I'm not bräve, just naïve...

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Spring fever...

At lunch time today, I went for a walk along rue Jean-Talon to browse in a couple of the pile-em-high grocery stores. One was Wal-Mart, the other was one belonging to the budget chain of the company I work for. Ours was bright, modern, clean and well stocked with fresh produce in the 'Marché' half of the store. It was, however, largely empty. Wal-Mart, by comparison, was depressingly crowded to the roof. Not just with shoppers, but with merchandise (bathroom tissue, nappies, tyres... you name it) piled in the aisles.

Outside in the parking lots, the very last of Montréal's snow is finally melting (we are predicted 16C tomorrow) under the warm rays of a sun shining in clean blue skies. In front of this Sears Décor you can see the sad impression the snow gives. As the snow is ploughed throughout the winter, it picks up the grit spread to provide grip in icy weather (not to mention litter and the odd shopping trolley). These massive banks of snow (sometimes three or four metres tall... see this post for more) are now receding and reducing, but the grit and litter and shopping carts remain. What was once a shining white mountain has reduced to a dirty grey mass. Winter has passed too quickly this year, and it has left some ugly reminders.

Since it's spring, things are changing. I put it down in some part to this magical week, during which Europe has advanced to summer time, but in which North America will remain without daylight saving for until next weekend. Everything is buzzing... Ryan and I have both independently started cleaning and bustling around the apartment in a frenzied state, desirous of some kind of change. Some of the plants we have come closest to killing off (despite love, attention and water) are now on the balcony benefitting from sun and fresh air. The cats are celebrating the warmer weather by molting hair at an incredible rate, and we remain amazed that there is anything left of Cucu (who molts all year round) considering the amount of hair she is leaving on anything that touches or strokes her. And we hear that across the Atlantic, French society is beginning to grind to a halt and fall apart. Simmering sentiments of angst have found an outlet in the streets, which is surely a more enjoyable and social thing to do now that the days are getting longer.

Most weeknights at 2300hr, I listen to the Prémiere Chaîne of Société Radio-Canada broadcast the news from Radio France Internationale in Paris. For an organisation so renowed for it's journalism and news reporting, no-one in the SRC seemed to have noticed that due to stike action, the RFI programme from Paris was replaced tonight with a pre-programmed selection of music. I am left without my nightly news from Europe, and without the personal amusement of hearing the RFI announcer remind me that Paris is now seven hours ahead of us. As I lie here in my bed typing this post before I turn the light off, a distant friend in Paris will soon be getting up to go to work (assuming the architects haven't gone on strike that is...)


Monday, March 27, 2006

From somewhere to somewhere, via nowhere

"SOUTHBOUND... SOUTHBOUND..." The grey-haired conductor heaves his voice across the platform, just in case the six passengers joining train 68 might have mistaken this train for the only other passenger service to pass through Plattsburgh, New York today; the northbound 71 back to Montréal, which will arrive in a few hours time. I watch as the little yellow steps are taken away from the edge of the track, and the train manager calls "Train 68: Highball" through his radio. At the other end of the five carraige train, a rumbling whine picks up, and the shabby but still sleek silver train disappears around a corner and out of view. A handful of college students disperse, returning to warmer student accomodation after saying farewell to weekending friends from New York City.

I climb up a grassy embankment and find myself on an empty street, residential on one side and with a view across the railway track to the Plattsburgh Water Pollution Control Plant on the other. Not owning a car, and prefering more esoteric days out from Montréal, I've found myself here, in upstate New York, on a day trip to the USA. For a British kid who grew up in awe of the idea of trans-Atlantic flights to New York and Florida, I can still get a kick out of the proximity of the USA to my new home in Montréal. In search of middle America, I've come here.

Small town America defines the USA, and the USA defines small town America. There are clean, broad, well maintained streets. There's a recently closed movie theatre with the old projector leaning against the wall in the darkened and partly demolished foyer. There are few pedestrians on a Sunday stroll. Yellow traffic signals hang over intersections. Useful street signs advise you to 'Yield to the Blind' and photocopied placards in shop windows encourage denizens to 'Stop Hate'. All British people have some sort of love affair with the USA, even if they resent the very idea of itself that this nation currently projects. My love affair is declared and fulfilled here, on quiet Sunday afternoons in the places trans-Atlantic tourists have no reason to visit.

I find a crowded looking second hand bookstore that could distract me for hours. I desperately try to find one paperback so that I can get out without spending too much time. A old copy of Lewis Mumford's 'Sticks and Stones - a history of American Architecture and Culture' grabs my eye, and I buy it with the other essential souvenirs of esoteric day-trip: the ugliest postcard I can find (the University of Plattsburgh's concrete campus) and a copy of yesterday's local paper, the 'Press-Republican'. To complete the picture, the weekly edition of the 'Prairie Home Companion' is on the radio.

A cluster of early twentieth century walk-up buildings channel the wind in between the streets, very rarely whipping up any litter (because there is none). The two large churches in the town centre are empty after their morning services, and the doors are firmly closed. Few shops and restaurants are open. The one diner that looked set to satisfy my desire for some good old mom-and-pop cuisine (probably with free refills of weak black coffee) looked promising, but it closes at lunchtime on Sundays.

The schedule of Amtrak's Adirondack service (daily between Montréal and New York, one way fares to New York US$60 adult, US$51 student; Montréal to Plattsburgh US$16 and US$13.60) gives Montréal based visitors to Plattsburgh two hours and fifteen minutes between trains; with a bit less on Sundays. However, forced to run on privately owned tracks that give priority to freight trains, Amtrak are not renowned for their time-keeping. Don't be surprised if you turn up at an Amtrak station for a scheduled departure and find it empty. Regular passengers know to call a 1-800 number and speak with Julie, Amtrak's automated agent, to get accurate train running information before even showing up. I find a payphone without difficulty, but Julie does seem to have problems with my accent...

"And you want to know the train status for which station?"
"Plattsburgh, New York"
"I think you said Fort Edward, New York. Is that correct?"

Despite some personal misgivings, I'm drawn to the only remaining option for lunch: Geoffrey's British Pub on the corner of Broad and Peru Streets. A clear six out of ten is awarded for effort, but such mis-interpreted items on the menu as 'Toad-in-a-hole' ('a type of British sausage roll made with filo pastry') only emphasise the sense of removal.

"So, can I get you something to eat?"
"Yes, I'll have the Ploughman's Lunch, please..."
"Pardon me?"
"The Ploughman's Lunch."
"I'm really sorry, what did you say?"

We huddle over the menu, and I find the item.

"OHHHH.... the PloughMAN's Lunch. And would you like something to drink?"
"A pint of Old Speckled Hen, please."
"Pardon me?"
"That one there..."

I don't rush back to the station. Sure enough the station attendant has a laminated sign in the window of the waiting room advising that the train is expected sometime after 3.00pm (thirty minutes late). After another verbal contretemps with Julie, I eventually extract the information that the train should pull in at 3.07pm.

With a few minutes to spare, I walk down to the docks, and meander through a yard of yachts and small boats that are wintering out of the icy water on their trailers. The sky is grey, and Lake Champlain is greyer, but in the distance across the water the mountains of Vermont seem to bring shades of blue to this monochrome scene. I turn on my heels, and walk back through the crisp air, gulls cawing above my head, to sit outside the station and wait for my train. For such an unreliable service, Julie's prediction was frighteningly accurate. I climbed up into the warm carraige, found a vast squishy coach class seat, and watched the landscape of upstate New York slip by, becoming Québec at some indiscernable point between the USA and Canadian customs points. As we waited for everyone to be checked, the sun came out.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

Spring approaches...

...and it's warm enough (just) to dry clothes outside.


Saturday, March 25, 2006

Launch of the Space Shuttle Caffeine

When someone comes to visit, we feel obliged to do a number of Montréal specific activities. A pichet and a poutine; a walk through the Mont-Royal Park etc. Today is Gem's last full day in the city, so while Ryan went off to spend seven hours 'helping the deaf', Gem and I took the métro to Jean-Talon Market. I've not been since before Christmas, finding the reduced size of the market a little depressing and crowded inside the temporary winter walls. I've also become a regular at a number of fresh food stores on avenue du Mont Royal instead, finding equal quality and prices right on my doorstep.

But I was happy to show this Montréal landmark this morning, because we needed to get something that's a little harder to find on Mont Royal. Between Jean-Talon métro and the market is a crowded little shop that is piled high with cheap electrical goods. No famous brand-names here, just cheap and cheerful important Chinese household electricals that may or may not have fallen off the back of a truck during some part of their round the world journey to Montréal. This week, during a particularly vigorous session of dish washing, I managed to break the glass jug of Charlotte's coffee maker. Various enquiries this week have made me realise the cost of a replacement jug is about equal to the cost of a new coffee maker. Much to my chagrin, I am now a participant in this horrid throw-it-away consumer culture (although I will hold on to the functioning coffee maker in case we see a jug that's affordable).

In a moment of tough decisions that reminded me of my car buying dilemma (see God Bless All Who Sail In Her for the result of my Skoda versus Saab decision), I was forced to choose between a) white-and-frumpy or b) shiny-and-sexy (in as much as a coffee maker can be either frumpy or sexy, that is).

So here she is. And bloody hell, is that one intimidating coffee maker. The summary of features on the box pretty much explains the amount of excitement we're going to be having every morning from now on.

  • Special Cleaning Cycle - makes cleaning your coffeemaker quick and easy

  • On/Off Indicator Light - Lets you know when your coffeemaker is "on" and "off"

  • 2-Hour Auto Shut Off - Keeps your coffee hot for two hours then automatically shuts off

  • Brew Strength Selector - Adjust the brewing time to create a more full flavoured coffee

  • Adjustable Temperature Warmer Plate Control - Lets you keep coffee at the temperature you like after brewing

  • Audible Ready Signal - Beeps when your coffee is ready

  • etc etc etc etc etc


Friday, March 24, 2006

Excelling in the workplace...

Hey... look at this... with some help from A.L, my new best when it comes to unnecessarilly long and complex Excel formulas:


Now we're sucking diesel... ;)


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Snapshot: Thursday at Quincailerie

Ryan and Ulli at the Quincailerie Bar, rue Rachel Est, Thursday evening (photo by Mélisse).

Not everything changes...

On Tuesday night, we came home from our French class to find someone had let themselves into our apartment, and was zizzing in the spare bed. Which was a good thing, because for a while I didn't think our darling Gem would be able to decipher my unnecessarily complex directions or find the cunningly hidden key to get her into the apartment. But I underestimated her energy, cunning, and sense of direction that got her from the airport to our place via two buses, a métro train and a bit of old fashioned walking. She was a little zonked by the flight (two hours longer than she was apparently expecting... maybe Stephen Harper is pulling Montréal closer to Alberta?) so we chatted for a little while and let her sleep off the time zones.

The flexibility of being an agency temp allows me to take unpaid days off here and there, so that's just what I did on Wednesday. To fuel her for a day of Montréaling, we had breakfast at the Mont Royal Binerie (see He was not wrong... for my last visit) and set out to ascend to the top of the Mont Royal mountain. Despite some adverse weather conditions (clear blue sky, warm temperature but solid ice under a centimetre of snow on the mountain's normally traversable paths) we made it to the top, and crunched our way along deserted paths through the bare trees until we reached the pavilion that overlooks the downtown district. Only a troupe of recent mothers pushing three wheeled prams on their post-natal exercise circuit disturbed the peace.

We returned to the plateau by bus, and walked the length of Boulevard Saint Laurent. We meandered (as much as one can meander on a dead-straight street), stopping to divert down pretty side streets, to peer into shop windows and to inhale the salty smell of smoked beef piled up in the window of Schwartz's Deli. Chinatown was reached sooner than I expected, and we paused to take some tea and to check for prizes under the rim of our paper cups in a cheap and cheerful coffee shop (no luck... neither a Toyota Rav-4 nor a Broil King barbeque was found). In the old town we saw firemen, tourists and a film set being prepared on the ice in one of the inlets of the port. By the time we had turned west again, and found ourselves near Central Station, our legs had had enough.

So we went to the pub, which is not easy at 14h30, because unlike in Britain not many hostelries seem to be open here in the early afternoon. And we talked, talked and talked. I had forgotten just how much there has been in the back of my mind about our first year in Sheffield (almost five years have passed since we three first met), about what's happened to our mutual friends, and what will happen to all of us now we have largely left the sheltered world of academia.

And over two pints of Rousse, five bottles of Boréale Dorée, two bottles of Fin-du-Monde, a pichet of Rousse and big plate of poutine (shared with Ryan who by now had finished work), three pints of something else, a pichet of Rickard's that tasted foul, three cosmopolitains, a game of pool and (to finish off) three glasses of Bailey's-look-a-like, we properly caught up where we had left off.

Pity the one member of the household who had to get up at 6h30 this morning to go to work on his synergies...


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Before or after the crash?

Just in case you thought I was turning into a Saab nut who wouldn't consider driving anything else, I saw this post over on UKSaabs and remembered that it's not just Saabs that look after you in accident. Believe it or not, this 740 saloon has been in rather messy crash, and rolled rather violently two times, ending up in a field. The driver lost control during an (admittedly quite light) snowstorm last weekend. The owner, who repairs cars for a living, explains...

One of our customers owns an MGF which has recently been into the main dealers (whose initials are the same as Air Conditioning Laughing ) for a new head gasket. A fairly common problem with these. Sadly, that is all they did, and did not have the head skimmed, so the new gasket has blown. Fed up with clowns, he brought it to us to have it done properly. We lent him the Ovlov whilst the MG is fixed.

In the light snow we had on Wednesday night, he lost it on a bend and rolled it twice, ending up on its wheels. There is not a straight panel left, and the police said if he had been in his MG he would be dead. As it was, he opened the door and walked away unscathed.

Note also, if you will, note one window has broken, and that not one part of the car's structure has buckled. Impressive, huh?


Monday, March 20, 2006

The Simpsons and Canada...

You may snigger... but it matters a great deal to all Canadians when a character in The Simpsons makes a reference to, or a joke about the true land of the free.

For example: season 6 episode 19 "The PTA Disbands", during which Marge takes up a teaching position at Springfield Elementary...

Homer: [expansive] So, how was everybody's day at school?
Bart: Horrifying!
Lisa: Pointless!
Marge: Exhausting. It took the children forty minutes to locate Canada on the map.
Homer: Marge, anyone can miss Canada, all tucked away down there.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Punch the blog...

It's not been a good week it seems, over at Blogger HQ, where various bits of hardware have been playing up. It seems that the software that powers this online journal of my life (and many thousands of other amateur and pro bloggers) has also been working only sporadically. Today, I've had many problems uploading photos and text to share with you on this blog or my new pet project. Earlier this week, all the letters with accents (acute, grave, umlaut etc) on my blog have disappeared and been replaced with gobble-di-gook. I don't know exactly why this has happened, but I am looking into it, and will try and sort that out... it may mean manually editing every one of my 125 posts and replacing each accented letter with an old fashioned HTML code.

And for those of you still using Internet Explorer, I've given up on ever being able to understand exactly why text on the page disappears and appears when you scroll: broadly accepted geek-wisdom seems to suggest that if you're suffering, you should ditch IE for a more modern browser such as Firefox or Safari. The code of this page is compliant with all standards, it's just a known bug with IE, which is a programme Microsoft don't really support or develop any more.

Hope you like the bacon, photographed a few weeks ago as I finished off a film I had started in New York. I didn't have any bacon, or eggs, or pancakes, or tomatoes this morning, since Ryan's been doing a course all weekend and I can't justify a weekend fry without someone else in the apartment to share the grease.

Gem arrives on Tuesday... looking forward to seeing Montreal through the eyes of a first time visitor once more. That's how we should see the world all the time, don't you think?


Saturday, March 18, 2006

Got my photos back...

That'll be me then...


Thursday, March 16, 2006

From Mornington Crescent to Lucien L'Allier

A lazy walk home yesterday on my mid-week night off (no French lesson, language exchange or social commitments to be concerned with). Just time to do my homework, make a few trans-Atlantic phone calls (to the same person... we just got cut off a few times mid-sentence) and to brush even more hair off Cucu. I've had the luxury of an extra day off this week, because all my colleagues escaped the office for two days for a financial planning meeting. Without them to drip feed me work, I was surplus to requirements and was able to a pleasant lie-in the morning after Ulli's rather fluid wine and cheese party... lucky, really, because I don't think Ulli and co. appreciate just how difficult it is for us office workers to attend such trendy weekday soirées.

A bit of browsing around Wikipedia and some flicking through Stromvold's seminal work (I found a rare paperback copy in Westmount last weekend) has lead me to the discovery of a Montréal version of the famous game called Mornington Crescent. It's hard to discern when the game emigrated and integrated into Québecois society, but it seems to have been around for quite some time. Despite some suggestions to the contrary, the game uses Lucien L'Allier as the target, and if played correctly employs a fearsomely complex local adaptation of the rules. I shan't bore you with the details, but needless to say there are no doubles, no shuffles, no nid, and highway forty can be used as a counter-play. Additionally a double bind applies to all AMT suburban rail stations.

You may not be familiar with the Montréal version, but if in doubt you can refer to the map above (click to enlarge). Perhaps I could get the ball rolling with:


Please leave your next move (and a clear description of the technique employed) by clicking on the comments link below, and don't be tempted to drop yourself in spoon straight away with Radisson, because that would be most unfortunate.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

5215km, 358 days...

Yesterday (Tuesday March 14, 2006) marked an important landmark. I have passed the halfway point. I've been in Montréal for almost six months, and by a count of the days yesterday was the exact mid-point of my 358 day stay. I celebrated modestly by doing some laundry, finishing my French homework, making a salad for lunch and buying some flour.

Time flies, eh? :-)



Apologies for the 36 hours or so during which 'ontheroad' went offline. The Blogger engine ate up and spat out my template, and I'm now in the process of rebuilding it.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Nice to come home to you...

After a very good wine and cheese birthday party at Ulli's (ratio of bottles of wine to people about 1 : 1, ratio of fine cheeses to people about 1.5 : 1) Ryan and I walked back down a misty avenue du Mont Royal in the fresh night time air. We came back to the apartment with our metaphorical tails between our legs: Ben Z, Caca, Cucu and Toast were most interested to hear our excuses as to where we had been. I tried to explain the fine goat's cheese, the emmental, the brie, the salad, the cross-eyed dead teddy bear hanging beneath near perfectly balanced helium balloons, the seven bottles of wine, the rubbery yoga mat, the bits of my body that had been used to demonstrate yogic massage techniques and the really annoying way in which the conversation would grind to a halt when everyone took out a digital camera to photograph everyone else taking photos with digital cameras. The four of them listened, but I don't think they took it in. I was forgiven, and after drinking a pint or two of water (hehehe, red wine can't stop me...) I turned the last lights off in the apartment and retreated to my bedroom.

This was the sight that was waiting for me. Three ladies, all patiently waiting for me to finish my nocturnal routines and to re-create the rolling landscape I form every night under my sheets. The bedside light went off, and peaceful purring lulled me to sleep.

Happy birthday Ulli... same time, (different place) next year?


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Damned Canadian winter...

Opening the door...

This morning I did my usual cours de samedi matin along avenue du Mont Royal, buying veal sausages for Sunday night, chese for Ulli's wine and cheese themed birthday celebrations on Monday, and assorted cheap fruit and veg for me for the rest of the week. The weather has turned remarkably fine. Temperatures rose towards the end of this week, and Thursday and Friday were tarnished by (shock horror) rain. But today the sky is largely clear, and after a few minutes carrying my heavy shopping bag back to the apartment, I was sweating from the warmth.

When I got home I had a bite to eat, treated myself to some English language radio, and tackled last night's washing up (the only downside from Ryan's funky-fusion-curry-stir-fry last night. For the first time in weeks, I opened wide the door to the balcony and let the sounds of the Plateau flood in. Even from our sheltered and private balcony I could hear the sounds of the city. Church bells in the distance, police sirens, traffic passing on Boyer, someone clearing his throat while walking down the ruelle behind our apartment. As I soaked, soaped and scrubbed the pans, memories flooded back from my first visit to this apartment back in May 2005. That time I arrived alone, and found the apartment empty but for the cats. Charlotte was out at work, but in the warmth of the spring air had left the door to the balcony wide open. The cats came in and out, sniffing the new arrival, and invited me out to sit on the sunny balcony.

There's a chance of snow again later next week, but I think we're through the worst.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

Don't finish the sentence thread...

Click on the comments link and continue the sentence below without finishing it. Each subsequent comment must continue where the previous one left off and must not finish the sentence!

In early March the skies over Milton Keynes seem to shimmer with the late winter exodus of...

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


I woke up this morning with a sharp pin-prick pain above my lip. There is no mark, but it feels as if I've been electrocuted or clawed by a cat in my sleep. Both explainations are possible considering the terrifying unearthed Canadian electric sockets above my pillow and the three cats who sleep with me... perhaps Toast came to nuzzle me in my sleep, put her tail too close to the socket, zapped me and then clawed my face as she recoiled? Hmmm...

Last night Ryan and I embarked on our respective French grammar and conversation classes at the YMCA. We came home to an amazon.ca parcel that had finally been delivered, with two books bought for me by a nameless but utterly gorgeous ladyfriend. One is the sixth edition of USA By Rail by John Pitt, and the other is Plain Modern: The Architecture of Brian MacKay-Lyons by Malcolm Quantrill. The latter is a very well written and beautifully illustrated profile of the sole Canadian architect I can admit to having an 'architectural crush' on. I hope to see some of his modest but striking buildings when I visit Nova Scotia in May, although since most are remote houses and private dwellings, I suspect that may not be easy. In many ways these houses symbolise much of what I aspire to: modern interpretations of vernacular building traditions that interact, respond to and compliment the landscape and climate of their surroundings. They may look very 'different' or out of context when you see a photograph, but I'm beginning to understand much more about the importance of Mackay-Lyons' design approach rather than the final aesthetic impression.

In the preface of the book, Quantrill draws comparions between the Nova Scotian landscape and the coastal scernery of the remote East Anglian corner of England - my home and an increasingly vital personal point of reference. I cannot imagine Mackay-Lyons buildings in Norfolk, but I can imagine a similar design approach being applied to the design of projects in East Anglia. What seems so devastatingly clear to me now, is that I like these buildings because they are so free of 'architecture'. They are not post-modern, techtonic or naturalist: they are what they are, free from an imposed architectural theory. They certainly originate from very strong ideas, but these ideas start with the landscape and the context, not from within the profession of architecture.

Does that make sense? I don't know if it does... it's hard to write with any clarity what I feel. I just know that I feel it very strongly. I actually had to force myself to put the book down last night because there was a danger I'd stay up all night until I'd finished it. I'll return to this post and edit it as I find out how to express myself better.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

It's easy to get lost in a map...

During my lunch break today, I crossed Jean-Talon and went for a browse around Les Halles D'Anjou, which is a reasonably sympathetic small shopping mall, mainly occupied by food stores and places to eat for the many people who work in the adjacent office buildings. I skipped a Tim Hortons 'Combo Lunch' and got lost amongst the aisles of books in the big Archambault store at the other end of the mall. It is what I would have hoped for in a Montréal bookstore in that the shelves carry a mix of English and French books. It's easy to slip from one bookcase to the next and flit between languages.

I wasn't after books though, the time had come for some serious distraction material. Maps. Not even the Argos catalogue can offer as much entertainment for me. I love to get lost, create itineraries and imagine places I've never been to. I wanted to buy maps to accompany me on the rail trip I'm taking. So after some umm-ing and aah-ing, I chose a big fold out map of the USA, one of Canada (with railway lines marked - woohoo!) and for a bit of specific interest another smaller scale one of Manitoba.

The Manitoba map cost the same as the national maps ($4.95 + tx) and the change of scale didn't really make up for the fact that it's a much emptier map. But it does feature the railway line I'll be riding along in early May, crawling from Winnipeg in the far south of the province to Churchill on the Hudson Bay. And for hundreds of km either side of the railway line is nothing. The occasional river is marked, but there are no roads or settlements. Much of the journey is through comletely uninhabited terriotory, accessible only by train.

I am more excited than ever...


Sunday, March 05, 2006


Saturday, March 04, 2006

Scenes from subterranea and suburbia...

My day off, and it was time to escape the city. Always intrigued by the exotic sounding names at the end of métro, bus and railway lines, I decided to head out of town this afternoon to the scenic-sounding town of Deux-Montagnes. Montréal's VIA and AMT Central Station is located on the south side of downtown. It became a station around the turn of the last century, and has had bits added here, there, above and below ever since. It's now completely enclosed and seemingly subterranean at platform level. Most trains leave towards the south, some to the USA, some south-west to the capital and Toronto, others north to Québec and Nova Scotia. Just a few, however, go in completely the opposite direction, north-west... directly under the city and the 'montagne' of Mont Royal. For five kilometres, two electrified train tracks climb a slight incline towards the north side of the island, passing under the steep hill of Mont Royal through the Mont-Royal Tunnel.

This tunnel was planned to become line 3 of the Montréal Métro, but the difficulties of running one line with steel tracks unlike the rest of the city's rubber tyred métro trains, and the local politics of the city's municipalities prevented it from happening. The rest of the city métro lines are numbered as if it had been completed... 1 (green), 2 (orange), 4 (yellow) and 5 (blue) After about six or seven minutes underground, we emerged dazzled by the sunlight and the bright snow. We passed through mile after mile of white suburb. They were more grey, to be honest, but snow can improve the look of most dreary suburbs for a few months.

I don't really have the attention to detail or patience to be a proper trainspotter, but I'm pretty content riding trains to new places and just looking out of the window. I think I'm probably a genetic window-seat-hog... I've noticed that whenever I travel by train or plane, I end up with a crocked neck from peering out too much. We island hopped from Montréal onto the Isle-Bigras, Laval and finally the Couronne Nord. Deux-Montagnes was not quite what I had hoped it to be. Lifeless suburb after lifeless suburb. Identikit houses for people with no imagination. Perhaps you know what it's like to return to a car park and not remember where you left your car. I suspect there are people who step off the train at Deux-Montagnes at the end of a work day, and wonder where they left their house.

I followed a cleared path through a bare forest, and walked for half an hour. None of the housing developments seemed to consider each other. Each patch of two hundred executive houses faced in on itself, and to the roads that wound in between the little box-dwellings. But between the developments were tree lined belts. I crossed the occasional road, and plodded through hardened snow, occasionally passing people walking dogs or dragging children. The sky was blue, the smooth frozen crust of undisturbed snow was sparkling and the temperature was above zero. I just walked and walked, much prefering this walk in suburbia to a walk in the park.

I knew I'd have to turn around after about forty minutes if I was to make the next return train. Just as the path began to break up into smaller ones that headed to less promising destinations, I came upon an intersection. There was a strip mall, traffic lights and people in cars bemused to see a me crossing the road. And there was a Tim Horton's. A strawberry danish was acquired, and stowed away in a pocket for an on-board post-walk reward. I stepped out of the standardised coffee shop, crossed the standardised intersection, and returned through the standardised suburbs to board my sleek silver chariot.


Friday, March 03, 2006

Ohmigod, they killed Saab...

So it seems this isn't the only blog where my opinions can be taken seriously. A comment of mine has been published on the GM Fast Lane blog, where bucolic General Motors vice-president Bob 'Maximum' Lutz likes to drone on about what a wonderful company he runs and what wonderful cars they produce. Surprising they should allow my viewpoint, since I'm not exactly the biggest fan of General Motors. After buying up the last truly different auto maker in Europe, GM couldn't help talking the hind legs off any donkey that would listen about how they were going to nuture and develop the 'Saab DNA'. Method? They took GM models (see photo for the American-market-only Chevy based 9-7X truck) grafted on a Saab grille and moved the ignition switch to beside the gear stick. Nice of them to allow for some counter-cultural thinking on their blog though... Shame Bob doesn't quite get the two-way conversation thing of blogging. Here's the perma-link

RIP Saab :'(

A genuinely different, innovative and counter-cultural auto maker has been lost. I was an optimist to begin with. I even shrugged off that SUV you chucked out for the US market. But now I know for sure. Saab was swallowed into a behemoth that creates the same cars with different badges. Nice concept, Bob. But with a bit of aesthetic switches it could have been a concept of any of your 'brands'. A concept isn't going to save Saab. A commitment to allowing a Swedish subsiduary of GM to design and produce vehicles of their own just might. The accountants won't like it, but the folks aren't going to buy 'em if they know they're just badge engineered Opels/Chevrolets/etc.

The twentieth century was the era of the product: more innovation, more availability and more variety. Now we live in the post-globalization era of the brand. Q. How do you devalue a brand? By refering to it as a brand and not a product. People buy products, not brands. Brand association is a worthless measure... I associate with my car because I'll be driving it for ten years.

The day Saab died was the day it stopping being a car company and started being a brand. We don't want marketing and branding, we want cars that offer choice and variety. And by choice and variety I mean different cars produced by different people in different countries. Changing the colour of the grille and renaming it the 2007 model is not enough to arouse interest.

I drive a 1993 Saab 900. Arguably the beginning of the end; a Saab based on an Opel platform. I only bought it second hand (for about GBP£600) because I couldn't afford an older 'real' Saab. Yes, it's practically a Vectra, and yes, it wasn't 100% Trollhatten. But I look at that car parked next to other 1993 vehicles and just cry... it's the last cry of a dying company. It doesn't just look different, it is different. You can't compare it to any other contemporary cars because no-one sold a sporty, compact luxury fastback.

Less than twenty years ago there was a group of people who designed cars not because they thought people would like them, but because they believed that what they were making was better than anything else. Putting the ignition by the gearstick wasn't a way of telling people the car was a Saab... it was a way of saving someone from being knee-capped in a heavy front on collision, and a way of deadlocking the transmission when the car was parked.

Is there better proof that bigger isn't better? Size will be GM's downfall. Buying up auto companies doesn't increase revenue, it decreases it. Shaving economies left right and centre by sharing parts and development reduces variety and therefore desirability. Last year you re-launched Chevrolet in the UK. Except everyone here knows they're new models of older Daewoo products. Chevrolaewoos.

Conclusion of this rant? Downsize. Spin off (and maybe sell) the companies that aren't working for you. Go into any bar in Sweden and you'll find another twenty people ready to tell you how to build a Saab.

I'll drive my Saab until the day it falls apart. And when it does, I'll buy a car, not a GM 'brand'.


Thursday, March 02, 2006

I'd like a window please...

In various online circles, people who don't get out enough are getting all excited about the new version of Microsoft Windows, which is launching soon. I say the 'new version', but in fact I meant to write 'six versions', or twelve if you include the fact that each will be available for different 32 or 64 bit kernels. I don't know what a Kernel is, let alone why I should have to choose between six different versions of the same (surely it's the same?) operating system. Astonishingly, Microsoft has designed one version (or rather un-designed a better version into an inferior one) for 'developing markets'. So if you live in what Microsoft determines to be a 'developing market' (read 'third world country') rest assured that they'd rather help you 'develop' your society before you can play with windows media player.

Of course this simplified version of Windows Vista will be much cheaper than the standard versions sold in countries that have already finished 'developing'. And I'm sure it'll run sweetly on the MIT $100 computer. The pressure is being put on governments of 'developing' nations to invest millions of dollars in purchasing these machines. Great idea. No, really. $100 so that we can start Skyping people in the famine belts of Africa. Here's what Oxfam America say they could do with $100... decide for yourself which is more important.

$100 Provides a young student living in poverty in Mali with the vocational training and financial support necessary to start her own weaving business.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Wednesday: the day things stopped working

In no particular order, here is a list of things that stopped working or broke today. My computer's power supply, my mouse, the door handle to Ryan's room, the door handle to the cupboard in the kitchen, my nice pen, my February transit pass (although that was to be expected...), the computer in the conference room before our presentation, one of the lights in the metro train I took home, the strip light above my desk, the bottom of the box I carried home some product samples in, a small section of the stitching in my hat and my ability to digest my own sandwiches. Not a good day.