Object of My Desire

“You don’t understand, I need that credit card back!!”

I almost fell to my knees to pray to Allah, Goddess, anyone.

Montreal, I really like you.  It’s been fun meeting new people and getting an invite to one of the coolest brewpubs in the city.  You know what’s wonderful about you?  I’ll walk past a Reitman’s and beside it is a Catholic church built in the 1700’s.  How do you do that?  Make the ordinary so extraordinary?  The point is I’m late.  Very.  Of course it was my fault I got off at St. Laurent instead of  Laurier, started hoofing it, realizing these ineffectual feet couldn’t possibly make it to Dieu du Ciel on time.  And I am grateful for the chance to have this time.  Whoever I have to thank – big hugs and kisses. And here’s my blood in exchange. But come on, an $8.00 cab ride towards disaster?

The cab driver was amiable, but took forever to process my card, slide it through the machinery already – I wanted to shout at him to hurry.

It was a slow-mo replay, he seemed to take hours instead of minutes to complete the visa slip.

He had my card cradled on his thigh when it slid off and disappeared.

Semi panic singed my throat as he clumsily handed me the slip with a goofy smile.  You realize THAT was 1 of 2 cards I have with me.  PERIOD.

My voice struggled to remain casual.  “Oh yeah,  guess I need my card back.  Can you find it?”

“Sure, no prob.”

It was momentairly amusing to watch a grown man root underneath his butt cheeks, until he produced nothing.

“Hmm.. that’s weird, it was just here.”

Weird or scam?  Was this guy playing me?

That’s when I spluttered with “don’t understand, NEED this card back”.

His eyes registered my message.

He moved the seat back, wasn’t there.  We moved the seat forward.  Fingers squished between the seat and gearbox.  Big fat zero.  We lifted the back and front mats, maddeningly absent.

He wanted to pull off to the side, I stressed needing to tell my friend I was here, given I was an hour late already.

“If I run in, you’re not going to take off are you?”

“Trust me sweetie, if I didn’t have to be here, I wouldn’t be.”  Why did that sound like my love life?

He pulled up next to Dieu du Ciel and I ran in, told Andy, Andy ran out to help.

We kept moving the seats, using the cab driver’s flashlight on his cell phone to peer between the seats or gearbox.

His pants were steadily sliding down until all I saw was white cotton underwear.  He was sweating heartily.  As was I.

Andy stood by handing me pens.

Any vestige of calm crumbled.  Where the hell was this card??

It was finally determined through detailed detective work that my card had slipped inside the gearbox where the handbrake sat.  IN-FUCKING-SIDE.

Andy kept handing me pens – how the hell would that help??  Poking is not what I need.  A crowbar.  A bodybuilder.  Someone on illicit drugs who believes he has superhuman strength.  SOMEONE.

Cab driver tried to lift the plastic cover off the gearbox to no avail.  I tried to poke my small hand in grabbing at it like a fish nipping at coral plankton.

I kept drilling into him that I’m on a round-the-world trip, I need this card, getting another one is not an option.  You understand??

At one point I started to tear at the cover and almost pulled it off, surprised my underdeveloped fingers had such strength.

All the floor mats were strewn on the pavement.  Credit card slips lay scattered across the back seat, evidence of a ransack, not an innocent cab ride.  The doors swung open, a pure scene of chaos against the muggy evening of the Plateau.

The credit card had shifted so far down we couldn’t even see it any longer.

I’ve never wanted a single object so desperately in my life – no man, piece of clothing, even sustenance could compare.

Just the thought of having to deal with credit card companies.

I felt bad for the cab driver who announced this wasn’t even his car and he was covering for a friend.

DUDE, I feel for you.  But…. To call and cancel my card, when it’s right there, within reach???  That’s injustice.  Sorely unfair!!

Calls to dispatch resulted in a discovery, a screw driver housed in the side pocket on the driver’s side.

Within minutes my Mastercard with a ladybug embossed on it was free.

Shaking with joy and relief, I pulled a sweaty, stressed cab driver towards me, planting a kiss on his cheek.  Hallelujah!

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!!”

We parted ways, leaving the poor guy in a heap on the driver’s seat.  So much for covering for a friend.

Dieu du Ciel was packed.  The beer, divine (try Rosée d’hibiscus 5%), but something marked the evening.

How quickly travel can switch from serene to straight up insanity.

The card was free, but was I?  When 200 objects are narrowed down to 50, look how precious they become.

Are objects just as significant in travel as in life?

But still, the beer tasted sweet and so did victory over disaster averted again.  Until next time.

Photo: Herman Yung

By |October 13th, 2010 |Categories: Montreal |30 Comments

5 Best Eats in Montreal

It was touch and go with Montreal.  I was stonewalled in areas like Frontenac or Old Montreal, wondering if I could take another limpy, fishy tasting cod fillet or tasteless salad.  Realizing I was hanging in the wrong areas, this hungry traveler eventually found her treasures, and then some.

1. Poutine – La Banquise

Several eastern towns in Quebec lay claim to inventing this hugely popular dish.  Poutine is everywhere – sold in fast food chains or local eateries.  A foodie investigator might find all that poutine confusing, so where is the best? I happily introduce La Banquise.  Recommended to me by Jodi Ettenberg, I was impressed with a few things.  It’s not immediately close to a Metro, a terrific way to work for the grease.  Because it’s a fair walk, you get the chance to sober up or realize how soddening drunk you are.  It’s open 24 hours a day.  They not only serve classic or vegetarian, but theme poutine.  Mexican or an Elvis anyone?  Above all, the price was beyond reasonable for a serving fit for two of me.  Go!  You must.  Address: 994 Rachel East.  +1-514.525.2415. Close to Sherbrooke or Mont Royal Metro. www.restolabanquise.com.  Price range: $7 to $15 CDN.


2. Vegetarian or Organic – Bonny’s

This place was discovered because of a happy accident, or was it serendipitous?  It was a good thing  Griffontown Cafe’s doors were closed in the height of a Wednesday morning, while Bonny’s proved wide and welcoming.  We sat down to a full lunch – organic chai latte, smooth carrot soup, empanadas made of spelt flour, tofu, spinach, salsa and salad.  I ended the meal with a rich, chocoloate tofu mousse.  Besides my own lunch, their menu offers intensely tasty soups or what’s famously known as the Boca Burger.  Fresh ingredients and a chilled atmosphere invoked some of my favorite vegetarian haunts in Vancouver.  Address: 1748 Rue-Notre Dame St. West. +1-514-931-4136.  Close to Georges-Vanier Metro. www.bonnys.ca.  Price range:$6 to $15 CDN.



3.  Sushi – Aka-Fuji

Dismiss sushi. Those were my initial thoughts when I first arrived in Montreal.  I had been staying in Verdun for sometime before discovering Aka-Fuji.  Literally there wasn’t a soul in the restaurant, typically a bad sign for a traveler.  Verdun is punctuated by Wellington, a well-known street in Montreal  This restaurant had the sense to create a roll named after the street.  With slices of yam, the roll has a tempura outer coating, then topped with masago sriracha sauce.  After stuffing myself, dessert was green tea ice cream.  The sushi is pared down, which allows the full-bodied flavors to emerge.  I. Loved. It. Address: 3872 Rue Wellington. +1-514-223-4262.  Off the LaSalle Metro.  www.aka-fuji.com.  Price range: $6 to 17 CDN.


4.  Portuguese – Braseiro

My one culinary complaint about Montreal was the profound lack of decent seafood.  I encountered tough, bland, or downright vomit worthy.  A friend suggested we try Braseiro.  A far distance from the Jarry Metro, the long jaunt was worth it.  I ordered a succulent grilled cod and the portion was larger than my head!  It was salty, but off-set by boiled potatoes, grilled veggies and olives.  A small venue, intimate for family outings or date night, the entire place was packed, a clear sign of it’s reputation.  Well known for more than cod, you can satisfy with grilled squid or salmon.  Meat lovers can enjoy juicy steaks or roasted, succulent chicken.  This restaurant is so word of mouth they don’t even have a website.  Lucky you’re reading this article. Address: 8261 Saint Laurent. +1-514-389-0606.  Off the Jarry Metro.  Price range: $10 to $30 CDN.


5. Bagels – St-Viateur Bagel

A city known for bagels, I managed to lockdown a scrumptious breakfast and score bagel action at St-Viateur. Open since 1957, this Montreal staple is divided between several bakery locations and cafes.  My veggie omelet was dressed with hashbrowns, and a crispy, chewy bagel.  You can also request another if one doesn’t satisfy.  I did. They have a broad choice of locations so I recommend reviewing their website: www.stviateurbagel.com.  Price range: bagels or bagel sandwiches $2 to $4 CDN.  Brunches were around $10 to $14 CDN.


By |October 1st, 2010 |Categories: Montreal |25 Comments

Worst Washroom of the Week

Navigating the stairs of washroom doom?  Not a sound idea…

Montreal, Quebec

By |September 18th, 2010 |Categories: Montreal |7 Comments

Toronto Subway vs Montreal Metro – A Comparison

If you’re a Canadian, two major cities on everyone’s lips are Toronto and Montreal.  The two most populated cities in Canada boast extensive train systems, and yours truly had to navigate both on a daily basis.  So, how do the two stack up?

Access

Toronto: While in Toronto, I stayed in two fairly densely populated areas, Yonge and Spadina.  Both subway stations were a bit of a walk, at least 15 minutes.  The stations in general are laid out decently, but seem to cover a concentrated area.  The Yonge-Unversity-Spadina line is a U-shape, while the Bloor Danforth runs east and west, leaving out some grey areas in between.

Toronto platform

Montreal: No matter where I was in the city, or what time of day a Metro station was always near.  Whether hanging in Verdun, The Plateau, or NDG, I never felt stressed about finding a station to return to my hovel.  Montreal’s lines are organized by color and destination name, which renders it simple to understand, even if you’re a lowly Anglophone. The orange line is a U-shape, but two separate lines (blue and green) intersect at different zones in the city east and west.  That’s a lot of coverage.

Metro turnstiles

The winner? Montreal.  Excellent access all around!

Layout of Stations

Toronto: Their system is a veteran, first built in 1954 with 12 stations, but since then has expanded to 69 stations.  Accessing the platforms is either by turnstile or heavy, awkward revolving doors, difficult to push myself and a backpack through.

TTC revolving door

When you need to change trains at a major hub, the signage is overhead, easily readable with arrows to know which platform to switch to.  The one downside, sometimes signs that direct you to streetcars or buses are poorly spaced and could be missed in a snap.  Platforms are either up or down, with a set of escalators or stairs.  Some stations are finally implementing elevators for the handicapped, a smart initiative.

Montreal: Slightly younger than the Toronto system, it was inagurated in 1966, inspired by the Paris Metro.  All signs are color-coded to each line (orange, blue, yellow, green), an inviting visual to figure out where to transfer trains.  If you’re color blind, guess you’re screwed, but don’t fret, because each sign has destination names embossed in big, bold letters.  Phew.  Pretty much the same set up as Toronto, escalators or stairs access platforms or exits, and signage is plentiful.

Metro sign

Where Montreal loses is lack of handicap access.  Only seven stations have elevators.  Since I’m always injured or complaining of sciatica, oh Metro you suck.

The winner? Toronto.  While Montreal’s stations are superbly laid out, Toronto wins for improving their service for ALL users.

Aesthetics

Toronto: Ugly, ugly.  Colors are dull, grey, and uninspiring.  These old stations could use an upgrade from corpse to lively.  Another strange item, I was forever discovering random pools of water in an obviously dry subway tunnel in the middle of July.  I will say the Museum Station is the shining gem out of all of them.  Carved, intricate totems serve as pillars.

Museum Station

Montreal: A fair number of the stations are large and airy, decked out in colorful tiling.  Because the Metro is over 20 years old, some stations are in disrepair, but each station is unique, even upscaled with televisions!  The Place de Arts station caught my attention mainly because of eye-catching art as you exit the station.

Place de Arts Station

Television at Lionel-Giroux

The winner? Montreal.  European touches among the modern add flourish.

Cost

Toronto: The TTC still uses tokens (see picture), which constantly got mixed in with my change, it was the only sensible place to store them.  They are über tiny, a target for a hole in your pocket.  At $3.00 a pop, losing a token is not an option.  Day passes are $10.00 (good for single, family or group).  A weekly pass is $36.00, a bit steep.  A full-on Metro pass is useful for yearly users, so the dregs of tourists are left with single trip or daily/weekly passes.

Token for single fare

You have to pay an attendant or insert coins or dollars into a machine, which incidentally, ate my change.  Going forward, I referred to them as transit vending machines, the ones you kick to get the damn chocolate bar you paid for.  If memory serves, a measly $10.50 spat out 4 tokens.  My take?  Expensive transit.

Montreal: A single trips is only $2.75, already cheaper than Toronto.  Purchase a one day pass for $7.00 or a three day pass for $14.00. Even buy according to the number of trips.  I fell amore for the Opus Card.  It’s like a Starbucks card that you fill up with Metro trips at an automated machine that accepts cash, debit or credit card.  Simply place the card chip side on a slot on the machine, and purchase how many trips you want.  Once the transaction is done, remove the card and you’re ready to ride!

Automated machine - Metro

Opus Card recharging

The turnstiles and self-serve machines are the picture of efficienct automation. So French, so elegant.  All passes are implanted with a chip/barcode system.  Just place your pass over the scanner and the turnstile allows instant access.

The winner? La Montreal.  Catch up Toronto.  Tokens are so 1800’s.

Comfort

Toronto: Trains have large interiors, plenty of leg room or available seats.  The biggest perk?  Air conditioning in the sticky height of summer.

Interior Toronto subway

Montreal: No air conditioning, smaller cars, very tight leg room.  Pressing heat from the outdoors is the same level indoors.  I wilted many o’ time.  Date night turned into, “Take a shower and invest in face powder.”

The winner? Toronto.  Air-con is not overrated.

Maps

Toronto: Once you embark on your first subway ride, ask the attendant for a free TTC map.  It’s small enough to tote around in a daypack.  Subway cars also have maps posted, but if I got on at the wrong end, the map was out of sight.  Time where you get on in case you need to refer to a map.

Montreal: Maps galore are EVERYWHERE.  Before you walk down to a platform, once you’re on a platform, at either end of a Metro car.  You seriously can’t get lost, only if directionally challenged (moi, for instance).

The winner? A tie.  Although Metro maps are easy to identify, Toronto is just as accessible, it’s a matter of being aware.  An important trait in travel.

TTC Transfer (Toronto)

Conclusion

Both transit systems will get you where you need to go.  But for overall usability and ease, Montreal’s Metro is more superior.  Toronto has a fussy system with the tokens, even how their transfers work.  You can only utilize a transfer at the destination station when getting on a bus.  I was verbally slapped by a bus driver for trying to use a transfer that should have been used a few blocks back.  I’ve never been scolded for walking before!  I will say, their transfers are free without time limits, so that is a plus.  The TTC website isn’t overly straightforward.  Trying to do a basic map search proved annoying.  When googling the STM (Metro) website, you can get a map and fare info lighting quick.  And they’ve integrated technology so well that even your grandmother can work the Opus Card.

TTC (Toronto): www3.ttc.ca.

STM (Montreal): www.stm.info.

Photo: abdallah

By |September 17th, 2010 |Categories: Montreal, Toronto |17 Comments

When CouchSurfing Took My Innocence

Sometimes the unexpected is what the soul needs.  Even a dose of fear.

Everyone’s first time is a trial in unknowable outcomes, an expectation of blissful happiness or gutter disappointment.

I reserved judgment on mine when I knocked on Alain’s door, encouraged by the “welcome” sign printed on white letter paper tacked to the mahogany finish.  All I could fathom was the dense weight of my pack even though I dumped items at Appartement Qualitas.

Or msybe the itch on the roof of my mouth signaled the surreal scene as I exited St. Laurent Metro, walking towards an obvious parkade (I’m couchsurfing by a parkade??), then turning sharply right on Clark leading to a state-of-the-art directory in the building’s entrance.

Between The Village and St. Laurent is no man’s land, an arm’s length from seedy stripper bars, god knows what else.  Yet, here was this plushly designed, modern building planted in the middle.  Puzzled, I was.

Press the suite number or # for the concierge.

A wave of hotel treatment prodded me to call the concierge.

“Ahhh-hem, yes, I’m couchsurfing with Alain?”  Did I just say that?  Way to moron.

Like a wizard with a charmed key, entry sprang from incantations, not my backpacker stature.

The concerige imposed a formal figure in a navy blue uniform, tapping a clipboard, a signal for me to sign my rights away.  No, girl, just type your name neatly. Under ‘guest’.

A ride in a pristine elevator had me hopeful.

Within 3 minutes, Alain’s burly figure, and kind brown eyes scattered creeping thoughts.

“Hello! Welcome!”

“Bonjour!”  Oh how lame my French is.

My knowledge of Alain should overflow a football field, but in couchsurfing reality, intimacy was the scale of a cookie jar.  I had a verified, vouched for profile, with staggeringly positive reviews.  That’s always a good start in a social experiment.

I trudged in with pack and daypack noticing two Murphy beds side by side.  Sure I knew it was a loft, but stupidly pictured it in football field scale.  They were close together.

I banished visions of hidden cameras in false wall panels or beefy hands sliding across my thigh.  Just waited…

“You can take that bed, and are you hungry?  There’s some salad and tofu… ”

“Oh yeah, the security is very good here.  Many Quebecois stars live in this building and don’t want to be bothered.”

“I’m part of CouchSurfing Montreal, lots of people from there drop by to use the terrace, the pool.  You are welcome to have guests.”

My eyes morphed into large saucers of disbelief.  Terrace?  Pool?  Stars?

It’s these oddball moments in travel when decisions are clear as bacteria free water:  in a stranger’s home, a traveler passing through, the air of camaraderie.  Disengage or allow the first time unfold?

After a lunch of salad and sauteed tofu, Alain suggested a swim. Not us.  Just me.

A sensation that I hit the hosptality lottery stayed with me when Alain mentioned his investments in real estate and maybe I could use a free room for a few days?  Would I?  Hell yeah.

Soon after exchanging stories, my comfort level was cemented, knowing another glowing review would land on Alain’s CS profile.

As I dove in the pool’s depths against an azure sky the next morning, it was clear: innocence is overrated.

Couch photo: Jason Spacerman

10 Best Pictures of Toronto and Montreal

TORONTO

1. Toronto skyline

2.  Subway tunnel

3.  Crazy plant car, Kensington Market

4. Massey Hall

5. Royal Ontario Museum

MONTREAL

1. Metro Station

2.  Notre Dame Basillica

Notre-Dame Basilica

3. Olympic Observatory

4. Notre Dame de Bon Secours

5. Row houses

By |September 6th, 2010 |Categories: Montreal, Toronto |26 Comments