Monday, October 30, 2006

Public Transit Rocks

From the archives. This was written after the London Tubeway bombings.

Odds that you’ll be killed in a car accident: 1:18,800. Odds that you’ll die in a motorcycle accident: 1:118,000. Odds you’ll get killed by a car as a pedestrian: 1:45,200. ( Odds of being killed in a terrorist attack: 1:88,000. (U.S. Center for Disease Control). FYI.

A pox on Al Qaeda! It’s nefarious, it’s vile and it isn’t environmentally friendly. Bombing public transit systems isn’t going to win them any fans with the Greens. What the hell does Al Qaeda hope to accomplish? As far as striking terror into the hearts of urbanites who rely on public transit, yeah, the terrorist organization score points there, but the two compelling reasons to ride public transit – efficiency and speed, are hard to give up. Commuters will not give up. Many low-income urbanites can’t give up. Who are these terrorists hoping to win over anyway? A bad PR move all around. Al Qaeda wants to franchise? Open a Krispy Crème and leave transit alone.

In urban centres public transit makes sense. I love the TTC. I feel sorry for people who rely on cars in the city. Being stuck on the Gardiner in some gas guzzling SUV spewing crap, listening to EZ Rock and Phil Collins while rubberneckers halt traffic to gawk at a stalled vehicle -- eesh, I’ll take the high security alert on a subway. Driving around by yourself in a hermetically sealed automobile defeats the purpose of "city". Public space and public services should be celebrated. You want privacy? Stay home and pollute your own closed garage. Keep the car running and strapped yourself in the front seat while you’re at it.

Public transit isn’t for wimps. You have to have stamina and a good dose of serenity to tolerate transit delays, overcrowding, broken down escalators. Days after the most recent threats to the London transit system I was getting off at Dundas when a TTC cleaner accidentally dropped a metal container that made a loud CLANG. At least seven people whipped their heads around quickly to see what the noise was about. I ignored the tightening in my gut and carried on. Tense? When aren’t I?

We like to think a terror strike could never happen in Canada. Why would anyone bother with us? The only thing resembling terrorism in this country happened in 1970. I was a little kid living in Montreal and I was rather happy about all the FLQ chaos. It meant occasionally staying home from school and watching The Flintstones. My parents were less pleased. I remember my father pouring over the Montreal Gazette, headlines screaming the latest on the kidnapping of James Cross and the murder of Pierre Laporte. Canada had its version of unrest. It seems quaint in comparison, like schoolboys pulling a prank. We worried about mailbox bombs. The worst that could happen if one detonated – a few Visa bills would be torched. Not so bad. Even the most rabid separatist wouldn’t strap on a vest of explosives or a backpack full of chemicals and blow up the metro. Suicide? Not when there’s Happy Hour. Dying would interfere with life’s pleasures, comme diner et danse.

I’m not nervous on the TTC. Never have been. But the Underground and our subway are similar. Toronto’s subway is a baby version of the Tube. There is a passing resemblance, Ontario being a good little province in the Commonwealth. It’s been a little eerie lately.
But public transit riders are a hardy lot. We gripe, we moan, and like Homer (Simpson), we sometimes may feel that "public transit is for losers". But the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed some people wearing Underground T-shirt on the subway, myself included. A small gesture, but an act of solidarity nonetheless, a banning together in spirit.

If we can handle body odour in 40 degree heat, we can handle anything.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

This Complete Idiot's Guide to Paris

What do you do when faced with the Louvre’s 35,000 works of art and only five hours to spare?
You get caffeinated.
You enter Ming Pie’s glass pyramids while looking at the surroundings eight centuries in the making, up at the statues of Rousseau and Rabelais for inspiration, and then gird your loins.
Pick a section.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came to mind. Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo. The Italian Masters it would be, followed by Delacroix and David. First floor in the Denon wing. Inadvertently saw the Mona Lisa. Leonardo has better portraits, but there’s no denying the enigmatic quality and superlative technique. What really moved me were the Titian portraits – Man With A Glove c. 1520, "remarkably psychological" (according to my "A Guide to the Lourve" publication) and an early precursor to Romanticism (according to my humble opinion). Onto large format French painting, and a needed break from crucifixion and suckling infants. Military conquest. Napolean everywhere. Paintings "ripped from the headlines". Bolted down the stairs before closing for a quick gaze at Italian sculpture and Michelangelo’s The Dying Slave,1513ish. Pain and ecstasy, sensuality and longing. Dying made me horny. Lucky Jim.

Jim. My travel companion and lover. Booked us in an apartment near the Avenue des Gobelins bordering the Latin Quarter, one off limit apartment once the studio of the famous French painter Watteau (yeah, I’d never heard of him either). If you have the money, book an apartment. If you don’t have the money, book an apartment on credit. Hotel rooms are the size of walnuts. You’ll appreciate having your own kitchen in the morning.

Now I’m just a simple white girl, a fifth generation Canadian from a dysfunctional family. I don’t forget that. I wish I could. So when visiting Chateau Versailles and plowing through the palace’s many anterooms, the Hall of Mirrors and the Queen’s apartment, well, I got my back up. The opulence revolted. No wonder the gens sliced off the royal heads. Divine Right of Kings my ass.
The palace gardens. Topiary that would take your head off, in a good way. Floral symmetry that staggers.

Paris seemed vaguely familiar to me, because I was born and raised in Montreal. My French is abysmal, mais, I did get by. For a Torontonian, Jim spoke French exceptionally well. Only once did he screw up, when he purchased what he thought was ice cream at the Jardin des Plantes. "Glace ou non glace", asked the attendant. "Non glace", replied Jim. (I was gawking at a flower at the time and didn’t hear the exchange). Jim came over holding a frothy looking cone. "What’s that?" I asked. "Whipping cream from an aerosol can." He ate it anyway.

How did the Nazis take Paris? How did my friend’s friend’s cousin at ten years old cope with seeing his parents bussed away from the Rue des Rosiers in the Marais quarter, never to return? When you’re deep below the Montparnasse streets in the famed Catacombs, the hideout for the French Resistance and only a mile or so away from the Palais de Luxembourg, (Luftwaffe HQ in the day), and you’re surrounded by centuries of bones and skulls, the questions haunt.

France rejected the EU charter. French society is divided. Paris is a living museum. People wearing tuxedos stood in a movie queue at midnight on the Champs Elysees. Everyday life for some.
As is jumping in front of a Metro train for others.