Thoughts On A City

by industriousants

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The snow was gone, I swear. Thank goodness we were, in true Canadian fashion, too nervous to pack up our winter clothes. It’s bad luck to put all those fleecy pajamas and long underwear away. Secretly we knew that if we did, we’d just be cutting open some cardboard box we’d only finished taping up, rifling through it for mitts and toques, those wooly winter socks with the holes in the heels, the ones we never could just throw away. We knew with uncertain certainty that we’d need them all again when that last-hurrah-blizzard would hit us like a truck full of snowballs. And of course, inevitably, looking out my window this mid April evening, at the huge snowflakes falling into a whitened landscape, I smile a little and then frown at the accuracy of my seasonal intuition. When will it end? Well, I know but still ask. Soon, but not yet.

Time is moving forward in leaps and bounds, and just as I get settled and comfortable in one month, the next is upon me. We’ve been in this American big/small city since mid-March and I finally feel like I have a hold on my surroundings. Not having a second car helps significantly with that. When I’m on foot or navigating a public transit system, I always feel a little bit more in my element. Street names stick in my head easier, grid systems make more sense. It’s only the highways I haven’t figured out just yet and I’m in no rush to. After many strung-together days of chasing, reprimanding, feeding, watching like a hawk, my daring darling son, I admit that I savor the moment when I can buckle him solidly into his car seat and sink into shotgun beside my husband with nothing to think of, nothing to do, just maybe look out the window, or even better, close my eyes. My weekend luxury.

We had a good run in Japan. The money was good, the rent was cheap, the minor celebrity status as foreigners always kept things exciting. And here we are in a sort of mirror image of all that, and I welcome it. There’s nothing like simplifying your life and putting up some self-imposed fences to see what really makes you happy. So far, I’ve discovered food trumps pretty much all of my other worldly desires. At the library I find myself stuck in front of the cookbook shelf and I daydream about the meal I’ll make the next day, and the day after that. At the grocery store I painstakingly read over ingredient lists, squeeze lemons, smell cilantro, reject false advertising, take advantage of all the ‘ethnic’ on sale items that people here can’t seem to make sense of. Hooray for Panko and Garbanzo beans. The whole process makes me feel alive and powerful, like how I feel when I’m taking pictures. So it’s true then that I am a mulit-media artist. Cooking happens to be an art that I still have much to learn about. In our small apartment I spend most of my time in one place, practicing my techniques. Noah has noticed. He now calls the kitchen “mommy’s room”.

When not cooking or eating, we walk here and there and it keeps me thankful for my legs and that bulky stroller I lugged through US customs. Our walks tell us about where we live. We journey for blocks without seeing another soul on foot. Cars there are no shortage of though, and American flags too. Star spangled reminders to the people of who they are, everywhere, lest they forget, on the sides of buses, on the front lawns of homes, hidden in gas station names. Indeed, you are Super, America. Our little neighborhood is cozy and village like, but I feel sad when I go downtown. The buildings and the people loitering outside of them seem empty and worn out. The most colorful building I see is multi-leveled parking lot. A shrine to our latest god. When will we finally melt that golden calf down?

I get a sense that the gap between the haves and have-nots here is a bit bigger than I’m used to. The faces of buildings and pedestrians tell me so. I’m not used to seeing so many people down and out, which strikes me as odd coming from an even bigger city than this. Neighborhoods and skin color change quickly from one street to the next. Some accents are unfamiliar. The Somali ones I know. Asian and Spanish, of course. But not the ones connected by this country’s sprawling interstate system, the southern rhythms, the scandinavian undertones of bleached blonde locals, the midwest beat of the black community, all meeting on the banks of the Mississippi. The immigrants here I understand, but everyone else seems foreign. I suddenly miss Toronto, where minority is majority, elsewhere-accents so common that we don’t notice them anymore, and normal that the Indian in me is french-braided ever so tightly with my Canadian roots. No one here can pronounce my name, something I find hard to believe. “It’s French” I say. That only makes things worse, but everyone pretends that the explanation somehow makes it better, and inevitable I will need to clarify the spelling and say it slowly just one more time. Looking at me, do they expect I’d be called something different? Like Amal, or Lakshmi, or Kadhija. I feel insecure and overthink it all. My name. My skin. My own stereotypes of Americans.

I have way too much time to think about all this, pushing a stroller kilometers and miles through the city. And then when I meet strangers I force conversations about race relations and economics upon them. I need more things to do with my hands to take my mind off all the differences that divide us and them and me. The snow will be gone soon, and there is a chance that I can get a plot in the community garden. The list is full, but I submitted my application anyhow, remaining hopeful that if I wait long enough I can help make something grow.