About fifteen years ago, I read the book Dakota by the poet Kathleen Norris and through her description, developed a love for places that are no place.

The image of a democracy of barrenness rings true when one turns on the TV and finds bland programs designed for the widest possible audiences, or when one drives a busy freeway, or walks through an airport parking garage (or a shopping mall), places that are no place, where you can’t tell by looking if you are in Tulsa or Tacoma, Minneapolis or Memphis. 

—Kathleen Norris, “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography”

Anytime I can identify places that are no place, part of me gets excited—I found one, Kathleen!—and part of me is comforted by their mundane colorlessness. I commit the scene to memory: sterile hospital waiting rooms with their stacks of dingy, infected, outdated magazines. Laundromats that smell of chemicals designed to describe the feeling of cleanliness. Serpentine halls of airport terminals, never-ending, with swirly, stain-hiding carpets and overachieving stains that still show through.

There are also places intended to be temporary, at least for you, and I find them to be unsettling reminders of our own impermanence: hotel rooms with thin sheets and that one weird velvety blanket. The table/chair/bed contraption in the doctors office, covered by thin white paper just for you, just for your visit. College dormitories, noisy and largely there for your convenience, not comfort.

That is where I now find myself, a temporary place that is no place, and I’m trying to figure out whether or not this tiny little dorm room in Fairbanks, Alaska is home.

But what is home?

Is it the place where you live, or the place where you are from? When does a place start to become home, and when does it cease to be? Is home a place for you, your things, your present or your past?

Usually you can just tell what home feels like. It’s a warm fire and a cozy sweater, blanket on your lap and book in your hand. It’s the sound of your best friend’s laughter filling your dining room. It’s the safe, familiar place where you are unapologetically, uninhibitedly you.

I’ve yet to find that here, though I am trying. I like to take a book and my new wool blanket into the common room on Sunday mornings, cautiously enjoying the quiet and calm before the storm like a pilot that flies into a hurricane’s eye to gather data. That room is also where I sit at the large table to do my homework, where I sit on the couch and watch Habs games on my iPad, where my new friendships are born during study breaks and all-nighters alike. Being stuck alone in my austere room with the few items I brought feels like I’m a dog being crate trained, no matter how many tapestries I hang on the walls (currently: 6).

Most of my possessions are at my dad’s house in California, haphazardly packed into cardboard boxes I didn’t even bother to label. I don’t live there and I never have; if it didn’t have my dad’s cars in the garage and my dog running in the yard, it would be just another place that is no place, a suburban ranch-style house that could be any cul-de-sac in any town, anywhere on the West Coast.

Most of my recent memories are of San Francisco, which was home for so long that it’s hard not to think of anything before that as my personal ancient history. San Jose is, Lawrence is, Campbell is. They are all places of my past that I will carry with me wherever I go, neatly organized, labeled and boxed up, ready to unpack in my new home—wherever that is.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done this, since I made a home in a new place, and it’s also something I’ve never really done on my own. I’m going to be here for at least two more years (more if I stay and pursue a PhD and yes I will make people call me Doctor), but the temporary and transitional nature of my current surroundings makes me a little bit afraid to unload those boxes, unpack them, and make this place my home.


I didn’t think to learn “Hey can I pet your dog?” in French prior to leaving, but that did not stop me from finding a big fluffy dog to pet whilst talking with his two handlers. I can’t recall the name of anyone I met on this trip except for that dog. He was called Barkley, and like a good bilingual Montreal dog, he seemed to understand my English just fine.

One of the best parts of Montreal is the old town, or Vieux-Port. We ate poutine and watched an episode of 24CH in a charmless fast food restaurant between rounds of cold (outside) and old (inside). We walked the cobblestone streets, felt bad for a horse who clearly hated his job as a mode of transportation for tourists, and paid a woman to pour hot syrup on ice so we could roll it up on a stick and try to eat it before it warmed and dripped all over us. Ryan took a walk along the St Lawrence River while I grabbed some crappy rental skates and I did something I waited over twenty years to do: ice skate in the snow.

I’m not from a place where it snows in winter, but a place where outdoor rinks are a novelty you gawk at between lunch and more shopping at Union Square. It doesn’t snow at the Winter Lodge. But snow and cold feel so right to me. It’s my thing. And here I was in Montreal, on the first day of winter, so happy to lace up rental skates, pull my toque over my ears and join the other skaters under the snow. I wished I had headphones so I could listen to something better than the Christmas music the rink was playing, but I would’ve missed the moment when a group of college students from Spain squealed and loudly sang along when “Feliz Navidad” came over the speakers. Or the two old women who whispering and sharing smiles in Russian or Ukrainian, the white leather boots of their figure skates completely unmarred. Both babushkas moved as if they were born on the ice, and had I not seen them carefully lacing their skates in the lodge, I would have assumed they were born with those on too.

After a while I moved to the side of the rink and sat on the ledge. A huge Bernese mountain dog bounded over to request some attention, but ran away before I caught her name. I closed my eyes and put together a little snow globe in my head to take home: me, the dog, the rink and the river, and a whirlpool of skaters. Then I took a selfie because tears-of-joy-in-the-snow is a good look for me, and it’s not every day you fulfill [relatively easy] lifelong dreams.

Montreal at Night

Have you figured out that snowy places are my happy place?  I especially love cold places at night, so I totally didn’t mind walking–even if it was literally the coldest place either of us had been in years. That’s what scarves are for. Our hotel was a kilometer from the Bell Center, a short walk we took several times over four days. Sometimes it was so cold that I could hear my camera having a hard time–the shutter would open but take forever to close, and nothing was exposed correctly. I was perplexed at first before remembering that I’ve never taken a digital camera to such a cold place–it was out of operating temperature! To keep it warm, I tucker my camera inside my jacket between a few layers of clothes and only pulled it out when I really wanted to shoot something. It still resulted in a lot of under- and over-exposed shots, but that just means I’ll have to come back again. With hand warmers.

Around Montreal

Montreal bagels are hands down the best in the world. I feel cheated by every bagel I had until these babies came into my life. Before leaving the hotel I took a look at a map and found the cartoon bagel floating above some neighbourhood not far past the park. Mile End? Plateau? We took a bus to the bagel part of town and walked straight to Fairmount. It was a few degrees over freezing outside, and dry and hot like a sauna inside. You could see your breath. We ordered the hottest, freshest bagels (which happened to be sesame), shoved them in our coat pockets and hauled it to St. Viateur to do a grab one of their sesame bagels, also fresh. For the record, I don’t even like sesame bagels, but the concierge at the hotel (who looked so much like Pascal Dupuis I had a strong urge to punch him in the face) said to get whatever is hot because it will be the best…but Fairmount was his fave.

Dude was right. Both the Fairmount and St. Viateur bagels were the most delicious bagels I’ve ever had. And although I was determined to like St. Viateur more (they had black cherry soda, which pairs well with everything), the Fairmount bagel was slightly better. Both were absolutely perfect–warm, a touch of honey, a chewey outside and a soft middle, but the Fairmount one was just better. The next week we had some New York bagels for comparison and I still maintain Montreal’s are better. I pine for them regularly.

After bageling, we walked around enjoying the warm sun and little shops around the Plateau area. I decided that if we moved, we should move here: it is close to bagels, falafel, and a magical place where French wine is cheaper than California wine called SAQ. We then stumbled upon a library that used to be a church–a total, complete Shannon Trap. I’ve now been to a library on 4 separate vacations in 3 countries so if you thought I was cool, you can definitely stop now.

There were so many things that we forgot or didn’t get around to doing, mostly because we had very little time and it was very cold. We didn’t make it to the top of the mountain in the park, where you can see the river and the city below. When we had the chance, we were cold and cranky. We only ate at one smoked meat sandwich shop instead of two, and I only had 6 poutine in 4 days. The anthropology museum, which I now realise would have been largely empty and well-heated, was left unseen and I gave up on walking across town to photograph a street sign with my name on it–sorry, Shannon Street. There was so much we wanted to see that we had a great trip and still only did half of what we intended.

Next time, I’m bringing hand warmers or coming earlier in the year. I’ll also consider renting a car so I can drive around, and I’ll practise my French more before leaving.