Thursday, 24 April 2014

That is so BC!

There is a certain satisfaction that occurs when stereotypes and reality align. This happened when I first arrived in Paris and witnessed the armies of Parisians returning from work with baguettes tucked under their arms. Ever since I arrived in Vancouver a week and a half ago, I've been witness to scenes that I can only describe as so BC!


First, there are these mysterious "pain management" places. They have tinted windows and marijuana leaf icons and bright neon OPEN signs. B.C. is pushing hard for the legalization of pot and if you've ever smoked a home-grown harvest you understand immediately that B.C. is serious about their shit. In the meantime, one can't go far in the city without encountering that sweet/skunky smell, a ubiquitous odour that perfumes the streets along with the cherry blossoms and daffodils. At night, the pain clinic pictured below has an LED screen in the window that features its products, including a range of hash, buds and fancy baked goods.



Also, what better place to be on 4/20 than Vancouver? To mark the 20th anniversary of the pro-pot rally during which the plaza becomes an open farmers' market of marijuana while the police, possibly sedated by the thick cloud of smoke, calmly look on.


Next, something truly outrageous. Something I have never seen in any city. The transit system functions on the honour system:


The gates are wide open and travellers breeze through hassle-free, no card tapping or swiping or inserting. I've been told that they are in the process of implementing a proper turnstile, but in the meantime, it continues to rely on the honour system. And, remarkably, it seems to work.

Another key term is healthy. The folks here embody the essence. I have never seen so many spandexed bottoms, never witnessed so many bikers, joggers, walkers, and players of many various sports. And being vegetarian has never felt so normal. It often seems that one is presumed vegetarian unless they state otherwise.


B.C. is home to the most health conscious products I've even seen. Powders. Seeds. Spreads. Sprays. Concoctions of all sorts. Organic and fair trade are mere baseline standards. Smoothies and fresh-squeezed juice far outnumber cokes and slushies. I feel healthy just strolling the streets. 

And then there's the nature. The monstrous tree stumps that give life to smaller trees.


The gorgeous falls and rivers and brooks and mountain streams.


The heart-stopping snow-peaked mountain vistas.


And finally, the rain. Vancouver gets an average of 1189 mm of precipitation per year. The sky is often grey and there doesn't seem to be a day when raindrops, at least some, aren't in the works:


The city has to take special rain measures such as offering umbrella bags to its citizens: 


I'm told the winter gloom is rough, but this spring rain, even the all-day, super-duper heavy kind is bearable because the plant life is so flourishing. The flowers and grass and trees provide enough colour to counteract the clouds. 

I can see why Vancouver is consistently named as one of the top five worldwide cities for livability and quality of life. The vibe here is chill and uncomplicated. Relax! the city seems to say. What's the hurry? Have a kale smoothie and a toke and everything will be fine. Really. It will. It already is.



    



Wednesday, 16 April 2014

So it's Happening

When I tell people that I'm going to B.C. to plant trees I generally get one of two reactions.


The first is from those who have planted before. They shudder and wince as a passing memory flits through their mind. As if, for a fleeting moment, they're reliving the experience.

"Have you done it before?" they ask.

"No," I say.

"You know it's really hard, right?"

"Yeah, I know."

Well, I've heard it's hard. I've been warned about the bugs, the extreme weather, the bears and cougars, the dirt, the pesticides, the isolation, the fatigue, the sore muscles, the tendonitis, the early mornings, the long days, the madness that starts to set in mid-season when all of these elements become too much for one simple human to bear.

Then there is the other reaction, from those who have never done it:

"Why?" they ask.

Why indeed! I decided to go tree planting for several reasons. Because I have a good contract from a trusted company. Because two great friends will be on my crew. Because there is potential to earn money. Because it will be a change from my Montreal routine. Because it's in B.C. Because it's an experience. Because I want to.

There is no doubt that it will be hard.

Mostly I'm worried about meeting one of these:


Or not being able to adhere to the physical demands.

Or losing my mind.

For those of you who don't know anything about tree planting, allow me to explain. Basically, when a logging company has its way with a forest, it is responsible for replenishing the trees. The land might look something like this:


Here's where tree planters come in. Traditionally, these young and robust specimens sleep in tents and are trucked each morning to a plot of land where they have a few thousand trees to plant each day. There are many specificities as to how to plant--distance, depth, etc. The trees are worn on the hips for easy access. Here is my friend Brendan helping me choose my planting bags:



The days are long and require a constant dedication to planting as many trees as possible as well as possible. Luckily, instead of tents we will be lodged in a motel in Kamloops, so my experience will be somewhat civilized. Real showers. A kitchen. A bed. And perhaps most imperative: Internet!  

How hard is it? I have yet to find out. I am currently in Vancouver, exploring the city and its surrounding beauty such as this scene, which can be found an hour's drive (and an arduous climb) from the city:



The people here are sweet. The streets pristine and filled with daffodils and cherry blossoms.


The upcoming hardship seems like a distant reality, though I know before long it'll be routine. For now, though, I'm enjoying being with my friend Kate, hiking and chatting and taking advantage of the vegan-friendliest city I've ever known.

In a week's time, when I hop into a Kamloops-bound car, my tune is sure to change. For now, though, as Vancouver resident Eckhart Tolle would say, it's the Now that matters. N'est ce pas?

Monday, 31 March 2014

A Never Ending Story

One time, many years ago, I smoked some very strong pot out of a very big bong. I promptly became severely stoned and as a result could not bear to watch the freaky animé movies that were playing at my friend's house. I decided to go home and sleep off the effects.

On my walk home, a route I took every single day, something strange happened. The sidewalk, which was only a block in length, wouldn't end. I walked and walked and walked and walked. I had gone what felt like 20 blocks, yet I hadn't advanced at all. The sidewalk refused to end; panic began to well.



I was trapped in some sort of warped dimension on a deserted and never ending sidewalk. Terror burned bitter at the back of my throat. Somehow I must have gotten home because my next memory is listening to the aliens scratching in the walls above my bed. But the panic and horror I felt on that sidewalk was visceral, unforgettable.

And that's how I feel about winter this year. Every morning when I step outside I get a similar panic in my chest, that same terror on my tongue, the sinking feeling that I am living the same thing over and over, that it will never not be cold. I've lived through long winters before. But this is truly exceptional.

To illustrate just how long the season has been and just how deeply it has effected our psyche, consider the following anecdote:

One morning last week I was in the dog park. As can sometimes happen, my sock had come off in my winter boot, so I removed my boot, exposing my foot for a few brief minutes while I fished around for my sock.



A hush fell over the dog owners. Some stared at my foot while others looked away as if uncomfortable. I felt suddenly very shy, as if I was doing something unbearably intimate. It was like I had suddenly ripped off my top without thinking.

"You have nice feet," the guy closest to me said. But he might as well have said, "Nice boobs."

I quickly slipped my sock back on and replaced my foot into my wide boot.

To me, this portrays perfectly the toll this winter has had--that a bare foot, something that is so commonplace come mid-July that no one even glances, could represent such an intimate exposure amongst the bulky coats and boots and tuques.

It's nearly impossible to imagine life without the ice and cold and all that goes with it. Maybe one day we'll wake up and the horror will have succumbed to spring. But for now, it's fucking freaking me out.





Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Montreal Passes the Honest City Test

It was one of those days.

You know the kind, when nothing is really the matter. But lots of little things are. You wake up and gravity is 10-15% stronger, and the cold is 10 degrees colder. Your worries swell up around you and moroseness is a cloak you just can't shake off.

Usually on days like this I avoid people. I don't like pretending to be in a good mood, and sometimes my attitude is simply too foul for reconciling. But some friends were leaving for Taiwan and hosting a last soirée. I had to see them before they left, and I had already invited my friend Jessie to the come along. We were to make the trek to Point St. Charles together. And so I went.

The soirée was OK, despite that one of the guests got a concussion when he fell skating. We left in haste so as to catch the last metro of the evening. When I put my coat on and noticed my wallet was missing, there wasn't time for a thorough search, but a quick glance around suggested it wasn't in the apartment. I had likely lost it in the transit system. Fuck!

We speed-walked to the metro and as we were approaching the turnstile, a blond pony-tailed transit worker glared at us and shook a sign that said the metro had stopped running. Now my mood was really getting wretched. My wallet was missing, with money and all my identification, and I had a two-hour walk on a cold winter night before I could take refuge in my bed, which is where I had wanted to be all day anyway. Fuck! Fuck!

The walk wasn't terrible, since my friend Jessie was in good spirits. She and another fellow from the soirée kept the atmosphere jokey and light. As we were crossing the canal, we noticed something in the distance, an animal running towards us. A dog? We stood at the railing and watched as a fox scampered soundlessly across the frozen canal and disappeared under the bridge. In folklore, fox sightings can be interpreted as both negative and positive. But to us, it felt just special. A fox in Montreal! For a few minutes I almost forgot about my wallet and the two hour walk home.

I cancelled the bank cards right away, but I was so certain that someone would turn in my wallet that I refused to do anything else in terms of card replacement, etc. I had lost my wallet twice before, once in Montreal and once in Paris and both times it was returned. Also, I am terrified of administration ladies, and was reluctant to spend an afternoon in the waiting room where they re-issue the health cards and drivers licenses. My address was on my cards. Someone would find my wallet and either deliver it or give it to some authority. I would get it back. It was the only way for the scenario to go.

Weeks went by. I went to the metro lost-and-found three times and called them every other day. Each time I was told, "Non, madame, votre portefeuille n'est pas ici!" I checked my mailbox and even my emails, hoping someone would drop it off or Google me and get in touch. Nothing.

More weeks went by.

And then a parcel arrived. The handwriting wass shaky, that of a geriatric. The sender? National Undeliverable Mail Office.



Inside? A letter:



And...my wallet! Void of money, but there were all my cards! And my President's Choice coupons (though a cashier pointed out that they had expired when I tried to use them that afternoon).

So I don't have to face the wrath of the administration ladies. Or pay the fees to get my picture redone (though my hair is so unruly in the current photo, I wouldn't be opposed to a re-shoot).

Most importantly, I have the reassurance that my city is honest, as I had hoped. 

Sometimes faith, fear and laziness can work together in your favour.  




Friday, 14 February 2014

How I Learned to Talk



For those of you who didn't know me in high school or have never met me at all, let me tell you, I used to be shy. Very very shy. So shy that many people thought I was mute. I wrote a short vignette about how the violin helped me to break away from my deep-seated silence for CBC's Defining Moments Series. You can vote for my story until the 24th of February. Just click here.

 

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

An Unexpected Journey to the North of France


I know what you're thinking. You see "north of France" and you think spotted cows in Normandy:


You think quiet and quaint harbour towns like Honfleur: 


 Or delicious delicacies you may have tasted or fantasized about: 



But you can forget all that for now. This story takes place in a town that no tourist has visited on purpose. A little town called Hénin-Beaumont, located in the northern region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Before I explain how I got there, a little about the place.
nin-Beaumont is traditionally a coalmining town that in the mid 1800s began attracting people from all over to work in the mines. During the first world war it was occupied by the Germans and subject to much looting and ransacking. In 1917 the Allies successfully ousted the invaders, but they unfortunately destroyed the entire town in the process, except for the church, which the Germans blew up on their way out as a final fuck you! The town had just enough time to rebuild before the next world war and yet another occupation. nin-Beaumont is now a light industrial town with a population of approximately 27 000. There is nothing particularly notable about the town, except for an old slag heap that is now considered part of their historical patrimony:


Anyway. The incident happened in 2007 when I was living with my boyfriend at the time in Paris, France. His mechanic was situated in Lens, a fair-sized town two hours north of Paris. He was the best, I was assured, and the cheapest. It was worth the extra effort. The plan was we'd drop the car off at the mechanic's house, the mechanic would give us a lift to the train station and we'd catch a train back to Paris. Everything was going fine until we waved good bye to the mechanic, entered the station and discovered that there were no more trains that day.
Merde,” said my boyfriend. Then, "Merde, merde, merde!
           
After some discussion we decided that we could either take a taxi to Lille and catch a train from there that night, or stay in the hotel by the station and catch the first train in the morning. The latter made more sense, money and effort-wise, so we made our way to a crumbling blue brick structure labled simply: "HOTEL." We crossed the chipped tile floor to the counter, behind which hung  framed nature scenes with enchanted animals, the kind you might see screwed to walls of old American motels. A short woman with a high black pony tail emerged from the back. She looked to be about 40 years old but her face was weathered, and her eyes were glossy pools of melancholly despite a genuine smile. We asked her if there were any vacancies and she shook her head. "But I'll call my cousin," she said, reaching in her gymbag-sized purse for her phone. "He has a hotel too." She shouted at her cousin in Arabic, nodding and gesticulating, and when she hung up, told us we were good to go. "C'est bon! Je vous amène."
           
I soon found myself in the backseat of a rusted hatchback that sputtered and groaned like an amusement park ride as we merged onto the highway. We had no idea where she was taking us. My feet were lost under a dense layer of toys, garbage and clothes. My boyfriend was in the front seat talking to the woman but I couldn't follow the conversation due to the hacking engine, the radio that wavered between static and a top-10 station and the wind blasting from the window that the woman had opened so she could continue to chainsmoke. I stared out at the passing scenery that resembled as close to nothing I have ever seen. And by nothing, I seriously mean nothing:


Finally we exited the highway and pulled into the metropolis of Hénin-Beaumont which featured shabby brick buildings, many of which had been abandoned. The slag heaps in the background provided a taunting reminder of past prosperity. The woman stopped the car in front of an old red brick structure that also appeared abandoned but a closer look through the filmy windows revealled figures inside. "Hotel" was written in the window. And also "Brasserie." A faded red banner promised Stella Artois.

We followed the woman inside. The floor offered a blend of ashes, cigarette butts and beer caps and the air was a mix of rancid beer and decades of stagnant smoke. The woman's cousin was slumped at the bar, too drunk to stand. His gaze was unfocused, his mouth bent in a blissful smile. He opened his mouth as if to speak but only a long, slurred groan escaped. The pitch of his voice was so low it sounded like a belch.


They spoke in Arabic and the woman became quickly aggitated. The man shrugged and continued to smile as his eyes rolled back. His head drooped and the woman smacked his shoulder, bringing him back for a moment while she continued to yell, louder this time. Finally she turned to us and apologized. He had said on the phone there was room, she explained, but there wasn't. She assured us that he wasn't usually like this but his daughter had slapped him at a family reunion last week and he’d been in this state ever since. Before we really started to worry about what we would do, a young employee, a tall and skinny dude with blond hair, strolled over and whispered something into the ear of his nearly unconscious boss. His head drooped again, but the woman and the employee interpreted it as a nod.

"OK," the woman said to us, though she didn't look pleased. "There is a room. The cleaning lady has to get it ready." The young worker gave us a nervous smile, then disappeared upstairs with some sheets. "Sorry, I have to go," the woman said. "Please have a seat at the bar."

My boyfriend handed her
10 for her trouble to which she gave a meek smile, then disappeared out the door. We sat up at the bar. On the other end, the boss was now passed out into his folded arms. A monstrously obese man lumbered out from the back, sweat marks darkening his blue T shirt around the armpits and along each role. We ordered Leffes and sipped our beers in silence while I tried to avoid the unflinching stares of the surrounding male clients. We were a spectacle. Des étrangers.

Finally the young employee returned and announced that our room was ready. The boss didn't stir as we walked passed him, through a tiny door and up a slanted staircase. The young man indicated the first door on the right, said he would let us get comfortable, then fled down the stairs.


We entered and silently came to terms with what appeared to be the hotel's designated fucking room. The "bed" was a stack of several mattresses, so many that it swelled out to the side and threatened to topple. A stained white sheet covered the stack. There was no blanket, only a pillow the width of a beach novel. The wall around the mattress pile was a grimy black after years of contact with oily naked bodies. By the window was an orange couch whose frame was busted, causing it to slump in the middle, and the two chairs stacked on top discouraged sitting altogether. Empty alcohol bottles were strewn about. A tiny sink in the corner housed a thick film and a collection of body hair. A tiny, unopened bar of soap sneered at us, daring us to touch the contaminated tap handles. I pulled open the faded orange curtain and peered out the window. The view was that of a boarded up building across the street and the remains of a charred car on the ground below.


To postpone the horror of sleeping in this space, we decided to go for a walk, but first I needed to use the washroom. It was located down the hall, and I could smell it before I was halfway there. I should have turned back then, but I really had to go. I nudged open the door, which sent a school of silverfish scuttling. The toiletseat was caked with layers of piss and pubic hairs that jutted out like spider legs. The bowl was water stained and diagonal shit streaks decorated it like a contemporary canvas. Suddenly I didn't have to go quite so badly and slowly backed away from the scene.

Downstairs, the massive man was standing at the bar drying a steamy tumbler from the industrial dishwasher. He told us we were very lucky because it was the town’s biannual fair tonight.

As we soon discovered, the "fair" consisted of several rows of trailers, each featuring a game with its own music and flashing lights that combined into a clash of trills and frantic scales. The games were varied: mini basketball hoops, fishing rods with magnets, plastic guns and darts. Each had its own slightly different prizes: stuffed bears, tigers, and penguins,
plastic China-made  contraptions and cloth dolls. The locals were of all ages. They played passionately and strutted the aisles with their newly earned prizes.


The local teenagers were celebrating in their own way by doing loops around the town on motor bikes or in beat up cars with the music at such a volume it threatened to dislodge their bumpers. Beer and French fries seemed to be the only sustenance to be had that night, so we headed towards the hot oily steam cloud and joined the locals in line. I'd lived in France for two years and had visited many corners of the country, but this place was unlike any other. It was dismal, lacked the finess and culture and class of everywhere else I had been. Like the orange couch back in the room, the town was tired, faded and slumped in the middle.
   
We extended the night as long as we could, but eventually we headed back to our room. We had to walk through the bar to reach the staircase. The boss had regained consciousness and was drinking again at the bar. His smile had vanished, and in its place, rage festered. His body was rigid and his eyes flared. Suddenly, without any prompting, he swiped a beer glass which shattered to the floor and followed that with a belch-like bellow. He reached for another glass, missed, and cried out as he struggled to regain his balance. My boyfriend and I hurried past and slipped upstairs.

I surveyed the room a second time. It had to be a sex room. What else would such a place be for--vacant, right above the bar, never rented but always occupied. I would have rather stayed up all night amongst of the chaotic carnival games than sleep here, but my boyfriend was already in his underwear and climbing under the thin sheet. I latched the door shut from the inside, shut off the light, and removed only my shoes before making my way onto the precarious mattress stack.

I shivered and pulled close to my boyfriend to absorb some of his body heat. He was asleep in a matter of minutes and I was left alone in the room that whispered of perverted fantasies. Things were getting heated downstairs. I heard shouting, a crash, more broken glass. The boss cried out again. For what felt like hours, I lay awake listening to my boyfriend's gentle snore while the aggression down below came and went depending on the boss's level of consciousness.

Sometime later, I awoke to the sound of heavy boots on the stairs. I could tell it was the boss by his stumbling, awkward stride. I listened as he slowly tripped his way up and to my horror stopped at our door. My body seized. My eyes couldn't have opened wider. The handle turned. I gasped and clutched onto on my boyfriend's arm. He was also now very awake. The door moved but the latch prevented it from opening and a savage cry pierced the air. The boss shook the handle fiercely, then began to throw himself against the door in an effort to break it down. He probably had no recollection of his cousin’s phone call earlier that day, of agreeing to rent this room to a young couple from Paris. His few remaining neurons merely told him how to get to the room. That it was occupied was too much for him to grasp. He continued to heave himself against the door and tug at the handle. We remained still and silent, too terrified to call out. We didn't want to anger the man whose unsolicited wrath we had already witnessed. The metal latch was flimsy, though, and I wasn't sure how much longer it could hold out. 

Finally the boss's strength began to wane. He let out another bellow before stumbling down the hall. Then bones and boots against wood echoed out as he toppled down the flight of stairs followed by a dull thud as his body reached the tiled floor. My boyfriend and I stared at each other for the ensuing moments of haunting silence, but then there were some shuffling sounds and a shout followed by a meek belch. The boss was not dead. 

My boyfriend miraculously fell back asleep but I remained awake, shivering for a few more excruciating hours until I could see the first light start to stain the sky a dark violet. I shook my boyfriend awake and suggested we be going. We had to get the first train, afterall. I edged off the mattresses and managed to put my shoes on without touching the filthy floor. My boyfriend wrote a cheque for the room, which I pointed out wasn't a real hotel room and we didn’t actually sleep, not much anyway. He shrugged but added a short note along with the cheque: Thanks for an annimated night. 

And that's how a young couple from Paris got to spend a night in the unlikely town of Hénin-Beaumont, which may not be a beautiful place, but it promises a memorable stay and a great view of a very special slag heap.

  


Sunday, 5 January 2014

Adventures in a 1999 Saturn SW

When my friend Emmanuelle asked if I needed a ride home to Huntsville for Christmas, I knew what I was getting myself into. After all, I had already experienced the six hour drive last Thanksgiving, which was not uneventful. The bracket that holds on the gas tank rusted off on the highway and, after a Google session at the nearby Tim Horton's hearthside, we bought two ratchet straps from the Dollar Store and secured the tank ourselves. When Emmanuelle came to pick me up this time around, I asked her what the mechanic did to fix the issue.

"What do you mean?" she said. "We fixed it ourselves, remember?"

Fair enough. I had recently bought a glue stick from the Dollar Store that was worse than useless, but their ratchet straps seemed to be significantly more reliable. Nevertheless, the car was in the rough shape. The engine produced a sound much like an amusement park ride, which was so imposing I had to lean forward and strain to follow the conversation Emmanuelle and her boyfriend Brendan were having in the front seat.

"I think this is the Saturn's last ride," she lamented as we pulled onto highway 40 heading West.



Until we crossed the border from Quebec to Ontario, besides the outrageous motor hum and the unbelievable amount of stuff we had managed to stuff into the car, including Lily, my Bernese Mountain Dog, everything was going fine. We got a text from some friends who were also making the trek from Quebec to Huntsville. They had stopped only a few kilometres ahead in a little town called Casselman. Their toddler was getting restless so they stopped at McDonald's to use the playroom. NOT to eat, they insisted, lest we interpret this as a regression on their part. JUST for the playroom. Well, we thought, why don't we stop in and say hello? 

After 20 minutes of visiting and messing around in the playroom, we loaded back into the car to discover that it wouldn't start. Emmanuelle tried again. Again. And again. Nope. We got a boost from our friends before they left, to no avail. There was only one option remaining: CAA. It was December 23 and tow trucks were in high demand. We'd have to wait, they said, an hour or so. So we took refuge in the very establishment we despise most: McDonald's. We set up by the hearth and unloaded our picnic of hummus, organic vegetables, veggie paté, fruits, and nuts while the nearby burger eaters glared. Who did we think we were, contaminating their saturated fat feast with whole foods? How obscene! But the great thing about mega corporations is that they are fully exploitable. Loitering is not a problem and none of the workers had anything to say about our unsightly display of healthy eats. We monopolized the hearth for the next hour as we waited:




Hearthside feasting:

 

Finally the tow truck arrived and we had to put our boots back on, pack up the party and deal with the reality of the situation. The CAA worker investigated the battery and concluded that the starter had perished. He proceeded to hoist the car onto the flatbed. As you can see in the below photograph, the car still contained Brendan and Lily. Emmanuelle and I were able to secure a seat in the cab of the truck with the driver.



Once at the mechanic's, the diagnosis was confirmed. The starter was dead and it would take two hours to get the part plus another to put it in. So we set up shop in a nearby pizza joint. The owner was a young guy who was loud and jovial. Like most Casselman residents, he interchanged so readily between French and English it seemed he was unaware of which language he was using. We ordered a pizza, and since the owner was so friendly and laid back, we asked him if he wouldn't mind if we watched some Seinfeld episodes on Brendan's laptop. "Of course!" he said as if it was an average, everyday request. We were very comfortable there, so comfortable that had the radiators been turned on, I might have even strewn my wet socks out to dry.



So this is how we spent the ensuing three hours, enjoying old Seinfeld episodes while Lily waited outside in a snow bank (good thing she's a Swiss breed).


Eventually, the mechanic finished and we were able to resume the remaining five-hour drive home. I didn't return to Montreal in the Saturn, but word has it the car made it back to its place of residence, Quebec City, with only a pierced tire, requiring a quick visit to the mechanic to remove a nail. One ratchet strap has apparently fallen off, but the other one is still holding strong, which has restored my trust in select Dollar Store products. In any case, the Saturn's days are surely numbered. I wish it the best as it passes into the next realm. Sweet dreams, Saturn. Thanks for the lifts. You will be missed.