In squished spaces people have to co-operate a bit more.
Furrow browed conversations at the café tables are interrupted by someone trying to get by. Those with seats smile up at a stranger; Yes it is crowded in here, We are in this together, How can I help?
I spot a seat at the window bar and ask the greybeard at the table under my elbow if I might put my coat on the empty wooden chair across from him. He greets me warmly, and obligingly shifts his seat to make space for me.
He is a professor from Montreal; reading a paperback on Italian art, underlining every second sentence in red ink. He has a long face, glasses slightly bent, a burgundy sweater with crumbs on it. His teeth have seen better days.
We banter a little as I settle in. “Where in Italy would you want to go?” he asks warmly.
I pause, resisting the urge to burst into tears.
I am an artist, just finished hanging a show and have nipped in here for 20 minutes. I should have a quick answer to his question, but frankly am astonished I’ve made it through the last four hours, let alone the marathon of the last week. I’d be happy to sit for an hour at the Ottawa airport, never mind a trip to the Sistine chapel.
The professor interprets my pause as my going through a mental inventory of Italian destinations.
“You must go to Florence”, he advises, like someone pressing a coin into my palm.
There is not just my children’s schedules, work, and financial limitations; I must admit I’m not so into galleries or paintings of cherubs.
Every trip to Toronto I have an internal argument: I’d rather walk aimlessly through Chinatown looking at paper lanterns, eating sesame balls in a Chinese bakery than spend $25 to go to the AGO, which, like everything else, leaves me scratching my head in a lonely way over what other people find meaningful.
And I have been to Italy. I was twenty, travelling with my already ex-boyfriend Nicholas (in that file labelled Insensitive Things I have Done).
Nicholas and I toured around Germany visiting his Waldorf bred, cello-playing extended family. We stayed in their book-lined Persian rug homes. They served me food and sat at dinner tables with me, no doubt wide-eyed and exchanging glances at my ignorance.
On their suggestion we went for a hiking trip in the Italian Alps.
Why not, it was May and the wildflowers were in bloom.We went without cellos.
I had one of those uncomfortable green burlap knapsacks with two pockets that were popular in the late eighties. Nicholas and I hiked from hut to hut for a week in this German section of Italy.
Every room had a small dormer window, sloped ceilings, a pair of single beds with fluffy duvets. It was strangely cheap and the wine was great. As we walked the scenery changed every fifteen minutes, skirting cows with bells as the path curved around hillside chateaus with pergolas and elaborate gardens.
We stopped in cobblestone towns. We ate tiny pancakes.
I never went back.
Twenty-seven years later, in our Almonte kitchen I show my husband Jake pictures of the Dolomites on my laptop.
You would love it.
Sure he says.
The way you might if you hadn’t experienced it.
At the Wild Oat JP serves up my coffee. He has stringy long red-grey hair and a matching beard. He talks about his grandchild like he has won the lottery.
I’m relieved when he is working because my Americano will be perfect.
JP graciously hands people their coffee with a hearty, “Have a terrific day!”
He means it.
Standing in the middle of the aisle is a round woman with short messy straight hair and a snow jacket. She is wearing pink leg warmers. She has Downs Syndrome.
JP calls her by name, tells her it is now time to sit down, and he gently guides her to a window seat.
The woman perches uneasily on the small bar stool, and plonks her oversized bottle of Coke on the wooden counter; an inadvertent wink at this organic beets and kamut joint.
She spread her feet wide on the window ledge, therapeutic footwear, looking cheerfully back at the café.
I imagine she has led a life untroubled by “How DO these leg warmers look?” or worse: “If I Had Achieved My Personal Potential I would be at the Uffizi right now.”
I bite into my goat cheese and rosemary croissant, grateful for the art professor and his filthy sweater.
I wave at my daughter Frankie across the café, point at my wrist.
Frankie is holding her friend Aqui’s hand.
Aqui is electric, as I would be if I were leaving next week to hike the Camino.
Frankie is wide eyed; excited for her friend, possibilities abound.
Frankie is also stuck in high school, trudging through the muck of Physics. She measures her impending freedom by strategies to raise her average by two percent.
When she groans Jake insists that it isn’t that she doesn’t like Physics, it is simply that she hasn’t deeply discovered it.
She and I will exchange complicit smiles over these dialogues.
With Aqui in tow we get into our van which is parked askew on a snow mounded Glebe street. I reassure Frankie as they both get into the car; your time will come.
Your time will come.