Updated: May 23, 2022
My first airplane trips by myself, at age 10, took me from Chicago to Canada and back. Toronto.
Hamilton, to be specific, where my childhood friend Mari-lynn’s family had moved from Kensington, Maryland by then. My family had moved from Kensington to Oak Park, Illinois by then. The Hugheses suggested a visit, and my folks came up with a plane ticket.
I couldn’t wait to see them.
I couldn’t wait to go anywhere. Even at age 10, I felt a kind of hive-hum inside my body, whenever venturing somewhere new and unexplored. We had already moved from Maryland to Cambridge, Mass. and back, when I was in 1st-grade.
The way people talked! Ear-bending sounds, even if (mostly) the same words.
The different kinds of houses, or parts of houses, we lived in, or my friends lived in. Or houses whose details I tried to metabolize, while walking to school.
The relative rise and fall of a horizon, or a single lawn. The smell of different classrooms or front porches or visitors. Mystifying scents through other kitchen windows. Angles of light, whenever I tried to draw our half-a-house on Putnam Ave. or some scene I imagined. How and when the leaves changed -- in Maryland v. Massachusetts v. Illinois alone. Only 3 U.S. states, by age 10.
I had so much to learn.
Earlier, as 2nd of 5 kids (so far) under 7, our family vacations happened via station wagon, later via blue-and-white VW van. Our dad would drive and yell at us, when he wasn't yelling at other drivers. (I so get this, now; creatively cursing-while-driving is the only fun I have, in my long commute to work.) Maybe we had a cousin along, too, in a backseat. One or two of us had already 'called' the back-back. (Sorry, cousins.)
We’d all feel crowded and hot, alternately inert and antsy. Highways were two things: places to spot exotic license plates until that got boring, which was pretty quickly, and a conduit to The Unexplored! Luray Caverns in Virginia, a Cape Cod rental, Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois. Maybe an overnight in a motel. The sensory of the roadside motel? No words. Just surrender, and survival.
Anyway, Canada! Right. A whole-nother country. With my same friend Mari-lynn and her family, inside it. Another whole class of chomp from the travel bug, with the airplane of it all.
And by age 10, I liked traveling alone. I appreciated the relative quiet of 160 strangers, sudden and nameless wandering friends. I appreciated the space-time to look at my planet from another angle. Or just wonder about things, or think about nothing, maybe listen to strangers getting to know each other. (They didn't seem to realize I could hear!) And to find so many nice people, even if they kept asking the same question (how old are you).
Like most of us, a global pandemic bug has chomped me back, with a downright flattening couple of years-and-a-half. I’ve made it to California, north and south, and Louisville, family visits. But until 2 weeks ago, it had been 4 years since I’d stepped outside my country’s big borders. Four years are an eternity, in Muffin-years.
The Uber drivers’ stories, alone! How they came to live in the U.S. or Canada, respectively. If not bitten by the bug themselves, shoved out of their faraway countries in mortal fear, or settled into a bi-continental life.
My Algerian-born YUL-to-hotel friend, who spoke both French and English, but spoke both with different accents than my ear recognized, even from the Quebecois-French I’d heard before, so different from any of the accents I'd heard in France. Kadir said he loved Paris, missed Paris. We sat in "very rare" traffic and I knew he was trying not to curse, but I wished he would have. Anyway I asked, "If you love and miss Paris, why are you in Canada?”
He shrugged and looked at me in the mirror. “N’sais pas.” Then, “Paris is really expensive.”
Check that, got it.
Even the hassle of my missing bag. Right. The one that arrived a day after I did. (Curses, work-life balance! for convincing me I didn’t have time to think about carry-on bottles of whatever is probably not even essential. Pretty dang sure I’ll convince myself it’s carry-on from now on. Like my friend Karen says, 'checking bags is against my religion.')
Even how frustrating the airline was to deal with. Because how damn nice every single other person was, in this strange-but-not-for-long Montreal. Including the Pharmaprix staffer who (when I had to go buy a toothbrush and a few other essentials) asked if I had a ‘Pharmaprix number’ for discounts, then used her own when I told her Sorry, I’d just arrived in Montreal.
How to express the gorgeous-ginormous acreage of the Jardin Botanique? Extraordinary.
And, on day 2, the spectacular serpentine climb up Mont Royal, which entree waited a few blocks from my hotel?
And the Old city – and the smells coming through those restaurant kitchen windows!
I had to text my almost-lifelong friend Gerard to tell him I was in Montreal, spur-of-the-moment-expiring-voucher thing. (We’ve talked vaguely over the years about going there.)
He said Have some poutine for me.
I may be adventurous, but I held off on the poutine. My taste-buds’ imaginations just don’t get it.
Rather than anything smothered in gravy and likely to immobilize me for several hours, give me just one, warm, chocolate-chip cookie, yes, with pecans, thanks, and a small cup of any milk in which to dip that cookie. Gerard promises to convince me otherwise, poutine-wise, whenever we manage to get there together.
For a meal, give me a true, wood-fired pizza, in the oven for 60-90 seconds, like the one I had at Brigade Pizzeria Napolitaine, on Stanley St.
Ultimately, with only 2 full days, and cumbersome, intimidating, Entry apps from both countries re all things COVID, including a very expensive PCR test - almost as soon as I arrived -- so the U.S. would let me back in, and the lost bag for half of the visit ...
Could those 2 days have been worth the hassle, my god?
You bet your sweet sunny days they were!
Walking amongst another whole language, past so many sensations new. Sunny days, almost a month behind, in terms of blooming.
In the Botanical gardens, par exemple, the tulips (which had come and gone weeks earlier in my own yard at latitude 39.0415° N) were only beginning to think about blooming there, at latitude 45.5017° N.
Meanwhile, I heard it was pouring and storming all weekend back home. Sorry, neighbors. (Not sorry for taking the trip, just. Wait. I guess that's "Sore-y" (and not-sore-y) in the sound of my sunny space.
The weather gods don't always smile upon me, like that. They don't smile upon anyone these days, if I've learned anything at all. (Which learning I may not have.*) The weather gods, like so many gods, have given up on us, and smiling, altogether. I got lucky.
Ultimately for me, the meaningful point of going anywhere new in such downward-pressing times – no matter how briefly?
My self, and sense of selfhood, are altered, upon return.
Able to feel new neuronal links, storing new sensory memories, expanding my understanding of other souls, through conversations mostly, also curious observation.
To be clear: memories of traveling with someone else? Also meaningful and altering and wonderful and life-affirming!
And. And, conversations with new people just seem easier to start and flow, when you’re not already sitting next to someone. My ex and I had plans to go to Puerta Vallarta in March of 2008. We broke up in fall of 2007. I decided to go anyway, having made the reservation and payments. On my first morning, housekeeping came in the room and looked around. "One peoples?"
"One peoples," I assured her. Her body language told me she had not encountered such an arrangement in such a Romantica suite in such a tropically floral beachside hotel. I hoped she wouldn't pity me. Hoped she might even consider how a senorita might be able to find contentment, even as 'one peoples.'
Anyway, a big fan of both solo- and accompanied-modes of travel, and the bug has burrowed deep now.
And, I’ll always hold precious that first flight from O’Hare to Pearson, with 4th-grade me, in her red blouse and cherry-appliqued skirt, on board.
Thanks so much for adventuring with me, friends.
Muffin, wonderer and wanderer and none-the-wiser
*please see About page: https://www.marymuffindonovan.com/about