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.