Washington, DC House Party – Part One

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DC House Party – Part One

“So how do you know Hanon?” asks a bright-eyed twenty-something girl and her boyfriend as I take a seat beside them on the fireplace after introducing myself.

“Who’s Shanon?” I ask, mishearing in the noise of the crowd.

“This is his housewarming party! How did you get here?”

I find myself mixing with an interesting group of young professionals, at a house party in the city centre of the nation’s capital. There are two distinct groups here, friends who attended college with Hanon in another state, and friends he knows from work here in DC. That’s what everyone calls it. No one says Washington as if one could suddenly get confused by that western state.

The young man sitting beside me works for a non-profit that deals with creating programs to help at-risk youth. This is an issue of which I can converse at-length. During my short teaching stint in Winnipeg I visited a number of schools desperately trying to solve the complicated situation of Canada’s First Nations people. As a population, many are not enjoying the same lives as mainstream Canadians. Several generations of oppression has left most members of their culture disenfranchised, hopeless, and feeling trapped in a cycle of poverty and addiction. In a special school designed to honour and uplift aboriginal culture, it was typical to find three students present for a grade ten class with an enrolment of twenty-seven.

His girlfriend wanders-off mingling and returns about ten minutes later, “what are you guys talking about?” Off she goes again, and I am sharing my feeling that mentoring might be an effective strategy when dealing with youth. From my experience, the kids felt hopeless because they did not see a positive future for themselves. This was the case because they often didn’t know anyone in their circle who had broken out of the cycle. No one was employed back on the reserve, a single mother may have brought to them to the city hoping to escape the relentless poverty and drug addiction and alcoholism only to find that it was also rampant in the city. They felt that opportunities were closed to them. Sure they knew teachers and social workers, but they saw those people as different than them. They saw themselves as being members of a group for whom dreams were not possible. What’s the point in going to school, I’m never going to graduate anyway, no one ever has in my family.

Girlfriend is back again, “Now what are you talking about?” I realise that I am detaining her boyfriend from mingling with her. I stand-up and change the topic to Vietnam, where she spent a few months teaching last year.

I chat with some friendly jocks about the international auto show I attended today with my friend Sam, who is a car enthusiast. He is the one person I knew coming to this party. We took the train from Richmond yesterday.

When Sam was thirteen, he went to summer camp with Brenda. They have not seen each other since then but they reconnected on Facebook. When Sam recently moved to Richmond they planned to reconnect. Brenda is dating Hanon, so when Sam contacted her to meet-up during our visit she invited us to this party.

“Oh, I see. So you’re from Richmond, that’s why we haven’t seen you before.”

“No, I’m from Toronto.” “But you live in Richmond.” “No, I live in Toronto. I’m from New Brunswick, that’s east of Maine.”

“How long have you lived in DC?” someone asks, having partially heard my story through the grapevine three hours later. “I just came yesterday, I’m here for the weekend.” “But you’re the Canadian. If someone had asked me who was the Canadian, I would have guessed you.” “Because I’m wearing German jeans?” My black jeans have a checkered silvery pattern, they are sewn with multiple lines of very thick thread and have some unusual edgy details. The rest of the crowd are wearing either beige pants or blue jeans. All in black I stand out as looking a bit more urban which is not generally people’s idea of what Canadians look like. “No, your hair.” “Oh, no, I’m not like following some Canadian hair trend or anything. This big mop is does not represent any regional hairstyle.” “You just look Canadian.” Well now that you know! From my considerable experience, most everywhere I have gone in the US people have assumed me to be a local or at most a domestic transplant.

“Did you meet many locals; were you able to make local friends?” I ask a fellow who spent some weeks traveling in Cambodia and Laos. “You know what it’s like in Southeast Asia, it’s a lot easier to meet people than it is here.” “Yes,” I agree, ironically.

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I introduce myself to a couple who are looking a bit separate from the group. By now I have narrowed my introduction down to, “I am a friend of Sam who is a friend of Brenda who is dating Hanon and I am currently on a road-trip from Toronto.” You see, I didn’t quite know my connection when I arrived, but it’s clear to me now. “My friend is having a party,” had been enough info for me. “What’s your next stop?”

“My next specific stop is meeting friends in Acworth, Georgia.” “That’s where we just moved here from! Cobb county, Acworth is in Cobb county!” New in town, they also don’t know most of the people at this party. She works with Brenda. He is a performance artist, he paints with his hands while dancing. He is hoping to expand his horizons being in a new town, and having closer proximity to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. A really great couple, we chat for a while. Although he is clearly very optimistic, he seems to think he’s going to become “the next Michael Jackson” in scope, I encourage him to be patient. From my experience in business, being in the right place at the right time is huge in finding success. My former partner and I happened to a city that had a vacancy for pop culture stores when we happened to stumble into selling it. That is about as strategic as I will admit to us having been. And it’s a very common story. Ask people how they came to do what they do and more often than not they will recount a tale of many wandering and meandering paths rather than a straight trajectory. “The right time and place could happen for you next month, but it could also happen for you in seven years. If it’s your passion then you just have to keep doing your best getting it out there and not give-up before that magic moment.” I guess the same applies to me and my writing. I just need to keep at it too.

I sit down where there’s room and cause some ill feelings from one of the jocks. The girl he has been chatting to now turns to me. She engages me in conversation and I see him rolling his eyes as I reply, “No, I’m just visiting from Canada.” What does he expect me to say? Don’t talk to me, that guy who suddenly hates me was clearly hoping to sleep with you? Of course he thinks we’re on the same team and assumes I’m playing the same game.

To Be CONTINUED

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Just thought you might be curious to see the jeans I was talking about. I don’t have pics from that night, but I was wearing these with black shoes and a plain black long-sleeve shirt. Very Canadian.

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Very handsome train station in D.C.

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Generic winter scene, from Google images.

Previews of Part Two:

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I’m trying to keep each posting between 1000 to 1500 words, so stay tuned for part two in a week or less. Thanks for reading! Darren

Philos Adelphos, Philadelphia Part Two

(In Part One of this Philadelphia posting I wrote about why this city has the title of “City of Brotherly Love” as well as “Cradle of Liberty” which I will discuss a tiny bit further here. I also highlighted some city firsts as well as my observation that it rains every single day. There are a lot of interesting facts about Philadelphia so if you missed part one, go back and read it here:

https://personaltravelstories.com/2014/03/29/looking-for-the-love-philadelphia-part-one/

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Philos Adelphos, Philadelphia Part Two

I’m sure it’s well known that the Declaration of Independence was signed here in 1776, and first read to an audience in Independence Park. President George Washington served his presidency here from 1790 to 1797. Starting the same year that the daily paper went out of business and the year that the Philadelphia Stock Exchange opened. Interesting. Those were happening-times around here. Seems like a much quieter place now, it has to be said.

In case you were wondering about that technological first, it was the design and build of the worlds first entirely electronic computer, ENIAC. This beast was more than a thousand times faster than it’s predecessors, so an enormous achievement both in size and importance. This was 1946. Today we carry more computing prowess in our pockets in the guise of mobile phones while ENIAC weighed-in at sixty thousand pounds. (According to Siri, that’s equal to forty average six-cylinder sedans. She didn’t just tell me that, I had to do the math in my head. I’m not completely reliant on her.) The world has changed very quickly.

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I happened into the lively Reading Terminal Market where I would have been happy to get out of the rain had it not suddenly stopped while I was waiting to cross the street to it’s entrance. Of course it recommenced soon after I reintroduced myself to the open air an hour later. In the market I enjoyed a fantastic dark roast coffee and a scrumptious Roast Pork sandwich with Provolone at Dinic’s after seeking the advice of some locals. My friends in Rhode Island had told me not to miss this market and I felt well-advised. I tried to read the fascinating history of the market but my eyes glazed-over with boredom. (I’m sure it’s well-written, I’m just funny that way.) Anyway, it’s a great place to wander, eat, and purchase everything you might need to prepare many kind of meal.

I learn online, with some surprise, that Philly has the most public art pieces of any US city. The surprise came from the fact that I noticed very few, although perhaps many were being obscured by the nearly constant rain. Or maybe many are not waterproof and are contained within indoor public spaces. For outdoor space, Fairmont Park, with eight thousand acres, is the largest US city park. I thought to myself, would that be a simply wonderful place to tromp through muddy grounds while enjoying winter rain storms? Possibly, but I didn’t.

At some point in the day I noticed I was a head-turner. I was all dressed in black, well nearly; my wool/cashmere overcoat perfectly unsuited for rain was dark gray. With frumpy but comfortable black leather shoes, black pants and trousers, all topped with a black hat, whenever water was not pouring forth from the skies I was turning the heads of a local segment. It wasn’t that they thought I was sexy, they were looking for my curls. The black hats worn by Hasidic Jews can signify their group. In Brooklyn I was told that they might wear the same style hat as does their “leader”. (Sorry, I don’t know the lexicon.) One of my hats happened to be a similar shape to the local hat of choice, and with a beard and all in black, I could not help but notice the double-takes I was being given whenever I was within eyeshot of a person of that faith. (Is he? Oh, no, he isn’t.)

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Open my umbrella, and I was immediately transformed. It was far too colourful, they would never carry such a garish non-black item. This got me new attention though, I cannot tell you how many times I had a version of the following conversation. In the birthplace of the American flag no less (the first one made by Betsy Ross in 1777 in her local upholstery shop). “Where you get that American flag umbrella?” “It’s the British flag, I got it in London.” “Wha! They stole our colours?” “No, I think you’ll find that the UK is older than the US.” I think most tourists visit Philly because of it’s American history and heritage. It wasn’t that any of these Americans would not have recognised the American flag (I can hopefully assume), it’s more they did not recognise the Union Jack and only saw the colours.

In addition to Will Smith and Kevin Bacon; Richard Gere, Kobe Bryant, and Grace Kelly all called Philadelphia home at the time of their birth. I mean they might not have known where they were, but if they had known. As a non-American, I remember this town most from the marvellous and touching film, Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, and Antonio Banderas. It was groundbreaking in 1993. This was a ground-breaking film that dealt with AIDS discrimination and homophobia. There was even a homophobic character who supported the cause because despite being homophobic, he recognised defending the main character as being the right thing to do. Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Streets of Philadelphia” was hands-down my favourite of his, and it hit number one status in many countries at the time. (Although it only made as high as number two in the UK. I know, seems heartless. It would have made number one there today though.)

Somewhere near to my hotel I decided to treat myself to a souvenir that soon after revealed itself as having been a cultural misunderstanding. I really don’t know what I was thinking when I spent near to three hundred dollars on such a ridiculous purchase. I intentionally took too many clothes on this road trip so I would not be tempted to buy more. I resisted the Black Friday and after Christmas sales in SOHO, Greenwich and Tribeca even from within the confines of shops purveying on-sale clothing I liked when shopping with my sister and her Dachshund. So here I saw these very unique offerings and I finally broke down.

I bought myself a fashion suit. Doesn’t sound so bad. But let me tell you. A patterned trouser, with huge pleats (to accommodate a more shapely rear attribute than my own), a matching zipper jacket, a colour-matched mock turtle sweater, matching socks, and shoes. Oh, I thought I was a picture of style in the store. It wasn’t until I tried it on in a different city for the first time outside of the all African American store that I saw it. I looked like a white guy trying to disguise himself as a fifty-year-old hipster black guy. In 1960. It looks like a costume on me, I have no idea how I was ever able to look at that entire matched outfit and think, yes. This is just the thing. I will look the bomb.

I pulled-away from the city, where I can only assume it rains every single day, on a wet Tuesday Morning in the direction of nearby Baltimore. I can remember it was a Tuesday because I had perfectly (although unintentionally) timed my visit to not be able to see most of the museums, closed on Mondays during this off-season. Like Paris, where I was a little disappointed the first time when I was not swept-off my feet by constant romance, I’ll probably like Philadelphia even more the second time I visit. I may not have noticed an extraordinary amount of brotherly love in the air, but it was friendly and handsome just the same.

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Views around Philadelphia.

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When I was near my hotel again I changed my hat to this dark gray one, I have photos of me wearing the black felt one but not in Philly.

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I just got this image online to show you the look they would have been looking closer to see from afar.

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From my counter seat at Dinic’s enjoying a sandwich inside the Reading Terminal Market.

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I shopped here. Very friendly store. You know the rest.

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I found this interesting. Rather than trees in the middle of this boulevard, parked cars. How often do doors get taken off?

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Click on the image below to view and hear the music video “Streets of Philadelphia”. If you receive this posting by email, it will open the blog post in a browser to work, if not click on the blue title to open the posting in an internet browser.

Interesting about this video is that rather than using Springsteen’s studio recording they re-recorded him singing live as he walked down the streets. The video was to be as real as possible and it was done to great effect. The video also shows the hardship and poverty that appears to continue today.

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Reinventing Myself in Richmond, Virginia

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Richmond – Week Three Report

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In this posting I do not mean that staying in one place and building your life where you are is unimportant. It is key to a meaningful life. I am simply describing the experience I am currently engaged in as how it relates to my own journey. Eventually I’ll tie all these writing together in to a book and will be able to expand and clarify in many directions then. For now, just little pieces of the pie at a time. Thanks for reading!

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In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes, “Most of us seem to have a consistent character because most of us are really good at controlling our environments most of the time.” And not just controlling our environments but also keeping our environments familiar. It’s perhaps part of the reason people like hotel chains, they are predictable, we know what to expect. He goes on to explain how we tend to put ourselves in repeated social situations where we shine and where people know us mostly from those situations. Put us somewhere very different, and we will probably seem like different people. Think about it. If you corner a very friendly dog, they might bite. Even if they’ve never bitten before. New scenarios call forth new behaviours.

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He explains a study where divinity students are put in situations to test their characters. It would seem, from some specific study he reviewed, that someone who has dedicated their life to helping others, someone who would usually be described as being especially compassionate can be reduced to indifference to the suffering of others even with three very uncharged words. “You’re running late.” That was enough for the candidates to have no time to help others, to step over and possibly even see someone in distress as an annoyance impeding their way. How important was what they were late for? Only typically important, someone was waiting for their late arrival. Not life or death. For more specific info., read the tipping point. Gladwell is one of my favourite authors and I will probably often quote him in my blog. As I have mentioned before, he is a fellow Canadian outsider.

The point is, the person who we see ourselves as being, that person is not fixed in all environments. We like to think that our character is fixed, but the truth is not that simple. We act and react differently in different environments, to different and unique situations, in the presence of different people. Adapting to our surroundings is part of survival, it’s natural. If this trait had not evolved I doubt I’d be sitting in my temporary apartment in Richmond, Virginia writing this now. And you wouldn’t be reading this either.

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I have always noted that personal growth spurts often come from transition, from change. When I moved from Fredericton, New Brunswick, to London, England I wrote home to my family that I felt, “Like a plant that’s been repotted in new soil.” (Or did I write, “flower”, I’m not sure.) My entirely new environment promoted growth; I was more easily able to change as a person. Without the familiar around me I was better able to move towards becoming who I wanted to become, without the expectations of anyone around me of who I already was. People come to know us as a certain way, and their expectation of who we are has a tendency to keep us there too. It’s like we have agreements together and it’s really hard to break those agreements.

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I think there is a certain core of your person that family and certain friends who come to feel like family can grasp, and that changes in who you are can flex around that. Most of us have had the experience of outgrowing someone, either we changed and they didn’t or we both changed in different ways or they wanted you to stay the same and stagnate when you needed to embrace growth. “You’ve changed.” Of course I have. We are always changing. The people we meet and the experiences we have shape our ever-changing lives. Even beyond movement within personality types, which tend to have one set of characteristics when someone is emotionally healthy and quite a different set when emotionally unwell. Even without great change, one’s state of mind can alter who one seems to be considerably. I am quite a different person when I am feeling loving than I am when I am feeling anxious. I am still the same person, but I don’t seem like the same person. Not even to myself. I think I’ve only lost friends during the latter state although I’ve chosen to weed some people out of my life during the former state too. In respect for myself. I’ve made some mistakes when feeling anxious, and probably some good choices when feeling loving.

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In my third week in Virginia that is what I have most to report. This trip, it’s not mostly about the travel. It’s not mostly about writing. It’s about growing as a person. I am going out-of-my-way to put myself into unfamiliar environments. My writing this month might be completely useless in the long term, but the experiences I am having will have an imprint on my writing for the rest of my life as I continue to grow into the person I am destined to become. As we all continually change throughout our lives. I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunities to experience hurt and pain, love and joy, as I find my way through the world.

During week three I went to a social event where, for the first time in Richmond, I was in a diverse crowd. Richmond has it’s diversity, there are black people and white people, gay people and straight people. But until Wednesday evening of week three, I had only conversed with one person outside of these confines of diversity. A nice gentleman from Libya, a really interesting entrepreneur. Wednesday I attended a wine-tasting event and met people from India, China, Vietnam, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. I also met people from several different states as well as locals as this was a mingler for people who are new in town.

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I felt connection with people when they said they were from Bombay, and I could relate with my three weeks in Mumbai. I could picture the life they came from before finding themselves working in America’s IT industry. I’ve not been to Chennai, but when someone said they were from that city I at least had notions as to what that meant too. Of course you can feel connection with others without having visited their homeland, but I think it is like a boost. It’s like dog owners befriending other dog owners at the dog park. It is still possible to make friends with a dog owner even if you’re not one yourself, but it is undeniable that for most people having that little commonness provides an opening. As a writer, I will be better able to connect with readers the more I understand about them. I am sure that my current readers know that I have a great desire to reach out and connect. And that my writing has evolved in a short time from being mostly about sight-seeing to being mostly about life. Real life was always my main interest, and meeting people always the priority over seeing things. Incorporating real-life into my travels is something I am learning how to do. Often clumsily. And often with failure. (And here I mean that it doesn’t always go as planned, not true failure. To me, true failure only comes from not trying.)

My experience in Richmond has been enriching. As an outsider, I have witnessed a separation here. I have been kept at arms-length by some, embraced by others. I have heard stories of success and of progress and of change. I have come to understand that my own culture, that of inner-Toronto which is different than Greater Toronto, is probably more similar to that of Manhattan than most anywhere. I think that most people don’t see that connection at all.

Many American cities seem to be moving in a very positive direction. City centres have changed a lot in the past decade, they are moving towards having thriving city centres and away from having ghettos and dead zones. “You should have seen it ten years ago, it wasn’t safe,” is something I have heard now in LA, parts of NYC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, even Richmond. The era when everyone who could afford to moved to the suburbs is definitely over. I never understood that myself, why would anyone want to live on a street that only has a bunch of houses and where you always need to use your car to get food? How could that ever be someone’s preference? When I can’t walk out my door and already be somewhere, I feel cut-off.

I know it is lots of people’s preference, we all have our own ideas as to what an ideal life looks like. How I and my siblings grew-up in suburban New Brunswick and all developed urban preferences is perhaps unusual. I do think that high-density living is more sustainable and I would argue that it is probably better for most people’s mental health. At least in neighbourhoods where neighbours embrace each other. I found that in London the opposite was true, people kept to themselves and protected their space more, seemingly due to the density. But, I am a different person than I was when I lived in London more than fifteen years ago! Where did the time go! I think I am well-overdue spending some serious time in England’s capital. Again.

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So I am seeing my time in Richmond very differently than I did at the start. It’s like I’m discovering more about myself, at age forty. Who am I in Richmond? And I see it more as contributing to the development of my understanding of the diversity of American culture outside of world-class urban centres. This is a great city and I think I could happily live here. I think it is probably a place where I meet more everyday Americans than I do in places such as NYC and LA and New Orleans which have very unique local cultural environments. I don’t mean this as being good or bad, it’s just that some places are more typical of a general population and others less so.

People may not see me as such, but I am an invisible foreigner here. The influences that contributed to my world view and my place in it are not the same as an Americans. They are perhaps not the same as most Canadians either, but they are more similar.

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Some pretty homes-made-businesses in Uptown Richmond, the area around VCU. (Virginia Commonwealth University)

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Stay tuned for my Final Richmond Report as well as postings from NYC, Philadelphia, Fredericksburg, DC, and more! Thanks for reading and if you enjoy my blog, PLEASE, share it with your friends! Cheers! Darren

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Me showing-off my Canadian hair. When I get another American haircut tomorrow, will I still have Canadian hair, even if most of it grew-in while in the US?

That’s Who I Met in Baltimore

Dear readers,
I am currently in Richmond, Virginia but am working on stories from previous destinations while here. Thanks for reading! Cheers!

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A view of the redeveloped harbour front in Baltimore.

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That’s Who I Met in Baltimore

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Baltimore

City of John Waters, Divine, and the films/musical “Hairspray”, Billie Holiday, Philip Glass, Frank Zappa, Babe Ruth, Edgar Allan Poe(b.Boston).

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The day started with a very friendly barista at Caribou Coffee on Charles offering her suggestions as to how I should spend my day. A fun, cheerful young lady probably in her early twenties she reminded me of someone I thought I knew but had been very wrong about.

“Take the Circulator,” she had cheered, “it goes all over where you want to go and it’s free!” I hadn’t found a jump-on-off tour bus, having a free system would explain that. “You can look at the routes online using our wifi, there’s a purple stop right there,” she says, pointing. Charm City Circulator.

Well caffeinated with an espresso-strengthened weak drip coffee, I board a busy bus heading north. Not only is this free, I also get to mingle with locals on this not-specifically-for-tourists service. Because it is mostly just a people-mover, only a few seats are facing forward and I find myself facing inward and my view mostly obscured by other passengers and the large semi-transparent decals that adorn the windows from the outside.

“Take this bus often?” I ask an elderly black woman laden with reused plastic shopping bags. “Mmmm hmmm,” she says dismissively, as if thwarting an unwanted pick-up line. I laugh to myself, or probably out loud, by my interpretation. She’s probably one of those old woman who worries about possibly getting raped, as if some young man would look at her eighty-year-old figure, her underbite, her oversized-glasses trying to cover the drooping bags under her eyes and with her tits dangling to her waist and not be able to control himself. Perhaps living in the past. Just a tad. I would gage her safety in that regard to be quite high myself. And if she is a potential mugging-target for being rich, in that she is very well disguised.

I see an interesting obelisk through the front window so I jump off at what turns out to be a Washington Monument. I learn that George Washington spent the end of his life here, in this neighbourhood known as Mount Vernon. So did Edgar Allan Poe. Coincidence? I think, not a doubt, that was a complete coincidence. Poe died in another part of town and in a very sad state. I take some photos before boarding the next circulator going North.

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At the next stop a middle-aged woman boards with a suitcase and very full open purse and asks the driver if this bus will take her to the Sheraton. “Where’s it at?” he asks. She starts digging into her purse but I answer before she pulls anything out, “It does,” I call over, “I can show you on my map where it is.” I pull out my map and show it to her, it is nearest the stop where I originally boarded. “No, it’s not there,” she asserts impatiently, “it’s up here,” pointing at the Northern end of the map. “But that’s where we are now.” “I would know,” she declares with some attitude, “I used to live in this city.” “I’m at the Radisson which is next door to the Sheraton, so I guess there must be two Sheratons here. I’m sure you’ll find it.” I look away wanting to disengage with someone who is clearly argumentative.

She pulls out her phone gps to see that she was looking at Lafayette, which is a block from the stop where she boarded, and not Fayette, where the hotels actually are. “Oh. It’s on Fayette,” she declares, unapologetically. “Yes, that’s where I showed you.” Now she sits down beside me in a nearly empty bus. I pretend to be friendly but I’m not pleased to be crowded-in by this woman who knows better; I don’t want to continue our conversation. “How long have you been here?” she asks. “I arrived yesterday.” “Oh, you should see blah, blah, blah, blah . . . ” As she is overwhelming me with must-sees I will never remember anyway, she dumps her handbag, which is really just an unclosable tote, onto the floor. A random mess of personal effects sprawls out onto the winter-dirty bus floor. All those within reach help with retrieving her things, depositing them back into her bag. I take the opportunity of helping to get out of my seat which frees me to jump out at the next random stop. “This area looks interesting (no it doesn’t), enjoy your visit (no, don’t),” I chirp as I disembark happy to be free of this overbearing person who knows too much (she doesn’t).

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I find myself wandering in the direction of downtown again in historic Mount Vernon; I am now on St.Paul street which runs parallel to Charles. A young man approaches me from behind and walks alongside. He’s wearing a winter coat with it’s fur-lined hood blocking most of his face. Tall and lanky, I can’t tell if he’s around fourteen or around twenty-four years old. He starts in with a story.

“I came here with my Mom and Step Dad from San Diego,” he begins, “because my Mom has cancer and she had treatments before we came. We used all our money to stay at that hotel last night,” he points behind us to a bare-bones nearby hotel, “because it’s so cold here, we needed to get off the street. Now we don’t have any money for food, could you buy me lunch?”

“Why did you come to Baltimore from San Diego? At least it’s warmer in San Diego.”

“Because my Mom, she wanted to die here.”

I’m trying to make an instant judgement of what I should do and the novelty of his story has effect. Although I have to say, it’s very strange to drag your partner and kid across the country to a cold city when you have no money because you want to die somewhere in particular.

I pull out my wallet and hand him twenty dollars. “Good luck,” I offer as I hand it to him. “Thanks a lot!” he exclaims and turns back, running. That could be four large 7-eleven pizzas. Yes, they have five dollar large pizzas, I never saw them before here. No, I didn’t try one.

Did I just buy his next fix? Very possibly. What do most people do? I tell myself I won’t give to people on the street, only through charities, but then I still find myself considering every time I am approached what the morally-ethical thing is to do.

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I walk in the direction of Little Italy passing the very handsome city hall. Baltimore has a plethora of handsome architecture from it’s heyday as a thriving hub and manufacturing city. Raw materials arrived to Baltimore’s ports, where they were redistributed or manufactured into finished goods and then sent out again. In 1789, George Washington called Baltimore the “risingist” town in America. (fastest growing) There was also a considerable trade in African slaves. The redeveloped harbour front is no longer a centre of trade but it does draw large crowds of tourists, although not in January. Within the city, however, exist a lot of boarded-up relics, impressive historic industrial buildings no longer needed. I noticed these on my first evening when I walked along Howard Street to attend an event at Baltimore’s Ethical Society. At night, the area was like a ghost town. I felt safe, but the lack of people about had me wonder if perhaps my feeling of security was false.

Little Italy was recommended to me as a neighbourhood to visit, and like much of Baltimore it is charming. It’s an artsy, run-down, quietish area just off the city centre mostly consisting of two and three storey row homes many with ground-floor businesses.

I continue on to Historic Fell’s Point, which was founded by William Fell from England and made famous from it’s Clipper Shipbuilding yards. I take some photos of the weathered buildings and colourful graffiti art. It feels edgy and bohemian although I read that it is, “an upscale business and residential neighbourhood”. I guess I couldn’t find that section. Next time.

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Circling back to Harbor Point I am considering my food options when a large black woman near to sixty exits the Cheesecake Factory and approaches me as I consider a menue of one of the other tourist restaurants. She is dressed well but has only a handful of teeth. She pulls up her sleeve. “Excuse me. I went to my doctor today for injections,” she shows me the injection sight, with one of those taped-on vein connectors in place. “I have diabetes. I just want a burger and fries and coke.” She tells me this as if asking for a cure. I look at her for a moment. This woman who probably has advanced diabetes, is asking me to buy her a meal, no – she’s telling me that all she wants is a meal, in an overpriced tourist zone no less, that would possibly contain more calories and definitely more sugar than someone should probably consume in a day. The amount of sugar in the oversized or bottomless cokes one gets here, if a regular part of your diet would nearly guarantee the outcome of having diabetes. “You shouldn’t drink coke,” I suggest.

“I can drink coke,” she replies, her head heightened at the back, “doctor gave me ice cream this morning.” Your doctor doesn’t care if you die, I think. The entitled way she has approached this stranger in an area of expensive tourist restaurants, I tell her no. Why should I feel obligated to buy this stranger a meal that will probably do her worse than if she had nothing. It’s sad, because she probably thinks a burger, fries, and coke is a balanced meal, why else would she ask so specifically after declaring that she has diabetes?

I start walking away and she follows along causing me not to pause at the next restaurants because now I feel awkward considering my dining options with her at my heels. I leave the district having not eaten.

At what looks to be a bus stop for the Charm City Circulator Orange line I pause. I can see the next bus coming along, I had wanted to do this circuit too. “Don’t take the green line, ” a local tells me, “of if you do, don’t stray off the main roads. Not safe for you to be up there.” The orange bus pulls up and the driver opens his door. “This isn’t a stop,” he tells me. “I can’t get on then?” His bus is empty, but the electronic display doesn’t say he’s not in service. “Where you trying to go?” “Nowhere, I’m sight seeing.” “I can’t help you if you don’t know where you want to go,” he says, closing his door. “I just wanted to take your route!” I yell through the closed door as he pulls away. I wasn’t expecting the driver to ask me where I was going, on the purple line I just got on and off. He might have let me get on if I’d given him the right answer. Maybe he doesn’t like to have one passenger aboard. I hardly look dangerous though.

I had been told there was some interesting architecture around the Johns Hopkins Campus that I could see on the Green Line. Now I don’t really want to see it anymore. I continue my wander back to my downtown hotel. I still need to find some food anyway.

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A nice blend of the old and the new in downtown Baltimore.

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Washington Monument in the central Mount Vernon neighbourhood of Baltimore.

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This view looking South near to the Washington Monument.

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Some random views around the area.

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Lots of handsome architecture in downtown Baltimore.

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Baltimore City Hall.

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Wandering around Baltimore’s Little Italy.

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I have to admit, I didn’t exactly feel like I was in Italy or anything. But it’s a cute area.

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Okay, so now I’m in the “upscale” business and residential neighbourhood of Fells Point. There really must be an entire section that I entirely could not find to warrant that description. I like the vibe here, it’s just that “upscale” is not a description that would have ever come to mind.

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Yes, I am still wandering around Fells Point.

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And back to the harbour, now a tourist area.

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With a number of bars in the area, I wonder if anyone ever falls over the railings into the water. Or rather, since there are no railings, if anyone ever just walks right over the edge? Do not text and walk here! (Not that one should anyway, but I think we all have on occasion.)

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One more step and down we go! There are no barriers all around the water’s edge.

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The last ship still afloat that experienced the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

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Unique lighthouse!

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And we’re back downtown.
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I should mention I did meet a few other friendly locals at a little event held at Baltimore’s Ethical society. That is not specifically a story, but was the kind of experience that will find it’s way into other stories. Thanks for visiting http://www.PersonalTravelStories.com!

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Making Friends in Richmond, Week Two Report

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The Handsome Virginia State Capital in Downtown Richmond. I pass this way three times a week nowadays, walking to my chiropractor. Yes, that is snow you see. I am told this is an unusual winter.

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Richmond Week 2 Report

By the end of week one, I was seeming to discover a barrier between me and mainstream Richmond. I had been finding interesting social activities where I could meet new people every day, but I was not having success of making friends outside of groups. Except when it came to the LGBT community. I was finding this community to be uncommonly accepting and inclusive.

I had made personal contact with several people and I came-out to them. Then they disappeared. Some days later I re-contacted them to ask whether I had offended them by being gay, or if they were just too busy to reply. On Sunday, the first guy I had contacted, fully a week previous, finally replied to let me know that I had not offended him. Clearly not an offer of friendship, but he was clearing-the-air as we were to be attending the same meetup event later in the day.

The girl who had given me her card with an offer to meet from her nearby work, I never heard from again after mentioning being gay. The young man I was to see a matinee with on Wed finally replied to let me know that he simply hadn’t checked email all week. This would seem a good reason not to reply if we had not been planning to attend a film the day after we met and only had email contact with each other. In that case, does he still want to go to a film sometime afterall? Well, I guess he hasn’t checked his email for the past 8 days because he again disappeared. So some Richmonders might not want to make gay friends, but they also don’t want you to necessarily feel rejected. They may not want to know you once you tell them you’re gay, but they don’t want you to feel badly about it. It’s like, they know they are uncomfortable, but they also know that they shouldn’t be. They watch tv, things are changing.

Apart from my chiropractor, who I am now visiting every-other-day, week two presented me with few activities to meet new people. Not because it was a slow week, but because I had already made some friends. Sunday I enjoyed meeting the film group to see Jack Ryan and for BBQ afterwards. It’s a nice, social, friendly group. Monday I met friends for dinner, the male-male couple newly from the mid-west. Really sweet guys. Tuesday events were cancelled due to weather and I found myself on the phone getting to know people and making future plans. Wednesday I met someone for a drink around the corner, the kindly fellow I went out with on Saturday. He’s native to Richmond but has real Southern Charm, which is generally not so notable here, in spades. Thursday I met three black gay guys for dinner and drinks. (Why am I pointing out that they were black and gay when I’d usually just say that I met three guys? Because the gay/straight divide has become a surprising topic of my writing here.) Great guys, the couple who had a tropical wedding and another Richmond newbie. Friday I went to DC with one of them for the weekend, so week 2 in Richmond was cut-short.

I do not think that Richmond is a homophobic city. But I do think it may be a segregated city. Honestly, I have not conducted this natural experiment other places so I cannot provide a good comparison, it just happened here. It seems like there were natural social filters working that after a week I found my place and that was of having only gay friends. This is completely new to me. My usual comfort-zone is of being the token gay guy, which is probably a factor of where and how I grew-up. This might say nothing about the community around me at all, or it might indicate that the gay community is very inclusive because they need to support each other. People accept each other readily when they know what it is to be rejected. Not in a brutal way, but in a kept-at-arms-length sort-of-way. Summarily, based on one trait.

For the rest of week two, stay tuned for my upcoming DC postings: DC International Auto Show and DC House Party.

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This modern sculpture of a police man’s head adorns the station near my sublet.

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My old hobby of going to the chiropractor M-W-F has forced itself into my Richmond routine.

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My Richmond, Virginia life. Experiment. The Beginning.

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I have paused in the friendly and active city of Richmond, Virginia to catch-up on my writing. While I am here you can expect postings from my time in New York City, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Fredericksburg, and of course, right here. I hope you’ll join me on my adventures! Just click on “follow” and don’t miss a thing! Cheers!

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Writing this in my temporary home in Richmond, Virginia.

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I’m sitting in my apartment on a rainy Tuesday morning in Richmond, Virginia. And I think to myself, this is crazy! In a good way, crazy. Because I live in Toronto. That’s where my bedroom is, that’s where my things are, that’s where some of my family live. My parents live in New Brunswick, but my siblings are in Toronto and there’s no one closer in my life than my siblings. Toronto is where I consider home.

I am in a growth phase of my life. I’m reinventing myself. Again.

When I was twenty-two I left New Brunswick for London, England when I first graduated university and I realised then that my life could completely change in nearly every aspect from one day to the next day. Within the time frame of one week I went from being a student in Fredericton with a population of 45,000 to having a job and a flat-share in one of the worlds greatest cities. (Fredericton is pretty great too though!) I vowed to remember, if ever I hated my life I would know that I could change everything about it. The streets I walk down, the people I interact with, the culture that surrounds me. The whole thing. But then somehow I forgot. I let myself feel trapped longer than I needed to. But perhaps I needed to have the negative experiences I had to make it a clean-break. Maybe my timing was right afterall.

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We can get trapped by our lives as they progress. We get stuck in our mortgage payments, the security of work that we know, we become attached to our nice things. If we are mostly happy in our lives then the attachment is a good thing, it’s healthy. But if we are mostly miserable in our lives then keeping those things are not worth it.

Unfortunately, a certain miserable present is easier to accept than an uncertain future of possibility. It is a human condition to fear change. To fear the unknown. We evolved staying safe. The misery we know can seem more safe than the possibilities we don’t know.

Many of us have children and that brings life-long responsibility. But having a family also gives meaning and purpose to our lives. I see my grand freedom as a consolation. If you are tied to your family then don’t envy my life, you have something that I don’t have. If you have children, there will be ups and downs for sure, but you will always have that special bond that I will never know. I’m not saying that I envy that either though, I know that that experience is not for me.

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My life had to fall apart for me to dump it and to pursue freedom. Even then, it was hard giving-up my home and my work. That choice was not easy and I fought it, the universe kept pushing me away from the life I no longer fit until it just crumbled around me and there was almost nothing left to leave behind. My beautiful home (which you can see on this blog) became my prison, my relationships faltered, anxieties eroded me in my work; I felt like I couldn’t breathe and I was killing myself with food and drink and smoking. My liver was being overworked by the medications I needed to get through the days. Anti-depressants, ADHD meds, and cholesterol meds, none of which I require anymore. I’m not saying people shouldn’t need these medications, everyone is different, I’m just saying that I used to need them myself and now I don’t. Maybe I will in the future, who knows.

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I’ve shown this pic on my blog before, this was the photo taken for my driver’s license in May, 2012. This was right after I dumped my life in Winnipeg when I surrendered my Manitoba license for my Ontario license. I get a lot of attention at borders as unfortunately my passport photo is from a similar time. With self-destructive behaviour I had gained 20 pounds in my last year in Winnipeg. Since this photo I have lost 30 lbs, another 10 and I will be at my ideal weight. Not by dieting but by eating healthfully, making better choices and getting regular exercise. It’s not actually easy, I do ignore cravings and disallow most processed snack foods most of the time even when I want them. When I eat a “bad meal” I make sure to balance it out with some very good meals, like the French do in France. They will enjoy a banquet, but the next day it’s not business as usual, it’s salads and lean protein to balance the difference. It works! I also quit smoking and weaned off the long-term medications I had previously needed. (I do not suggest anyone to go off their medications, I’m just telling you that I no longer needed them.) I feel like my life changed just in time and I am very fortunate. That article is coming-up in the near future, watch for “At Home in Winnipeg”.

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And a photo taken today, 19 months older in Jan, 2014. A lot healthier and happier. It’s not just the weight difference, my whole body and brain is healthier.
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On my current road trip after spending time in Manhattan, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Fredericksburg I was looking for a place where to linger so as to work on my writing and catch-up on my personal goals before moving on.

I chose Richmond as this place to linger due to a variety of factors:
-It’s a medium-sized city (200,000 city population, 1.2 million Metropolitan population) and therefore has a good variety of things to do and people to meet.
-It is enroute to my next reunion destination near Atlanta.
-It has mild winter weather (comparatively).
-I was able to sublet an apartment in what looked like an interesting urban area with walkable restaurants and coffee shops and near a gym and a library. (I must admit, where I am is rougher than I could have imagined, but it’s fine. I will not take my safety for granted.)
-Richmond has a proliferation of meetup groups through which I can meet locals. If you don’t already know meetup.com, it’s a great website for connecting people to share all manners of interests.

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So here I am on day three of twenty-eight days. My goal here is to create a temporary life. Or to continue my life, but temporarily here. For me this means having meaningful days and hopefully making some meaningful friendships. It is very different than sight-seeing, which by it’s very syntax is looking at the surface. Sure, I want to see some of the more important sights while I am here, but visiting locations and looking at things is rarely my purpose of travel. This is confusing to most people who take week-long vacations either soaking in the sun or filling their minds and photo albums with views of museum contents and historic landmarks. The contents of museums were never my main interest anyway, and that activity for me is unsustainable. I have been mostly travelling since summer, 2012 and I do not have the type of mind that can focus on displays day-after-day because it is not my interest. I don’t try to visit museums all the time in Toronto, but I do try to have meaningful connections with others. The same is true when I travel. I’m not trying to see everything – I am trying to experience everything. I want to know what it feels like to live in Richmond, Virginia. What is it like to be a local here. How does a Virginian see the world and himself in it. Okay, I might not get to understand that last bit, but I do hope to have lots of meaningful conversations with local friends that will at least widen my understanding.

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The view of rain from my window as I write. Can’t complain, it’s probably freezing-cold at home!
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It’s day three. I arrived on Saturday afternoon, half-unpacked, and spent two and a half hours at a local supermarket stocking the kitchen. It took so long because being unfamiliar with the store I had to read a lot of labels and really search to find healthy choices. The “Organics” section seemed to be set-up to push premium health-labelled foods rather than to actually segregate organic choices because when reading the labels more closely, easily 2/3 of the items in that section were not organic. “Natural” is not organic. Don’t be fooled. There is no substitute word for organic. And you will see labels like, “made with organic oats” and then find a whole list of non-organic and possibly even GMO ingredients also in the item, oats might even be a lesser ingredient. The food system is not set-up to keep us well. It’s very tricky. Trying to avoid harmful pesticides and antibiotics and hormones and genetically-modified human experiment foods is difficult and expensive. Not everyone can afford healthy food or has the time to find them and that is wrong. The food system is not set-up to nourish, it is set-up to maximise profits. I know I will be eating-out at least once daily, so I want my at home choices to be the best they can.

Sunday I attended the local Unitarian Universalist Church. I met an interesting friendly woman with whom I should have given my details, I don’t know why I didn’t. I guess I didn’t feel like “coming-out” at that moment. I feel like if I give a woman around my age my number and invite her to call me, I should clarify that I’m a gay guy. Hopefully I will see her next week because she seemed like a friend. I was hoping there might be a regular brunch group after church too that I could join, but I didn’t find such a group. I met her and one man who introduced himself. With him, though, I found myself in an awkward conversation defending Canadians. I did not come here to compare Canada to America, such comparisons are unfair and can be “won” in different ways in both directions. If I didn’t have a love for America and Americans, I would not be here. Of course Canada is my homeland and will always have my first allegiance. I would expect the same of any nationality. Everywhere must have it’s pros and cons. Anyway, it’s the people who mostly make a place what it is.

Later Sunday, after joining the YMCA and adding that routine which is high on my list of goals, I joined a group to see a film, for which I had to drive well into the suburbs. This is a very suburban city and I am finding my car to be essential. They were a wonderfully friendly group and afterwards most of us continued with dinner. I emailed one of the group afterwards, basically a gesture of friendship, now I think he probably found it strange but that is just me interpreting his non-response. He’s probably just busy and I should not second-guess. The thing is, if I don’t reach out and try to make friends, I won’t make friends. It takes effort, putting oneself on the line and getting out to meet people. If I am successful in making some friendships I won’t write about them specifically, except to mention activities and that I did make a friend(s).

Monday was engaged with parking issues, writing, working-out, and wandering the neighbourhood enjoying 16C sunshine. Later I attended a “dinner with singles” event, again a thirty minute drive into the burbs. It was a nice group, but the restaurant choice was terrible for meeting people. One of those chains trying to mimic urban after-work chic but in my opinion failing. The sushi was suburban with lots of cream cheese and avocado options and muted flavours. “What kind of wine is the house red?” “It’s red. We have white and red.” “Yes, but what type is it?” The waiter looks at me confused and says again, “red”. He knows there are more than two kinds of wine in the world, they serve other kinds by the bottle. That the house red should be a particular variety or bouquet of varieties should not confound him. Surely it must be something. I didn’t actually care about the food or the drink. I was sitting with friendly locals, we all chose to meet for dinner together for the purpose of meeting more than for the actual food, but the venue was far too noisy for regular conversation. I strained to hear across the small tables, and I strained my voice trying to be heard. I was able to chat a bit with the friendly woman beside me and she gave me her card. She could become a friend. I emailed her so we’ll see.

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I need practice making friendships. I’m never sure how much to share, how much is too much, when first meeting people especially. I can’t always tell if someone will be a good friend or a detrimental person to know when we meet. Might I enjoy spending some time with this person, or will I find them draining after a very short time and regret having given them my private number. The British yoga instructor I made instant-friends with in Manhattan only a few weeks ago proved a very suitable friend who I will hope to know for a long time. As did my former NYC landlord. Sometimes people click, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I’m am too forward in offering friendship and people shy away before we can know if we’d make good friends or not. Or they misinterpret my offer of friendship and it’s just awkward. As I said, I need practice. I know the reason for this, it has to do with my developmental phases as a child and into my teens. For a number of years I had very few and often no friends at all outside of groups. I am an introvert and need alone time, but I am also outgoing so this is not apparent. Growing-up, in my head I was always an outsider. Even when perhaps no one else saw me that way. Even before things went wrong. I was because I thought I was.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” he mentions how most comedians tend to be outsiders. How they gain a unique perspective looking at the groups around them because of their removed position. They are able to step-back and see things that others don’t. Or they don’t even need to step-back, that is already their viewpoint. Funny, I had assumed that Gladwell was a Jewish native New Yorker, and only when I was at a reading he gave in Brooklyn this December did I find out that he is actually a Protestant Canadian from Ontario. Part Jamaican background and born in England until moving to Canada at age six, he would have been somewhat an outsider in small-town Ontario and also in NYC himself. He was being interviewed by the editor of the New York Times, who he actually grew-up with. Another Canadian from Ontario. Being an outsider has some very specific advantages. (As well as disadvantages.) This lends itself to writing too, not just comedy, seeing and experiencing things differently than most provides a unique perspective. In some ways I will probably always be an outsider, I was never destined to lead a “normal” life. Square peg not trying to fit a round hole. I think that is why I feel so at-home abroad where it is more congruent to be an outsider. I am happy being an outsider, but not socially. Not anymore.

No longer being an outsider socially was a goal I decided to conquer this Autumn when I joined a men’s discussion group in Toronto. It is a fantastic group where I am able to share openly, set goals for myself, and hold myself accountable in a very supportive environment. My focus also moved to having more meaningful personal connections in my life. I had been isolating myself. I have been feeling the fear and doing it anyway on a variety of personal issues that I have allowed to stop me from living my life more fully. It was my new habit of pushing through fear that saw me trying stand-up in front of a New York audience in December. Three times. It was a natural extension of pushing-through that barrier of fear that had been stopping me from more regular activities that don’t cause most people any stress at all, like answering the phone. (Anxiety issues became an offshoot of my ADHD meds in connection to things that happened in my life, and the habit of having anxiety lingered after I weaned-off them. I then had a lot to conquer.)

If I don’t make a friend or a few friends in Richmond then I may see my time here as a failure. But I shouldn’t. All I can do is try, and I know that if I tried then I was successful. I can’t regret trying, I can only regret not trying. But it’s hard to accept that really. I know myself to be a kind and honest person, an interesting and unique guy and the other person should be fortunate to have me as a friend. But when you come to somewhere alone with a goal of connecting with locals, it is hard not to see the accomplishment of that goal as success or failure. I try to choose appropriate possible friends and they can accept or reject my offer of friendship. How they see me and how they behave towards me actually has little to do with me and is entirely about them, but it is still personal. They are still reacting to me, even though it is based on their own ideas how they interpret me. I know that if I leave Richmond on Feb 8th without having made a lasting personal connection, I will wonder where I went wrong. But it won’t go wrong. One of these times I’ll offer friendship to the right person and they will invite me into their personal life and maybe even introduce me to their friends and I will make some meaningful personal connections. It’s fun meeting socially with groups, but it is more meaningful meeting with people who have become friends. Not just friends in the group, but friends outside of the group. Already I have met lots of really friendly people here in Richmond, so it’s just a matter of time.

I guess this is a bit of a personal social experiment although I didn’t see it that way until just now. For the moment, I’m having a great time organising to be social every evening and spending quiet days reading, writing, wandering, and exercising. At the library, the gym, at home, and at coffee shops. Balanced days. Getting things done that are important to me while honouring my nature of needing quiet time.

I just found a list of goals in one of my notebooks that was from about 6 months ago. Until very recently, I was not Mr.Social. At all. One of my goals was to push myself to meet with a friend every week. As I mentioned I had been suffering anxiety and as a result of this I rarely called friends anymore, I rarely reached out. To meet with one friend a week was one more than I was usually meeting. Incredible. I am moving forward.

Here is a crazy goal, and I will not let myself feel defeated if I don’t accomplish it. Make enough local friends to actually host a small gathering before I leave. Wouldn’t that be something.

Stay tuned!

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Some local artwork, right out back.

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I am going to enjoy taking photos of the graffiti art in Richmond. They’ve done a great job brightening-up areas.

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Stay tuned for pics highlighting Richmond’s more picturesque areas. These are just a few directly around me. Cheers!

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