew me out to visit as a “pre-frosh” and cement my acceptance, a common custom among ritzy American schools that seemed unfathomably lavish to me. I would guess that 80% of my high school classmates had never heard of Princeton University. Most of them had never been to America at all. A round-trip flight from Victoria to Newark, NJ cost at least $600; we bought the ticket on Princeton’s dime and I flew by myself for the first time in my life, showing up bewildered but determined in New Jersey. This time the campus was alive and chaotic with students, and I was put up with a sophomore theatre major from Calgary who stuffed my bag in the corner of her messy common room and promptly dragged me off to see a play.

This was the play: THE WILD PARTY,* a musical based on a poem written by Joseph Moncure March in 1928. The poem was considered obscene enough to be widely banned. There was an orgy scene. I may have seen a penis; I can’t quite remember. How would it seem to me now? Certainly I’ve observed a lot more penises. At the time it was like nothing I’d ever seen, bawdy and arty and altogether strange, full of speeches I didn’t quite understand and lighting that cast body parts into abstract sculpture and songs that didn’t sound like anything I’d heard in a musical before. The acting was very good. The performers were confident and beautiful, and they seemed very old to me, though now I realize that they were very young. I fell in love with all of them. I had so little experience with the theater. It blew me away.

That night I lay restless and uncomfortable on the loveseat in the common room, curled up into a ball and watching through slitted eyes the shadows that the high lead-paned windows cast onto the cluttered floor. The hallways of the dormitory and the paths outside were full of trickling voices and footsteps as students went to and from Prospect Avenue, the road abutting Princeton’s campus lined with frat-like “eating clubs” in which most of the campus’s partying takes place. The Calgarian’s roommate had invited me to go out with her that night but I refused, awkwardly, terrified of these party houses that dedicated themselves to institutionalizing the elitist socio-economic hierarchies that were the very reason I didn’t want to go to Princeton in the first place. Also, I was painfully naïve, and knew it: I had never been kissed, had never been drunk, and in fact would not get drunk for the first time until my sophomore year at Princeton. I still thought of myself as a hapless outcast from the social life and mating rituals of my peers, and the idea of going to the eating clubs filled me with a thousand kinds of self-conscious dread.

When the roommate returned, jacket unbuttoned and purse slung carelessly from one limp hand, I shut my eyes and pretended to be asleep. I listened to her shucking off her ballerina flats and stumbling slightly on the debris blocking her bedroom door, and I curled further into myself, like a snail’s golden ratio coiling tightly around my decision: this is where I will spend the next four years of my life.

 

* Coincidentally, there was a woman who acted in The Wild Party who graduated that year, so we were never at school together and never met; but five years later, we wound up as teachers together in India and became friends, along with her husband. I am sitting at this moment in their living room, about to eat breakfast with their two young children before we go ice-skating and engage in other Christmas Eve activities.

Drawing at the Boston MFA

Boston MFA

On Wednesdays, the Boston MFA is admission-by-donation – which, as was explained to me by Susie the first time we went to the Met together, means that you can LITERALLY PAY THEM A FREAKING NICKEL and they have to let you in! – revolutionary to my 17-year-old self, now a tried and true life strategy. At any rate, this Wednesday I took myself out for a perfect $11 night: $1 for entry to the MFA, including a remarkable Goya exhibit and a free life drawing session with the curious model pictured above; $8 for one glass of wine in the gallery that went straight to my head and allayed any fears that I might need a second; and $2 for a slice of greasy cheese pizza that I scoffed as I began the long walk back to Susie’s house.

Boston MFABoston MFA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

city trees

chicago - oak park

City trees, Chicago (above) and Boston (below). I’m lying on my friend’s couch in Cambridge right now, looking out the window to where bare branches are tangling with power lines and the shallow curve of the streetlight is nudged by exploratory twigs. Night trees and 10,000 volts of silent electricity. As a child, I used to live for the nights when storms would blow down the heavy fir branches and knock out the electricity: we would light a fire and play board games by candlelight, wrapped up in blankets on the sheepskin rugs. It was a sort of party.

A few years ago I was at home with my family in Victoria, and the power went out just as it used to. We looked at each other, thought about it, and then we all four piled into the car with our various devices and drove up to the University, where lights and the internet were still available. I seem to remember commandeering an empty lecture hall to watch “Machete” on the big projector with my brother. The lofty atrium of the new computer science building was echoey that night, most of the students gone home to dorm rooms whose power had not been interrupted by the storm; they would never realize it had blown down power lines throughout the surrounding neighborhoods. A few hours later, we went home to bed, and in the morning it was restored.boston tree

On the road: Montreal

For the last month I’ve had this idea in my head that before I put up this website, I would write a grand welcoming essay that would explain everything about my trip, and also most things about the last 10 years of my life.

…Seriously.

This is a large part of the reason that it’s mid-December, I’m almost all the way to the East Coast, and my blog is only just now rearing its head.

So. Instead of polishing the last fabulous sentences of my abbreviated life history, I am sitting at a kitchen counter in a loft in Montréal, chewing on the corner of my winter-chapped lower lip and wondering if I even know, myself, what really happened in the last 10 years of my life.

I think I must have some idea of what my trip is about, at least, because the things that I imagined might happen keep happening. For example: “Well, I’m just going to be open to what comes,” I said to myself. “I don’t have to be any particular place at any particular time! If I meet some interesting people, if I like a city, if something seems good, I can just stay for awhile. No plans.” I said that, and yet I kept making plans, setting dates, and never really envisioned the circumstances that might inspire me to stay somewhere. Et voilà: Montréal, an unexpected new friend, a gorgeous jungle of a loft full of circus equipment and various denominations of Artist, and a storm sweeping up from New England that has kept me here for a few idyllic extra days. It has raised for me the question of: when is a situation so good that I just stay? How open am I, really to the forks in the road?

The journey, though. The spirit quest. I left Victoria on Halloween; I’m bound for the Panama Canal. Where have I been so far? Olympia, Washington, where my gallant vehicle jettisoned her muffler a mile from the I-5 and I temporarily lost faith in my own four wheels – then all across western Canada and the prairies, making what felt like the elementary school reunion tour – then eastern Canada, mostly high school friends and other people I know from Victoria – then Vermont, for a thoroughly New-Englandy American Thanksgiving with family – then Montréal, where I was waylaid by the aforementioned Utopian Loft, and also finally discovered What Actually Happened At Caitlin’s Wedding (a cross-Canada mystery!) – then Ottawa, for an impromptu graduate school reunion – and then back to Montréal, where I return with you to the kitchen counter, now scattered with dinner ingredients and wine glasses and half-empty bottles.

I have a scarf to finish knitting and Christmas is close. My Canadian phone number has been disconnected. This afternoon I went grocery shopping with Leila, a French artist who is subletting a room in the loft, and when the clerk asked for a phone number to contact for delivery of the groceries we both held up our empty hands in hilarity and consternation: neither of us have active phone numbers. Earlier in the day, she had been walking around with her iPad to display the loft to a friend she was Skyping with, and I smiled and waved into the camera, masquerading as someone who actually belongs here. But possibly I could? Possibly another road trip prediction might come true, and from being a square-peg, sore-thumb, bird-of-a-different-feather graduate student, I might find somewhere to belong.

Approximately 15 cities down and 15 left to go before I hit the Mexican border.