I'm not bräve, just naïve...

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Roadside: Canadian service station...

Globalisation may have killed off many individual trading names, but just in case you thought that McDonald's was an evil multi-national, note how (north of the border) they add a little red maple leaf to the middle of their golden arches logo. That'll fool 'em. Petro-Canada, on the other hand, has no such 'branding' issues...

"What are you guys doing?"

A few hours ago, I was woken from my slumber by the sound of someone shouting the above. The clarity of the call seemed to make me think he was standing on one of the roofs adjacent to my new bedroom, perhaps on the balcony above. With the move to a new apartment comes the adaptation to the new sounds of my surroundings. I've spent the last ten months in a haven of tranquility, in a room that down onto a first floor courtyard. I'm now hearing a lot more traffic noise, and the distant sound of a night club pumping house music into the air. It's not a bad thing at all: I can sleep through these sounds; in fact they are already beginning to wash over me and calm me. Falling asleep in a big city like Montréal is a comfortable experience. As you slip into your slumber, you are reminded that outside the world continues to spin, and that if you need something to eat at three in the morning, there are plenty of places near-by.

I lay in bed for a while wondering what the possible stimulus could be for the shout that woke me up. A friendly hello from a man who's looked up the balcony of a friend's apartment, and seen an early morning party still going on? Or maybe an agrier responce to two 'yoofs' attacking the paintwork of a car with some keys? Probably not... this is not Belfast.

My new room is opens onto a fire escape that leads down to an overgrown back yard. On the opposite side of the house, the apartment has the most essential of Montréal real estate features: a wide balcony that faces the street, and which is leaning out from the building just enough to appear safe but feel slightly unnerving. I'm sitting here, having made an early morning sortie to the Jean-Talon market. A big bowl of fresh fruit salad featuring strawberries, raspberries and blueberries (all Québec grown) is now in the fridge, and I'm tapping away watching the traffic go past. Traffic signals about two hundred metres south of here regulate the one way traffic: periods of acceleration en masse are intersperced with periods of blissful silence, when the engine sounds recede, and I can here the wind rustling the trees that are dotted along the pavements. A hodge-podge of different shops, offices and apartments (all with their blinds and curtains still closed) reflects the sunshine back towards me.

My new place on Main

Friday, July 28, 2006

My work here is done (part one)

I returned home last night through stifling humidity. The artificial environment of my office carries me through the day in a state of suspended animation, insulated from any natural environmental or climatic variety. Stepping out onto the pavement through the underground car park (it is assumed that if you work in this building you arrive by car, probably an air conditioned one) the eight hours of climatised enclosure are rapidly made up for with a pounding cloud of hot, damp air. By the time I got home, I was dripping with sweat, embarassed to be wearing light coloured trousers that were clinging to my legs.

Unable to face physical exersion of any kind, I skipped making my own dinner and ate downstairs in the bustling Mont Royal Hot Dog. A found a seat by a vast open window that looked onto a broad pavement, occupied by outdoor tables with parasols that advertised beer and customers who advertised the food. Throughout the long, dark, cold days of winter (I've eaten poutine in this joint when it's been -25 C) these enormous floor to ceiling windows have reassured me. They're insulated enough to keep the restaurant warm in the winter, yet act as a reminder that as soon as it becomes warm enough, the window will be wound up and into the ceiling like a garage door and the outside will be allowed back in. In fact these up-and-over windows seem to be the must-have feature of any self-respecting Plateau bar.

After eating a big plate of fries and a stacked club sandwich, I climbed the stairs to the apartment. Tonight is the night I have to begin packing. I'm not returning to England for another six weeks, but with the recent return of this apartment's rightful occupant, my days as a house and cat sitter are over. I believe I may have racked up the longest ever stay through the Hospitality Club: it's been more than ten months since I hauled by suitcase and backpack up the stairs to this apartment. Now I'm dusting them down, and filling them with clothes once more. As I cleared out my wardrobe and drawers, Toast (the youngest and most inquisitive of my four feline housemates) jumped onto the bed and started sniffing around and getting inside plastic bags. She investigated an interestingly Toast-sized space in my suitcase, but I decided against taking her with me. She looked at me in the eye, and mee-owed in a voice I haven't heard before. I don't doubt she is as intelligent, if not more intelligent than me. Maybe she knows I will miss her late night company and the affectionate licks my arms receive when they are above the sheets.

I did as much packing as I could, and then retired to the balcony. Charlotte joined me for a glass of white wine, before popping out with Maya to visit friends. I sat alone on the balcony watching occasional flashes of lightning strike silently between clouds high above and to the north-west. No storm showed up, leaving me as sweaty as ever when I went to bed.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

You can't take that away from me

Is it stupid to have a personal philosophy? I always used to think so. I didn't like the idea of trying to pre-determine my approach to the world and the things that I do with some witty motto or belief. But as the weeks pass, and my diary suddenly begins to look very full between now and my home coming, I've realised that I have been living my life this year according to a very important principle.

I am most certainly not a person who is motivated or inspired by material goods or money. I don't covet anything in particular, and despite being a bit of a car nut and book lover, I don't depend on having possessions to live my life. The only things that are likely to cause problems with my luggage allowance when I fly home to the UK in September is a small box full of books. And style is certainly something that turns me off. Right now thousands of people are dying in wars, conflicts and famines around the world. I don't personally believe that there is anything particularly useful or relevant about fashion or style. I spend very little on clothes, shoes and haircuts. In fact, my outgoings are really not extravagant. Yet, despite all this, I have no money. In fact I am one of the thousands of British students in higher education who is riding the wave of easily accessible free overdrafts.

How is it, if I spend no money on clothes, gadgets, a car, or even CDs (and if I live almost rent free) that I have no money?

It's because all my money has been going on intangible experiences: the things that I I will not need to post or check in as luggage when I fly home to Britain. As I've written here before, I'm eating out a lot (for me) at the moment. At least once a week I've been out for breakfast or dinner at a restaurant or diner somewhere on or near the Plateau. Since eating out is such an expensive luxury in Britain, I'm savouring every chance that I have to be able to eat out cheaply while I'm still here. I don't go out to eat so much for the food itself (although it was heavenly to have someone cook Eggs Benedict for me the other at L'Anecdote on St. Hubert the other day) but for the intangible atmosphere I get to experience sitting in a Montréal diner or café: the attention of a friendly server; the over heard conversations; the smells and feelings of a busy diner that I won't be able to experience again when I get back home.

But eating out more often is a temporary luxury because of my present situation (living almost rent free in a country where eating out is just cheaper than back home). While flicking through my new diary this week, and thinking ahead to the plans I have for the next month or so, I realised the permanent addiction that I have. If one day, things do not work out, and the bailiffs come to take away my possessions to pay off my debts, I won't have any regrets about losing my material goods. The real reason I have no money is that I am an incurable traveller. I am not tempted by the round the world or far eastern oddyseys of many of my friends, but I am always excited by the opportunity to construct my own itinerary to a destination that is far from the beaten track. The old saying goes that the journey can be more important than the destination. For me, I have realised that the journey begins even before I leave the house. In quiet lunch hours and stolen moments online, I am a compulsive dreamer of voyages and travels. I get so much value from my holidays, because every moment spent planning and researching the trip is as rewarding as the trip itself. The never ending hunt for the elusive cheap train or plane fares encourages me to investigate new or unconsidered itineraries. New opportunities and options pop up and tempt me at every turn. I don't believe that this time last year I could have predicted all the journeys that I have taken this year: they are delightful products of an inquisitive and exciteable mind... I am as surprised as you are that I managed to visit the world's largest mushrooms in Vilna, Alberta (see photo above left) or a frozen sea in Churchill, Manitoba (see photo below right).

If all goes to plan (and I don't get fired for spending too much of my lunch break checking train tickets online) I will be spending the next few weekends enjoy a few final blissful North American trips. Next weekend will give me the chance to explore some of the countryside around Montréal with friends and a hire car. After that comes the possibility of a long weekend in Toronto to see JS's show and finally join the dots in a city that I feel I really haven't been able to grasp in my previous rapid visits. Then I've been roped in (quite happily) to help LN move to New York. I've also been invited to come along to a weekend in the cabin of a friend of a friend in New Hampshire... and all that is before I head south on the big Alabama and Louisiana trip. The Venice Architecture Biennale was very interesting four years ago, and it could be a reading week trip for this autumn. Plus, a happy combination of circumstances could bring me back to this side of the pond in January, and I'd very much like to spend some time in Chicago.

So if my blog begins to suffer, with entries that are either plain dull or infrequent, please forgive me. When our time is up, we can't take anything with us, so I'm going to be busy in the next few months creating very special memories.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Snapshot: the view from my favourite wifi café

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Becoming a dog lover...

Last night, at about 21h30, Charlotte and I went for a walk. Above us, the sky was the deepest of blues that was on the verge of turning completely black. Ahead of us, in a narrow strip above the city's toothed horizon was a band of intense colour: orange that turned to bronze that turned to blue.

Pulling us along were two dogs. Yes. Two dogs. It's complicated enough with one, but last night we found ourselves looking after a nameless five month old Boxer-Danish cross bread. Realising it would be hard to call him to heel without a name, Charlotte settled very rapidly on Chatton (Fr: 'kitten'). He's not expected to spend more than a few nights with us: the recent arrival of Charlotte's other new canine companion (the beautiful Maya) has already required a significant amount of adaptation. Maya arrived from Chandler last week, the orphan of a now empty house. She's nine years old, and keeps herself to herself. She dotes on her mistress, and has very little energy for running or playing games. It has been hard enough for the four cats to adapt to having her around; Chatton by comparison has ten times the energy. It just would not work.

But as we walked the three blocks from the apartment to Parc Sir Wilfred Laurier, I could tell it was going to be hard for us to say good bye to Chatton. I am by no means a dog lover, but I had to agree every time Charlotte, Charlotte's neighbour or the people we met in the park said "beh, il est vraiment beau". Skinny but muscular, youthful but not always bouncing, he's a gorgeous animal. Unlike our other animal companions, his hair is short and his skin is taught. His legs and tail seem too long as he gallomps around the apartment, but when you take him for a walk he suddenly becomes this eager, elegant and rather suave dog. He does pull on his leash very hard though. Charlotte tried taking both dogs leads at the same time, but found herself quickly pulled in two directions by the two wildly different dogs.

Parc Sir Wilfred Laurier, like many others in Montréal, has an enclosed dog pitch, where owners can bring their animals and let them off the leash. Enclosed by a wire fence, it's a not immediately appealing patch of grass and moss, with a few picnic tables for anyone brave enough to try eat anything with dozens of friendly dogs sniffing around. But as the sky finally dimmed completely, I stood in the middle and began to understand the joys of owning a dog. At any one time there were at least a dozen dogs running, playing and sniffing around. Their owners seemed familiar with the social protocol here... unless you knew someone already, no conversation could be initiated until your dogs met and started sniffing each other's arses. After that you would be able to break the ice with a compliment about the other's pet. From time to time, I ran about with Chatton, or tried to nurture Maya into doing a little more than just watching from the sidelines. I didn't break into much of a sweat, but by the time we left after thirty minutes or so, I felt happily exhausted. Charlotte networked at every opportunity, asking other owners if they knew of anyone who might want a beautiful dog like Chatton. I floated around, enjoying the frenzy of activity that frequently swirled around my feet. Late on this cool summer's evening, I played the game I've played everywhere I've been this year, and imagined what it would be like if all this was really permanent: that I really did live here; that I really did have a five month old cross-breed; that I really was the kind of man who'd own a dog...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Here's a tough one: does James spend more time on his holidays, or planning his holidays? Time is passing so quickly. In less than six weeks time, I will be leaving the same, warm and gainful confines of my present employer. The quick mathematicians amognst you will have noted that that leaves two weeks until I return to Europe. So, what do you think I'm going to be doing with those two weeks? I'm going to Alabama and Louisiana (hehehehehe...)

On Saturday 26 August, I'll depart Montréal, travelling south to New York with my old friend, the Amtrak Adirondack. I'll connect directly to a Regional service to Washington DC, where I'll stay until Monday evening. During my first whistle-stop trip to D.C. we had no time to really see any of the capital's museums. I plan to immerse myself in the Smithsonian for a day or so before the next part of my trip begins. On Monday evening, I'll leave Washington DC on board Amtrak's Crescent. After travelling overnight through North and South Carolina and Georgia, I will arrive the next afternoon in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. From there I'm driving to the miniscule community of Newbern (population 231) to visit the world famous Rural Studio of Auburn University's School of Architecture.

I could not let this year in Canada pass without making a trip to the Rural Studio. For four or five years now, I have been in awe of the work that has been built in the small communities that surround Newbern and Greensboro, Alabama. Founded by the late Samuel Mockbee, each year the Rural Studio brings one year each from Auburn's undergraduate and postgraduate architecture courses to this remote corner of America's impoverished Black Belt. Rather than learning their profession through studio and lecture based classes, the Rural Studio's students learn their trade by the most honest means possible: practical experience. Each year the Studio builds four or five projects designed by the students themselves, often with miniscule budgets. The projects are frequently daring and employ untested techniques, but they are never anything but utterly delightful and utterly humble. The value of the Rural Studio is not to be found in the buildings that it produces, but in the questions it raises about the way architects are trained.

After a few days staying in Newbern, I'm getting in the car and beginning a 650km road trip to Opelousas, Louisiana for the annual South-West Louisiana Zydeco Festival that takes place over the Labor Day long weekend. Travelling via New Orleans, I return the car to Tuscaloosa on Tuesday 5 September, and begin the long train ride north towards New York, where I'll stop for two nights, and 'home' to Montréal.

Two days later, I will leave for England.

I hope you can join me... :)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Snapshot: Montréal bus depot, seen from above...

Friday, July 14, 2006


There are, from time to time, periods in my life (and yours too, I'm guessing) when you perceive that a undefined period is coming to an end. A certain job, a certain home, a certain group of friends, or a certain combination of all of the above. With the recent departure of Ulli back to Europe, and of Ryan to his new domestic bliss, I have been in a period of unsettled change for some time. I've been expecting it and preparing for it, but it was still a strange experience for it to actually happen.

A now the final pieces are in place. Charlotte, whose apartment we have been occupying, looking after and occasionally cleaning, has returned. She walked through the door just as I was flushing the toilet: isn't it funny how reunions can often be somewhat awkwardly timed? She brought with her a friendly dog named Maya, who has gradually been accepted and maybe even welcomed into the house by the existing four feline occupants. Charlotte has commenced a massive operation of cleaning, emptying and clearing out unnecessary detritus from her home. After a long sojourn in a remote north-eastern corner of Québec, most recently spent clearing out the family home of her late sister, the time is right for a few days of energetic cleaning and removal of things that are no longer needed here.

Now it is my time to move on. I will remain here until the end of the month, and then I will be moving to another apartment near by, where Ryan and Jonathan already live. Six weeks from now, I will have finished work, and will take two weeks off for one final trip (news on that coming soon). And eight weeks from now, I will pack my suitcases, throw away my own personal collection of the junk I've acquired this year, and return to England.

I am on the final straight, and every hour of every day is being taken advantage of.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The _____ _____ in Montréal

Every year, the Montréal Mirror offers up a fairly biased suggestion of what is the Best of Montréal. Best bar, best poutine, best strip club etc etc etc. This has left a lingering thought in my mind, and I am now prepared to share with you a draft of some of my personal recommendations. I prefer to steer clear of such narrow terms as 'best' and 'worst'... since there are so many better adjectives.

Your comments are expected.

Most aromatically unpleasant bus route: 44 south Trust me on this one, especially in the late afternoon, this is the stinkiest bus I've ever set foot on.

Most frustratingly unavailable alcohol: Pimms Now that it's summer time, I'd just love to sit out on the balcony with friends and a big jug of the beautiful elixir. But the selfish folk at the SAQ would rather sell industrial strength ready mixed sangria.

Métro station most likely to be doubling up as a subterranean lair for an evil supervillain: Radisson Just imagine Giles Duceppe in a grey one piece suit with a white pussy cat, and you'll get my drift.

Quickest cure for a bad hangover: Breakfast special # 2 at the Binerie Head to 367 ave. du Mont Royal Est (just west of St. Denis) and give the man your money. He'll make the pain go away.

Franchise I'd most like to invest in: Frites Alors Rumour has it you can get the rights to open your own branch of Montréal's best burger chain with a $55,000 downpayment. I'm working on it...

Part of town I never want to go out in again: Crescent, Peel etc The music is aggressive, the drinks are extortionate and the clientelle are drunken American tourists who'd be underage if they were at home. I'm not doing it, even for Brutopia.

Stupidest public transit system: AMT suburban train to Delson I don't even know why I'd want to go to Delson, but now that I know that the AMT only operates four trains a day in each direction (four into Montréal in the morning, four out in the evening) I really want to...

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Same old same old

It's Wednesday lunchtime, and I have climbed up and out of a deep pit filled with numbers and percentages and product codes... last night I dreamt of thousands of jars of pickled onions and pickled gherkins, each one the responce to hours of frantic 'synergising' the day before. I left work yesterday with little Microsoft Excel cells burnt into my eyes, feeling giddy and suddenly very sweaty as I waited for the bus under ominous rainclouds. I hate air conditioning systems not just for the horrendous waste of energy that they entail (cars are not the environmental enemy, artificially ventilated buildings are) but for the way in which they can seduce and change you. During the eight hours I day I spend at work, my body acclimatises that so that when I step outside into the real atmosphere I feel suddenly drained and sticky.

Monday evening was the same, and I was glad to be on the bus and on my way home. But at my first interchange, the métro station Radisson, my flight from the office was halted. The diminutive turnstile gates that politely control access to the métro were locked shut (compare them with the Guantanamo Bay style armoured floor-to-ceiling devices in the New York subway and consider what they reflect about fare dodging in the two cities). Although I didn't find out until much later, a young man had given up, and thrown himself in front of a train at Préfontaine station, a few stops down the line. It's what the métro staff would call a 154-04.

Later that night I was woken by a tremendous thunder storm; the kind that sneaks up on you, rumbling placidly so as to fool you into thinking that it's 50km away, before suddenly exploding directly over your head. It made me jump upright in bed... most of the cats had already scarpered (Ben being the most nervous when storms approach - she's already hidden herself away by the time the first distant rumble is heard). The rain fell so densely that looking from my window I could barely see the door of the kitchen that opens onto the balcony next to my room. Unable to sleep for the noise, I considered that at least I wouldn't have to water the plants the next morning. These nocturnal thunderstorms are strange occurances: they wake me up and interupt my dreams, but when morning comes it sometimes feels as if they themselves were part of my dreams. I have to check for standing water in the empty plant pots outside to confirm that I didn't imagine them in the drowsy early hours of the morning.

These storms are a matter of routine now... for several days we have had hot hot days that have built up until intense thunder storms break the temperature and the humidity in the evenings. Last Friday morning's moving day adventure with Laura, Anna and Mélisse was made much easier by a breakfast time thunder storm that dropped the temperature by 5 degrees just as we started to move heavy furniture. The same happened yesterday evening, only a few hours earlier, dumping hundreds of thousands of litres of water on Montréal just before we went to see an outdoor event at the Jazz Festival. At first we were afraid the show would be spoilt by the rain - in the end it was blissfully cool and dry for us to watch a line up of singers and musicians cover some of Paul Simon's greatest hits. By the time Elvis Costello climbed onto the open air stage at Place des Arts, both the unpleasant sweaty feeling all over my body and the little spreadsheet squares in my eyes had worn away.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

James in Ottawa shocker...

Much of the length of Wellington Street in Ottawa is closed for Canada Day. Running along the north-western edge of Ottawa's downtown, this broad boulevard separates the cluster of diminutive skyscrapers from the elegant parliament complex that overlook river below. The pedestrians and four roadway lanes normally occupied by traffic are heaving with pedestrians, most dressed in red, carrying flags, wearing temporary maple leaf tatoos and blowing whistles. And here, at the adiministrative and symbolic heart of Canada, is a demonstration of democratic freedoms unlike any other that I have seen this year. Parked alongside the kerb from one end of Parliament Hill to the other is a line of tractors and other agricultural vehicles. Canadian farmers, frustrated by protein imports and the lack of support offered to their industry by the Liberal and now Conservative governments, have come to the capital to protest. And they have parked what must be fifty tractors, trailers and trucks here for the duration of Canada Day. The police do not (apparently) have any tow trucks big or strong enough to move them. Everywhere people are milling around wearing 'Farmers Feed Cities' badges, and eating free sample cups of Canadian pure dairy ice cream.

My previous visits to Ottawa have been interesting, but not exactly comparable with the trips I've made to other world capitals... Otttawa has a population of about 775,000 (one quarter of that of Montréal). It can feel even less on a cold, windswept winter's afternoon, when the grand wide boulevards are inhospitable to anyone not in a car. The shining skyscrapers are forgettable, and everyone here seems to be bilingual and employed in a government department. It's the governmental capital of Canada, but hardly in the same way as Paris or Berlin. Even thinking of it as a miniature Washington DC is a little off.

But today, I can understand Ottawa's qualities. Most city centre roads are closed, and three massive out door stages have been built on Parliament Hill, Majors Hill Park and in Confederation Park. Live music events are running all day, and thousands of people of milling from one part of town to another. Everyone is in red and white, everyone is smiling, and suddenly everything in the world seems alright. Is this the famous Canadian national spirit?

We watch the changing of the guard and then the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's choreographed 'Musical Ride' show. Then at 1100 I slip away through the crowds to an awful English-themed pub near the Chateau Laurier Hotel to watch a certain football match. The game is dire: neither team deserving a win and too many players auditioning for theatrical troupes with their childish dives and false claims of unfair tackles. The beautiful game has not been this poor in a long time. We eventually leave the bar, reluctant to give any of the hostile and unfriendly staff any more of our business. We watch England's final defeat in an electronics store upstairs: we're suddenly much closer to a much better television, and are enthralled by the incredible level of detail visible on a new 'HD' (High Definition) television: we watch blades of grass placidly get uprooted by the sprawling game, and then watch tears trickle down the faces of white shirted English players as the final penalty goal goes against them. I have no real emotions, except a slight twinge of sadness. Seen from a distance, England doesn't even have a decent football team any more. I decide to pretend to be Canadian for the rest of the day, and see if I can have a better time in Ottawa than I did in Québec...

Snapshot: Canada Day