Thursday, April 5, 2012

U.S. Tour 2012, Part Eight: In Which We Flee The Country, Return, and Prepare To Flee Again

I hereby heartily resolve that I will never again embark on a five-week trip unless I'm making stupid money by doing so. Instead of spending stupid money. I'm sitting here in a tiny hotel room in Brooklyn burned out as I can be, with the only bright light the fact that I will jump on a plane early tomorrow evening and by 2pm the next day be wondering how I'm going to haul these two suitcases upstairs to my apartment. I'll do it. I've done it before.

I did manage to get out of Times Square, thank heavens, and to Penn Station, where I got on the Adirondack, one of the great train lines of the world even if it is in crappy shape, and head to Montreal. Both the trainride and the stay were designed to be relaxing, and the panoramas which unfold slowly (due to the crawl at which the train travels) are as soothing as they come. If you know where to look, you can see such historic landmarks as the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, N.Y., the hull of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga (laid in 1814), and Fort Ticonderoga itself:

This picture was snapped on the way down, though; going up I mostly slept.

I was met by my friends Terry and Patricia, as usual, and as usual, they had some crockery with them. There's no real link there except that there's a very inexpensive and good shop selling dishes in the central train station in Montreal, and neither of them gets there that often, so when I come up, they usually have some shopping to do.

Amtrak was a whopping 90 minutes late (almost early for them, of course), so we got me installed in the Intercontinetnal Hotel, which I'd nabbed in a fire sale discount offer, and which had weird wallpaper alternating (real, I think) birch bark and (definitely fake) fur, as Montrealish a theme as one could wish. Blinded by low blood sugar, we headed into Chinatown a few blocks away and had an absolutely disgusting Chinese meal. (Not, as you will see, because Chinese food in Montreal is all bad, as it is in, say, Montpellier.)

The next day while Patricia worked on her speech therapy classes, Terry and I grabbed a municipal car-share car and drove around doing errands. These included going to the Atwater Market, one of two wonderful market halls maintained by the city, and a collection of some of the finest purveyors of meat and vegetables in existence. Sadly, it was still March, and the real action doesn't start there until the summer comes. We tend to think of Quebec as the Frozen North and, well, it kind of is. But its farmers produce some amazing fruits and vegetables. Of course, one of the things they produce is maple syrup, and Atwater Market is where to get the good stuff cheap. A can sits in my luggage as I type.

Terry had some time before he had to return the car, so we went out to a favorite place, the Lachine Rapids. This is a pretty impressive display of nature in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, and I'm not sure what makes them happen, but I wasn't going to find out today.

It was closed.

Given the strong sunshine and the cold temperatures, the rapids were a reminder of some of the problems the early fur-trappers had bringing their wares to market. You really have to see and hear them in person to get an idea for how vicious they are, but maybe one of these pictures will give you an idea:

Try that in a canoe. In winter.

Although, given what winter feels like up there, this was actually spring. As if we needed a reminder, this guy was hanging out, being admired by bird photographers and generally acting like a star as we headed back to the car.

Yes, folks, sometimes Great Blue Herons really are blue!

That night's dinner was definitely a winner: the Cuisine Szechuan restaurant on Guy, which I wrote about at length last year, just gets better and better. It may be, in fact, one of the best Chinese restaurants in North America. The chef's ability to balance flavors -- including fiery ones -- is unbeatable. It was kind of sad that I ordered one dish -- pork tongue with pickled chiles -- that Terry and Patricia didn't like, because the rest were sublime, and I had to eat all the tongue (there was an identical repeat the next day for lunch: talk about prolonging the pleasure!). The only thing that marred the meal was that the next day I discovered I'd mislaid my sunglasses, and they were never found.

One of the things Terry wanted to do was to show me some of the contemporary art galleries around town, as well as the CCA, the Canadian Centre for Architecture. This last was housed in a remarkable old mansion which had belonged to some Canadian railroad magnate, and we actually did explore a bit of the house itself, which was gorgeous with its carved wood and parquet floor. Unfortunately, the exhibit was ridiculous, incoherent, badly curated, and a waste of time. Called Imperfect Health, it was supposed to deal with the "medicalization of architecture," and dragged in this and that in almost random fashion. Terry and I sat through a bunch of a promotional film for Del Webb's Sun City, made in the late 1950s, to judge from the cars. My parents retired there and then spent over 35 years there, burying one set of friends after another. The visits my sister and I had to make were traumatic: what could be worse than a huge city filled with one-story houses filled with people over 55? It was chilling to watch it presented as a Utopia.

That evening, we visited some friends and watched them cook a paella in their fireplace, something you don't get to do every day, and something they won't be doing every day, what with the weather warming up, even in Montreal. And the next day, we went on a quest for some contemporary art in the former fur business buildings in downtown Montreal. It being Sunday, though, they were all closed, although the eerie hallways were a fascinating space, Frustrated, Terry took me to the McCord Museum of Canadian History up at McGill University, and there were three floors of mostly fine stuff to see. A show of contemporary Inuit art was very well-done, and on the second floor there was a show by some guy whose schtick was taking pictures with a pinhole camera and printing them big (and in negative) which was pretty dull, balanced by a superb small exhibition of the city's history that made up for it. Finally, the small gallery room on the top floor was given over to a great exhbition of photos of empty spaces by the formidable Lynne Cohen, an American who now lives in Montreal. Terry, no mean photographer himself, was gobsmacked.

That evening, there was a special dinner since, as I found out, Terry and Patricia have decided to get married this summer. It was at Pinxto, a Spanish/Basque restaurant that's among the most highly-regarded in Montreal, although it's also affordable. We had their tasting menu, which started with some foie gras (served too cold -- we had to wait a minute for it to warm up so it could be tasted), a shooter of warm cauliflower soup with a bit of crisp-fried Iberian ham sticking out of it (bacon on steroids!), duck tartar, and, on a second serving, a fig stuffed with serrano ham and a hunk of grilled mahon cheese on top of it. All superb. I lucked out with a kind of Spanish interpretation of cassoulet, aswim with tasty hunks of sausage, a big duck confit, and lots of beans. This was all washed down with a Clos Mont Blanc, which, despite its name, is a huge, smoky/woody red with lots of fruit. It was a grand occasion, and I promised Terry I wouldn't perform the ceremony this time, as I had in 1970 for his last disastrous marriage. Note to Pinxto, though: you really should change the silverware between courses -- yes, I know it means more to wash, but it keeps flavors from blurring together -- and you must fire the idiot designer who did your website (loud music!) and business cards (absolutely unreadable even under strong light).

Monday, both of them had to work, learning and teaching, although Terry had time in the morning to hit the fur buildings again, and we found some galleries open. Mostly what we saw wasn't worth discussing, but the SAS Gallery had a neat little show called Possession, about the bourgeois trappings of home, which was run away with by Jannick Deslauriers' iron, typewriter, grand piano, and sewing machine, each rendered in crinoline. It's sure good to see someone who's not carried away with deadly seriousness.

After leaving Terry at his office, I wandered my way back to my hotel. I grabbed my new camera and wandered around, but Montreal pretty much defeats my photographic instincts. One day while wandering, I noticed a place which seemed to indicate that it made its burgers upside-down and with wilted lettuce:

and on the wander back to the hotel, I got this sort of mediocre rendering of the idea that there are various layers of Montreal, with Mount Royal in the background:

and this one of an absolutely bland building by the train station:

I wondered if the Queen was happy about that or not.

In the end, though, I did what I'd come for: see friends, relax, and enjoy a fancy hotel which allowed a wonderful coffee chain, Java-U, to operate on their property for those guests who didn't want to spend $23 minimum on breakfast.

I walked back to the station Tuesday morning and was smart enough to grab a sandwich to eat on the train, Amtrak food being nothing much at its best, and we were ten minutes early getting into New York. I'm writing this in Brooklyn, where I've never really set foot before, but I'll be happily flying back home tomorrow evening. I'll likely have some pictures of Brooklyn to post, but I'm looking forward to being in one place for a long time. This has been too long of a vacation, and I'm going to have to find some work to pay for it -- fast.


  1. ...just wanting to let you know that I really enjoy your writings, travelings and journeys. I actually started to stalk your blog in Berlin where I lived for a few years. I lived in France too for a while, but in the north west, en Bretagne ....ended up in LA again. Anyway, thank you for taking the time and effort - very much appreciated!

  2. The little house with the question mark on the door is cute as a bug. What is it?

  3. Information booth, I think. It was a little chilly to be expecting tourists, although there were bird photographers out.


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