the gravity of other people, part 1

fret not, I have not in fact driven off the road. Instead, I went places that involved seeing people that I knew , and being the social animal that I am that meant time for blogging went out the window. A lot has happened, though. While I feel a little remiss for not documenting every step of this latest part of my journey, I realize now that a post focusing instead on what has remained in my memory, and not just a chronology, will be more satisfying to write and maybe even more interesting to read. (People close to me say that I have a problem with prefacing everything, and first I'd just like to say.. :).

I woke up before the sun on Thursday morning--4:12 in fact--to the sound of my suite mates at the hostel in Montreal taking a somewhat half-hearted (but fully intoxicated) stab at getting intimate. Luckily, it devolved into snoring before it got serious. I slept a bit longer but then got up as planned to see the sun rise.

Montreal centers itself around the majestic Mount Royal. While a beautiful park skirts the peak, it was the view from the top that seemed like a way that I might make peace with that city. It had been an interesting experience being there, one with lots of sights and exciting moments of feeling somewhere foreign, but one without much interaction. Strangely, without friends or family to serve as witness, the time almost felt like a dream. Considering that I already felt on less-than-solid ground having just leapt from relative tranquility in Boston, the added sense of sur-reality (blogs = make up any word you want) was not exactly pleasant.

But that morning, after thrashing against the 9% grades of Mount Royal's summit roads, the city lay half asleep before me, and I felt like I could breath. The stylized facades of Old-World blocks and modernist apartment complexes, the severe steeples of church after church, the dense urbanity giving way to abandoned shipping quays giving way to stretches of French-Canadian farmland--all of it was smoothed over in the dark hush of pre-morning. I took pictures as the sweat from the ride slowly dried, and smiled at the pair of hooded grandfathers walking like little boys down the hill. Before I knew it the sun had peaked out and this great city gleamed at me. I thought about a day when i would seek out the spot again, and share it.

And then all too soon, everything came to life. Riding to my car in Westmount (about 15min ride from Montreal's center) was all about being blinded by the sun and salivating at the Ferrari screaming from stop light to stop light (probably the most excellent and least practical way to get to work). Waiting for the cafe to open, the bread delivery man stopped to chat about my bike, a Mercier. He got a huge kick out of a French-less American riding a bike with a French name; I got a huge kick out of talking to someone who wasn't also behind a counter. A latte and a pastry later, I was on the road to Toronto.

Toronto, whether Canadians like it or not, is the center of their country. As I would fully discuss later on with my friends born-and-raised there, about 90% of this massive country lies to the north, largely uninhabited. But Toronto rose from its fur-outpost routes to become a hub of trade and finance (fueled by the bootleg industry in the 20s and oil industry of more recent years). Most of the place feels new and shiny, but is balanced by block after block of quirky, pointy-roofed houses. The down-town area definitely has the neon-ized, fast-food, gritty-curbs feel of big cities that I can't stand (coughNEW YORKcough), but the feel is completely different. Maybe it was the hundreds of bikers I saw out, or wide streets that let the daylight in, but I felt comfortable there like I haven't in other large metro areas.

But the big change was that I had people to see, and places to be. After a stop-off in Cobourg for some lakeside kettlebell tossing, I put my big-boy pants on to brave Toronto traffic. After hundreds of miles of calm, straight highways through farm-country, even the uber-polite Canadians felt intimidating barreling down the express route to downtown. Finding my old classmate's beautiful house in Leslieville was easy, and while she wasn't going to arrive until later I was able to let myself in and get settled.

I hadn't quite accounted for the figurative load that would come off once I locked the door behind me, though. Suddenly, solitude didn't mean being in my car, or surrounded by swarms of strangers. Alone was quiet and comfortable, and came with running water and a stocked pantry (Canadian graham crackers are just as good as American counter-parts, in case anyone was wondering). Showering and practicing, I slowly got all the kinks out, and left to meet my other friend and his brother for dinner.

I hadn't seen him since summer camp almost a decade before, but thanks to Facebook we had kept each other in mind over the years. When the opportunity finally arose for our paths to cross, it felt obvious and warm to meet up. His brother, who he lives with in the amazingly classy (but largely student-filled) neighborhood of Toronto called The Annex, had just nailed the MCAT to the back wall (95th percentile or somesuch ridiculousness), and high-end burgers and beers seemed appropriate.

My first (and potentially only) metro-ride of my journey took us to Ossington for dinner at Tall Boys, wherein one can (if they are awesome like us) have amazing nachos followed by kimchi cheese burgers and craft Canadian beers (Crazy Canuck IPA, anyone?). It was excellent, and felt like a time out with old friends, although I had only just met his brother, and only just reconnected with my buddy.

I rode home in some seriously brisk weather, and met up with my host, just back from Boston herself. While both of us kept yawning, we couldn't pull away from the conversation until late, agreeing to continue after sleeping in the next morning. I slept, and slept.

The next day unfolded better than I could've hoped. While I usually push myself to make and follow-though with plans, I was too tired to have planned very much for that Friday, and just let the day happen. We got up and almost immediately began warming up together, a ritual for brass players as sacred as it is rare. It was a perfect way to demarcate time that i had spent so intensely alone from this new time, with a person who knows me in a deep and important way, through my music. Hearing her beautiful sound, and talking to her, and feeling the warmth of musical fellowship even for just an hour or so, made me feel positively zingy (another new word for ya). I realized that more than any specific part of seeing her and my friend the night before, though, I was moved by the simple gesture of sharing the load of experience with a trusted other; the gravity of my present was no longer centered wholly in me, and it felt great.

After lunch from a decidedly snobby (and yet wholly inept) neighborhood cheese shop, I cruised over to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see an exhibit of Ai Wei Wei's work. This is the artist who designed the iconic "Bird's Nest" Stadium for Beijing's Olympics, and subsequently spoke out against the government's policy of removing residents and glossing over major problems in Chinese society. After a series of shockingly public incidents, all documented in the exhibit, Ai has been under house arrest for the last year at least.

But for how powerful his story is as an activist, his art shocked and amazed me. Candid self-portrait photographs depicting his daily life gave way to giant wooden sculptures modeled after his cat's play toys, held together with ancient Chinese woodworking practices. Then across the room were three seemingly rough-hewn beams, the thickness and length of tree trunks, that appeared to be joined along their lengths imperfectly, leaving a hole. On closer inspection, though, the hole was a perfect outline of China, and the beams were salvaged from a demolished 13th century temple.

The message became simpler, and more harsh, in the final room. A series of haphazard photographs showed Ai flicking off famous building around the world; another series depicted him dropping a presumably ancient vase, deliberately allowing it to shatter at his feet. And then on the far wall, showing Ai's largest and most involved project, was a 20'x30' spreadsheet listing the names, ages, and birthdates of more than 5000 children (less than 10% of the total death count) killed in the earthquakes in Sichuan in 2008. For a country he loves so much, Ai's role as artist seemed to be to become intimate with its most horrendous aspects.

After strolling through some other galleries and getting an excellent primer on photographic history (my buddy is a photo major at Ryerson University), we met up with my host in Kensington market. Think Santa Cruz meets Telegraph Ave. Other than offering some of the very best people watching I have experienced in quite some time, the place had shop after shop of beautiful fruit and produce, colorful used-clothing hanging from trees, and incredible ethnic food. Walking all over, I found a music store that summoned visions of Amoeba in the Bay Area, and finally had a chance to try poutine. An excellent way to feel the rest of Toronto.

I kept remarking to my friends that the town felt full of people brimming with style but who had none of the bad attitudes that so often accompanies such individualism. While I know it is a huge (and probably untrue) over-simplification, Toronto felt like it had all the good parts of a big city, and few of the bad.

That's enough for now. Up next: 'Merica.