At no point, in my two tastings, be it in the kitchen of an elderly Asian woman or in my own a decade later, has the artichoke been a revelation. Perhaps it would have done better as a flower of the field, along with its cousin the thistle.
The time has arrived where I grow secret cacti in the cellar. Safe behind a rickety gate, they throw out new arms and colorless blooms, now as then. If he once grew them in the cellar, it is now I who do.
In my ramblings through the city, I had happened upon at least three to four doubles of people near and dear to me. And it led me to wonder whether this was simply due to the greater concentration of humans in today’s urban environments and whether the people of centuries past would have come across so many strangely familiar faces. This, in turn, led me to ponder just how many people the average Westerner meets with today as opposed to yesteryear.
If the temptation to respond “many more” made itself felt, it was nonetheless important to remember that not all Westerners were globetrotting citydwellers. At last, this brought me to ask whether my own experiences of doubles was greater, lesser or merely different in kind to that felt by those now dead. I might as easily chalk it up to an instance of diminishing returns as to an awareness heightened by their more frequent occurrence, without ever learning the truth of the matter.
The night before had been spent in odd company at the jazz festival where I had followed, for reasons that I still have difficulty placing, a group of hostelgoers to watch a folk band perform. In the crowd, I distributed a few cans of beer that I had hidden about my person and chatted for a few minutes with a Bavarian tourist. In between sips of warm lager, I looked up to follow a low-flying plane’s slow progress from east to west. When I at last turned my attention from sky to stage, I found myself separated from my companions of a few minutes before and alone with an unknown hostelgoer, twice my age, and whom I had avoided up to that point.
If he had perhaps shared the feeling, we nonetheless managed to set that aside and attempt to find our way out and back. All the while we passed street performers and stages, he shared his story. His tale showed him more open to life’s going-ons than myself. That tale took on further depth and complexity as we paused to take in a dirge from a woman-fronted blues band and, farther on, a tune from a man making techno of buckets and sandals. The story came to a head in a cornerstore an hour later as the man behind the counter ran us out, what with the shop’s closing. Again in the common room, I bid him good night and good luck.
I climbed the stairs to the dormitory. Fumbling with the keycard, I got the door open after a moment and found myself face-to-face with James from Vancouver with whom, in keeping with the night’s strange turn, I discussed at some length the ethics of in-dormitory masturbation, of respect for one’s bunkmate and of the virtues or failings of sleeping naked.
This distance manifested itself in still other ways in the day which followed. In the youth hostel, I fell back onto old, irresponsible habits. Namely, it would seem that, while on holiday, I become another. This was not in the sense that I acted differently than I might at home or at work, but, rather, in that I sometimes became younger or more complex or took on new character traits. At times, I hailed from a different country than my own. At still others, I spoke more distant languages and performed societal functions quite unlike those I exercise. As best I could tell, all this amounted to an effort to make my identity somewhat vaguer than usual.
Yet this followed not from any desire to deceive. Instead, it allowed me to vary my individual components and to watch how my projected self-image wavered at the edges, its shape losing a little of the determination or fixity which I habitually viewed it with. In so doing, I was able to take note of others’ reactions to the different combinations that I tried on, as it were. With new combinations and further observation, I felt that I could come to provisional conclusions as to how the whole held together. Yet there may still have been deception in my efforts to make of the self something like a funhouse mirror or a window fogging over.
On the heels of my experiments came certain realizations or a manner of working out the framework of these writings. After some thought, I could conclude with a reasonable level of certainty that my methodology for writing travelogues consisted in the establishing or letting be established early a conceit or concept of one sort or another, then in walking and watching a great deal, and, lastly, in reading something a little out of the ordinary off which I might then bounce ideas. Perhaps this amounted not so much to a method as “paideia”, in the sense given by Deleuze’s Nietzsche et la philosophie and, later, by Barthes through Deleuze, and this in the hopes of running things through my subjective filter and then guessing at (my) self through the form given the object and the work done thereon. Perhaps this constituted a second, though indirect, approach to self.
The reading to which I reacted in this case, was Barthes’ Comment vivre ensemble and the question which it had set itself of idiorhythm or one’s own self rhythm. More specifically, Barthes seeks to answer whether it is possible to live in community, small in scale and still maintain one’s own self-rhythm. Barthes’ own response proves somewhat pessimistic in tone: communities limited in size to no more than a dozen and flat in hierarchy.
My own observations led me to similar conclusions. As I had seen with my companion of a week or perhaps a lifetime, most conflict stemmed from a difference in rhythm: meals, sleep, travel, but also in pace of walking, climbing, chewing, and yet still further, age, perception, as though we were neither aging nor perceiving at the same rate. I spoke to him and, on occasion, it was some time before he seemed to hear or, at the least, answer.
How much societal and interpersonal conflict follows from nought else but differences in rhythm (as opposed to identity)? Naturally, having spent considerably time on the notions of self and identity, the question was worth asking whether, instead, identity be assimilated to rhythm (or vice versa). Regardless, such was the way in which my reading impinged on my travels, or perhaps it was the reverse.
So it was that I came back to my starting point for the above reflections: the hostel. Was the hostel itself an idiorhythmic place? Back to the wall, I pondered whether travelling alone, meeting with others in common room or kitchens or rooms, and leaving to pursue one’s own plans met the requisite threshold for community.
After my companion had taken his leave, I found that my last sight within the airport lobby proved that of a wood cutting reproduction, above the JetBlue counter, which depicted Champlain’s 1609 conflict with the Iroquois. In the cutting, Champlain led his “native allies” into battle, all of whom were represented as identical in every way to the Iroquois: vague silhouettes, unclothed, bereft of hair, facial or other identifying features, so many pale shadows armed with bows. The only figure distinct from the mobs was, unsurprisingly, Champlain himself, standing between the two sides, reloading his musket in particularly brave or foolish move. I was unable to decide as to which term better fit.
Certain memories of my bus trip from the Burlington airport to the Montréal bus station have remained with me, long after the bus left behind the the mixed waters of Champlain and the Winooski: a few attempts to picture the trees and green mountains in fall garb, the Gothic Revivalist buildings off the university’s main green, my reptile-skinned seatmate. Or, at least, such are the memories that my notes see fit to pass on.
Back in Montréal and en route for the hostel, the dangers of my close resemblance to a twink again became clear. As I was making my way through Le Village, men occasionally turned to stare or moved as if to head me off. None did, save one, who went so far as to reach out and lay a hand upon me before I found the nerve to tell him off. I arrived at the hostel without further incident.
A week later, the hostel’s oddities confirmed themselves once more with the arrival of four French teens who had set out, whether intentionally or not, to destroy the fragile balance in this dormitory, shoving each other through doors. Yet the oddities did not cease there: consider as well that, in the space of two minutes, I met two James both hailing from Vancouver, though different in height and build, imperfect doubles of one another, and to both of whom I failed to ask a single question about Mood Hut and its club nights.
In the common room, I had achieved a comfortable distance as regarded the other hostelgoers: in a chair arrayed by itself, near enough to feel social, yet far enough not to be isolated. When elsewhere, be it sidewalk cafés or tearooms, I applied much the same logic, preferring the small table against a wall within earshot of other patrons. To this distance, carefully observed, I owed the time and opportunity to watch and remark upon the people passing by and what, if anything, they could tell me of the city.
One of my first observations determined the trending men’s hairstyle, which rather resembled a samurai topknot, or at least what I imagined it to be. I found it again and again, indoors and out, hair shaved on sides, the top left long and bound up either once in a short ponytail or twice over in a topknot. As to my own hair, from what feedback others managed to give me, it seemed make them take me for a brain.
Back out in the streets, I was forced on occasion to interact with others. This ranged in kind from making up information for passing tourists to passing myself off as a resident of the old continent. Other interactions dealt less in deception, such as when a pair of street people approached me in a park and set to mumbling furiously. I took care to respond in kind before they wandered off, still on about a “spot”, and found a seat beside one another on a bench farther down.
Safely away, in the corner seat of a Mile End café courtyard, I turned to another line of thought, more inquiry than observation, and set for myself the task of determining whether Mile End was Montréal’s Brooklyn? In truth, my inquiry set out from a question that showed just how little humans can be trusted with two instance of any category, for in their bumbling manner of relating the two, they bring the two either entirely too near or too far, that is to say, either they reduce one to the other (equivalence) or they opposed one to the other (contradiction).
When relating two things, the question always proves that of finding that critical distance which allows them to remain distinct and yet in some relation. I have always admired this distance in the délicatesse with which Barthes approaches the “traits” of his various works precisely at those moments when the need is strongest to imagine still other modes of relation and relating.
Some hours later, in a hotel lobby, my companion set me with a task, as had become his habit: to recreate this journey, as well as that of five years past, in florid colors on the state maps that we had collected or, in one case, cobbled together from park maps over the previous days. For this, it befell me to design a symbology up to the task, to craft a language, to make from the alternation of five colors and an assortment of basic shapes a lexicon whereby not just ourselves, but others, could follow our time in the woods or on the road, in backwoods towns or off the coast or even at each other’s throat. Still, I feared that such was beyond me and chose instead to focus my efforts on linking the lands we had seen, on conveying just how difficult east-west or west-east travel proves in north New England.
In this way, I carved the land up in quite different fashion than that in which its inhabitants experienced. But this is not to suggest that my fashion holds less of a claim to legitimacy than theirs nor theirs than mine. When the time comes to divvy up a territory, to overlay a land with a grid from ends that we impose, little difference can be found between the lasting powers, my redrawings and even those evanescent kingdoms and societies which failed to hold.
At the airport, this point grew all the more muddled for me. Indeed, when sending my companion on his way at last, I paused before a small historical map, fixed to one column. The map owed to Champlain’s early 1610’s expeditions and outlined the Nouvelle France which he had envisioned in the New World. Like all old maps, the dimensions and landmarks that we know well suffer from distortion, today’s Ontario then Lac St. Louis, la Mer douce become today’s Lake Erie, Long Island descending from Île de l’Ascension, the epoch’s Cape Cod rather less fingerlike than its contemporary counterpart. In addition, notations suggested the presence of friendly, neutral or hostile peoples, the existence of bison or elk or deer here rather than there.
Apart from these seeming inaccuracies, its stylized lines suggested enticing possibilities, a future nation of New France rather than New England and all that this projection would have entailed, had not a rival projection superimposed itself. Why did New England take, rather than New France? No historian, I was poorly equipped to answer, save through vague appeal to the Seven Years’ War. But I could nevertheless take place in the contemplation of unexplored possibilities, of the forms that this evanescent nation might have taken with time. I could only guess at the forms of life that it might have brought to light with its unfolding, but I could take some comfort in knowing that it would have been other.
The same held for my recent fascination with the Danelaw, that swathe of eastern England coming under Viking control in the 9th and 10th century. For the curious, the period had left precious few archeological traces, save for a cremation site or two and others of a more subtle kind, in the way of place names particles such as “-howe”, “-thorp” and “Kir(k)by” and, facilitated by the lingering mutual comprehensibility between Old East Norse and Old English, an influx of Norse loan words like “sky”, “window” and “law” itself, of which certain survive in Northern English dialects.
Although the Anglo-Norse met its end in the Anglo-Saxon and the latter failed to hold its center before the Anglo-Norman, all of them were born of a collection of atoms thrown together and as subject to chance as any other such collection. Like New France, the Danelaw might have thrived in other conditions, yet, precisely, those conditions were not other. Then again, perhaps these collectivities, New French and Anglo-Norse alike, never truly left this world and have continued on in their own more virtual.
We spent that last morning in the mist. We had risen with the sun, lost to the gloom, and set off in search of a series of small Vermont falls. A short outing and three covered bridges later, we found ourselves again on the backwoods roads in the driving rain. Between roadwork and low visibility, the road fell away before us, and we had little choice but slow to a creep. The rain eventually slackened, and my companion decided that breakfast and warm drinks were in order. The mist returned, we drew at once farther from and nearer our goal, for it seemed that with each small town through which we passed we arrived invariably half an hour before the doors were to open.
Instead of waiting about, we pressed on and, at last, fell back into step with the world around. Exhausted, either from the early hour or from the other’s presence, we exchanged few words that morning, other than a comment or two on the modern bourgeois interior typical of Northeastern cafés. If the early morning start stood at odds with my companion’s complaining in days prior of how the nation speeds up the clocks, I made no reference to this seeming inconsistency and, instead, contented myself with picking at the hole burned in my skin by the sun.
Back at the Burlington waterfront, numerous information boards paid witness to the area’s history. One board features two images with captions relating the lumber industry’s unfolding on the lake. Before the arrival of barges, the logs to be transported served themselves as the means of their conveyance to Québec City mills. For, in winter, loggers built rafts from the very logs which they had cut, such that, with the thaw, the rafts floated north to mills, where, once processed, the wood travelled across the Atlantic to the European continent to fuel 18th and 19th century building boom. Although in not so many words, the sign told the tale of a voyage which consumed the very thing that made it possible or, still more precisely, of the vessel which could not but consume itself in the voyage.
Also to be found was information on a unique horseferry at one time plying the Champlain waters, now lying beneath them. More economical than steamboats in the first half of the 19th century, in that it required less wood to build, fewer engineers to operate and repairmen to maintain, the horseferry, unlike its river counterpart, made use of a central turntable to either side of which one of two horses walked in opposite directions. The table’s turning was translated via a series of gears below deck into propulsion for its paddle wheel aft. The ferry, now resting beneath the lake, was scuttled, the reason for its scuttling lost in a manner unavailable to its wooden carcass.
I would give a great deal to know what else has been lost to the lake waters. Referring himself to a panel, my companion waved me over and highlighted for me the lake’s fame as a wooden ship graveyard.