Touring the United States and Canada

Narration from my trip with my girlfriend through Nashville, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, and Washington DC.
City Arrive Depart Hostel
Nashville 9:55 am, May 10 9:55 am, May 14 Nashville Downtown Hostel
Chicago 7:30 pm, May 14 7:10 pm, May 17 Chicago Parthenon Hostel
Toronto 9:45 pm, May 17 7:30 am, May 22 Neill-Wycik Backpackers Hotel
Montreal 1:50 pm, May 22 4:00 pm, May 26 Auberge-Bishop
Washington 7:10 pm, May 26 Family

Nashville

And lo, humble Nashville, with many a sound
Your Blues and your Gumbo were fine
And though there was rubble and butts all around
And tourists that came here to dine,
Your charm will be miss'd, and your spirit, which hit
Close to our hearts, you will find
Will not be forgotten (though chicken was rotten)
And will be at the back of our mind
We payed lots of cash at Museum Johnny Cash
And were lost like a book with no spine
But without a respite we're changing our site
Like a rabbit who forgot the time
And now we sit, our feet very sore
On the transport equivalent of one dollar stores

Day 1: Bongo / Gumbo / Dunn Bro’s

We left Atlanta at 6:00 am after an all-nighter of cleaning the apartment and packing. After 5 hours of sleep (and not 4, due to an unexpected change of timezone), we arrived in Nashville outside the state capitol building and were greeted with the sound of construction and the smell of non-electric cigarettes. We walked to the hostel, which someone else said looked sketchy from the outside but really wasn’t, put our stuff in lockers, and went to walk around. We first stumbled into the Music City Center, which was having an expo for Car Washers, sponsored by the International Car Washing Association. It was like a comic convention but without costumes. We ended up getting lunch at Robert’s Western World, notable for being in Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show, “Master of None” (although unlike in the show, no one was dancing, but there were a few older folks listening to the live Elvis or Johnny Cash impersonator - not sure which one). We then walked around a bit, and ended up in the Johnny Cash museum Bongo Cafe, which was like every other coffee shop except Johnny Cash was everywhere. We then proceeded to take an elevator to an employees-only section and set off a fire alarm trying to get back to the main part.

Hanging around in Nashville.

After that, we went back to the hostel and I took a nap while Wei Wei called people and took care of stuff. I woke up and called my brother to wish him happy birthday. We then walked around a bunch. Nashville has a walking bridge across the Cumberland River which is really scenic; you can see the skyline, and it divides the tourist part from the heartland, so that Nashville’s American values don’t get too corrupted. Some students were filming a Flash remake, so one of them was running normally (Flash) while the other was running slowly. There was something to do with the Grammy organization (a country music show maybe) but we didn’t go in. We then went to eat Gumbo and Catfish sliders at Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, where they had live Blues music. The Gumbo was delicious, and the Catfish bread was really good (Catfish itself wasn’t too bad). I had the Big Easy IPA by Abita Brewing (out of Lousiana), which Wei Wei and I both liked, although it probably was too easy to drink for people on Beer Advocate to appreciate. After that we walked around some more and ended up skipping rocks and waving to people on a ship that kept going by, the General Jackson South-will-rise-again cruise ship. We were pretty tired from not having slept the night before, so we didn’t go to the Burlesque show. We tried watching an episode of Evangelion but apparently I downloaded the version without any English translation, and although Wei Wei could translate parts (very surprising) it wasn’t worth it and we just went to bed.

Oh yeah, Dunn Bro’s was another coffee place we walked by. It wasn’t notable except for the way it sounds like Bongo and Gumbo.

Day 2: Nashville, a Bastion of Roman Intellectualism

After being pretty lame last night and going to bed at 10:00, I woke up at 7:30 am to some of the people sharing our hostel room packing up and leaving. There is a pretty big nightly turnover, it seems like most people just stay for a night or two. I didn’t get to speak much to the people who were here before, but today two new people came, they were from Britain and apparently wanted to see some of the non-tourist destinations in the United States (they just came from Chicago). I realized they were from not-the-US because they used an adapter to plug their phones in. I told the guy all I know about Britain is that Leicester just won the Premier Leagueo and he gave me a feel like he’s heard that a lot lately.

Once Wei Wei and I were completely out of bed around 9:00, we went for a walk-run around a part of Nashville that we didn’t walk around yesterday. It turns out that the parts we walked around yesterday pretty much covered the interesting bits of the tourist locations, because everything on the other side of the river was pretty much an average suburban neighborhood. My personal impression yesterday was that people are really nice here, but I think that might just be people who are trying to sell me something. The bus drivers are really nice, though, except the one who didn’t stop for us (although he probably just didn’t see us).

After walk-running, we went to a convenience store and got some oatmeal, bananas and orange juice, which we had for breakfast. The hostel kitchen is on point. They have some pretty cool electric stoves and an elaborate washing station, plus free seasonings for people to use. After making and eating breakfast, including spilling some tea on the ground and smearing it around, we somehow ended up at the Parthenon, despite getting really confused. The Nashville city planners need to change the name of either the “Music City Center” or the “Music City Central” because one is a bus station and one is an expo center, and the people at the information desk in the expo center had no idea how to get on the number 10.

Parthenon

Once we actually got on a bus, we got cultured at the Parthenon, which is the only full-scale replica of the original Roman Parthenon outside of the Roman Parthenon, unless North Korea has one they haven’t told anyone about. It was built for the Nashville Centennial celebration, which took place 101 years after the city’s founding, and it was originally supposed to be torn down after 6 months, but almost a hundred years on it is still here. Wei Wei wanted to go there because of the Percy Jackson series. Some people who were throwing a frisbee outside it let us pet their dog and gave us some pointers on where to go next. Apparently Electric Avenue and Jimmy Kelly’s steak house are good places to go.

Vanderbilt

Inside the Parthenon was a huge replica of the Athena Parthenos. There was also an art exhibit of paintings inspired by Grimm’s fairy tales. After the Parthenon we walked around Centennial Park, where they had a pedal-swing, a real quality piece of engineering. Then we walked over to Vanderbilt to see the Student Life Center and some other stuff. We picked up some stuff up from Kroger’s to make mom’s spaghetti tomorrow for lunch, and came back and got dinner at B.B. King’s, which had some really good Blue’s music. The drumming was like it was from Whiplash. The guitarist was Grammy-nominated, too. We found a small liquor store and got what we thought were local Nashville beers, Yazoo Hefeweisen’s, but apparently they’re not local enough for the guy who ran the liquor store. In his words, “Yazoo has gotten too big for it’s britches” and “all their beers taste the same,” which means they’re not underground enough for him anymore. He recommended Wiseacre, which is a brewery in Memphis. Then he sold us the 6-pack of Hefeweisen for $14. We drank them and talked to some Swedish people who were playing folk songs in the lobby area. They were part of a band called Angry Train Wreck.

Day 3: Old Bar, New Fetish

We decided to make today a chill day, partially because I had some work to get done and partially because we’d been walking around a lot the last two days. A new guy from last night snored a lot, but Wei Wei had the foresight to get earplugs, which was a lifesaver. He and his girlfriend left this morning and were replaced by a French psychologist and a group of college-age students from Baltimore. The English couple is still here, but we didn’t see much of them today.

Horse statue

There was rain and lightning around midday, which meant it was a good time for us to stay inside. We made oatmeal, bananas, and eggs for breakfast, along with some coffee to help pass along all the fried food we’ve been eating. I worked a bit on making a website for Emory Arts Underground, as well as some other stuff. For lunch we made spaghetti and meatballs, and had some more of the way-too-mainstream Hefeweisen’s. Wei Wei went for a walk while I did some more work, and reported a large number of people on Broadway Avenue (by the way, south of Broadway here is called SoBro). We walked over there, but pretty much everywhere was 21-plus (I wasn’t about to leave Wei Wei out on the street).

We ended up at a 3-story restaurant called Crazy Town, which had just opened apparently. They had a different band playing on every floor. We ordered “spicy chicken,” which was the laziest way to cook chicken possible. It was literally a chicken that someone had deep-fried whole and put on some French Fries. It was really greasy and made us both feel very heavy. We also danced to the music (at Wei Wei’s request) and the band played some weird rap-country mixup which ended with “2 CHAINZ”.

In the bathroom of the restaurant there was a young man turning the sink faucet on and off and spraying peoples’ hands with soap, which I thought was pretty cool until he made it clear it wasn’t a free service. On the plus side I got some gum out of it. Wei Wei said the women’s bathroom also had someone doing it, but they weren’t soliciting money. We walked over to the hockey stadium after that, Nissan Stadium, home of the Nashville Predators. The Nashville Predators got shat on by the San Jose Sharks, 5-0. It was pretty neat because it was an away game, so they opened up the stadium to everyone and streamed the game on the big screens inside the rink. By the time we got there they were already down 4-0, so there were a lot of people leaving. The goalie broke his stick on the goal.

Blues

By that time it was around 10:30, and we wanted to get over to see the Burlesque Show at the Skull’s Rainbow Room. Apparently the bar has been around since the 1930’s, since the prohibition era. The performer was Midnite Martini. We both sat at the bar, and the guy next to me recommended a cranberry sour, which was really good, even if it was 8 dollars. There was a woman named Jennifer who bought 73 dollars worth of alcohol and paid a 20 dollar tip, along with a 20 dollar tip for the burlesque dancer, and told the two men who were hitting on her that I was her son. She was a burlesque dancer at one point, apparently. No bones about it, burlesque is hot. I didn’t know taking off clothes could be so artistic. But damn.

Day 4: Music my Mom Listens To

Today was our last full day in Nashville. Tomorrow our bus leaves at 10:00 am, so we’re just going to get up, make breakfast and leave. We made oatmeal and fruit for breakfast again, and decided to go see the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which turned out to be an entire building dedicated to playing songs my parents sang when I was a kid. There were some really cool guitar collections, and a whole exhibit dedicated to Sam Phillips, the producer for Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis. There was also a lot of Taylor Swift stuff. Wei Wei and I did the kids’ activity and sent the result to Juan’s email. We wandered around the hotel next to the museum for a bit.

Words

We came back and made spaghetti for lunch again. We did some work for a bit and around 8:00 we went to the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar again, because there was a pretty good singer there. We got some more Gumbo and danced to the music. Wei Wei is a good dancer, she doesn’t have inhibitions, or at least doesn’t show them very much. We were the youngest people there by a decent amount, although there were some 30-year-old-looking men who were dancing near us. Mostly I thought my mom would have really liked it.

We got back to the hostel and boiled the rest of our eggs so we can take them with us tomorrow. Wei Wei is actually pretty decent at foosball. I worked some more after she went to sleep. As I’m writing this, it’s almost 3 am, but I got to a good stopping point with what I had to do. I’ll sleep on the bus tomorrow. The bridges over the Cumberland River are lit up with colors every night, and I can see them from my bed, where I’m writing this.

Chicago

I saw the best minds of my generation
Destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked
Dragging themselves to the suburbs at dusk, looking for an angry fix
Who bared their brains to Heaven under the El
And saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement rooftops illuminated
Who cowered in unshaven rooms in three sweaters, burning their money in wastebaskets
And listening to Koreans through the wall,
Who ate gyros in paint hostels or drank beer in airport bathrooms,
Who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Halstead to Southport to the Navy Pier
Who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Presidents to museum to the Lake Street Bridge
What sphinx of cement and aluminum walked miles upon miles and ate up their legs?
Chicago! Whose theaters are very numerous!
Chicago! Whose Chinatown is the spectre of genius!
Chicago! Chicago! Whose trains ride overhead!
Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! The wild eyes! The holy yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof! To solitude! waving! Carrying Flowers! Down to the river! Into the street!

Day 1: May the Fourteenth Be With You

We packed up and left the hostel at 10:00 after eating the rest of the food we had in the fridge. It was a rainy day in Nashville when we left, which was probably a metaphor. We got a bit mixed up trying to find the Megabus station but got on in time. After sleeping so little last night, I wasn’t able to sleep much on the bus. It’s weird how that happens sometimes. The bus ride was mostly uneventful. We watched A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, and eventually slept a little. The bus stopped in Louisville and Indianapolis to let people on and off. We made one pit stop at a Love’s, with an obligatory Subway, which seems to be the place all Megabus stops happen.

We got into Chicago around 7:30 local time, making the bus ride 10 hours and 30 minutes altogether. The Chicago Parthenon Hostel is much more what I expected a hostel to look like than the Nashville Downtown Hostel, in that there are three men’s bathrooms on our floor, one for urinals, another for toilets, and another for showers, each with non-functioning versions of the other two. There is one women’s bathroom, presumably containing everything except the urinals. We were greeted by a very sassy man who said things like, “Let me see, um, yes” and pointed to the hostel logo when we asked if we were in the right spot and “Oh, you’re one of those people” when we told him Google Maps had misdirected us. There isn’t an elevator, so we had to carry our bags up the stairs to our room. We don’t share our room with anyone else. The bed is pretty nice, except for what looks like a bloodstain (could be anything red though). There is a mirror, a painting, a desk and a chest of drawers, and a fire escape outside the window in case the elevator breaks. All around, we were grinning a lot for the first hour we were there.

After we put our stuff back, we walked over to a Giordano’s Pizza and got some deep-dish pizza. I thought it was pretty good but Wei Wei wasn’t as big a fan. We talked to a woman in a hijab who was flying to San Francisco. There was some sort of birthday party there as well. We talked for a couple hours at the pizzeria. After we were full, we walked around the downtown part, around the Willis Tower. We got on the Chicago Transit Authority Elevated Union Loop, colloquially referred to as the CTA Elevated Union Loop, and looped around the downtown part. The stations are really old-timey. We saw Trump tower as we were going around the loop. An art museum near our hostel had a cracked window covered with duct tape with a smiley face on it.

Smiley face

My first impression is that Chicago is much more of a big city than Nashville. The buildings are taller and you’re more likely to hear an ambulance. The food places are dodgier and some have harder names to pronounce.

Day 2: To Peer at a Pier that Appears without Peer

We ate breakfast at the Greek restaurant next door. They provide a complimentary breakfast of toast, cereal and coffee. We got CTA passes yesterday to get around everywhere, so it was pretty easy to get there. The bus and train system is really good here. We walked over to Grant Park and saw a big fountain, then walked along beside the lake for a ways. The park was really nice, there was a statue of Lincoln and some cherry blossoms (probably). We visited the foyer of the Field Museum, the outside of the aquarium, the field beside Soldier Field, and the foyer of the Planetarium. There was a fake dinosaur skeleton outside the Field Museum, and some cool art.

Fountain

We decided to get lunch in Chicago Chinatown, which is one of the fastest-growing Chinatowns in the US. We went to the Lao Sze Chuan restaurant, owned and operated by Tony Hu, hu is apparently a pretty well-known chef. We got some dry chili chicken (which made my nose run a lot, although Wei Wei seemed unaffected), Shanghai jellyfish, and vegetables. My chopstick skills were shown to be very inadequate, I spilled food all over the table. Wei Wei talked to the waitress in Chinese and I think she must have told her to bring me the defective pair of chopsticks.

Bean

There was some other cool stuff in Chinatown. Mostly we saw restaurants and gift shops, but there was a library with grass on the roof, and a supermarket. We got bubble tea at Kung Fu Tea, and some green onion rolls at the supermarket to make tomorrow. After Chinatown we bussed back to downtown and walked to Millenium Park, where we took the obligatory photo with the reflective bean. We walked around the park for a while. Wei Wei pushed some kids off the swing set and stole their lunch money. Not really, but we both hit our heads while trying to go down the slides in the section reserved for 5-12 year olds. On the way back to the hostel we got lost in a mall that had a bitcoin vending machine. We took a nap after that.

Spiderman

We wanted to go to Navy Pier today. We walked there along the river, which was quite scenic. By the time we got there it was closed. It had been closed for 3 hours, actually, poor planning on our part. So we went to a convenience store and got some beer and Indian food. In particular, we got the Commodore Perry IPA by Great Lakes Brewing, and Tandori Chicken. Both were alright. The IPA gets really good reviews by beer people, so naturally Wei Wei didn’t like it. I thought it was pretty bitter. The Indian people working at the convenience store let us use their microwave and gave us plastic forks to use. We took the bus home. All told, we walked at least 8.9 miles today, according to a pedometer website I used. My legs are tired and sore, and Wei Wei has a raw bit on her foot, probably metaphors for something.

Day 3: You Mean HINsdale

We woke up pretty late, around 11 or noon. We got a Polish sausage and a Gyro from the Greek fast food joint near the hostel, plus more fries than we could eat. The food was pretty good. We were really full after that. Probably between that, walking a ridiculous amount yesterday and a strange sleep schedule we were both pretty tired.

Arttttttt

We took the L up to the area around The Second City. We got a cigar and some spices from some shops in Old Town. We also walked around a garden store and a non-Second City theater, plus an art gallery. I think art gallery curators feel the same way about heterosexual couples from out of town visiting their galleries as a Republican presidential candidate might feel when asked to be Donald Trump’s running mate. There are a lot of actors around that part of Chicago. We walked into Second City and looked around a bit. There had been a fire sort of recently so they were rebuilding a bunch of stuff. The teaching area in Second City is really neat, there are a bunch of classrooms with interesting artwork on the walls. We also went by the Apollo, but it was closed.

Bridge (cool photo)

Wei Wei was really tired today. We went back to the hostel and she laid down for a bit. Around 6, we went to see our friend Rudy, who lives out in Hinsdale (and not Hinesdale, as we were incorrectly pronouncing it). Hinsdale is about a 30 minute train ride from Chicago, on a separate train system from the CTA. The seats on the train were pretty cool, you could change them from facing forward or backward and make two seats face each other. Wei Wei slept pretty much the whole way there.

Friend-ou

Out in Hinsdale we got to meet Rudy’s mom and sisters. His mom is really sweet, she made us tea and gave us cake and bourbon to celebrate Wei Wei’s birthday tomorrow. We went with Rudy to eat sushi too and talked for a while about different things. Apparently there are a lot of suburbs of Chicago like Hinsdale, and people commute to work by train. The train is very convenient. We took the train back to Chicago around 11.

Day 4: If you don’t know by now, I’m talkin’ ‘bout Chi-town

Last night was our last night in the hostel. We packed up this morning around 10 and turned in our key. We made green onion rolls we got from Chinatown in the hostel kitchen and went to Walgreens to get some medicine for Wei Wei, who felt sick, and a lighter for the cigar we got. It turns out that Walgreens is not a subsidiary of WalMart, but is owned by the Walgreen family. The store we went to in Chicago was the 3000th Walgreens in the United States, which seems special, but only 11514 in base 7, which is decidedly less special.

Today was Wei Wei’s birthday, so it kind of sucked that she was sick. But we went to the Chicago Art Museum, which has some really well-known paintings, like the American Gothic, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and Nighthawks. There was a whole section on impressionism, which, as Wei Wei told me, has something to do with painting a scene as it appears in the moment, like the impression it leaves on you. There were separate sections for contemporary art and modern art, even though “contemporary” and “modern” seem like synonyms. And neither was part of the impressionist part, although there seemed to be some overlap. Wei Wei thought it was really surreal to see the famous paintings she’d studied in class in real life. The museum also had some interesting artifacts, but we didn’t have enough time to appreciate everything - it was a really large museum.

Bull

We ate at a Chinese restaurant for lunch, the city branch of a dim sum restaurant we’d seen in Chinatown. There was a spicy beef dish that I really enjoyed. When we finished walking around the museum we got our bags from the hostel and caught the blue line up to the airport. It’s a straight shot on the CTA to get to O’Hare, so it’s very convenient. We smoked part of the cigar outside, where everyone smokes. Neither Wei Wei or I is particularly good at smoking a cigar, but it was fun for a bit. I also still had 3 beers from before that I didn’t want to just throw away, so I chugged two of them in the airport bathroom (the third one seemed like overkill).

Semi-drunk me and semi-sick Wei Wei made it through TSA, and I started singing patriotic songs to prepare for our trip to Canada, and talked Wei Wei’s ears off about how great America is. I learned some more Chinese phrases. The flight to Toronto was pretty uneventful, but the altitude change sucked for Wei Wei, being sick. It is really easy to go through customs in Canada if you’re a US citizen, but it was a bit more difficult for Wei Wei with a Chinese passport. Neither of us got detained though, so that’s positive. We took the train from the airport to Toronto and a taxi from Union Station to the hostel.

Boy

Canada is pretty crazy. Some people seem nice, stereotypically. Their money is really wonky. They use more coins than bills (there are 1 and 2 dollar coins) and the bills are plastic. Random things are different here, like how Google redirects to Google Canada. I got shawarma from a shop near the hostel. The hostel has four rooms to a unit, and two twin beds to a room, jammed pretty tightly in. It is sufficiently run-down, kind of like the Chicago hostel. And the drinking age here is 19, so me and Wei Wei can go bar hopping. Ayy.

Toronto

Two roads diverged in a mellow hood,
And sorry I could not walk the two,
In real fact, I probably could,
Though at the hostel long I stood,
My undone work, long to rue
The Island park, with beaches fair
Little ducks, in mothers' wings
The wind was cold, and blew our hair
No one nude on beaches there
Instead quiescing on the swings
Then to the other, Chinatown
Two miles north, my feet are sore
For many steps have worn the ground
Speaking Chinese all around
And spicy snails we then devore
We wanted all the sights to see
But the metro made no sense
Two roads diverged in a hood, and we -
We took them both, because fuck me
And that has made all the difference

Day 1: Sičk Brüh

Wei Wei was sick all day today, so we didn’t really do much besides sit inside. I got her some Gatorade and yogurt at one point, and a thermometer later on. She was feeling well enough to go get dinner with our friend Jay, who lives in Toronto. He knows a bunch about the city, and told us all the places to go eat and things to do. We got ramen together at one of the four ramen shops in a two-block radius of our hostel. It was quite good, the chicken looked like it should be flavorless, but it took on the flavor of the broth really well.

Graffiti

We walked around Yonge Street a bit, and saw the student center at Ryerson University. It is a very cool building, the architecture is very unique. They have a different theme for each floor, and the architecture really reflects that theme. One floor is a beach, and it literally looks like a sandy beach leading up to a body of water. We walked around some more and got bubble tea. We got our laundry from the hostel and took it over to Jay’s apartment to throw it in the wash, and Jay showed us some of his film projects and played a jazz record. It felt a bit like a Murakami novel.

Day 2 - 4: Sitting Inside

I didn’t write anything the last two days, so I’m combining everything into one post. I was pretty busy getting stuff ready for a conference in Montreal, which also meant I didn’t get to explore Toronto as much as I would have liked. Wei Wei got over being sick at day 3, but she was really supportive while I was basically sitting inside being boring. She made me eat stuff, for example. We did manage to go see some Toronto-based stuff. Jay’s recommendations were largely restaurants, so we had some good food.

We walked over to Chinatown on one day. Toronto has a huge Chinese population; in fact, Toronto has the second-largest percentage of foreign-born residents of any major world city, behind Miami, but probably significantly fewer came to Toronto by swimming. 20 percent of Canada’s visible minority population live in Toronto, and 70 percent are of Asian ancestry[citation needed]. We got some good Chinese food, according to Wei Wei it was pretty authentic. A good guide to getting authentic Chinese food, apparently, is whether or not the restaurant takes credit cards. We also walked around a Chinese mall, and I got a Toronto hat. Pro tip for traveling, get a hat of the city you’re in. Someone came up to us to ask us a question, but I was wearing the hat, so he knew I didn’t know the answer. It went something like “Excuse me, do you - never mind” and he walked away.

At the park

The second day we got Japanese tapas (which were expensive as balls) and then went bar hopping. By “bar hopping” I mean that we went to one bar and ordered five drinks, then were pretty drunk and realized we hadn’t actually “hopped” so we went to another random bar and got another drink and a dessert. It was both of our first experience getting real cocktails at an actual bar. We got a Sex on the Beach, which was like drinking soda, and a White Russian, which tasted like a latte (or as they call them here, Ice Capps) and a Manhattan, which was gross. Also got a couple Toronto-ish beers. At the other place we got a sangria and chocolate mouse.

Another day we went to the Toronto Island Park. The ferry ride over gave a beautiful view of the city. The CN tower is really, really huge, it puts the Space Needle to shape. We didn’t realize it was going to be so cold on the island, so we only brought one jacket between the two of us (classic). But we saw some geese (perhaps Canadian geese, although I’m not sure if they were that authentic). There were a bunch of baby ducks, which were super adorable. We sat on a beach for a while. I skipped rocks (Wei Wei is still picking it up) and we made stuff in the sand. There was purple sand on that particular beach, it made our feet purple. We took the fairy back to the city and walked over to Chinatown to get dinner. We were pretty hungry though, so we got a Polish hot dog to eat while we walked there. We ate snails at a Cantonese-ish-style restaurant.

Sunset

I’m getting increasingly exhausted every day. We walk around so much. One problem with Canada is the lack of cell service, which isn’t so bad for not making calls (I don’t get invited to many parties anyway) but means that we have to navigate with maps instead of GPS, like cavemen or something. We couldn’t find a decent map of the Toronto metro system, so we ended up walking pretty much everywhere. My calfs are twitching a bit. Just the walk to Toronto Island Park and Chinatown was 6.7 miles, but in Canada that’s actually 10.8 miles, although the Canadian mile is getting stronger.

Montreal

Day 1: Keepin’ it Mont-real

The Megabus left from Toronto at 7:30 this morning, which was about three hours earlier than we’re used to getting up. So we slept a lot on the bus. We watched 30 minutes of Return of the Jedi, but we were too tired. We slept until about 11 and then got up and finally updated the blog with what we did in Toronto.

If Toronto was too much like the United States, Montreal is a completely different country. Leave it to French culture to give you grief about ordering Lebanese food in one of the country’s official languages. This city is so European that there were people non-ironically rollerblading and at least four or five Vespas. Our hostel is pretty cool, there were random people sitting around in the lobby singing when we got in. All the signs are in French. It is a cool experience to see little kids speaking a foreign language, for some reason.

I checked in for ISCAS at the Sheraton hotel. This conference is really expensive, but they had lots of swag (maple syrup and an umbrella). There are some really cool topics at this conference. We got Lebanese food afterwards and then I went back to the hotel by myself while Wei Wei went to journal in a pub. There was a welcome reception in a random building in “old Montreal” which seemed a bit hedonistic. There were some cool dancers and stuff. I met a guy named Kodai who is presenting on a noise-resilient RBM circuit. It was kind of hard to hear him at the reception but I’m planning on going to his lecture tomorrow.

Day 2: Captain Canada: Civilly Warring

I woke up pretty early to go the conference in Le Centre Sheraton. Waking up is hard. A bunch of people moved out. The opening ceremony for the conference had talks by several notable people, including the mayor of Montreal, followed by a really fascinating keynote speech about modeling biological processes with “cytomorphic chips”. The gist was that a lot of physical concepts are shared between biology and electronics, like Boltzmann energy, which is a model for both enzyme action and the current across a transistor. Analog circuits provide basis functions for every mathematical concept needed to model any biological system, and the speaker had literally made a compiler that would turn a chemical model into an electronic circuit. He had used this to generate an electronic model for the mechanism of action of cancer to make a circuit for rapidly testing drug effects; models that would take 12 years to run at a sufficient accuracy on a digital computer could be simulated in 7 minutes. All around, really cool. It weirdly seems like analog electronics are resurfacing as a major direction for electronics development.

Captain America (actually in Reagan airport on the way back to Atlanta, but semantics)

I went to a couple more talks. I’ve been taking notes here although I think they’re pretty messy and difficult to understand. The talks are 15 minutes each, followed by 3 minutes of questions. I think I went to 14 talks today. There were some cool demos as well. There was a lunch too, in a very fancy hotel. I walked over to the Google offices but they were closed because today was Victoria day. After the conference, Wei Wei and I got Tim Horton’s and watched Captain America. The whole movie seems like one long tag-team project between a 12-year-old with a 30 second attention span, a 17-year-old who reads a lot of fanfic, and a 38-year-old who thought The Dark Night needed more sarcastic teenagers. It was probably one of the top 3 superhero movies I’ve seen (although it didn’t top Guardians of the Galaxy, in my opinion). They did Black Panther’s origin story in about 30 seconds, it was very efficient; father loves son, father dies in superhero-initiated explosion, son becomes superhero to avenge him. He was a really cool character. The villain was well-done too.

Day 3: Demo and Poutine

Today I presented the demo. We got breakfast this morning at a café that near Concordia. I went to one set of talks which were really good, it gave me some ideas on things that would be cool to do. One person talked about using the IBM TrueNorth chip for some stuff for the Air Force, which was pretty awesome because I’d never actually heard of anyone using it for anything useful. Me and Dr. Hasler then presented the three demos that we brought along. People were pretty interested in using FPAAs. It was good to get a conference poster under my belt, and I feel like I can finally focus on getting ready for my internship this summer.

Wei Wei wanted to see a play called “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”. Before the show we got chicken wings and poutine at a sort of greasy restaurant with a darts board and hockey on in the background. The play was a series of scenes about growing up and struggling through all the things related to loving someone. It was a musical comedy. There were only four actors in the entire production, but they played different characters in each scene. Pretty much everyone in the theater was relatively elderly couples, and the pockets of young people who were there seemed like they were other actors coming out to support their friends (we sat next to a few, and you could definitely tell they were actors). It was really nice to be there. Afterwards Wei Wei talked a lot about doing theater tech in high school. We got Canadian McDonalds, which is like regular McDonalds but you can substitute the fries for poutine (we didn’t).

Day 4-5: A Series of Fortunate Events

The last two days of ISCAS were pretty interesting, I put some notes online. All around, I think the conference was a good opportunity to meet people and get inspired. There is some really cool work being done in a lot of fields. On the day of the flight, we walked up the Royal Mountain, which I guess is the namesake of Montreal (Mont-Royal). The view from the top was pretty incredible, but there were tulips everywhere which ruined it. Chicago, Toronto and Montreal all had way too many tulips - practically every public area had them.

We barely caught the flight. It left at 4:00, so we figured leaving at 2:00 would give us enough time. We had two more Ice Capps (those things are addictive) and went to catch the bus. First, we didn’t realize the bus only took coins, so we missed the first bus as we went to buy a bus ticket. We missed the second bus because I went to the bathroom. We caught the third bus, by which time it was around 2:30, so still plenty of time for our 30-minute bus ride to the airport. An hour later, when we get there, we were starting to get a bit stressed. We were too late to check in at an electronic kiosk, so we had to check in at the counter, but the lady working there said we were too late and would have to pay a 400 dollar rebooking fee. Plus our bags were too big for carry-on (it was a different airline than the one we flew in on). Another lady was there and told her it would be alright for us to go in, if we ran, as long as we checked our bags. The security people thought Wei Wei’s bag was suspicious so they had to look inside. They gave us priority through TSA, and we ran to the gate, but there was still plenty of time left so it was anticlimactic.

The other weird thing about the flight was that it was way easier to get into Canada than it was to get back to the US. I guess this post turned into a why-flying-is-awful sort of rant. Anyway, it meant my aunt waited at the airport for way longer than expected, but she picked us up and everything worked out.

Washington

Day 1: Monuments are Confusing

This is Wei Wei’s first time in Washington, so it was funny to see how she didn’t know what anything was called. We took the train into the city and walked around a few places, stopping at the Smithsonian, then going by the Washington Monument, then the World War 2 memorial and Lincoln Monument (turns out you can’t sit on Lincoln’s lap), then the Vietnam War memorial, then the Renwick Gallery (although they got rid of a bunch of stuff since I went there last time, but the permanent installations were still pretty cool), then the White House, then went back to the Holocaust museum, where we stayed for about two and a half hours until it closed.

We got dinner with my friend Phillipe, who has been teaching in DC for five years. We got Salvidorian food. Apparently DC has a huge Salvidorian population, so much so that if you get Hispanic food it is presumed Salvidorian. It was really good to see him. He did Teach for America and decided to stay as a teacher, and had some interesting thoughts on the program. We didn’t get back to my aunt and uncle’s until around midnight, but there was a futuristic bathroom at the metro station that had all these buttons for opening and closing doors and sensors for washing your hands.

Day 2: Important Stop on the Patriotism Train

We visited my grandmother today, who is in a nursing home near where my aunt and uncle live. We talked for a while, it seems like she is doing well. We then went to Mount Vernon, which was George Washington’s plantation. It is a really huge area, like 6000 acres. It has been really fantastically preserved and restored, so it feels very colonial. I’ve been a bunch of times because my aunt works there, but it was still cool to see, and I think Wei Wei liked the blacksmithing, among other things. The area around it has been maintained so that you can’t see any of the surrounding neighborhoods, even across the Potomac (alternatively pronounced Pot-o-mac and Pa-tow-mic) River. We went to Wegman’s, which is a nice grocery store, and got some snacks to eat in DC. We got Sriracha-flavored popcorn, which we ate while reading Sputnik Sweetheart on the couch.

My aunt and uncle took us to see the new X-Men movie. It was very action-packed, but the story seemed all over the place, sort of like the loose threads in ripped clothing that needs to be patched up. Wei Wei didn’t understand the story because she hadn’t seen the previous two, and there are some central characters that you have to understand in order to make sense of it. The villain is Apocalypse, who is ridiculously overpowered, and I’d been concerned about how they could actually defeat him without breaking canon, but the way they did it made sense, even if it did seem like a bit of a cop-out on the part of the writers.

Day 3: Drunk in DC: A Deeply Dizzy Day

We visited my friend Noah today, who is an analyst for a company in Washington that does research for court cases, mostly between large corporations suing each other. He had apparently worked 85 hours this week, and in lieu of cocaine and dog-fighting he and some friends went to drink bottomless mimosas at El Chucho. Apparently getting bottomless beverages is a popular passtime for young people in Washington. His friends were also recent Emory grads, and it was fun talking to them about their experiences after college. There are a lot of Emory grads in DC and New York. We were super late because there is construction on the metro, so by the time we got there they had been drinking for an hour and a half, and we stayed for another hour and a half, so it made the bottomless part well worth it. Apparently there are hibiscus mimosas. Wei Wei couldn’t drink, so she got the indomitable pleasure of hanging out sober with a bunch of drunk people. Also, random aside: DC metro is pretty expensive compared to other metro systems.

Arttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt

We went with Noah to a modern art museum, which was supposedly a memorial for the bombing of Hiroshima, but if it was, it was way, way to abstract for me to understand. The exhibits on the bottom floor were all animations, but not good animations. The closest approximation would be a mix of ASMR and Shrek is Love. We were only there for 30 minutes, because it closed, and it was probably much more fun to see buzzed. We went and hung out in a coffee shop / hotel lobby and talked for a while, which was fun.

Day 4: Like Savoring some Nicely Turned Out Prose

We actually woke up early this morning, which was weird. We fell asleep reading Sputnik Sweetheart pretty early last night. I’m going to miss being able to do that this summer. It was one of those moments when you’re completely free to enjoy experiencing life, without having responsibilities, or worse, imagining responsibilities. I think if I’ve learned anything about traveling while on this trip it would be to do it with someone who has that effect on you. But we headed off to the city to see some more patriotic things before we caught flights later this evening. We walked through the National Art Gallery, which was incredible. A lot of the artists we saw also had art at the Chicago Art Museum, but the gallery in DC is completely free, so anyone traveling here can see world-class art.

Arttttttttttttttttt

We went to the modern art museum we’d gone to yesterday and saw the rest of the exhibits. It confirmed my suspicion that it was the most pretentious art gallery I have ever been to. I think any art which leaves its interpretation completely up to the viewer is very lazy, and takes advantage of people who would give it the benefit of the doubt. In one sense, everything is art, in that it has some internal structure and, given enough time, we can place enough meaning on it to feel as if it is speaking to us in a non-superficial way, whether or not that meaning has any intention behind it. So people who do the same with art like this, yet hold it up as seeing further than others into some concept or another, come across as a bit closed-minded, because anything could convey the same feeling if you interpret it enough.

We were debating between going to Arlington and going to the National Archives, and by the time we got out of the art gallery it was pretty late, so we opted for the National Archives. It was an appropriate finale to our patriotism tour to see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and there was a parade outside where I bumped into my friend Fabian, Phillipe’s brother, which was really surprising. We took the metro back to my aunt and uncle’s, got our bags, said goodbyes and went to the airport.

Postscript

Traveling as a college student is romanticized to a stereotypical degree. It goes hand in hand with liking craft beer and supporting Bernie Sanders. I figured pretty much everywhere would be the same, and for the most part it all was, at least as far as people go. No one cared if we liked them, and we didn’t care if anyone liked us, so it felt authentic, like improv comedy. There was a definite contrast in the feel of each place. Nashville stood out as a city with expectations to live up to, or maybe with a history that has been caulk-gunned into something more digestible. But the other cities we went to seemed to rest on the strengths of their residents, in that no one was trying to build up a central narrative, but there were so many distinct components that the central narrative was stronger than it could have been otherwise, like the inclusion-exclusion principle. Secondly, seeing someone we knew in a city maybe made it more real, because we didn’t have to punch our own window into the landscape, we could use one that was already punched for us. I think my view of traveling is that new experiences are best shared with people who makes them fuller and more worth writing down.