Jan 072012

Caroline Wise, Jutta Engelhardt, and Celia Petersen

Our first visit was with Celia and Jimmie Petersen of Chile Acres Farm. Jimmie was at the downtown market, he directed us to head up north on Central Avenue to a new market where we would find Celia. After spending a bit of time with Jimmie, we found Celia and hugs ensued. Jutta has fond memories of her visits with the Petersen’s, as it was at their farm where she first took lessons riding a horse, she bottle-fed baby goats, and was invited into their home more than once to enjoy a home cooked meal featuring Celia’s homemade goat milk cheese, and goat milk ice cream for dessert. Over the past two years, Caroline calls her mom nearly every Sunday, and on every phone call, Jutta asks, “How are Celia and Jimmie doing?” Today, she was able to see for herself and passed on the hugs to show her affection for their warmth and sharing.

Oct 202011

Caroline Wise, Gayle Combe-Gordon, Ian Gordon, and John Wise in Grimsby, Ontario, Canada

Others might not call this vacation. Four hours of sleep is hardly restful and relaxing, but we’re committed and know that we’ll have plenty of time to sleep in when we are home next week. Anyway, we made a date to meet Ian and Gayle Gordon this early a.m. Thankfully, Ian dragged his wife Gayle, who we’ve not met yet, out of bed hours before we woke, so they could make the long-haul from the London, Ontario area to the roadside truck stop restaurant where we’re meeting. The Fifth Wheel is not much more than a couple of miles from our motel – lucky us. Across the dining room, I spot Ian. Fifteen years between seeing him and the only real difference I can easily find: he’s got a lot of gray hair, don’t most of us by this time. We are introduced to Gayle who is all smiles and seems as comfortable with us as if we had been life long friends. It’s hard to compress what could be spoken of into 2 brief hours, but with a long drive ahead of us today that’s all we’ll get here at the Fifth Wheel.

We learned of how these two met, young girl digs hot bike messenger, but upon bike guy returning from Germany the long curly hair had been shorn slightly, diminishing his ravaging beauty. Gayle takes him anyway. Since his return to Canada, Ian has written a first draft of, “The Secrets of Being an International Bike Messenger God.” He threatens to tap me for publishing help; I press him to drag the dusty manuscript out of storage and let me have it for a once over so he can start moving forward on becoming a published writer. I’m left with the impression the art of welding and an obsession with cars stand between him and his inner-nerd. Before we know it, the time has flown by, we couldn’t really fall into just hanging out. Nothing like a couple thousand miles between people to stop old friends from dropping in and keeping the relationship alive. Our driving away was bittersweet. We followed them up the highway for some miles, truly sad that the morning sped by in a flash. I wondered if they too were wishing we could just turn west and follow them to London instead of the right turn we were about to take that would bring us to Montreal.

Caroline Wise in front of highway sign number 7 - the Trans Canada Highway

With Ian and Gayle out of site, we are now heading northeast of Toronto to connect with road number 7, the Trans Canada Highway. Fingers are crossed that the weather report was as wrong as it is in the desert. Back home, 40% chance of rain means no chance of rain. Like all big cities, the traffic is heading into the downtown area in the morning, not out of, we miss out on the parking lot on the other side of the road. It seems to have taken a long time to finally get fully around Toronto and finding our way to the 7, but we are now away from the congestion and in the countryside.

Caroline Wise digging a rainbow in Canada

The colors of all are fading, we are late in the season. Patches of autumn pop up here and there, but large stands of trees have given up their leaves as branches ready themselves for the first snow. Much of the drive is under gray sky with the rain keeping to itself high overhead. Around mid-day, hunger pangs remind us that we have a bag full of delights from Cathy. Time to to christen the cutting board, break bread, carve the cheese, pour the mustard, and start to enjoy our in-car catered feast. Our gratitude produces this rainbow – we are happy.

A break in the clouds off the Trans Cananda Highway

We continue our drive eastward. For moments here and there, the sky finds a way around the clouds to tease us with hints of its beauty. We don’t much mind the overcast, it’s a nice reminder that seasons change. Back home in the desert, we left temperatures that were still in the 90’s – the transition from summer to not-summer was in full swing. Our drive is a long one and we’ve been up and traveling quite some time by now.

Entering Montreal in Canada

Finally, Montreal. This is the first of two of our major stops on this vacation. Traffic is heavier than I might have thought, after all, we are entering the city when everyone else should be getting off work and leaving town. The signs are now all in French, bilingual traffic info is well behind us. Sitting in a stop-and-go parking lot called a freeway, as opposed to a fluidly moving highway, something that should not be seen, can be seen far too clearly. Montreal’s roads are falling apart. No little cracks or rust, we’re seeing chunks of girders and support columns have fallen off. Rebar is exposed and one is left wondering, how often do slabs of highway overpasses fall off into traffic below? We escape the potential death trap of the road leading into Montreal and are soon trying to negotiate one-way streets to our hotel.

A shop front in Montreal, Canada

Tonight we’ll sleep at Hotel Quartier Latin, you guessed it, in the Latin Quarter. It’s the cheapest place in downtown Montreal, we only paid $67 for the night, and the room was great. Almost more important than the room was the question, where do we park in this congested area? The answer; at the public library underground garage – great. Back around some one-way streets and soon we are trying to read French to the best of our ability in order to be certain we are parking in the right area of the garage. The street we are staying on, Rue Saint Denis, pronounced Saun Dannee, is alive with throngs of people. Shops are open, the smell of inebriants waft through the air, it feels like we are in Amsterdam.

Caroline Wise at La Banquise enjoying a Mystique hard cider before digging into poutine. Montreal, Canada

The trilingual Indian desk attendant at the hotel pointed out on the map where we would find Rue Rachel, about 2.5km from the hotel. I had it in mind prior to leaving for Canada, that we were going to try poutine, the fast food staple originating from Quebec, but now nearly a national dish. With our umbrella, we got underway for the 1.5 mile walk up St. Denis. Our destination is a small place called La Banquise. After arriving, Caroline orders a Mystique, a hard cider, and I opt for city water.

Poutine from La Banquise in Montreal, Canada

What is poutine? It is a dish that sounds extraordinarily simple, bland even. French fries, cheese curds, and gravy. But it is far from bland, it is the composite whole that works together to make a great dish. We will share two small orders, the first is regular poutine, we need to know the baseline. The second order has bacon, onions, and Merquez sausage – the grilled onions make a poutine perfect. La Banquise is full, every table is occupied, the place is open 24 hours a day and poutine is the main dish. Caroline and I are in agreement, this is one of the perfect comfort foods – of course this could never work back home, we would ruin it with nacho cheese sauce.

Walking back to Hotel Quartier Latin on Rue Saint Denis in Montreal, Canada

Walking to Rue Rachel was a race, we didn’t know what time La Banquise closed. Walking back down the street, we took our time and investigated many a shop window, by now the shops were mostly closed. The streets were still wet from the occasional light rain that drifts over the city. Montreal is beautiful, or so it looks at night. The glistening streets reflecting neon, headlights, and the various signs with short 3 story apartment homes above shops, lend a cozy intimacy to the feeling of the neighborhood. Brisk walks to grab a coffee on a chilly evening or a jaunt to a small theater for a movie, create dreams of living here, Montreal is growing on us fast.

Bikes for rent on the streets of Montreal from Bixi - available 24 hours a day.

Bikes are everywhere. There are bike parking meters, yes, in some places one has to pay for locking up a bike. On some corners, bike lockup facilities take up a couple of car parking spots, giving preference to bikers. And then there is this: Bixi. The bikes above are available all over the city, they are for rent. With a credit card, anyone can take a Bixi out on the town for only $5 for 1 day of use. A 1 month subscription costs $28, while a 1 year contract is only $78. With more than 100 Bixi docks around the city, you can pick up a bike in one location, drop it at another, jump on the subway and nab another bike as you enter another corner of Montreal. I wonder how this could work in America where bikes are so frequently stolen, or vandalized?

A quiet park on Rue de Square Saint Louis in Montreal, Canada

We are falling in love with Montreal. Parks and green spaces are everywhere. This quiet well-lit park is off Rue du Square Saint Louis and offers a perfect picture of fall. Along the main street, there are no boarded up spaces, what there is, are tons of small independent proprietors offering unique shops, not a dollar store to be found. We pass more than one Couche-Tard shop and for the remainder of the trip, we’ll be wondering what a Couche-Tard is. At home we found out it is French for Night Owl. We could happily be night owls in this great city.

Oct 192011

Caroline Wise, Cathy McGill, and John Wise at Jack Astor's in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada

This is our first trip to Canada, which is also our first trek outside the United States since we moved here back in April 1995. That doesn’t roll off the tongue very easily. It feels awkward to admit that we have not ventured beyond these borders in over 16 years. Not that we have been lax about travels, this was our 173rd excursion away from home since August 1999, when I started tracking our journeys into the North American countryside.

After landing in Buffalo, the town of my birth, we go to collect our rental car, certainly one of the crappiest ever; no power-windows, no power-locks, and no cruise-control, we are full-on analog. No time to waste, we exit the Detroit of New York, and drive immediately to the Lake Trail Motel in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada – in the pouring rain. The reason we were in such a hurry? We were meeting Cathy McGill at midnight.

Cathy is a dear friend who I met back in the late 1980’s at a small nightclub in the Frankfurt Airport called Dorian Gray. Cathy was traveling with her then-husband, Patrick Codenys, of the band Front 242. I had met Patrick in 1985 or 1986 while they were performing in Wiesbaden, West Germany – Deutschland wasn’t unified back then. It was on a subsequent meeting at yet another Front 242 concert, this time in Offenbach, that Cathy and I would become friends. Shortly there-after, I met Caroline, after coming up for air, and following Cathy and Patrick having a son, Stephan, we all got together at their home near Brussels, Belgium, and have somehow been able to stay in touch, except for some 14 years without any contact.

Seeing Cathy again was nothing less than terrific. Her smile hadn’t changed a bit since last we saw her over a decade ago. The strangest part of this meeting was that just two days earlier, after a long silence between us, Cathy signed up for Facebook, then emailed me  with the message that she was living in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. This city sounded awfully familiar to me, I googled it, and sure enough, it was one of the towns I had looked at for a motel back when I was planning our Canada trip. My first message to Cathy was, “I have news for you that you won’t believe!” Next morning I get an email and a phone number to call, so I can share the news. No, Caroline is not pregnant. “We will be in Stoney Creek tomorrow night, just 11 miles from you!” We agree to meet at midnight.

It’s raining when we pull in to the motel. Cathy must know it’s us, she jumps out of her car before we open the door of our car to stand with us in the rain for a group hug. Our faces could have been damaged by all the smiling at one another. Disbelief that we were once again face-to-face had the three of us doing a reality check, asking out loud, can you believe this? It was as though time stopped in the mid 90’s when our paths went in different directions, and then years later, we materialized in the same dimension, and wham, friends step back into each others world.

After checking into our room, we three are in the car and driving to someplace dry for Caroline and I to have dinner. Cathy brings us to Jack Astor, it could have been Taco Bell for all we cared, not that we would at any other time eat at Taco Bell, but tonight, that didn’t matter. We asked for a table away from the noisy bar, and the entire empty side of the restaurant is ours. I don’t know how we heard one another, or if I even remember much of what was spoken in the 94,000 mile per hour exchange, but I do know, we smiled so much that my cheeks would feel the strain for the next days.

In the hours prior to our departure from Phoenix, I had received another email from Cathy. She told me of a famous German deli that she was going to on our behalf and that I should simply roll-over and accept her generosity as “resistance is futile.” Not one to be shy, I put in my list of potential items that we would be interested in. Cathy delivers, changing one of the dynamics of our stay in Canada. Effectively, Cathy would now be with us the remainder of our journey. A bag stuffed with onion potato bread, a loaf of rye, Gouda cheese both young and aged, German sausage, pretzels, spicy German mustard – great for dipping pretzels in, two knives, a small cutting board, paper towels, and special for Caroline; Pfeffermüsse – the sweet taste of home.

We talk until shortly after 2:00 a.m., Caroline and I have to wake around 6:30 to meet another old friend we haven’t seen since leaving Germany. I wish we could have brought Cathy along. In some way we did, as the next day for lunch when we opened our care package, Cathy’s wonderful gift had us pinching ourselves at our great fortune. And every day following we thanked Cathy for her big heart in helping load up our vacation with these tastes of Germany, and an extra few hundred smiles.

Aug 102011

Daniel Billotte out for lunch, but not quite so out for lunch as had happened some years ago

Had lunch with Daniel Billotte today. Not the lunch we had planned, the Pho joint wasn’t open so we scrambled to find something nearby. We ended up at a small urban bistro. The story here is that Daniel and I from time to time make an effort to stay in contact. He and I met some 15 years ago while working at the Marion Foundation. During the intervening years, Daniel has often gone nomad finding himself living in New Zealand, Australia, and Fiji for close to half a year, working at an apple orchard to support his scuba adventures on the Great Barrier Reef. For a time he lived in Santa Cruz where I was never sure if he was a programmer, a graphic designer, or a surfer. A year or more goes by and I get an email from the guy, he’s in India, still haven’t found out the specifics about that trip. Then about a year ago, he announces that he’s getting married in Sedona, Arizona. I’m not big on weddings, no matter how good a friend someone is, so I cannot offer details about that event either. Today we got together to talk about travels, discuss some technology threads, touch on politics, evolution, taxes, and just shoot the poop.

Aug 092011

Patou Cheval at Starbucks in Phoenix, Arizona

Meet Patou Cheval, I did at Starbucks today. But this wasn’t simply meeting someone for the first time, I have known Patou for about 8 years. Not that you could call us friends, our meetings have all been in the realm of chance encounters. Today though, this became downright strange. You see, I first met Patou with her husband, she was pregnant. I was watching my friend Sonal’s Indian grocery when this couple came in and the 3 of us spent some time talking. It is on rare occasion that Sonal asks me to step in to watch the store for a few hours, or maybe a day. It was again on one of those days that Patou came in with her mom with her new born daughter.

Some years would pass before on some random day when I was picking up lunch for Caroline that I see Patou in the  vitamin shop, where she was working. I stopped to say hi and was quickly off. Again a year or 2 passes and I’m in Whole Foods shopping and guess who is working in the non-foods section? Yep, Patou. I saw here again another couple of times and then a couple of years of nothing. A little more than a year or there abouts, Caroline and I were leaving Paradise Valley Mall and guess who should be walking into the mall at the same entry / exit we are using? Right, it was Patou, but this time with her two daughters. We talked a while and said goodbye.

Now here we are a year later and maybe 8 miles from our last chance encounter. I had just sat down to work on my book and over my shoulder I think I am recognizing someone’s voice – sure enough, it is Patou. We were both astounded and agreed there was something peculiar about how this has now happened nearly half-a-dozen times since our first hello of 8 years ago. Caroline, Patou, and I have sent tentative plans to meet for dinner, how much you want to bet the best made plans never come to fruition and 2 years down the road, we’ll run into each other while on vacation is another state?