Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Shackled to the road

Getting up at 6AM is never going to be an easy thing. I'm just not one of those people. It turns out neither are Sam, Dicky Peach and Alex, who all decided an all-nighter was the easiest way to ensure they all made the bus to Springfield. Ahead of us, in the midst of delirium brought upon by a lack of sleep, was a 10 hour bus trip.

We were heading north to Montreal, Canada, a place I absolutely loved three and a half years ago. The bus detoured through Northampton, something Peach was able to point out due to the throng of purple houses. After making it to Springfield within the hour, we faced an hour and a half wait there equipped with the finest breakfast Subway and Dunkin' Donuts can provide. Restroom visits were limited by the occupier of one toilet stall who it was said was having a "turbulent shit, a gale force poo". Lovely. Anyone who has ever been to Springfield knows there are few reasons to stay, we just found more to leave. In fact, we were so keen to leave that Alex's rapid exit to the bus involved him shutting a door onto Sam...who was carrying a cup of tea at the time. All this and we hadn't even left western Massachusetts.

By the time we had reached Keene, New Hampshire, I was dozing in and out of sleep. I was listening to Henry Rollins' audiobook, Get in the Van, at the time. See, I had never listened to one before, and despite Henry's fantastic delivery, the format is too one dimensional for my liking. It lacks the nuance, diversity and depth that listening to music offers. It probably aided in my kips, and unfortunately for the format, skipping sections of a book has larger ramifications for skipping a song on an album. Still, I did enjoy Henry's quote about life abroad for an American; "you're not an american until you leave America. I'd rather be a human being, than American".

It was an interesting outlook as the bus travelled up to Vermont. The journey snaked through Bellow's Falls, a place that could be a picturesque town by the river, but is instead a red-brick clusterfuck with the occasional abandoned building by the train lines. It's beautiful in its own John Steinbeck inspired way, and as far removed from the coastal Californian towns I was encountering only a few months ago. Still, I was glad to see it. It's just as important a picture of America as the Manhattan skyscrapers. Henry Rollins' commentary only added to the scenery.

From Bellow's Falls the bus went to Montpelier, Vermont's capital city, remarkable for its large buildings and tiny population. The city was isolated among the forests where we saw fully equipped hunters enter. Teenagers were making-out out the front of the Vermont State House and after a 5 minute round trip, we were done with America's smallest capital city.

Before we crossed the border into the land of Canadian maple flavoured love, a low-key sign pointed out the midpoint between the Equator and North Pole. It might be something homesick Canucks take advantage of everyday, but for someone who has spent the best part of 23 years in Wollongong, Australia, it is nice to see reminders of how far I've come, at least physically.

The border crossing was a painless as the vaccinations I received the other day. It's a welcome change from the American method of dealing with visitors, but it also represents the simple differences between the lands. America is protecting itself, put simply, not all visitors are welcome, and for a very small minority, it is probably right. Whereas Canada, despite the proximity takes a more relaxed approach to welcoming guests. It's a remarkable turn of friendliness for nation that prides itself on beating people up while wearing ice skates and hitting frozen chunks of rubber.

Passing Loblaws was a kick for an Arrested Development fan like myself, but it was nothing life stepping off the bus back into Montreal. The hostel was a converted hotel, but proof that with enough love, care and attention to detail budget accommodation can be impressive. The finer points of staying in a hostel were lost on Alex, who immediately locked his key in his locker...with all of his stuff. It was a sign of things to come for him.

We trekked up and down Rue St Denis, looking for places to ascertain cash, beer and poutine. There were some initial troubles, but it wasn't long before we were sat around a table at Double Pizza, the place I had first tried poutine a few years back.
Sam's trick

The poutine was lovely, even if I could feel my arteries closing in on themselves. The attempt to 'walk it off' was rather futile, as we made it one block to a lovely pub that was showing ice-hockey. Not wanting to be rude, I did my best to order in French, however hearing thank-you once you've given a tip is a little belittling.   A few pints and goals led us to a microbrewery. Inside the pitchers of amber, blonde and white beer flowed. The price was inflated compared to America, but the standard was outstanding. More impressive was how none of us were checked for identification. It was a liberating and beautiful thing after dealing with the laws and bars of America. It was akin to having a few drinks with friends, not going out to get trolleyed. It was like home, and for once, I thought it was a good thing. Better yet, the bar staff working for tips seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the service. There was no sense of entitlement, and appropriately, the rewards were easier to prise from the pocket.

Around the corner was a bar that seemed to cater to a younger crowd, and given we were spending time in America's hat to take advantage of their more youthful drinking laws, we plodded along in that direction. The security guard finally asked us for identification, but made our acquaintance by talking about football. Inside the indie rock blared and the pretty girls poured in. Alex made a dash to the bus station to get back so that he made it back in time for midnight. When the clock struck twelve Peach began his 21st year. His new found maturity and bravado saw him talk to any and every girl in the bar. The language barrier was ignored, replaced with pure graft and red-nosed charm.
trois litre

It was Sam's round for pitchers, and it was both unfortunate and a pleasant surprise. He returned to the table saying he needed more money, odd given he left with more than $20, and we all obliged him our changed. In exchange he returned with a 3ltr vessel that dwarfed him and the table. Richard's liquid charm snared him an english speaker, while Alex's lack of French (and attempts at drawing) didn't quite work out. I came across my sabre-toothed equivalent, but the beers had taken their effect. Bed time beckoned I had things to do and people to see.

My early start never quite materialised and given my international phone troubles, meeting up with Anthea before she left for New York took a Herculean effort. Or not, I happened to find a working phone and called her at someone else's expense. Within the hour I was showered, dressed and taken to Mont Royal by the subway. I left behind a room full of compadres who were all partied out.

Seeing Anthea was fantastic. We'd exchanged letters since she moved to Montreal, but it all pales in comparison to actually spending time together. Given that I grew up around her and always thought of her more as family than friend, it was slightly surreal to spend time with her in Canada.

She took me to a hipster cafe for breakfast, and as the menu was only in French, impressed me with her ordering. The food was delicious and the company exquisite. We spent the rest of the time wandering around the plateau, with her showing me some of the cooler, hipster-bicycle-loving parts of the city.

I made it back to the hostel in the afternoon, but it wasn't until late that the others began to rise. After some rousing, Sam Diego and I went for a mini wander around downtown. Sam had never had Lebanese food so we stopped for falafel and vine leaves, not knowing we would be around the same store in a few hours time. Grinderman were playing up the road, and again, one thing Canadians do better than America at the moment is their economy. However, this is a bad thing, and I couldn't afford to see Nick Cave's attempts at playing guitar in a rock n roll fashion.

Peach and Alex had finally left bed, albeit at 6PM. For their belated dinner and my breakfast we opted for a sports bar. Again, Ice Hockey was playing. On the advice of the waitress we headed up to Crescent Street, where nightclubs equalled the number of bars. Unfortunately, the price of drinks was crazy around this part of town. Even with Peach's free drink at Dundee's, we were all shocked by the tally we had slowly accrued.

After Dundee's we went to a tiny bar that was meant to be like an English pub. Darts were thrown, and despite my sledging game being spot on, I managed to lose everytime. Leaving was painfree, a bar that sells Boddington's and Stella for $9 a go isn't exactly an ideal watering hole.

Instead we ended up at a chain of the microbrewery from the night before. Almost as soon as we entered (on the second attempt(there were two doors)), we saw Matt and his crew. For some reason, the staff seemed to take a liking to us. It was evident in the free shots headed our way. The first was a brutal combination of sambucca, tequila and Tabasco. It hurt. The beer chasers were like drinking water, and for about 20 minutes my bottom lip continued to tingle. The next shot was a 'blow job', some cream concoction that you had to drink without using your hands. Holy christ, by now all the drinks had begun to take their toll on people.

On our walk between bars, Alex, now lubricated, was seemingly oblivious to traffic. Some close calls followed a group photo around a Lamborghini. Only this time, Alex was leaning on the car and oblivious to the yelling by some security guard. He was turning into a demon in a pink shirt.

The next bar couldn't come soon enough for some of us, but for Dicky Peach, it presented itself as an opportunity to sleep. There he was, nodding off on the table while Sam and I acted inappropriately around him. Meanwhile, Alex was off somewhere losing his wallet. When he rose, Peach went downstairs, had a spew and midway through his response to nature's call, fell asleep. Who cares, everyone was having a great time upstairs when the last call bell rang out and we had no idea where he was. Alex, instead of his wallet, found Peach seated in his previous position and re awaking from his mini slumber.

Everyone was outside, talking to locals and contemplating what we were going to do next. 3AM had ticked over and unlike Sam and I who were ready to call it a night, Peach and Alex had a second wind. Above the Lebanese kebab shop previously mentioned was 'Pussy Corps', a dodgy looking establishment if ever one existed. Uninhibited by a sense of rationality, Alex and Peach ran off, one in search of their wallet, the other dashing for cash.

It was another late rise to the next day, not even the housekeepers and Alex's concerned parents calling his phone could get me out of bed. However, commitments I had made earlier were enough motivation to leave my slumbering mates.

I caught the subway to Villa Maria to visit Jeff and Mel, a couple I met at a Dinosaur Jr show in Montreal on my last visit. The walk to their new house took me past their old abode. After initially knocking on their neighbour's door, I found their place and sat down for a cup of Irish Breakfast.

Things had certainly changed since I last saw them. A new house has been overshadowed by two new additions to their family. Rand joined us after a nap, and when he wasn't cheersing people with cookies, he was either enjoying his favourite whale song or playing fireman. Loïc's age was measurable in days, not months and he seemed quietly content in his crib for most of my visit.

It was lovely to see Jeff and Mel again as they represent the inherent sweetness found in most Canadians. It was pure chance that we met all those years ago, but having me around again-especially given their newborn-demonstrates a minor part of how lovely they both are. I spent a few hours in their company and by the time I had to leave, the sun had well and truly set.

Back at the hostel, I surrounded my self with Thai food as I waited for the others to get back. In the few hours of daylight they spent in the city, they finally made it to old town. As Sam went off to DJ Shadow, the room filled with the typical hostel crowd. Foreigners complaining about who they share a room with and the typical cocky Australian, who feels his place of birth defines him more than his actions. After a second serving of Thai food, we headed out for a few quiet beers before calling an early night.

At least it was for some of us, Sam and Peach elected to do another all-nighter. In an oddly cautious demonstration, they had checked the bus times and found out our 9AM ride actually leaves at 7:30. For the troubles of shaking my feet to try to wake me, Sam received an unconscious kick to the face. I felt bad at first, but after I checked the bus times we discovered the 9AM ride was still on. The kick didn't seem unfair anymore.

The prolonged breakfast ended when we walked around the corner to the bus station. We had a 10 hour trip ahead of us, punctuated by two transfers and a stop at customs. It was impossible to sleep, and not helped by all the ridiculous black metal I decided to listen to.

Customs was easy enough, but Alex, who had not got part of his visa form signed seemed to struggle under the pressure of basic question;
Customs guy: What did you do in Montreal?
Alex (fidgeting): Went to old town...looked in some shops.
The rest of us made it through easily, but Alex was the last to join us. We had to wait a few minutes while customs went through all of our gear unsupervised by us. For Peach though there was a bigger problem. His fear of canines is not exactly ideal when it comes to dealing with giant, Alsatian sniffer dogs.

An hour after we re-boarded the bus, we were pulled over by border patrol. They jumped aboard, asking everyone about their citizenship and to demonstrate the proof. For most of their visit Alex sat across from me, sleeping with his eyes half open. The only thing more funny was watching him stumble his way through his next customs ordeal. When they came to me they asked what I was studying. "Journalism", being the honest response was met with "we don't need any of those" by the border patrol officer. What a welcome back to America.

The bus took us through upstate New York, where the trees are still green and the landscape basically deserted of residents. The greenery was occasionally broken up with a typically American small town. Every time we went through one my brain came to the immediate conclusion that they were all shit holes. That was until I realised they were all fairly identical to Amherst, which would be another shit hole were it not for the 20,000 temporary residents every year.

We stopped by Albany, New York's capital and a city that has some architecture that would make a lot of Europe proud. We missed the famous Egg, but the huge gothic towers were a fair substitute. When we finally made it to New England all of the trees had shed their leaves, offering a ghost-like appearance, but an oddly welcoming reminder we were almost back home.

In between writing this my computer completely crapped itself. I managed to save my photos (phew!) but lost everything else.

*** Song
Arcade Fire - Wake Up
One of Montreal's finest bands team up with David Bowie. You can't help but love it.

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