Sunday, December 28, 2008

Food for the belly, food for the brain

Did everyone have a good Christmas? I sure did! My holidays were filled with lots of meals shared with the people I love, lots of lovely chats catching up with those I hadn't seen in a while, and the feeling of having been spoiled repeatedly.

On the 24, Marc dropped by to pick me up before heading to my parents' place in NDG. Thank goodness for the lift because all the heavy snow of the morning and early afternoon had suddenly turned into rain and it was slippery! Our original plan was to drive to the airport to pick up Annie, who was flying in from Vancouver. Unfortunately, Annie did not land in Montreal until 1:35 a.m., almost ten hours late. We were lucky she made it, my favourite airline ended up canceling many, many flights between Vancouver and Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, on December 24, forcing hundreds of people to come up with new plans for the holidays. What a disaster. So, Marc and I had dinner with the parents, a lovely five-course meal beautifully prepared and presented. After dinner, we watched some old movies on TV and went to bed around 11 p.m. for a quick nap. We woke up around 1 and made our way to Trudeau, cursing the slippery sidewalks on the way to the car. Annie arrived quite tired, so we didn't stay up late.

Christmas tradition has always been to wake up together at my parents', enjoy a hearthy breakfast together and then open the presents. I slept over to wake up with the family, as I always did when I was visiting from Vancouver. 34, yet still a kid. I know. Marc slept at his place, so he met us for brunch around noon (nobody woke up really early after the late evening the night before). Brunch was again a feast with lots of yummy treats and even some bubbly. No better way to start a festive day like mimosas (bubbly and orange juice).

I received several fantastic presents, including snowshoes, earrings, beauty products, and a few books: The Origin of Species, from Nino Ricci and Outliers from Malcom Gladwell (his latest, after Blink and The Tipping Point, both of which I have read). I'm currently reading The Origin of Species and really enjoying it. The book is set in Montreal in the 80's and uses the city as a backdrop for the story of Alex Fratarcangeli, a thirty-something student / ESL teacher who seems to be going through a bit of an existential crisis.

In the evening, we had yet another big dinner with my grandma and aunt making their yearly visit. The dinner started with Slovak soup (I think it's called kapusnica), a cabbage soup with spicy sausages and ribs. My great-grandmother used to make it when I was a kid, then my grandmother and today, my aunt is the keeper of the family recipe. It's incredible to be able to enjoy this traditional dish year after year. I cannot imagine Christmas without it. I believe the only year I did not have this soup was my first year in Vancouver, as I did not return home for Christmas. The rest of the dinner was again incredible, with two roasts as the main course and a very chocolatey Christmas log for dessert.

I ended up staying another night at my parents', to spend more time with Annie. I returned home on the 26, only to head back to NDG on the 27 for a post Christmas brunch with dad's side of the family. With the weather being nasty and the roads slippery in the Eastern Townships, we weren't sure people were going to make it to Montreal but in the end, everybody showed up. There was so much food! Cut veggies, cheeses, meatpies I made with dad, a ham, croissant, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, tomato pies, and so many other dishes that I forget what I had. Before jumping in to the desserts, we had our gift exchange. Normally, in a gift exchange, you buy one gift and receive one but some folks probably didn't read the fine prints. I ended up with many gifts, including two books (The Upside of Down from Thomas Homer-Dixon and The Everyday Activist from Michael Norton), cherry jam, a t-shirt, a pot, a beautiful rack (for spices or other jars) handmade by my godmother and a purple tuque, handmade by my cousin. My family includes some very talented and creative individuals.

After dessert and coffee, it was time to go home, pick up my fondue set and head over to James' place for dinner. Yes, more food. I prepared the meat fondue, James made a salad, and we snacked on baguette and cheese while watching Traitor (starring Don Cheadle) in blu-ray on a 52" flatscreen. It's amazing how much detail you get to see in this format.

Annie slept over last night and since neither of us had plans today, we went to AMC to watch Slumdog Millionaire, the story of a poor boy from the slums in Mumbai who ends up answering all the questions correctly on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and then, as he is about to answer the final question for 20 million rupees, is accused of cheating and has to tell the police how he managed to come up with all the right answers so far. Very entertaining, I recommend it.

Enough movies and food, tonight I'm having a light soup, some cheese, and will go to bed early, reading.

Monday, December 15, 2008

I made my choice

In life, you can face difficult, unexpected and negative situations two ways: you can fight, complain and let the negativity fester inside, generate stress and make you sick, or you can shake your head, smile and carry on with your life. I made my choice.

Today, I waited three hours at the airport for my delayed flight to Halifax. I took a conference call in the departure area, barely able to hear what was being discussed while a very small baby was crying and messages were being relayed to travelers over the intercom. I arrived in Halifax at 8:30 and didn't make it to the hotel until 9:30 (after waiting for my luggage, going through the motions of getting my rented car, and driving from the airport on a very windy stretch of highway). Right now, I'm working on a presentation I should have finished earlier and need to have ready (more or less) for tomorrow. My Tuesday is filled with meetings, I think I have about 15 minutes to have lunch.

I shook my head, smiled, and carried on with my life. I ordered Swiss Chalet for dinner and it came with holiday trimmings (stuffing, cranberry sauce, chocolates). I took a long, hot shower and changed into freshly laundered pajamas. I escaped the crazy weather in Montreal for windy but dry (and mild) weather in Halifax. My week will be busy but I have the office Christmas party to look forward to on Thursday (back in Montreal), a day of cooking meatpies with dad on Saturday, and then only three more days of work until my Christmas break. I get to see Annie soon (visiting from Vancouver, how is that for the world being upside-down?), spend time with my family and friends, enjoy yummy holiday treats, and maybe even sleep in a morning or two.

I'll never see those three lost hours again, but I am going to bed with a heart filled with positive thoughts.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

I'll tell you a story

Just as I am settling down after a day spent doing laundry, dusting, cleaning, and catching up with some work, I realize it's already time to pack the suitcase for another trip to the Maritimes. This week is the last that I am traveling to Halifax this year. I return on Thursday and then get to enjoy two weeks without dealing with winter travel. Bliss.

My place is quiet during the day, and once I made myself a cup of coffee, set the laptop on the kitchen table and sat down in front of the computer, I was able to get quite a bit of work done. I have a presentation to give on Thursday and coming up with the narrative is very hard when I'm in the office. There are too many interruptions, whether I'm working in the project room in Halifax or at my desk at PVM. I've seen a few of the presentations put together by colleagues for other clients, and the bar is set high. Forget death by PowerPoint: the slides we are expected to prepare for clients read like stories and are graphically very striking. Fortunately, I have a few decks of sample slides to use for inspiration (and also to save me time when "designing" slides). Thinking of a presentation like a story is really helpful and every time I create a slide I've been asking myself "so what?" It's one thing to show how the client's revenue has grown over the years, it's another to tie that growth (or absence thereof) to revenue trends of their competitors, the industry, etc. So much more relevant, but also so much more work.

Speaking of stories, I also need to start planning for a couple of white paper abstracts I am submitting with one of the Directors. My company is organizing a white paper contest and the contest is a great opportunity to get your name out there. The 800-word abstracts are due December 19, and if our abstract is selected by the jury, we submit the full paper some time in the spring. Not only do winning authors get prizes, but their papers are also published on our web site and distributed to clients.

It's snowing again? I wonder what the weather is like in Halifax. Last week, while Montreal was struggling with the first big snowfall of the season, we were dealing with rainstorms. It was raining so hard one evening I thought someone was washing the windows of the hotel with a pressure-washer.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Flick! Winter

Just like that. Yesterday, I did some Christmas shopping with mom and dad, and on the way home, it was snowing quite heavily. It continued snowing until the early evening when the wind blew the clouds away.

I woke up this morning thinking it was a bit chilly in my place. It's an old building, badly insulated, so I wasn't entirely surprised, but I was starting to worry about my comfort when the weather eventually turns nasty and the temperature dips to -20 celsius. I packed my suitcase, called a cab, ran out to meet the car in front of the building. Sitting in the back, I'm quietly listening to the radio when I hear the weather report: it's -18 outside. Yikes! But good, this means that I will feel a bit chilly when it's really cold outside, but nothing a warm sweater and sox cannot fix.

My flight to Halifax was on a small Bombardier regional jet. Regional service at Air Canada (and/or Montreal airport) is the Lada of flight services: passengers wait in a terminal with no seats (or only enough seats for about one quarter of the passengers waiting in the area), with limited options for breakfast (I fortunately remembered to grab a coffee and pastry at Starbucks) and, even when it's brutally cold outside, wait in line outside to board the plane (I remember getting off on the tarmac in Mexico, but with the tropical weather, it was a lot more pleasant). At least the flight was on time (left/arrived within 30 minutes of schedule = on time in my books).

When I landed in Halifax, the scene was beautiful. The entire region had received several centimetres of snow. The Halifax airport is surrounded by trees and they were covered. The drive back from the airport to work was a bit stressful, with winds blowing the cars sideways and the roads not being cleared nicely.

Tonight, I can hear the wind howling outside, it's still cold (-10) and will remain for another day. Just like that, somebody turned on a switch and it's winter.

Too bad it's going to warm up and rain later during the week.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

It's time

Life-changing events (like starting a new career and moving across the country) have a tendency to impact your day-to-day routine. I guess that's why they are called life-changing events, and not life-slightly-throwing-you-off-course events. However, eventually, you have to take a step back, pause the craziness for a few seconds, and make a conscious decision about forcing some of the routine back into your daily schedule.

It's time for a pause in my life. First, I need to start exercising again. I know it will require a bit more planning because of the dual residency these days (Montreal-Halifax), but it's definitely time to get this lazy body of mine back into shape. This week, I'm testing a new hotel in Halifax and their gym looks much nicer than the tiny room I found at the Future Inns. This new hotel also has a pool, the idea of swimming laps once or twice a week really appeals to me. Also, I posted a message on the Wall of the Allez-Up Facebook group. I'd like to find someone to climb with on the weekends. I miss climbing and the gym is so close to my place, I should take advantage of it. Eventually, I would like to also start running again, but I need to find a physio first to get going on a program for my knees.

Second, I need to get through the pile of paperwork I've accumulated and make a list of companies with whom I still need to update my address. I have subscriptions that are expiring and also need to gather my receipts for the move to submit at work (new job is covering part of my moving expenses, woot!). Every week I'm just barely keeping up with whatever paperwork needs my attention. I know I'm just asking for trouble and one day, I will simply forget to pay something important. Doh!

Finally, I should set myself weekly objectives (or to-do lists) to get moving on a few projects. These days, it's Christmas shopping, but I also need to set some time aside to prepare for my PMP certification, and last, but not least, more time aside to see friends (yes, I know it's dorky, but I need to plan for play time). It's been a challenge to meet with friends, I'm only in Montreal for a few days a week and those are not always the days when people are available.

Obviously, all these nice thoughts of getting back into a routine are currently taking a back seat to nursing myself back to health. I haven't had a bad cold in a while but what I'm fighting now is pretty nasty.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Beauty, pain

-- start whining

I just ordered room service: an extra box of kleenex. I'm going all out ;)

Today has been simply miserable. I made my way to the office, coughed and sneezed for most of the morning and was sent back to my (hotel) room by my colleagues. Not a bad idea, considering the sorry state I am in. I bought over-the-counter decongestant but the relief is still very slow to come. Hopefully the night version knocks me out completely and I wake up rested and feeling better tomorrow morning.

The flight to Halifax, in the middle of the afternoon yesterday, allowed me to witness a beautiful sunset above the clouds. We were flying over a thick carpet of white clouds, so thick they looked like they could be solid. A little above us, another layer of clouds, more dispersed, was reflecting the light from the sun in a wide array of colours. All this against a backdrop of blue sky. Beautiful. Then we broke through the bottom layer of clouds and descended towards the airport.

That's when it started hurting.

My ears would not pop, no matter how often I tried equalizing them. The pain on one side was sharp and I felt that my entire head was under pressure. Fortunately, I didn't rip an ear drum in the process. The pressure must have released at one point. Flying while congested? Bad idea.

I was so preoccupied with my ears that I hardly noticed our descent into fog. It's always a bit of a shock when you only see the ground half a second before you touch down. Thank goodness for electronic flying equipment.

Now, if only the hotel staff could hurry up with the kleenex, I could stop wiping my red, sensitive nose with this rough toilet paper.

-- end whining

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Can it be?

December, tomorrow we're in December. Wow. It's not a surprise as such, because if you do any amount of shopping this time of the year, you are conveniently reminded of the holiday approaching. There are a couple of streets that are nicely decorated around Montreal, McGill and Crescent being a few that I saw recently. But still. I've just been too busy to notice the month of November go by.

Do you know what I really look forward to at Christmas? Staying in one location for more than a few days, not taking the plane for a little while. I will be on site in Halifax until December 19, and potentially back for a few more weeks in the new year, but the last two weeks of December, I'll be in Montreal. Woot!

After Friday night's evening with Dina, Suzie and Liz (until 2 a.m., that's a serious girl's evening), I spent a really quiet weekend at home. I'm nursing a cold and a sore throat, so this felt like the best approach to avoid dragging myself back to Halifax with a blocked nose and watery eyes. I feel better today, but I still need a good night of sleep. I did manage to hang curtains in the bedroom, a blessing both for drafts and light reduction in the bedroom. It was hard to sleep with the street lights shining through the door (my bedroom has a door with nice glasswork, very pretty but obviously it lets light through). Last week, I also decided to condemn the door with plastic sheeting, so now the combination of a plastic seal and the curtain block most of the cold air. Let's see how this combination holds up when the temperature outside turns frigid. I took a few pictures of the place and posted them online. I even took a picture of the squirrel that almost ate my stuffing last week, I'm sure it's the same. It was sunbathing on my railing. I stood in the window, watching him doze off. He didn't seem to mind, little bugger.

Yesterday, I did a bit of shopping downtown. To my surprise, it only takes 15 minutes to walk to the corner of Guy and Sainte-Catherine from my place. Very cool. I hadn't realized how close I am to downtown. In the summer, it will be amazing to walk to restaurants to meet friends, to walk to the movie theatre, to work. I haven't done the trek to work yet, most of the time I am dragging my laptop around and it's heavy. I love walking around downtown, it's so busy and vibrant, especially this time of the year. The sidewalks are bare, people are out in numbers, shops are lit and decorated. Downturn of the economy? Whatever! Nobody I saw yesterday seemed to be too concerned about their investments, judging by the number of bags people carried around. Plastic bags. LOTS of plastic bags.

That makes me sad. As much as I enjoy Christmas, the time spent with family and friends, giving and receiving gifts, I am always stunned by the amount of waste generated. I know it's hard to remember to bring reusable bags when you go shopping, I sometimes forget mine. But still. I took one bag with me and used it to bring back the clothes I bought. And I always carry a folded bag in my purse, for unplanned purchases. They are available everywhere, most of the stores have them now. It's just a question of changing our habits.

Says the girl who severely contributes to global warming by flying every week. That makes me sad as well.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Rule #1: Do not leave food to cool on the balcony unattended for more than a few minutes

It's Sunday, Grey Cup day, and I get to finish my laundry, pack my suitcase and head to the airport to fly back to Halifax. I normally fly out East on Mondays, but because of the major influx of travelers to Montreal this weekend, all the flights out were booked solid. I had to pick THE flight leaving 15 minutes after the start of the game. At least I'm avoiding the crowds, unlike Friday when I returned home. There were hundreds of people waiting for their luggage, five deep along the carousel, and an hour lineup to catch a taxi. Fortunately, my traveling companion (nice gentleman sitting next to me during the flight) offered me a ride home and I just couldn't say no. I would have otherwise arrived at home around 10 p.m. Thank you again Serge!

I had a busy day yesterday. I was attending a dinner in Rigaud, a small municipality in southwestern Quebec, a place you would drive by on the way to Ottawa. The dinner was organized by a colleague of mine (who lives out there and works downtown Montreal, yikes) and the theme was American Thanksgiving. You can guess what was on the menu. It was a potluck affair, so every guest was preparing one dish and I ended up (or picked, can't remember) stuffing. I have never made stuffing, but I knew that my friend Steve often cooked a mean turkey, so I contacted him for a recipe.

Steve kindly offered a recipe from Cook's Illustrated and I am going to keep this one as a reference for future stuffing experiments. The base recipe is what I prepared, it could not have been simpler. I only made a few substitutions: instead of drying my own bread, I bought white bread croutons from the bread section at Loblaws, and used salted butter, but didn't add any salt to the recipe. The stuffing came out moist and flavourful. I got a lot of compliments on my dish over dinner. However, my contribution to dinner could have turned disastrous, if my timing had been a few seconds off.

After the stuffing finished cooking, I took the baking pan outside to cool. I left the aluminum sheet over the stuffing to keep the moisture in and left the dish on the steps of the back balcony. When I returned to get the dish, it had been pushed off the steps to the floor and a large grey squirrel had started to tear the aluminum paper. "Oh no you don't!", I screamed to the squirrel as I stepped outside to save my stuffing. Such a close call. The dish could have tipped over and made a mess of stuffing on the balcony, but it didn't. Mister squirrel could have been a few minutes quicker and have started snacking away at the tasty stuffing, but he wasn't.

Rule #1: Keep a close watch on food left out to cool on the balcony, or else be ready to share dinner with the squirrels in the neighbourhood.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rant, rave

It's snowing in Halifax!! Mind you, this is wet snow and it will be gone by tomorrow, but I'm happy I brought my boots this week. Warm feet = happy feet.

OK, this is my sixth week traveling for work (wow, time flies) and I have to dedicate this post to the good and the bad of being being on the road (and in the air) so much. Let's start by the things that bug me.

So far, flying has been reasonably tolerable. I've only had delays on two flights, one because of a mechanical failure on the plane and one because the bridge at the airport was stuck. I count myself lucky. However, it would be nice if the staff at this particular airline-I-won't-name-but-you-can-guess-which-one-I'm-referring-to was friendly to passengers. I've flown another airline-I-also-won't-name-but-you-know-which-one at a few occasions and check-in staff and flight attendants were always lovely. No so with the airline-I-have-to-book-my-flights-with-because-it's-office-policy. I had a flight attendant once point at my laptop in the overhead compartment, ask to find out whose computer it was, then look annoyed as I said it was mine and told me to move it to another compartment because she could not close the door. Never mind "please", "thank you" or "would you mind if I moved it"... At Halloween, one airline decorated its check-in counters, the other, didn't. At a random time in the middle of the afternoon, my airline insists on having only two employees check in everyone (doesn't matter if you checked in ahead of time online), no matter how long the lineup.

Fortunately, MOST staff is friendly, but being friendly is not really how you'll get a promotion at this particular airline.

Second rant: taxis. I take a taxi to and from the airport in Montreal, about two every week. Most of the time the service is fast, but I would like to request that taxi drivers not shower themselves in strong cologne before their shift. There's nothing painful like being stuck in a car with an overwhelming smell of eau-de-too-much.

Now on to the raves. First, being recognized at the car rental counter, getting a smile and a cheerful hello after an hour spent on the plane. Then, checking in to the hotel and being upgraded to the executive floor. I think they noticed I was visiting them every week. The executive rooms are not that different from the regular rooms, but they are on a quiet floor, have better bed sheets, nicer products in the bathroom, and every morning, the local newspaper is delivered to your door. These little touches make my stay a tad more enjoyable.

Finally, being called "dear" with a Nova Scotian accent by hotel staff. Atlantic Canadians are really friendly and I think it's cute. "What can I get you dear?" How can you not smile to that?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I miss Montreal

My apartment is still full of boxes, my fridge is empty, my bed is hidden under bags of clothes, I have no Internet access and no blinds (and no phone), but boy do I miss my apartment.

I moved in on November 1, then left for Halifax again on November 4 and have been in Halifax since. I was so fortunate to get tons of help for the move, but obviously there is just so much you can do in 48 hours. But I just can't help it, I can't help looking forward to spending more time at home to set up my new place.

At this pace, I might start inviting people over when the tulips break ground ;)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Are you kidding me?

When I moved to Vancouver in 2002, I obviously needed to get a driver's license from British-Columbia, as well as a Health Insurance Card (which is called a Care Card in BC). The process could not have been more simple. One week day, in the morning, I walked into an ICBC office (no appointment), took a number, waited about five minutes, filled in a bunch of papers, handed them my Quebec driver's license, had my picture taken and walked out with a brand new BC license! As a proof of residency, I think I brought my rental agreement and my passport. The entire process must have taken me about half an hour. Getting a Care Card was even easier, it was all done through my employer (BC charges a monthly fee for health care, a fee that is usually paid by employers as an employee benefit).

Now that I am back in Quebec, I need to, once again, swap my cards for local ones. I started with the driver's license.

As someone who moved from another province, I am spared having to take a driving exam. However, there is no fast-tracking here. First, I had to call the SAAQ, between the hours of 9 and 5, something I hadn't been able to do yet because I was busy working. Silly me to try contacting a government office on a Saturday. Calling the SAAQ as mandatory, you don't just drop in a local SAAQ office, no sir. You need to call to set up an appointment to get a license. All right then. At this appointment, you need to bring my passport, my BC license (so far so good), get a copy of my driving record in BC for the past six years (what?), a hydro or phone bill with my current address (no rental agreement, 'cause that piece of paper is NOT an official enough document), and my Care Card (they would have preferred getting my Quebec Health Insurance Card, but I don't have it yet). By the way, the earliest appointment you can get is on December 30 (December? I made the lady repeat the date three times) and the closest SAAQ office you can have your appointment at is on Henri Bourassa West, in Ville Saint-Laurent.

Welcome to Quebec. Now I dread calling the Régie to learn what kind of hoops I have to jump through to get my Health Insurance Card. I'm already not too happy with having to prepare two income tax returns in April.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Cape Breton road trip

Wow, what a weekend. I added 1,150 km to the odometer of the red PT Cruiser since Friday afternoon, that's some killer mileage! I drove to and from Baddeck in Cape Breton, and around the 300 km Cabot Trail. What an experience. I uploaded some pictures here.

The trip started around 4 p.m. on Friday. I left work a bit early to take advantage of the couple of remaining hours of daylight. Yeah, not so much, it was already dark at that time. I left Halifax in rainy, windy weather. I have to admit, the 4 1/2 hours it took to make it to my destination were quite difficult. The rain was at times a downpour, mixed with fog and gusts of wind. Even with the limited visibility, I only took a wrong turn once, trying to pick the right exit out of a roundabout with signs barely visible because of the heavy fog.

I had reserved a room at the Inverary Resort in Baddeck. From what I had read, Baddeck was a great starting point for the Cabot Trail. When I arrived, I asked the ladies at the front desk where I could find a good place to grab a bite. It was almost 9 and I hadn't had dinner. They thought about it a bit, told me that most places would be closed at this time of the year, and finally sent me to Tom's Pizza. Pizza? I was hoping for a small pub where I could sit at the bar, have a pint and some local specialty. But the pizza would have to do. Tom's Pizza is a small parlour where kids drop in for slices. They made a decent meat lover. I then headed back to the resort and went to bed.

I woke up early, initially at 4:30 with the room's alarm buzzing madly (not my setting, thanks a lot), and then at 8 a.m. to shower and have breakfast at Flora, the resort's restaurant. I have to be honest: the food at Flora was nothing to rave about, and the breakfast buffet wasn't worth $14 (with taxes). I leave at 9:30 and start my drive around the Cabot Trail.

The first part of the drive heads North towards Margaree Valley, cutting across the island (Cape Breton is an island, connected to the rest of Nova Scotia by the Canso Causeway). It's a lovely drive, through small villages of farms, over rivers, including the Margaree River that is supposed to be known for salmon fishing. I made a quick stop in Margaree to look around, but didn't stay long because I still had a long way to go.

The road eventually comes to an intersection where you can chose to head straight North towards Chéticamp, or South towards Inverness. I pick North. The drive is pleasant, and I can tell that I am close to the ocean. Unfortunately, I can't see the water, the fog is thick and rain is falling down. I'm hoping that the fog clears at some point during the day.

Chéticamp is in Acadian Canada, and the names on signs along the road, originally more Scottish sounding, now sound very French: Aucoin, Doucet. Just before I get to Chéticamp, I stop at a tiny store called Charlie's Music Store. Charlie's is not only a place where you can buy French Acadian and Celtic music, but also rent movies and buy snacks. I chat a bit with the owner, who speaks French. Lovely. I love the Acadian accent. I buy a couple of CDs to keep me entertained along the drive.

In Chéticamp, I stop to have lunch at All Aboard Restaurant. The waitress doesn't seem surprised to see me alone, and once she has taken my order, brings me a coffee and the Saturday newspaper. How thoughtful. I order a pan-fried haddock and fries. Apparently, the fish is caught locally. The dish is delicious, I don't eat much of the fries but the coleslaw is fresh (tastes like cabbage) and the fish, moist. The place gets really busy during lunch, it looks like a spot where locals come to eat.

For the next little while, as I drive into the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, I notice that there is very little traffic along the Cabot Trail. The entrance to the park is wide open, I guess they don't make you buy a permit in the low season. As I continue my way around the Trail, I am disappointed when every view point is a view on pea soup, not a breathtaking bird's eye view of the Atlantic coast. View point? Fog. Another view point? More fog. The only time I see anything is when I drive down to the sea level, any point high in the mountains is stuck in a thick white mist.

Well, too bad then. I keep on driving, I'm singing along with the CDs, and I can't help but enjoy the drive. I'm basically alone, with the odd car driving by every 10 minutes or so. When I stop to breathe the fresh air (and let the car cool down from the hike up), if I happen to meet anyone, they give me a very surprised look. "You're driving the Cabot Trail by yourself? Good for you!" It's not a dangerous drive, but obviously, you try not to push the car too hard and keep the tank filled. This is not the place to run out of gas.

The rest of my trip will be a series of stop and go, as I sometimes see a nice place to sneak a peek. I'm scanning the forest around me carefully, this is a place where you have moose, and I know very well what happens to a car when it hits one of the large animals. Not good. I return to the resort around 4, a full day of driving under my belt.

I had noticed that the resort had a small pub and after eating a snack, I decide to drop by. There's a local musician playing Cape Breton folks music, and he's very good. James MacDonald I believe was his name. I initially sit at the bar, and have a glass of Canadian whisky (cannot be called scotch if you're not in Scotland) from a local distillery called Glenora. It's very smooth, and I decide to visit the distillery on Sunday. I wanted to visit the Louisbourg fortress on Sunday, but it's a long way out and my Frommer's travel guide mentioned that the museum was closed after the end of October. Louisbourg would seem like a place you visit to get the whole experience, including the costumed interpreters.

A guy drops by the bar to get some beers, and asks me to join his group in the back of the bar. Dan is from Halifax and is visiting Cape Breton (for the first time) with his girlfriend. Another couple is also local to Nova Scotia. It's fun to see people visiting their own province. We chat for a little while and exchange contact info. They told me about a pub that I have to visit in Halifax. I look forward to an invitation in the future.

Sunday morning, I pack my stuff and leave the resort around 10. No buffet for me, I stop by Tim Horton's for a breakfast sandwich and coffee. Atlantic Canadians sure love their Tim Horton's, they are all over the place, even in the most remote towns. I then head towards Margaree again, the same road I initially started my trip on Saturday. I have to admit, the drive is priceless. There is nobody on the road, it's dry, and most parts have been recently repaved. Just like in a car commercial.

I take the turn towards Inverness and drive along a road that makes me feel like I'm in another country. From the rugged coast of the Trail, I have moved to rolling hills that I would imagine Ireland and Scotland to look like. There are even sheep grazing in one of the fields, c'mon!! My spirits are high, until I drive up to the entrance of the Glenmora distillery and stare at a large "Closed" sign. Pooh. I was looking forward to this tour.

Well, maybe this is my hint that I should be heading home, which is what I end up doing. Along the way, I end up getting a few rays of precious sun. Very nice. The sun won't last long, but I'm not complaining. After missing, again, the turn I'm supposed to take out of the roundabout (they have to rethink that design, it's not intuitive, especially when the fog is thick), I drive my merry way back to Halifax and my hotel.

Great memories: driving alone on a country road Sunday morning, discovering Glenora whisky, meeting new friends, standing on the beach with the ocean wind blowing my hair around, listening to FM 92.5 Acadian radio.

Disappointments: my Frommer's guide (probably the worst travel guide I've bought in a while, most places they recommended were closed, what about catering to the traveler who does the Trail off season?), not being able to visit the distillery (while the Frommer's guide said it was opened year long and offered daily tours), missing out on some of the great views.

All together, I'm happy I took this trip. I would do the Cabot Trail again, maybe as a camping and hiking trip. To the bird on route 19 South: I'm sorry, the sickening thump I heard probably means I killed you, but I had to chose between making a crazy manoeuvre and hitting you. You lost.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Living out of a suitcase

I am back in Montreal but I only live here part time. That's because I spend my weeks in the Maritimes, Halifax to be more specific, working at a client site. The job is interesting, lots of project management, some business intelligence, a bit of strategy...

My first week away was very tiring. There's something about living in a hotel that can pretty much guarantee that you don't exactly sleep soundly. You hear noises in the corridor, the pillow is too hard, the air too dry... And for a week, I lived pretty much the opposite of how I've lived in the past six years. I had a car to drive to work every day, and also to drive to the local malls to grab whatever seemed a tad healthy out of a fast-food menu. I didn't have my travel mug so I bought coffee in disposable cups. I had no time to prepare before I left... there had to be a better way.

Week 2 was also spent at the hotel, but this time I asked to have a fridge in my room ($5 extra / day, well worth it) and I went to the Superstore on the first evening (think Loblaws) to buy yogourt, blueberries, granola and orange juice for breakfast, and whole wheet pita, cold cuts, cheese, humus and some lettuce for lunches. OK, my diet was pretty much the same every day, but at least the meals were a lot healthier. I ate out in the evening. I also made my way to the hotel's gym (a tiny room where about two people can exercise at the same time, but it was empty when I went) one evening.

Week 3 (this week) will be shorter, as I am flying back to Montreal Thursday evening. I am trying to spend some time in the Montreal office so my colleagues don't completely forget about me :-) Starting in November, I will probably live in a furnished apartment in Halifax, with a kitchen so I can cook meals, not just eat cold stuff. And I will spend a weekend now and then in Nova Scotia, to visit the area and avoid having to fly every single week. My carbon footprint is going to be terrible this year.

Any suggestions on things to see while in Nova Scotia? I'd like to drive to Cape Breton and do the Cabot Trail, maybe a weekend in early November. The view should be stunning, now that the trees have lost most of their leaves. I will also spend time around Halifax. My current hotel is close to the client site, but not exactly downtown, so I haven't seen the harbour and haven't walked around the city yet. Things to look forward to.

Funny thing isn't it? I'm spending my first few months of rediscovering my home town actually discovering a new city. 

Monday, October 13, 2008

Home sweet home

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! It's a lovely weekend to be back in the province. Mind you, I would like a bit more sunshine, but after the glorious weather on Saturday, I'm not complaining.

Getting back to a regular blogging schedule has been a challenge, especially with the new job and evenings / weekends dedicated to looking for an apartment. OK, maybe not ALL evenings and weekends, but still. The good news is that I have found a place and am moving in on November 1.

My new home will be a cute 3 1/2 close to the George-Vanier metro station. The location is a mixed blessing. It has some very positive attributes, including the proximity to transit, to the Atwater market, to the bicycle path that leads to the Old Port and to work (I'm estimating a 20-minute walk to Place Ville Marie, I have yet to walk it). Unfortunately, the building faces a highway currently undergoing some major construction. In the summer, it might be a bit too noisy to leave windows open. That's OK, I'm willing to settle for something less than ideal, I don't plan on living there for very long and the rent was very affordable.

The apartment itself is quite charming. The bedroom, living room and kitchen all have exposed brick. The kitchen is quite large and was recently renovated, it has bright red cabinets and brand new appliances. The bathroom, also a decent size, was renovated and even has heated tiles. That's a nice feature when you step out of the shower. The place has two balconies, one small juliette-style balcony facing the street and one larger balcony facing the backyard. The back balcony is big enough for a BBQ. The ceilings are quite high (nine feet maybe), and both the front and the back have large windows to let in a lot of light. I also get a washer-dryer combo in a nook outside the bathroom. Many places I visited did not have insuite laundry, something I was adamant I wanted in my place.

Apartment hunting in the city was greatly facilitated by Craigslist. I recommend the site for anyone looking for a place. Not only did many ads include pictures, but you could also link to Google Maps or Yahoo Maps to see exactly where the apartment was. Nothing like a map to show you that "close to XYZ metro" really means you'll have to walk 15 minutes in the blistering cold before reaching the station. If you're looking to rent a place, think about listing it online. My recommendation: include pictures, and not only of the outside of the building. I skipped so many ads that had no pictures. The pictures really help getting a good feeling about the place. Oh, another tip: clean up the mess. A few ads had pictures with what can only described as major clutter. It makes a place look small and seriously makes me wonder if the apartment comes with any closets or storage. Just a thought.

It has become more expensive to rent in Montreal, but in all honesty, it's still possible to find a decent place at a reasonable price. My rent starting in November will be $200 more than I paid for rent in 2002, before leaving for Vancouver. My old apartment did not have insuite laundry and was in dire need of some TLC. If you're looking at renting in very trendy neighbourhoods (Plateau, some parts of NDG, Old Port), yes, it will be expensive. I just think there are still a lot of great finds under $1000. No so in Vancouver, where rental prices are a bit insane.

It's good to be home.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

It's been six years

It's been six years since I left Montreal to live on the West Coast. In October, I am returning to my hometown and have no doubt that, no matter how much I think I know about this city, I'll be relearning a thing or two.