Sunday, March 19

Roll Bus Roll | Montréal, QC

We're standing by a snowy roadside in the middle of rural Canada, halfway along an eight-hour Greyhound bus journey from Toronto to Montreal. It's early afternoon on Friday, and the bus driver looks like one of my secondary school History teachers.

Endless, empty suburbs ripple out from Toronto, and then the surroundings get wilder and snowier. This roadside stop is straight out of Twin Peaks, the interior clad with wood, one wall brightly pink with candy bars. On a doilied side table stands a glass jug of freshly brewed filter coffee, which you pour into a polystyrene cup for about $1.24. I drink it while listening to Lambchop's Is A Woman record, as white fields billow past the bus window. It tastes good.

We have five days in Montreal. We arrive late at night to a bus station that feels more Paris than Canada, catch the metro to our airbnb, and eat hummus in front of a terrible Christmas film. We're staying in a ground floor studio, a snowy nest, perfect in its smallness. I come to love boiling water for tea on the portable hob, setting up camp on the sofa bed, turning on the lamps.

On the morning of Christmas Eve the square window frames a quiet, heavy snowfall and we run in it, the muffled thud of our trainers the only sound for streets and streets. The squeak-crunch of fresh snow under our feet, around Parc Jarry where the pond water is camouflaged white, I write. Il neige, il neige. There are other runners but otherwise it is deeply still. 

We meet Suzie, a friend studying abroad in Montreal, in a supermarket west of the city, conduct an abbreviated version of the grocery shopping I'd normally be doing with Mum right now, walk Suzie's three legged dog Benny, examine giant icicles, and warm up with McDonalds coffee. Later that evening there are free fireworks in the Old Port; after the show, promoters hand out complimentary hot chocolate and we bob round caged fires to keep warm. The moat is a natural ice rink and a confident blur of limbs and hats passes under Christmas lights. But the ice creeps up through my boot soles and even the overhead heaters and furry benches aren't enough. We find a blues bar playing The Killers' Christmas songs, where a Frenchman pays for our pitcher of sangria, and a New Yorker talks to us for a while. On the way back to the metro Lizze loses her earring in the snow. We sing Fairytale of New York all the way home and watch A Christmassy Ted until late; some Christmas traditions can never be eschewed.

Christmas Day 3242 miles from home was always going to be strange. The snowfall of Christmas Eve glitters brilliantly in the hard sunshine of the following day. It is -11 degrees outside, but we're warm in our nest with fresh coffee and Christmas cake. Christmas morning is all hair washing and strange phone calls home, tears, Christmas music, and a short venture outside. It's the coldest temperature I've ever physically experienced, so cold that even power walking doesn't curtail the shivering. But the streets are bright with sun and snow, the air full of pealing bells from all the neighbourhood churches.

We catch a surprisingly busy metro to Suzie's and cook potatoes, carrots, and gravy. There's panettone, stollen and yule log, too, and The Grinch. I call home. Mum's voice sounds further away than normal and I can't imagine the usual home festivities continuing without me; it seems more likely that the household has been left on pause until I return.

Boxing Day is a near death experience. It doesn't start out that way: we sleep late, drink coffee in bed, read. But then we go outside. It's overcast and raining, except on a cold winter's day in Montreal, harmless rain will immediately turn to lethal ice. Literal hard-rain's-a-gonna-fall. The pavements are pathways to death, or at the very least, humiliation. It begins as soon as we exit the metro station in the centre of the city; the pavement slopes, and Lizze is flat on her back. We're aiming to climb Mont-Royal, but as the streets lift to meet the hill, walking becomes increasingly difficult. Cars rev frantically, wheels spinning into a blur without getting anywhere, their screeches audible from every street. At the border of the park where the snow is still thick, I resort to descending icy stone steps on my ass. Time to give up on the Mont-Royal expedition, except we now have to traverse back down the hill to the city. The rain's been steadily falling and freezing this whole time. Every so often you hear a sudden thud, a gasp, and an onlooker's intake of breath, as another soul succumbs to the ice and goes ass-over-tits. A real life Youtube compilation video of people falling over. It'd be funny, except we can only proceed at the slowest pace, my feet are so cold I could cry, and we're bone-drenched with icy water.

When we finally find an entrance to Montreal's famed 'underground city', it's like stepping through a door into another world. Here, beneath the city's perilous streets, hundreds of warm, dry humans walk with ease through shops and cafes. It is only the relief from the freezing rain that makes me appreciate these underground consumerist labyrinths though. Because that's all they are, malls linked by tunnels, inhabited by crazed shoppers on a Boxing Day binge.

Back at home, after another laboured, treacherous walk from metro station to apartment, we recover with a cheese, wine, and chocolate floor picnic. Suzie joins us, I dance to Springsteen in my thermals, and Lizze teaches me some acro yoga.

It's our last day in Montreal, and the worst of the ice has thawed, so we're able to walk up to the top of Mont-Royal. In the park we pass skaters and snow-tubers, bold squirrels and people out running. Suzie's made us sandwiches which we eat inside the Chalet du Mont-Royal. The view out across downtown is impressive, but after five days in Canada the cold has completely infiltrated my bones. There's a wooden staircase, orange against the black and white landscape, leading all the way back down into the city, where we warm up in a hip coffee shop. Later in the evening we catch a bus to the Cinema Dollare, where, yes, all tickets and snacks cost just a dollar. Take note, London!

After the movie, Lizze and I hotfoot it to the bus station, and almost miss our overnight Greyhound to New York.

* * *

Roll bus roll, take me off
A rolled sweatshirt makes the window soft
If I fall asleep, don't wake me up
Roll bus roll, take me up

I wasn't designed to move so fast
I wasn't designed to have so much past
And in my mind's eye they all have so much fun
Nowhere to hide and nowhere to run

Sunday, February 19

Roll Bus Roll | Toronto, ON

The snow appears somewhere in upstate New York, around midnight. We're stopped at a service station, the buildings invisible in the inky December night, where the bus driver lights a cigarette and other road travellers chew sleepily on burgers. The pretzel booth is closed, and outside the air is whip-sharp. In neat sections between the building and the bus lies white, unspoilt snow: unspoilt not because it is fresh, but because it has frozen solid and is not worth standing on. It is the first snow I've seen in a few years, London's annual three flakes not counted. I take a blurry photograph, which I later delete; our twenty minutes are up. We return to the bus and sleep all the way to Canada.

In Toronto, snow is part of the colour scheme, falling neatly into its retro-rusted aesthetic; orange, yellow, washed blue, hues that look like sun-faded colour polaroids. As the bus skirts Lake Ontario and buildings climb up either side of the road, I wake, travel pillow askew on my shoulders, and look out at wide expanses of snow between water and skyscrapers. Somebody once described Toronto to me as a more compact New York. After two days walking the city I begin to understand this observation, but from the early morning bus window, where everything is cast white, blue and grey, the city looks too modern to be New York.

Rarely mentioned are the more tedious parts of travelling: getting off an overnight bus with unbrushed teeth and a heavy backpack; a strong desire to go to bed battling your sightseeing plans; trying to find a bank and get your phone to work in a new country; all while conscious of how many hours you've been wearing the same clothes and how your skin feels like a stale raisin. Everything itches, and you're sitting in a strange new room, listening to dustbin lids outside and a dog barking and from downstairs, inexplicably, the Downton Abbey theme tune.

Then you go to the bathroom to throw cold water on your face and you see a poster of Springsteen on the wall and suddenly, overwhelmingly, you feel at home. And before you know it you're in a coffee shop on a street near Kensington Market, drinking a cardamom spiced latte and looking out at the snow-covered triangular Toronto roofs, while James Brown sings something about Christmas. Your teeth are clean and the world seems right again.

It is December twenty-first. Kensington Market is clustered with old buildings painted aqua and burgundy, and shops with names like 'Cheese Magic'. People eat tacos in a bright corner restaurant, step out of butchers and grocers with Christmas food, wander along colourful facades in small groups. A gift shop ripples with last-minute shoppers, Toronto tea towels, and dog-shaped cushions. The streets are scrubbed a flat, wet grey and outlined with thin trails of snow, the sky low. We're not cold yet.

North-east of Kensington Market is the University of Toronto campus. The smudged-beige brick buildings with their arched windows look Georgian, London-ish, and in this snow, yes, like Hogwarts. Nobody is about. A black squirrel occasionally flickers up or down a tree. I learn that one of my boots isn't as snow-proof as I'd thought.

There seems to be a pattern to these colder climes, where around three o'clock every afternoon the freezing air sharpens to a denser grey and curves itself inside your bones. Time for a cup of Tim Horton's coffee a few blocks south.

Every Wednesday evening from six until nine, Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario offers free entry. It happens to be Wednesday, so we go; in north America, art gallery and museum admission is akin to the price of theatre tickets, and I'm mourning London's standard free entry. Just after six we join the queue bordering the front of the building. I find Hockney straight away, and a whole exhibition on Canadian art. We climb a wooden spiral staircase all the way up to the top floor, level with Toronto's vertical cluster of lights, and lie on giant bean bags in a film room where we're captivated by Francis Alÿs' Reel/Unreel. Bus tiredness and museum legs combined, though, means it's not long before we're back outside in search of poutine.

Poutine. Chips, gravy, cheese, hot and velvet and salty, the kind of food I haven't found since leaving England. Each forkful into the cardboard box is heaven and home and the best thing I have ever eaten (though I feel this way about a lot of food). 'It's like eating the equivalent of a hot water bottle,' says Lizze afterwards. As we step back outside, snow has begun to fall, silently and gently, the first snowfall we've seen in years, and we're buoyed home by childish excitement, catching snowflakes on our tongues, spinning in the streets.

Thursday the sky is bluer and we walk the city from west to east, ending up at the St Lawrence food market for pierogi and knish and almond pretzels. Close by is Toronto's distillery district. Its tall red brick industrial buildings and cobbled streets, so familiar to my English eyes, are now flats and restaurants, but today it is the final day of the Christmas market and the space is thick with woolly-hatted Canadians. Everybody's eating something: the Campbell's soup queue is enormous, and there are people clutching wobbling funnel cake, boxes of poutine, or, more strangely, whole turkey legs. It's the first Christmas market I've been to where the snow isn't fake.

After black sesame lattes at Tandem Coffee we walk down to Lake Ontario, where the ice has been cut up into triangles. At the water's edge we watch planes land at the city's precariously placed airport and imagine what it'd be like here in summer. My feet are freezing. Snow on snow on snow. Back towards the city centre the streets are damp, the snow melted by cars, surges of people from the train stations, and the warm bellies of buildings. Skyscrapers turn from teal to golden to purple. We're at the ice rink in Nathan Phillips Square and skaters pass in front of the giant white letters of the TORONTO illumination. There're no side rails to Canadian ice rinks: separates the wheat from the chaff.

I buy Lizze a hat for Christmas, and we head through Chinatown where we spontaneously try dried persimmon (I still can't decide if I like it or not) and find a 'British-style' pub near the university campus. I'm used to the reservedness of true British pubs so it seems striking how bold and forward guys are here. The first man is either very drunk, very dull, or very deaf; then a Bud Lite promoter gives us free beers and we accidentally gatecrash a high school reunion. Later Lizze tells me that as the high school guys were approaching us, she overheard the words 'follow my lead', and we laugh all the way home (via a steamed-up Jamaican late night diner for fried plantain).

Roll bus roll, take me off
A rolled sweatshirt makes the window soft
If I fall asleep, don't wake me up
Roll bus roll, take me up

If I get one seat, I hope it's the window
And if I get two seats I'll just lie down
But if I get one seat and it's just the aisle
I'll still be asleep before the hundredth mile

*   *    *

FIKA Cafe  |  28 Kensington Ave
Kensington Market
University of Toronto
Art Gallery of Ontario  |  317 Dundas St W
Smoke's Poutinerie  |  578 Queen St W
St Lawrence Market  |  93 Front St E
Distillery District
Tandem Coffee  |  368 King St E
3D Toronto sign  |  Nathan Phillips Square
Madison Avenue Pub  |  14 Madison Ave
Sonic Boom Records  |  215 Spadina Ave

Saturday, January 14

Roll Bus Roll | Baltimore, MD (i)

Baltimore, Maryland: Charm City or dangerous drug hole, you decide. What you already know of Baltimore is made of other people's perceptions. You know it's one of America's most violent cities; but you don't know that Edgar Allan Poe lived there, is buried there. You know it's basically The Wire, but you don't know about how the sunset hovers over the water of the Inner Harbor. You know you can't roam streets the same way you're used to in London, but you don't know about the strings of colourful porch-lined houses that remind you of Portobello Road, the city's free bus service, Hampden with its hipster creameries and rainbow'd doorways, or the stately Peabody Library.

Baltimore, Washington DC's unpopular neighbour. Baltimore, where there's some streets you just don't walk down at night, at day, ever. Baltimore, sweltering summers and freeze-your-ass-off winters. Baltimore, home to great ice cream, the Baltimore Bomb pie, Papermoon diner, the beautiful Johns Hopkins campus, and a thriving local music and arts scene. Baltimore, you aren't so bad.

'Baltimore? Why?' My history professor is a little incredulous when he discovers I'm spending some of winter break in his home city. He later defends his turf. 'I'd move back there any time,' he tells me, amid recommendations for bars and museums. I trust him, but others are less charitable. On the plane from Oakland I talk with a Berkeley PhD student flying home for Christmas, who tells me about Maryland's beautiful undulating farmland, scenery which on a later bus ride reminds me strongly of Devon. 'Baltimore, though.' He pulls a face. 'I'm sorry you have to experience that.' But I decide to remain open minded. Future Islands, one of my favourite bands and proud Baltimoreans, staunchly defend their city. Keyboardist Gerritt Welmers describes it as an 'underdog city'. 'It's a terrifying place sometimes,' he says, 'but because it is that way I think it brings everyone together.'

Terrifying's a good word for my first few hours in Baltimore. The baggage takes its sweet time from plane to arrivals belt, and it's late evening when I eventually step out of the quiet airport to the light rail platform. The cold air is a fist on my chest. Though the cheapest airport-to-city transport I've ever experienced ($1.70 for a single fare, unlike Oakland International's steep $8 connection to the BART), the light rail is also the most nauseating; it twists unsteadily through a darkened landscape before plunging into the city. From the window I see icy sidewalks - it snowed recently - and steam buffeting from grates in the streets. There are boarded-up windows, and not many people about. A shadow here and there, on a street corner, hunched at a bus stop. I pull my bags tighter around me, remembering all the adjectives I've heard bestowed on the city: sketchy, violent, terrifying, cold.

The five minute walk between the rail station and the bus stop is kind of perilous. I'm in a quiet part slightly west of the city and apparently west is bad; it's dark; street lights are few and shadowed nooks plenty; I'm not sure where I'm going; and the ground is slippery white. I can't find the bus stop. I walk up and down the same block multiple times, something I really hoped I wouldn't end up doing. I'm lost on a bridge over the railway tracks in thick ice and there's nobody around except a homeless guy and a few people drifting in and out of bars. All of my valuables are on me. This is an interesting situation. Then suddenly a great lick of warm yellow light and the bus is here, and before I know it I'm up the road and safe inside Lizze's apartment.

California doesn't lend itself well to the kind of festive feeling I'm used to, but in these colder eastern climes Christmas is unavoidable. I cave, hard. Eggnog, pumpkin cookies, mulled wine, lights, decorations, shopping; the season is crammed into these last few days of December. Baltimore is bright and cold the day we catch the 'Charm City Circulator' - the city's free bus route - down to the water. Inner Harbor is a mix of high street stores, small malls, boats and bridges. I've heard there's a Shake Shack nearby. We wander the tented Christmas village and I buy woollen boot socks for Canada. The city's seasonal ice rink is small and sad compared to Somerset House, Union Square, Central Park, but as we skirt the water's edge the old industrial brick buildings glow brightly in the late afternoon sun. It's a long way out across the water to the Domino sugar factory the other side. I saw the giant red neon Domino sign from the light rail that first night.

By the time we've reached Fell's Point, dark is falling swiftly. I can't feel my fingertips. Fell's Point is pretty, lined with lights and bars. We buy the biggest bottle of wine to mull back in the apartment.

North of the city lies Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, a cosier student bubble buffered by Hampden, Wyman Park, Druid Hill Park, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. The campus is the opposite of Berkeley: the attractive red brick buildings all match, there are neat tree-lined quads,and it is very quiet. I later learn that this campus architecture is unusual for a historic American college: most were built in the 'Collegiate Gothic' style, unlike Hopkins, which is more attuned to its federal locality.

On long runs around the campus' surrounding neighbourhood I notice the buildings are older, a little more elegant. Neat terraces and larger detached houses with verandas and rolling lawns sit between patches of woodland and fields, and I'm reminded of middle-class villages in Surrey. It's calmer and grander here, and Hampden, home to unique shops, eateries, and local festivals, is well worth wandering. But there are still patches and streets you avoid. Like the Minesweeper game, venture too far north, south, east, west, and it doesn't feel so good.

The parks are pretty, though. I think of how the trees must've looked in autumn. We run in all conditions: black ice, mud, subzero temperatures, sun, snow. Circling Druid Lake one cloudless afternoon, my legs are completely numb, but all of Baltimore stretches away to my right, I've got saxophone playing in my ears, and this is the furthest distance I've ever run. It feels good.