Sunday, November 28, 2010

Pittsburgh and a Major Detour

The Pennsylvania fog was denser than I had ever seen and kept my car at a jogging pace.  My GPS did more to inform me of where I was going than the foot or two of road I could see.  I pulled over for a bit to marvel in the mist and wander briefly in a forest - the first I'd ever seen completely naked of leaves.  As I was returning to my car, I found someone from a nearby business had earlier seen me park and took after me to find out what I was up to.  I tried to explain that I'm from California and don't really ever get to enjoy weather.  He looked at me like I was insane.

Pittsburghers have a lot of pride for their city and seem to speak of it as if they are defending it from attack - or rather from fading in the American public's collective consciousness.  Back in the days of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, Pittsburgh was undeniably great, but seems to have since dwindled in its cultural output in comparison to the other great cities.  Here, I stayed with my old friend Alan, whom I've spent time with in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Amsterdam, and now his new home in Pittsburgh.  I didn't stay long, but I did get to enjoy an architetural walking tour of the downtown area, enjoy an excellent view from Mount Washington south of Pittsburgh's three major rivers, view a now public collection of Frick's classical art and beautiful beautiful Rolls-Royce and Lincoln cars, and share dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant with Alan and another old friend, Sherwin, whom had also made his way to Pittsburgh.

Nearing the end of my road trip, I wanted to see the Niagra Falls, and I expected them to be an interesting counterpoint to my first stop in the Grand Canyon - important American natural wonders a whole country apart.  Yet, when finally there, I couldn't feel much more than, "well alright - there it is."  The falls were stunning certainly, but hardly had the same entrancing effect I experienced in Arizona.  They disappointed, perhaps because the canyon alone was filled with all the promise of undescribed adventure and intimacy a good backpacking trip can offer.  There were so many miles to walk and so much more to see.  The canyon was a challenge.  At the falls there was little else to do than gaze and take pictures until the parking meter was up.

The Niagra River bisects Ontario and New York state, and while viewing platforms are available on both sides, all of my on and offline literature boasted of the superiority of the view from the Canadian side.  Getting into Canada, however, was a terrible pain in the ass (and left me dreading the return crossing).  After a long wait on a toll bridge, I had to declare my pepper spray for confiscation (mace is illegal in Canada), and my car was then selected for searching.  It couldn't have helped that nearly every compartment in my car was occupied by blankets, gym bags, and grocery totes, and that I was young, unemployed, and didn't have a proper home address.  The officer searching my car turned a few degrees colder after he found my half empty flask in my messenger bag.  Oops.  When he pulled out my laptop, he turned it on - I assume to make sure it was a computer and not a bomb or something suspect as I they do at they airport - but as the minutes passed it seemed as though he spent more time on my computer than in my car.  He was repeatedly depressing the down key - I assume because he was sifting through my internet history.  Uncomfortable, I tried to see what he was up to, but he kept me back with a rough, "stay on the curb, sir!"

I had never originally planned on seeing Canada, but when I realized how close Toronto was to the falls, I had to find out if the young Canadian couple I met at a show in Paris last year would tolerate a hairy vagabond in their home for a few days.  They were hip to the idea and so to Toronto I went.  They tried to warn me that Toronto's a great city, but doesn't offer much to the tourist.  Admittedly, I knew little else about Toronto than what I gathered from reading the Scott Pilgrim comic books, but I was actually quite grateful to take a break from touring.  The day of my arrival, one of my hosts had begun work on a 40+ page thesis on alternative pornography - specifically a variety that didn't depict genitals but rather fixated only on the face of a performer as they reached climax (and at some point we debated the use of they as a non-gender singular pronoun (Cambridge says it's okay)).  Her professors gave her free access to a number of webpages and we helped her conduct some preliminary research.

I was lent a bicycle and let to explore Toronto's neighborhoods.  Little Italy, Greektown, Little Portugal (redundant, I know), Cabbagetown (for the Polish), Koreatown, and Chinatown should give you a good idea of how diverse Toronto is.  I really enjoyed cruising Kensington Market, a neighborhood next to Chinatown full of cafes with European style seating and vintage stores spilling out of old homes.  Kindly drug dealers wanted to make sure my marijuana needs were met as they passed me on the street, throwing their voices like puppeteers in a way that left me puzzled and very impressed.  It never takes long for me to forget how much I love bicycling and just getting around was a thing to be enjoyed (regardless of Toronto's unfriendly relationship with bikes: the new governor has expressed something to the effect of, "it's really too bad when someone gets killed on a bicycle, but, oh well, it's their fault").

Laura and Colin took enough time away from their busy schedules to see the new Harry Potter and host an epic board game night for nearly a dozen of their friends.  We learned a pretty great game called Werewolf: a clever role-playing game putting players in the roles of villagers, werewolves, and clairvoyant mystics, which pits the werewolves against the villagers in daily cycles that detail a series of murders and lynching until only villagers or werewolves are left.  The last two standing proved to be a painfully cute redhead and myself - both werewolves.

I had a hole in my calendar without places to stay that I hadn't anticipated, so my hosts insisted I check out Montreal.  My arm didn't need much twisting, and so I found another young Canadian couple to stay with, both well traveled vegetarians with an affinity for strange musical instruments, including an Arabian wind instrument, some homemade metal contraption with a spring, and the musical saw. I really had no prior impression of what Montreal would be like, and was increasingly bewildered by the sensation of being able to drive to what's pretty much a European city in North America.  Montreal and Toronto are worlds apart (I learned that twice now Montreal's province of Quebec has nearly seceded from Canada, both times with 49% in favor of secession). The cobblestone streets of Vieux-Montréal, the abundance of cafes and cathedrals (Samuel Clemmens once said, "this is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn't throw a brick without breaking a church window"), a propensity for recycling and bicycles, and of course, the dominance of the French language was more akin to anything I've seen in Europe than anything I've seen in this continent.

I decided to skip the metro system altogether and walked no less than a bajillion kilometers in the two days I was in Montreal. I caught up on Canadian history in a museum built in an old fire station, and killed a few good hours in an art museum with a healthy helping of works from famous Impressionists and a section dedicated to Napoleonic history with personal affects of the old emperor. I cheated and was un-vegan long enough to sample a vegetarian version of the region's most famous contribution to cuisine.  Poutine is a platter of French fries drowned in gravy and topped with squeaky fresh cheese curd. I ended my visit with a brisk climb to the top of Montreal's "mountain," Mont Royal, a hill with a lovely view of the city. It was there I had my first ever proper conversation en francais outside of a restaurant or cafe. Halfway up, I sat near a middle aged woman and we chatted as we caught our breaths. Unlike all else I spoke to, she didn't switch to English after I explained that I was American and didn't really speak French. While this engaged my flight or fight response, I didn't want to be rude, and I managed to stay put long enough to talk about where I came from, the length and nature of my trip, the weather in Montreal and how it compares with California, and how beautiful it was on the mountain. Parting, I was shocked that I could not only understand her, but more that I was understood myself. As terribly plain the subject matter might have been, I was pretty emboldened by the conversation and left the country wishing I had been more courageous in my use of French. I'm eager to come back to Montreal one day when the weather is kinder and with more time to spend.

Level Up!  MATTHEW gains 15 points toward Cold Resistance

1 comment:

Terri L said...

God Matt. A bajillion sounds like a gross exaggeration.