In late June, I swung a three-night stopover en route from Tokyo to Toronto. As R and I already planned a self-drive adventure further afield in July, I would explore Reykjavik instead, drifting around town with a camera in hand and nowhere to be, nothing to do for 72 hours…
William Gibson wrote that the soul, like lost luggage, needs time to catch up with the long distance traveller.
Maybe that’s why I feel… discombobulated as I wake to the scrunch of rain turning to ice outside an unfamiliar window. This is not my bedroom in Tokyo. Then some part of my jetlagged soul catches up, and I remember: I’m back in Toronto, my first trip “home” for Christmas in 15 years.
Still woozy from the dislocation in time and space, still moving under water, I throw on every stitch of warm clothing I brought, grab a camera, and stumbletiptoe out the slumbering guesthouse and into the gentrified Cabbagetown neighbourhood downtown.
The scrunch of rain into ice is louder out here. The canopy of maple trees, the park benches, the renovated workers’ cottages, have come alive in a Tim Burtonesque web of freezing branches and power lines dripping with short, sharp little icicles pointy as teeth.
It’s Friday night/Saturday morning, and hipsters in knit caps skid home from the bars artisinal craft beer pubs along Dundas Street West.
“Whatcha taking pictures of, bro?”
This magical, fantastical nightmare before Christmas.
The next few days I trip through the streets of my hometown, the familiar made strange, taking more pictures and waiting for the jet lag to subside enough to make me fit, once more, for human company.
Streetcars, overhead lines frozen solid, stand abandoned in the middle of the road. Bicycles, billboards, movie posters, handlettered signs to lose weight or earn $10,000 a month: in my heightened state, all seem preserved in a Pompeii of ice.
Outside a church, I mistake a statue for a real person. Later, on the university campus, I mistake a real person for a statue — until a pair of police officers shake the snow off the frozen figure and bundle… him? her? into the warmth of cruiser.
This is not the Toronto the White Christmas I rhapsodized to my wife back in Japan. That Toronto is a wintery wonderland of sledding — even skiing — in the parks, in the ravines that cut through the city, An urban pastoral, powdery snow transforming the gritty streets into the Christmas dioramas in the windows of the department stores of my childhood.
No, this is the stuff of TV melodrama. Winter is coming. White Walkers approach the gates Rob Ford, Toronto’s cracksmoking mayor, refuses to call a state of emergency. Never mind that, in the near north of the city, above the shore of an ancient lakebed which divides the city north/south, hundreds of thousands of homes, including my family’s, including my friends’, go days without heat and light. Even downtown, where I’m staying, some neighbourhoods have lost power. Mornings, McDonalds and Tim Horton’s are full of these temporary evacuees as they warm themselves after a night in a dark, freezing home.
“Really? Do you REALLY think this is the time to tease your sister? Tommy, I need you to stop being six.”
Speaking of coffee, to show everyone just how cold it is, weathercasters toss cups of boiling water in the air to show how quickly it turns into a fine, icy powder.
“It’s probably, like 10 degrees above zero and sunny in Tokyo right now,” I tell friends and family, and aloof bartenders at those Dundas West hipster joints.
But Tokyo is another hallucinatory trip. (Was that my soul I saw out the airplane window, still playing catchup over the Pacific?) I return to a city where people on trains, on streets, in Starbucks, go about with white gauze masks over nose and mouth. No, it’s not fear of radiation from the stillleaking Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It’s allergy season, made worse than usual by a cold, record snowy winter.
Still, my neighbour’s plum tree has its first light purple blooms of the season. Soon it will be sakura cherry blossom season, the first real harbinger of spring. Everyone breathes a — pollenladen — sigh of relief.
Soon enough we’ll be back in Tokyo’s tropical summer, hot and getting hotter. Worse nowadays than Bangkok or Singapore, they say, though perhaps those cities are also heating up along with Tokyo, along with Toronto, along with everywhere else, it seems, and we’ll all wax nostalgic for winter again.
“May you live in interesting times”, goes the legendary curse. Interesting times, indeed.
(Updated April 30: I continue to post galleries of photos from our recent trip to Iceland on Exit Booted… Check ’em out!)
Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. – John Ruskin
Forget what you may have heard about how Iceland got its name: that a group of xenophobic Vikings put the “ice” in Iceland to chase other settlers from their newfound home’s forests of downy birch “from mountain to shore”, and meadows — according to one contemporary account — dripping with butter. Those stories are kids’ stuff.
The trees are long gone. And, I can’t speak to summertime, but in March if there’s any butter on the grass it’s buried under a subarctic winter’s worth of ice and snow.
Apparently the climate was a little different a thousand-plus years ago. During a period known as the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, when 30% – 40% of Iceland was covered in the aforementioned birch forests so dense it made travel inland difficult. Even so, according to the official telling of Iceland’s settlement in the Landnámabók, Iceland’s first Norse settler Flóki Vilgerðarson gave the island its current name (there were others) after climbing a mountain and seeing with homesick eyes an ice-choked fjord.
Kind of the way I stood atop Grábrók crater, staring (I hoped) Viking-like into an eye-biting wind, and glassed through a tear-smeared telephoto lens for troll-sign in the desolate, wind-whipped, frost-nipped volcanic wasteland of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. The thought occurred to me, as it must have occurred to Flóki, that it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity it’s not the temperature, it’s the wind.
See, the Anomaly was followed by a Little Ice Age, and by volcanic eruptions, and human settlement, and sheep. The forests were cut down by Vikings long since and the land over-gazed. Today where once was forest now there’s tundra — think the colour of an Icelandic pony’s winter coat of honey-coloured hair — and mossy, fog-shrouded lava fields.
Wind really does make all the difference. Sure, as Wikipedia knows, the Gulf Stream moderates air temperatures even this close to the Arctic Circle. Even in March, Reykjavik stays a positively balmy few degrees above zero Celsius – t-shirt weather for a visitor from Canada or, say, northern Japan (though the coldest temperature ever recorded, in the northeastern hinterland, did reach a respectably bone-chilling -38 C in January of 1922). But that wind: on a stormy day it can average 50 meters a second (112 mph) – hurricane strength on the Beaufort scale, and well below the National Weather Service’s wind chill calculator’s upper limit. But the answer is obvious: don’t go there then. Leave it to the trolls.
Never mind. “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change,” the tourist literature brags, and it’s true: on the day we strapped on crampons to hike the Þórisjökull glacier, we left the car park at the head of aptly named Kaldidalur (“Cold Valley”) road under grey skies which unleashed rain and snow showers, then rice-sized hail, followed by blue skies, and finally a second – temperamental, wind-driven – snowstorm which chased us around the off-road bus. All in the space of little more than an hour.
Thing is, the quixotic weather can be part of the fun, if you’ve got warm layers, a rainshell, and the right attitude. And there are other advantages to being in Iceland in March. Daylight, which at the beginning of the month is still a wintery 10 hours, is a respectable 13 ½ hours by the end. And, while Iceland is still off the beaten path, it does get close to 700,000 visitors a year, mostly in the summer months. That’s more than twice the population of the entire country. Come in March, though, and Iceland is still home to the descendants of those original Viking settlers. And the trolls and elvish “hidden folk” who were the island’s first inhabitants.
It’s all about the spirit of place, the genus loci, fuinke, Ultima Thule, the part of the map which reads Here Be Dragons: the undiscovered country.
Hyperbole aside, this really is the land of fire and ice, glaciers capping super-volcanoes which do occasionally erupt: and shut down airports across north and central Europe. Dirt roads and mountain tracks through the uninhabited central highlands – which makes up something crazy like 60% of the landmass. And the aurora…
Reykjavik, “Bay of Smokes”, is the hip, young, artsy capital, with a population of 120,000. As I tell my high school students, where I would go if I wanted to start a band, or an artist of any kind. Or a hipster. Here, or Montreal (just saying). Then again, not everyone is so crazy about life there. Our guide, Christian, tells us (in fluent English and Japanese) that the cost of living is so high most people just work to make ends meet. And Þorsteinn Bachmann, one of the stars of 2014’s Life in a Fishbowl, is quoted as saying “If you imagine a little fishbowl, the fish go round and round and you meet the same fish… that’s life in Iceland.”
This is the place R. and I chose for our Spring Break 2014. It seems kinda crazy to travel, like, 26 hours door-to-door for a four-day bus tour of a barely inhabited island just outside the Arctic Circle (then again, if you know anything about me, you know I’ve always been attracted to wastelands: shopping mall parking lots; rooftops; Toronto’s beaches… in winter). In any case, as you see from the pictures, what Iceland’s famous rhyolite hills and wastelands lack in colour in spring it makes up for in texture and contrast.
Our four-day tour took us from Reykjavik to Reykholt, with some stops along the way. Highlights include Thingvellir, Reykholt itself, Grábrók crater, glacier hiking, the rivers and waterfalls that cut through lava fields and wasteland; the black sand beach outside the town of Vik, and for R. and everyone else in our group, the aurora borealis in – I’ve been assured, many times – full bloom. But we also just enjoyed watching the scenery pass by our tour bus windows, the tundra and hoar-frosted massifs and fjords, and snow-covered volcanoes rising like sugar mounds out of the wasteland.
“Why do you always research the backstory, never the practical details?” R., my wife and travel companion, asks when I show her my latest finds: a documentary about strongmen in Iceland, say, or a catalogue page from the website of Iceland’s homegrown outdoor gear brand (links to both included below).
Around me a pod of kayakers lies beached in their sleeping bags as the drama of moon and stars and clouds plays out overhead, and I wonder what this ever-changing weather has in store for us. Part-way into a week-long trip hopping among Georgian Bay’s 30000 islands, lying on an exposed piece of pink granite, water to the horizon in front and behind, I can’t for the life of me think what day it is.
Kayaks carry us into a world measured in geologic time as we pass rocks older than dinosaurs. We wake with the sun and linger over breakfast. When the wind whistles in the trees or lightning flashes along the waterlogged horizon, we dash for shore and squat on our life jackets. When the sun shines, we play in the water like kevlar-skin seals.
We invented time to describe experience. Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In class, my students read Robert Frost’s poem “Nature’s First Green Is Gold” as an allegory of the seasons as stages in life: spring is childhood, the shortest and best. Summer and autumn follow, and all too soon so do the short, dark days of winter.
We measure everything this way: holidays, careers, relationships, lifespans. This sense of inevitability makes it hard to get older, with summer over just as we start to enjoy it. All we have to look forward to, we imagine, is the long, hard winter lying in wait for us. But the flux of weather under the stars and on the water reminds me that the world constantly changes, and so do we. There is no real beginning or end. Rain gives way to sun; wind and clouds are replaced with a preternatural calm — followed by a line squall blowing in from somewhere else, over the horizon.
This summer, my first stop in exploring T.O.’s neighbourhoods will be Davenport Village. Actually, I’ve been here before. Way, way before: like, 46 years ago. Turns out, this part of Toronto is also where we lived when my parents and I emigrated from the US back in 1968.
Keep in mind that these are my thoughts after a full day’s travel, doorstep to doorstep, from my home in west Tokyo to the place I arranged to stay through airbnb. Things may look very different in the light of morning…
The block of townhouses where I’m staying are quite new, having been built as far as I can tell in 2004. They’re bounded to the north by Earlscourt Park, which runs all the way up to the Corso Italia neighbourhood along St Clair West, to the west by train tracks and neighbouring Carleton Village, to the south by more railroad tracks and eventually Dupont Street, and to the east by some old – historic? – Factories, and by Lansdowne Avenue.
Tonight I walked briefly through the townhouse development where I’m staying, then headed south on Lansdowne to Dupont. Lots of young couples. Mostly residential, with a large playground in the middle of the development and green space near the tracks. Not much in the immediate area by way of stores, restaurants, Tim Hortons, and the like. More development is apparently promised for the Lansdowne and Dupont area, currently being redeveloped as mixed-use condos and commercial space, though at the moment what stands out is the demolition zone to the northwest, and the Coffee Time to the northwest with the kids hanging out front trying their hardest to look like drug dealers.
In a couple of hours I’ll leave my home in suburban Tokyo for Narita Int’l Airport to start my epic, biennial trip to my old hometown of Toronto. I look forward to putting some (air) miles between me and this sweat-inducing, bug-proliferating heat wave…
Still, I’ll be arriving in a city which has just experienced a record-breaking flood (basements swamped; blackouts ongoing), and under a Severe Thunderstorm Watch for today: Wednesday, July 10th Toronto time. So, while I’m winging it over the Pacific, ye gods will be adding insult to injury to Toronto the Good by dumping still more water on a town which is still trying to dry out after Monday’s freak storm.
As for the trip itself, well, I have to admit that I still enjoy flying even after all these years of travel and commuting intercontinentally: hanging at 35000 feet, staring out the window for hours on end at clouds or hazy blue ocean… it’s a kind of non-time, a suspension of routine and the little habits that make up a day.
Besides, there’s always movies to watch. And I’m bringing a Kindle loaded with new books (a psychogeographer’s tour guide of Toronto; a treatise on cities by PD Smith; a memoir of the Therafields experience; anthologies of travel writing and essays on walking). Plus an iPod stuffed with audiobooks (lectures on storytelling; big history; mindfulness; Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) and good music (an extensive library of Sigur Ros; selections from the last two albums of my newest discovery, The National).
And when I do arrive, it’ll be the start of a new adventure. For the first time since leaving T.O. some 20 (!) years ago, I won’t be staying in Little Italy. Instead, I’ve rented a place (if it’s not flooded) in Cabbagetown, a part of the city I still think of as T.O.’s notorious Tracks neighbourhood, but after controversial gentrification in the 1980’s (I still remember the anti-gentrification polemics of articles in NOW Magazine, views which I shared at the time) has now been designated one of Toronto’s “hipster hot spots” by the rather unhip Toronto Star newspaper.
… but that’s all to come. For now, I still have a few hours at home before I start the epic, 24-hour trip from Tokyo to Toronto. Next stop: a bus ride to Kichijoji, then the airport limousine to Narita airport. Twelve hours on Air Canada Flight 002 to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Then a commute on the TTC (if it isn’t flooded…) into Cabbagetown in the heart of T.O….