Five Books in Four Weeks
By Linlee Allen
The trip to Canada was supposed to be a relatively simple five-day getaway to have my U.S. visa renewed: an interview at the embassy in Ottawa, followed by a 3-4 day wait for processing, then a quick return to collect my passport and a flight back to the U.S. in time for Christmas.
Sometimes, however, life doesn’t go according to plan.
When I was informed there would be a delay with the processing and that my trip could end up taking several weeks, I did my best to divert a meltdown. Luckily, an old friend and fellow Aussie generously offered her apartment in Montreal as a place for me to stay whilst she headed back to the motherland to escape the brutal Canadian winter.
Thirty minutes into the train ride to Montreal, I stared into the distance from the window seat, faced with a vast stretch of powdery snow covered in golden sunlight. I downloaded the Doctor Zhivago soundtrack and transcended into Linleeland. But even there the reality of my situation left me with a heavy heart, and all I really wanted was to see my dog again. Headphones blocked out the festive cheer, but each time my gaze diverted from the countryside to the inside of the train, all I could see was a cheesy joy army of fellow passengers, most of whom were laden with gifts and smiles heading home for the holidays. And there I was, alone and feeling like a loser, not least of all for giving up yet again on a second attempt at reading Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. Right book, wrong time.
When I woke the next morning it was minus-24 degrees, and by mid-morning the temperature had dropped even further. I desperately needed a bookshop and a nearby place to prevent cabin fever, and so off I went dressed like the Michelin Man, shuffling in the snow past Mile End locals before finally arriving at Drawn & Quarterly. I decided on four books, the first of which I was anxious to begin so I headed directly to Farine Cafe and placed my order of un café allongé.
Throughout On Booze by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a pocket-sized assortment of six short stories, the writer eloquently muses on sunshine, the South of France, and cashed-up European jet setters. His words proved the perfect remedy for combatting the Canadian chill, prompting me to delve into a different headspace. Case in point: During dinner on the terrace, stars fell in our plates and we tried to identify ourselves with the place by recognizing faces from the boat. But nobody passed and we were alone with the deep blue grandeur and the filet de sole Ruhl and the second bottle of champagne. Show Mr and Mrs F. to Number - (May, June 1934).
Days later: new book, new setting. If ever you find yourself on a journey of uncertainty you need Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black as your travel companion. In this gem of a publication, fifteen stories run the gamut from falling in love with a pig farmer to burning down a barn and smuggling drugs into a European film festival. Storytellers rarely come as colorful as Cookie Mueller, and the ways in which she fearlessly navigates her way from British Columbia and Baltimore to Sicily and San Francisco remind me how important it is to travel with an open mind. And so I wholeheartedly stepped into Cookie’s world whilst devouring her words at the coolest cafe in Montreal, a place where European soccer flags line the walls and the bar staff look like they stepped out of a Bruce Weber photoshoot as they serve macchiatos whilst lip-syncing lyrics from A Tribe Called Quest. Café Olimpico, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for you.
Christmas passed, as did New Year’s Eve. And then a week later, en route to an exhibition, I received the email: “Dear Miss Allen, Your U.S. visa has been approved.” That afternoon as I headed back to Ottawa on the train, I began Women At Work: Interviews from The Paris Review. Between reading interviews with Simone de Beauvoir, Joan Didion, and Toni Morrison, I received random text messages from friends, those that followed my Instagram and were unaware of what was going on with my situation, wondering why I had flaked on holiday parties with no excuse. "Everything is copy" and disguised by smoke and mirrors, I thought to myself. And then I laughed at the synchronicity of reading an interview with Dorothy Parker, during which she discusses her experience of living in Los Angeles.
Once I was coming down a street in Beverly Hills and I saw a Cadillac about a block long, and out of the side window was a wonderfully slinky mink, and an arm, and at the end of an arm a hand in a white suede glove wrinkled around the wrist, and in the hand was a bagel with a bite out of it.
From the moment I purchased Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters I knew I would savor this book last, treating it as reward for getting through the trip. Admittedly an American Airlines flight from Ottawa to LAX wasn’t exactly the most ideal setting to be ingesting a memoir from the founder of Chez Panisse, but I rose above it at 35,000 feet and imagined the recycled plane air was that of the famed Berkeley-based culinary institution, complete with an airport-purchased tuna salad sandwich on rye. After all, if anyone knows about rolling with the punches and overcoming obstacles, it’s Alice Waters. As I turned the final page ten minutes prior to landing in Los Angeles, I thought about this trip of mine, and this memoir of hers, and realized sometimes the greatest adventure lies within the chaos. And women like us wouldn’t have it any other way.
Walking Through Clear Water In a Pool Painted Black
Australian-born Linlee Allen spent several years in Paris handling international PR for the famed retail mecca colette before relocating to Los Angeles in 2007. She currently divides her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles operating a PR & brand consulting agency and regularly contributes to assorted publications on subjects and identities that inspire her.
She's also presently working on her finishing her first novel.