Sunday, March 19

Roll Bus Roll | Montréal, QC

We're standing by a snowy roadside in the middle of rural Canada, halfway along an eight-hour Greyhound bus journey from Toronto to Montreal. It's early afternoon on Friday, and the bus driver looks like one of my secondary school History teachers.

Endless, empty suburbs ripple out from Toronto, and then the surroundings get wilder and snowier. This roadside stop is straight out of Twin Peaks, the interior clad with wood, one wall brightly pink with candy bars. On a doilied side table stands a glass jug of freshly brewed filter coffee, which you pour into a polystyrene cup for about $1.24. I drink it while listening to Lambchop's Is A Woman record, as white fields billow past the bus window. It tastes good.

We have five days in Montreal. We arrive late at night to a bus station that feels more Paris than Canada, catch the metro to our airbnb, and eat hummus in front of a terrible Christmas film. We're staying in a ground floor studio, a snowy nest, perfect in its smallness. I come to love boiling water for tea on the portable hob, setting up camp on the sofa bed, turning on the lamps.

On the morning of Christmas Eve the square window frames a quiet, heavy snowfall and we run in it, the muffled thud of our trainers the only sound for streets and streets. The squeak-crunch of fresh snow under our feet, around Parc Jarry where the pond water is camouflaged white, I write. Il neige, il neige. There are other runners but otherwise it is deeply still. 

We meet Suzie, a friend studying abroad in Montreal, in a supermarket west of the city, conduct an abbreviated version of the grocery shopping I'd normally be doing with Mum right now, walk Suzie's three legged dog Benny, examine giant icicles, and warm up with McDonalds coffee. Later that evening there are free fireworks in the Old Port; after the show, promoters hand out complimentary hot chocolate and we bob round caged fires to keep warm. The moat is a natural ice rink and a confident blur of limbs and hats passes under Christmas lights. But the ice creeps up through my boot soles and even the overhead heaters and furry benches aren't enough. We find a blues bar playing The Killers' Christmas songs, where a Frenchman pays for our pitcher of sangria, and a New Yorker talks to us for a while. On the way back to the metro Lizze loses her earring in the snow. We sing Fairytale of New York all the way home and watch A Christmassy Ted until late; some Christmas traditions can never be eschewed.

Christmas Day 3242 miles from home was always going to be strange. The snowfall of Christmas Eve glitters brilliantly in the hard sunshine of the following day. It is -11 degrees outside, but we're warm in our nest with fresh coffee and Christmas cake. Christmas morning is all hair washing and strange phone calls home, tears, Christmas music, and a short venture outside. It's the coldest temperature I've ever physically experienced, so cold that even power walking doesn't curtail the shivering. But the streets are bright with sun and snow, the air full of pealing bells from all the neighbourhood churches.

We catch a surprisingly busy metro to Suzie's and cook potatoes, carrots, and gravy. There's panettone, stollen and yule log, too, and The Grinch. I call home. Mum's voice sounds further away than normal and I can't imagine the usual home festivities continuing without me; it seems more likely that the household has been left on pause until I return.

Boxing Day is a near death experience. It doesn't start out that way: we sleep late, drink coffee in bed, read. But then we go outside. It's overcast and raining, except on a cold winter's day in Montreal, harmless rain will immediately turn to lethal ice. Literal hard-rain's-a-gonna-fall. The pavements are pathways to death, or at the very least, humiliation. It begins as soon as we exit the metro station in the centre of the city; the pavement slopes, and Lizze is flat on her back. We're aiming to climb Mont-Royal, but as the streets lift to meet the hill, walking becomes increasingly difficult. Cars rev frantically, wheels spinning into a blur without getting anywhere, their screeches audible from every street. At the border of the park where the snow is still thick, I resort to descending icy stone steps on my ass. Time to give up on the Mont-Royal expedition, except we now have to traverse back down the hill to the city. The rain's been steadily falling and freezing this whole time. Every so often you hear a sudden thud, a gasp, and an onlooker's intake of breath, as another soul succumbs to the ice and goes ass-over-tits. A real life Youtube compilation video of people falling over. It'd be funny, except we can only proceed at the slowest pace, my feet are so cold I could cry, and we're bone-drenched with icy water.

When we finally find an entrance to Montreal's famed 'underground city', it's like stepping through a door into another world. Here, beneath the city's perilous streets, hundreds of warm, dry humans walk with ease through shops and cafes. It is only the relief from the freezing rain that makes me appreciate these underground consumerist labyrinths though. Because that's all they are, malls linked by tunnels, inhabited by crazed shoppers on a Boxing Day binge.

Back at home, after another laboured, treacherous walk from metro station to apartment, we recover with a cheese, wine, and chocolate floor picnic. Suzie joins us, I dance to Springsteen in my thermals, and Lizze teaches me some acro yoga.

It's our last day in Montreal, and the worst of the ice has thawed, so we're able to walk up to the top of Mont-Royal. In the park we pass skaters and snow-tubers, bold squirrels and people out running. Suzie's made us sandwiches which we eat inside the Chalet du Mont-Royal. The view out across downtown is impressive, but after five days in Canada the cold has completely infiltrated my bones. There's a wooden staircase, orange against the black and white landscape, leading all the way back down into the city, where we warm up in a hip coffee shop. Later in the evening we catch a bus to the Cinema Dollare, where, yes, all tickets and snacks cost just a dollar. Take note, London!

After the movie, Lizze and I hotfoot it to the bus station, and almost miss our overnight Greyhound to New York.

* * *

Roll bus roll, take me off
A rolled sweatshirt makes the window soft
If I fall asleep, don't wake me up
Roll bus roll, take me up

I wasn't designed to move so fast
I wasn't designed to have so much past
And in my mind's eye they all have so much fun
Nowhere to hide and nowhere to run