Sunday, 19 January 2014

Solitude in January

Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver...
- Gilles Vigneault

January has just never been an enjoyable month for me. In the past, the bad weather and most likely having a nasty cold have got me down, as well as the prospect of handing in essays. Despite being shorter, February has always seemed somehow even worse, so there's always the dreaded advent of that month during January, too. This time - the first January in basically my whole life where I don't have any academic responsibilities - there have been some solid reasons for my slump, which aren't really worth going into on here.

The weather lately has actually been pretty mild; similar to what should be expected in March, I'm told. The temperature has been hovering around -10 and occasionally taking baby steps over 0, so you don't really need to wrap up that much. We had a whole week of ice and nothing else, which means a whole week of just trying to get around without falling over. This is why snow can actually be a welcome relief; it's easier to walk on, and it also means you can do winter activities.

But truth be told, since I got back from winter break I haven't really wanted to do anything except stay indoors and watch stuff on Netflix, read, and write. These things make me feel perfectly content and fulfilled. Maybe some people would be critical - judgemental, even - and say that this is all stuff I could be doing in England, that I need to "get out there". I contest that; nobody can say for sure that I could be doing that in England, as I have several friends in England with full-time jobs who barely get free time nowadays (also, Netflix Canada may not be the greatest, but it totally has stuff that you don't get on the UK/Ireland one...).

I may be in a different country, but my interests remain the same. I'm up for doing new winter activities, just not all the time. To me, winter is not just about embracing the cold and the snow itself, but embracing the excuse to stay in the warm and get a period for self-reflection that you wouldn't normally have. And my apartment is fabulous so you better believe I'm going to make the most of it!

On the other hand, I am craving city life, hard. I miss being able to do whatever I want on a Sunday afternoon: walk into the city and go shopping, see a film or play, eat cuisine from anywhere around the world. And being so far from anywhere that bands I like come to play, I've had to basically forget going to shows, which is usually such a big part of my life. Don't get me wrong, Rimouski is a lovely place, plus it's one of the largest destinations on the programme and I feel very fortunate to be placed here. But lately I keep daydreaming about living somewhere else, which I feel terribly guilty about. It's the first time I have felt like that since being here. Maybe it's because I've been in quite a few huge, diverse cities over the past month (and a huge, diverse city is where I want to be living on a long-term basis).
Yesterday I was talking to a friend back home about my plans after my job here is over, and the more we speculated about it, the more restless I felt. Here I am living a transient life that is entirely separate to the one I've been counting on for a long time. I didn't come here thinking otherwise, it's just that lately I am feeling particularly sad because of it. So my challenge for - well, for however long this feeling lasts - is to strike a balance between making serious plans for what's next and savouring everything that rural Quebec has to offer.

At any rate, I already love my new school. Primary seems to be much more fun, though I'm sure it will present its own challenges with the fullness of time. I have found that the fact I can get there by foot in 15 minutes to change everything; it's unbelievable what fresh air and exercise in the morning can do for your circulation and therefore your general mood (I'm not going to start going on 6am jogs, though). It also means that I can go home for lunch, which is perfect and just makes life so much easier. Again, I want to make the most of that because in my next job I may well have to commute and bring lunch. It's nice to have something so positive to hold onto when a lot of things are just unstable or plain hard at the moment.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Come On! Feel The Illinoise! / Secretly Minnesotan

Overall, this has been a bittersweet holiday season. There have been nice things, but they've been tinged with sadness. I've had to face some hard truths, but simultaneously I've realised I need to be a bit kinder to myself. That means that I need to sometimes maybe not be so ambitious (i.e. when my big plans don't go exactly as I would have liked, I don't call myself a failure). I also need to live within my means; just because I'm on this year away it doesn't give me licence to be an idiot. I need to get real, and pretty soon focus on what's in store for me after Rimouski. Yikes. There some pictures in this post but also a lot of words at the end.

So, I'll start on a positive note: after having a successful makeshift Christmas away from home with other ELAs in the mountains of Quebec, I went on my Midwestern adventure! (The post title references Sufjan Stevens and Tullycraft, respectively.) As I descended into Chicago, right over Lake Michigan and all the skyscrapers, this new feeling came over me. This is a place that had been embedded in my imagination for so long and to see that it was real, to see the actual rooftops and cars of Chicago - an actual place and not just a dream - moved me.

My friend Bobby was at work when I arrived, so I spent the day doing a coffee shop tour in his area, Logan Square. It was certainly my type of place. There was lots of street art, lots of signs and posters in Spanish, it just seemed like a very lively, arty and cool area. My favourite place I went to that day was probably New Wave Coffee. They seemed pretty laid-back about people setting up camp there for hours on end, they did a lot of vegan baked goods, the decor was really cool and they were playing The Shangri-Las.

Foreboding words in the bathroom of Gaslight Coffee Roasters

Logan Square itself, from a barstool at Reno

Later on, we also went to the neighbouring area, Wicker Park, which used to be cool before "yuppie moms with strollers" moved in. Still, there were some awesome places to eat and some good record and book stores.

The next day I ate lunch at Chicago Diner, 'meat-free since '83'. I had the Radical Reuben Sandwich, which the place is known for; it consisted of seitan that was made to look like corned beef, a lot of vegetables, and sweet potato fries. I was pretty stuffed after this, but I felt that I didn't come across such a place everyday, so it was totally appropriate to order dessert. On the server's recommendation, I got a pumpkin spice cheesecake, which I savoured every mouthful of. I wish I had a place like that where I live.

Eventually I made it downtown. I feel like I maybe should have spent more time there, but at this juncture I am trying really hard not to regret anything. I rode the Blue Line and the Loop while listening to Beyoncé, Lana Del Rey and assorted Kinsella bands. It was a perfect afternoon. I walked around Millennium Park, which is where Cloudgate - also known as The Bean - is located. (I realise there are some tone/colour issues on some of these pictures, I accidentally pressed a sepia filter and couldn't switch it off, whatever.)

Later that evening we went to a New Year's Eve party at the house of Bobby's friends, in a more-houses-than-apartments part of Logan Square. I met nice people, the party was a lot of fun, and it was a great way to herald 2014. New Year's Day involved brunch, a movie (Her, which was very good), and calzone at a proper Italian-American restaurant.

Now for part two of the Midwestern adventure: Minneapolis. It took eight hours to get there on the bus, traversing three states (Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota). That journey was quite an experience, thanks to my fellow passengers. When Sarah and her brother Mike picked me up we went straight to a restaurant called Pizza Lucé, which had a hip 1950s style and lots of vegan options on the menu. I went for vegan meatballs and spaghetti, which was excellent.
My stay in Minneapolis was very "foodie". Sarah is vegan and so she showed me all the great places to eat, which I really appreciated. We also visited a couple of local breweries. I can't remember all the names, but a cider one that had recently opened, called Sociable Cider Werks, was absolutely great. We drove around all the different neighbourhoods of the city. I saw the Mississippi River, which is quite a feat for a little English lady, don't you think?

Even though there is only one 100% vegan restaurant in Minneapolis (or MPLS as it's known to locals), it's considered one of the most up-and-coming vegan cities in the US. If an establishment didn't offer vegan options at the very least, it seemed to be in the minority! At The Bad Waitress - where you write down your order and hand it in instead of them coming to your table, hence the name - I had a tofu-based Sloppy Joe's, which is a classic and usually very meaty American sandwich.

The other veggie place we went to was Hard Times Café for a spot of brunch the next day. I had vegan rancheros. I actually had no idea what this was when I ordered it, but decided to take a chance. It's eggs (in this case, tofu) and tortillas, and was very spicy and filling! It was a really interesting little place, kind of divey with a sloping floor, but still totally hygienic and comfortable. Before that, we stopped by at Spyhouse Coffee and I got a gorgeous tea called Evening in Missoula.

On a cultural note, we visited the Walker Center, a cool gallery with an outdoor sculpture park. I also somehow ended up spending $40 on trinkets in the shop. I got a really sweet travel wallet that I did need, though.

Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenburg
View from the bridge that is an exhibition in itself - it has a poem by John Ashbery on it:

We then went to the American Swedish Insitute, which I found fascinating. I am always really interested to learn about immigration patterns; the state of Minnesota is home to the biggest Swedish diaspora in the country. The museum was situated inside this grand mansion built and inhabited by a Swedish family who came to the US with nothing and then made their fortune. It also focused on culture and immigration from other Scandinavian countries! Cool!

I got the opportunity to do a bit of shopping. I bought magazines that I can't usually find, like Bust and Mental Floss, and I went to The Fifth Element, which is this hip-hop record store also selling art supplies. There is quite a thriving hip-hop scene in Minneapolis, y'see. I managed to find two books by Dessa!

So, all in all, the city definitely surpassed my expectations, and I'm really glad I went. The vibe was just so awesome! I was all set to catch the bus back to Chicago and spend more time there before flying back to Quebec City...

...but then disaster struck.

I arrived at the bus station only to be told that all buses had been cancelled for the next four days, and if I wanted to get out of Minneapolis before then, I should get myself to the airport. Sarah was going to be out of town for the next couple of days, so she would not have been able to re-accommodate me. I went to the airport not really knowing what to expect.

This story is long, so I'll try to condense it. When I got to the airport, there were a lot of flight cancellations. People looking to go to just about anywhere you can think of in North America were set to be stranded. It was a mess, there were so many angry and frustrated travellers, queues everywhere. The airline staff were calm and helpful to me, though, and they offered to change my original booking to a more long-winded one - via Toronto - that would at least get me back into Canada quicker. However, it was by no means going to be immediate, so I spent two nights on the floor of the airport. It was fortunate, really, that the Mall of America was about 15 minutes away on the train, so I at least had access to a wide range of food (tried my first Chipotle!). That place was absolutely surreal. I wasn't expecting to enjoy it, but I did.

I finally landed in Toronto, but soon after arriving, I began vomiting everywhere (no joke: it all just spurted out while I was walking along a concourse). I spent that evening in and out of the toilets, unable to even keep water down. Being ill when you're travelling alone and have no idea what is wrong with you is terrifying. Then when I found out the flight to Quebec City was cancelled, I knew this was definitely one of the bleakest days of my life.
The 24 hours that followed that are a repressed memory. Still ill, I ended up taking numerous trains and buses to eventually bring me back to Rimouski. I am so grateful that I happened to encounter kindly strangers who pointed me in the right direction, otherwise I could have been waiting in vain in Toronto for much longer than I did.

So, why all this trouble? It was the inclement weather. At first, I assumed there was just a lot of snow and it was a bit chilly, which made me cross because what made that so different from a normal, functioning day in Canada? I didn't actually know until I got home that the whole thing had a name: the Polar Vortex. At first, I thought someone was using it hyperbolically. It sounds like something out of The Day After Tomorrow, after all (feel free to interchange with some other early-2000's disaster film). Because of all this, I've missed two days of work, and I actually ended up missing my whole first week because I was recovering from this mysterious sickness. Still, I don't think I have ever been so relieved to get home. I couldn't have predicted these disturbances - certainly not at the time I'd planned everything - but I've concluded that as much as I love travelling, I need to give it a rest for a while.

People are always going on about how you should make the most of travelling while you're young, and I can see why. But what if I said that for the moment, I've done quite enough? I have been travelling pretty much constantly over the past two years, in some form or another - whether that's weekends away when I was studying abroad, standalone trips, or just zigzagging between university and home. I'm 22 and I've seen a very good chunk of what Europe has to offer, as well as more of North America in five months than I suspect many people do in a year. These trips have been indescribable, in both good and bad ways, undoubtedly shaping me into who I am. I may not know exactly what I want right now, but each new experience has led me closer to knowing what I don't want, which is arguably more pertinent.

Not staying in one place has become the norm for me, though. I understand what a tremendous privilege it is to be able to say that. However, it does mean that travel has sort of lost its novelty. People generally travel because they want to see something different, get out of their comfort zone.
Yet I feel like I constantly am out of my comfort zone, because that's just an inherent, everyday fact when you're living in a foreign country. Maybe some people would say I'm doing it right, then. But guess what? There is not only one way to live your life. I think it is equally important to get to know your surroundings, feel comfortable in your home and invest in the people who matter. If you're in a rut and need refreshing, naturally it's great if you're able to get away for a little bit; I am just saying that it doesn't apply to everyone. I would absolutely not discourage people from travelling if they have the means and the opportunity, but I don't think it's a good thing to shame people for the fact it might not be the right solution.
I find a lot of blogs press this rhetoric that you have to travel while you're in your twenties and have no commitments, and that you need to stop "making excuses". Screw that, how are you going to enjoy it if you feel pressured into it and then it turns out not to be your thing? And you can't just lump people into two categories. Those two categories would be the fearless thrill-seekers, and then homebodies who will never leave their comfort zone. People and everything that surrounds them are much more complex than that. I'm talking about those quotes like "the world is a book and those who don't travel only see one page". That's pretty self-evident, but what point are you trying to make about those people?

So, no travelling for me until I have some time off in March. But to be honest, right now I cannot even think past tomorrow, let alone two months. I can no longer deal with feeling so burnt out in every way, a feeling that travel invariably yields. Going to places that you get seriously attached to and meeting awesome people whom you're either never going to see again or whom at any rate you can't just text "see you in an hour" to can be heartbreaking. A couple of my closest, most lasting friendships have been formed this way over the years, so I don't regret it. But mostly it makes me feel restless, and not in that romanticised, Tumblr wanderlust way. It just makes me deeply unsatisfied and less capable of appreciating the present. I also can't deal with the potential for things to go wrong - things beyond my control - when there's more than enough chance of that in everyday life. And when you're travelling, the impact of these unexpected wrong things tends to be amplified because you're in an unfamiliar place.

At any rate, there is so much about Chicago that I miss, and there is so much about Chicago that I missed because of the disrupted plans. I wish I had taken more goddamn pictures but I was just doing too much floating around in a state of wonderment to even have pictures cross my mind (also, it was mostly too cold to take my gloves off). I only hope I can visit again someday when the weather is less likely to turn against me. My Ventra card is waiting.