Archive for August, 2009

On Lake Joseph

How splendid a thing it is to be alone

Upon a lake in North America.

To softly slide between the reeds,

Long since you pulled your paddle last.

Boatmen zig-zag uncontrollably,

Leaving ephemeral neon trails

Upon the clear green piney water

Which sings with warming golden light.

There a man may pick his nose

And fear not reproach of friends nor family.

Nasal detritus may be removed,

And all is at peace.

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I weave between the broken lines that demarcate the cycle path from the road, traveling  at perhaps 5mph. A jogger overtakes me. At the end of the tree lined red brick street, beneath one of the ubiquitous balconies so considerately constructed with those city dwellers who may not have access to a garden in mind, Edward is using a phone booth to call a friend. The sun beats down unremittingly as it has for each and every day I have been here; my white linen shirt blows gently behind me whilst the front sticks to my chest using sweat as the cohesive. There is no discomfort in this. I feel there can be no discomfort with the hot hazy air swirling gently around my body. 

As I peddle languidly towards Edward a wave of quiet euphoria washes over me; a palpable sense of freedom. Edward has arranged for us to visit his friend Eve. We cycle on, overtake the jogger albeit temporarily as we stop into as second hand book shop where I buy Antigone and a novella by Alberto Manguel. A further distraction or (delightful) diversion more properly, is provided by a bakery baking bagels by the hundreds in a wood fired oven. We buy three sesame and three poppy seed together with some cream cheese and smoked salmon. By now it is 6pm so we need beer, preferably from the wonderful Sleeman brewery.

With each sip of the golden lager the sense of expansive liberty grows. I could not be further from the anxiety I experienced as I waited to board BA95 in London Heathrow’s terminal 5.

As I write this in a hammock on an island in the middle of a huge lake in Ontario (the next scene of my adventure) I wonder if there is something peculiarly pertinent to Montreal which inspires such a feeling from being freed from the bondage of London and the constraints which keep so many in tolerable unhappiness? Or is it simply that I have in fact freed myself from my daily routine, visited one of my best friend’s in the world, and thus I could have visited any city and I would feel the same way? In other words, am I simply enjoying being on holiday, or does Montreal possess a rather special power to release inner tensions?

My own experience leads me toward the latter conclusion. The physical attributes of the city are an important feature on which I rest my argument. The streets are wide and generally lined with trees. There are no cramped alley ways nor highrise flats (that I saw). The balance between the interests of the car, the cyclist and the pedestrian are more equitable than London; pavements are wide, there are lots of cycle paths, and yet (before Mr. J Clarkson starts to bang his drum), most of the streets have 2 lanes in either direction, and many have more, not that you would assume this necessary as there is a marked absence of cars and traffic. Residential architecture is varied, colonial, well maintained and more importantly people can afford to live in beautiful buildings. Edward has a magnificent two bedroom flat with hall, lounge, garden and a balcony directly over Parc La Fonatiane – in many cities such an abode would be the preserve of bankers or trust fund kids, certainly not two students!

Public attitudes are another huge contributor to the warmth I felt for the city. Couples of all possible combinations may be openly affectionate on the streets. One may wear what he chooses without fear of meeting a disapproving eye. There does not seem to be any agression, or attitude. There are no drunks puking their guts out late at night, and to walk home in the small hours is to walk alone (i.e. without unwanted company). 

Lastly, there are the inhabitants of Montreal itself. A word of caution here: I met and mingled with almost 100% anglophone Canadians and thus the Quebecois remain a mystery to me. Perhaps then if you have information that casts doubt on the impending assertions, I suggest you apply it as your discretion dictates. If you have no such preconceived notions then believe me when I tell you that I have not found a more humourous, generous or laid back set of peoples amongst the English speaking world. They appear to wake in the morning with a dimly lit  conception of the day to come which will morph and evolve as a varied cast of friends drift in and out of proceedings. There is no pre-booking, no guest lists, no reserved seating; days are formed like putty in a child’s hands yet the end result is a coherent image of hilarious good fun. Friends are shared around like peanuts at a cocktail party.

These factors all combined to make me feel that whilst in Montreal anything could happen. This is not to say that anything WILL happen (as it does in London) as this is a small place, and, paradoxically for such a city of perceived freedom, Montreal is regulated beyond anything seen even in Britain. There are a plethora of rules pertaining to all activities. Yet although at first they offend my sense of liberty, it seems to work – there is harmony here.

In my mind I will be cycling between those lines on many an occasion.

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Somewhere behind me a small girl chews gum and pops bubble wrap. Each little explosion of air escaping its cellophane prison makes me more anxious. She does it with increasing rapidity as I dig my thumb nail harder and harder into my forefinger in a fit of nervous agitation, until her father who can perhaps sense my discomfort, or perhaps has his own grating hopes and fears regarding the journey we are about to undertake, asks her to stop.

In front of me is a vast expanse of concrete and grass hemmed in between the highways that lead the great dames of aviation to the runway that provides both a springboard surface from which to leave London, and lights the way  home. The business of connecting places and peoples operates silently through the thick smoked glass; seemingly unplanned, yet on a tight and invisible schedule.

Airports wrest a strange mixture of emotional responses from me; terror, sadness, joy and expectation sit side by side to produce a unique physical churning. I should now be joyous. I am realising a dream held closely in my consciousness for years. Yet I feel sick in the deepest part of my body. The life I leave behind, though it will no doubt continue unabated; the friends and family I leave behind, though they will continue to live and laugh; the relationships I leave behind, though they will continue undiminished – I think of them all, and I realise I hold them far deeper in my heart than I previously thought. Only now that I am to be a stranger in foreign lands do I appreciate the warmth found in the familiarity of the friendships I made in London, the city I love to despise.

You have not been left lightly nor easily.


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