Diary: grief, mortality, travel, Toronto

Crazy-symbolic dream: The entire extended family was in my parents’ Honda Odyssey, and we drove past a rolling hill covered in green grass. There, flanked by two chairs on either side, was Gong-Gong, propped up in one of those vertical gurneys. We all waved when we went by, and he smiled to see us, a big genuine smile like the ones he used to do when we visited him at the nursing home. Then we drove away.

I woke up crying.

While putting on perfume this morning I suddenly remembered that for nearly my entire childhood, Gong-Gong smelled of Calvin Klein Obsession. He had a big bottle of the cologne and the lotion, and probably the shower gel too — one of those gift sets. I seem to remember Er-Jiu (my youngest uncle) gave it to him.

When we came to Toronto more than a month ago, I spent my first couple of weeks feeling hyper-self-conscious and comparing my appearance to that of all the hipsters walking by. I kept thinking that people dress up more here. Since then it’s occurred to me that it’s probably not just Toronto people who dress up, but city dwellers everywhere. I have lived in a few major metro areas, but I’ve never lived right in the heart of a city, like I do now — and not the financial heart either, but a mere mile (a couple of km) from the fashion district. (Well… I guess West Hollywood is pretty central, but LA is different: A, it’s easy to dismiss all the trendy people as “sigh, that’s LA,” and B, it’s so spread-out that everyone is in cars all the time, which doesn’t afford as many opportunities for people-watching at every turn. Still, I was plenty self-conscious there, too, which resulted in constant clothes-shopping.) I’ve realized I should never have been comparing Toronto to Berkeley or San Pablo, but to the trendy districts of San Francisco, in which I spent very little time.

Luckily, my self-consciousness has gone down so much from those initial days that I now look back with incredulity. How could I have been that sensitive over every little thing? But I was, and I know that probably, I will be again once we get to Glasgow. And Edinburgh. And Reykjavík. And every other place we go…

Since Gong-Gong passed, I’ve been having those moments of stark fear and bleakness again, like I did after Elena’s passing. I suppose it’s the remembrance of our mortality, closer and more immediate than before. I think our travels have something to do with it too, though. Being itinerant is another way of confronting, on a regular basis: loneliness, temporariness, parting, the unknown. I’m more emotionally vulnerable now than I would have been at home; my fears are so much closer at hand.

That part of traveling is not so comfortable, but just last night Erik and I were sharing a delicious dinner at The Roxton and talking about how much fun we’re having. Of course we haven’t gone very far yet, and we’re just over a month on the road, but I feel like the world has gotten so much bigger, it’s amazing. I hardly thought I was provincial before, but somehow, now… there are just so many more people! So many different viewpoints! And we’re only in Canada! I never knew there were such worlds of Canadian film and fashion and culture (because, say what people might, Canadians are not just like Americans). Things feel different here; the news has a different tone (I feel it’s kinder), people respond to each other differently (I feel they are more trusting); to me there seems a younger, artsier, more design-y bent to everything from the downtown buildings to the Air Canada in-flight magazine. Basically, I just never imagined any of this being how it is.

And I guess that’s the thing about travel: it shows you that everything is so much deeper and richer and more fascinating than you could possibly have imagined, and that’s why it’s important to do it, and especially to see a place for longer than just a few days. When you’re in a place for only a short while, it’s easy to pick and choose only those aspects of the location that confirm what you already think you know: “Las Vegas is flashy,” or “Texas isn’t as diverse as California,” or “New Yorkers are rude.” Before we got here, I had heard that Toronto had a diverse population and an interesting fashion scene, and that Canadians are nice. But I interpreted those statements through what I knew, and found that the reality is more interesting.

Toronto’s diversity didn’t intrigue me very much, because after all, California is diverse too. But the diversity is different here. Things feel more integrated. There is not the intimidating, off-putting division of the population into ethnic enclaves; there are not the “cross the street and you’re in a bad neighborhood” boundaries of places like LA or Oakland. Within short walks from our sublet I have bought fresh injera, handmade mandu, and pastéis de nata; I have seen a mental-health center at the foot of a trendy drinking/dining strip, and I’ve walked through an extremely wealthy residential neighborhood a mere few blocks from a subway station. Also, the East Asian population seems slightly smaller (proportional to the rest of the population) than the ones in the Bay Area or LA, but there are far more Europeans here, and I think more people from the Middle East.

Toronto’s fashion delights me very much. Before I left, my dental hygienist (who’s from Toronto) said she often feels that Californians, even in San Francisco, “don’t dress as interestingly” as people in Toronto, because they all buy their clothes at the same stores. She said in Toronto there are many independent designers, many with their own atelier, and the prices are pretty reasonable. I have found that to be true (although I wouldn’t call the prices reasonable so much as not-crazy. Nordstrom prices rather than Neiman’s — not that the high-end isn’t represented too). The first time I walked into a hat shop and saw the hats actually being made in the back of the shop, I was amazed; I’ve since decided that that must be what Robin meant by atelier: the items are often made on the premises (and if not, they’re usually made in Canada). I know there are places like that in LA, and maybe even in San Francisco (Sunhee Moon comes to mind), but I do feel like there are more in Toronto. (And unlike in LA, designers don’t stop at size 10.)

As for Canadians being nice, I was surprised when I first got here because I was expecting them to be California-nice, and they were not. I do not think I have exchanged a single smile with a stranger on the street; that still feels weird to me. But people have been friendly in a way I never anticipated; I’ve been touched by how helpful they are, and how apparently genuinely open and thoughtful. It’s actually embarrassed me to the point where I can hardly respond in conversation, because I’m just shocked that anyone would be so… not guarded, not wary… with someone they just met. And the tone of public life and the media seems to reflect that, too. I have enjoyed that. I think, actually, people all over the world are kind and wary in different ways, and sometimes we just misinterpret it because of the way our culture teaches us. But yes, as a stranger, I really appreciate the Canadian style of friendliness.

I’ve got more photos, from various outings, but I’ll save those for another post.