The storm before the calm

 

There is a moment of doubt before taking your first pill, your first line of something, your first tightly wound rizla bomb or acid tab. There is, at least the first time, a fractional moment when the possibilities of what may or will happen swim up to the forefront of your mind, suddenly thick with doubt as you lift the narcotic to your lips, the pipe to your mouth, the note to your nostril, whatever. Do you jump? Will it ever be the same?

That moment passes, but is replaced by another soon after. The woozy feeling of the drug’s fingers reaching up through each artery, from the pit of your stomach, driving a flutter to the heart, before reaching your mind: vision swoons and sparks, colours phosphoresce, perceived distance expands and contracts. Before mind and body are taken hostage completely, before you submit to the experience willingly or not, there is a moment again of doubt – tinged this time with panic, or fear. Because now it is in you, and no matter what your poison, you must run the course.

There are other times, other occasions that recall these moments. Moving to a foreign country with nothing but the clothes on your back and a sense of – potentially misplaced – optimism is one of them.

The prospect is exciting from sufficient distance, but looms larger and more real as the date approaches. Practicalities to be ticked-off preclude too much thought. The elation of arriving somewhere new or unusual carries you so far, but after the tourist sights have been seen, after days wandering town drinking small beers and coffees, taking photos of buildings, looking in windows at things you won’t buy, looking at people you won’t – or can’t – talk to, coming back each night to a hotel room, there is an emptiness that quickly grows to fill your days in lieu of anything else.

As adults, we don’t often have the experience of being alone, without friends or contacts. The first day of a new school, first day in a new town – these are experienced usually long ago as children, and at the time come with the support of family and friends from other places. So it was with some surprise that I realised the last time I was in this position, I was nine years old. Of course there’s Skype and email and Facebook, but it’s not the same. It’s at times like these that you realise what social animals we are.

Without purpose, without a social network to hand, with a language barrier and with the days growing shorter, it’s easy to focus only on what isn’t working. And it would be easy to succumb to that, to jack it in and take a route back to easier, familiar ground. But that would serve no purpose. I don’t want the feeling of safety; I’m looking to ride out the need for it, landing the other side. There either will be buried reserves of strength, stamina and optimism that can be tapped, new skills and discoveries that will alter the way I approach the world in the future, or there won’t.

I’ve taken the jump, swallowed the pill. I’m over the wave of panic, and I’m looking up. And I absolutely, categorically, hope everything will never be the same again.

Montreal – a painted city

A minotaur, holding up the Rosemount overpass, Atlas-style

Spending days in a city with no one but the city herself for company goes something like this: wake up, breakfast, pick place on map, and start walking. Fortunately Montreal is a very walkable city.

First thing that struck me was how I’d ended up, again, in Hackney. When I went to see a friend in Barcelona for New Year’s several years ago we stayed in Raval, a down-at-heel barrio filled with Turks and recent immigrants and frequented by the usual low-rent arty types that find themselves in such places. Kebab shops, gyros, bars and haircuts – like Hackney. Then in Madrid, we stayed in Lavapiés, and found it much the same. Now my international tour of Hackney has crossed the Atlantic.

My hotel is on the edge of the Quartier de Specatacles, the museum, art gallery and theatre pedestrianised district east of downtown. Immediately around me is the Latin Quarter, whose latino qualities are either very deeply buried or non-existent, as it is mostly made of restaurants, cafes and bars and shops more reminiscent of Camden. It even has a community of crusty punks that sit around surreptitiously drinking and panhandling by the roadside. To the north, up slight hill is the Plateau, west is the gay village.

weird things on sale in the Latin Quarter

A stroll around on my first day led down Rue St Catherine, an artery that runs through the city for miles. New building sites, cheap eateries, the occasional strip club, grungy bars, art supply shops, galleries, coffee shops and graffiti everywhere left me in no doubt that this meant chalking up another international Hackney stop-off.

At the end of my road is a small square, Place Emilie Gamelin. It has a sloped grassy bank running down to a concrete plaza on which is marked out three checkered boards for playing giant chess. There is a water feature that wells up into three tree-like metal twists atop the hill, and then flows down a channel to a covered gutter at the bottom. Standing at the outflow at the bottom I thought how pleasant it was; the sun shining, the thoughtful men standing around the four-foot high rooks and pawns, chin-in-hand, the music playing from speakers mounted on high poles. I looked at my feet and saw a syringe tumble out of the water channel and bobble around the gutter. Druggies? Urban regeneration? Works of public contemporary art? All very familiar.

Unlike Hackney, however, Montreal is covered in graffiti of a very high standard. No so much grafitti as murals, in fact. Each of the two or three parts of town I’ve been to have a different flavour, some more serene, others more urban, but the quality – and the fact that none have been overwritten by tags – is the same (click on the image to see full-size).

There's quite a lot of this.
Like some kind of zombie Ray Charles
Arabesque grafitti on St Catherine
Back wall of a jazz club

Some are recognisably urban. Some are pretty bizarre. Some are just pretty. Some make no sense whatsoever.

I'm not sure what's going on here. Seeing as it's a Portuguese chicken shop, perhaps they're trying to tie Megallan's voyages with.. the discovery of the chicken? I'm not sure.
My friend Isabel warned me to "look out for Racoons",
I wonder if she meant this wacked out bunch
Winter scene in the Latin Quarter
Summer scene in the Latin Quarter
Grafitti with a Swan Lake vibe, in the Plateau
A loading bay painted with surreal, twisting scenes.

There’s also some Parisianesque details – these streetlamps have a certain Belle Epoque feel to them:

Parisian-esque street furniture? Or just wishful thinking.

I also like the mix of new and old. I’ve only walked through it quickly, but the Old Port dates from the 1700s and has a lot of massive limestone edifices with Greek-temple style architectural features, plinths, columns, and so on:

 

Everything later than about the 1950s looks very modern, practical and largely uninspired. I don’t really have a picture that captures it precisely, but there’s something about the houses built in the 19th century that makes them pretty much all look like something out of the Munsters or the Adams Family – all neo-gothic bricks and tiles, pointy roofs and oh honey, let’s have another turret:

We want classical. No, Gothic. Wait, fuckit, put it all in.
Like a brightly painted Scarborough, or something
Would have been interesting to see how that one
got past the planning committee.

I’ll keep looking to bring you the ultimate in Adams Family real estate…

 

 

On leaving town

The view from my window - my international tour of Hackney continues...

Waking up in the morning and realising that today is the day that you pack your life into a handful of bags and move to a foreign country is a fairly odd experience.

Months of talking about it, referring to it, explaining it to others using the same stock phrases and expressions, the same practised nuanced shrugs, gives way suddenly to actually doing it; actually packing, actually printing boarding cards, actually hurrying to the airport and actually panicking a little as what you’ve done seeps in.

Having to run from Liverpool Street station to London Bridge carrying three heavy bags while wearing para boots and a parka on a warm day because of traffic didn’t help.

Things looked up when I found myself sitting next to an attractive young francophone lady on the plane, but after starting a conversation with her she then said something in French to the stewardess and was promptly moved to a spare seat over the way. I tried not to take it to heart, and instead chatted to Jules, a 20-something photographer, snowboarder and chef from Montreal who had been visiting his girlfriend in Brighton. Would he be staying in Montreal for a while? “Hell no, it’s freezing. I’m heading to Vancouver in October,” he said. I tried not to take it to heart.

The flight passed without incident, apart from a beautiful view of Greenland through gaps in the clouds which the captain was kind enough to point out to all of us engrossed in watching Thor, the film showing at the time. I can safely say that I believe I enjoyed Thor much more because I couldn’t hear the dialogue. Greenland was a vast sea of white, with mountainous peaks jutting up through the ice sheet. What you expected to see, in other words, but impressive nonetheless. You could see the snowboarder in Jules thinking, “Whoah, great fresh powder, man”, or whatever it is boarders say.

Banking in low over the city, Montreal spreads a long way out. I haven’t been to North America since 1998, when I flew to and from Los Angeles en route to Mexico. There are similarities – you get the same grid of streets that are everywhere in the new world, and always look alien to my European eyes. You get the street blocks of flats, familiar to us only from countless scenes in crime films or The Wire, and reminiscent of our tower blocks until you see them up close. There’s the remnants of the Olympic stadium from the 1960s, which looks so deliberately space-agey and ’60s that it looks like a prop from Barbarella.

The immigration officer at Montreal airport (IATA code: YUL. Obviously they’d run out of relevant letters) gives me one of the grim stoney-faced looks as all border guards around the world are trained to do. He asks a lot of questions about where I’m going, who I am, what I do and why I don’t have a return ticket. He writes down things on a pad of paper. He taps on a computer and looks at a screen I can’t see. Is he checking I work for The Big Issue? Is he looking for previous articles I have written? Or is he just playing solitaire? Eventually my tale of visiting relatives across the continent in Michigan and British Columbia and a print out of my bank balance is enough to convince him to let me in. A few cubicles down, an elderly Indian gent is getting obstreperous about being made to wait, shouting “I’m a senior citizen, don’t harass me”, while harassing the immigration officers.

There’s a shuttle bus to the centre of town for a mere $8, which gets you a day-pass around town like a London travelcard. From the outskirts of town to the west, the bus cruises past insane North American style road mega-junctions, with a dozen freeways on 50ft stilts arcing through air under and over each other. Birmingham’s spaghetti junction has nothing on this. We run past decaying factories smeared in graffiti and youf statements (‘fuck tha police’), through to former factories now converted to warehouse apartments, and onto main streets lined with little wooden-fronted Victorian town houses. We cross intersections inhabited by either vast, glass and steel downtown skyscrapers or old colonial churches, carrying copper-green domes. Montreal and Quebec City are among the oldest cities on the continent.

My hotel is at the end of the line – the bus station. My hotel reminds me of the scenes set in New Orleans in the film Angelheart – all darkly painted wood and twisting stairs, over-the-top plasterwork around the ceilings and wonky floors. It’s 7pm local time, midnight UK time. I’ve been up for about 17 hours since 6am. I’m speaking French to people who apparently understand me, because they speak French back – more than I get in France.

Time for a shower, an explore, and to find out what piss passes for beer around these parts.