A Canadian New Year

For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to focus on minimalism and whittling down my possessions in favor of only those that truly add value to my life. I’ve been trying to learn that it’s possible to appreciate without ownership. My journey toward minimalism is a major work in progress, and a couple weeks ago I got a nice kick-in-the-pants reminder from the guys at The Minimalists with a post called “A Month of Minimalism.” What does this have to do with going places?

Every time I scroll through my photos, I see pictures I’ve taken from trips I keep meaning to write about, but haven’t brought myself around to doing so just yet. So instead, these images are adding to my digital clutter – on my phone, on my computer, in the cloud. I really like some of the images, and others remind me of stories I wanted to tell. But as time passes, the stories fade, and I wonder whether they’re worth telling at all. So today’s post is a little different. I have photos from New Year’s Eve 2014 in Montreal, Canada, and I’m going to post the photos I’ve been saving to share, along with a little tidbit about the photo. No long drawn-out entire trip recaps today. No greater story of connectedness. Just the images I wanted to share, so I can take that digital clutter out of my iPhone, write the story, and then…let it go. Without further ado, I give you:

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I took myself to Montreal, Canada, for New Year’s Eve 2014. Why? I hadn’t left the country all year, and I didn’t want to let an entire year pass by without getting a little use out of my passport. I didn’t have a lot of vacation time, and my finances were a little tight. O Canada it was, nearby, and not requiring plane tickets. While in the states I have successfully avoided such large gatherings as Times Square for NYE, I decided to branch out and try something new in Canada, and I’m not just talking about poutine. I went down to the Old City of Montreal to join 40,000 other people in the freezing cold and blowing snow to watch a concert of music performed in French, which I don’t understand, drinking Canadian rye whisky with a bunch of strangers. The above photo was taken during the concert. I remember everyone being really kind, and the port-a-potties being really, REALLY cold – but it was a really fun experience to have at least once. Probably not more than once.

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On 1 January 2015, hangover intact, my Airbnb host took me to a hot yoga class led by a friend of his. I wanted to start the year off right with some physical and mental activity. The class was in French so I spent much of it just looking at all the other poor souls trying not to fall over, sweating their own hangovers out. After class I hung out in the lobby with the dog pictured above. That’s about what I felt like too.

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My awesome host Benoit owns a cafe on the ground floor of the building I stayed in. Every morning – including New Year’s Day – he prepared delicious food for me, whether we ate upstairs in the apartment while the cafe was closed for the holiday, or I ate downstairs with locals in the shabby-chic Cafe Depanneur. Pictured above is one of the elaborate breakfasts Benoit cooked while the cafe was closed: fresh-cut fruit, crepes, and an egg, tomato, avocado, and cheese sandwich on homemade bread, complete with a latte and one of his Bonsai trees in the background.

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Montreal is named for Mont Royal, the “mountain” in the middle of the city. It’s more like a hill, but the tallest point in the city, and it offers a beautiful view of the city, and lots of trails for walking. Although it was incredibly cold (my weather app actually registered -999* F one day, which was clearly an error, but it felt pretty damn cold) I took a day and “hiked” to the top of Mont Royal. I can only consider it hiking because of the amount of snow on the ground and the fact I needed to wear boots, but the trails were wide and paved. There were loads of people out too – it really made me happy to see so many people enjoying the outdoors, despite the chill.

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Okay, this photo isn’t going to win any awards, but it tells the tale of the first time I tried poutine. As a vegetarian, I wasn’t sure how this was going to work out but I found a poutine restaurant with many vegetarian options and happy vegetarian reviews. I stood in line in the cold for some time awaiting a table. As I finally approached the door, an ambulance wailed up. EMTs and medics ran inside and pushed through the hungry crowd to get to a young woman now seated just ahead of the line to my right. Not speaking French, I had no clue what was going on, but can only assume she either had a seizure or something, or a very bad allergic reaction to an ingredient since she was passed out, and they came in with a defibrillator and all. Still, not one person in line left, and nobody was panicking – very different from what you’d imagine happening at an American restaurant if the ambulance rolled up.

I enjoyed some vegetarian green pepper poutine and a delicious Canadian stout at my table for one shortly thereafter. The beer far outshone the poutine, which I can only liken to breakup food: greasy, heavy, comforting, and simple. Glad to try it, but I won’t be running out of my way to get more anytime soon.

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Here I am, performing at Cafe Depanneur. This was the reason I’d selected the particular apartment I chose on Airbnb. Not only does my host Benoit make delicious food, but he has live music in his cafe all day, every day. I enjoyed performing for a small group of brave Canadians during a bone-chilling snowstorm late one afternoon, and the people really liked it, even though I sang in English. The Blues were really popular in Montreal at the moment so I lucked out, since that’s my usual style.

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After my performance I went to see Luminotherapie, an art installation in the city. Montreal takes art pretty seriously – or perhaps they have more fun with it. These prisms each shine multicolored beams of light, play chimes, and spin around. I ran through the snow with my arms out, spinning an entire row of prisms as I ran past, and laughed as I heard the tinkling of chimes and saw the swirling colors in the falling snow. There were footprints of other adventurers lining the installation but very few people out in the cold and dark. I found a section of virgin snow and decided to make a snow angel to do my part to contribute to the art in Montreal. I can’t recall the last time I made a snow angel, much less in public, in a city in which I don’t speak the language. Brushing off the snow, I had more stops to make since I was now down to my last night in Montreal.

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I had three bars on my list to check out while I was in town. My emailed travel journals had alerted me to a good wine bar, friends had told me about an unmarked cocktail bar hotspot, and the beers I’d had during the past few days led me to a brewery. I took the bus, which, despite the 8″ of snow on the ground and the heavy snow continuing to fall, was still running. Canada doesn’t mess around – there were no snow closures in Montreal. I also managed to hail a cab in French to get me from the cocktail bar to the brewery. I believe the above photo was taken while hoping a cab would come through. I loved the glowing lights hanging across the street, and seeing the headlights rolling down a snow-covered road, showing the city wasn’t the slightest bit dimmed by the weather.

The wine bar was good, but not outstanding. The drinks at the speakeasy were fine, but I don’t think it would have been worth the wait the larger parties in line were subject to (a seat for one was much easier to find). I had the most fun at the brewery, speaking in a tipsy mess of English and French with a waiter who sat next to me and taught me French words and phrases while we drank. The conversation started when he handed me a newspaper section since he saw me sitting alone next to him.

“I don’t speak French, I can’t read it.” I lamented.

“But the pictures don’t need a language.” I accepted the paper. It was the waiter’s 38th birthday and he was celebrating alone, and gave me a gift – not the paper, but the conversation.

I walked home from the bar in the snow, stopping at a Montreal bagel shop – which is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, even in the snow storm – to get some food and warmth. Perhaps “trudged” is a more accurate term, but despite the blowing snow, late hour, and alcohol, I made my way home easily. IMG_1188

Although I have a US passport and had passed back into the country a handful of times before, this was the first time I drove back. The border crossing sign looked pretty intimidating and I couldn’t help but take a picture to remember how imposing it was just to come back to my home country. Getting into Canada had been a little tricky and I almost got arrested for running a stop sign at the crossing since I don’t read French and was trying to read something else, but they eventually laughed at my naïveté and let me through. Going home, the border agent thoroughly inspected my car, including my guitar, asking where I’d bought everything, but finally let me in.

The adventure was over. I’d successfully navigated a new city on my own, learned a few words and phrases in a language which, a week prior, I hadn’t spoken at all, tried a handful of new foods, enjoyed some good drinks, and met some wonderful people. I performed in another country and drove my guitar with me, instead of flying with a travel guitar. My Airbnb host had been incredibly welcoming with food and friendship – he even brought me along to a welcome-home party for a friend of his, where I met tons of people and heard so many languages in one apartment in one night, and I didn’t feel like such an outsider. At one point a group of us all switched to Spanish so we were all speaking second languages.

Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” kept playing on radio stations and in bars during my trip. Despite the cold weather and the language barrier, I was feeling good. I used to have trouble going to the movies by my self, and now I was going to new countries by myself. Canada was kind and welcoming: at one point in the market I dropped my subway card, and anywhere in the States, nobody would have noticed. Instead, I heard a young man calling out, “Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle! Votre cartre!” I didn’t understand, but turned around when he tapped my shoulder to hand my card back.

When I was getting in my car to drive away, the inch of ice on top of the 9″ of snow that fell overnight proved to be more challenging than I’d expected. I also found a parking ticket attached to my windshield under the snow – my first international ticket. I felt pretty accomplished as I then set to the task of rocking the car, digging out the tires, and hoping I’d get out. After about 45 minutes of this, a tall Hasidic Jewish man came out, asked me where in New York I lived, and told me he was from Brooklyn. He told me to get in the car and he’d push – and his strength got my little jeep over the snow and into the road. He waved his big arm at my rearview mirror with a smile and I rolled down the window to wave back in thanks.

Traveling isn’t always about the play-by-play order of events. Sometimes it’s the small moments that all but disappear until a photo or a conversation spark the memory of an adventure that happened along the way. Details become fuzzy with time, and names or faces may be forgotten, but the experience of traveling and what you learn to rely on when you’re alone are what will stay with you.

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