How is Kingston so warm? It's a city built mostly of flat, gray stones. And in late January, northern Lake Ontario kicks a cold, wet wind in your face.
And on that score, yeah, it was body-parts-fall-off cold. But walking along Princess Street from the Grand Theatre toward the water felt more welcoming, more familiar than a summer stroll through, say, South Beach.
And "city" is not the right word. Before I moved to the North Country, Kingston is what I called a town. Small, but there's more than one main drag connected by alleyways and nooks. And the stones they're made of evoke an older world, carved as much as built.
Somehow, Chez Piggy hung its menu on one of these stone walls. Everything listed was mouth-watering, but adulterous to the heart, liver and just about every other internal organ. Less a restaurant and more of a monument to adipose tissue and its fervent growth, this is where you go to love your tongue, but cheat on the rest of your body.
A few blocks later, a right on Ontario Street and a quick left down another alley brought me to Curry Original and a waft of spices so sweet and thick I had to stop marveling at the long stone wall and high wooden beams to keep the drool from running down my shirt.
I ordered the chicken jalfrezi and if the dish doesn't sound familiar, it will. It's getting so popular that it recently replaced masala as Britain's favorite curry.
And let's say India never gave us tea, Ghandi or the idea of washing away our sins. The country would still be one of the world's greatest cultural contributors for jalfrezi alone. Its ratio of ginger, cumin, red chili, coriander and cinnamon is every bit as complex and dynamic as the action between the pitcher's mound, home plate and first base. Both result from a delicate interplay that, when done right, is its own triumphant and exultant reward.
"Yeah, we use dijon mustard," said the man behind the counter, after I gushed about the dish.
And that's Kingston. Listen, if you're going to have a successful melange of influences from all over the world, isn't it better if it's casually understated?
Still, municipalities inherently accommodate conflict: sidewalks v. dog poop, bars v. churches, etc. But how a town's bookstores face the onslaught of virtual attention spans may be the most telling. Slightly more than 120,000 people live in Kingston and it has four bookstores (two used, two new) in its centre ville—all within tossing distance of one another.
There may be a better way to pass a wintry hour alone in a visited place than shuffling among piles of books and leafing through a first edition Graham Greene, but I doubt it.
And then it was time for the concert. The National Arts Centre Orchestra was performing Liszt and Beethoven at the Grand and it's hard to imagine a better program for this town. If only for Liszt's score of crashing piano solos that screamed of his life's cold hurdles and inconsolable grief. But the clarinet comes quietly into the conversation to say there's beauty, too, and love. The violin spreads warmth.
After the performance, my wife packed up her oboe and we grabbed a late snack at Sima Sushi, also on Princess Street. You can do worse than the Yam Dragon and Butternut Squash Tempura rolls and ginger tea, and it would be hard to do better.
As we sat and talked and tried to figure out if and how each piece would fit in our mouths, it started to snow. Like four-inches-an-hour snow. The streetlights seemed to turn stroboscopic and we worried about the drive home.
But by the time we reached 401 East/Est, it had stopped. It was like driving out of a snow globe but instantly missing its warmth.