Monday, April 27, 2009

The New and the Old (Cont'd)

Yesterday I spoke of missing greenery, and of learning how important it was to me through the effect its absence has had. Today I want to move on to a different hue, and a different shade. Grey, specifically. For, you see, grey is one of those colors we either never notice, or notice too much, neither of which is indicative of anything positive. But grey is a positive color. It's a very positive color.

Before I go on, I have a confession to make. I am a lover of walking, and have been for a number of years. In the past, when I wasn't out on a mountain bike going from one end of the city to another, I was out on the toe-heel express. I'd strap on a Walkman, listen to tunes, and just lose track of the world as I went along. In retrospect, I realize this may not have been the wisest course of action. At times I would walk for a couple of hours, and all of a sudden find myself somewhere, yet have no memory whatsoever of the journey I had taken. Had I stopped at intersections? Or had I plowed blithely through them, leaving a snarled mass of skidding tires and honking horns in my wake? I had no idea, and that scared me, but it didn't stop me.

At times instead of listening of listening to music, I'd read a book while I walked. I can only imagine how odd it must have seemed to onlookers, with some fool boy, nose deep in a book, heading off who knows where without showing the slightest hint of noticing the world around him. From my perspective, however, it was all good. I could see enough with my peripheral vision that I didn't worry about banging into anybody, and I'd see intersections far enough in advance that I'd make sure to stop, and at least check the walk signal. But at times, when that deep reading mode descended, I lost even this minimal awareness of the world. Looking back, I can only see it as the hand of providence, or some protective spirit looking out for me, as too many times to count, I would cross a street, and only realize what I had done afterwards, or, stepping out onto the road, a blaring horn would help me snap to, and duck back on the curb. One day after not noticing a substantial obstacle in my way, I tripped and fell off to the side of a path I had been walking along. I took a smallish tumble, thirty or so feet down into a creek bed, getting all my clothes, and all my things, wet. It took days to dry off that book, and after that, I swore off reading and walking, seeing it as a teetotalers corollary to drinking and driving.

About six or so years ago, a friend of mine came down from Ottawa to spend a little time in Toronto. We were visiting my father's house in Etobicoke, closer to the north end of Toronto, when we decided to head out for a walk. We hadn't thought about were, exactly, we'd go, just that we would go...somewhere. It just so happened that after stepping out of the house and walking down a street, we found ourselves facing south. So southward we went.

When walking by your lonesome, time can drag. Every ache and pain makes itself felt, and time often drags interminably. When walking accompanied by music or a narrative, time moves at a faster clip, and you're less aware of your physical limitations. But when you walk with a friend, talking about everything and more besides, time doesn't just move at a faster clip, it whips by. And as for physical limitations, the strangest thing happens. You barely feel anything at all.

My friend and I moved southward, and before we knew it, we were standing on the lake shore. The vast expanse of Lake Ontario stretched out beyond the horizon, and looking to our left, to the east, we could see the CN Tower. From where we were, the tallest man made structure in the world, at the time, was about the size of my thumb, and the downtown core merely and indistinct mass of darker shades. We had already walked quite a ways, so we decided to continue on, and started making our way downtown.

Eventually we ended up in the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto. Our trip had taken us seven hours, and as we sat and relaxed in a food court, our bodies seemed to come back online with numerous damage reports, and a mounting insurrection should we choose to press on further. A taxi ride home seemed the prudent option.

But what, you might ask, has this to do with anything I started this post talking about? The short answer is - sidewalks.

When I lived in Japan, I always found the time spent on the train riding to work to be the most depressing part of my day. You could travel for hours and barely ever see a speck of green, only an endless mass of grey and black. On cloudy, wet days, that dour scenery looked positively dystopian. After work, though, my spirits always lifted, because, outside of times when it rained, I never took the train home, I walked. From where I worked to where I lived, I listened to music and my own thoughts along an endless series of sidewalks. Like Toronto, Tokyo was a city where you could walk from one end to the other, for hours, even days, on a safe set path for pedestrians. Anywhere in the city you might want to go, you could go by foot without a moment's thought, assured that no matter where you were, you were safe, and a place of safety was relatively near.

It wasn't until I moved to Dubai that I understood how important sidewalks had become to me. Those endless miles of grey concrete seemed to signal safety and opportunity. I could go, wherever I wanted, on a sidewalk. But not in Dubai. In fact, with the exception of a few communities in the core of the city, almost nothing is linked by sidewalks. Inside of a few of the older communities there are sidewalks, of a sort, but the are more haphazard and impromptu in nature. Here the endless kilometers of grey are the sole domain of automobiles. And in this place, even on a pedestrian crossing, the pedestrian is most certainly not king. It's pedestrian emptor - walker beware.

Not having sidewalks at hand from one end of the city to the other really limits your horizons. My family and I can only travel by car, since trip on foot are often fraught with tense moments, and interminable as we are forced to take incredibly circuitous routes to get safely from one area to the next.

Absent those ever present sidewalks, we find ourselves trapped, victimized by infrastructure and unable to make our way on shifting paths the way so many others here are comfortable with. With 90% of the expat community coming from places where sidewalks are an elaborate fantasy concocted by westerners, they do not feel their absence. But just as my wife and I simply cannot put our children in a car without a car seat, and are not okay with cramming ten our twelve people into a Toyota Corolla, we have a hard time dealing with the absence of ubiquitous sidewalks.

Those thin paths of grey, merely an afterthought for us in Canada, have become a key source of unease for us here, are one of the key reasons why, though there is much to recommend this city, we could never call it home.

Tomorrow...a bit more about grey, old things, and new.

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