I'm not bräve, just naïve...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Scenes from a suburb: final instalment

At lunch time today, I walked down to the front entrance of our office building, and stepped out into brilliant warm sunshine. Spring is here, at last there is no doubt. People are outside again, having cigarettes in their lunch breaks. I've no idea where they all went in the winter; perhaps addicted Québecois have worked out how to quit for the three coldest months?

Away in the distance, the skyline of downtown Montréal was shimmering: fifty storey skyscrapers daring to match the height of the Mount Royal. My five month sojourn in the suburbs concludes today. I've handed in my notice to my employers, and to the agency that handles me. The former will have to manage without my skills in Microsoft Excel; the latter have to manage without a 53% mark-up on my salary. Another interesting and wholly different job has come to an end, and I can now add Excel-wizard to my list of previous occupations (petrol station attendant, delivery driver, printer technician, architect, supermarket stocker, barman, assistant librarian, call centre monkey etc etc etc).

I crossed Jean-Talon Est to the Marché Galleries d'Anjou for the last time, and did a final farewell to the commercial lots that have distracted me most days from 12:00 until 12:30 ... a few Dollarama purchases were made as a final gesture (some baby wipes and a sudoku book for a certain long journey that lies ahead).

My life has generally undergone a major change every six to nine months in recent years. Something happens and a change of scenery or circumstances follows. The next month will not just be a stand-alone holiday, but could also mark the change of my personal situation. Doors close, doors open, and James carries on exploring.


Saturday, April 15, 2006

Time lapse: where's the poutine?

Snapshot: There's the poutine :-)

My my my, was it good...


Friday, April 14, 2006

Rumours of my departure are greatly exagerated

A pleasant surprise was experienced at the 'guichet' today, when the pay off from several weeks of penny pinching was felt with a significantly healthier looking bank balance. This will give me a budget for my forth coming trip of about C$30 a day. Not much at all, but considering that I've already paid for all the travel, and that with only one exception, my accomodation is now sorted from coast to coast, that's not too bad at all. This time next week I will be on board the first train of fifteen, heading south towards Schenectady, NY, where the second will pick me up a few hours later.

So, for those of you were surprised to see me or hear me answer the telephone this week, and who are still confused, I'm not leaving until next Friday.

During my commute this week, I've been reading a dog-eared paperback book I found in a second hand bookstore in Plattsburg a few weeks ago. It's an old edition of Sticks & Stones: A Study of American Architecture and Civilization by Lewis Mumford, first published in 1924. This edition was revised by the author in the fifties. From time to time, certain extracts jump from the page and hit me between the eyes, for what was written more than eighty years ago by a naïve young architecture critic about North American architecture remains true and valid today.

One of the fundamental problems I have with the modern vernacular in North American planning and architecture is the fatal grid system. It's left it's mark on three quarters of this continent, from downtown Chicago to prairie Alberta: 90 degree angles as far as the eye can see, and a system designed to apportion land before it had been developed or farmed. Nothing quite sums up the difference between the European and American city than the simple difference you'll see on two maps... North American cities were planned with engineers and developers, each holding a straight edge and with a keen eye for a fast, direct, impressive straight line. The rush to settle and develop the land from east coast to west coast was not held up by architecture: this fundamental approach to designing field boundaries, villages and towns could be laid down as fast as the horses could get you there.

Mumford explains:

If the older cities of the sea-board were limited in their attempts to become metropolises by the fact that their downtown sections were originally laid out for villages, the villages of the middle west labored under just the opposite handicap; they had frequently acquired the framework of a metropolis before they had passed out of the physical state of a village. The gridiron plan was a sort of hand-me-down which the juvenile city was supposed to grow into and fill. That a city had any other purpose than to attract trade, to increase land values, and to grow is something that, if it uneasily entered the mind of an occasional Whitman, never exercised any hold upon the minds of the majority of the countrymen. For them, the place where the great city stands is the place of stretched wharves, and markets, and ships bringing goods from the ends of the earth; that, and nothing else.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Interpret this as you will...

For absent friends. We are thinking of you every moment.

This afternoon I left work as usual just before five o'clock. Leaving the office, swiping out and descending the grim service stairs to the street takes about three minutes. Walking to the intersection of Jean-Talon and Galeries D'Anjou takes another thirty seconds. Therefore, I don't usually make the bus the passes my stop at one minute past five. Sometimes, if there is heavy traffic and the lights have changed to red before everyone has boarded, I can get on board. Others, I see it pulling away just as I leave the building.

The more that I think about it, this sight is not particularly new to me. I've pretty much always lived or worked close, but never right next to bus stops. In every case there has been the possibility of leaving my home or place of work to just see a bus stopping or pulling away. In both cases, there's no point running - you just won't make it. You just have to walk towards it calmly knowing it's already gone.

This approach doesn't usually let me down, especially since it allows a smug sense of self rightous satisfaction when people run past me to catch a bus metro train and miss it. If it were a trans-Atlantic flight or a VIA Rail train that only runs three times a week, then I'd understand. But it's not. And there'll be another one in a few minutes.

Today, however, when I saw the bus (still waiting for the lights to turn) I decided to break my normal composure and run for it. A lady was waiting at the intersection to cross Jean Talon. She saw me approaching, and realised fairly quickly it was the bus I was running for (there not being much else worth running towards in the area where I work). So she turned and did something very kind. She walked over the bus, and knocked on the side window that is in front of the front set of doors to get the driver's attention. And when she pointed to my heaving sweating figure, the driver opened his doors for me. As I flew past the woman, we exchanged smiles, I expressed a breathless 'merci'. She smiled a smile that was probably wider than mine, and replied 'Bienvenue'. I hopped on board, and we pulled away before the doors were even closed.

Following a phone call that had punched me hard in the chest earlier that afternoon, I was already buzzing with troubled thoughts about the importance of the smallest impulses and decisions in our lives. They can bring so much happiness, and they can bring even more sadness. We make these decisions every second or every day, never capable of comprehending the consequences. And then, one time in a million, the consequences are worse than our most secret nightmares.

Now is the time for forgeting the regretable decisions, and celebrating the joyous, exciting and brilliant choices. Without them, there would be no life to celebrate.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Please Mr. Mountie, let my girlfriend in...

I first came to Canada in 2002, for some exploration of the prairies and one heck of a stag night / hen night / Ukranian wedding / party / hangover in rural Alberta. Without much choice in terms of travel options, I flew very expensively with American Airlines from Manchester to Calgary, via Chicago. After the long trans-Atlantic flight in a cramped centre-section seat, my very first view of North America was had by craning my neck round and looking across three other passengers, and out of a small window in the aeroplane's fuselage. We approached O'Hare International Airport exactly in line with the city's grid of streets, and as we descended towards the airport, I watched block after block of parallel suburban streets flash past beneath us, each stretching away to an indiscernable point of infiniti, hidden by the smog that hugged the ground in the August heat.

In less than two weeks, I will be returning to Chicago with enough time to actually see the city, only this time without the benefit of a few thousand feet to appreciate the masterplanning of the metropolis... will it be as enthralling to me as it was then, when I didn't even have time to leave the airport?

The second flight was on a smaller regional jet. I sat next to a very large (by my standard) American business man. After take off, he ordered a whiskey from the stewardess. But before he had placed it on the flimsy fold down table, he was asleep. He slept soundly, not touching his drink, all the way to Calgary (a flight of three and a half hours). I was still bemused to see anyone ask for a whiskey with that much ice. I watched it slowly melt and dillute, until we began our descent into Calgary and he woke up. He knocked back the whiskey, smiled at me and continued to block my view for the most scenic part of the flight, as we banked over mile upon mile of suburban streets, drawn like listless doodles on the vast prairie fields that were being appropriated by the rapidly expanding city.

At Montréal Trudeau airport the customs officers are dressed smartly but soberly, seemingly in uniforms designed to match the new arrivals terminal. But at Calgary Airport, when I came forward with my passport and a mental list of reasons why I should be allowed to enter the country on holiday, I was faced with a mountie. A genuine Canadian mountie, wearing a red blazer and a hat. It wasn't the most practical of uniforms, but it certainly stunned everyone was arriving for the first time, and probably confirmed many suspicions of the more cynical Americans amongst the passengers.

Despite the usual questions, I was allowed in (fools), A firm grip on the nation's security was delivered with sympathy and a friendly smile.

And a cowboy hat.

So, Mr. Mountie, whichever one of you is on duty at Halifax International Airport on the afternoon of Sunday 14 May, please look kindly upon my girlfriend. If you let me in, you shouldn't even have to take a second glance at her :)


Monday, April 10, 2006

Chaque lundi...

...Mélisse and I can be found at the same table in the Quincallerie on Rachel. It's time for our weekly language exchange; French one week and English the next. On Uli's recommendation, we started out in a certain St. Denis tea lounge, but let's just say that Mélisse and I prefer a more alcohol-oriented environment. It makes the conversation flow a little more easily when we've both had a long day. And this trendy place does nicely. The barmaid who works on Monday evenings even recognises us, and after just a couple of weeks knows what our drinks are without prompting (rousse for me, blonde for Mélisse).

We talk about our jobs, our travels, our futures (apparently I shouldn't go to Strasbourg, although Mélisse hasn't actually been herself) and the lives around us. We've both been here a few months now, and we've both adapted our Montréal dreams to cope with the Montréal reality. And we're happy. We've not been beaten. I'm speaking more French, and Mélisse is speaking more English. We have just enough to get by and to enjoy ourselves... things are good. I felt my spirits lift here this evening. Not every nagging question has an answer, but since I've got this far without too many problems, I reckon things will be ok.


Sunday, April 09, 2006

Snapshot: me

BM recently complained that there weren't any good photos of me on this blog. The best she could find was this one... *shudder*. I hope this one compensates for it...


Saturday, April 08, 2006

Oh Beth...

You might remember, a little while back, when I waxed lyrical about Belle and Sebastian prior to their recent concert in Montréal. B+S have been with me through thick and thin for the last ten years, so as a fan of their music I reserve the right to be forgiving if I don't entirely agree with the new direction of their music.

During the B+S gig at the Metropolis, here in Montréal back in February, the band let slip their lack of confidence in the said 'new direction' with a revealing bit of musical programming. After a belting opening number ('The State That I Am In') that got everyone's head bopping and feet tapping, they slipped into the dangerous new-song-old-song pattern. They tried to keep the long term fans happy by propping up less successful new material with the classics. And it worked. Sort of. We didn't mind, but we knew what they were up to, and we'll be watching with interest to see what the next album sounds like.

Tonight, however, there was no propping up going on. Ryan, Jonathan and I headed down to Club Soda on Saint Laurent for a stunning little night out, with my long term musical love, Beth Orton. If B+S have been with me for a good ten years, then Beth's not far behind with a personal connection stretching back to 1999 or 2000, when our open Saturday morning English class allowed students to bring in a piece of music to start the day. I owe a great debt to a man named Duncan who shares my surname: he brought us 'Blood Red River' - a dark little track that is often overlooked from the album 'Central Reservation'. I was hooked, and have been with Beth ever since. In fact, tonight's gig marked a stepping stone - she is the only musician I've been to see live twice. The last time was a one night gig at the Electric Ballroom in Camden in (?) 2002 or 2003, when I was towing along behind a now ex-girlfriend. That was a great night, and tonight more than matched the impression of the first.

When we arrived, I was astonished by the perfect dimensions and atmosphere of the club - Willy Mason was just getting going with the support show (with a talented young violinist whose name I did not catch - please leave a comment if you were there and know her name). The decor was cosy (everything in deep red, even the strings of lights slung loosely from the upper mouth of the stage to the back wall... and the music was top notch. I didn't expect such a powerful warm up act ... I would gladly pay the same again just to see Willy Mason. His alt-country tunes set a good context - where do we place Beth Orton's music, now that her sound has evolved from vulnerable wavering heartbreak to confident bluesy punch. I don't care if that last sentence doesn't make sense... it's late, I'm tired and I'm trying hard to get down the emotions I felt tonight before they evaporate in the cold early hours. Beth belongs in the alt-country category, but coming from England (and from the east of England like me) her American influences are more than just vernacular... they're something that has been applied over an already gutsy folk tradition....

During the concert, however, I often started thinking of another young lady far away... and my arm started to rise up in front of me, as if to describe the embrace I could imagine as we both faced the stage, each pair of eyes fixated on the only musician on stage wearing white (neat trick to enrapture an audience, don't you think). The songs of love and heartbreak that Beth Orton sings hit you slowly, but when they get you they make your limbs tremble and they make your feet undermine your balance.

I need to sleep.


Edited on 10 April to clarify that in the last pargraph, I am refering to my love for BM, not Beth Orton... sorry, just drunk typing, not a revelation of betrayal, I promise :)

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

I don't want to, but now I can...

My laptop ownership cycle generally lasts about years. It's not down to poor build quality or a propensity to drop them on concrete surfaces after twenty-four months of ownership, but a conscious decision. It seems to me that two years is a reasonable period of time in which to buy an Apple laptop new, use it and sell it on for about 60% or more of it's original value. And each time I use the proceeds from the sale of the last one, and top it up with more recent savings to get a slightly better model. Maybe not financially sensible, but it allows me to progress up the Apple line of computers at a steady pace.

And there's big news released today from Apple Computer about Boot Camp, a small piece of software that will be integrated into the next version of the Apple system (codenamed 'Leopard', previewing this August). And what it does is remarkably simple but earth shakingly important: new Intel-based Macs can be smoothly and effeciently partitioned to run both Macintosh and Microsoft Windows (yep, including Vista, whenever they iron out the bugs and release the damn thing) on the same hard drive. Now when you press the sexy silky smooth power button on your new Mac, you get a typically-crystal clear Mac start up screen, offering you two buttons to click on: Windows or Mac.

There have been Windows emulators for the Mac before, but they've been slow, unreliable and very inefficient. This is ground-up support for Windows on the Mac. In fact, it's not even Windows 'on' the Mac, it's Windows alongside the Mac, but on just one machine.

This changes everything, especially for architects... as I commented on TUAW's blog today:

Architects generally start business with one or two Macs (they just do... it seems to be a cultural thing!) and as their business grows, so does the number of Macs. But as design projects get bigger and more complex, and the input of engineering based consultants gets more important, compatibility of design files with more folk from a more technical background is increasingly important.

No matter how much better the Mac environment and system is, many business users are forced to switch to PCs to be able to be 100% compatible with the specialist software used by other team members or consultants. In architecture, the line has always been drawn with AutoCAD, a hideously outmoded but popular drafting program that has morphed from an piece of engineering software to a piece of architectural design software. It's the preferred weapon of choice for most engineers and architectural consultants. But trendy ol' chunky-spectacle-and-black-roll-neck-sweater-wearing architects have always been left out in the cold. No Mac version means us Saab drivers have to box up the iMac and get a grey Windoze box under the desk.

Not any more. I am already perusing the Apple online store, and thinking about what I'll spend my money on next, when my current Powerbook will be due to move on. By then, the launch bugs of Boot Camp, Mac OS Leopard and the MacBookPro line will be just distant memories, and I won't have to switch machines to crunch those drawings.


Sunday, April 02, 2006

Smiling until it hurt...

This week Laura went looking for restaurant reviews on the internet. She was looking for somewhere on the Plateau for Ulli's farewell meal. After living in the du Buillon apartment since last autumn, it was time for a suitable send off as she moved her mattress, books and immense collection of tea down Mont Royal to our apartment. Laura found a slightly pretentiously written but informative review relating to the Plateau's best little French restaurant, Le P'tit Plateau...

In a quiet but very central location (one block from the intersection of Mont-Royal and St. Denis) is this delightful restaurant. The atmosphere is perfect - a small room with open kitchen and honest decoration. Service very amenable, especially as we arrived after the start of the second sittings (at 1830 and 2030... go for the second so you aren't rushed to clear your table). Don't forget to bring your own wine. Entrées excellent: duck pâté perfect and grilled goats cheese to die for. Main courses - duck for me and salmon for my partner (from that day's menu of just six: a sure sign of a confident kitchen) were spot on. Maybe too fussy - lots of different but utterly agreeable flavours in the vegetables and intense sauces, but that's good solid French cuisine for you and it was a dream. For desert, the crème brulée is a simple delight, followed by good firm espressos. Bill for two, three courses (plus salad to start) came to $125 including service. Very worth while, perfect romantic night out for young, middle aged or older lovers.

And then she noted that the review was contributed by a Yahoo Travel user called 'jamesbrownontheroad'. Hmmm. Who could that be? Last January, Beatrice and I spent a three figure sum in the aforementioned establishment for an frighteningly perfect meal for two... the most wondrous grilled goat's cheese, an arrangement of vegetables and duck that almost made my legs melt and the finest crême brulée I have ever teasted. Laura was wise to follow my recommendation, and she, Mélisse and Ulli went out on Saturday for the second sitting at Le P'tit Plateau. I met up with them afterwards for a few beverages in le Boudoir, on Mont Royal Est.

And did they enjoy it? I shall just say that Laura was complaining of 'face cramp' from the smile she had been unable to shift from her face during the meal. Ulli was still rubbing her stomach and groaning with satisfaction the next morning at breakfast. And I think Mélisse had, for a brief moment, forgotten how far away from France she really was.

We drank, talked, danced briefly and then christened Ulli's new room with a half hearted pyjama party. Half hearted because no-one was wearing pyjamas, and Ulli feel asleep as soon as she lay down on her new bed. The sky was turning blue again as I went to bed, pausing only when I realised that, for once, it was a reasonable hour to call my girlfriend. Yep, the drunken phone calls have started again, although at least now there's no risk of me waking her up...


Saturday, April 01, 2006

Now we are three...

With Spring comes more change to the apartment. As some of the plants begin to take brief sojourns in the mild spring sunshine outside on the balcony, Ryan and I have been cleaning and moving furniture around to make room for a new lodger. In the game of apartment-musical-chairs, Ulli is now living here once more. The move more than halves her rent, and means that our recently arrived friend Mélisse will not be thrown out onto the street when Anna returns to the du Buillon apartment. Confused? Don't worry, it makes sense to us.

On Friday evening I got off the métro a few stops early at Beaudry station (which might one day be re-named Beaudry-Village, it seems) and walked from the bustling strip of St. Catherine up onto the plateau. I skipped three stations and a frenzied rush hour change of trains at Berri-UQAM in exchange for a refreshing thirty minute walk through some of Montréal's prettiest neighbourhoods. I've done this on two evenings now, and plan to do it much more to maintain a healthy balance between commuting by métro, bus and foot. The early warm weather has banished Montréal's sizeable community of winter coats the dusty cupboards for the next six months, and in the gay village, everyone was out, about, and seeming much more beautiful than when wrapped up in winter gear. For Montréal's unattached population of beautiful young men, cruising on the streets of Montréal involves much less guessing of what might be under all those layers.

I zig-zagged through the side streets between Ontario, Maisonneuve and Sherbrooke, and then walked along the edge of Parc la Fontaine towards avenue du Mont Royal. The months of litter, grit and detritus concealed by layers of (now melted) snow and ice remain, and while it is fairly scummy, I don't mind a bit of urban grime. When I came home I found the apartment in a state of frenzied cleaning: furniture had been displaced, the windows were all open and the cats were perched on stable vantage points wondering what the hell was going on.

Today our apartment's (human) population has grown to three. The back room beside the kitchen has been converted from single purpose television room into Ulli's nest. The existing futon now has her new mattress on it (you should have seen us getting that one off the 97 bus) and her table has been re-assembled by the window. The television has moved to the studio, but I suspect we will soon be moving it to a dark corner. The shelves above the kitchen sink are heaving with exotic teas (how does she expect to drink them all before she leaves us on 28 June...? *snf* so soon...)

When the time came for a short break, we unfolded the balcony chairs and moved onto the flat roof. Eleven months ago, when I came to this apartment for the first time, Ryan, Kenton and I had sat out here in the same situation: a beautifully warm sunny spring evening, with a bottle of beer each and an amazing few of the blue sky turning pink. The smell from the roof top ventilation shafts (from the restaurant below us) brought back sensory memories of last May, and the sounds of people in the streets and ruelles below washed back from the past. Spring has begun, and many changes are a foot. It's good to have three of us here.