Round Trips & Missed Connections

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Europe, Croatia 334Sunday, September 16th.

My goal today is to see the Eiffel Tower and then go on a bike tour.

It happens … sort of.

By the time I figure out how to navigate the métro and make my way over, I realize there’s no way I’m going to make it up the tower and back down in time for the tour.

After inhaling a (not-so) cheap hotdog, I find folks with the Paris branch of Fat Tire Tours who, when they’ve gathered enough interested tourists, take us to their office (which are NOT, as you might think, located at the Eiffel Tower, but a short distance away).

While waiting in line to pay and pick a bike, I start chatting with a few people … and discover that there are a group of Canadians on the same tour as me.

IT’S LIKE WALKING INTO A FIELD OF UNICORNS.

There’s one couple who live in the west-end of Toronto. A pair of sisters from Kincardine, Ontario. A Torontonian who’s now living in New York.

To run into this many strangers at once, from my own country – while on a random tour, no less – fills my heart with a little bit of happiness and pride.

Europe, Croatia 341While my bike tour experience in Berlin was nicer in terms of the size of the tour group, Paris is much better, in terms of the space designated for bikes to travel on streets and sidewalks.

The tour starts at the far end of the Champ de Mars, in front of the École Militaire, and winds its way around, passing by such points of interest as the Dôme des Invalides, the Rodin Museum and Place de la Concorde.

Our guide offers choice facts from history as well as pop culture, and even provides a tip or two we may want to use for our sightseeing strategies.

We stop partway through the tour for a drink at the restaurant in the Tuileries Garden; I have a refreshing glass of white wine and a delicious crêpe. And we’re off again, passing by the Louvre on our way back.

The tour’s done by 7:30 p.m. By this time, I’ve bonded a bit with the sisters from Kincardine, Mary and Leah. I’m planning on going back to my flat to take a breather, but they’re leaving almost immediately for the night tour, which has a different route.

We want to meet up and explore after they’ve finished, which won’t be until about 11:30 p.m. Mary has a cell phone, but it’s dead. So we take a chance and plan to meet at 11:30 under the Eiffel Tower, near the spot where the tour company was collecting tourists earlier.

The sisters take off; I stay behind at the Fat Bike centre, to make a list of the places we’d passed on the tour, that I want to visit on foot.

What I don’t realize is that Paris’ métro system slows down considerably in the evening – especially on a Sunday.

By the time I return, it’s 11:45 p.m., with no sight of Mary or Leah.

I hang around for an extra half-hour, in hopes that perhaps they’re late in returning, or maybe they’re wandering around nearby.

Europe, Croatia 359I’m even lucky to see the Eiffel Tower light up and sparkle for a full five minutes. Despite what Parisians might think, I quite like it. I mean, it IS the City of Lights after all.

But I never see Mary and Leah. I won’t see them ever again. I suppose my gift of randomly running into people has either waned with time … or it just doesn’t work in Paris.

I head back to the métro, where I’m faced with another problem.

The station is closed.

Merde.

I try to get my weary synapses to fire. Looking at my map, I take a chance and walk until I come across the next station that’s open and will get me “home”.

I find a station I’m able to access. But the métro line I need ride to get “home” isn’t working.

I consult my smudged, repeatedly-folded pocket transit map and opt to try another line. I hop on the next train and ride it to one of the major interchange stations.

The thing about those interchange stations? They’re huge. Even if you know where you’re going, it takes forever to get from point A to point B. Especially in Paris.

I’m working with the added disadvantage of being new to the system, and – coupled with being directionally challenged – heightens my sense of panic at trying to get to the other line as fast as I can. But it’s all in vain.

Cursing under my breath, I return the way I’ve come, hoping to ride the line in the opposite direction. But that, too, has also now stopped running.

Europe, Croatia 362A loud, piercing alarm screeches throughout the station – probably a tactic to get those late-night stragglers to leave the station.

In any case, I’m tired and screwed.

I eventually surface at street level, directly facing the Arc de Triomphe.

Since I have to accept the fact it’s going to be a long trip, I do the only thing I feel I can do at 1:30 a.m.:

I pull out my camera and snap a photo.

I take a couple of resigned breaths, look at my detailed map of Paris, and start walking.

I walk along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, past the expensive shops and the late-night stragglers grabbing their last drinks for the night, until I hit Place de la Concorde.

After snapping a few more photos – and getting Europe, Croatia 365myself turned around a couple of times – I figure out where I am and find my way back to Rue de la Rivoli and, eventually, “home”.

It only takes an hour, which is better than I expect.

It is said that everything happens for a reason. Perhaps I was meant to get lost. Did I just see what I was meant to see – Paris at night? Or was there something more?

One thing’s for certain: my walk that first day – along with the bike tour – has come in extremely handy.

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Nixing The Bus

Last week, when Toronto city council had toyed with the idea of a TTC fare increase, a lot of transit riders weren’t amused.

When it scrapped said proposal early last week, we breathed a sigh of relief.

Not surprisingly, that was temporary.

Currently on the table is a plan to cut back service and reduce hours on 48 TTC bus routes across the city.

The current status is that the TTC has voted to delay its decision until a meeting on Feb. 2nd (that’s right, Groundhog Day) so it can hold consultations with riders who will be affected – anyone from seniors to students to people who work late at night. The public meetings take place next week, and there are four of them, the dates and times of which you can find on the TTC’s Web site.

I’m strongly considering attending one of these meetings. But I’m torn on the issue (what else is new, right?).

On one hand is the financial issue. The TTC decided not to raise fares to deal with its financial shortfall. But the money still has to come from somewhere, right? And with routes who are carrying less than a handful of people late at night or on the weekends, what financial sense does it make to pay drivers to drive almost-empty buses till 1 a.m.? Plus, the delays have reportedly already cost the city $1 million in potential savings.

But on the other hand are other issues. Safety. A connection to amenities and communities. Convenience of being able to find a comparably shorter way of getting to work.

Some of the friends and colleagues who know me or read this blog already know ALL about me and my commuting situation. But humour me for the sake of this argument:

Where I live, there are three operating bus routes – four if you count the one that only operates in my area during rush hour.

Two of those routes are a three-minute walk from my house.

The third route – which won’t be sliced – is 700 metres (or an eight-minute walk) in the opposite direction.

The two closest routes are the ones on the chopping block.

So what, who cares? You might think. Just go to the route that’s not being cut.

Well, here’s what: I work Thursdays to Sundays, not 9-5, and my job’s downtown.

The bus ride is only one leg of a one-way, 75-to-90-minute commute.

My shifts start in the morning, and end well into the evening. If I go straight home after work, I still don’t get home until about 10 p.m. And – with the frigid winter temperatures these days – it’s nice to only have to walk 3 minutes in the dark and the cold, rather than almost 10 minutes.

Before 2008, I walked the eight minutes to the main route on Saturday mornings. Late at night, I’d have to decide whether to wait 20-30 minutes at Scarborough Town Centre for the last or second-to-last bus, or take a $20 cab.

In the last two years, it’s been a bit better. Sure, if I don’t want to pay an astronomical cab fare from downtown, then I still need to use the subway and a bus during TTC’s hours of operation. But depending on when I get to Scarborough Town Centre for the last leg of my trip, I sometimes get another option – and one that drops me close to home.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m one of the luckier ones.

There are other Torontonians out there, who may only have ONE route to get around and do important things – like get to their jobs, pick up their kids, do their groceries – in a way that doesn’t make things harder or more time-consuming, if not damn near impossible, for them.

And as a woman, the thought of travelling in the middle of the night and not having the luxury – or the pocket money – to consider taking a taxi as an option, is concerning. Yet there are women of all ages who do this all the time, sometimes risking their safety to get home, or elsewhere.

That’s my take on things.

If you’re a TTC user who rides an affected route, consider attending one of next week’s public meetings – they run from Jan. 24 – 27. Or, if you can’t make it, you can go to the TTC Web site and leave your opinions there.

After all, you’ve got nothing to lose by speaking up.

The Subway That Hardens People

In recent weeks, I’ve had a few experiences on the subway that have kind of clouded my belief that people are, generally, nice and good.

It also has reminded me to (a) keep surrounding myself with the good moments in life and (b) remember to keep being nice to others.

Sunday, September 6. I was en route to my friend Angela’s place. She was holding a last-minute bridal shower for a mutual friend of ours. Going north on the subway line, I kind of noticed this middle-aged man get into my subway car. Scraggly beard, stringy hair. I didn’t really pay him any mind after he got on.

At St. Clair West station, I exited through one set of subway doors to make my way towards the streetcar platform upstairs. He also exited, but through the doors at the farther end of the car.

On the platform, we were walking in opposite directions. As we got closer, I noticed he seemed to be kind of walking towards me – but he wasn’t looking at me. It wasn’t until it was too late, that I noticed he was going to deliberately walk into me. I actually tried to avoid him, and said “Excuse me”.

But he obviously didn’t care, and smashed into my right shoulder, pushing me into the station wall. The oddest thing about it all was, there wasn’t really anyone on the platform.

I turned and momentarily stopped to look at him. The guy just kept on walking. Who knows? Maybe he was on drugs. Maybe he was angry at the world and thought trying to knock me over would make him feel better. But I didn’t have the time, nor the desire to run after him. I started to jogging over to the escalators,. gift bag in hand, so I could make the St. Clair streetcar.

But the exchange shook me a little, and I’m glad I was pushed against the wall and not off the platform.

Saturday Night. I had just finished work, and was hurrying along to meet my friend Lori for Nuit Blanche.

At St. Andrew Station, I whipped out my Metropass and prepare to enter one of the reversible turnstiles, just as this older woman and her companion were approaching. (While not overdressed, they looked like they were going to attend an evening at the symphony nearby.)

Apparently only one of us was aware of the “reverse” function.

The woman and I stopped in front of the same turnstile. I deferred, and stepped to one side to let her through.

I only expected her to pass through and mumble a perfunctory thank you.

Instead, she decided to say, “It says ‘exit'”, as she clicked through the turnstile.

This made me stop and say nothing for at least a couple seconds. I was thinking, This woman actually thinks I’m an idiot!

Instead I said, “It’s also ‘enter’,” swiped my Metropass and passed through the turnstile. I didn’t even look at her when she left my sightline, and chances are she wasn’t really paying attention after her oh-so-(not-so)-smart comment, either.

Later that evening, while travelling home, I was sitting in a two-seater, iPod cranked and head buried in a NOW Magazine, when someone sat down close beside me. Because it was after midnight and there was already one drunk guy in the subway car, I didn’t want to take any chances encouraging whomever was sitting beside me by looking at them.

Several stops later, the guy – who STILL hasn’t given me so much as a microscopic buffer zone – starts nudging me. I’m thinking, who on earth IS this? I pull my head out of the news paper and turn … only to stare into the face of my work-friend Errol … who, by now, is giggling because he’s found the whole scene hilarious. My subway game face gives way and I just start laughing – at my own ridiculous behaviour, and his response to it. We must’ve been laughing for about 4 or 5 subway stops, until he eventually got off at Main.

It’s just made me realize how cold the subway – and city – must sometimes be to people who come here from other places.

If a homegrown resident can see it, I can’t even imagine what a transplanted citizen must see.

THAT’s a First …

I’ve had my share of “characters” who decide to try and “chat me up” (and I use the phrase loosely) while waiting for a bus …

But I’ve never had someone do it to me while waiting for a train. 

Picture it: Scarborough, just this afternoon.

I’m on the Scarborough Rapid Transit (SRT) platform. It’s cold. My iPod is blasting in my ears.

This dude passes me on my left and stops just next to me. He’s facing me – which means he wants to talk.

Inwardly groaning at which one of two things he’s going to say to me, I reluctantly pull out my left earbud … and the conversion went something like this:

Guy: Hi.

Me: Hi. (I’m looking at him, tight-lipped.)

Guy (extending his hand): My name is Glen.

Me (weakly shaking it): I’m Denise.

Glen: How are you today?

Me: Fine, thanks.

(Awkward Pause # 1 as I lean a bit sideways to see if the train is coming yet. Sadly, no. He turns and does the same.)

Glen: So … are you coming from work?

Me: No. I’m coming from … home.

Glen: You go to school?

Me: No, I work … downtown.

Glen: What kind of work do you do?

Me: I work at a bank – I’m a teller. (Complete lie # 2.)

(Awkward Pause # 2. Still no train.)

Glen: So … do you have a cell phone?

Me: No. I disconnected it last week.

(Where’s the damn train?)

Glen: Do you have an e-mail address?

Me: Yes.

Glen: Can I have your e-mail address?

Me: No.

At this point, I hear a weird noise behind me, so I turn away from what I hope is the end of the conversation with “Glen” to watch some semi-crazy guy pick through the litter receptacle and extract a cup from a fast-food place that used to carry someone’s pop.

I watch him for about 20 seconds. And then I turn around to see that Glen is still standing there.

Following Awkward Pause # 3, in which he turns to see whether the train is FINALLY coming, he turns back to me and says, “Good to meet you. Have a nice day,” and walks away.

Seriously? Seriously. Does any of that stuff actually WORK? I’d be interested to find out how successful he’s been. 

Not that the weirdo factor would be completely eliminated … but I now firmly believe that I really, really, REALLY need to move out of Scarborough.

The Crazy and The Christian

(Preface: I have nothing against Christians. Some of my family friends – and friends – are. I just happened to find the following to be funny …)

Last Friday morning, I was standing on the Scarborough RT (rapid transit) platform, listenin’ to the old iPod and waiting for the next train to arrive.

Then I looked to my left and saw him – Crazy RT Guy.

Backstory: Crazy RT Guy is this middle-aged dude who (to me) always looks dirty, wears these huge Coke-bottle glasses, and has what I think is an enormous head (which I’m pretty sure is due to some kind of medical condition that makes him a bit unstable).

Every time the RT pulls into the station, no matter where he is, Crazy RT Guy ALWAYS comes rushing up to the first car – which I always ride in – and pushes his way in front of whomever is rightfully standing there, kinda erratically waving his arms in an “out of the way!” fashion, just so he can get in the car first. And during the ride, he’s always gesticulating to people who lean on the glass, not to do so … tapping on the glass, scolding, that sort of thing. He’s a bit like the Rain Man of the RT.

Anyway … I saw him standing about 20 feet away and thought, oh man. Why do I have this feeling he’s going to push his way into my car? He comes my way, I’m definitely moving back.

So while I was waiting – and watching Crazy RT Guy out of the corner of my eye – I could hear, over the noise of my iPod, this lady singing. I figured, meh, it’s one of those middle-aged church ladies who likes to sing hymns. No big deal. Sure enough, this tiny black lady dressed in black passed behind me, singing.

But within moments, I noticed she wasn’t just singing. She was practically dancing, snapping her fingers. I kept trying not to notice, but then I kept looking at her, swaying and snapping. I even entertained the thought that maybe she was having an impromptu rehearsal for a choir she might be in. ‘Cause who’s that happy – or crazy – at 10 a.m. in the morning?

So the RT pulls up. Sure enough, Crazy RT Guy came bustling towards the first car. I stepped back well ahead of time to avoid his manic behaviour in front of the doorway, and got into the other set of doors nearest to the front of the car.

Inside the sparsely-populated car, I tried to listen to my iPod. Crazy RT Guy was sitting in the middle of the car, clutching his dirty bag.

Singing Church Lady was still singing. And dancing.

I’ve heard about making a joyful noise unto the Lord. But all that was missing from girlfriend’s routine was some Holy Jazz Hands.

About three or four minutes into the trip – and I didn’t actually see this – I guess Singing Church Lady wanted to spread the joy, particularly to Crazy RT Guy. But he wasn’t having any of it.

“STOP,” I heard him say, loudly and sharply.

I guess Singing Church Lady didn’t believe he honestly meant that, because I think she was trying to talk to him when again he barked:

“STOP!”

I think she then was trying to convince him that she was happy and should be allowed to express herself, and that everyone was here for a purpose.

That’s when I saw him frantically make small circular gestures with his fingers near his temples.

The international gesture for “crazy”.

I smirked. That was rich.

I think she told him she loved him, ’cause he did it again!

I just shook my head. But, of course, that was also the precise moment at which she turned away and made eye contact with her.

She was grinning. Almost maniacally, now that I look back on it. She might possibly be able to beat the Dalai Lama in a smile/laugh-off, if there ever was such a thing.

And she started talking to me. I realized I still had my earbuds in my ears, so I missed about half of what she said. I figured she was talking about Crazy RT Guy.

Then I removed my earbuds, and all I remember her saying was, “I see you’re listening to your little (gadget) … He’s here for a reason, you see. You, too. We are all here for a reason.” The woman was nodding, practically giddy. I smiled wanly and nodded weakly. And then when Crazy RT Guy got up and huffily waited for the train to pull into his stop, she turned back to focus on him, and I promptly stuffed my headphones back into my ears.

By the time Crazy RT Guy departed the train, the woman did stop dancing. But she never stopped smiling.

Listen. People who look happy usually make me smile a little. But I was never happier than when I saw the back of that woman’s head as she stepped off the RT and down the elevator.

If that’s what “high on life” is actually like, I’m not entirely sure I want to be.

(Unrelated Post-Script: I just realized that today was my second blogiversary. Yay, me!)

Sniffing at Courtesy?

About this time last winter, I remember sitting on the subway one morning – part of my routine commute to work.

I know I was sniffing, either because it was really cold that morning, or I had a cold – I can’t remember which.

I suppose I’d been sniffing excessively, because the passenger sitting next to me – a young man about my age – handed me a tissue to blow my nose.

I’d never had anyone do that for me before. He probably did it partially out of courtesy, but probably also because he just wanted my sniffing to cease. Looking back on it now, I honestly don’t blame him.

But reflecting upon it now, I appreciate the gesture. In fact, after it happened, I appreciated it so much that I wanted to extend the gesture to other people. 

A few days after that, I was sitting on the subway as per usual, when I noticed the female passenger next to me was sniffing.

I was hesitant, because the TTC is strange – cold and unfeeling, even – in that you very rarely come across people who don’t act all weird when you say something or make a gesture out of courtesy. I just didn’t want to start off my morning with cut-eye from a complete stranger.

And so, as the man did for me a few days earlier, I reached into my bag, pulled out tissue and offered it to her. She kindly accepted, thanking me. I was kind of shocked, actually.

Fast forward to last Wednesday. For whatever reason, I now find that people sniffing does kind of get on my nerves, as it was on this particular morning. As I was sitting in one of the single seats on the busy, trying to read, this high school student was standing over me, sniffing … and sniffing.

So, deciding to extend some goodwill and a Kleenex, I took my time and then turned, looked upward at him and said, “Would you like a tissue?”

The kid looked at me blankly, as if I started speaking to him in a man’s voice, in Czech.

I added, “I noticed you were sniffing.”

Nothing but the same blank stare.

“So you don’t want a tissue?”

He shook his head.

“Okay, then,” I replied, quickly muttering to myself, “So stop sniffing.”

I dunno if he heard the last part, because between the time I stopped speaking and the time he got off the bus a few minutes later, it seemed like he miraculously stopped sniffing.

Maybe I had the wrong approach. Maybe my offering wasn’t with the sincerest of intentions as it had been last year. Or maybe what works on a subway on its way downtown, just doesn’t roll on a bus driving through Scarborough.   

*sigh*

I’m SO getting an iPod.