I'm not bräve, just naïve...

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Monday in the ruelles

I would normally slip into James cliché, and tell you that 'normality has returned' to my life in Montréal. But in all honesty it's not easy to say what has been normal in for me in Montréal. About the only 'normal' thing to which I return is a state of being penniless. I've been on the move for six weeks now, and the excitement and variety of travelling has come to an end for now. On 21 May I left Montréal for what can reasonably be described as one of the most amazing and rewarding voyages I've ever taken. It finished up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, just over two weeks ago, when I met up with BMM who had flown across the Atlantic to meet me.

We toured southern Nova Scotia by car, and then returned to Montréal by train. A week passed quickly in Montréal before a moment of spontaneity overcame us, and we drove a 2,000km round trip to Washington DC to see 'The Prairie Home Companion'.

The wind being rather knocked out of us by this weekend road trip, once the keys to the Chevy had been returned, we spend a leisurely Monday waking up slowly and walking through Montréal to visit Habitat '67, the landmark housing development designed for the 1967 Expo by the then-student Moshe Safdie. En route, we diverted our path through the ruelles of Montréal's plateau, stopping to read graffiti, say hello to cats, and just to listen to the distant sound of muffled traffic, children playing and builders building. As a six week long sojourn closes, it's good to be back in Montréal.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Snapshots: driving back to Montréal

Les objets reflechissant dans le rétroviseur sont plus prés qu'ils paraissent

Before pick-up trucks got fat...

Rest stop, somewhere in New Jersey.

Joining I-87

Taking a Ford Focus on vacation.

Portrait by BMM.

School buses.

A geniuinely useful feature in our Chevrolet Impala: these buttons can re-calibrate the entire dashboard and computer (speed, distance, trip etc) from metric to imperial instantly. Also a source of much amusement while waiting at the border crossing.

The Adirondacks.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Washington, DC

Needless to say, BMM and I were very happy bunnies to have made it to Vienna, VA, in time for last night's 'Prairie Home Companion Show'. Our evening was followed by a live broadcast the next night - you can listen to the show at the Prairie Home Companion website here, and listen to most of the music, bad jokes and sound effect enhanced stories that we heard the night before. But the PHC was not the only reason to drive all this way. We also had a day out in Washington DC to enjoy.

The Hospitality Club once again saved us from sleeping in the car. We stayed with two wonderful hosts who not only put us up, but put us up in a $1.5 million mansion.. a king size double bed, en-suite jacuzzi bath and double shower awaited us, and we slept very well indeed.

A fast metro ride took us into the city, and up into the stifling heat of the only major American city built on a bog. It wasn't just hot, it was humid, and the heavy moist air slowed every step we took. We skirted around the Smithsonian, and walked along the mall between the Capitol and the Memorial column. Monday is Memorial Day, and this weekend thousands of people are in town for the long weekend. I would have liked to take advantage of some more of the wondeful museums that are dotted around the Mall, but free entry and a holiday weekend meant that they were heaving. We enjoyed a hot dog sitting on the grass outside the Museum of American History, watching families gambol past. By about two o'clock, the first family arguments were beginning to emerge, as hot, sweaty and tired mothers explained for the third time why Junior couldn't have another ice cream and why they had to keep walking because daddy wanted to go to the Air and Space Museum and daddy always gets his way.

Having eaten and without toddlers to drag, we were able to scamper along towards the White House, where hundreds of tourists were taking turns to peer through black metal fences that enclose the strikingly small heart of the empire. We walked around to the other side, and BMM was able to more or less acurately pin point the axis of evil... A small crowd of heart hearted protestors were in attendance: most tourists were too fired up with vitriolic patriotism on this weekend of rememberance to give them any time. I wondered what it was that so many thousands of American soldiers died and continue to die for if these exponents of the right to free speech only get harangued by their fellow citizens for highlighting the wrongs of an administration.

Our day was not completely art-less... near-by a small outpost of the Smithsonian Museum was showing a selection of paintings and objects made by the famous artists Grant Wood. Sketches, paintings and even a modified door from the painter's studio were exhibited. Most visitors were crowded around the most famous painting in the exhibition - the instantly recognisable 'American Gothic'. I was impressed to listen in on a very well informed security guard who was talking to some other guests about the piece, and explaining its importance in the artist's career.

We crossed through the quiet streets of downtown and headed towards Chinatown to eat fried noodles in a small restaurant. Unfortunately for the propriators, the waitress who served us spent more time telling people who came in from waiting outside for buses that the toilets were for the use of customers only. A shame because the food was good, and came in sufficient quantities for us to box up the remnants of our meal and to take it with us. We finished the day with a rapid tour of an excellent sustainable architecture exhibition at the National Building Centre, before going back to our green suburb by metro from Union Station. Just before going inside, we diverted our paths a few hundred metres to catch a glimpse of the Capitol building down a thick avenue of trees.

The elegant railway terminus was not a stop on my month long rail trip, so it was very nice to see inside the grand concourse that is covered by a beautiful coffered ceiling. One of the daily services from Florida was showing up on the screen as running almost twelve hours late. For once, I did not mind not being on a train. Our day in the capital of the USA came to an end very quickly. Drained by the heat, humidity and holiday weekend crowds, it was time to retreat. Tomorrow, we would return north...

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Wolf Trap Center

Snapshot: with twenty-five minutes to spare...

995km, fourteen hours and thirty minutes after leaving Montréal, FBV 2280 and two occupants arrive in time for the show. As you can see from this photograph, sleep exhaustion was beginning to combine with elation...

So, 'bout that road trip...

Did you know that BMM is a fan of Garrison Keillor? I did, and have enjoyed installments from Lake Wobegon in Keillor's books and through BBC 7 transmissions of the weekly American Public Media radio show The Prairie Home Companion. If you haven't heard the show, it's a blissfully indulgent radio show: a memory of an era long lost: music, stories, bad jokes and the popular weekly installment of news from Lake Wobegon, MN. Last Tuesday, BMM and I were lazily looking for the Prarie Home Companion website to show Ryan something about the show. We saw that there was to be a recording of the show on Saturday, with an extra show the night before, in the Wolf Trap Foundation for Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia, just outside Washington DC. The live broadcast was sold out, but seats were still available for the 20hr show on Friday...

So we had a bit of a credit card moment.

On Friday morning, at 5am, had you been walking down avenue du Mont Royal, you would have seen a young Englishman tearing a parking ticket off the window of a big Chevrolet sedan. With him was a young English girl, and two ride sharing Montréalers. Said parking ticket was consigned to the glove compartment until our return. As the sun rose above Montréal, the four travellers reset the odometer, and pulled away into the early morning.

Being British, I have reached the age of 23 with no real appreciation of what a 'road trip' is. If you get in a car in the UK and just drive in a straight line, you'll hit the sea in no more than six hours. It'll cost you about as much in fuel as it would to fly the same distance in business class. But North American kids grow up differently. Decades of unrealistically low gasoline prices have made driving long distances by car both affordable and sensible. Why burn thousands of litres of aviation fuel, when a car can take you there and give you the freedom to make your journey into a road trip? So as we crossed the Jacques Cartier bridge, BMM and I joined a generation of young adults who can say that just once, they got in the car and drove 1,000km for the fun of it. Admittedly we were both very excited by the prospect of seeing the Prairie Home Companion, but being able to get there in a big fat American car made it all the more entertaining.

Our route took us to the Canada - USA border (less than fifty minutes drive from Montréal) and then south through the beautiful Adirondack mountains upstate New York. Interstate 87 carried us for 280km towards Albany. This beautifully built and well maintained four lane freeway is a remarkable testament to the friendship between the USA and Canada: it goes virtually nowhere of any importance in New York state, and most of the cars travelling on it that I saw had Québec plates.

We dropped one ride sharing companion in Cohoes, just north of Troy, NY and took our first rest break at the obligatory branch of Dunkin' Donuts. The Donuts looked sickly but the coffee was good. We had one more stop to make outside New York City for our second ridesharing passenger, so we were quickly on our way again. Hitting the New York Thruway, which runs from Buffalo to New York City via Albany, we hit the real traffic and I saw developed the necessary driving attitude of your average American. This meant unlearning all I knew about safe stopping distances at 110km/h, and also the rule about not passing on the right.

A heavy rain storm and conflicting directions threw us off track a bit in New Jersey, but after an hour of flailing around through Newark's suburbs (and an embarassing incident when it took three attempts to pull the car into a service station with the fuel nozzel on the correct side). We deposited our second ride share passenger just off the New Jersey Turnpike, and then pointed the car south for our next big push.

Leaving the New York area at about 14.00, it became apparent that doing this trip on the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend might not have been a good idea. The traffic started to build, and then it started to slow. I don't want to dwell on the memories, but at 18.00 we were caught in a bottle neck at the Delaware Memorial Bridge that very nearly scuppered the whole weekend. With about 175km still to go, we were in grave danger of missing the start of the show. However, we managed to distract and entertain ourselves in our rented car (class 'E' or 'full size' I'll have you know) by trying to get the on board computer to call the box office. All North American cars produced by General Motors now come equipped with OnStar, a service that includes a telephone and emergency detection device (if the car is involved in an accident that deploys the airbags, the car alerts an emergency call centre, and an agent will dispatch the emergency services if the passengers fail to respond). It took about twenty minutes to place the call, since the voice activation system had trouble understanding our plummy British accents.

Eventually the traffic began to ease and speed up, and it was only passing Baltimore in Maryland that we began to realise we might just make it...

Roadtrip: Washington, DC