I'm not bräve, just naïve...

Monday, January 30, 2006

An e-mail from a friend

Monday night, and we're making sausages and mash. Comfort food for a very comfortable week in my life. Sunday dinner returned to the normal schedule last night, and it all came together... Bea's plaited bread, Laura's miso-based salad dressing on an avodcado salad that was just right, Ryan's enormous super-cheap pork chops, Ulli and Mélisse's fine Québec beer and Jane's fine red wine. Outside the snow fell wistfully, settling just enough to be pretty yet not inconvenient for those who had to walk home. I tried to initiate this Sunday evening meal-with-friends routine after experiencing many happy Sunday nights chéz Beatrice and co in Oxford. It's become so important to me to have this rhythm, and I always look forward to the meals.

Tonight we got an e-mail from a distant and peripetetic friend... and above is a photo of Beatrice reading it. It's a pretty damning feature of my character that I'm updating my blog before I reply to her, but don't worry Stef, we're thinking of you and will update you soon. If it's any consolation, I'm even worse with staying in touch with my family... all will be addressed (or called) this week, I promise.


Snapshot: Back to the old routine

Sunday dinner chéz James, Ryan and Bea. This time the bread turned out much better. I wonder why that was... ;-)

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Trains, planes, automobiles, buses, ferries, streetcars

We're now back in Montréal. I say we this time, and not I, because it gives me great pleasure to be back in the company of my darling belle. We followed a giant arc from New York to Montréal, via Albany, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Toronto and Ottawa. On the left, in fact, is a photo of train 63 'The Maple Leaf' pausing at Niagara Falls (New York) before we crossed the border and back into the land of the free. It doesn't look much like a railway station, but it is... a set of railway sidings next to a boarded up warehouse, with a small sign saying 'Amtrak: Niagara Falls' on it about sixty feet away. Two of the passengers in our car didn't even realise we had reached their station, and were close to being carried away with us into Canada, such was the non-existence of the station.

In New York we ate, drank, slept, walked and explored very well, thanks in no small part to the kind hospitality and friendship of a long time friend of Bea's family. From a central location in the Lower East Side we criss-crossed Manhattan on foot, ascended the Empire State Building and meandered through Central Park. This was only my second visit to the city (see the archived blog posts from November of last year for my first). My affection for the city comes from a new relative proximity... before moving to Montréal, New York was always an ultimate destination; somewhere at the end of a long and expensive trans-Atlantic flight that set it apart as an expensive and 'special' destination. Living so close to NYC has changed things. Now I can enjoy it as a city that I feel I know, that I can wander through with no obligation to do the tourist sights. For many visitors New York can be an exceptionally expensive destination (much like London can be to people from outside the UK). Accomodation is usually the biggest financial drag. So having friends who are kind enough to put us up, and being able to travel there on the cheap makes all the difference. Some of the best things to do in NYC are free: the Statten Island ferry, the foot/cycle path around Manhattan's shore, the view from the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park... and for an aspiring architect from a small island on the cold and damp side of Europe, walking and looking. I will be back soon.

On Sunday morning our train slipped out of Penn Station and we began the twelve and a half hour journey to Toronto. As I've mentionned before, Amtrak is a network between a rock and a hard place: zero political support from the state that owns it and virtually zero practical value as a useful public transportation network. I sincerely hope that it has a future, because the our journey into Canada summed up Amtrak's greatest characteristics. Yes, it was shabby and slow, but it was supremely comfortable and utterly relaxing. I see no need to fly between Montréal and New York at this time in my life (except for romantic gestrues of course)... the train is cheaper, greener and a much more enjoyable form of transport.

In Toronto we were again treated like royalty, with gracious hospitality from another long time family friend of the Munbys and Porters. I look forward to offering the same kind of unquestioning hospitality to the offspring of my university friends in a few decades time :) We ate out and explored the city. Amongst other things, we took a ferry across to the Toronto Islands, about fifteen minutes off shore into Lake Ontario. Here on Ward Island (see photo) we discovered a car-free residential suburb of attractive small houses, each built, modified and decorated individually. Children and pets were playing freely and safely outside, and the pace of life was a few notches below what we'd found in Toronto itself. My recent sojourns in the remote Small Islands of Scotland have exposed a broody side of me that wants to escape to a remote island and make babies close to nature. Perhaps Ward Island would allow me to one day satisfy this broodiness while remaining close to repertory cinemas and other twenty-first century essentials...

We travelled from Toronto to Montréal on Wednesday, taking an extended layover in Ottawa, the nation's capital. We arrived and found the city calm, after months of built up for Monday's general election. Canada has followed the tendency of many 'western' nations, and has elected a conservative government. The NDP, Canada's "third option" didn't do as well as hoped, and came in shy of the number of ridings needed to hold the balance of power in the new goverment. Their campaign buses were being returned to Greyhound at Ottawa's bus station when we arrived. Jack Layton's head appears to have had a chunk removed from it in this photo, as the vinyls were begun to be removed so that the buses could return to their normal duties.

The numbers of the new parliament, however, are not convincing. A red minority government has been replaced by a blue one. Canada has it's sixth 'western' (i.e. from Alberta) Conservative prime minister. Of the other five, I don't recall that one lasted a full term. The shortest lasted just four months. My understanding of Canada as a peaceful nation of folk who rejoice in a democratic and liberal society remains, but I am understanding more and more about the divisions within this vast country, and they are much more complex than those south of the border. Despite an extremely well educated and politically aware populous, most Canadian's understanding of their fellow nationals seem blurred by inaccurate myth and preconceptions. Here are my wildly provocative and inaccurate observations. Québecers largely couldn't give a damn about the rest of the country, and have lost out as a result (the Bloc Québecois diving in the elections because they got arrogant and attacked the wrong opposition... the Conservative party won several seats by actually addressing issues that Québecers care about). Newfies regret getting involved in the first place (they joined the federation in 1949). Nova Scotians seem to hate the west for their current boom and Québec for not taking an interest in them. Albertans are fed up of being screwed royally and sent from boom to recession by a government that's taken and never given, and British Columbians are too busy living in paradise to care. Oh, and broadly speaking (and certainly not those that I know personally) most Ontarians give the impression of having absolutely no understanding of anyone outside their province.

Good thing no-one reads this blog, eh?


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Beatrice in a scarf, in the snow, in Ottawa

Friday, January 20, 2006

Snapshot: On top of the world

From the Empire State Building, New York, Friday 20 January 2006.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

File photo

Sorry if there aren't blog posts for a while. I'm going to New York tomorrow, and then coming back to Montréal via Toronto and Ottawa. I am just a few hours away from meeting a travel companion who I've not seen in four months. As you can imagine, it's all very exciting...


Friday, January 13, 2006

The Earth catches up...

Earlier this week, the earth shook in San Francisco, as Steve Jobs announced that his company (Apple) were to start producing computers that run on Intel processor chips. It had been expected for some time, but it was still quite a moment for the crowds of disturbingly-excited folks in the auditorium at the annual MacExpo show. The products speak for themselves... they aren't just slightly faster than the models they are replacing, in some cases they are four times faster. The uniquely robust architecture of the Mac operating system has transferred seamlessly to the products of the once evil empire, previously detested by all Mac geeks. Take a look at the Apple website to find out more.

And if that wasn't enough to excite us Mac-cers, look who's finally showed up to the party... it's the beta (test) version of Google Earth for Mac (also available to download here). And it's a dream... smooth running on the system most likely to be used by those who are going to appreciate the amazing possibilities of Google Earth (lazy creative layabouts like me who take their Powerbooks down to the local coffee shop to surf wirelessly and needlessly...). The interface also looks much sweeter... this was definitely the environment that the programme was designed to run on.


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Living in a box...

I find it increasingly worrying the way that my mind is being sucked into little boxes and fixated with their contents. On average, I spend seven hours every week day cross referencing, checking, and processing vast Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. Numbers get crunched, forumlas get tested and verified, and James' eyes go square... but of course it's all about saving money for our customers, so that's a good thing.

And then the moment I'm on the métro on my way home at night (and on the way in as well) I end up doing the su-doku puzzle in one of the two daily free newspapers that are distributed in the Montréal transit system. Depending on the day, it can be '24 Heures' or 'Metro' that stumps me, some days I even get both done, one on the commute to work and one on the commute home.

Some people monitor their progress solving number puzzles by the time it takes to finish them. I've found, however, that I pay more attention to the distance I can cover riding the métro. Without any service disruptions, today I finished one in the distance between Berri-UQAM and Pie-IX stations. If there's a delay on the line, then I can sometimes beat that too...


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

I really can't help myself...

So, it was my first day back at work today. Nice to start back on a Tuesday, a four day week is a good way to start the new year, don't you think? But anyway, there wasn't much work to be done, and while I waited for the information I needed to continue with what I had, my mind started to wander, and my mouse-hand started to click and scroll uncontrollably. You see, whenever I'm presented with a quiet 'in-between' moment and an internet connection, I just can't help myself. A uncontrollable urge takes over, and without any premeditation, I start exploring, planning and testing ideas for journeys and voyages. Planes, trains and buses... you can find all you need on the www, and I just drink it up.

So here's today's discovery. Before today, I was pretty sure that the CanRail Pass was, in itself, a pretty neat idea. Until 31 May we're in the low season, and for a student the pass costs C$457 (about £225). It gives you twelve days in one month to travel as much as like (or physically can) in Canada, from one coast to t'other. A definite incentive to go travelling before summer...

But then... ooooo... what's this? James' eyes light up at the discovery of the North American Rail Pass. This time it's a whole thirty days to travel throughout both the United States of America and Canada. And here's the nifty bit: VIA Rail sell the low season student pass for C$627 (about £310). But because of the diving US dollar, Amtrak sell it the very same pass for US$488.70 (about £280). It's frankly a bit of a bargain. When I got home I dug out the Amtrak system timetable, and I reckon it could be possible to do this little combo...

Montréal - Chandler - Matapédia - Halifax - Montréal - Toronto - Winnipeg - Churchill - Winnipeg - Edmonton - Vancouver - Seattle - Chicago - San Francisco - Santa Barbara - Los Angeles - Chicago - Boston - New York - Montréal

That would include some of North America's finest scenery (including two trips through the Rockies), some of it's most famous long distance trains and some time in between in the continent's greatest cities. I think I may just have found my next incentive to do some overtime...


Sunday, January 01, 2006

Good morning new year...

A more relaxed open-door policy in the apartment has recently led to the exploration of my bedroom by the cats. The door stays closed at night while I'm sleeping, but in the morning there's usually a little me-ew and a scratch at the door. This morning I lay in bed and read, with various patches of the duvet being kept warm by Caca, Toast and Ben Z. Caca just likes the company and always joins me near the top of the bed. Toast likes to look out of the window and keep herself clean. And Ben... well Ben likes to meow a lot and then suckle of a bit of fabric. Hmm.

The end of 2005 was marked with a quiet meal in the apartment with Ulli and her new co-loc Melisse, a recent arrival from France. Like me, she's come here to find work, although she does speak quite a bit more French than me. Being French and everything...

Over a roast chicken we talked about languages. There's actually more in common between Melisse and me than I imagined at first. Despite French being her native tongue, she admits to the same difficulties in comprehending Québecers at parties or in bars that I do. We followed the meal with some extensive linguistic practice at a new year's party in the east end. Strangely, it was the watch of yours truly that was called upon to provide a symbolic countdown for the thirty or so people who were there. My wrist has never played such an important role at a party before...

Happy new year everyone.