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The main purpose of this blog is as a permanent record of my adventures throughout the Americas by motorcycle. Feel free to comment or ask me any questions - I'm an open book.

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Sunday, 22 April 2012

Montreal in Spring

Spring is in the air in Montreal, and the landscape is definitely changing. When I first arrived here, there was nothing but tree trunks and twigs for gardens, and the lawns resembled tilled fields. However, the last few weeks have resulted in an explosion of flowers, and the city is slowly turning green. Up until now I have avoided visiting the parks in Montreal for the most part because brown dirt and twigs hold no interest for me. But the time was ripe, and so over the last few weeks I visited the Biodome, Ecomuseum and Parc Lafontaine.

Bicycles are really only practical during the warmer months (in fact, motorcycles are only allowed on the road for six months of year) but Montreal really takes advantage. The Bixi bike rental system was created in 2008 by the Montreal parking authority and consists of hundreds of stations where people can rent one of the over 5,000 bikes (a machine resembling a parking meter accepts credit card payment and unlocks bikes). People can borrow the bikes for trips up to 45 minutes, after which a 'late' fee of sorts begins to occur. However, if you need to ride for longer than 45 minutes (ie to the shops and back) you simply hire another bike for the second half of your trip. The system is very popular with Montrealers, and has been replicated across North America and Europe.

The Montreal Biodome is located in the former olympic velodrome, and contains four seperate ecosystems, ranging from the American rainforest to a polar (both Arctic and Antarctic) exhibit. Of most interest to me was the Laurentian forest and marine systems, typical of the area surrounding Montreal. The crowd favourite was deifnitely the Antarctic ecosystem, as the penguins stole the show. The stark contrast in the creatures' grace above and below the sea is remarkable, and reminded me that unlike the Arctic, penguins have no large predators on land. They would definitely struggle to escape from a polar bear!

The Ecomuseum is confusingly named. In reality it is more of an animal refuge/zoo than a museum. Animals that are born into captivity, orphaned or injured are housed and displayed here. The species included black bears, caribou, owls, eagles, racoons and turkeys. All the animals were native, and so were exotic for foreigners like myself. It was the first time I had ever seen either a lynx, porcupine, and arctic fox, and was quite enjoyable. Fun fact for the day: most deer and moose actually 'drop' their antlers and regrow them every year! Still yet to see a moose or beaver, but apparently moose are abundant in Newfoundland, so I made a mental note to keep an eye out.

While checking out the wildlife, I've been closely examining the Montreal nightlife. Montreal has a wide variety of nightlife, from dive bars, to high class lounge bars, to the ubiqutous Irish pubs. Compared to Perth, there are more venues, but generally of a smaller size. The twins both work at a pub called the Cock 'n' Bull, so that is our defacto local. There are two main strips in Montreal - rue Sainte-Catherine & rue Crescent, both of which offer a suite of drinking and eating options. Sainte-Catherine has a bit of a rep as it is home to nearly a dozen strip clubs, including the infamous Club Supersexe, complete with neon signs of superhero strippers.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Gastronomic Adventures, Part 3 - Poutine

Poutine is a newly traditional food in Québec, consisting of a bowl of fries drenched in cheese curd and gravy. It is definitely not for the faint hearted or those with heartburn issues, but will fill you up like nothing else. For those of you in Perth, the Flying Scotsman in Mt Lawley has something similar. I love this stuff, but it always makes me feel a little sick afterwards. Goes great with beer though.

Gastronomic Adventures, Part 2 - Maple Syrup

The cuisine in Montreal is delicious, but not for those with a family history of heart disease! I will write about one of the most unique food items (poutine) soon, but right now I'd like to focus on Canada's most famous edible export - maple syrup. Boiled down from the sap of the sugar Maple tree (which only exists on the eastern side of Canada), the famous topping is ubiqutous in Canadian cooking. For Easter dinner at Eric's parents house, I enjoyed maple syrup glazed ham, mashed vegetables with maple syrup, maple pie (syrup reduced to a fudge-like consistency) and of course, the syrup itself. Heaven. The syrup season had ended, but apparently its a popular thing to travel to the country and feast on maple products direct from the farm itself. Compared to the fake stuff at home, it is far thicker (like heated honey) and sweeter.

Montreal, Part 1

I headed out from Boston and boarded the famous Greyhound bus line to Montreal in Québec, Canada. As this was a night bus, we crossed the border at approximately 4:30 in the AM. As it turns out, immigration officers at this particular border crossing hold 9-5 hours, and so the customs officials were less than happy to process an Australian with a working visa. And my French is not adequate so early in the morning, so I insisted on English, which didn't help. And so it was me that held up the bus of Canadians and Americans, while my visa was processed. not the best start to my stay in Canada, but I was in.

Québec remains a primarily francophone country, and this point of difference lends itself to a fierce independance felt by some of its inhabitants. To sum up a particularly sensitive and important issue in such a format won't do it justice, and so if you're interested in understanding more about the Québecois, I'd simply suggest you start here. All I will say is that it is a sensitive issue here, but one that is very interesting to an Australian - we don't have any questions about our official language, but some parallels can be drawn to the republican debate at home.

Montreal is the first city on this trip in which I knew people, and so marks the beginning of my international couch surfing experience. Eric visited Oz back in 2008, and graciously has let me stay with him for a couple of weeks. He lives in the apartment with his girlfriend Roxanne, her twin sister Vanessa, and Matt, an Australian who has come over to play rugby in Canada. After getting picked up and settled in, I set about checking out the sights and sounds of Montreal.

Matt, Roxanne & Eric (Vanessa was busy breaking her finger in a car door at the time)

As one of the oldest cities in North America, Montreal abounds with history and curiosities. But to learn this hostory, one needs a good grasp of French. The city of Montreal lies on a series of islands on the St Lawrence river, and the river (as is the case with most cities) played a large role in the early years of the city. The old part of town is a quaint, cobblestone labyrinth, reminiscent of Paris, a city it was no doubt modeled upon. The city hall and related bildings certainly remind me of similar buildings in different cities in France.

Montreal has played host to a variety of big name events, most notably the World's Fair and 1976 Olympic games. Coming into spring, Canada isn't exactly a tropical oasis atm and I was told to leave the World's fair site for a summer day. The Olympic stadium is interesting, but not for the right reasons. Apparently, it was such a ridicuolously expensive design that it has only recently been paid off, and that corruption was so rife during construction (concrete was diverted to build foundations for builders' homes), that it is already falling apart.

The Stade Olympique - a serious amount of (missing) concrete

I caught up with another friend, Bonnie for dinner one night to catch up and for me to see a bit of the town. She's always a barrel of laughs, so it was good to see her again. She lives in the gay part of town, and has offered to take me around the clubs in the area, so who knows - in the next entry I may be able to offer a look at the 'other' part of town!

One thing Montreal takes seriously is its hockey. the Montreal Canadiens (the Habs) is one of the oldest and most successful teams in sporting history. As the last game in the season was both at home and against local rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was a must-do on my list. Tickets weren't easy to come by, but I got them online in Feburary, and so Eric and I headed off to the Bell Centre to watch the Habs smash the Leafs 3-1. A few observations from someone who has only seen the game previously on tv: the puck is alot easier to follow live than onscreen, they take breaks in the game for commercials, and nothing can prepare you for 20,000 screaming, mental fans in a small, indoor arena. It was insane, and brilliant. I wouldn't say I'm a passionate fan yet, but I definitely have more of an interest now.

Beer is everywhere here. Every Depanneur (convenience store) sells beer and wine (liquor is sold through specific SAQ outlets), and the volumes. Dear god, the volumes. I recently went through (not on the same night): a 1.18L bottle of 10.1% beer, a 4L jug of normal beer, and participated in a 10L tower of beer (Mat, this has your name on it when you get up here!)! It's reasonably cheap, although factoring the returns (Québec has a container deposit scheme similar to South Australia), it is bargain basement prices all round. Good Stuff. I'm making it my duty to try them all.

Thankfully, the beer doesn't get cold quick here!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Gastronomic Adventures, Part 1 - Clam Chowder

A local delicacy in New England is Clam Chowder (pronounced "chow-da") soup, served in a hollowed out sourdough bun. The recipe changes dramatically as you cross the country, and each area considers theirs the best. New England style chowder features a milk or cream base, with potatoes, crackers and onions, as well as the obvious clams. I have to say that Boston does seem to have it down. It tasted great, and went down a treat on such a cold day.

Boston, MA

Said goodbye to New York and headed from my hostel on 87th st down to Chinatown to catch the cheap bus to Boston. While the subway is undeniably popular and efficient, it isn't geared towards the disabled, or those carrying large bags. Those stairs are killer. Combined with an early morning run up along the Hudson (in thermals and a beanie!) and I was feeling ready for a nap on the bus to Boston.

Boston, MA is one of the oldest cities in the US, steeped in history, particularly as the flashpoint of the American revolution and consequent birth of modern democracy. The local universities (Harvard and MIT amongst them) contribute to this rich tapestry of history, and combined with Fenway park (home of the Red Sox) provide a beautiful range of both architecture and parklands that make Boston a truly beautiful city. A statistic to note is that during semester, 1 in 5 Bostonians are attending one of the many universities - It is the highest density of college students of any city in the western hemisphere.

Boston, taken from Boston Public Park & Commons - America's 1st Botanical Gardens & Park respectively

The must-see sight in Boston is without a doubt the freedom trail. Starting in the Boston Commons/Public Garden, the trail passes famous landmarks such as the old north church, the old state house, and the Bunker Hill monument. I found a mp3 guide online, which proved a cheap and interesting way to see the sights. I won't go into too much detail, but the whole experience was fascintaing, especially as a foreigner with a differing view on imperialism.

The Old state house - site of the Boston 'Massacre'

One of the lesser known sights in Boston is the site of the Molasses Disaster of 1919. A tank near the wharf ruptured, and 8,700 cubic metres of molasses poured out into the street. The 40 foot wave resulted in the killing 21 people and injuring of hundreds. Rescuers struggled to pull people from the sticky substance, and the cleanup took weeks. It is said that even now, on a hot day, that the smell of molasses can be detected in the area.

The hostel was across the road from Boston's premier sports stadium, the garden - host of the both the Boston Celtics and Bruins. But on saturday, there was only one show in town - the one, the only, the Harlem Globetrotters. Facing the designated bad guys, the "international elite" for the world championship, the game was a polished display of basketball and athletic skills, with a generous helping of comedy thrown in. The result went according to the script, with the Globetrotters winning with seconds to go. The seriousness of the game is all but forgotten as slapstick comedy and trickshots become the focus. Definitely an entertaining evening, albeit one geared more for families.

The Garden - Home to both the Celtics and Bruins

Boston is now a knowledge hub, with many prestigious universities such as Harvard and MIT. A visit to both these campuses across the river from downtown Boston is a must on any itinerary. Founded in 1636, Harvard university is based in the town of Cambridge (a homage to the alma mater of the original academics) and is a beautiful campus. While MIT is much younger and is less architecturally interesting, it is academically superior in the engineering game.

Widener Library - The Harvard Library System is one of the largest, with over 15 million volumes