I'm not bräve, just naïve...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

It's over...

That's it. I'm done. I've had enough of Blogger's "reliability issues". It's time to update your bookmarks folks, because the blog is moving to Wordpress. The new address is:


All the posts and comments up to now have been moved across, and I've finished re-uploading the photographs as far back as February 2006. I hope to have all the photographs from archived posts updated soon.

See you there!


Saturday, July 29, 2006

Roadside: Canadian service station...

Globalisation may have killed off many individual trading names, but just in case you thought that McDonald's was an evil multi-national, note how (north of the border) they add a little red maple leaf to the middle of their golden arches logo. That'll fool 'em. Petro-Canada, on the other hand, has no such 'branding' issues...

"What are you guys doing?"

A few hours ago, I was woken from my slumber by the sound of someone shouting the above. The clarity of the call seemed to make me think he was standing on one of the roofs adjacent to my new bedroom, perhaps on the balcony above. With the move to a new apartment comes the adaptation to the new sounds of my surroundings. I've spent the last ten months in a haven of tranquility, in a room that down onto a first floor courtyard. I'm now hearing a lot more traffic noise, and the distant sound of a night club pumping house music into the air. It's not a bad thing at all: I can sleep through these sounds; in fact they are already beginning to wash over me and calm me. Falling asleep in a big city like Montréal is a comfortable experience. As you slip into your slumber, you are reminded that outside the world continues to spin, and that if you need something to eat at three in the morning, there are plenty of places near-by.

I lay in bed for a while wondering what the possible stimulus could be for the shout that woke me up. A friendly hello from a man who's looked up the balcony of a friend's apartment, and seen an early morning party still going on? Or maybe an agrier responce to two 'yoofs' attacking the paintwork of a car with some keys? Probably not... this is not Belfast.

My new room is opens onto a fire escape that leads down to an overgrown back yard. On the opposite side of the house, the apartment has the most essential of Montréal real estate features: a wide balcony that faces the street, and which is leaning out from the building just enough to appear safe but feel slightly unnerving. I'm sitting here, having made an early morning sortie to the Jean-Talon market. A big bowl of fresh fruit salad featuring strawberries, raspberries and blueberries (all Québec grown) is now in the fridge, and I'm tapping away watching the traffic go past. Traffic signals about two hundred metres south of here regulate the one way traffic: periods of acceleration en masse are intersperced with periods of blissful silence, when the engine sounds recede, and I can here the wind rustling the trees that are dotted along the pavements. A hodge-podge of different shops, offices and apartments (all with their blinds and curtains still closed) reflects the sunshine back towards me.

My new place on Main

Friday, July 28, 2006

My work here is done (part one)

I returned home last night through stifling humidity. The artificial environment of my office carries me through the day in a state of suspended animation, insulated from any natural environmental or climatic variety. Stepping out onto the pavement through the underground car park (it is assumed that if you work in this building you arrive by car, probably an air conditioned one) the eight hours of climatised enclosure are rapidly made up for with a pounding cloud of hot, damp air. By the time I got home, I was dripping with sweat, embarassed to be wearing light coloured trousers that were clinging to my legs.

Unable to face physical exersion of any kind, I skipped making my own dinner and ate downstairs in the bustling Mont Royal Hot Dog. A found a seat by a vast open window that looked onto a broad pavement, occupied by outdoor tables with parasols that advertised beer and customers who advertised the food. Throughout the long, dark, cold days of winter (I've eaten poutine in this joint when it's been -25 C) these enormous floor to ceiling windows have reassured me. They're insulated enough to keep the restaurant warm in the winter, yet act as a reminder that as soon as it becomes warm enough, the window will be wound up and into the ceiling like a garage door and the outside will be allowed back in. In fact these up-and-over windows seem to be the must-have feature of any self-respecting Plateau bar.

After eating a big plate of fries and a stacked club sandwich, I climbed the stairs to the apartment. Tonight is the night I have to begin packing. I'm not returning to England for another six weeks, but with the recent return of this apartment's rightful occupant, my days as a house and cat sitter are over. I believe I may have racked up the longest ever stay through the Hospitality Club: it's been more than ten months since I hauled by suitcase and backpack up the stairs to this apartment. Now I'm dusting them down, and filling them with clothes once more. As I cleared out my wardrobe and drawers, Toast (the youngest and most inquisitive of my four feline housemates) jumped onto the bed and started sniffing around and getting inside plastic bags. She investigated an interestingly Toast-sized space in my suitcase, but I decided against taking her with me. She looked at me in the eye, and mee-owed in a voice I haven't heard before. I don't doubt she is as intelligent, if not more intelligent than me. Maybe she knows I will miss her late night company and the affectionate licks my arms receive when they are above the sheets.

I did as much packing as I could, and then retired to the balcony. Charlotte joined me for a glass of white wine, before popping out with Maya to visit friends. I sat alone on the balcony watching occasional flashes of lightning strike silently between clouds high above and to the north-west. No storm showed up, leaving me as sweaty as ever when I went to bed.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

You can't take that away from me

Is it stupid to have a personal philosophy? I always used to think so. I didn't like the idea of trying to pre-determine my approach to the world and the things that I do with some witty motto or belief. But as the weeks pass, and my diary suddenly begins to look very full between now and my home coming, I've realised that I have been living my life this year according to a very important principle.

I am most certainly not a person who is motivated or inspired by material goods or money. I don't covet anything in particular, and despite being a bit of a car nut and book lover, I don't depend on having possessions to live my life. The only things that are likely to cause problems with my luggage allowance when I fly home to the UK in September is a small box full of books. And style is certainly something that turns me off. Right now thousands of people are dying in wars, conflicts and famines around the world. I don't personally believe that there is anything particularly useful or relevant about fashion or style. I spend very little on clothes, shoes and haircuts. In fact, my outgoings are really not extravagant. Yet, despite all this, I have no money. In fact I am one of the thousands of British students in higher education who is riding the wave of easily accessible free overdrafts.

How is it, if I spend no money on clothes, gadgets, a car, or even CDs (and if I live almost rent free) that I have no money?

It's because all my money has been going on intangible experiences: the things that I I will not need to post or check in as luggage when I fly home to Britain. As I've written here before, I'm eating out a lot (for me) at the moment. At least once a week I've been out for breakfast or dinner at a restaurant or diner somewhere on or near the Plateau. Since eating out is such an expensive luxury in Britain, I'm savouring every chance that I have to be able to eat out cheaply while I'm still here. I don't go out to eat so much for the food itself (although it was heavenly to have someone cook Eggs Benedict for me the other at L'Anecdote on St. Hubert the other day) but for the intangible atmosphere I get to experience sitting in a Montréal diner or café: the attention of a friendly server; the over heard conversations; the smells and feelings of a busy diner that I won't be able to experience again when I get back home.

But eating out more often is a temporary luxury because of my present situation (living almost rent free in a country where eating out is just cheaper than back home). While flicking through my new diary this week, and thinking ahead to the plans I have for the next month or so, I realised the permanent addiction that I have. If one day, things do not work out, and the bailiffs come to take away my possessions to pay off my debts, I won't have any regrets about losing my material goods. The real reason I have no money is that I am an incurable traveller. I am not tempted by the round the world or far eastern oddyseys of many of my friends, but I am always excited by the opportunity to construct my own itinerary to a destination that is far from the beaten track. The old saying goes that the journey can be more important than the destination. For me, I have realised that the journey begins even before I leave the house. In quiet lunch hours and stolen moments online, I am a compulsive dreamer of voyages and travels. I get so much value from my holidays, because every moment spent planning and researching the trip is as rewarding as the trip itself. The never ending hunt for the elusive cheap train or plane fares encourages me to investigate new or unconsidered itineraries. New opportunities and options pop up and tempt me at every turn. I don't believe that this time last year I could have predicted all the journeys that I have taken this year: they are delightful products of an inquisitive and exciteable mind... I am as surprised as you are that I managed to visit the world's largest mushrooms in Vilna, Alberta (see photo above left) or a frozen sea in Churchill, Manitoba (see photo below right).

If all goes to plan (and I don't get fired for spending too much of my lunch break checking train tickets online) I will be spending the next few weekends enjoy a few final blissful North American trips. Next weekend will give me the chance to explore some of the countryside around Montréal with friends and a hire car. After that comes the possibility of a long weekend in Toronto to see JS's show and finally join the dots in a city that I feel I really haven't been able to grasp in my previous rapid visits. Then I've been roped in (quite happily) to help LN move to New York. I've also been invited to come along to a weekend in the cabin of a friend of a friend in New Hampshire... and all that is before I head south on the big Alabama and Louisiana trip. The Venice Architecture Biennale was very interesting four years ago, and it could be a reading week trip for this autumn. Plus, a happy combination of circumstances could bring me back to this side of the pond in January, and I'd very much like to spend some time in Chicago.

So if my blog begins to suffer, with entries that are either plain dull or infrequent, please forgive me. When our time is up, we can't take anything with us, so I'm going to be busy in the next few months creating very special memories.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Snapshot: the view from my favourite wifi café

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Becoming a dog lover...

Last night, at about 21h30, Charlotte and I went for a walk. Above us, the sky was the deepest of blues that was on the verge of turning completely black. Ahead of us, in a narrow strip above the city's toothed horizon was a band of intense colour: orange that turned to bronze that turned to blue.

Pulling us along were two dogs. Yes. Two dogs. It's complicated enough with one, but last night we found ourselves looking after a nameless five month old Boxer-Danish cross bread. Realising it would be hard to call him to heel without a name, Charlotte settled very rapidly on Chatton (Fr: 'kitten'). He's not expected to spend more than a few nights with us: the recent arrival of Charlotte's other new canine companion (the beautiful Maya) has already required a significant amount of adaptation. Maya arrived from Chandler last week, the orphan of a now empty house. She's nine years old, and keeps herself to herself. She dotes on her mistress, and has very little energy for running or playing games. It has been hard enough for the four cats to adapt to having her around; Chatton by comparison has ten times the energy. It just would not work.

But as we walked the three blocks from the apartment to Parc Sir Wilfred Laurier, I could tell it was going to be hard for us to say good bye to Chatton. I am by no means a dog lover, but I had to agree every time Charlotte, Charlotte's neighbour or the people we met in the park said "beh, il est vraiment beau". Skinny but muscular, youthful but not always bouncing, he's a gorgeous animal. Unlike our other animal companions, his hair is short and his skin is taught. His legs and tail seem too long as he gallomps around the apartment, but when you take him for a walk he suddenly becomes this eager, elegant and rather suave dog. He does pull on his leash very hard though. Charlotte tried taking both dogs leads at the same time, but found herself quickly pulled in two directions by the two wildly different dogs.

Parc Sir Wilfred Laurier, like many others in Montréal, has an enclosed dog pitch, where owners can bring their animals and let them off the leash. Enclosed by a wire fence, it's a not immediately appealing patch of grass and moss, with a few picnic tables for anyone brave enough to try eat anything with dozens of friendly dogs sniffing around. But as the sky finally dimmed completely, I stood in the middle and began to understand the joys of owning a dog. At any one time there were at least a dozen dogs running, playing and sniffing around. Their owners seemed familiar with the social protocol here... unless you knew someone already, no conversation could be initiated until your dogs met and started sniffing each other's arses. After that you would be able to break the ice with a compliment about the other's pet. From time to time, I ran about with Chatton, or tried to nurture Maya into doing a little more than just watching from the sidelines. I didn't break into much of a sweat, but by the time we left after thirty minutes or so, I felt happily exhausted. Charlotte networked at every opportunity, asking other owners if they knew of anyone who might want a beautiful dog like Chatton. I floated around, enjoying the frenzy of activity that frequently swirled around my feet. Late on this cool summer's evening, I played the game I've played everywhere I've been this year, and imagined what it would be like if all this was really permanent: that I really did live here; that I really did have a five month old cross-breed; that I really was the kind of man who'd own a dog...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Here's a tough one: does James spend more time on his holidays, or planning his holidays? Time is passing so quickly. In less than six weeks time, I will be leaving the same, warm and gainful confines of my present employer. The quick mathematicians amognst you will have noted that that leaves two weeks until I return to Europe. So, what do you think I'm going to be doing with those two weeks? I'm going to Alabama and Louisiana (hehehehehe...)

On Saturday 26 August, I'll depart Montréal, travelling south to New York with my old friend, the Amtrak Adirondack. I'll connect directly to a Regional service to Washington DC, where I'll stay until Monday evening. During my first whistle-stop trip to D.C. we had no time to really see any of the capital's museums. I plan to immerse myself in the Smithsonian for a day or so before the next part of my trip begins. On Monday evening, I'll leave Washington DC on board Amtrak's Crescent. After travelling overnight through North and South Carolina and Georgia, I will arrive the next afternoon in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. From there I'm driving to the miniscule community of Newbern (population 231) to visit the world famous Rural Studio of Auburn University's School of Architecture.

I could not let this year in Canada pass without making a trip to the Rural Studio. For four or five years now, I have been in awe of the work that has been built in the small communities that surround Newbern and Greensboro, Alabama. Founded by the late Samuel Mockbee, each year the Rural Studio brings one year each from Auburn's undergraduate and postgraduate architecture courses to this remote corner of America's impoverished Black Belt. Rather than learning their profession through studio and lecture based classes, the Rural Studio's students learn their trade by the most honest means possible: practical experience. Each year the Studio builds four or five projects designed by the students themselves, often with miniscule budgets. The projects are frequently daring and employ untested techniques, but they are never anything but utterly delightful and utterly humble. The value of the Rural Studio is not to be found in the buildings that it produces, but in the questions it raises about the way architects are trained.

After a few days staying in Newbern, I'm getting in the car and beginning a 650km road trip to Opelousas, Louisiana for the annual South-West Louisiana Zydeco Festival that takes place over the Labor Day long weekend. Travelling via New Orleans, I return the car to Tuscaloosa on Tuesday 5 September, and begin the long train ride north towards New York, where I'll stop for two nights, and 'home' to Montréal.

Two days later, I will leave for England.

I hope you can join me... :)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Snapshot: Montréal bus depot, seen from above...

Friday, July 14, 2006


There are, from time to time, periods in my life (and yours too, I'm guessing) when you perceive that a undefined period is coming to an end. A certain job, a certain home, a certain group of friends, or a certain combination of all of the above. With the recent departure of Ulli back to Europe, and of Ryan to his new domestic bliss, I have been in a period of unsettled change for some time. I've been expecting it and preparing for it, but it was still a strange experience for it to actually happen.

A now the final pieces are in place. Charlotte, whose apartment we have been occupying, looking after and occasionally cleaning, has returned. She walked through the door just as I was flushing the toilet: isn't it funny how reunions can often be somewhat awkwardly timed? She brought with her a friendly dog named Maya, who has gradually been accepted and maybe even welcomed into the house by the existing four feline occupants. Charlotte has commenced a massive operation of cleaning, emptying and clearing out unnecessary detritus from her home. After a long sojourn in a remote north-eastern corner of Québec, most recently spent clearing out the family home of her late sister, the time is right for a few days of energetic cleaning and removal of things that are no longer needed here.

Now it is my time to move on. I will remain here until the end of the month, and then I will be moving to another apartment near by, where Ryan and Jonathan already live. Six weeks from now, I will have finished work, and will take two weeks off for one final trip (news on that coming soon). And eight weeks from now, I will pack my suitcases, throw away my own personal collection of the junk I've acquired this year, and return to England.

I am on the final straight, and every hour of every day is being taken advantage of.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The _____ _____ in Montréal

Every year, the Montréal Mirror offers up a fairly biased suggestion of what is the Best of Montréal. Best bar, best poutine, best strip club etc etc etc. This has left a lingering thought in my mind, and I am now prepared to share with you a draft of some of my personal recommendations. I prefer to steer clear of such narrow terms as 'best' and 'worst'... since there are so many better adjectives.

Your comments are expected.

Most aromatically unpleasant bus route: 44 south Trust me on this one, especially in the late afternoon, this is the stinkiest bus I've ever set foot on.

Most frustratingly unavailable alcohol: Pimms Now that it's summer time, I'd just love to sit out on the balcony with friends and a big jug of the beautiful elixir. But the selfish folk at the SAQ would rather sell industrial strength ready mixed sangria.

Métro station most likely to be doubling up as a subterranean lair for an evil supervillain: Radisson Just imagine Giles Duceppe in a grey one piece suit with a white pussy cat, and you'll get my drift.

Quickest cure for a bad hangover: Breakfast special # 2 at the Binerie Head to 367 ave. du Mont Royal Est (just west of St. Denis) and give the man your money. He'll make the pain go away.

Franchise I'd most like to invest in: Frites Alors Rumour has it you can get the rights to open your own branch of Montréal's best burger chain with a $55,000 downpayment. I'm working on it...

Part of town I never want to go out in again: Crescent, Peel etc The music is aggressive, the drinks are extortionate and the clientelle are drunken American tourists who'd be underage if they were at home. I'm not doing it, even for Brutopia.

Stupidest public transit system: AMT suburban train to Delson I don't even know why I'd want to go to Delson, but now that I know that the AMT only operates four trains a day in each direction (four into Montréal in the morning, four out in the evening) I really want to...

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Same old same old

It's Wednesday lunchtime, and I have climbed up and out of a deep pit filled with numbers and percentages and product codes... last night I dreamt of thousands of jars of pickled onions and pickled gherkins, each one the responce to hours of frantic 'synergising' the day before. I left work yesterday with little Microsoft Excel cells burnt into my eyes, feeling giddy and suddenly very sweaty as I waited for the bus under ominous rainclouds. I hate air conditioning systems not just for the horrendous waste of energy that they entail (cars are not the environmental enemy, artificially ventilated buildings are) but for the way in which they can seduce and change you. During the eight hours I day I spend at work, my body acclimatises that so that when I step outside into the real atmosphere I feel suddenly drained and sticky.

Monday evening was the same, and I was glad to be on the bus and on my way home. But at my first interchange, the métro station Radisson, my flight from the office was halted. The diminutive turnstile gates that politely control access to the métro were locked shut (compare them with the Guantanamo Bay style armoured floor-to-ceiling devices in the New York subway and consider what they reflect about fare dodging in the two cities). Although I didn't find out until much later, a young man had given up, and thrown himself in front of a train at Préfontaine station, a few stops down the line. It's what the métro staff would call a 154-04.

Later that night I was woken by a tremendous thunder storm; the kind that sneaks up on you, rumbling placidly so as to fool you into thinking that it's 50km away, before suddenly exploding directly over your head. It made me jump upright in bed... most of the cats had already scarpered (Ben being the most nervous when storms approach - she's already hidden herself away by the time the first distant rumble is heard). The rain fell so densely that looking from my window I could barely see the door of the kitchen that opens onto the balcony next to my room. Unable to sleep for the noise, I considered that at least I wouldn't have to water the plants the next morning. These nocturnal thunderstorms are strange occurances: they wake me up and interupt my dreams, but when morning comes it sometimes feels as if they themselves were part of my dreams. I have to check for standing water in the empty plant pots outside to confirm that I didn't imagine them in the drowsy early hours of the morning.

These storms are a matter of routine now... for several days we have had hot hot days that have built up until intense thunder storms break the temperature and the humidity in the evenings. Last Friday morning's moving day adventure with Laura, Anna and Mélisse was made much easier by a breakfast time thunder storm that dropped the temperature by 5 degrees just as we started to move heavy furniture. The same happened yesterday evening, only a few hours earlier, dumping hundreds of thousands of litres of water on Montréal just before we went to see an outdoor event at the Jazz Festival. At first we were afraid the show would be spoilt by the rain - in the end it was blissfully cool and dry for us to watch a line up of singers and musicians cover some of Paul Simon's greatest hits. By the time Elvis Costello climbed onto the open air stage at Place des Arts, both the unpleasant sweaty feeling all over my body and the little spreadsheet squares in my eyes had worn away.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

James in Ottawa shocker...

Much of the length of Wellington Street in Ottawa is closed for Canada Day. Running along the north-western edge of Ottawa's downtown, this broad boulevard separates the cluster of diminutive skyscrapers from the elegant parliament complex that overlook river below. The pedestrians and four roadway lanes normally occupied by traffic are heaving with pedestrians, most dressed in red, carrying flags, wearing temporary maple leaf tatoos and blowing whistles. And here, at the adiministrative and symbolic heart of Canada, is a demonstration of democratic freedoms unlike any other that I have seen this year. Parked alongside the kerb from one end of Parliament Hill to the other is a line of tractors and other agricultural vehicles. Canadian farmers, frustrated by protein imports and the lack of support offered to their industry by the Liberal and now Conservative governments, have come to the capital to protest. And they have parked what must be fifty tractors, trailers and trucks here for the duration of Canada Day. The police do not (apparently) have any tow trucks big or strong enough to move them. Everywhere people are milling around wearing 'Farmers Feed Cities' badges, and eating free sample cups of Canadian pure dairy ice cream.

My previous visits to Ottawa have been interesting, but not exactly comparable with the trips I've made to other world capitals... Otttawa has a population of about 775,000 (one quarter of that of Montréal). It can feel even less on a cold, windswept winter's afternoon, when the grand wide boulevards are inhospitable to anyone not in a car. The shining skyscrapers are forgettable, and everyone here seems to be bilingual and employed in a government department. It's the governmental capital of Canada, but hardly in the same way as Paris or Berlin. Even thinking of it as a miniature Washington DC is a little off.

But today, I can understand Ottawa's qualities. Most city centre roads are closed, and three massive out door stages have been built on Parliament Hill, Majors Hill Park and in Confederation Park. Live music events are running all day, and thousands of people of milling from one part of town to another. Everyone is in red and white, everyone is smiling, and suddenly everything in the world seems alright. Is this the famous Canadian national spirit?

We watch the changing of the guard and then the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's choreographed 'Musical Ride' show. Then at 1100 I slip away through the crowds to an awful English-themed pub near the Chateau Laurier Hotel to watch a certain football match. The game is dire: neither team deserving a win and too many players auditioning for theatrical troupes with their childish dives and false claims of unfair tackles. The beautiful game has not been this poor in a long time. We eventually leave the bar, reluctant to give any of the hostile and unfriendly staff any more of our business. We watch England's final defeat in an electronics store upstairs: we're suddenly much closer to a much better television, and are enthralled by the incredible level of detail visible on a new 'HD' (High Definition) television: we watch blades of grass placidly get uprooted by the sprawling game, and then watch tears trickle down the faces of white shirted English players as the final penalty goal goes against them. I have no real emotions, except a slight twinge of sadness. Seen from a distance, England doesn't even have a decent football team any more. I decide to pretend to be Canadian for the rest of the day, and see if I can have a better time in Ottawa than I did in Québec...

Snapshot: Canada Day

Friday, June 30, 2006

Losing my identity

How much does the image of a nation matter to those who inhabit it? And what does the projection of that image tell us about the country itself? Still recovering from a sunny weekend in Québec City last week, it's time for a real 'national' holiday in Ottawa. With another Friday off, I was able to do some laundry, clean the apartment a bit and leave town in time for a weekend in the capital. Buses leave every hour from Montréal - more often in fact, as it seems Ryan and Jonathan (who I would be spending Canada Day with) managed to invent a bus that left fifteen minutes before four o'clock, and the bus that I caught.

Although this isn't the first time that I've been to Ottawa, it is the first time that I've driven between the two cities in daylight. Our bus parted company with the island of Montréal after about forty-five minutes and then cruised along the highway towards the border between the provinces of Québec and Ontario. Ontario announced itself with bilingual roadsigns and blue skies. Off to the north lay attractive tree covered hills: I'm planning a long weekend away exploring this part of the country some time between now and September.

As the coach rode along, I sat listening to my iPod and the distractions of Jett Loe's Letter to America podcast. The parallels between Northern Ireland and Québec are only occasionally apparent, but they always stimulate me to think about where I am, and why. French-Québecois(es) frequently portray their province as if it were an independent state, free of some unmentionable Canadian opression or an imposed alien rule: in comparison with the troubles of Northern Ireland though, I find it hard to give this point of view much sympathy... It seems that the October Crisis is the only time that the army has ever patrolled the streets of Québec. And if it is an idependent identity that is sought, it already exists in the unbelievable vitality of French Québecois music, arts, and theatre, and the destruction of the secondary language in all instances of publicly visible writing. After two successive defeats in referendums for indepedence, do Québecois and Québecoises continue to seek the confirmation of their identity? Or are they happy to continue marketing their province as a nation (with a 'national' holiday, a 'national' library etc etc etc) and living with a half-truth of faux-national-identity?

(In my experience, nothing reflects the identify of a community that the arts that are produced there: this is confirmed in the confused direction and identity that Northern Ireland finds itself burdened with, now over-hyped with government initiatives and buzz words rather than the security and atmosphere for true definition of itself.... Québec has no need to worry according to my yardstick, in that case...)

As the bus rolls towards Ottawa, I am intrigued about the celebrations that I will be witnessing. I am beginning to understand how the people of Québec perceive their province. I may be an anglo immigrant, but I work with French Canadians and French speaking immigrants, and I have been lucky enough to spend my year in the company of native French Québecois and Québecoises, bilingual New Brunswickers and anglo-Canadians. I am fiercely protective of my identity as an impartial outsider: I do not want to be dismissed as an 'anglo'. But last weekend I saw Québec celebrate itself with an enormous party, and now I am deeply interested in how Canada's capital (which I have previously found to be a windswept and over-planned vacuum) will present itself on the nation's birthday.

I found myself alienated on Saint Jean Baptiste Day. The celebrations were excited, lively and absolutely enormous. But it centred on an image, or an identity, that was not mine. I left Québec City last weekend feeling detached, as if the nine months I've spent in Montréal have come to nothing. Imagining myself as a real, permanent immigrant, I tried to imagine if I could have felt proud at the celebrations I had witnessed. I could not. And as much as I love Montréal, I am realising that this province is not for me. But what I have yet to discover is whether I have the same feelings on the national holiday of Canada. Am I incapable of ever detaching myself from my British identity, or have I just not found a suitable destination for hypothetical emigration?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

So long, and thanks for all the good times

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Time Lapse: Ryan talks and drinks

Snapshot: Ryan lets Caca have her seat

Monday, June 26, 2006

These four day weeks are killing me

I'm back at work, with confirmation in hand that I will be benefiting from not one, not two, but three long weekends this month. This coming Friday is another national holiday for Canada Day, and the following week I will be flying down to Boston "on business". I have never flown anywhere "on business" before and am looking forward to the trip, even if a visit to a new city is being tempered by a very serious commitment on my part. Watch the blog for news and views from Beantown next week.

Until then, Ulli is leaving us very soon... I have two and a half months left, but for her the year is up. So, less blogging, more enjoying of the last few moments.


Sunday, June 25, 2006

Snapshots: Québec street scenes

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Lounging in someone else's hammock

The afternoon catches up with us, and the warm sunshine finds my lying in someone else's red hammock, under a tree beside the Montmorency River, about 15km from Québec City. After a morning avoiding my hangover exploring Québec City on foot, I met up with Kari and Vincent for my second breakfast. On their suggestion, we've driven out of the city to be beside the river, just upstream from precipitous Montmorency Falls. Kari and Vincent are out sun bathing on the rocks, I'm happily reading the newspaper and writing postcards here in the shade. It's by reading Kari's Lonely Planet guidebook to Peru that I am offered this hammock. A South American man is stretching on the rocks when he sees it and I tell him about Kari's forthcoming holiday. He goes to introduce her to his Peruvian friends, and I doze in the gently rocking hammock.

After an hour or two in the sunshine we divert for an ice cream and to look down on the waterfalls from the footbridge that is slung almost directly above the drop. More than twenty metres taller than Niagara Falls, these crashing foaming chutes of water drop seventy-six metres to the St. Lawrence River below. Kari discovers I have vertigo, but I take a few photographs by standing as close to the middle of the bridge as possible, and by holding my camera out as far as I can. This slightly better view is afforded from round the corner of the hill, looking back towards the falls...

A little later we drive back to the city, via a loyal pit stop at a Metro supermarket to get food for a barbeque outside the city. We pass the evening with friends of Kari, including an ex-NHL hockey player and his friendly wife from Indiana. On the way home we agree to disagree on tastes in domestic architecture, and by twelve o'clock, I am lying face down, almost asleep, on the bed in Kari's apartment. I've had a great weekend, and owe 99% of it to the generosity and hospitality of friends... thank you :-)

I return to Montréal tomorrow...

Québec City: the morning after the night before

I'm cursed with an inability to sleep late in the mornings. Regardless of whether I go to bed at 02h00, 03h00 or 04h00, I will generally wake up before 09h00, and be unable to return to sleep. It hurts, but does not surprise me to full the sunshine burning through my eyelids just after eight on this bright Saturday morning. Before I have even opened my eyes and turned to look at the alarm clock, I know that I am now awake, and that I'm going to have to live with whatever time it is.

My head hurts, and my stomach is not as stable as I would like it to be. With every year that passes, it's get harder to recover from a night on the sauce. Time was now would be the time to start again in preparation for the following evening. Urgh. A half empty bottle of Molson Export eyes me from the kitchen counter, as if to say "why didn't you finish me, aren't you man enough?"

The cause for this pain was a long, drawn out evening of celebrations for Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, otherwise known as the national holiday of Québec. With my adopted-Québecoise friend Kari and her pure bred Québecois boyfriend Vincent, I was guided through the celebrations. Foolish plans had been suggested to make contact with a few of my Montréal friends during the evening, and to meet up. However, as ever, we made the mistake of believing that it would be easy to just call someone's mobile telephone and then find a large and obvious landmark to meet beside. Unfortunately it seems that the other 250,000 people who converged on the Plains of Abraham in the city that night had the same idea, and repeated attempts to use one of the two mobile phones available to me failed: perhaps the networks were overloaded with people trying to make the same calls ("What? No! We're right beside the hot dog stand on the right of the stage beside the tree next to the flagpole....")

We began the evening with a beer on the deck of the family of Vincent in the suburbs of the city. The sun was setting behind a row of trees, lawn mowers were buzzing and the swimming pool was looking tempting. After an hour or so chatting in the sun, we made our excuses and headed to the next party, a barbeque back in town. A quick beer stop was made chéz Vincent, and we managed to bag the last vaguely barbeque-able meat from the near-by supermarket (minced veal, which was soon shaped into burgers). The atmosphere continued to build at this party, where I knew no-one but was soon introduced. It turned out most of the people there were anglophones from other parts of Canada.

At around ten o'clock, it was time to leave, and join the throngs of people in the streets heading towards the Plains of Abraham, the large national park that hugs the hill down the spine of old Québec. It's here that a massive outdoor stage is constructed each year for a free music spectacle that runs late into the night and which is followed by fireworks and bonfires. Out on the streets, I met more people holding Québec flags that a western Canadian might be comfortable with. The queue for beer and cigarettes at every dépanneur snaked out onto the pavement. We turned east along the Grand Allée, Québec's busiest and trendiest street for nightlife. The traffic had been diverted away, and the road became a throbbing sea of people heading to the plains. Thousands of people were moving in the same direction, being held up only by the controlled entrance to the plains, where all alcohol was to be stopped from entering the site. I shan't go into the details, but a little bit co-ordinated magic transported our backpack of twenty bottles of beer across the barrier, and we carried on along our way. Slightly tipsy by this stage, we felt like we'd managed to pull off a major bank heist...

We plodded on towards the stage, and disappeared into the crowds...

Snapshot: René Lévesque nurses a hangover

Friday, June 23, 2006

The car sharing house sharing rush

I am delivered safely to Québec City about two and a quarter hours after leaving Montréal. My driver, Frederic, is a friendly man who drives fast and has questionable reaction times. Being a front seat passenger with someone like that is interesting, because as with two memorable incidents on highway 20 between Montréal and Québec City, there are times when you have about one second of realisation of what is happening on the roadway in front of you before your driver does. This one second difference between the two of you is a moment of mild panic and confusion. Is it rude to say something (like "ffffffuuuuuuuuuuccccc.......") or scrabble helpless on the floor of the footwell for the imaginary set of dual controls you desperately want the car to have acquired?

But fear not, loyal blog-fan, I am safe. Frederic braked in time for us not to hit the back of a suddenly stationary Ford in the fast lane, and honked his horn after being cut up by a dozy looking Hyundai driver. I have no complaints, however. A car is always more comfortable than a bus, and besides, flying along at 130km/h for most of the way, we overtook at least one bus of the Orléans Express fleet, which ply the highway between the two cities every hour.

The Allostop terminus in Québec City is actually just outside the city limits, but is within the green sprawl of the provincial capital. So I wait out in the sunshine (continuing to heed my doctor's words and keeping my leg in the shade) besides a run down pyramid-shaped shopping centre that has been relegated to being occupied by rather tatty looking owner-operated florists, clothes stores for retirees and a horrendous looking nightclub. It's around lunchtime, but the nightclub is already testing the sound system for the weekend, and the walls are shaking.

This weekend the network of close friends I have been privileged to have made in Canada is looking after me. I'm staying in the studio apartment of Kari, a cousin of Ryan, close to the old town centre of Québec. This weekend, however, she's beginning to move out of the apartment, to live with her boyfriend down in the 'ghetto'. I'm told that he lives in an old bra factory, which must be a clear sign of urban regeneration. All around me, it seems, people are rushing to co-habit. I've already lost one house mate to the calls of domestic bliss, and in just a few months time it looks like this independent blogger will also be giving it a go. After watching the French-dubbed version of Four Weddings and a Funeral the other week, and after receiving the first wedding invitation of a friend I met at university, it seems as if I am entering the stage of my life when everyone starts to move in, marry and probably make babies. Mortgages and estate cars are on the horizon.

I do not complain of course: Kari has chosen very well, and because of her upcoming move, I have a conveniently located downtown studio apartment in Québec City to myself for the weekend. The festivities of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste holiday are warming up, and it's now a beautifully sunny day. Let the celebrations commence...