Saturday, October 31, 2009

Travelogue 302 – October 31

I have a headache today. The day is partly cloudy and chilly. 'Partly cloudy' is enough to make one sing: October has been incredibly gloomy. It makes a person without a headache want to sing. A man with a headache takes a break from grading papers to try a coffee cure.

This is a headache of storms. Or is it a headache of arts? Last night I went to a film. The verdict was, great cast, skimpy story. It's 1961. An English teenager, unusually bright, is seduced by a romantic older man who takes her to Paris. Yes, that's about it. The actors give unlikely life to this scarecrow plot, so it is a pleasure to watch, but I can't help wanting more. My friend Rosanne (real name protected in deep code) disagrees. We have to discuss this over drinks.

Outside, the rain has returned. In the light from a street lamp, the shower is driven sideways by a strong wind. I'm on my bicycle tonight. I order another drink, hoping to wait out the shower. This is Uptown on a Friday night: the bar is getting crowded. They're a young set, and fashionable. Tonight fashion is diverted into costumes. Ladies in tin-foiled boxes are dancing. A clown in a boa is laughing too loudly. The bartender has a carnival strongman beard and wears red devil's horns.

Roseanne and I eventually reach a compromise on how to fix the film. She resists giving the seducer any more scenes. But we agree that the teenager needs to present a more compelling case for going back to school. I'm a teacher, and the character has me convinced by the movie's midway point that college is a waste of time. So finding out your lover is a schmuck doesn't lead me to think, 'time for a degree in English literature.'

Sheets of water glow in the street lamp's halo, shifting in waves near a horizontal plane, waves suggesting bedsheets in a gale. The sheets have to sparkle, like shards of water flying through light. Then those bedsheets will look just like rain in a street lamp. The party is gaining the momentum of a storm. By and large, these are university kids, and they have me no more convinced in the efficacy of higher education than the sullen maiden in the British film. Neither the storm inside nor the storm outside will slacken soon. I dress for the ride.

I've ridden only a block when a van darts from the curb into the road and right into the side of a passing taxi. It's so sudden and pointless, it could be comic. But the crunch of impact is drowned in the weather, and the event is dwarfed by a wet, black night. Another few seconds and I would have been sandwiched between the two. I pass by silently. A stunned college boy emerges from the offending vehicle. His van is full of stunned college students. He is directing his vacant stare toward the bashed-in side of the taxi.

The rain has turned into a wet snow, and that adds a random, swirling element to the motion of the bedsheets. The bedsheets are unraveling. By the fourth block or so, I'm soaked. The stream off my back tire has coated my backside with muddy grit. It's a cold sensation. I resign to it. The storm and the night merge and deepen. There is space and dimension, where earlier – before I got on my bike – there were only two dimensions of bad weather, a black and white pixillated screen. Now there is movement and stillness together, silence and muffled city sounds. I cross the river, suspended in the dense autumnal atmosphere over the water. There's no urgency; the season is generous.

The coffee cure isn't working today. Outside the streets are dry. I can cycle home among mild breezes and nurse my headache. I won't have to throw my drenched clothes into the bath tub. I'll be asleep before tonight's wild revelry gets going in my neighborhood: college kids being brilliant.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Travelogue 301 – October 17

Monika has a bright little girl of nine years. Ask her, 'What does one do for fun in Montreal?' Ask a nine year-old who is excited about Halloween, and your answer is the old town. But old town is a code for the Labyrinth. The Labyrinth is a warehouse in the old port that has been converted into a maze for family amusement. And now that it's Halloween season, pirates have taken it over. One bored pirate with decaying teeth and an ill-fitting fright wig takes our money. When there are enough of us enclosed in the first room, another bored pirate with caked black make-up around her eyes gives us the orientation.

I'm ahead of the little girl. I know about the Labyrinth already. I've run by it on my second morning. Across the street from it is the funhouse church, dating back to nineteenth, eighteenth, seventeenth century colonial days. It was founded in 1655 by the city's first teacher, Marguerite Bourgeoys, in later days a saint. The current chapel is largely a nineteenth century creation, with a spire topped by a bronze of the Virgin overlooking the old port, and angels flanking her. The church became a popular repository for the prayers of anxious sailors.

Running further south along the river, you'll pass the domed public market, the Bonsecours Market, that looks more like a city hall than a market. In fact, is was city hall between 1852 and 1878. It also housed the Parliament of United Canada in 1849. Further on is the Montreal Science Center, a massive complex with lots of glass, and featuring a red model of a molecule in front that is great fun to climb on.

On my third day, I run even farther south. I left old town behind and found myself alongside a canal that reminded me of Bath in England. The canal charts a peaceful course underneath huge silos and then red-brick warehouse buildings from another time. There are parks and bike paths.

This canal is the famous Lachine Canal, named after China, the alluring phantom haunting every French captain's dreams in the early days of the Canadian colony. Quebec had been blessed with one of the few major east-west river arteries on the continent. There must be a way here to reach the riches of China and India! First the stubborn river itself had to be conquered. One little hurdle was the series of rapids near Montreal, called the Lachine Rapids. France applied itself to this problem as early as 1689, but could not get a canal built. It took nearly 150 years until the Lachine Canal could be successfully dug and opened for navigation, cutting across the southern corner of Montreal's island. The canal opened for business in 1825. By then, the French were long gone, and locals had succumbed to the sinking feeling that Shanghai was not going to be a destination for their river boats. I ran up the canal as far as the St Gabriel Lock.

The Labyrinth takes up the entire wharfside warehouse, its interior alleyways twisting and turning underneath blank metal walls and ceiling of ancient utility, consuming the vast rectangular floor. The maze is defined by hanging tarps and barrels, playground tunnels and slides, dry ice, ropes, nets and simple ramps. The slides are fun, but I think their primary purpose is to provoke teenage girls to scream and thereby add to the atmosphere.

For Halloween, there are four clues left by ghostly pirates to guide us through the labyrinth, four large rooms with puzzles on the wall. Put the clues together and the kids get prizes at the end of the maze. The fifty or so people in our cohort set off, and it's reminiscent of the Twin Cities Marathon three weeks earlier, in which the runners are herded along streets too narrow for the harrowing mass of them and given barely room to stride. I made the mistake of bringing my backpack. As we crawl through tunnels and thread our bodies through tight bungee cord spider webs, I am the weak link. I'm an even weaker link in the clue rooms, where my sharp-witted companions run all the bases before I take a swing.

At one point, there's a mathematical puzzle that was printed with an error in it that makes it insolvable. Monika and I are dead determined to force a solution, sacrificing the little girl to excruciating, eye-rolling boredom while we go back and forth: 'No, I keep telling you, a and b and c can't add up to nine because then c and d have to be the same number which is impossible.' 'And I keep telling you, a and b and c have to be consecutive, which means they have to be ….' 'Mo-o-o-om,' the girl moans plaintively.

We do emerge eventually into daylight again. The hillbilly teenage pirate behind the final counter graciously allows us the prize for our frustrated efforts in the algebra room, a reflector bear. Monika's girl wears it around her neck as she climbs on the red molecule, while Monika and I recover at the science museum cafe. The late afternoon sun is hanging just above the buildings of downtown, keeping us warm. We're too tired to do old town now.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Travelogue 300 – October 16
Mount Royal

The clouds break just before we reach this little town, and we come in low over rolling hills clothed in vivid fall colors. We glide in over Lake Champlain and swing in an arc below the town of Burlington in order to reach the airport on the east side of town. In the distance are Vermont mountains capped with an early layer of snow.

I have had two layovers, and every town on the way was the same. From Minneapolis to Milwaukee to New York, the country is awash in rain. But the long lake that divides two states and ventures into Canada stands strong against the continental cloud mass. In Burlington, the sun peaks through the shattered gloom.

Monika is waiting for me at the small airport. She has business in town. Monika has business in a lot of crazy places. She works in fair trade coffee. She has the delicate job of balancing needs, supply, and standards among a broad group of very different people: growers in Latin America and Africa and importers / roasters all over North America. Today the business is in Vermont. She packs me in the car among boxes of coffee paraphernalia, and we get on the highway heading north. Jean Francois's is driving. He's a young cafe owner getting some training in Vermont.

The 45th parallel merits a sign on this highway. We're halfway to the North Pole. Soon after, I'm pulling out my passport. It's odd for me to encounter an international border on a highway. I'm usually pulling out the beat document in airports. The last time I crossed this particular border – many years ago – passports weren't necessary. We conduct the bilingual interview of mistrust, get scrutinized, have our papers scrutinized, and we're on our way.

About an hour later, we clear the crest of a gentle hill and enter the broad valley of eastern Canada's great waterway, the Saint Lawrence River. We catch sight the towers of Canada's second city, Montreal. It's dusk by now, and the buildings are indistinct shadows against the backdrop of the mountain which gave the city its name, Mount Royal. It looks like a square-topped pile of rock carpeted with autumn's trees. When I mention to my Canadian hosts that, even on vacation, I have to run long miles every day, Jean Francois suggests I run up the mountain.

We cross a crowded bridge, peeking into Le Ronde from the air. Le Ronde is the city's amusement park, situated on its own little river island. We descend into the city – itself a massive river island, – and scuttle from block to block around inexplicable jams in traffic, into the borough of 'Le Plateau', and come to a halt finally in front of Monika's flat, as night comes on.

We stroll. We eat. We stroll. We drink. 'Le Plateau' reminds me of Park Slope in New York City. In the morning, I get up and test the caliber of the a.m. air, breathing into it and looking for vapors. I bolster my resolve. I suit up, lace my Sauconies, and while the city is still innocent with awakening, I launch into its streets. Launch might be an exaggeration. Let's say 'lurch'. It's chilly, and my joints are stiff.

Crossing the first intersection, I see the early sunlight bathing Mount Royal; the distance seems within my grasp. Jean Francois's words come back to me among the sounds of traffic, and I make a right turn toward the mountain. Now I have a potent goal, and I race along narrow sidewalks lined with signs in French, sidewalks that become increasingly busy. As I engage with the first slope of the mountain, crossing the last streets before park land, I fancy I'm in Montmartre.

There's not another runner in sight. Pedestrians are bundled up and staring at me. I didn't pack any sweat pants, so the long-suffering knees are bare again. The higher I go, the more chill the wind becomes, but now I can't turn back. I must reach something like the top, and indeed I don't turn back until the road crests this spur of the mountain and starts downhill again.

So my first real sightseeing stop in Montreal is a panoramic observation point on the side of the winding road that climbs up the gentle peak. I spot Monika's neighborhood, given away by the green-domed church two blocks from her flat. My gaze sweeps over the skyscrapers, and the flashes of morning light in the river. It takes in the geodesic dome built for the 1967 World Fair Expo. Yes, a regal prospect.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Travelogue 299 – October 11
Unwelcome Guests

Time is always the first to arrive. Time arrives at the birthday party before the host is dressed. Time is the unwelcome guest.

Yesterday morning, we awoke to snow on the ground outside. What? That's more reality than any of us was ready for. I go ahead and dress for running – a few more layers on top, but I have no sweat pants yet – and out the door I go. It's been an ugly month so far. Fall has entered with wind and rain. I've had to toughen up. But snow? 32 degrees?

By the fourth mile, the exposed skin – over the knees, the calves, the thighs – is protesting. By the fifth mile, I'm afraid to stop. The joints might not start again. I'm imagining my odds hitchhiking: sweaty guy with abnormally red face and legs and a dazed expression.

It's fall; it's flu season. The joke and the alarum at college is H1N1, also known by its daintier name, 'the swine flu'. Scarcely a day goes by without emails to faculty about the flu: policy, warnings, advice, and health tips. And admonishments of compassion: some students might take advantage, but be forgiving. Prepare lots of make-up work.

I think I need some make-up work in running. If it's winter already, it's time for Plan B in logging the long miles. I've signed up for a gym, but haven't had time to go more than once. How do people make time for gyms? I had one hour the day that I went. I visited a series of machines randomly. I had no time to shower. What good did that do me?

While teachers are being sent to slaughter in their incubator-classrooms, locked in windowless rooms with rows of sweating microbe factories, the rest of the population is washing their hands and heading for the bars. Minnesota is enjoying a bubble of sports nirvana. The acquisition of Brett Favre yielded exquisite returns as the Vikings trounced the Packers in the most-watched regular-season game in history. And the Twins, after fighting back from a seven-game deficit, meet the Tigers in a one-game tie-breaker that becomes a twelve-inning spectacle. I catch the first six innings at the doomed Metrodome, and the next six innings at the bar, where I join the spectacle, standing and hollering when my favorite rookie, Carlos Gomez, slides across home plate for the final run.

Then I wash my hands.

All that the victory bought the Twins was a charter flight to New York, where less than twenty-four hours later they have to face the well-rested Bronx Bombers. They get blitzed. But in the next game, the Twins push their persecutors into the eleventh inning. (Another late night for teachers with weakened immune systems.)

Tonight we wash our hands, and we watch our boys host the Pinstripers here at home. It's an onerous task. Who doesn't want to smack A-Rod in the supercilious grin sometimes? Who doesn't want to see the big city money machine bog down in a Minnesota marsh? And yet, who isn’t proud to be meeting the Yankees in the playoffs?

Who doesn't root for Joe Mauer with the honest face – the man who was famously cheated out of a double by the foul-line ump? Watch Joe Mauer: ask yourself, how does someone become a catcher? Nine innings in a crouch, making signs in your crotch. How does someone become a teacher? Nine hours on your feet, making indecipherable signs on the blackboard, and saying, ‘Shh’. Such is the inscrutability of life. Wash your hands and it might all come out all right.