New Years in Montreal meant many things this past weekend: lots of eating, lots of drinking, and lots of lying in bed watching hockey and Discovery Channel marathons.
However, as with all trips to Montreal, I had to face the inevitable question of how I would get there, and what I was willing to endure for the good times. In my four years at McGill, I can remember taking a round-trip bus between Whitby and Montreal once. It was the fateful Thanksgiving of first year when, on the way back, we were forced to stand from Whitby to Kingston because Coach Canada didn’t have enough seats (and didn’t care much for fire safety or for preventing passenger nausea). It was awful. Every other time that I left la belle province I either took the train or, more often than not, my road trip-loving father would pick me up.
I once said it was worth investing in a plane ticket if it meant more time with friends. This year end, however, my bank account said otherwise. Besides, if you have friends on the bus with you, aren’t you investing in another kind of quality time? Suffering brings people together…saving money means more dollars to spend at BDP…right…?
Dreading the bus ride (estimated at 7 hours, not including the 45 minute streetcar ride from the Beaches to the bus station), Veronica and I packed ourselves full of Tim Matins (breakfast sandwiches to the Anglophones) and sardined our way onto the 9:30AM Mega Bus with a bunch of excited punky teenagers with bad taste in music and one kid who looked like the gay guy from Degrassi.
As expected, I had a pretty awesome weekend. But unexpectedly, and amazingly, the bus ride was one element that made it so great. While I’ve driven this stretch of highway dozens of times before, I’ve never been so aware or so fond of the familiar flat beigeness of eastern Ontario.
The industrialization of transportation and the evolution of urban environments have created a feeling of liminal space between cities. This environment is often considered a non-space, if it is considered at all. Car culture creates an interest in Point A and Point B, not in the line between these destinations. Expanses of farmland or uncultivated fields are images of emptiness. They’re spaces to be filled.
It is easy for urbanites (urbane-ites) to disregard the rural and the suburban, to look down on these spaces as inferior, or to paint a small town nostalgic while ignoring its lived reality. None of these strategies do these environments justice, nor do they represent anything honest or truthful. But these fantasies are a lot of fun to give into. I took pleasure by revelling in the romance of the colourless eastern Ontario countryside. It’s an easy thing for an outsider to do.
The places between places are independent of my life and lay no demands on me, making it easy to claim the space (or my experience of the space) as deeply personal, given there are so few restrictions on what I should be doing there. With a well-selected soundtrack and an easy disconnection from the routine I live, riding the MegaBus offered the opportunity to contemplate a new landscape while fully immersing myself in the heightened emotional aesthetic provided by my iTunes.
Even if what I experienced was a world entirely in my head, the countryside is not (and was not for me) a non-space. It’s so easy to look out the window and see an empty landscape. This apparent emptiness obscures diverse ecosystems, unique economies and industries, networks of people both living in and passing through. It may be a liminal experience but the spaces themselves are as concrete as the urban jungle.
To this end, I’m forced to reconsider my understanding of travelling. Typically, to travel is to visit a place, to see what it’s like to be elsewhere. It’s an act that implies a physical, tangible experience: streets, architecture, food, people. Yet the pleasure in travelling is incredibly intangible. It’s the pleasure of being without obligation: not simply the obligations you give up by setting your out-of-office replies and picking a house sitter, but the obligations that your living space puts on you each day. You don’t owe a foreign city your labour or taxes, you don’t have to follow social norms or customs that don’t belong to you (even if you have to respect them), you don’t even have to listen to your body’s demands (overindulgence is what holidays are all about).
Tourism is virtual reality, with all the narcissistic, self-indulgent implications that term carries. Going to a different place lets you leave work, family, and health behind while you create memories and feelings. You create the experience of a place. To look through a bus window or the lens of a camera is to frame a place and make what you want of it. The barren wasteland of eastern Ontario invites you to fill it with personal meaning. That’s why it’s so beige: you get to colour it with your own thoughts.
I think the idea of a place between places is very representative of my time in Montreal. That liminal quality is why I’ll always love the city (and why I should probably never give in to the temptation to move back). In Montreal I was both a tourist and a student, the two best things to be: the city asked nothing from me and everything of me. It’s an incredible feeling. Montreal will always be my virtual reality.