Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Thanksgiving Across the Border

Thanksgiving weekend is the single biggest travel weekend of the year in the United States. Because of this, air travel is more expensive and good seats are harder to find. Because of this, I did not travel back home to Tennessee for Thanksgiving this year, nor did I visit friends and family in Georgia. (For the first time in four years, I also did not play in the pit orchestra for Columbus (GA) Ballet's production of The Nutcracker.) So instead, I took a road trip.
Jeff, a friend of mine who served with me in the bands at Ft. Benning and Ft. McPherson, told me a while back that he had the urge to go visit Montreal, the largest city in the Canadian Francophone province of Quebec. So once I decided that flying was out of the question and that it's less than a four-hour drive from Watertown, NY to Montreal, we decided to use the four-day weekend to hang out in Canada.
Thursday afternoon I crossed the border about twenty-six miles from where I live and work. I arrived at the airport just in time to pick up Jeff after he retrieved his baggage, and we headed for the Best Western Europa in downtown Montreal. After checking in and unloading, we bundled up for a walk around the area. The hotel had an ideal location, near several shops and restaurants and close to the city's Metro subway system. (We were also just down the street from Centre Bell, the arena that is home to the fabled Montreal Canadiens hockey team, but attending a game was not on the agenda this weekend. Which is fine, because we probably couldn't have gotten tickets.) We ate at a food court in an underground mall, and I was surprised by the way that many people there casually and randomly switch between speaking English and French. Montreal is what I'd call "comfortably bilingual," and many people there seem comfortable using either language. That was fine for me, as I haven't attempted to speak French regularly since I took 200-level French my freshman year in college. Jeff's French is better than mine, probably because he used to be stationed in Europe. No doubt I'd have a harder time in other Quebec cities where the population is more adamant about speaking only French. Several locals also seemed to think Jeff was from France because of his accent, which was noticeably different from the rather bizarre accent that the Quebecois have. (Actually Jeff's family is from Thailand.) We wrapped up the evening at a local pub, Les 3 Brasseurs, where Jeff bought one of their custom glasses to add to his collection.
Friday was mostly spent shopping (Jeff says it's easier to find things in his diminutive size in Canada than in the US), browsing bookstores, and trying to avoid the constant rain. I suggested going to Le Tour Montreal, the world's tallest inclined tower. It is located next to Stade Olympique (Olympic Stadium), built for the 1976 Summer Olympics and former home to the Montreal Expos baseball team (now the Washington Nationals). This made for our first trip on Montreal's excellent Metro system, the smoothest subway I've ever ridden. Upon exiting the train, we saw a partitioned area that looked like a ticket line for the tower. Instead, it was a ticket line for people getting the H1N1 Flu Vaccine, and once we realized that we were about to get shots, it took quite a bit of us repeating "pas de vaccine!" to convince the workers that we were there as tourists, not patients. We finally made our way out of the station, which is actually located under the stadium, and walked all the way around to the tower. We decided to go back the next day, as we were told the weather was causing near zero visibility. We took the train to Vieux Montreal, the old part of the city with brick streets and old stone buildings. After exploring a fascinating shop with lots of Renaissance-themed items, we ate at a very upscale restaurant with excellent salmon and hot fresh bread. To sample the city's nightlife, we chose a club within reasonable walking distance from the hotel and stood in line (in the rain, with umbrellas) for quite a while before we got in. It reminded me of why I don't go clubbing much--too loud, too crowded, and I have more skill with ballroom dancing than club dancing--but it did give me a chance to confirm that there are a lot of good-looking women in Montreal.
Saturday began with a trip to Chinatown and a meal at one of the local Chinese restaurants, which was excellent, though I found myself amused by the prospect of ordering in French at a Chinese establishment. From there we walked to the pier area and got a lot of pictures--the sun was out and much more pleasant than Friday's unending rain! We returned to the tower, finally getting to ride the inclined elevator to the top and enjoy the spectacular near-360-degree view of the city and of mountains and hills in the distance. (One can also get a dizzying view of the formerly-sort-of-retractable-roof of the stadium, suspended by cables connected to the tower.) After this, we used our comprehensive-package tickets to the adjacent Biodome, an indoor nature museum built in the fomer Olympic Velodrome. The Biodome contains a fascinating array of monkeys, fish, trees, and birds (one of whom used me as a "target," if you will, to Jeff's great amusement) and is worth a trip if you're in the area. Just don't wear any expensive clothing. Trust me.
Saturday night, we went to a production at the city's most notable church, the Basilique Notre- Dame de Montreal. It was an audio-visual presentation of the history of the founding of Montreal and the building of the church. (Notre Dame carries the honorific of Basilica because it is not a cathedral; it does not have the correct shape for one.) After the presentation, we took some time to admire the architectural magnificence of the Basilica and the detail that can be found all over the building. Dinner was at St. Hubert, a chicken-oriented restaurant that had outstanding chicken pot pie and HD screens showing the hockey game taking place a block from the hotel. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Montreal Jazz Festival building, home to the Festival and a relaxing place to sit at the bar and relax after a long day.
Sunday, I drove Jeff back to the airport for his flight to Georgia, and I drove back after stopping at McDonald's to order some breakfast (in French, of course). This was my first extended trip to Canada, and with the relatively short travel distance I'll have to go back to Montreal soon and enjoy more of what the North American continent's most Continental city has to offer.

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