Oct 212011

Old Montreal in the province of Quebec, Canada

Sometimes when we travel, the weather isn’t perfect, or so it seems in the moment. Overcast, doesn’t make for vibrant travel photos, but it does focus the eye on details in closer proximity to our path. From under the gray cloud cover it becomes difficult to grab an image of beauty that conveys to the viewer the delight had by the photographer. So, instead of trying to capture the elusive, it was in my best interest to fix on what I was going to get from this visit to Old Montreal. We started early with a walk on nearly empty streets from our hotel to the river’s edge, then on into the historic district.

Canadian Indian art made of whale bone, likely Inuit

Experience has taught us that to feel a moment of the heartbeat of a city one should rise with the waking locals. Move within their routine. Take pause in their footsteps. See their domain across the timescape of the early morning through the late of night. Old Montreal has all the feel of many an old European city, save for these artistic reminders of the subarctic cultures that populate the northern climes of Canada.

Building facade on the streets of Old Montreal, Canada

All that’s missing right now, is the fog in the late of night, the lamp flickering with the light of a gas flame, and the slow clip-clop sound of a horse pulling a carriage, as we walk along the dark alley. A tip of the hat and a bid for safe evening is offered; we scurry along, music and laughter from a local bar is heard in the distance. Mysteries hidden behind stone facades are better served on cobblestone streets. Our tour of the old town continues.

Inside Notre Dame Montreal

This is Notre-Dame Basilica Montreal, and it is stunning. The Canadian French take their Saints and religion seriously. Well, maybe they don’t anymore, but the history of their ancestors belief in the Almighty can be witnessed across the landscape and on most of the major streets. For example, the basilica is on 424 Rue Saint Sulpice. After our gawking visit, we will collect a coffee and board the subway at Rue Saint-Urbain – Saints everywhere.

Cranberries for sale at Jean-Talon Market in Montreal, Canada

If you want to feel like you are in a real city, not just some spread-everywhere metropolis-of-conformity (like, say, Phoenix), a subway lends an air of authenticity that you are in a place that deserves a rapid means of transport to the far corners of its community. The idea being, there are places here worth visiting spread across the map – not just another shopping center down the road. Our destination is another of those bastions of local culture – the farmers market.

Caroline Wise enjoying cinnamon spiced hot cranberry juice at the Jean-Talon Market in Montreal, Canada

We are at the Jean-Talon Market in the Little Italy district of Montreal. The lady who was selling the cranberries in the photo above Caroline, also sold her own cranberry juice. Local markets are not always tourist destinations, so do not expect much of your tongue to be spoken, and forget about signage that will help you navigate. Do not, though, discount your own intuition. The big metal beverage dispenser with French words likely offers something yummy, I go for it. With my best pronunciation of the French word for 1 and a sharp pointing of my finger, I order “one of those.” The lady, recognizing my incredible mastery of her language, throws a string of French words in my direction, obviously asking me something I am going to easily understand (not), my only response is, oui – I could be relatively certain she wasn’t asking if I’d like a disease mixed into my drink. Good thing I’m Mr. International, not only are we surprised to find out that the cranberry juice is served hot, the vendor’s question had been, “Would you like this with a dash of cinnamon?” Try it yourself, it’s as perfect as a spiced cider on a chilly fall day.

Photos of some of the variety of fruits and vegetables available during fall at the Jean-Talon Market in Montreal, Canada

The fall harvest is on display in abundance. At this point, Montreal becomes a truly livable city to Caroline and I. This is also the time we start to recognize one of the peculiar differences between the United States and Canada – the cost of food. Breakfast at the truck stop yesterday was expensive considering we all had your basic bacon and egg breakfast. Here at the market we find prices for fresh food we haven’t seen in five years across the border. Four-pound cauliflower for $2, 2.5 pounds of creamer potatoes cost $3, a bushel of apples for $10, a basket of four eggplant – only $3. One could get the impression that there is a subtle encouragement for people to avoid the convenience of fast food, and invest their time in cooking at home – how weird is that?

Fresh bread from a bakery at Jean-Talon Market in Montreal, Canada

But is Montreal perfect? We will have to verify this with visit to a bakery and a cheese monger. Being at a farmers market, and a French one at that, it should be obvious that a boulangerie and fromagerie would be nearby. I beg for an answer to the question, how did we Americans fall into Wonderbread and Kraft Slices? The bakery is big, busy, and full of a wide variety of crusty breads, treats, baguettes. Around the corner, on narrow aisles, cheeses of every sort and beautiful stench are available for sampling. If it weren’t for all the incredible infinitely explorable landscape in the states, I do believe we would have to transplant ourselves to live amongst a people who appreciate a well satisfied palate with a good dose of art, music, or theater to round out a day. No, New York City does not fit this bill, as the bills for living there require herculean salaries.

Caroline Wise enjoying a glass of Boreal beer at La Banquise in Montreal, Canada

From cranberry juice to hops juice. It’s lunchtime and Caroline opts for a beer. Before we get to the beer though, we first begin what should have been a long walk back towards our hotel. While we enjoy the subway, underground we see little besides the stations, so we decide to walk and take in some more sightseeing. And we walk. By now our feet are getting sore, heck with all this walking. Plus, we had bought four train tickets anticipating that we would ride the 4-mile return, sparing our feet. Time to hop on the metro. The slight discomfort isn’t the only thing pushing us to hurry.

Poutine with mushrooms, onions, green peppers from La Banquise in Montreal, Canada

We are returning to La Banquise for more poutine. I wanted to try some good French home-cooking but that wasn’t easy to find, while the warm comfort of gravy laden fries with cheese beckoned like a lighthouse on the horizon. Yes, we feel guilty about taking the path of least resistance, of not being adventurous and dipping into the unknown – but we are talking about POUTINE! If you haven’t had it, you cannot know, you cannot judge the measure of our sloth and simultaneous delight. Now excuse me while I indulge my senses in the memories of our mushroom, onion, green pepper, and cheese curd lunch.

A French squirrel in Montreal, Canada

Anyone who knows Caroline and I knows that we love nature. Continuing our compatibility test with Montreal, we head into the local wilds, Lafontaine Park. This 100-acre park is Mount Royal’s (bet you hadn’t considered Montreal’s translation) largest park, it will serve as our basis for observing nature and wildlife that might be found in the city. Squirrels, this was as good as it got. Lots of squirrels are scampering up trees, across the grass, but these were fierce squirrels showing little concern for the multitude of dogs who might be interested in a quick game of chase. This carelessness is probably not good for these well-fed chunky specimens of squirreldom.

Nose picking allowed

It’s time to start moving away from Montreal, feeling that we have a good taste of what the city has to offer. One stop remains for our Intro To Montreal Tour, L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal. Construction began back in 1904, but from the inside, one feels as though this is one of the most modern Basilica to be found amongst churches of this type. So modern and open minded, that the signs within the facility let visitors know it’s okay for their children to pick their noses.

Panoramic view of Montreal from St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, Canada

Making our way up the steep climb, we are offered a terrific panoramic view of the city. This is where a beautiful sunny day would have paid off for taking a spectacular photo.

The heart of Saint Andre on display at St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, Canada

As I said earlier, if the overcast view doesn’t offer up a great photo opp, better start looking for details. And what curious detail at St. Joseph’s was it that arrested our attention? Saint Andre Bessette’s heart. No longer pumping, but in apparent good shape after 74 years of resting outside his body. So we are religious noobs, but various body parts on display for worship strikes the two of us as a bit weird. I’m certain that upon my death, there are rules against my wife keeping parts of me.

Candle Lite-Brite for God at St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, Canada

The greatest display of candles I’ve seen is here in Montreal at St. Joseph’s. Is this where the concept for Lite-Brite began? At first glance, I hadn’t noticed the pattern between red and clear glass candle holders. I can make out Joseph and Patron, but the rest must be in French. A small gate allows followers to climb the narrow steps on left and right to ascend the heavens and light a candle. This would surely be illegal in America due to liability laws and the concern that someone might brush an article of clothing over the candles, immolating themselves before god and whatever children might be present. How long until this visual is used in a movie?

The illuminated sign for Motel Villa D'Autray in Lanoraie, Canada

About to bring the day to a close, we drive out of Montreal and once clear of the city, start looking for a room. Dinner tonight was on the road  where we indulged on more of our stash of onion bread, cheese, and sausage – we bow down before Cathy for this little luxury. We find the small village of Lanoraie, 42 miles down the road, it offers up Motel Villa D’Autray. Our host doesn’t speak English beyond hello, I offer back bon soir. Our French language mini-guidebook suggest I try “Combien s’il vous plait,” she understands and shows me a rate card. We’re in business, I pay the $65 for a great little room right across the street from the St. Lawrence Seaway. The flannel sheets were awesome, the bed comfy, we were quick to sleep.

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.

Aug 122011

Texaz Grill in Phoenix, Arizona

No, I didn’t drive to Texas for lunch, I had lunch at the Texaz Grill at Bethany Home Rd and 16th St. in Phoenix, Arizona. It was after the lunch crowds had departed that I sat down for my meal. There were some folks at the bar laughing it up and a couple of other tables occupied, but Mondays through Fridays by 3:00 p.m. things are pretty quiet at most restaurants around the valley. The Texaz Grill is the place you want to go for Chicken Fried Steak. On the other hand, Texaz Grill is not the place to go if you are trying to eat healthy, hence I come here alone as I have not rebelled yet against my obesity, while everyone else I know seems to have found dietary enlightenment.

Aug 042011

Dead cucumber's tell no tales

When a restaurant gets things consistently right, you know that you have found the place that deserves extra merit and respect. Well, that’s what I have found at Sabas Mediterranean Restaurant on the corners of Bell Rd and Tatum Blvd. Today, I ordered a salad and asked my server, George, to kill the cucumbers. For my appetizer he delivered the proof that he had, in fact, honored my request. Dead and bleeding from its nose and mouth, the lifeless cuke-corpse was served to me on a platter. To taste the sweet victory over this ugly vegetable that is of little use to the likes of me, George poked a toothpick into its eye allowing any of my table mates a clean grab and devouring of its now lifeless bitter wretchednes. Before our very eyes, this pathetic member of the gourd family started turning green, rotting right there on the table.

Dead cukes don't wear plaid

Little did I know that the best was yet to come. A filthy little cucumber cousin of the dead guy above tried to hide in a nearby salad, probably thinking it would find revenge by jumping into my dish. George was right there on top of things. With all the professionalism I would expect from such a reputable establishment, in a flourish of stealthy action, George moved in and with frontier justice, dispatched this errant cylindrical menace with a quick fork through the eye and into the feeble brain of Mr. Pickle Head. Score two for George!

Three guys at the next table, obviously impressed with the special service I was receiving enquired if I were a celebrity or famous writer; I had to tell them the truth, "This is the honor all customers of Sabas receive when placing special orders, we are all celebrities here." The guys handed me their card, they were working undercover as investigators for their website; Sammich.es – that’s right, just the way it sounds Sammich.es, skip the dot com, they are dot es, as in Sammiches. Not to be confused with Sandwiches. They told me how by day they work as mild mannered graphic something or others, but I didn’t buy that, they all looked like foodies to me, professional full-time kind of foodies. Anyway, they said, visit our site, we know all the great stacked dead veggie restaurants. Next stop, Sammich.es.

Aug 012011

Maria and Nelson Tello, owners of a local donkey shack.

This is Maria and Nelson, they are the new owners of a local fast food Mexican restaurant as of today. Yesterday they were workers at this place, now they are living the American dream. Not that this was their big dream, but it is an opportunity to work hard, put some money away, and maybe have a better chance and making something that speaks to their creativity. Nelson and Maria have been friends of ours for over five years now and over that time Nelson has made great progress as a photographer and the occasional graphic designer. Maria has ventured into short video tutorials about makeup and flirted with some photography too. I know their real interests are in the arts and technology, not in working a grill and doing dishes, but we all start somewhere. I wish the two of them much luck.