I'm not bräve, just naïve...

Friday, December 30, 2005

A Cuban Christmas

On Thursday afternoon, we flew north from Cuba to Canada. Some pretty hefty turbulence made us take an elongated flight path out over the Atlantic rather than over the Eastern Seaboard of the USA, as I had come on my way south a week earlier. I spent much of the time sunk into my seat dozing and watching the clouds below us. The vertical panorama from the apex of the sky to the ocean below us was a wondrous rainbow of blues, pinks and yellows. Small freckles of clouds hung inches above the water, while vast thick sheets of higher altitude clouds hung just below us.

There's very little to see other than that. Normally anyway. About one hour before we landed in Montréal, less than 300 metres below us and to our left, a WestJet Boeing 737 airliner shot past in directly the opposite direction. I'm guessing that's a bit close, since I had could read the word 'WestJet' on the side of the aircraft's fuselage. Perhaps you know the feeling, when you're cruising in an airliner at 33,000ft, that you're not travelling very fast? Well, if you ever see an aircraft flying past you at close quarters, you suddenly realise you're going pretty feckin' quick.

I was too spaced out to be that bothered. I talked to the cabin manager about it. She told me not to worry and we chatted about life in general. Perhaps she was right, or perhaps she was hurridly pressing a red button on her telephone as I returned to my seat...

My week in Cuba was a breath-catching experience, and perhaps the best thing to have done since my arrival in Canada. I must confess it was not problem free. I thought I could escape the loneliness of a Christmas on my own by going somewhere different. But of course there are always those quiet in-between moments when thoughts of things and people far away catch up with you, and conspire to attack your indepedent spirit. As I posted before I left, I was nervous about going on my own to a country where I did not speak the language and to rediscover the joys of solo-travel after six years. It was not easy. Cuba is not a country that welcomes the solo traveller, or the budget conscious.

During the day I toured the city (beautiful) and the museums (astonishing, especially the Cuban collection of the Museo Nacional de Belles Artes) and lounged with my books in sunny parks and town squares. It was a dreamy way to float around an incredibly beautiful place. A walk along one block in any direction from the intensively restored and tourist-centric old town returns you to the Havana we've all seen in film and television: crumbling buildings, no running water in places, old cars, animals and children playing in the streets... and yet Cuba has a literacy rate that's higher than the United Kingdom. You cannot dismiss the country as being of the third world.

At night-time, however, my demons returned, and with little Spanish it was tough finding places to experience the Cuban culture that everyone raves about. The music was everywhere, but it would have been nice to hear it somewhere other than in a tourist hotel bar or in an old town café. Travelling away from the bright lights and the beaten track for so long has spoilt me; I seem to expect to be able to go where I want in any country and find the 'real' thing. It's not impossible in Havana, but without the language to ask successfully (and I did try) and the money for the cab fares to the far flung but highly recommended clubs, it was difficult for me. And on top of all this, it seems I chose the one destination that would suit my significant other down to the ground... and she of course wasn't there to see it with me.

I will definitely go back... partly because there is still so much more to be seen, but mainly because I don't think I did myself justice in this incredible country.


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Pre-trip nerves...

It's Wednesday night in Montréal. This time tomorrow, I will be in Cuba. I will have travelled further south than I have ever been before, and crossed the Tropic of Cancer for the first time. I'll be staying near the middle of the city of Havana in a small casa (a modest guesthouse). And to be honest, I am, at this very moment, very nervous... my head is clear and logical as I pack clothes, toileteries, tickets, money, passport etc. But my stomach and my heart are churning.

For the first time since I was seventeen, I am going somewhere far away all on my own. Like my baptismal trip to Slovenia six years ago, I don't speak the language, I've never been there before, and I won't know anyone when I get there. I remember these sensations of nervousness and almost physical queasiness from that trip. I can't explain it; I am normally a very balanced and brave traveller, but suddenly it seems I am nervous again about travelling on my own and travelling into a soft version of the unknown. Montréal has been tough, but it the difficulties I have encountered here have been on a familiar territory: i.e. a city that I have visited before and with languages I speak. Tomorrow I go somewhere very new, where all the co-ordinates have shifted, and all the sounds will be different.

As I left work today, my French speaking colleagues all wished me bon vacances! Somehow, this doesn't feel like it will be holiday, and thank god because I think I've realised that I prefer to make trips than take holidays. And after a good trip, I'll probably need a holiday :)


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Where the wild things are...

Had a nice IM chat with a distant friend in her adopted city of Glasgow this weekend. She told me about work, life and music... which was good for me, because I found out that Northern Ireland's dirtiest musical talent V/Formation have some sessions tracks available for streaming from the BBC NI Across The Line website.

So here they are. Go get some, and be ready for the single available in shops and on iTunes in the new year:


Monday, December 19, 2005

Valeur nutritive...

Seeing as I've now worked for this group of supermarkets for almost a month, today I felt it was about time I went and actually had a look round one of the stores. I am becoming particularly intimate with the own brand inventories but know the reams of products only by codes, numbers and quanities...

Ville d'Anjou (where I work) is going to be one of those places that will suffer very badly when the petrol runs out. It's a typical indefinite suburb of Montréal, where long boulevards and vast car parks abound, and it's impossible to navigate in winter without a car. Very frequent and reliable bus routes do serve these parts of town and one takes me to my door every morning, but I know from experience that Montréal is an exception in this respect. There's a big discount store just down Jean-Talon from my office, so I thought I'd go and have a shifty.

It was certainly quite strange to walk in and be confronted immediately by stacks of -40C windshield fluid; it was just this morning that I prepared some documents for the supplier of this own brand product (one of the single biggest selling items in SuperC at this time of year...). The store was actually a surprise: I hadn't suspected it to be so modern, clean and airy. I don't know exactly why that was a surprise... I guess it's because my only experience of Canadian supermarkets so far hasn't been that great.

Big chunky fixtures and fittings in bright colours shouted no-nonsense-shopping and big banners on the walls shouted 'Super Prix! Tous les jours!'. I meandered aimlessly through the aisles, comparing prices and imagining I was pushing a trolley with two screaming sprogs... 1kg bulk cans of fruit salad... trays of own brand cola... 10kg sacks of Canadian potatoes... family sized packs of diapers...

No need for any of that just yet... So I bought a back òf 'Viva Trail Mix Nuts' and scuttled to the exit. As I searched through my change for a quarter a couple of copper coins dropped onto the moving conveyor, and got eaten by the check-out. The cashier shrugged and said something pithy and appropriate in a thick accent.


Saturday, December 17, 2005

Ugly cars made beautiful by heavy snow

Chevrolet Aveo, rue Gilford.

Honda Element, ave. Christoph-Colomb.

Er, maybe a Hyundai? ... Parc Sir Wilfred Laurier

Your guess is as good as mine, ave. Christoph-Colomb.

Some big fat old Pontiac, rue de Mentana

Toyota Corolla, rue Gilford. Hey... wait a minute... so that's where she's been going late at night...

Samedi dans les ruelles... (deuxième partie)

So, today's theme is how heavy snow makes ugly cars beautiful. I woke up this morning early to the sound of my friend and co-loc coming home from an all night club... hehe, Ryan hasn't lost it yet. Caca and Ben poked their noses around my bedroom door and came and joined me for a little while. Caca was in her usual "well I suppose I could grace you with my presence" mode, and collapsed next to me, while Ben continued to be excited and/or paranoid and jumped all over the place sniffing and scratching. Nothing quite like the company and adoration of two ladies first thing in the morning.

But I decided that feline company was not for me this morning, and after a quick bowl of oats, I went out to do my duty as a British citizen who doesn't know what snow is, and took lots of photos around the Plateau. Although the city is stuff muffled and quiet like it was yesterday, with clear blue skies and people off from work, there are more people around and more people digging out cars. It is with great satisfaction that I can report that not one SUV (4x4) driver was getting around any more easily this morning. In fact, they were taking twice as long just to get going because they had bigger cars to dig out.

My arse still hurts from yesterday, when I attempted to run across a street on an orange, and of course ended up doing a little bit of aerial ballet for the driver of the first car at the traffic lights. I think it must have been very elegant, the way that I magically threw first my legs and then the rest of my body up level with his windshield before disappearing out of sight in front of his car... so this morning I walked tentatively through partially cleared ruelles and parks.

The meterologists are predicting just a little bit more snow this weekend, and then cool temperatures for the rest of the week. Which means all this white stuff is going to be sticking around, guaranteeing a white Christmas for Montréal.

Just a shame, of course, that I'll be somewhere 50 degrees warmer :-)


Chèz Ulli, du Buillon...

Nearing the end of a very long day, I tentatively climb the snowy outdoor steps to Ulli's apartment... she's in, and not only that, I also get a bowl of warming soup and get to listen on her and Martin trying to perfect a bit of French pseudo-jazz on the violin and the guitar. I don't know if it is pseudo-jazz, but I can't think of any other words to describe it right now... As I left work last night, one of my colleagues said something to me in French that at the time I interpreted to mean 'take care in the snow on your way home'. Inside, I chuckled and thought to myself... "but there's no snow...."

Not then there wasn't, but overnight, the snowstorm that has been tracking across eastern Canada and the north-eastern U.S hit Montréal. Or rather, it began to caress Montréal... it didn't really 'hit' the city, it was far too quiet and calm for that strong a word. Because it was still dark when I woke up, I didn't really notice the snow. But by the time I stepped out the front door, I knew that something was up. The pavements hadn't been cleared, and only a few pedestrians had gone before me. Snow ploughs were still making their first visits to many of the city's side streets, and as the sun began to make itself felt, the city was waking up to a deep covering of snow.

I was late for work, although not because of the snow. A breakdown on the métro kicked me off the train at Frontenac, along with hundreds of other commuters. I headed above ground to look for a shuttle, but it was no use... hundreds of people were gathered on the sidewalk as the snow fell thickly. I changed my travel plans and headed to work another away, via the métro stations of Jean-Talon and Saint-Michel, and a long slow bus ride along Jean-Talon. The snow was still falling heavily, and for all I knew the bus driver could have parked our vehicle inside a white box and got a few of his friends to rock it back and forth a bit... I really wouldn't have been any the wiser.

I got a lift home with the aforementionned colleague in his nice warm Honda, and was returned almost to my door in the Plateau. We passed stalled trucks on highway 40, and once we were back on the Plateau we crawled down residential streets where every car had become a pile of snow. By 1800, at least forty centimetres of dry snow was on the pavements and streets. Channels had been cut for pedestrians and cars, but the snow is still a great democratising influence on the city. Road markings, kerbs and property boundaries are erased, and people park their cars wherever and however they can - more often than not at 30 or 40 degrees to the pavement, wherever a gap in the shallow banks of snow can be found.

Later on I walked west to a Christmas party in the office of a small architectural practice between St. Laurent and St. Urbain. Apparently the Christmas party at this studio was the place to be seen... if you know the one I'm talking about perhaps this makes sense. It seems, however, I have turned up five years too late.

Thank you for the soup, Ulli, it was really rather good, and secretly I wanted some more...... :-)


Friday, December 16, 2005

The first winter storm...

From the news service of the CBC... (edited: click the link for original)

Snowfall nears Montreal record as Ottawa digs out
Last Updated Fri, 16 Dec 2005 21:52:27 EST

Montrealers may see their biggest snowfall ever, during a winter storm that has caused major disruptions in Eastern Ontario and parts of Quebec. The storm – which was the first major one of the season in many areas – dumped 17 centimetres in and around Montreal in one hour alone on Friday.

More than 40 cm of snow fell on Montreal on Friday, stranding vehicles throughout the city. By early evening, it was still snowing lightly as the buildup passed 41 centimetres. It was more snow than had fallen on the city on any previous Dec. 16 since record-keeping began in 1941. And it was closing in on the record for any day – 43.2 cm – as measured at what is now Trudeau International Airport. The record was set in a deadly storm in March 1971.

Traffic was a mess and drivers faced near-whiteout conditions at times, as people on foot struggled through knee-high mounds of snow. The city sent about 1,500 workers out to clear the streets.

"I hope the tow truck gets here before spring," one of the many bus drivers who had been stranded told CBC News.

Transport Quebec reported no major accidents, but said hundreds of cars needed to be towed.

"For the island of Montreal, all the highways were hard hit," said a spokesperson for the provincial department, Maria Soteriadis.

In the Quebec City area, about 25 cm of snow had fallen by suppertime and another 10 cm were expected during the night as the storm moved east toward the Maritimes, where smaller amounts of snow and freezing rain were forecast overnight.

The Toronto area, which received between eight and 14 cm of snowfall, was spared the worst of it. But the storm dumped about 22 cm on Ottawa before the snow stopped falling in the afternoon. In Kemptville and Perth to the south, about 35 centimetres fell. It piled up so quickly in the capital that plows that had just finished clearing main streets had to turn around and re-do their work.

The storm forced some people in Ottawa to abandon stranded buses and walk as much as five kilometres to the downtown core. As a result, side streets were left unattended, causing headaches for motorists. On the city's dedicated bus-route system, many double-length articulated buses ended up jackknifed in the snow. Roads became so clogged that many passengers gave up and walked. People trudged through knee-high snow, their hats and coats soaked after a few minutes.

"It's been really crappy, sitting on a bus for half an hour before finally deciding to get off the bus and walk," said one woman.

French dictionary: autobus

Véhicule qui roule deux fois vite quand on court après que lors qu'on est dedons.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

That'll serve me right...

...for making a sarcastic post earlier this month about how Bruce Willis is holding his metro ticket the wrong way up as he enters the station during a scene in The Jackal. Smart-arse here was all smug and content having finished the sudoko puzzle in the free tabloid while on the ten minute bus ride from work to the metro. I floated down to the ticket hall, weaving my way through the rush hour crowds and then sacked myself on a turnstile that would not turn for me because I swiped my ticket the wrong way. Most Québec men seem to smaller than western Canadians or Europeans, so it might have just winded a Montréaler. Me, however, being slightly (ahem) taller got it right were it mattered. Nice one.


Sunday, December 11, 2005

James is in the library...

Trying desperately to revise for the exam on Tuesday, which will mark the end of a seven week course in French grammar and conversation at the YMCA International School of Languages in downtown Montréal. The course has passed very quickly, and if all goes well on Tuesday night, I really want to continue in 2006 with the next level of the course. However, my mid-term test didn't go too well, so there is much to be done as I stack up revision of the (deep breath) passé composé, imperfect, future simple, conditional, adverbs, relative pronouns, demonstrative pronouns, complimentary pronounds, subjunctive, passive, comparative, superlative, prepositions and expressions of time.

However, it is incredible to look back and to think we have covered all these topics. I never did particularly well with French (or any second language) at school, only getting a good GCSE result as a result of having a teacher who knew how to help us pass a specific exam. Like everyone who learns a second language away from that language's native environment, it's always a real shock to the system to go there and to realise you don't actually know that much.

I had really planned on coming to Montréal to work, first and foremost, as an architect. That was my initial aim and expectation. It was a purely secondary wish to improve my French.

When I arrived, however, I realised just how much catching up would be necessary to develop on my French. I effectively had to re-learn everything I was once taught.

So, as my dreams of take an architectural 'stage' this year have dissipated, my desire to improve my French has strrengthened. If I can't do one thing, I may as well do the other really well. I don't have a flexible plane ticket out of here. I have no choice but to stay until next September. So rather than throw in the towel because plan 'a' hasn't gone to plan, I may as well adapt plan 'b'.

It's a bit like my attitudes to holidays. I've never taken to the idea of a package holiday; I'd rather find the cheapest flights myself, and then sort out accomodation myself. So with this linguistic challenge, it's been satisfying not to just enrol on a foreign language course that includes flights, accomodation, activities etc etc etc (like the ones that import thousands of bemused and excitable foreign students into my hometown of Cambridge every summer). I'm extremely happy with the school I found, and I cannot recommend the YMCA International School of Languages highly enough. Think of me on Tuesday night: I'm not good with languages, and worse with language exams, and this is a langauge exam I desperately want to pass.


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

All I want for Christmas...

Is to be in Havanna. Which is convenient, because I will be. Departing Montréal 22 December, back 29 December. Do let me know if you fancy meeting up for a drink :)


Monday, December 05, 2005

Recognise this station?

Well, you might not, but I do, and there are people out there just like me. And we have the right to highlight movie goofs. This is a screengrab from the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster The Jackal, the half-baked remake of the seventies thriller The Day of the Jackal. Richard Gere plays an ex-IRA man on the hunt for some bad assassin guy played by Bruce Willis yadda yadda yadda...

What's really important (oh yes) is that parts of the film were filmed in Montréal. The story is partially set in the city, but what's amusing is that later on, when the scene shifts to Washington DC, a number of scenes take place in the Washington Metro system, and at one point supposedly in Capitol Heights station. If you're a Montréaler though, you're probably sensing a scam. And yep, you're right, 'cos that ain't Capitol Heights station - it's actually Radisson, in the east-end of Montréal. Notice the distinctive orange and silver STM ticket booth in this screen grab, sporting a new station sign hastily stuck across the real one. And if you check out the photos here you'll also recognise the blue and white trains and Montréal's little transfer ticket machines (with the French instructions blacked out so as not to suggest any cheese-eating in the American capitol...).

Oh, and if any Montréalers want to really sink to new depths in movie-trivia-goofdom, have a look at Bruce Willis' left hand. Look very closely.

Yep. Not only is he holding his ticket the wrong way up - so that the bar code isn't being read by the machine, but he's also swiping it through the wrong gate.

Oh yes. People have noticed this, and it really matters. Really.


Snow in Montréal. From a machine.

Look very closely at this photograph (click on it to enlarge). Look between the two cars crossing in the foreground and down the side street. We're on St. Catherine Ouest in downtown Montréal. It's December. And look: there's a man with a machine creating snow for a film set. Let me repeat the obvious here. We're in Canada. Québec. It's December. Surely the safest place to get some snow to help film that snowy scene for your movie? Perhaps this is the best advertisement there is for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, running in Montréal until the end of this week...


Saturday, December 03, 2005

De partout, jusqu'à vous...

Today is a day that has so far been, not so much dominated, but shaped by issues relating to postal services. Not necessarily bad things, although it has become particularly frustrating that the postman continues to deliver mail clearly and correctly addressed (with a different postal code too) to the same number as us on Mont-Royal Ouest to where we live on Mont Royal Est. Initially I was frustrated by the way that streets running across Boulevard St. Laurent are renamed 'est' to the east and 'ouest' to the west or that street. A few major geographical mistakes were made when I first came here and tried to locate offices and architects...

But for a postman to keep on making the same mistake? I mean, really... I know it's a tough job, and you probably wouldn't want to finish your rounds with a few left over pieces that need re-delivering. But why is it when I even underline the address and mark the envelope that he or she continues to deliver mail to us and not the right address. Since I started marking the envelopes and emphasing the wrong address, we just seem to be getting more mail to the wrong address. Is that kind of bloodimindness really necessary?

But on a positive note, I've finally posted off a small package that has been sitting around the apartment for more than a week now, waiting for me to write a few extra things to go inside. I can be so procrastinative some times. It was a nice feeling finally dropping it in the mailbox (see photo).


Thursday, December 01, 2005

Er, girls, please...

It's that time of the, er, month again as one of our loving female housemates turns into a screaching, wanton, sex starved hussy for a week or so. This time it's Toast (bottom of photo), and she's in heat really badly. Much to our surprise, not having any male company has not seemed to be an insurmountable (ahem) problem. Imagine my surprise, when I came home to see Ben, who is also a girl (seen here on top) trying to do her bit to try and help relieve the pressure. Like a car crash, you don't want to watch, but can't take your eyes away... I think I'm just impressed that she has somehow developed such a good technique. Unfortunately there is one thing missing, so Toast will continue to prowl around the apartment trying to get some lovin' for the next few days.

I am at the end of the first week in my new job, although am in the limbo familiar to many short term or contract workers, when you're awaiting the first pay cheque to come in one week in arrears. So I'm working 37 hours a week, but will remain penniless for another week. And I mean penniless... I could only afford to wash, not dry, my laundry last night, so the apartment is rather moist right now...

Which reminds me, I think I should check on Toast......


Snapshot: Sunrise 1st December