Friday, July 31, 2009

Canada III: If You Go Down to the Woods Today...

"What is this like, silver foil or something?"
The first-timer shrugs apologetically as the man in a chain mail vest flicks the floppy end of his home-made sword.
Even from my vantage point at the edge of the clearing I can see what the battle-hardened warrior is thinking: this guy and his pansy-ass weapon won't last two minutes in there. But he lets him play anyway. Him, and the two overexcited American kids who keep refusing to die like they're supposed to.

We'd been told about the strange world of Montreal medieval battling at the youth hostel in Taddoussac, by the Ottowan guy who reminded everyone of somebody.
"Yeah, if you're there on a Sunday go to Mont Royal - you know, the big park in the Plateau - and there's drumming and strange people shooting arrows from trees. No one understands the rules. Maybe not even the players."

Either there are no tree-hugging archers the week we are there, or they've become ever more skilled in the arts of guerrilla warfare, because all the action seemed to be on the ground. Pitched battles splintered off into intense one-on-one or (in the case of a particularly stout fighter) four-on-one confrontations. Loyal girlfriends cheered from the sidelines. The thuds of foam clubs on metal armour made me feel for the nervous, bearded newcomer and his shiny, useless Blue-Peter, sticky-back-plasticked sword.

So while down by the memorial statue the city's bohemians and ragamuffins drummed and danced and smoked, up here the white, anglophone boys (and one double-sworded girl) battled it out for glory and bonus points.
"They've got no tactics. They've just got no tactics at all." Chris muttered as I finally dragged him away from yet another mass collision.
As we passed the drummers and tramps he stared back up the hill wistfully.
"What they need is a leader..."

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Canada II: Only happy when it rains

Looking at the nonplussed faces in the crowd, it was clear that Montreal ("Mon-ray-aaal") was no cheer-topia. While the kids formed human pyramids and doled out rictus grins and hi-Mom waves the people brought their hands together as if to clap, then thought better of it, and hugged their handbags closer. They'd dutifully gathered to watch the parade which marked the last day of the Just For Laughs festival, and I wanted to poke them all with a giant spirit stick.

The next group were a film club, and had made an ingenious travelling scene where a middle-aged couple sat on cinema seats watching a love scene being shot. Between takes the actors skulked at opposite ends of the rowing boat, checking their messages and submitting to the attentions of hair and make-up. The man who was resting his belly on Chris' back said that it was Very Clever. He managed to make the words sound vaguely disapproving, as if ingenuity was at heart morally suspect.

Watching the faces of the young performers as their tightly choreographed performances were met with polite blankness wasn't funny. It made me remember the last - and surely the only - time I took part in a parade: the Awa Odori in my Japanese suburb. There families arrived hours early with picnics and plastic matting. When the performers dance they whooped and cheered and clapped and danced along for the full three hours of the festival. Then they rolled up their mats, threw away their rubbish and within ten minutes the streets were pristine again.

There is a distinct lack of whoopage here. Ripples of enthusiasm get smothered by the low-key masses. It's all very polite... that is until the heavens open. Then, all at once, the streets are full of children, shrieking and running and laughing. It's like a summer downfall is the best show they've ever seen.

Huddled in a bus shelter I have a front row view of the action. Couples hold hands as they careen down the streets. Whole families give up on dryness and turn their heads to the skies. Quite the finale.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Canada I - Trains, Pains and Automobiles

"And so she came and told me that people were going around staying she was showing off by dressing up for church. And I told her not to worry. She wasn't showing off, she's just... German."
The Canadian couple nod sagely. Her husband closes his eyes like he's heard this one before.
"I mean, that's just what they're like isn't it? Elegant, I mean. That's how they always seem to me. Very elegant. It's just their way."
When no-one jumps in to agree, she digs her husband in the ribs. "Isn't that what you found dear. When you lived over there?"
Turns out husband is an army brat, like me. Perhaps he too remembers an elegant nation with trousers swinging up over ankles; a country with excellent environmental policies and a communal reverence for C&A's polyester delights.

Husband takes the opportunity to change the subject.
"Yeah everything worked so great over there. You should see the trains..."
Canadian husband hears his cue and rises out of his seat in his eagerness to deliver his lines.
"Actually me and my father had the opportunity to travel there ourselves. We had the very great good fortune to ride all the trains there. He's a bit of a train enthusiast, my father. We took the local trains, the inner-city trains and the expresses..."
American husband lets out a bellyfull of breath. "Phew. They blow me away those expresses."
"Yeah, I can't remember the exact translation equation, but they were going 200, 300 miles an hour. Saw the whole country that way. Must be ten years ago now."
"How do you even see when you're going that fast?" American wife churps up. "Wasn't it all a blur?"
"Nah... you just focus on something..." he founders.
They all look out of the window. So do I. We're coming up to the border, chugging through one of the no-horse towns that the tracks cleave in half.

The journey from New York to Montreal is scheduled to take a little under twelve hours. On the way up we arrive three hours late. By car, the journey is rumoured to take six hours. Lucky it's so beautiful, and lucky we know so many card games.

The seats in front have started talking again about Times Square and how to navigate the subway and don't seem to notice when our train gets overtaken by a boy on a bicycle. I watch him gain on us, draw level and then peddle off towards the horizon. He never even breaks into a sweat.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Oh Canada...

Canada, land of draft-dodgers, maple syrup, husky attacks, canoeing with whales, defining yourself against the Americans, polar bear trains, lumberjacks, jagged little pills and frenchness. And now (temporarily) me.
Back in two weeks...
au revoir.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Spinning Michael's Tunes

"I thought I'd be too sad to come to work today guys, but you guys got me through it - like I knew we would."
We whoop. This is a class where whooping is mandatory.
As a reward, he tells us to crank up the resistance, and hops from bike to bike, wiping our sweaty foreheads and urging us on. I'm embarrassingly pleased when he comes to halt in front of me, wipes my sweat too.

The last time I was at a spinning class there was no live DJ spinning Michael Jackson tunes under blinding UV light, and the Mr Motivator was a softly-spoken, power-crazed Japanese guy called Kenji who would interrupt our peaceful cycle along a beautiful cliff road with a demonic cry of "And here comes... za MOUNTAINS!" This time there's also more than three of us in the class. In fact there's 50 bikes, and few are empty. I can hide at the back, my teeth glowing in the darkness.

We're in a gym, in the shadow of BAM, and today is the day of Michael Jackson's funeral. After 45 minutes spent making a collective offering of sweat (sweetly wiped) we are lead in a minute's silence, as our legs gradually slow their phantom pumping.
"I'm sure we all have memories - both good and bad."
I catch myself nodding along. I wonder if this is what it's like to join a cult.
"We should just be thankful for the beautiful music..."
The funk is cranked up as we stretch out the workout, and I spend the rest of the day haunted by the chirpy tones of the Jackson Five.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Last curtain call on the circle line

"Not that you need to know this..." He takes a deep breath, and his white captain's uniform strains across his less-than-shipshape torso, "but I have a Masters degree in dramatic art."
Those who are listening raise their eyebrows dutifully. The rest continue their efforts to stifle screaming toddlers and elbow themselves some space at the railing so they can spend the next hour and a half filming a wobbly version of the Manhattan skyline.
"Yes, I came to the city, and took this very tour. Many years ago." He smiles wearily and shakes his head. "All I can say folks is to be careful what you wish for."
We laugh nervously, but he's gazing out across the water at the hard glass shapes casting their shadows over the Hudson. He says it again, but this time the forced tour-guide cheeriness has leached out of his voice. He sounds less worldly than when he was talking about losing friends to Aids ("that terrible disease"), less stoic than when he told us of the remains that are still being found at Ground Zero ("it used to be 60/40 unidentified, but recently, through technological advances, they've reversed that percentage"). Two decades on, the boats of the circle line are his stage, and we his captive audience.
He moves the microphone closer to his lips.
"Just be careful what you wish for."

Monday, July 6, 2009

Independence Day

I'm sat between my Mum and my teenage sister on the sticky tarmac of 42nd Street trying to ignore the fact that the guy wrapped round the girl in front of me is looking to slide into second base. She returns his kisses (perhaps a little less enthusiastically) but keeps one hand free to pin her skirt to her thighs. Soon she's yanking him to feet and demanding to get closer to the action. Folks round here want to smell the cordite in the air.

The only reason we got close enough to sit on this little island of frotting couples and subtle brown-baggers is through disobeying a direct police order. We'd tried to cross over 11th Avenue, but had been vaguely pointed south by an officer who was busy trading derisive retorts with a mouthy reveller. At 41st we're told that it's rammed all the way to 32nd, though we can all see the empty street ahead.
"Keep moving!" The policewoman barks, wielding a pointed finger and a hefty bosom as though they qualified as riot-gear.

Most people grumble forward as the crowds push and surge behind us. There's nothing so dehumanising as a shuffling queue of bodies. We could be steerage on the Titanic. We could be lining up for bread after the crash. We could be queuing for the fabled 'nice toilets' at Glastonbury.

We decide to double back and sacrifice proximity for space, but when the first policeman turns his back we see the chance to slip through, and we take it. We find ourselves directly opposite one of the firework barges, and spend the rest of the wait congratulating ourselves on our cunning and steadfastly refusing to join the chants started by the alphas in their roof-gardens.

The fireworks, when they come are a half hour of blazing stars and golden trails across the sky. It's probably the most expensive display I've ever seen, but although it's beautiful the crowd's reaction tells me that it wasn't everything they pushed and shoved and planned ahead for. It's the kind of night where you have a longing to be part of something epic - but instead we're all out here in our thousands watching tinsel in the sky. As the guys standing next to me puts it, "I want more... boom." New York is powered by people wanting more boom, people like the people watching the skies tonight, looking for more than Chinese magic tricks. And with citywide unemployment pushing 10%, who couldn't do with just a little more bang for their buck?