Saturday, July 5, 2008



I. This train is bound for glory...
or at least Vancouver.

It's Thursday, and my window seat gives me a view of the fields. The window on the other side of the aisle, by the seat I want, the one with the Puget Sound, is covered with a curtain.

A whole family has spread itself out, like in a tent, settled in for a nap in the sun. But there is no sun, only grey mist, and my earphones dripping thick sounds of Leonard Cohen into my head.

They have Indian passports and several generations. The grandmother is my seatmate, and her purple silk sari brushes my arm whenever she moves. She burbles and gurgles in a tongue I don't understand, and her daughter is up and down from her own seat to adjust footrests, open packets of food, dispense water, and offer tissues.

When I am old, I will be the Blanche DuBois of train travel...relying on the kindness of strangers to show me how the seat reclines. No daughter will hover over me.

But for now, I am young and free and and moving north, with a train whistle heralding my approach.

II. There are two kinds of travelers. One kind knows things and has seen pictures of things and has read things about their destinations. They are going to strange places in search of the familiar.

The other kind sets out with no itinerary, no plan, no knowledge of the new place. There is a need to be estranged, to start from scratch, to think that a surprise might be around every corner, and on every unknown face.

Sometimes I'm the former. This time I'm the latter.

III. I'm sitting on a low wall at Robson Square, near the Law Courts. Gaggles of attorneys stride by in both directions, pulling rolling briefcases along. It's humid here, and warmer than the forecast had predicted. The men carry their suit jackets over their shoulders on one finger. Sweat is lightly stamped on the backs of their dress shirts, and they don't care. But the women dab constantly at their temples and pull their blouses away from their backs, as they walk fast and look up at the men and never stop smiling.

I wonder what percentage of a Canadian man's Canadian dollar a Canadian woman earns.

IV. I sit in the hotel bar alone at the end of the evening. I have walked and walked and walked, but my head is less fatigued than my body, so I look at the wine menu. I choose a tasting flight of British Columbia reds, and the little glasses are brought to me with olives and smoked almonds. It's a Thursday night, so I'm all alone, except for a couple of businessmen at the bar proper, and the musicians.

The drummer is young, white, and blonde. The guitarist is old, black, and dressed to the nines. He is decked out, from his excellent fedora to his spats, and he knows he looks fine. I'm seated right next to them, and the old man looks at me as he speaks into the microphone: "How are you, young lady?" Oh, candlelight, you lying seductress. I grin at him and tell him I am well--even better, now that I am here and about to hear him play. They do a couple of old jazz standards and forget that I'm there.

I write and sip and think that I might get a fedora before too long...


Rainy Saturdays and big art museums in old buildings are meant for each other. I hit the Vancouver Art Gallery as soon as they opened, because there were two shows I really wanted to see.

I spent the first part of the day on the two floors devoted to "KRAZY!"--a wonderful collection of cartoons, comics, graphic novels, animé, video, and everything in between. It was curated by Art Spiegelman of "MAUS" fame, and it was truly remarkable.

Aside from the fact that I loved it myself, I loved that the spaces were packed with young people who might not otherwise have darkened the doors of a museum...

But the second show was the one I really came for: Zhang Huan's "Altered States"--a retrospective of his work, spanning his first years in China, his move to New York, and then his return to Shanghai.

His most recent work is what caught my fascination. When he returned to China, he started observing people at Buddhist temples. They would signal their devotion by burning incense and then placing the sticks in the sand at the foot of the Buddha. Barrels and barrels of incense ash were produced on a daily basis, and Huan contracted with the temples to haul it away. He now makes large scale sculptures of human forms, using the incense ash.

As he puts it, he is sculpting out of the dreams and wishes of his countrymen, and the sculptures--full of desire and fervent devotion, but soon ashes to ashes--will disintegrate over time.

I sat on a bench and stared and stared. No one else seemed particularly drawn to these sculptures, but I could not take my eyes off of them. They made me cry and smile at the same time.

The train ride home was odd, because I was again swept into an Indian family. The northbound grandmother wore a sari; the southbound grandmother wore a sweater that smelled of mothballs.

Both of them wore brown socks that had the big toe divided from the rest of the sock.

This time I had the Puget Sound window, and beautiful scenery. I saw two bald eagles. I listened to my iPod. I wrote in my little Moleskine cahier.

I came home.

Now I am going to crawl into my very own bed and rest well. I've already got the coffee ground and in the pot for tomorrow. All I have to do is stumble down the stairs, open the door for the Sunday paper, hit "on" and greet the day...

good night, all.

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