Falling Through Doors

Jun
30

Shadows and cities: things Toronto taught me about Melbourne

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Travel teaches us things about places. While this is not always what compels travellers to buy a ticket to somewhere, to buy a backpack, to buy weird things like money belts and Tilley hats and individual-sized mosquito nets and strong little dysentery pills, it is inevitably what we discover. (It is important to note that not all travel is equal, and that not all travellers are equal, and that not all travellers head to South East Asia for the first time armed with any or all of the above, convinced for some reason that they will spend the ensuing months wearing nothing but sports bras and relaxed fit Lululemon yoga crops – because somehow this trip will be otherwise physically uncomfortable – and having failed to take any precautions against the psychic discomfort that will inevitably ensue.)

As travellers, we pack our bags with all these things and take a plane and arrive at our destination with a rush of exhilaration and fear and think to ourselves Holy crow how weird is this I’m all the way over here like completely on the other side of the map and I can’t believe how different the air smells and feels I wasn’t expecting that. And then we find things. Dragon fruit, for one, or gestures that accompany greetings, or that certain insects are edible, or that sometimes a bus schedule is merely a formality, or that we look strange in the yoga pants. (I won’t go on about it, but it must be said that after these initial revelations, we discover a new kind of loneliness, a new kind of self loathing, a new kind of loss, an uncomfortable negotiation of distance from and proximity to our selves.)

Places teach us things about places. It takes a while to see, but for everything we discover about the places we go to, we learn just as much about the place we’ve come from. Once we have travelled, the places we see are no longer free of comparison, and elements of past places appear in the present, brought back to life and into the moment through memory and association. I think of this as layered transparencies, or as Andre Aciman calls the phenomenon, Shadow Cities. (“Depending on where I sat, or on which corner I moved to within the park, I could be in any of four to five countries and never for a second be in the one I couldn’t avoid hearing, seeing, and smelling. This, I think, is when I started to love, if love is the word for it, New York.” [The New York Review of Books, Dec 1997]).  When I look at Lake Ontario, I am also looking at The Pacific off the coast of Vancouver Island where I grew up, and at the coastline west of Melbourne that crashes beside the Great Ocean Road, and at the small beach in southern Japan where I’d sit and write at dawn on Sundays while friends bobbed like spools and waited for waves. (Let’s be real: I’m also looking at a grey and vastly cold and flat body of water that doesn’t smell like the ocean and whose virtually unused Toronto shoreline is a blatant missed opportunity.) These transparencies teach us not only to remember, but also to contextualize and categorize, and to make sense of how we internalize what lays itself out before us.

Now that I live in Toronto, I realize I am still learning so much about Melbourne, my home for the past four years. It is not that I walk around actively making comparisons; rather, I see or hear shadows of things that teach me more than my four years there could.

Below are a few things I learned about Melbourne after moving to Toronto:

 

People in Melbourne don’t spit.

I don’t just see this sometimes. I see it every time I go out. It’s not just people with colds, people exercising at high intensity, smokers, baseball players, or old-timey people expressing distaste toward one another. It’s women in pretty dresses, it’s men with manicured hands and expensive shoes, it’s people I know, it’s a kid goshdarnit, indoors! I’m sure there are spitters in Melbourne – it’s a big enough city that there’s room for all kinds – but it is not something I would see while walking through the city. It makes me wonder if there was a time in the past that I found it normal. If so, I wish I could return to that state. Maybe then I’d feel less grossed out all the time.

 

Australia, as whole, gets kind of a bad rap.

Here are some things actual Canadians have actually said to me since I’ve returned from Australia, to which I struggled to respond:

“So how did you find Australia? I really liked visiting there – those beaches! – but I don’t know if I could live there. There’s so many things that can kill you!”

“Sorry we never came to visit. I mean, I just don’t know how well it would have gone, you know, since neither of us are white.”

“Was it difficult to be a woman in Australia?”

“You lived in Australia? Wow, so what do you think about this whole crazy Britexit [sic] thing?” (Okay, so that was just a dumb Canadian and had nothing to do with Australia’s reputation, but how could I not include it?)

 

Trams = streetcars / streetcars = trams.

Don’t freak out, people. These are the same thing. They do the same job, their drivers rage in the same ways, they are quaint in the same ways, and they fail in all the same ways as well. In Melbourne, when someone corrects you for referring to it as a streetcar – once they realize to what you could possibly be referring – the tone will be hushed and you will feel admonished.

 

Melbourne can seem less friendly than stereotypically friendly places.

It’s nice to be nice to people, and it’s nice when people are nice to you. And my Melbourne friends are all nice, and it’s nice to hear them say that it is important for them to be nice to others. And they are nice, it’s just that it’s different from Canadian nice – it’s not next level nice. I know that Canadian nice is a stereotype, and I also know that it is the brunt of jokes, both nice and less-nice, but let me just say how nice it is to make eye contact with strangers again, and have people be unexpectedly friendly on the subway, or even to have someone hold the door. And by someone, I mean everyone.

A week before I left Melbourne I was at the streetcar stop (oops!) opposite Flinders Street Station during rush hour. In the crush of people trying to squeeze onto the platform was a young girl of about eleven, wearing her provincial plaid summer school dress, tall socks and Anne-of-Green-Gables-esque straw hat (part of the uniform), shuffling along with all the rat-racers in their black suits, looking hot and beleaguered, a strand of strawberry blond fringe clinging dramatically to her cheek, her enormous backpack nearly toppling her. And as she finally pushed past me and onto the platform, she opened her mouth, looking as if she were about to cry, and suddenly shrieked: Keep moving, c*nts.

 

Melburnians drink from travel coffee cups of a reasonable and dignified size.

Wow. Toronto! Everywhere I go here people are drinking from enormous, 24oz plastic cups (that’s 700ml), through straws, and more often than not it’s some sweet-blended-looking thing topped with something whipped. They look like drinks for giant children. Even a small sized coffee is an anxiety-inducing 12oz. Before arriving, we tried our best to mentally prepare ourselves for the general terribleness of coffee here, but I’d give my cat right now (sorry Furio) for a flat white from anywhere in Brunswick, in an 8oz takeaway cup with a clever stamp on its side. That said, I’m not sure I miss the general coffee snobbery and how far Melbourne is willing to go with its coffee culture.

 

Melbourne ladies can aim.

In Toronto’s public ladies’ loos, it seems that the toilet bowl – yes, ladies, that’s the concave part with the water in it – is simply a suggested termination point for the trajectory of one’s excess water, salt, and nitrogen compounds. I never realized that women in Melbourne don’t pee all over toilet seats until I moved to a place where women do pee all over toilet seats. And by all over I mean ALL OVER, not the errant drop or two that happens to the best of us in moments of haste. Stumbling upon the results of such a laissez-faire urination style makes me wonder how much of themselves they’ve also peed on in the process of transforming a toilet seat into a veritable bird bath. For a population that’s known for its friendliness and consideration towards others, I am shocked to rediscover this. Again, it makes me wonder if there was a time in the past that I found it normal. Again, if so, I wish I could return to that state. Again, maybe then I’d feel less grossed out all the time.

 

Melbourne is a super clean and very attractive place.

It’s true. It may also be true that raising this point is an act of atonement for using the c-word a few minutes ago, but it bears mentioning. I had a dream last night I was riding my bike down Rathdowne St on a late summer day in February. The dry rasp of rustling gum leaves hovered in the air above me. The sky was that acute Australian blue-sky blue and the afternoon sun was glinting of my helmeted dome. I was headed somewhere nice like Fitzroy North or Carlton most likely to get a high-quality 8oz flat white perfectly and pretentiously crafted by a skinny tattooed barista wearing all black. I woke up and thought what a nearly perfect dream it was, and that it could have only been more perfect if the wind had been blowing cinematically through my hair, which it hadn’t been, because in Melbourne, unlike in Toronto, you can get a ticket for that.

 

I’m sure as time moves on and I settle more deeply into my little corner of Toronto there will be more still to learn about Melbourne, and about the other places I’ve lived as well. Perhaps longer still and the transparencies will fade, and nothing around me will look all that new anymore. Toronto will become familiar, and I will have a history here, and for the first time in my life, that prospect doesn’t frighten me in the least.

Jun
23

For Bonnie, Who Went to Bali

FullSizeRender 3When you’re a teenager in a place like Canada, a place like Bali is the epitome of exotic[1]. The first time I ever thought of Bali as a place rather than an abstract concept[2] somewhere near the other side of the world, I was in a remedial[3] math class at Victoria High School in Victoria, BC, sitting opposite my friend Bonnie – the one thing that made Math 11A tolerable – who told me she’d be away for two weeks because her grandmother was taking her to Bali[4].

Bali seemed impossibly far, and impossibly glamorous, and impossibly unlike a place I thought one would go with one’s grandmother[5]. In my head it was the promised land of travel. You could get no further away. It wasn’t Honolulu or Cabo or Anaheim or Fort Lauderdale where other people went at Christmas break to shed the cold of Canadian winter and pretend for a week that resort life was real life[6]. Either way, Bonnie went away and I skipped Math for two weeks.

Then, thirteen years later, I went to Bali. I was no longer a teenager; I was twenty-eight years old, and at that point had travelled for various lengths of time throughout a smattering of countries in Asia and the Middle East[7]. I was living in Australia at that point, which is also a country on the other side of the world from the one in which I grew up, and which is not far from Bali at all. And what that means is that Bali is to Australians what Acapulco is to Americans; that is to say, it is teeming with Australian holiday makers, some there to get a bit of sun, others to get a bit of culture.

My brother and brother-in-law were renting a villa[8] just outside Ubud and asked me to join them for a week or so over Christmas. Since I’d just gone through an ugly breakup[9], the timing was perfect. And so I went and joined them and we did Bali things. We went to the monkey temple and fed tiny bananas to tiny aggressive primates. We rode rented scooters around without helmets, our hair floating dangerously in the breeze. We drank Bintang and cooked with tempeh and snake beans. We had regular massages. We took cooking classes, learning to make delicacies we were all so certain we would make again. We swam in pools and lay and read in the sun. I got so into the spirit of Bali, in fact, that J–, my brother-in-law, and I decided to go together one day[10] to see a spiritual healer.

I know what you’re thinking, and it’s probably something like: groan. There are blog posts a-plenty on my unique and humbling experience getting healed (or finding myself, or finding enlightenment, or being moved by something I don’t quite understand, or finding some kind of truth) in Indonesia (or India, or Thailand, or Tibet). As travellers from the Global North[11], we love this stuff. We love that all we need to do to find spirituality or a life-enriching experience is to leave where we’re from and visit the Global South; countries both cheap and rich in spirituality. As Australian writer Helen Razer eloquently puts it: “It’s not only atheism that disinclines me to this twaddle. It’s the darn assumption that wisdom is as easily and as cheaply acquired in Bali as a knock-off Hermès bag.”[12]

Anyway, the healer. Tjokorda Gde Rai is a Balian/shaman – a traditional Balinese healer. He is in his mid-eighties. He is the grandson of the last king of Ubud. He has been practicing for more than forty years, a period over which he has developed his own technique of first reading a person’s body–mind condition by placing his fingertips on various points on his or her head, followed by a diagnostic assessment via the use of meridians in the feet.[13]

The name Tjokorda Gde Rai floats around Ubud like the rising scent of SPF50 from the shoulders of tourists, and by the time I joined the guys they’d heard his name enough times from travelers and locals and know-it-alls about town that they were more than a little bit curious. Everyone said he was meant to be the best and we viewed this as a good thing, even though we had zero point of reference. Everyone said he doesn’t take appointments, that we’d just have to wait. We went by taxi earlyish one morning to Puri Negari, the royal compound from which he works.

I will give minimal details here[14], and they follow:

We sat and waited. The compound was beautiful and leafy and I saw a kitten I fantasized about pocketing. There was a group of tourists finishing up ahead of us. When it was my turn, I sat on the floor, my legs straight out before me and my back resting against the healer’s legs. He touched points on my head. Some felt fine while others yielded a searing pain[15]. As per his instructions, I then went to sit on a mat. He sat before me, and with a short wooden stick began to apply pressure to points on and between my toes. Again, the pain[16]. I’m not sure if it was the emergence of my inner cynic or the persistence of my physical pain, but I began to grow irritated, telling myself that this was just a show for the white girl; she paid her fee and after a bit of pain she’ll feel like she got her money’s worth. I was feeling pretty over it when he asked me to lie down and, using the same stick, began to trace lines and patterns over my abdomen. He manipulated my hands, interweaved my fingers, pressed my knuckles together. He spoke of a disconnect between my mind and my body. He said the smile thing. I sat up again, and he pressed the stick into the same spots on my feet. No pain. He touched the same parts of my head. No pain. Ta-da! Something had taken place that I didn’t understand. Did this mean I was healed? I was pretty cranky by now, and walked away from him not knowing what to think. I thanked him emphatically and sat down again, irritated. It was J–’s turn. The process began again.

We sat in a cafe afterward, waiting for my brother to pick us up. I asked J– if he felt different. He said he didn’t know, and I said same here. We didn’t speak much to each other, because we couldn’t. I drank some tea and my frustration began to subside.

In the car, my brother asked if we felt different. We bumped along the road, and as I stared out the window and the day approached noon, I began to cry. Heavy, heaving crying. I looked across and J– and he was doing the same, his shoulders shuddering, his cheeks glistening. We sat together in the minivan and cried all the way home. We cried for hours and afterward spent most of the day wordless and aimless, able neither to concentrate nor move with any kind of speed or urgency, showing and feeling no emotion.

I’m not saying that what we experienced was spiritual or profound, but I’m not saying that it wasn’t. Something happened that was outside of our realm of knowledge or experience, and really it was one of two things: he did some massage and release and said a few catch-type phrases, or he did some healing. Either way, we got what we had gone looking for.

 


[1] And since there is no way to use a term like ‘exotic’ without addressing western hegemony and the condemnation of the term in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), I will address it by saying that I was a white, middle class teenager and Bali was super far away and, for what it’s worth, it was the nineties. While the ‘exotic’ and post-colonial western ‘othering’ have come to sit heavy on my shoulders throughout a decade of travel, I was a teenager and had only ever travelled to the states and to see family in Western (oops, there’s that word again!) Europe.

[2]  Possibly a palm tree–shaped island?

[3] They didn’t use that term.

[4] I think the only reason I remember Bonnie’s name, as well as where this conversation took place, was that either shortly before or shortly after she told me this, I coughed unexpectedly and launched a tiny globule of phlegm onto the table between us before I even had a chance to cover my mouth, and Bonnie started laughing like crazy, which in retrospect was extremely generous of her.

[5] My grandmother liked to take me to church, to view her friend Joan’s rose garden, and once a month to the symphony.

[6] I think of an episode of The Office (US) in which Michael Scott, after returning from a holiday at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica, conflates his resort experience with actual Jamaican culture (“I got to see how Jamaicans live. It is great. You know, they just relax, they party all the time”). This, for many, is travel. And if we’re being honest, most voluntary travel represents some form of this very delusion. The cringe is real.

[7] Please pardon the Eurocentric term, but as far as I know there’s no better one yet.

[8] Because in Bali, you can.

[9] On account of me having fallen in love with someone else.

[10] After our morning smoothies.

[11] Including, for now, the Western antipodes.

[12] I recently sent a link to Razer’s article to a friend of mine whom I met and became close friends with while studying in Melbourne. She is originally from India, and one of her biggest pet hates is hearing white people gushing about their life-changing spirit-finding experience during their Panchakarma cleanse or while participating in Holi. The accompanying note I wrote went like: This made me think of you and one of our frequent conversation topics [upside-down smiley face]! She wrote the following back to me: Ha! what a coincidence, I just read this and thought of you [winky smiley face with tongue sticking out]! On a side note: have you thought why you visited India a few years back? As in, I know why, but considering there is so much literature to suggest that most white folks travel to ‘spiritualize’ their lives in India, I wonder what about the genuine ones? Where is their voice? This is where the Messenger thread has been left dangling for nearly two months. I can’t answer. I have no answer. What is ‘genuine’ travel? Simply because I am aware of the grossness of the colonial behavior exhibited by Global North citizens who eat-pray-love throughout South- and South-East Asian countries, does this mean I’m not guilty of it? Why did I travel through India (or, as in this article, Bali)? Maybe I wasn’t fetishizing spirituality, but was I fetishizing something? I didn’t go during Holi, but I did do a cleanse. Is saying it was for “life experience” or “something to write about down the road” any better, really?

[13] Body–mind condition refers to matters of the lymphatic system, memory, anxiety, focus and sense of direction. Through the meridians he can address skeletal condition, vital organs, hormones and matters of the heart.

[14] This is because all you have to do, really, is spend five minutes looking on personal my-healing-journey-type travel posts to get identical accounts of Tjokorda Rai’s process, right down to the thing he seems to tell everyone, the tenuous poignancy of which seems to blow everyone’s mind – the thing about smiling, about taking your smile, about putting your smile in your mouth and about swallowing your smile.

[15] To be clear, this was a contorting of the face, yelling aloud level of pain.

[16] Kicking of legs, gnashing of teeth, pounding of fists, etc.

Jun
08

How to return

Entry 1

I don’t remember anything concrete about the day I left Canada. By the day I left Canada I mean the day that I left and it would accidentally turn out to be a long time before I came back to live in Canada again. I remember that it was my father’s fifty-fifth birthday, that it was late June and therefore Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula was its particular kind of unleavable, and that I only sort of knew what I was doing. In retrospect it was as if I were being led by the hand by an invisible being, or as if I were a migratory creature, going solely by design or magnetism rather than a premeditated urge.

People say things like I gave everything up to do this thing, and now this is the thing that I do. This is admirable. It shows commitment and dedication and all the other good things like willpower, virtue, and positive goal setting. That said, I’m never quite sure which branch of that sentence signifies the giving up. And really, does the giving up happen at the outset?

I booked my flight, I told my father a few weeks before I left, and it’s on your birthday. Does this make me a bad daughter?

 Yes, he said. You’ll have to spoil me next year.

I am back in Canada now. I moved to Toronto last month with a man and a cat. I’m very committed to both of them. My father’s birthday is later this month. He’ll be sixty-five. I’m thirty-three, and it’s only now that I see when the giving up everything happened. It was in the trickle of moments of realization, plotting their way through my consciousness and my journey, methodical and relentless as the passing years.

So suddenly after giving everything up in increments – and in turn replacing it all incrementally with other things – I’m back, and more than one person asks me Now what? until I one day find myself saying to the man and the cat that I think I’ll start a blog. What else is to be done with ten years of wisdom and experiences than to shrink them down until their parts can be easily encapsulated in a series of indulgent online ruminations?

I gave up nothing when I left, by the way. I was twenty-three; what did I have at that point besides Ikea furniture, dangerously blind youth-fuelled confidence and more than a few too many ska CDs? It was as the years passed that I gave up little things, like a shot at early financial stability, for example; or the possibility of having spent my twenties close to home with a husband, one-of-each, and a mortgage; or the deep-seated fantasy that a transient life traversing continents is somehow glamorous (ok so some of it is kinda); or the possibility of going on a holiday without marinating myself in the politics and ethics and guilt of it. For everything I gave up as I moved in, out, through and around about thirty countries over the course of a decade, though, I gained as well. Important things: a man with a sexy antipodean accent, a cat that is now better travelled than most other foundling tabbies, a sense of perpetual unsettledness, and a certain perspective on loss that seems to tell me it almost always results in some kind of gain.