Monday, January 20, 2014


I slept “rough” last night…no, not out in a field somewhere, but on a row of seats in Bangkok’s Suvanabhumi Airport. My flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok had engine trouble and so we were all put on a later plane that didn’t get into Bangkok until nearly 1 a.m. There was no point in going into town or even in trying to find a hotel near the airport, I reckoned.

And so I joined the motley crew of schedule-refugees who scatter themselves every night on benches around the airport to try to get some rest as they wait for late late planes or early ones, or just for an airline counter to open so they can rearrange a missed flight.

I am starting this post just before 8 in themorning on Sunday, as I sit in the plane that’s supposed to get me to Chiang Mai in just over an hour. I can’t wait.  

In the meantime I want to write down a little about the airport at night. The lights are bright and the air AC-cool, but I covered my face with a layer of dark silk scarf, wrapped the rest of me in my shawl, put my head on my camera bag, tucked my other hand-carry behind my knees, and felt quite comfortably camped. After hours of sitting on the long flight to HongKong, and more sitting in HongKong as the plane issues delayed us, my feet and ankles were swollen. Lying flat was heavenly, even if the seats were bumpy and there were people all around. And I was not worried by passers-by: The rest of the airport felt at a remove because my bench of seats was behind a post, away from the fray. The announcements of flights, very few after 1:30 a.m., were in soft woman’s-Thai. It is musical, doesn’t grate, and makes an agreeable background to thoughts and dreams…

The bench-seats’ sleep was like an extension of the sleeps I’d had on my flights, with periods of day-dreaming that slipped imperceptibly into oblivion and then back out. There were a number of men trying to sleep on other benches of seats near me. Some of them snored or snuffled occasionally, but the sounds were somehow muted in the background noise of fans and ventilation and whatever else it takes to keep an airport functioning.

As I emerged sometime after 4.30 in the morning from my longest deepest bench-sleep, about 45 minutes, the soundscape began changing. (It made me think that it would be interesting to do a 24 hour recording of the airport sounds, as it would of the sounds in other 24-hour environments such as hospitals.) There was a growing murmur and then chatter of voices, mostly women’s voices, accompanied by a light clack-clack-clack of heels as the first of the morning airline workers hurried along to their posts, all soft-voiced and full of morning energy. They must have to leave home at 4 am at the latest to reach the far-from-town airport for their early shift. And then came men and women cleaners pushing rolling carts and replacing lightbulbs and starting to mop and sweep. clean.

From there the day really began, as others like me who had spent the night, stretched, yawned, made their way to the washrooms to get cleaned up, and began purposefully walking to their gates.

The transfer staff guy at the THAI domestic desk was spectacularly clear, composed, and efficient. I met up there with another straggler/refugee from the HongKong flight delays who was also going to Chiang Mai, a pleasant young English guy who was on holiday from teaching English in Korea. And so we proceeded together to formally enter Thailand (having spent the night in the international departures area), then find our gate and put in more waiting time until our flight.

As I reflected on the streams of people in the airports, coming and going, each person with a life story and hopes and fears and ambitions, I felt disoriented, almost drunk at the scale of humanity, and its complexity. We normally deal with the scale problem by generalising and by turning individuals into a kind of amorphous object  in our heads (the words crowd or multitude are very anonymous after all), a creature rather than a huge number of fellow-humans. But in that time of being caught out of the normal expected flow of the trip and spending hours in a kind of no-man’s-land, I had time to take stock.

My conclusions about my normal assumptions were not pretty. I was obliged to acknowledge to myself that my humanity and empathy and general noticing and caring reflexes all get put on the back burner when I am in airports and negotiating the crowds and the queues. It’s as if the soullessness of these large anonymous “functional” modern spaces turns each me into an automaton, renders me somewhat soulless.

Maybe this doesn’t happen to you. But I assume, from the looks on people’s faces and the way they move, that it happens to many others.

My version of it is that, apart from the moments when I am held up in an orderly queue such as the airport security line, or the passport control line (some of those moments are great opportunities for noticing the variety of people – I think especially of the lines in Istanbul Airport), I am always navigating my way through space, threading my way through the crowd, without seeing the people at all. They all become obstacles in my path. I am thinking only of myself and where I want to get to.

I imagine that is true of many people.

And why? Why not take it easy, slow down and stroll? Why do I rush? It’s a reflex from way back, I suppose. It’s about ambition and getting there, wherever “there” is, before the line gets too long, or in case I miss something or get left out of an opportunity. But someone has to be last. And why shouldn’t I be content to take my turn at the back of the line? Why this impulse to speed things up?

Maybe it’s only North Americans and Europeans who behave like this? I wonder. But not really. Perhaps it’s a matter of temperament?

All I know is that after my enforcedly slow overnight “connection” in Bangkok, I have come to realise that my travel habits and patterns need need a thoughtful makeover. I’ll let you know how it goes, after my next long trip, which will be the flight sequence back to Toronto in late February.

Meantime I am breathing in the cool dry-season air of Chiang Mai, seeing friends, eating rice, and wearing sandals as I walk down the street. It’s a fun change after the minus 35 windchill days of early January in Toronto.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


Happy New Year to you all, belated, but no less heartfelt.

Once again I've left a long pause between posts. No excuses, really except for this feeling of impotence and paralysis that comes with extremely chilly weather. 

There’s something aggressive about extreme cold with wind, at least as we’ve experienced it here in Toronto off and on in the past ten days. It’s inhibiting, and a little scary. “Do I really have to go out?” “Is it safe to drive?” “Will my pipes freeze?” “Where is my long underwear?”: the questions and concerns range from the large and general to the detailed-small, but all of them seem to weigh on us. The result has been, for me, a feeling of being pinned and not independent. I don’t like it!

I say this even though I have been out each of the cold days. On January 2, for example, when the wind chill was 35 below, I walked about three kilometres (not far on a nice day) to a friend’s place for coffee. I was warm enough, in sensible boots, two pairs of socks, knitted gaiters to cover the gap between my boots and pants (over tights); merino wool T-shirt under long sleeved merino (both Christmas presents) plus a sweater on top of that; a neck scarf and big hat and wool armlets bridging the wrist gap to my heavy ski gloves; and a not quite knee-length fifties-era sheared beaver fur coat given to me long ago by the mother of an ex-boyfriend. Over all that I wound a long heavy silk shawl to cover my face and help warm the air I breathed a little. That’s a long list of clothing items, that take more time to put on than they do to be written down.

The encumbrances of winter, I sigh these days, as I pull on tights, or layer on another sweater.

But I am lucky and so are all the people who have health and warm clothes. As I hurried along to my friend’s place the streets were pretty empty. January 2 is not a big traffic day, and especially not in frigid weather. I even built up a bit of a sweat in all my garments. But the older man walking carefully across Harbord Street with a cane, wearing only thin gloves, to pick something up at the corner store, looked reduced by the cold and very vulnerable.

Others who have suffered - apart from the homeless, who are in a purgatory that the rest of us cannot imagine - are those who have to work outside in the cold: postal workers, garbage workers, and the people who work the ramp at the airport. And also the police, ambulance, and fire department people, as well as the hydro workers, who have all had to work overtime to rescue many from crises largely caused by the weather.

I am grateful to all who do that work. It takes a lot out of us all to live in the cold; it saps our energy and we want to retreat into hibernation…a natural animal response. At the same time we expect life to go on as usual and are upset when streetcars get jammed, or airplanes don’t fly, or mail isn’t delivered.

There’s a disconnect between what we are prepared to do ourselves and what we expect others to do for us. Hmm

On another subject entirely, I want to talk about reading and books. And that’s because the other day I gave a talk to a book club. I’d been invited by a friend last summer. The books were the first two of the trilogy of books by Patrick Leigh-Fermor about his walk from Holland to Istanbul in 1933-34, when he was 18 and 19. (They are A Time of Gifts; and From the Woods to the Water.)

I had read the books when they were first published (in 1977 and 1986) and had been engaged by the writing, and also aggravated by it. When I reread the books in preparation for the talk, I was for awhile even more aggravated. Some of the flourishes of words and images felt show-offy and unnecessary. They made me impatient.

But gradually I came to think about the writing differently. Yes it’s show-offy. But the cascading words and images are on the page to do the work that photos now do for us much of the time. And reading elaborate descriptions and complex ideas takes work. It’s work we’re no longer accustomed to doing. We are inundated with images, and tend to rush from one to the next, and to be impatient with stories that unfurl too slowly for our now-usual hurried pace.

And so I slowed down and started to try to approach the descriptions in the same way that I like to look at paintings in a gallery, slowly and carefully. Aha!

In the end, like many presenters in many contexts, I ended up talking about me myself and I, about my evolving reaction to the books. I hoped thereby to get people thinking about what we do when we read, and about how much we lose when we hurry along.

If you have stayed with me this far, in this blogpost, then you are a patient reader, and I thank you for it. I enjoy putting these words on the virtual page, working through the process of communicating my ideas and thoughts as clearly and cleanly as possible. But if there are no people out there who take pleasure in the effort of working their way through pages of reading, then books are under threat, and so is the richness of language.

I am confident, from the reaction of many who were at the talk, that a lot of us struggle to make the time to read well. We’re assailed and seduced by our computers and social media. We are enriched by them, yes. But this doesn’t come for free; it exacts a price. And that cost seems to be in a loss of free or dreaming or unmeasured time to get lost in a book.

Life seems to have speeded up rather than easing off as the decades have rolled by. As I walked along the icy chilled sidewalk this afternoon on my way back from Kensington Market (Sanagan’s Ideal Coffee, 4-Life: my basics along with Cheese Magic) I found myself wondering why there seem to be so few pauses in the day, the week, the year. I did have some deep-sleeping calm days over the holidays, but they were rare havens in a sea of rushings-around. And they were helped by my cutting off from social media and from the computer altogether for a few days.

And so now the new year is moving me along again. I am headed to New York tomorrow (if the planes are flying) for a James Beard Cookbook Committee meeting  (such great people on the committee, which oversees the judging of all the cookbooks published in any given year, by a huge number of judges scattered across North America). And then in ten days or so it’s time to prepare for this year’s immersethrough session in Chiang Mai, followed by a food-focussed tour in Burma.

Airplane rides, long ones, become a kind of pause-place, a time to read and daydream. I never mind a long flight. It feels like an oasis between lives. And how amazingly lucky I feel, to be able to have these transitions, these moments to pause and reflect, and to get lost in books.