A man with no arms wearing a leather vest belts out a song about solidarity of the world’s youth. He’s on stage in front of thousands of young international travelers. Seemingly hundreds of men in white robes and cone shaped hats make their way through the excited crowd, shaking as many hands as possible. I think they’re Bishops. Priests maybe.
Me? I’m sitting two blocks away on my couch with a cold beer and a laptop computer. I’m watching the opening events of World Youth Day 2002 on my new television. It’s probably the most diverse crowd of young people that I’ve ever seen in Toronto. I can hear the buzz outside my window.
Earlier today I dropped my girlfriend off at the airport. It was 1pm – the same time that the Pope arrived on his plane from the Vatican. Although I’m not Catholic, the thought of crossing paths with the Pope still seemed exciting. It didn’t happen.
It’s like a giant boy scout jamboree – hundreds of thousands of well intentioned young people travelling in packs and waving the flags of their homelands. Some have gone one step past mere flags and are wearing entire outfits representing their culture. I see strange multi coloured hats, oddly puffed-out pants, and elaborately detailed shirts. More than once I feel as though I have entered the Land of Oz.
Beyond the flags that I am accustomed to seeing regularly, there are flags everywhere that are new to me. When I was in high school, I was a bit of a geography buff, so it’s unsettling to see so many unknown designs. Where have these come from? Are these new countries? Am I really this ignorant? I suppose the fall of the Soviet Union created an influx of jobs in the flag design industry.
Something so important to thousands of young people is to me a traffic jam. My whole neighbourhood is flooded with Catholics from all over the world. There are road blocks everywhere, closing off most streets and making the drive home much more difficult than usual. But rather than the expected road rage I experience after a day’s work, I surprisingly find myself smiling at the throngs of happy world travelers. They march along King Street singing songs that are entirely foreign to my ears. Such blatant happiness seems out of place here, so it’s a welcome change.
Previously unknown to me, the Pope is apparently considered to be very cool. I find it quite strange. I hear chants of, “JP 2!” and, “JP’s in the house!”. One local newspaper’s headline had something to the effect of, “Papa Pope is in the house”. Very strange. Most of the pilgrims (as they are called) wear the same tan and red courier shoulder bags, really rather cool looking. I spot a few crowds wearing tie – died shirts – a surreal appropriation by these Christians of imagery from a not – so – distant counter culture drug aesthetic. Perhaps this is intended to work with the unofficial title of the week long event – “Popestock”, an obvious, strange throwback to Woodstock. It’s hard for me to imagine the Pope rocking out to Jimmy Hendrix in the late 60’s.
The last time I saw people traveling the streets of Toronto waving flags from around the world was during the World Cup soccer tournament. This is entirely different, and much more enjoyable as an observer. Religion aside, it’s refreshing to see groups of people from different countries walk alongside each other without even a hint of conflict – not the case during the World Cup – a constant parading of horn honking imbeciles.
The World Youth Day 2002
Date: July 23rd – 28th, 2002