Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A weekend in Montreal

Thanks to the VIA Rail 60% off mea culpa, I was able to get a discounted ticket to Ottawa in August and Joe and I were able to visit Montréal this past weekend for just over $100 per person.

While the travel time to Montréal was longer than a trip to Ottawa, the experience was more pleasant due to our preassigned seating in Comfort Class. Comfort Class entails more leg room, an overhead compartment that is accessible from your seat (though some passengers still insisted on standing in the aisle while putting away their bags), and better head support. A satellite issue also resulted in complementary Wi-Fi for all passengers, which pretty much guaranteed five hours well wasted.

As usual, Joe and I walked until our feet hurt all three days that we were in Montréal. Here's a brief recap of our tour.

Heavy rain and a midday arrival in the city made us decide that we should 'take it easy' but our concept of the phrase differs from most other people. Joe and I had an average brunch, the highlight of which was a half-pint of Boreale beer. I had raved about this brand to Joe after my last visit to Montréal about seven years ago only to be let down by the six pack that I had hauled home for his tasting pleasure. Boreale from the tap still failed to live up to my golden memory, but the bitter taste dissipated with each drink and the aftertaste proved to be very clean.

We explored Rue Sainte-Catherine, starting in the bustling shopping district with all the usual brands (H&M, Futureshop, Old Navy, etc), passed the Université du Québec à Montréal, looked around the student friendly Quartier Latin, then stopped by La Grand Bibliothèque, whose gift shop featured an inordinate amount of Tintin products. Actually, Tintin products could be found throughout Montréal.

That night, instead of going out, we stayed in our hotel room to watch UFC 104. We are ashamed to admit how lame we were but we really enjoyed lying on the king size bed, watching men beat the crap out of each other.

We stopped first in Chinatown, which boasted a charming pedestrian only street, and bought some Vietnamese subs for lunch despite the fact that they were more expensive ($3) and less tasty than the equivalents in Toronto. We then spent a whole afternoon exploring Old Montréal's attractive buildings and cobblestone streets. We were pleasantly surprised when Notre-Dame Basilica allowed visitors in during their Sunday service, and Joe was quite impressed with the interior of the church in spite of his pagan ways. When we arrived at the Marché Bonsecours, we inadvertantly came across a bi-annual designer fashion sale, La Grande Braderie de Mode Québécoise. Only in my wildest dreams had I hoped to find Eve Gravel clothing while in Montreal and, without planning to, I bought a skirt that I had been lusting after at a discount!

For dinner, we ate at St-Hubert, a chain that once competed with Swiss Chalet in Toronto but now only reigns supreme in Quebec. Joe had never eaten at St-Hubert so we gave it a try and Joe's conclusion was that it tasted like Swiss Chalet.

As attractive as Old Montréal had been, I was not been impressed with Downtown Montréal, which featured many 'Louez moi' signs in empty store fronts, and extensive fields of parking lots, where buildings had been torn down. Fortunately, we saved the best for last when we visited the Plateau-Mont-Royal neighbourhood. We had our best meal in the Plateau at Universel Déjeuners et Grillades (3630 Rue St-Denis), which we knew was promising from the large number of hipsters dining there when every other establishment was either closed or empty. The Plateau was a combination of Queen West and the Annex but spread over several blocks. It was great to finally find a vibrant neighbourhood full of local colour, characteristics that were sorely missing in much of Downtown and Old Montréal.

Final thoughts
I found myself happy to be home in Toronto, even after a train ride that lasted two hours longer than it should have. Montréal is similar to Toronto in many ways, superficially because Toronto's fashion sense has caught up. Customer service is pretty much on par with Toronto, which is to say that it was usually mediocre. I'm not sure if part of the reason was that Joe and I are anglophones though that would explain but not excuse the poor service. However, Montréal beats Toronto in some respects; the pedestrians are crazy fast to the point where I found it hard to overtake people in front of me as I usually do back home. Montréal pedestrians have to be fast because Montréal drivers are aggressive, but pedestrians are ready to throw down when necessary, as we witnessed first hand in the middle of Sainte-Catherine. The upside of Montréal's widespread urban decay is the amazing graffiti, which can be found not only in the safety of alleyways but also on main streets. No crappy, half finished black and white tags for Montréal; everything was multi-coloured and energetic.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Like an obstinate child

Watching some reality television recently, I was annoyed by two instances of attractive blonds who whine like children when the going gets tough.
  1. "Dancing with the Stars" contestant, Joanna Krupa was doing an elaborate lift and smacked her wrist against the floor during the dismount. She then whined, "I don't want to do this" before stalking away sulkily.
  2. A preview of next week's "Amazing Race" showed a blond contestant refusing to go down a steep water slide, which was mandatory to advance in the competition. "I don't want to do this!" she cried. Her male partner then screamed at her for potentially losing the $1 million dollar prize.
It has never occurred to me say "I don't want to do this" whenever I have been faced with a dangerous or undesirable task. Even the phrase "I'm not doing this" would elicit more respect since it indicates an independent decision. Perhaps if I was cuter, I, too, would have the confidence to regress to childhood, knowing that chances are good that I'll eventually get my way.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Latest obsession: dirt bags

During our recent house hunt, financial constraints limited our search to up-and-coming neighbourhoods as opposed to established ones that had been cleaned up and made desirable by artists, who were then sent packing to deacidify the next rough neighbourhood.

Because Joe and I are cautious home buyers, we tried to find neighbourhoods that were clearly on their way to gentrification. The biggest clue was a yoga or pilates studio side by side with a dirt bag establishment, and the key to identifying a dirt bag establishment was the grouping of working age adults standing outside in the middle of a weekday.

I have become fascinated with the dirt bag's communion with the great outdoors. Not only do they insist on standing outside, regardless of the time or weather, but they are also frequently seen riding around on SuperCycle bicycles. One can only speculate where they are so determined to get to since the only other time I see them is hanging around outside of taverns or greasy diners.

A crass individual would guess that the dirt bag is riding a bike because his DUI charge won't allow him to drive and he spent his cash advance at the tavern last night thus barring out public transit as an option so he is using his friend's bike to get to court on time. That crass individual might be me.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Online inspiration for the house poor

As I sit at home to prevent myself from spending money, I have found some great websites for home decorating ideas.

A photo blog capturing the homes of creative types. One of my favourite interior decoration books is Living Large in Small Spaces by Marisa Bartolucci, because it features stylish homes occupied by real people as opposed to sterile, art directed spaces. The Selby is the more current and constantly updated version of the book so, of course, I'll be using it as inspiration for my own house.

A photo blog of inspiring home design. More traditional in its approach to interior design than The Selby but at least it saves you the cost of buying a home design magazine.

This was recommended to me by friends who naturally assumed that I would find people's disastrous taste in interior design amusing. And I do! However, I prefer design that moves to the beat of a different drum (even if it resonates solely in one's head) to cookie cutter, tasteful home design.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Now, I can relax...no, wait...

With the launch of Google Maps Street View for Toronto, house hunters can now do even more research from the comfort of the home they want to leave. This really useful tool would have alerted us to problems in the neighbourhood of a few listings that we have visited. Unfortunately for us, the day before Street View was launched in Toronto, we bought a house. I will hereafter refer to our house as The Big One.

In the hours before staying out all night for Nuit Blanche, Joe and I decided to spend a relaxing afternoon visiting open houses. The attractive semi-detached that was at the top of our viewing list was as beautiful as the listing had promised but it was also crawling with buyers who had crazy in their eyes. Without a doubt, the listing price was low and would contribute to frothing at the mouth and itchy chequebook syndrome.

While wandering away from the dream house, we came across an open house notice for The Big One. It was a listing that we had already written off because its starting price was $40,000 higher than the dream house. Apparently, everyone else had, as well; the Big One was completely empty. We noted that The Big One was well executed, though not as perfect as the dream house, but, what really sold us was the private lane parking and the backyard dominated by a cedar deck (no lawn mowing!).

On the night of the offer presentation for The Big One, we encountered something unprecedented: zero competing bids. In a real estate market where bidding wars are regularly driving prices to 120% of the list, we managed to get The Big One below asking. Joe and I were in a state of shock after signing the Purchase and Sale documents; we went for a drive and we returned with massive debt.

The shock continues as we sit in the condo that we never really wanted to leave and contemplate a considerable downgrade in our lifestyle for the next 25 years. I blame low interest rates for the insanity of it all. Fortunately, we can comfort ourselves with the news that the dream house ended up selling for $28,500 more than The Big One (115% of list). It was a predictable outcome; the key was the crazy in the eyes.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Recap of a never ending night

Please see here for the official recap.

To that, I would add some less PR friendly anecdotes.

The visitors were actually quite hilarious. One guy rode the bike in a kilt then insisted that pedaling was "easier in a skirt". Another group of men, wearing top hats and cradling a poodle, screamed sexual innuendos to each other while pedaling, like "My stream is bigger than yours!" and "Pump harder!" However, families with young kids were in steady attendance right up until 10:30pm, which made me regret not installing at least one child sized bike.

I suspect that there were more than a few alcohol fueled individuals as some got way too excited over their results ("Look at my lightbulb! Loooook at it gooooo!"). Yet, the behaviour never got so rowdy that I was forced to intervene and the pedal generators were surprisingly hardy.

My greatest source of worry turned out to be technical malfunction. The decision to leave the invertor batteries at half-charge in order to allow cyclist to charge up the fountain was a bad one. There was never enough pedaling to power up the batteries sufficiently. I found myself desperately cycling whenever a bike became available in order to prepare the battery for an actual visitor.

My thighs and seat were soon exhausted from the exertion but my adrenaline kept me going strong, without the assistance of caffeine, from 4:30pm to 7:00am. I ate whenever I remembered to but never actually felt hungry. Another basic bodily function that was absent for my entire stay at the park: the urge to urinate. That's right; I did not hear the call of nature for over 15 hours.

The event was a good experience, and made up for the months of drawn out stress. I had vowed never to do this again previous to this past Saturday but a good ending can bestow a rosy glow on prior memories.

P.S. I wore thermal tights under track pants with zippered venting panels on the side. On my torso, I wore two dri-fit t-shirts under a thermal dri-fit top then my waterproof jacket from Iceland. Finally, I chose to wear my waterproof hiking boots with excellent arch support. The outfit was a good choice as I pretty much stood the whole time and was drenched during the thunderstorm.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The anticipation is driving me insane

The sooner Nuit Blanche is over, the better. I have not had a good night's sleep in the past week and a half, due in equal parts to adrenaline and the cold from hell.

Last night, I become convinced that the car housing my entire project would be stolen or broken into while slept, so I pretty much didn't. My cold symptoms came back with a vengeance, but I eventually passed out. When I did regain semi-consciousness, I became convinced that my head was a deflated bike inner tube and that my breathing kept the pedal generators going. As I struggled to breathe through my nose, my whole head spun like a bicycle wheel.

You have been forewarned. See you all on Saturday/Sunday.