The Art of Undocumenting

“We should plan tomorrow better.”

We’d breezed through Kensington Market, a neighborhood in Toronto known for its diverse population, restaurants and nooks, and were in the midst of doing the same to Queen Street West. There went a bookstore, an art gallery, and so on, until we’d passed so many they might as well have been the same. My camera dangled from my right shoulder, unused, as my friend S. told me one of her detailed stories.

S. talks quickly without pausing. A simple question never gets a simple answer, as an inquiry of “Where’d you get that skirt?” can turn into a narrative of her particular mood the morning she might have bought the skirt, how her eyes might have been puffy from forgetting to take Claritin the night before, that the skirt she wore that day ripped from old age, and, after eating a grilled cheese sandwich, she saw an H&M, pulled over and…

“I think we’re going the wrong way,” she said.

Sure enough, she’d read the map upside down. We had to turn around. Our day had consisted of walking through neighborhoods in a city of neighborhoods without really taking them in. I knew we were in trouble seconds after arriving at Kensington Market, when I looked up from my camera to see S. standing a few feet ahead of me, waiting.

“Don’t you want to look at the thrift store?” I asked.
“I’m not here to shop,” she said.

Taking a picture often demands that its taker and subject be comfortable. I felt rushed, watched. She hovered.

“We should plan tomorrow better,” she said.

In my mind, the day was well planned. We’d visit two of Toronto’s vibrant areas and go from there. I’d missed her and another friend’s Niagara Falls excursion because I’d come a day too late, and we’d saved museums for another day. But without a singular popular landmark to focus on, it soon became clear we had different views about travel.

Though I usually pick a few landmarks to see, I also leave enough time to wander and document anything that interests me. This really evolved from my trips as a broke college student, when I was forced to be creative with my time and money. I rarely buy anything aside from a few trinkets or inexpensive jewelery; my pictures are my souvenirs. While I’m an observer of life, S. is an active member. She loves to talk, absorb the nightlife, and be the subject of photos, not take them.  She tells intricate stories; I listen. We get along because we don’t take ourselves too seriously, as our conversations often culminate in fits of laughter, mostly hers.

That afternoon I decided to put down the camera and see things her way. I tried to get lost in her stories, all the while inhibiting that gut instinct to document. I passed by much of Chinatown without taking a picture. There were many images, colorful ones, but I don’t remember them. I walked, she talked, and we missed everything in between.

When we got back to the hotel, we plopped down on our beds and opened our laptops. I wasn’t happy with the few pictures I had. I document things, I thought. It’s why I became a journalist. I’ve kept journals since I was 8, had cameras since I was 10, and once I learned I could publish my thoughts online, kept a blog at 14.

I looked at the time — our friend was due to return from her conference in an hour. I rolled out of bed, grabbed my camera and a map.

“I’ll be back,” I said, not really sure where I was headed.

I exited the hotel and turned right.

Tons of color and character on Spadina.

S. the model.

We didn’t figure out how to pronounce Spadina (spa DYE na) until a few days into the trip.

Kensington Market, one of Toronto’s most famous neighborhoods.

Mesmerized by the creepy bunny. Inside, there was another.

Asians & meat.

Here we met a nice Torontonian who gave me a rundown of the best coffee shops in town, naturally.

Anything but a white picket fence.

Something gritty, something neat.

Perfect for frolicking in a meadow.

On Queen Street West, we came across this contraption.
A sign on the door said no one under 18 allowed.

Overlooking Toronto

Toronto on the surface pretty much feels like the U.S., except there are slightly different accents, sentences punctuated with “eh” and signs translated in French. Someone lame is a dude bro, and fries with gravy are totally natural.

I knew little about Toronto and preferred to keep it that way.

“Toronto?” A Canadian friend said after I asked him what there was to do there. “Go to Montreal. Or Vancouver.”

“CN Tower,” said my friend in Virginia. “The glass floor is ridiculous.”

Other than that, my inquiries went unanswered, and I was beginning to think that despite being so close to American (Well, U.S. American) soil, Toronto was uncharted territory.

When it comes to travel, there are universal responses at the mention of certain places. Somewhere European, Asian or  exotic-sounding usually elicit unified expressions of “Awesome!” and “Wow!” My mention of Toronto, on the other hand, was met with confusion: “Why?”

While it’s perfectly acceptable to venture to certain places without purpose (No one ever asks “Why Italy?” for instance), places like Toronto require explanations. I’d like to say I had a real desire to learn more about our North American neighbor and its biggest city, but my reasons weren’t quite so ambitious. A friend needed to go there for a conference, and accommodations were provided. I hadn’t been on a plane in about a year, much less out of the country, so I figured it was time.

I rarely thought about Toronto before the trip and even after booking the flight I’d all but forgotten about it. The night before I left, it suddenly dawned on me I had no idea where we were staying or how close it was to the airport. A few quick Facebook messages solved that, and soon I was on my way to see Canada for the first time.

I often draw energy from places — New York has a distinct energy that at times can be overwhelming — but in Toronto I felt nothing. I was OK with that. Being a writer means having to possess some sort of imagination and the ability to find something interesting in anything. I briefly consulted some sites and decided the best way to take in Toronto was to wander somewhat aimlessly.

I was quickly reminded not everyone traveled this way.

For 31 years the CN Tower was the tallest free-standing structure in the world.
In 2007, Dubai unveiled the Burj Khalifa.

A burst of color.

Lovers above the city.

Tiny, tiny world.

Lurking behind my friends.

Long way down.

Shiny surfaces.

A Brush With Royalty

After climbing a hilly sidewalk to get to Casa Loma, we stumbled upon soldiers in uniform.

They were lined up facing the mansion, and a small crowd had begun to gather. I saw a woman in black walk solemnly into the house. Was it a funeral? An arrest? We later learned they were celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, Canada’s oldest infantry regiment. Another gawker told us a princess was about to exit.

Twenty-five minutes of much of the same, and 30 pictures with different angles of much of the same, the colonel-inchief finally appeared.

Princess Alexandra, the cousin of Queen Elizabeth II and 33rd in line of succession to the British throne, emerged from the mansion in a white suit and blue scarf. The men welcomed her. She approached them, briefly speaking with each and apologizing for keeping them waiting. She addressed them casually, at least as casual as royalty could be, as if no one was watching.

I’d gotten a great spot away from the crowd and just a few feet from the guards. As soon as the princess approached the men, however, the official photographers blocked my view. My height impediment (and the fact that I’d run out of memory) restricted me from taking too many photos, so I just watched and absorbed the moment.

After addressing the men, she spoke to a spectator. She talked to the girl as if she’d seen her before, though I’m sure she was just a stranger in the crowd.

Then, with a wave, the princess was whisked away.

Minutes before the princess’s grand exit.

Cameras galore.

In height order.

Perfectly still.

Switching places.

Falling in line.

“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”

Fancy photographer in the distance.

Everyone but the princess.

Princess Alexandra.

Final salute.

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