Sunrise over the North Atlantic
"Excuse me, sir, are you going to London?" The old man who had been sitting next to me at Gate 60 for the past hour looked up from his small computer, and peered at me with bright blue eyes that were far more awake than mine.
"They've just announced a gate change. We're moving from here to Gate 54."
He glanced over his shoulder; most of the other passengers in the airport departure lounge had already gathered their bags and were moving slowly down the hall, shoulders slumped in resignation, travel pillows around their necks. It was past 11:00 pm on a perfectly clear early summer night, but for no apparent reason our flight had already been delayed for more than an hour. The Qatar Airlines flight to Dubai scheduled for the same time as ours, across the hall, had boarded and left long before; since I had arrived, two Air Canada flights had left from Gate 60 for Vancouver and Dublin. Except for our sold-out flight to Heathrow, the lounge was now deserted, and in the darkness beyond the sloping windows, I could see no British Airways jets waiting for us to board. "Gate 54..." my neighbor repeated the number, as if to himself, and thanked me.
"I'll walk over with you," I said, checking to see how much he had to carry. "Do you need any help?"
"No, no, I'm fine," he said, stowing his computer in a small backpack and getting to his feet without difficulty. He pulled out the handle of his rolling carry-on and snapped it into place. We rolled our bags around the ends of the rows of seating, and moved out into the central aisle, walking side by side. I looked at him from the corner of my eye, hoping I hadn't insulted him. "Are you going to London as well?" he asked: a predictable, polite response from someone who didn't really want to talk.
"Berlin," I said. "Do you live in England?"
He shook his head. "No, I'm going on from there." A hesitation. Then: "To Poland. And you?"
"I live here in Montreal -- I'm going to Berlin to visit friends. It will be my first time in that city." He smiled but made no response. "Do you have family in Poland?"
His eyes ran over my face like quick fingers. "No, I am alone," he said after a moment. "I live all over the world. I've been here in Montreal for a while -- an interesting city -- before that I was in Brazil, before that, Italy..."
He was a small man, shorter than me, wearing nondescript khaki trousers, a white shirt, running shoes, and a plain khaki baseball cap. He had bypassed the moving walkway, and seemed happy to stretch his legs after the long wait, pulling his carry-on without any apparent effort. I guessed his age to be at least 85, though it was hard to tell. His eyes were his most distinctive feature: awake, clear, very alive. When we arrived at the gate he chose a seat and removed his hat to reveal a nearly bald head with a few wisps of white hair. "What time did they announce for boarding?" he asked.
"I thought they said 11:35," I said, "but at this point, who knows."
He got up and looked at the lighted board at the departure gate, and then sat down again.
"11:35," he confirmed. "So...you live in Montreal. Do you speak French?"
I told him I did, but didn't consider myself fluent.
"C'est ma langue préferé, such a beautiful language to listen to and to speak!" he said, smiling, and so we switched and spoke in French. I asked him how many languages he spoke, and he named five or six. "It's a hobby," he said. "I go somewhere, learn the language, stay a while, and then move on. My favorite place is Portugal."
I nodded and smiled: "Much better than Montreal in the winter." He raised his eyebrows and smiled, and then reached over and pulled his computer out of his backpack: suddenly our conversation was over. "Merci," he said. "Enjoy your stay in Berlin." The last I saw of him, as I boarded the plane, he was engaged in an animated conversation at the desk with one of the flight attendants, pointing out something on a piece of paper.
(to be continued)
A diary entry from a week ago:
Yesterday was sunny and I lay on my back on a warm rock near one of those big perfect maple trees that grow alone near houses. The sun was so bright against the white New England clapboards it made my eyes water. Above me were lazy summer clouds and high, high up, swallows playing in the wind. The air smelled like lilacs and grass; redwing blackbirds argued in the trees and a solitary cricket sang under the porch. It was as if my former life were colliding with the present one: all the sensory impressions were as familiar and readable as my own skin, while my actual self seemed to be elsewhere. I felt like a ghost.
by Teju Cole
When I went down to Alabama last month, I listened repeatedly to John Coltrane’s Alabama. The introduction of the song has a discursive quality to it, like a black preacher’s exhortations. And that, it turned out, was what it was: the keening saxophone line, built over rolling piano chords (like a congregation’s murmuring), was a paraphrase of the eulogy Martin Luther King, Jr., gave after a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963, killing four girls.
Alabama’s earth is red like West Africa’s, dusty, unpromising. On this earth one expects nothing to grow, and on it everything grows. Kudzu and Virginia creeper run riot. This is fertile earth. William Christenberry likens it to brown sugar. James Baldwin wrote: “I could not suppress the thought that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees.”
I was sad all the way to Selma. We drove from Gadsden, where cattle prods had been used on protesters in 1964. Down through the counties, across land that had known human love and life long before the white man’s arrival. Selma’s not much, a main drag, Broad Street, that chucks you out of town via the Edmund Pettus Bridge almost as soon as you arrive. The town is much smaller than those others in whose company it evokes the civil rights movement: Montgomery, Birmingham. In the hot sunshine of a Sunday, it was stunned and quiet, with the fable-like air of a crumbling movie set. Selma is named for an Ossianic poem; to me it melds “soul” and its Spanish cognate, “alma,” into a single moody word. Selma’s shops are closed that day. People are few and drift about in the sun like people in Google’s Street View. But if you take a left some crossings before the bridge, and a right, you come around to a housing project and, across the street from it, the clean and well-kept Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, the starting point for those marches fifty years ago.
Long after history’s active moment, do places retain some charge of what they witnessed, what they endured?
On Sunday March 7, 1965, six hundred people, led by John Lewis, marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Just after crossing the bridge, they were met by Alabama State Troopers and local police. The men in uniform wore masks, and some of them were on horseback. They gave a brief warning, and then shot teargas and charged into the crowd with billy clubs. They rolled through undefended people with a sickening carelessness for human safety that the corresponding scene in Selma—Ava DuVernay’s necessary and otherwise fine film—failed to match. That’s the point, perhaps: that what we watch from the safety of a movie theater cannot, and should not, relay to us the true horror of things. For how would we bear it?
But watch the original footage. These Americans brutally beat unarmed women and men, thorough in their mercilessness, cheered on by other Americans, sending more than fifty Americans to hospital. The footage made the difference, and shocked the nation’s conscience. It accelerated the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
How not to link it all together? Selma and Ferguson, New York City and Cleveland, torture by the CIA and mass murder in Gaza, the police state and slave patrols: no generation is free of the demands of conscience, and no citizenry can shirk the responsibility of calling the state’s abuse of power to account.
Selma was a small town then, and is a small town now. On Sunday December 7 when I visited, the headline of the Selma Times-Journal was “Surprise At Parade: Fire department mascot Sparky makes return at Christmas parade.” The lede: “Sparky the Fire Dog has returned and he made a grand entrance the morning of the Selma-Fallas County Christmas Parade. The dog costume was stolen from a vehicle parked at the Station 3 firehouse on Oct. 20 and found weather-damaged, dirty, torn and missing pieces behind the old Pancake House...”
I walked down the Pettus Bridge alone. I thought not of Sparky but of John Lewis, whose face and whose spirit I like so much, his light brown trenchcoat, his back pack, the concentrated dignity in his small frame. I felt these things in my body, tried to honor with my solitary stride the bravery of those women and men, and in the silence of my walk, the steep drop of the Alabama River to my left, the clear air ahead where there had been smoke and atrocity, I began to hear again Coltrane’s Alabama, not a melody but rather a recitation delivered with the saxophone.
Then the drive down to Montgomery, winter’s dry bright landscape flicking by. This bitter earth, these crumbling signs, the things that may have happened in these woods: in this place, I touched on a fissure in America’s unfinishable history. Selma to Montgomery on U.S. Route 80 is an hour’s drive, some fifty-four miles. It was a walk of four days in 1965, and on that third and successful march, many thousands walked together, 25,000 of them by the time they surged into Montgomery and rallied at the Alabama State Capitol. Around those days, some died. Klan work.
“These children,” sings Coltrane’s line in 1963, “unoffending, innocent, and beautiful.” McCoy Tyner weeping on piano. “Were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes every perpetrated against humanity.” Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. After Montgomery, after the memorial to the many murdered during those years, the placid-looking Court Square where tens of thousands had been auctioned into slavery, Dr King’s church, the Rosa Parks museum and the woman who was so much more—so much smarter, so much wiser, so much more tactical—than her best known act of refusal: after all this, we went to Birmingham. And Birmingham was heartbreak, too. At the 16th Street Baptist Church, my soul took fright. How could humans?
History won’t let go of us. We’re pinned to it. Days later, after my return to New York and with Alabama still in my ear, I’m in the crowd of tens of thousands for a march that takes us some miles through lower Manhattan. The language is close in its keening. Rosa Parks, John Coltrane, Martin Luther King, Jr., not a melody but a recitation, an exhortation. The raised voices echo down the caverns of the city’s streets. I can’t breathe. Black lives matter. I can’t breathe. Black lives matter. I can’t breathe. Black lives matter.
The first local berries.
On a recent weekend we made our first foray to the Jean-Talon market with friends (she writes the blog Passage des Perles, he is one of the best and most knowledgeable cooks we've met in Montreal.) Thought you might like to see the colors and beauty too.
Enchanted mushroom forests.
Considering the wild asparagus.
Artisanal breads at Joe le Croute.
Foxglove plants, wanting to go home with me (they didn't.)
Radishes that did.
Are you starting to shop at farmers' markets or get deliveries of a CSA basket, or harvesting some produce and flowers of your own? I'm curious if the variety, freshness, and local availability of produce and local food products (honey, cheese, yogurt, etc.) have improved in your region in the last decade. It's a simple way we can all help the earth, support local agriculture and the local economy, as well as improve our own health and state of mind. What could be better than that? Bon été, bon appétit!
"The wind moved like the wake of a massive beast through the city..."
At the end of January, I wrote:
The month ended with a spell of 40-degree weather blown through the dirty streets by fierce and unpredictable gusts of wind. The city looked its worst: piles of half-melted snow and ice covered with dirt and cinders vie for visual prominance with the detritus revealed underneath by their retreat. Everyone's in a bad mood, or sick -- hacking in the buses and sneezing on the streets as they pass you, merci beaucoup. The hockey rinks lay fallow, full of water reflecting the bare branches above, and ringed with people's cast-off Christmas trees. Children trudge to school, heads down, still swaddled in pink and blue snowsuits. There's no rejoicing, no unseasonable outdoor cafe-sitting as there will be in March; we all know it's a trick: real winter will be back, and soon.
It came the very next day, with the temperatures hurtling down into the single digits, and the wind, now viciously cold, chilling faces and hands the minute we stepped out the door.
There are bright spots, though, even as we hunker down for the final long slog through the next six or eight weeks, the long days of Lent, the inevitable winter storms. Florist windows are full of creative arrangements: tightly packed red roses in unusual vases, the first sight of primroses and daffodils. Ash Wednesday is right around the corner, but that means Easter will be early this year. This week's thaw finally melted through the thick, treacherous sidewalk ice, sothat there are long bare stretches of pavement, making the walking much easier. I sent in my annual garden inscription, and got a note from the chairman of our jardin communautaire: it won't be that long before the sap starts running in the maples, and it will be time to start seeds, place orders, and think about growing things again.
In spite of the ridiculous length of Canadian winters, I always feel like we've cleared a hurdle when January is finally over. It always feels like a long month, and a rather grim one. This past Sunday was Candlemas, that ancient pagan holiday appropriated by the early British Christians; we blessed the year's liturgical candles, and gave thanks for the light, and - with the groundhogs - took a symbolic step toward spring. For the first time in ages, I left the cathedral after Evensong in brightness rather than gloom, and the light in the sky lasted all the way home.
My friend G. is a research scientist living on Long Island. He also loves to hike and kayak and explore natural places, and is keenly interested in (and writes about and photographs) the ecology of that part of the world. The recent wild fires on Long Island were nearby, and when he sent me these photographs as part of a letter, I asked if it would be OK to share them with my readers. G. expanded on the text a little, and this is the result. In his first paragraph he speculates, tongue-in-cheek, about the origin ofthe fire; in the past week, however, he wrote to tell me that ongoing investigations are increasingly suggesting arson.
Early November. We’ve had a late fall, and the weather remains warm. The trees whose branches touch to form a golden tunnel each year over Ave. de Lorimier have dropped their leaves, but in the interior of Parc Lafontaine the autumn colors are still at their peak. Last Thursday evening I left my house at 5 pm and walked through the park, where the late afternoon light filtered through the yellow and red leaves as if through a silky, patterned umbrella. How can I describe the tenderness of this northern autumn light, as the day gently gives way to evening? Like a melancholy song heard from afar, it is blue, diffuse, and soft, but multiplies the intensity of all colors before gradually dying away.
In Iceland this light began much earlier in the afternoon. One day, when J. and I had taken off on bikes, we noticed the sun beginning to go down around 3 pm, and decided we should start thinking about heading back home. But we had judged the signs wrongly. There, so much closer to the Arctic Circle, sunset takes forever. We rode home, and several hours later, still in daylight, Elsa and Hörður suggested a walk to the top of the hill in back of their house, where we stood together, looking over Reykjavik toward the ocean. Even at seven pm the kind of low, glancing light we recognize here as day’s final signal still illuminated our faces, and turned the eroded slopes of Mt. Esja, in the distance, into folds of gold and blue.
Last night it was raining lightly, and the wet pavement reflected the sky and branches in the spaces between its pasted mosaic of leaves. I walked down the park’s long formal <em>allée</em> of trees toward the fountain, which was turned off for the winter a week or two ago, and then went left along the path above the first of the park’s two serpentine lakes, both drained now to reveal pebbled basins coated with green algae.
Just a few weeks ago, the park would have been full of people, on benches and blankets, catching the last warmth of summer, and the sounds of guitars and African drums would have mingled with children’s voices shrieking with pleasure as they threw bread to obligingly-eager flocks of ducks and gulls. Today, the paths were nearly empty, and the birds gone. I passed a handsome man with tousled grey hair and a brown leather jacket, riding home on his bicycle, and, at the northern end of the drained lake, a much younger man walked a small dog clad in a dog-coat so brilliantly yellow it mocked the trees.
I passed in front of the park’s new cafe-resto, shut tight, its oversize terracotta planters empty now, and stepped onto the path above the lower lake. Here, at last, were the ducks and gulls, splashing in the remaining pool of shallow water. A larger shape stood poised at the top of this pool, and, squinting now in the low light, I saw that it was a great blue heron, an opportunist no doubt drawn here by easy fishing for trapped minnows, or maybe goldfish. One night, returning home in the opposite direction, I’d seen a school of them in the light cast by a streetlamp, shimmering beneath the dark surface like shreds of copper foil. Now the heron presided over his domain: the lord of the manor calmly watching the squabbling peasants, his slate-blue coat turned up at the collar against a north wind.
At the end of the park, I waited for the stoplight and then crossed, keeping out of the way of the cyclists coming off the bike path on rue Cherrier. A young woman waited there for her bus. Tall and slender, with her black hair piled in an elegant knot atop her head, she wore a long black trenchcoat with a cinched waist, and black high-heeled boots. She held an oversized umbrella, the kind golfers use, with an outer border of black and an inner circle of alternating trapezoids of black, and a brown that matched the color of the face that it framed. Calmly, she waited, every now and then raising a cigarette that trailed across this background of black, like a lecturer’s piece of chalk.
I had been on my way to the Sherbrooke metro station to catch a train for a 6 pm choir rehearsal at the cathedral. But, after checking my watch, I walked on, mesmerized by the falling light, all the way to the center of the city.