(Journeys in the Fall #2):
Canada/USA – September 2013
Canada/USA – September 2013
Four years previously (November 2009), I took a holiday across part of the relative North of the USA, during Autumn (Fall). On the way back, I had the option of going to Canada, which would have involved spending five hours in the late evening in the bus station in Detroit, or stopping over at a friend’s house in the countryside around Detroit. I went for the latter, which people have generally suggested was The Right Choice.
On that trip, I met up with Aila, the housemate of my good friend Dayna, and (aside from almost murdering her at one point) we got along pretty well. And now, four years later, Aila’s getting married and has invited little old me to her wedding, in Philadelphia! So since I’ve been to the USA more times than I can shake a stick at (but less times than I’ve been to France, natch!), I figured now was the perfect time to finally make it across the border into Canada!
My work colleagues are a little confused at this – they consider Canada to be “too normal” a destination for me to consider. But, well, ice-hockey!
|Day 0 : Airport (Motors)|
Day 00: Saturday 14 September –
I hate flying.
This may sound a bit strange coming from someone who’s done as much travelling around as I, however it’s true. It’s not that I’m afraid of flying – despite the fact that knowing if something goes wrong at 30,000 feet there’s not a heck of a lot you can do other than get on personal terms with your preferred divine being, nor the fact that engineers generally don’t understand fully the principles behind how a metal pipe stays in the air at 450mph. No, my dislike of flying comes primarily out of boredom.
I’m not even just talking about the flight itself – although 7 hours stuck in said metal pipe with limited legroom, being served the occasional tray of still-half-frozen food that may have once heard a rumour about both nutrition and taste but dismissed them both as myths, having a limited rationing of water regardless of the ambient temperature of the flying coffin, and then playing with the on-board entertainment system that, while it might be extensive in scope, in fact only has a limited number of albums or movies you’d actually want to see/watch, and by the time you’ve completed your tour of it, you realise that you’re still only 3 hours in and you’re not even halfway across the Atlantic yet. It’s not even as if you can look out the window at the passing scenery, as there isn’t any. At least even Ohio or the A14 have distant lights. It also seems so ‘slow’. If the clouds are uniform, then it almost looks as if you’re not moving at all, since you can’t see any change in the cloud patterns or formation, so you have no reference points. If you can’t look at the window but just go on engine noise, at times it feels like it’s simply a background ‘drone’ – it doesn’t feel as if you’re moving at all, but rather just floating in space.
I’m also talking about the airports. Check-in not less than 2 hours before the flight, which you can now do either online or at service kiosks in the airport anyway, then hang around in an overpriced, stuffy lounge area with no real view and no way to escape, surrounded by random people who look almost as bored and soul-destroyed as you. Unless they’re asleep or in the pub. I’ve said it before, but the whole journey feels like a ‘holding cell’ for being wrongfully arrested; you know you’ll get out soon but you don’t know when.
To be fair, some airports are better than others (I’m particularly fond of Birmingham UK), and some airports have terminals better than others too. I was flying from Manchester T3, which feels like a small extension; a ‘granny flat’ on a 4-bedroom mansion. Still, the flight to Paris was almost empty so could enjoy the view out the window on take-off and stretch my legs in the footwell of the two seats next to me. Manchester was bathed in early-Autumn sunshine, which is more than could be said for Paris which was under English-style rain and cloud. Who’d have thought that Manchester would have better weather than Paris?
The flight from Paris to Montreal was redeemed on two small counts. Firstly, although the food was generally average, the main meal was served with not only a small bottle of Merlot and a smaller bottle of Port (and when I say ‘served’, I mean they were both on the tray we were given from the air stewards – it’s a shame I never ‘drink and fly’ really), but also a chocolate dessert – a cube with a chocolate biscuit base, thick mousse on top, and covered with melt-in-your mouth nuts. Absolutely gorgeous, definitely worth savouring.
The other redemption was on the in-flight entertainment. Having made my way through the music, I then discovered the games. I think I spent about three or four hours playing ‘Arkanoid’ and ‘Space Invader’ type games; as they were both ‘oh you’ve died; insert coin to continue’ type games, I actually managed to beat them both.
But even when you land, the torture of airports isn’t complete. After making your way through a rabbit-warren of passageways and illuminated signs that seem to be directing you on some kind of wild goose chase, you eventually arrive at immigration, which in some countries consists of a long snake of tensabarrier filled with zombie-passengers, unsmiling, shuffling forward, vacant, souls destroyed, with body-clocks telling them that bedtime was 3 hours ago, and wondering why the bureaucracy of immigration isn’t quicker. No-one thinks about jumping the queue or pushing in – they’re all in this together.
At least by travelling with hand-luggage, I don’t have to suffer he baggage reclaim area. Several times in my travelling life my luggage hasn’t turned up when I expected it to, and that’s incredibly frustrating. It’s always come in the end, but even a few hours without my stuff is annoying.
Eventually, and after waiting 45 minutes for the shuttle-bus to take me to the airport hotel (which is ‘functional’, a bit bland, with dodgy access cards to the rooms that didn’t work until I went back to reception and they re-loaded them) and one of the bedside lights doesn’t work in a sort-of ‘I’m sure the way the bulb is hanging out of the socket is unsafe’ way), I finally managed to get to bed. Body Clock believed it was 4am.
And, in typical Ian fashion, I got the grand total of 6 hours sleep.
Day 01: Sunday 15 September –
Fanfare for the Common Man (Aaron Copland)
The Doner Kebab. Back in Turkey, this is a standard foodstuff, lightly cooked, with oodles of salad and a nice complementary sauce. In Britain however, it’s a bastardised form that’s ubiquitous along the high streets of every town. An upright rotating skewer of some undetermined reformed meat, soaking in its own fat for goodness knows how long, then served in a dodgy piece of pitta or naan bread, with a couple of pieces of lettuce to meet the requirements that it’s sold with salad, then drenched with some kind of industrial chilli or mayo sauce. Best eaten when too drunk to notice the shortening effects on the lifespan, especially when sold with chips or, more scarily still, ‘chips with cheese’ – thinly-stripped chunks of potato deep-fried and then covered with cheese shavings so that the heat from the oil melts the cheese into weird stringy globules.
One of the few advantages the Doner Kebab has over other similar foodstuffs is that it can be eaten standing up, even on the move; you don’t have to sit down in a restaurant to be able to savour its delights. This is perhaps why it, rather than Poutine, has caught on so well in the UK, which is a ‘shame’, as Poutine certainly has the credentials to be a massive hit amongst the Brits.
Take a serving of chips (fries). Cover them in melted cheese. Then cover the whole thing with gravy. Finally, add a topping (think pizza toppings; pretty much anything goes). Serving suggestion: get drunk first. That’s Poutine. And it’s a massive thing in Montreal – most fast food places serve it. In fact, I went to one sit-down restaurant (albeit ‘sit-down’ in the sense of a Wimpy; it was very much a fast-food café place) which specialises in it – about 20-25 different toppings. I had “l’Obelix”, which was a mixture of smoked meats (mainly ham), because with fries, cheese, and gravy as a base, a little bit more grease would be barely noticeable You can get vegetarian Poutine; these are no less unhealthy. Mine was a ‘regular’ size, and although ‘nice’ (and I use the term quite vaguely), I did have trouble finishing it due to its thick fatty richness. The only way to eat a ‘large’ size would be to do what the two people on the table next to me did, and share it between them.
Today’s diet program hasn’t just been about the fat however. Montreal is home to a small chain of chocolate cafés – ‘Juliette et Chocolat’, where one can sit down and purchase a variety of meals and drinks all around a chocolate theme. The drinks menu alone is one side of a long lamination, and details all the different styles of hot chocolate one can have – be it sourced from one country, or one specific plantation within a country, non-alcoholic or alcoholic, dark or milk chocolate. Each of them has their own tasting notes; some are predominantly bitter-cocoa, some have elements of fruits in, some are more caramel; at least one has notes of liquorice. I went for the Madiforolo, at 62% cocoa, from a plantation in Peru. Allegedly with red berries and hints of tamarind, it was certainly rich and bitter and slightly fruity, but I’m not sure I could observe any other subtleties.
Of course I had to eat as well; the restaurant offers many different varieties of crepe, brownie, and patisserie, as well as larger meals with a chocolate bent (salads with hints of chocolate in the dressing for instance). I went for the ‘balsamico’ brownie – more rich red fruits (I’d say raspberry) with a delicate sense of balsamic vinegar. If that sounds odd, well, it is, but all the richer for it.
It’s a very nice, cosy, café from which you can also buy mugs, t-shirts, etc, all with the chocolate theme. My only criticism would be the slightly slower service than you’d normally find in a café, but the richness of the chocolate deserves time to settle before moving out.
In between times, I also had a local beer. The pub I’d originally planned to go to was unexpectedly closed for today so I wandered down to the ‘Reservoir’ brewpub in Montreal’s East End; it’s a small, intimate venue with a decent bar and what looked like huge and satisfying food portions. They brew their own beer on-site (the barrels are visible in the room behind the bar); I only had the ‘noire’, at 4%, which was very malty, but also dark, rich, drying and bitter – less thick than a porter or stout but veering towards that end of the spectrum. Very nice it was too.
To be fair, all of this was justified since I’d walked for most of the day around Montreal. From setting off around 11am, and going via the Atwater Market, where I had a lovely breakfast of trout on bruscietta toast with wild mushrooms, spinach, and dressing, I wandered first along the Lachine Canal – an old industrial waterway that now has a cycleroute along it. Unfortunately I walked too far along it, and accidentally ended up walking down a dead straight road alongside the port, before the road veered off to the right, over a huge bridge, and down towards the casino, on a couple of small islands in the middle of the St Lawrence River (Montreal itself is a similar island, albeit a very big one) – it’s this area where the F1 Grand Prix is held. After getting the metro back into the city centre (as there didn’t seem to be any other way of getting back other than the way I’d come, which would have been miles out the way), I then walked through the centre of the Old Town (very pretty but full of tourists), before climbing the stairs on Mont-Royal, the large hill overlooking the city and from whence the town may or may not get its name.
Île Sainte-Hélène is quite a pretty place, but they seemed to be gearing up for some kind of event so some of it was closed. It’s very much ‘nature’-oriented (there’s the ‘biosphere’ dome there, and on the road leading up to it there were a series of photographs all about the natural world), and yet so close to the city centre. Well, close by direct bridge and metro, not so close the way I walked there.
After my learnings from Slovenia (where I realised that museums and art galleries were actually quite boring unless they were about a topic that specifically interested me), although I had a list of ‘places to see’ with me, I did treat it as ‘this is what’s available’ rather than ‘this is what I’m going to see’. (In fact between a half and two-thirds of the notes seemed to be about places to eat or drink.) The only ‘building’ on the list that I ended up visiting was the Basilica Notre-Dame – a huge church with impressive decoration inside; it’s quite dark and perhaps a little foreboding, but the lighting that exists is spectacular. At the back of the main area is a smaller chapel that’s much lighter but no less impressive for it.
The area of the old part of Montreal, near the Basilica, is somewhat touristy, with quaint old buildings, cobbled streets, and the opportunity to ride in horse-drawn carriages. The only opportunity I took was to take a few snaps before wandering on. I did sample one of the local wares though – a very sweet and red concoction of ‘maple lemonade’. This was also enjoyed by wasps; fortunately it being only around 14 degrees C meant they were only in evidence some of the time.
As for the Mont-Royal; it’s a very steep hill with direct stairs leading up, or a longer, but more gradual, winding gravel roadway. It’s a very popular place for cyclists and joggers – both were very much in evidence along the whole trail. Towards the end of the path, in the East of the parkland, I did also see some people demonstrating hitting each other with swords, in a sort of LARP manner. They were being filmed doing so by what I assume was television, as it looked like someone with a barbarian-long-hair-wig was giving an interview.
I don’t know if it’s because the people here are used to Anglophone Canadians and Americans, but I’ve been swapping languages a bit today, where I’ve felt comfortable doing so, and unlike in Europe, I’ve generally been replied to in French when I’ve tried speaking it. Maybe my accent, because it’s not so obviously North American, isn’t being picked up on by the locals so they assume I’m European?
It has been noted that the Montreal Metro trains, upon closing their doors, make a sound that’s virtually identical to the first three notes of ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ by Aaron Copland. Now, it only seems to the the trains on the Orange line that do this, and while they sound familiar, I’m not sure they’re quite pitched the same, nor spaced the same. I will concede however that my knowledge of the piece of music is primarily the ‘Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’ version rather than an orchestral original …
Day 02: Monday 16 September –
Give the Anarchist a Cigarette (Chumbawamba)
Couchsurfing is a weird thing. It’s one thing having friends you’ve known for a while come over and stay with you for a few days, but it’s something completely different to offer your house to a complete stranger who’s passing through for maybe a day or two. There must be such an element of trust there; and yet people do it.
In actual fact, there’s a couple of common themes that seem to run through many Couchsurfers. In general, they seem to be on the left-of-centre in political thought, and believe in the ‘common good’, so that everyone benefits from their actions – plus of course there’s an expectation, usually followed through, that people who surf will return the favour to the wider community and host other travellers themselves. (This would work in principle for me too, except that I live in a not-very-touristy area where very few travellers venture. Indeed very few Brits have ever heard of the town I live in, and generally would have no need to come here even if they had. Sherwood Forest and Matlock Bath are both big draws, but you can get to both of them easier from other, larger, places, and no-one would specifically visit my area for Newstead Abbey and Lord Byron’s grave; they’re both easy day trips from Nottingham.) Possibly connected with this, many couchsurfers have interest in, or active involvement with, vegetarianism (and veganism), environmental issues, anti-government thought, local sustainability, and world music.
My host for last night was a chap called Thierry, who lives in the western suburbs of Montreal. He wasn’t able to spend much time with me, due to his job/hobby (he’s a tribal drummer, and performs at weddings and parties a lot, plus he teaches music to primary school children); he’s a vegan and made damn fine fruit smoothies, and on his door he has a poster essentially telling the government what they can do with their SMART energy meter (he refuses to have wi-fi for the same reason, as he believes there is a health concern with wireless technology).
My host for this evening is a lady called Lily, also a vegan, and a student and translator, who lives alone with two cats and a small dog, in a flat above her mother’s house. She spends much of her time travelling herself, often by bicycle (she recently took a 10-day cycle trip from Montreal to Quebec City, staying overnight in campsites, couchsurfing, hostels, B&Bs … pretty much every combination of cheap accommodation there is). Her ultimate aim, in a couple of years, is to cycle around the coast of Ireland. I’ve warned her already about the hills and the wind and rain.
Both my hosts have been quite different people in terms of personality – Thierry was much more of an introvert, whilst Lily’s been quite the buzzing bee – I seem to have got along with them both pretty well, chatting quite late with them both. They’ve also helped me see their cities, in different ways – me and Thierry poured over maps and my notes about where to go and he recommended things to me, whilst Lily met me at Quebec City railway station and showed me around parts of the city in the dark before we walked back to her place, so I could get a feel of where I could go tomorrow. It’s all been very friendly and interesting; it’s also a very good way to see, or at least learn about, a city – you get to know of places that you wouldn’t normally see if you were a simple tourist passing through.
Both ‘couches’ have been a fold-out futon or (literally) couch, like the sort of thing many people have in their spare bedrooms, although in both cases I’ve been sleeping in what is effectively their front room (Thierry’s house was much more ‘open-plan’, but the principle was the same). They’ve both been ‘apartments’ too; single-floor living spaces (Thierry’s was on the ground floor – I’ve no idea what was above, I assume more apartments – but I didn’t see any way of getting into them), in the suburbs of the city but not too far from the centre.
My next three nights are in backpacker hostels though – tomorrow night because I’m literally just passing through Montreal City between trains, and I didn’t think it was quite in the ethos of Couchsurfing to, effectively, use someone as a cheap hotel, whilst Wednesday and Thursday I’m in a hostel in Ottawa chosen for a specific reason (plus the reviews of it are really positive). I’ve not arranged anything for the four nights I’m in Toronto yet.
While I’m in no way overtly political or activist in any real way, it’s true I have both a socialist and a hippie bent, and thinking about it, so do many of my friends. Except the couple of Libertarians I know, but even that I understand and dabble with from time to time. In the last local elections, I voted Green (as a protest vote against the Liberal Democrats). I think this is all quite weird, given my background of solid Tory Middle-Class upbringing.
On a similar wavelength, Montreal seems to be fond of street art. Not quite to the extent that Brussels is, but in certain quarters of the city, there’s a fair few entire walls bedecked in colourful artwork – presumably (semi-)officially created, since the quality’s pretty good, and there’s no evidence of (over-)tagging. Some areas have more than others; one in particular is around Rue St-Catherine, towards the East End of the city near Saint-Laurent metro stop.
Today has been bright, sunny, but a bit chilly; a nice crisp autumn day; a good day for doing some more walking around a city centre. Some of today’s time was spent inside churches and cathedrals; a nice calming quiet few moments aside from the noise and bustle of a large city. I’m not ‘religious’ per se, but I can appreciate the enormity and sanctity of religious buildings. Christianity has tended to create the most cavernous constructs, but Buddhism and Hinduism have generally been more ‘adorned’. Islam, on the other hand, goes for simplicity – that it is a place of God is enough; over-decoration isn’t necessary.
Montreal, as a city, in a way confuses me. On the one hand parts of it (the old city especially) remind me of Edinburgh, with picturesque side-streets, monuments at every turn, and the general safe, smooth stone feel of it. Yet venture out into downtown and it’s very definitely a North American city; if it weren’t for the fact most of the signage is in French, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was in the USA. Conversely it’s the only city I’ve been to that seem to have an almost defined Portuguese Quarter – parts of the East End definitely cater to Portuguese and Brazilian ex-pats.
The train journey from Montreal to Quebec puts pretty much every train journey in the UK to shame. For starters, there’s an organised queue in the main concourse to get through the gates before you even get on the train. Once they open the gate to the platform, you pass through and they check your ticket (most peoples have been self-printed off from online – they’re like an airline boarding card, complete with QR code which the ticket guard scans to check it’s valid). Then you walk down the stairs onto the platform, where conductors wait at every carriage to help you inside. The carriage I’m in, and presumably this is the same for all of them, is in Economy class, and has two seats on one side of the aisle, and one seat on the other. Each seat has a power point, a foldaway table (huge), and considerable legroom. The seat is straight up but the footwell is at a slight angle so you can rest your feet on the carpet as if they were on one of those metal footrests – there is a footrest as well should you require it. Below the seat the floor continues to slope downwards so you can store things under the seat (or drop things and watch them slide downwards). There’s also a small shelf above the seat to store a coat or something similar – for larger baggage the train has a ‘checked baggage’ section, again similar to aircraft. Aircon is standard and not invasive, and each seat has a personal light. Wi-fi is free and easy to use.
It’s just a shame the countryside hasn’t been more interesting – flat, with fields or dense woodland.
Day 03: Tuesday 17 September –
Step Back in Time (Kylie Minogue)
I have to say, I’m also not terribly fond of tourists. I am aware of the hypocrisy here, but there’s a difference between the independent traveller who goes to places, looks around at length, explores, buys from local markets and cafés, and tries not to get in the way, and the archetypal tourist who’s generally seen in twos, threes, or as part of a tour party, who wanders around all the obvious touristy attractions (museums, old buildings, etc) mainly with the purpose of going ‘well isn’t that sweet’, stopping directly in the way for the purposes of taking a photo and waiting for their friends to catch up, and then blithely wandering on the next ‘interesting site’, generally walking too slow, stopping suddenly and all too frequently, not looking where they’re going, barging you out the way when you’re walking in the opposite direction to them, and frequenting the most expensive tourist restaurants overlooking whatever interesting thing the town has (be it ruins, churches, views, ‘quaint old streets’, etc). Plus, since this kind of tourist is pretty common, towns that are geared up for tourism tend as a result to be more expensive, with lower quality, since the locals know these tourists will come anyway and spend their money regardless.
Bruges looks much better after 7pm. And Quebec City looks completely different in the dark than it does in the daylight.
If Montreal looks a bit like a cross between Edinburgh and ‘a generic USA city’, Quebec City would mostly resemble somewhere like Salisbury or York. The centre’s not that big, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in ‘touristy attractions’ – the most notable of them being the Château Frontenac, allegedly the most photographed hotel in North America, probably one of the most expensive in Canada, and allegedly there’s a suite on the top floor kept spotlessly clean and permanently empty, just in case the British Monarch turns up and fancies a last-minute spot of couchsurfing. To be fair it is a somewhat impressive building – it’s not quite got the ‘fairytale’ look but it’s certainly worth a couple of pictures. I’m sure it’s even better inside but it’s probably not the place that scruffy backpackers would ‘appreciate’.
Quebec City is also believed to be the only remaining city in North America that still has its city walls. These date from the time when the area was the battleground between French and British forces fighting to control the North American colonies at the time. This war culminated in a battle in 1759 that may have only lasted around 10 minutes, at the Plains of Abraham (to the immediate West of the city), where a fully-trained, battle-hardened, and well-drilled British regiment defeated a weary French garrison and a handful of peasant militia, thus ending French pretensions to what later would become the USA and Canada. Had the French won, the world might well have been very different.
The old city has been ‘preserved’ (in that ‘some of it is old, some of it is new, but if you build something new it has to look old’ manner that’s pretty common worldwide, notably so in York itself which has one of the oldest looking Premier Travel Inns you’ll ever see!), which means narrow lanes filled with ‘quaint’ artisanal shops, street musicians, and tourists. It’s also built on a hill, which means even slower tourists than usual. (There is a small funicular that links the cheesiest touristy street in the lower town with the Château at the top of the hill.) At the château is a long, wide, boardwalk with extensive views over the St Lawrence River that runs all the way to the Plains of Abraham, which to be honest just look like a series of landscaped fields, but maybe I didn’t walk far enough into them.
However, Quebec City isn’t all about old fortifications and tourists. It’s also about chairs.
In the lead-up to the railway station, in an area that was intended to be a car park but was turned into a garden-like area with water feature, there is a path with a series of metal chairs welded to the ground, serving as art. On each of them is carved a philosophical phrase or thought by a famous writer from the Quebec Province. Even Leonard Cohen gets a mention.
In addition to this, there’s a cycle path along the river front going away from the old city and into the suburbs; near to one of the main road bridges over the river is a 3×3 square of yellow plastic chairs, reminiscent of a schoolroom, looking out over the river. If that’s not enough, on the other side of the river there’s a couch made of iron bolts.
In addition, just outside the city centre is a small junction of concrete flyovers. The area underneath it was always very popular with graffiti artists, so the local council, rather than cleaning it up every time, designated the space to them. This means that most of the concrete pillars holding up the flyovers are covered with pretty vibrant street art. A small number of them however were given by the council to designated artists, who have painted on them specific designs and themed patterns – a couple of them are reminiscent of ancient Egyptian art.
My couchsurfing host was lovely and we chatted late into last night; she ended up oversleeping this morning so wasn’t able to spend as much time showing me bits of the city as she’d have liked, but to be fair we’d already done a lot of that the previous evening anyway. So we walked into the city together and she suggested a few directions I could walk in.
Tonight is a stopover in a backpacker hostel, then tomorrow it’s two days in Ottawa, again in a hostel rather than couchsurfing – but this was pre-planned. It’s got good reviews, and a somewhat apt name …
Day 04: Wednesday 18 September –
Wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home (Paul Young)
(this is much more of a personal blog post than a travel diary entry, just to warn you).
Tonight will be the last of seven consecutive nights which I have spent in different beds. I know I’m prone to travelling around quite a lot when I’m on holiday, but I don’t think I’ve ever had an entire week of it. Obviously they haven’t all been different places, but they have been different buildings, surrounded by different people.
Thursday : My house, Kirkby-in-Ashfield
Friday : A friend’s house, Kirkby-in-Ashfield
Saturday : Days Inn Hotel, Montreal Airport
Sunday : Couchsurfing in Montreal
Monday : Couchsurfing in Quebec City
Tuesday : La Maison du Patriote Hostel, Montreal
Wednesday : Barefoot Hostel, Ottawa
And now it ends; I’m here for two nights.
I don’t have a particular problem with doing this – it helps that I’m only travelling with hand luggage so it’s not as if I have a large rucksack to drag around with me; I think if I had, it would have been far more exhausting and in fact I’d probably have plotted my travel plans differently anyway.
I differ from most people I know when it comes to holidays anyway, not just the destinations (remember, “I go to these places so you don’t have to”), but also the nature of the travel. To be fair, many of my friends have children, so unless you’re the traditional hippie/unconventional parent type (of which I do actually know one, who couchsurfed across the USA last year with her two children – there’s a book in there somewhere and I definitely think she should think about writing it), the whole ‘travelling around’ idea doesn’t really fit. But even there, most of my friends drive, so even if they did do a ‘grand tour’ type adventure, the chances are they wouldn’t be doing it on trains or in the back of local buses.
Part of it is I get bored easily. On travel forums there are people who’ve travelled the world, but have done so by visiting maybe only four countries, and spent several months in each one, learning about it, getting a ‘true feel’ for it. My answer’s always that I’ve lived in the UK for 38 years and not seen everywhere yet, so there’s a limit to how much you can see; plus where’s the dividing line? If you spend 3 days in Bristol, you haven’t seen the UK, but if you spent 3 days in Bristol, 3 in Birmingham, 3 in Manchester, and 3 in Glasgow, have you seen the UK? You wouldn’t have been to Newcastle, to Leeds, to Sheffield, to Liverpool, to Portsmouth … would you have needed to? Are they different enough? At some point you have to draw the line. It’s just that my line’s quite a quickly-reached one.
In my experience, if I spend longer than about 7 days in any one country, unless it’s incredibly diverse or there’s things of specific interest to me there, I start to flag. With specific towns it tends to be in the region of 2 to 3 days, no matter how big or noteworthy they are. The only exception to this is if I know someone there, because then I don’t think of it in terms of a holiday destination, I see it more that I’m visiting them rather than the place they live – this is why (discounting La Rochelle in France) the city I’ve spent the most time in is probably Belgrade, because I’ve got a good friend there so it’s always exciting to see her. Part of me wonders if the same principle would be true of Couchsurfing, but then I’ve never yet stayed longer than one night when I’ve couchsurfed.
In addition, I get excited by shiny new things, new places, new experiences. For me there’s a lot of thrill in going to a place; sometimes even the travelling is more fun than the arriving. (Disclaimer: may not be applicable to 11 hour coach rides in South-East Asia.) I like the feel of being on trains, looking out of the window at passing scenery and knowing that I’m on the way to somewhere new, that I won’t ever have seen before, and may never see again.
I do rarely go back to a place, even if I’ve really liked it, for the simple reason that there are always going to be places I haven’t been that may excite me just as much. There are people that go on holiday year after year to the same places, and while that’s absolutely brilliant for them, since they’re doing something they know they enjoy, and which is comfortable and makes them happy and enjoy it more, I do get more enjoyment about seeing new rather than familiar. Yes, it often takes me out of my comfort zone, but I’ve realised from my travels that that’s pretty much the point. I like; no, need to challenge myself because I know it would otherwise be so easy to fall into my comfort zone and never get out.
Backpacker Hostels used to be outside my comfort zone. Now I can tolerate them. I tend to prefer the quirkier ones, the ones with some kind of unique vibe. That doesn’t mean they have to be big – in fact I tend to avoid the largest ones because I’ve never really liked crowds, especially crowds of happy bouncy young people, although having said which, the hostel I stayed in in Jerusalem was fairly huge and the buzz of that place was glorious.
There are a couple of things fairly standard to hostels though that I don’t really like. They’re often too warm and stuffy; I have a tendency to get headaches if I’m in a too warm room for too long, especially if I’m trying to get to sleep. They’re also often a bit more cramped than I’m used to, both in the sense of too many people in too small a room, and in the sense that the beds are relatively small and there’s nowhere to put your stuff. I also mean upward room if I’m in the lower bunk, but I prefer being lower than upper as I’m always worried I’ll disturb someone when I climb up and down the ladders, plus I’m not very well balanced and I’ve always found it a bit of an effort to climb ladders anyway, never mind barefoot on a rickety bedframe with the steps about the size of pencils.
People. I don’t do people very well. Couchsurfing’s outside my comfort zone because it means I have too get closer to someone, to chat with them and be friendly; something I’ve tended to find difficult with strangers (introvert). Yet I know that meeting people, chatting with them, can actually enhance the travelling experience, especially if you’re stuck waiting around for a stupidly-timed flight and would have nothing to do all evening otherwise, as would have been my fate in Tel Aviv otherwise.
The hostel tonight seems to have the worst of both worlds; quite a few people but all of them being insular; I’m not sure I’ve seen any of them smile yet. I also think I’m travelling out-of-season, so there’s less travellers than there would otherwise be; there was only one other person in the 5-bed dorm last night, and the massive 20-people open-plan dorm had maybe 4 or 5 people in it, while tonight I think there’s only one other person in a 4-bed dorm, but I haven’t checked since about 7pm so someone could have arrived late. It’s a shame because the lounge area (an open-plan living room in effect) definitely feels it should be sociable, as the quirky messages written on the corridor wall testify to.
I will write about Ottawa tomorrow.
Day 05: Thursday 19 September –
My last entry was a bit self-absorbed. Sorry!
When I was plotting my journey and accommodation, and speaking to Couchsurfers in Montreal and Toronto about my trip, when I told them I was spending two nights in Ottawa, their first question in response was always the same: “Why? It’s very boring!”. The general impression people in the country have of the city is, well not ‘negative’ so much as ‘uninterested’, as if it’s some kind of small backwater hick-town, with not a great deal going for it, and nothing really worth seeing.
Note that Ottawa is the capital of Canada.
In truth though, historically they may have had a point. Ottawa’s the capital of Canada precisely because it garners so much neutral thought. When the Canadian Confederation was being formed in the mid-1800s, there were a number of large cities in the running for national capital: Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax, Kingston to name but five. Indeed in the early years the capital seemed to ‘rotate’ between a couple of them every so often.
However, this fledgling country was held together by the thinnest of twine; any moves to favour one part over any other may well have led to some kind of civil war, or at least clamours for independence from the different provinces. There was also the real threat of invasion from the South, especially as there had been decades of animosity between the two nations (indeed, ‘Canada’ itself had been the effective result of loyalists fleeing the USA after the War of Independence in the late 1700s).
At the time, Ottawa was basically a few logging huts in the forest, next to a reasonably large river – it had no redeeming features and wouldn’t have featured on many maps at the time. But these two factors were essentially why it was chosen as the capital:
1 – being between Toronto and Montreal, but not belonging to either, meant that it was essentially a ‘neutral’ choice of capital, one that all parties could agree on, because it wasn’t any of them, so no-one could claim to be more (dis)advantaged than anyone else. Note that exactly the same principle seems to have applied to Australia, where Canberra is generally derided as being ‘boring’ but was the capital to avoid Sydney and Melbourne coming to blows over it. If the same thing were to have applied to a newly-independent State of England these days, one might assume that London and Birmingham would argue and the capital would end up being Milton Keynes …
2 – it was unlikely any advancing troops from the USA would be able to find it. This is not as silly as it sounds; virtually the whole of ‘Canada’ as it was then was located pretty close to the American border, which made it vulnerable to attack, so by having a capital in what’s effectively the middle of nowhere, it gave an extra degree of protection to the new state.
Initial impressions weren’t ‘exciting’ – the railway station is a small building with a couple of platforms, located some way out of the city centre (beyond East Midland standards, but not quite like SE Asia bus stations). However the walk towards the city is actually quite pretty; it’s used as a cycle route through a couple of designated green areas and along the river, before coming out in the quiet residential Strathcona Park, where you can sit by the glistening river and watch black squirrels frolic in the grass. I’ve never actually seen a black squirrel before, but they seem to be everywhere in Ottawa.
Second impressions also weren’t ‘exciting’ – check-in at the hostel wasn’t until 3pm so I had a few hours to kill wandering around. I found it quite ‘cold’ and ‘small’ – it’s all very nice, but the residential suburbs I walked through to get to the hostel were typical ‘American’ tree-lined streets with detached houses set off from the road, typical small-town USA, whilst downtown was functional buildings and not much ‘life’. It feels almost as if someone had a few skyscrapers left over from the rest of Canada and decided to put them in a field next to some houses!
Apart from the Bytown market, which is a very cheesy, if slightly wild-west in look, series of roads lined with tacky souvenir stalls and tourist bars, including the authentic-themed ‘Scotsman Bar’ (because Irish bars are ‘so passé’). Elsewhere dotted around the city are a number of pubs in a chain called ‘The Royal Oak’, serving ‘English beer’. I didn’t go in to try …
I did, however, go to a couple of pubs in my time in Ottawa that served real ale. One, near my hostel, was called ‘Chez Lucien’ and it’s a proper-looking pub of the type I enjoy back home, which serves ‘microbrews’ from the area (I went for the ‘Harvest Gold Pale Ale’ from the ‘Barley Days’ brewery, a 5% light traditional bitter, which on drinking felt like hops were coming out of my nose…). The barman claimed that it’s the favourite pub outside the UK for the writer ‘Ian Rankin’, as he can just sit in the corner drinking proper beer and not be disturbed or distracted by cheesiness.
The other pub I went to was the next day, in the satellite town of Gatineau, which is the other side of the Ottawa River, in Quebec. Le Brasseur Du Temps, and their beer menu has 12 microbrews on it (they brew their own); interestingly none of them below 5%. Here I had the ‘La Nuit des temps”, a 5% dark beer, roasted, rich, smooth, malty, with a slight coffee note in the foretaste. I washed it down with another dose of Poutine because all I’d eaten that day was a chocolate muffin and I needed the fat …
The hostel (‘Barefoot Hostel’, can’t think why I’d have chosen to stay there!) is regarded as one of the best in Canada. It was certainly quirky and interesting, but I seem to have picked a bad couple of days to stay. Although it turns out it was completely full, it seems that many of the people there were going to an Animation Conference/Festival so were either out at it, or in bed, so there were never more than four people in the large through-lounge at any one time. And even then most them were quiet, insular people, with a tendency to be either German or Chinese.
It’s an off-shoot from the ‘Swiss Hotel’ next door, run by a quirky Jewish lady called ‘Sabina’, who seems to be originally Swiss and has the accent to match (she pronounced internet ‘router’ to rhyme with ‘doubter’, but with a much more rounded ‘ro’ sound). I mention her religion as it was the reason behind the following conversation between me, her, and her coworker:
Me: “Where I can get some laundry done?”
Sabina: “Oh, not far, just down the road, on Rideau Street. It’ll take only half an hour.”
CoWorker: “Isn’t there another place close by too?”
Sabina: “Yeh, but they charge $4.50 and an extra dollar if you don’t have your own soap. Also this place, you can stay at the Rideau Bakery while you wait. They do lovely yeast-free bread. Though it’s closed on Saturdays.”
Coworker: “Oh, it’s open now on Saturdays. 8-6.”
Sabina: “No! They’ve always been closed on Saturdays. It was closed last time I went.”
Coworker: “Well, I’ve got a picture of it right here of the opening times. 8-6.”
Sabina: “But I went last Saturday, and it was closed. Oh, I’ll call them later and find out.”
As it happened, I did indeed pop in to the Rideau Bakery while waiting for my clothes to wash. It turns out that they are open Saturdays now, but they don’t do any baking, or even offer coffee or tea. On Saturdays it’s thus more of the convenience store, and only sell their pre-made items. On a side note, this may also have been the very first time in my life I’ve actively been to a launderette and washed clothes in it. On all my previous travels I’ve been to accommodation which has offered the service.
She also ended up calling her ISP at 10pm in the evening when I popped around there and said ‘we’re having problems with the connection’. Her actual response to me was, without taking much of a breath:
“Oh, that’s awful, but there’s nothing I can do at this time, but wait, no, I’ll call them and tell them, we pay for the service after all, and I normally don’t have any problems with them, so I’ll call them now, we had similar problems here at the hotel a few days ago and they changed the router, so that’s probably what they’ll do, I’ll call them now, thank you for letting me me know, it’s very very much appreciated.” And call them she did – they said they’d send someone round in the morning to fix it.
Most of my time in Ottawa was spent walking around, and not only did I see most of the downtown area, but also even went to a couple of the museums that were on my list of ‘things that are there’; both pretty huge things actually. The first was the War Museum (because it caters for my ‘dark tourist’ needs), which detailed the history of war in and by Canada from the first inhabitants’ tribal conflicts all the way up to the role of Canada in NATO; the other was the ‘Civilisation Museum’, which had a big display of First Peoples’ art and history, a potted history of Canada, and a series of ‘vignettes’ of famous Canadians throughout history.
It strikes me that there’s a lot that I don’t know about Canada – we’re not really taught about it at school. I would say that’s because we’re taught about British history, but the two are kind of inter-connected; Before coming here I knew vague details of the ‘Seven Years War’, and next-to-nothing about how Canada was created, nor about such conflicts as the ‘War of 1812’ and the ongoing conflicts between Canada and the USA. An interesting question is, ‘should I have done?’; I don’t know the answer to that, it just feels weird that it feels like I know more about the history of Cambodia than Canada, the world’s second largest country and was a large part of the British Empire!
Some of it is quite similar, of course; I went on one of the free tours of the Canadian Parliament building and saw right in to the heart of Canadian democracy. The system is structured very similarly to the UK system (basically, we imposed it and they copied it) with a House of Commons with 300-ish MPs representing constituencies, and an appointed Upper House (‘Senate’ rather than ‘Lords’) of about 100 Senators representing, well, ‘ideas’ rather than locations; so for example a Senator from Manitoba might look after the interests of the Francophone population there (all six of them, including my friend Nitsa! :p). Although getting into the building involved airport-style security, it felt weird to be able to wander through it so freely – yes we were on a guided tour but we were let loose afterwards to go up the tower, or wander back to a couple of the corridors we’d passed through earlier for photo opportunities. It was also weird to be able to set foot pretty much inside the parliament rooms (though we only saw the Commons through a glass door, we did stand inside the Senate). There was also no real evidence of a strong security presence in the large lawns outside. Wouldn’t be the same in Milton Keyn, er, London.
On the Wednesday evening I also went on a ‘ghost walk’; had a choice of three but this one (‘Ghosts and the Gallows’) took in ghostly activities around the old jail-house (now a backpacker hostel), which has been the scene of several spooky encounters, some of which relate to Patrick Whelan, an Irish Nationalist (Fenian) who was tried, convicted, and executed for the assassination of Thomas McGee, an Irish-Canadian MP who’d turned his back on Fenianism, looking instead to a more moderate approach to the Irish question. Except there’s a large body of opinion that suggests Patrick was innocent of the crime, and that the only evidence against him was circumstantial at best. As a result, he’s reported to haunt the old jail, much to the … sometimes joy, sometimes annoyance of the backpackers who now stay there.
The hostel actually has several rooms that are reputed to be haunted by him and other ghosts, and much of the very top floor has been preserved ‘as was’ from when it was a jail – the hostel generally only puts people up here as a last resort; some of the ‘rooms’ are single cells with rounded ceilings and not much room for anything else, lockable with chain and padlock, and it is these ‘cell rooms’ where most of the sightings occur.
The tour was led by a chap called ‘Gilles’, dressed up in old Victorian wear, including a cape that I kept nearly tripping up on. The company do several other tours, and operate out of an address slightly underground that’s listed as ’46½ Spark Street’ …
I didn’t have much food during my whole time in Ottawa; aside from the poutine on Thursday night, I had a nice tofu-and-sweet-potato lunch at a vegan/Buddhist café near my hostel on the Wednesday lunchtime, and a street sausage while waiting for the ghost tour to start. When I travel, I do tend to eat less than normal, and walk around more … maybe I’ll come back to the UK all svelte and toned. Or there again, maybe not …
Day 06: Friday 20 September –
Saturday Night’s all right for Fighting (Elton John)
According to the Myers-Briggs personality profiling, I’m an INTP. This means: I’m someone who gets their energy from within, rather than other people; I look at things how they are more than what they remind me of; I’m more driven by logic rather than emotion; and I’m someone who prefers to let things fly rather than have strict detailed plans laid out. Today, this has served me rather well.
I didn’t have the Internet last night (though an e-mail from Sabina today says that the fix from the ISP worked), so the first time I was able to log-on was this morning on the train. This meant I hadn’t been able to arrange any accommodation for this evening until this morning – I was waiting on a couple of Couchsurfing mails but it turns out there’d been no responses anyway, so I was left to scour online for more backpacker hostels.
Imagine my surprise then when I couldn’t find any. Nowhere had any availability at all (a couple had a free bed for this evening but not tomorrow, but also specified ‘minimum two night stay’, which was a bit awkward). I did a brief search for hotels but they were all fairly expensive and quite a way out (the cheapest were all near Toronto Airport).
Now, when faced with the prospect of going to a city they’d never been to, arriving at lunchtime, and not having anywhere to stay when you get there, most people would panic and book an expensive hotel. Since that’s not in my style, my options were pretty limited.
In the event, the decision took around 2 seconds. I rearranged my proposed itinerary and booked two nights in a backpacker hostel at Niagara Falls, then some train tickets to get there (in that order – I figured that finding a bed would be more difficult than finding transport). This gave me around 4 hours in the city to wander around before my train out.
Quite why Toronto should be all booked out this weekend is a mystery. During my wander, I did accidentally come across a sporting event, but I suspect the intersection between backpackers and fans of fighting is quite small … I’d booked some tickets to see an Ice-Hockey game on Sunday evening, and when I went to the Air Canada arena to collect them, there was quite a crowd outside and security directing people and traffic. It turns out that the weigh-in for the ‘UFC 165’ event was taking place right there and then, in the forecourt of the arena – the actual fighting itself takes place tomorrow.
I don’t know a lot about UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), except that it seems a bit more ‘logical’ than boxing, as well as more brutal. A couple of people I know at work are quite fond of it however, so at least I’m aware of it more than I’d normally have been. This one is headlined by the fight between ‘Jon Jones’ and ‘Alexander Gustafsson’, the latter having very much more support from the crowd (who may have been a bit partisan anyway – there were a higher-than-average number of Swedes in the audience. The whole weigh-in lasted around 45 minutes, as they went through every fight on the card before the big one, but conveniently, the Jones v Gustafsson weigh-in took place a couple of minutes before I needed to leave for the train; obviously I missed the post-weigh-in discussions but I’m not a UFC fan so I don’t really care.
Most of today has been spent travelling, therefore; just over four hours by train from Ottawa to Toronto, then an hour to Burlington by suburban rail, then a connecting bus from there to the town of Niagara Falls. I’ll talk more about the town tomorrow, but let’s just say it’s … possibly not what you expect. Or maybe it is.
Having booked the hostel in a bit of a rush this morning, I wasn’t really sure what it was going to be like, but it certainly had good reviews and gave the impression it was ‘different’ to the surrounding town. And it is – once again I found a quirky hostel, but this one with atmosphere; when I checked in, the owner told me that no-one else was there because everyone had gone down to the local pub about half an hour before, and I should follow them; I did just that and then spent the next couple of hours chatting and walking around with Germans, Austrians, a Belgian, an Irish woman, and an Indian man. There were even fireworks over the falls, an unexpected end to the day.
As a sad side note, I was actually quite fortunate to get out of Ottawa at all in good time. It seems that on Wednesday morning, as I was travelling from Montreal to Ottawa, a train from Ottawa to Toronto collided with a bus at a level crossing at Fallowfield (the first station on from Ottawa), and six people died including the bus driver. They only cleared the track and reopened the line today.
The first I knew about it was a Worldapp message from my friend Sarah (Greebocat) asking me if I’d heard anything about it on the Wednesday evening, although it did explain a mysterious phone conversation someone behind me had had on the train not long before arriving in Ottawa saying that all the trains from Ottawa to Toronto had been cancelled.
Day 07: Saturday 21 September –
Breaking Rain (Hackenbush)
When I get back to work, one of the hypothetical conversations I’ll have will be as follows:
Them: “Where have you been? You look so red and sunburned!”
Me: “Er, Canada…”
Them: “Oh! Isn’t Canada like cold?”
It is true that since I arrived in Canada last Saturday, the weather has been bright, sunny, and warm (around 23 degrees C), with mostly bright blue skies. It’s also been, at times, exceptionally humid, which has led to some uncomfortable walking around.
However, I woke up this morning to the sound of rain breaking on the roof and on the windows. Looking outside, it was fairly hard and torrential – almost the perfect weather to visit Niagara Falls since you’re going to get wet anyway so it doesn’t matter what the weather’s like. My research over the last few days had suggested this weather was also expected, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to wake up to it.
I’d arrived in the town of Niagara Falls last night just as the dusk was turning into night, but it was still pretty humid. It was a long pleasant walk in the sultry night, along the river, down a long residential road lined with trees and houses set back off the road, before passing under a large bridge which carries traffic and pedestrians over to the USA on the opposite bank of the river. It always feels strange to walk so close to a border and not cross it.
Then I turned right, up a road called ‘Clifton Hill’ and was immediately confronted by a road of garish neon lights, cheesy tourist attractions including a big wheel, glow-in-the-dark crazy-golf, and several ‘haunted house’ attractions, and of course lots of people; the area reminded me of some kind of lower-class British seaside resort. I’m not sure if it was what I was expecting, but I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised. There’s also a couple of casinos here. I don’t know if Niagara Falls NY is similarly cheesy, but I guess it wouldn’t be surprising.
I met up with the folks from the hostel in one of the nearby pubs, in an amazingly-sociable act of mine. We stayed in there for a couple of drinks and some food, then headed out to the riverfront overlooking the falls for a firework display, which was actually pretty good although would have been nicer had the fireworks lit up the falls more. Not that the falls needed much more lighting up to be honest; they were glistening with a nice glow of pale coloured lights.
I had a chat with the owner of the hostel (Patrick, a cool man and quite, quite mad!) and he suggested that I go for a trek along the Niagara River; one of the other guests, a chap from Bretagne called Cedric who was studying in Montreal, was in the reception area at the same time and agreed to come along as well.
The route we took started around 10km North of the town centre, in the middle of nowhere pretty much, by a large fully-working floral clock. From here we wandered down the road along a designated footpath/cycle route for a couple of km before heading into the Niagara Valley itself, down a steep flight of steps and along the river.
It’s funny how on every holiday I go on, there’s a day I spend scrambling up and down rock-strewn paths. I’d like to say that we followed a nice forest path along the waterfront, and stopped every so often to admire the view; this is only mostly true. The path made its way down to the river, mainly over boulders and tree roots, and wound close to the water’s edge in the trees, in what could be best described as an ‘undulating’ manner, unevenly tracking over boulders, through streams, and, at one point, directly through a small waterfall. Bear in mind that it was still solidly raining; we got “quite wet”.
In saying that, the view was spectacular of the river valley. The other side of the river was tree-lined mountains, the river lapped up against pebbles on our side of the shore, and after a couple of km of walking, we came across a couple of fishermen, but these were the only people we saw. The vista made me think about what somewhere like the Canadian Rockies would look like; it’s amazing to think that this was only a few minutes by road from Cheese Central.
Apparently, even at the height of the tourist season (the start of July), when Niagara is full of tends of thousands of tourists a day, this stretch of river sees less than ten people walking along it.
Still damp, I then did the only touristy thing in the town that I’d vowed to do, a boat trip right up to the falls themselves. The amount of spray that comes out from the falls is immense; at one point we could barely see the falls in front of us because of the wind blowing so much spray in our faces. The falls look quite impressive from a distance; from close-up they just felt awesome.
“Niagara Falls” are actually two separate falls on branches of the Niagara River either side of an island in the middle – from the promenade at the town the “American Falls” look the more impressive (especially when lit up), but it’s only when you get close-up to them that you get a true impression as to how powerful the “Horseshoe Falls” are; the former are wider and fall over some rocks at the boom so they look more visually impressive but the latter is basically like a curtain of water falling down over the cliff – simple, yet so strong.
The rest of my day was spent drying off and chilling in the hostel; it’s been a much more sociable hostel than either of the two I’d been to previously en route, and there’s a whole host of different people here. I ended up chatting to two Israelis and a German about the Holocaust, which basically boiled down to the following conclusion:
German : A lot of German people still worry about it, and regret it.
Israeli : Oh don’t worry; we don’t think about it much to be honest. It happened a long time ago and most people in it are dead.
Accommodation booked for tomorrow and Monday night in Toronto – another backpacker hostel, this one somewhere in the North-East suburbs of Toronto City Centre. It’s on a subway route, is near to the bus station, and is above a café that sells microbeers, so hopefully that all augurs well …
Day 08: Sunday 22 September –
Hit Somebdy! : The Hockey Song (Warren Zevon)
When I was growing up, in the mid 1980s, there was a tendency for both major TV channels to show some of the less high-profile British sports, including wrestling (with ‘Big Daddy’ and ‘Giant Haystacks’, Touring Car Motor Racing (involving drivers like Andy Rouse and Phil Cleland), and Ice-Hockey (Murrayfield Racers being the primary team at the time, but the only player I specifically remember was a chap called ‘Tony Hand’). I used to watch them all, relatively passively whilst busy doing other things (usually playing on my computer or board games against myself), but ever since then I’ve always had a passing interest in them all.
My knowledge of Ice-Hockey actually goes back a bit further. When I was very young, about 4 or 5 years old maybe, we had a very old and primitive console game. It had 12 different games pre-loaded onto it, many of them sporting in origin (eg tennis, football). One of them was ice-hockey; and by ‘primitive’ I mean a few blocks on the screen, each player controlled one white block and the puck was a pixel. But even at that early age I found the concept interesting – the thing that made me most curious was the way you could move the pixel behind the goal and play on. In a world of football, this felt odd even then.
Twenty years later (mid 00s), and I end up becoming friends with (and for just over a year renting a room off) my friend Alison in Coventry, who’s pretty passionate about the game, so I end up going to see quite a few matches at the local club there (Coventry Blaze), one of the leading teams in the English (and Scottish!) Ice-Hockey League. And then I moved house to Nottinghamshire, where another ‘big club’, Nottingham Panthers, play. Interestingly, in one of the matches I saw at Coventry, one of the players (I think he was player-coach at Basingstoke) was Tony Hand – he was about 41 years old at the time, but it’s interesting that I finally got to saw him play.
What was also interesting about my time in Coventry was that it coincided with an NHL lock-out due to a dispute over pay/rights; this meant that the European game was flooded with NHL players who wanted a game. So I was fortunate that I got to see some players of a higher quality than would normally have been the case.
The sport’s thus kind of followed me around for much of my life, on the periphery, but always been there in my thoughts. So when I was planning my trip around Canada it felt natural to see if, while I was here, I could pop along to match in the spiritual home of the sport, to see how it should be played. A few years ago I did see an ice-hockey match in the USA, between two college teams in Michigan, but I figured seeing a notable Canadian team play would be pretty much the pinnacle.
On a side note, the origin of the sport is disputed, as with most sports. While several different places in Canada claim to have invented it, or at least been important in its development, it’s interesting to note that the first four countries to join the embryonic International Ice Hockey Federation were all European, and not necessarily the countries you’d expect: France, Belgium, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), and the UK. Indeed, the UK has one of the first ever records of a game like ice-hockey being played; during one of the ‘big freezes’ in the 1740s, ‘a game of field hockey played on ice’ was recorded in London and Oxford.
Canada joined around 1912, and in every Olympics before World War 2 (the Winter Olympics began in 1924 but ice-hockey was part of the 1920 programme too) Canada won the gold medal. Except in 1936, where, quite inexplicably, the gold medal was won by, of all people, the UK. Disclaimer: they did so with a team consisting entirely (bar one) of Canadian-based players. This is the same principle as how France won the Silver Medal for Cricket in 1900 – by using British diplomats and ex-pats.
In fact, the ice-hockey season here doesn’t properly begin for another week. However, when I was browsing through possible cities I was going through, I discovered that the Toronto Maple Leafs were playing one of their pre-season friendlies at home on the Sunday I was planning to be in Toronto, and fortunately there were a small handful of tickets left, so it was pretty much a no-brainer – a match against the nearby Buffalo Sabres, so a local derby and an ‘international’ match to boot.
On my way to the game I took a look into the ‘Hockey Hall of Fame’ Museum in downtown Toronto, which was filled with detail and equipment from the history of the game, the greatest players to have played it, and also all the trophies in the season (including the Stanley Cup). Shame on anyone who can only name only Wayne Gretsky.
The match itself was good; it finished 5-3 to the Maple Leafs, but it never felt like it should be that close. At one point the Leafs were 4-1 up and cruising but allowed the Sabres to get back to 4-3 and I never felt they deserved to be that close.
Comparing this to English Ice Hockey’s interesting; even though it was a pre-season game it’s clear the quality of players is much higher – the passing game was more fluid and accurate, and the goal-tending was pretty world-class. Oddly I didn’t think the actual speed of play was necessarily that much quicker, except in little bursts and break-aways, but that’s partly as a result of the more accurate one-touch passing.
It also took 35 minutes for the first penalty, so I thought it was going to be quite a ‘boring’ match as far as that was concerned, but no biggie, despite the old joke, I don’t go to fights to watch an ice-hockey match, so …
And then came the third quarter. After a couple of set-tos between a couple of the players, on 10 minutes in, it all kicked off big style. Firstly there was a big bruising battle between two players (which drew blood), and then a couple of moments later battle had commenced, Most of the players were involved – one might argue it was a bench clearance but the majority of the fighting took place on the ice at the benches themselves so the subs didn’t really need to move to get involved. The ice was littered with debris afterwards and the admin took around 10 minutes to sort out. It ended up with about 5 or 6 players from each side being effectively sent off – the benches afterwards looked quite empty.
Although only a pre-season game, there weren’t many tickets left for sale when I was looking to buy, and in the arena itself I’d say it was about 70% full at any one time, though it’s hard to tell as people kept coming in and out to buy refreshments. The cameras occasionally panned to the audience so people could see themselves on the big screen; in one of the breaks in play they had the ‘kiss-cam’ where the camera zoomed into couples and the idea would be for them to kiss each other whilst on the big screen – most played ball but in one memorable couple, the woman was busy on her mobile phone and didn’t look up, and actually looked angry with her partner for keeping poking her to look up. This continued for about 7 or 8 seconds to the amusement of the audience, until finally the lady the other side of her partner leaned in and kissed him, to audience whoops. One suspects their ride home wasn’t going to be pretty …
Next stop, Rugby League World Cup in November. Must. Book. Tickets.
Day 09: Monday 23 September –
Top of the World (James)
I’m in a backpacker hostel with really good wi-fi, comfortable beds, sociable people, and above a real ale pub/café I’m getting used to this hostel thing; it’s not as bad as I always worry about it being. This time I’m sharing a room with two cousins from North Wales who are at the start of a round-the-world trip; their plan’s to go across to the West Coast of North America, then head South to San Francisco, then fly to Australia, where they plan to work a bit cos their money will have run out by then …
Money’s an interesting concept when you’re always on the move, always staying the night in hostel accommodation and not having too much storage space to be able to do a supermarket shop; it’s obviously cheaper to make your own food but often not that easy. It’s something I need to learn to start doing, rather than eating out all the time. Even though I eat a lot less when I travel than when I’m at home (and some hostels, like this one, do breakfast, though not all of them as big a breakfast as these guys’ waffles; they’re thick and huge and covered in fruit, cream, and optional maple syrup.), most of what I eat costs me more than it would do if I’d already bought and made something. Obviously in some countries it’s easier than others – SE Asia for instance does a fine line in both cheap fruit and filling snack food.
I am doing well in cutting back the spending on gratuitous museums though. I’ve made it a policy to only pay to enter what I would actually find interesting, rather than going to something because it’s there, or if it’s well-renowned – hence the Ice Hockey museum yesterday. Of course it helps if the places I go to are interesting in and of themselves; if the only reason to visit a town is because of its museum, that might well be a reason for me not to go there unless the museum is the point (as was the case when I went to Zonnebeke in Belgium).
Today therefore, my plan was to see Toronto. I got a map of the open-top tour bus route … and walked it. Occasionally I got distracted by some nice street art, or interesting-looking building, but I saw quite a lot of the city at ground level that people on the buses would only speed past. Obviously I miss out a bit on the stories behind the buildings but I can do my own research on that later on if I feel the need to.
It took about 6 and a half hours; now that does include stops/breaks, and a couple of short detours to places en route that I knew I wanted to have a look at, and it’s still less than the time I took walking around Ottawa/Gatineau, but still it’s quite a lot. My right sandal is now definitely falling apart at the front strap in a way that superglue can’t fix, but this should be the last day I really push it; it’s only got to last a couple more days anyway so I should be all right.
Although I passed by a number of museums (including the frankly bizarre-sounding ‘Shoe Museum’ – one of whose exhibits is Napoleon Bonaparte’s socks), the only thing I paid to enter was the CN Tower; 340 metres of panoramic view (or would be if the restaurant wasn’t in the way – though it only effectively blocks out a small part of the SE view). The tower’s actually taller than that but to get to nearer the top cost another $12 and getting in was over $36 as it was …
Fortunately it was a glorious day to view; clear blue skies and empty air meant you could see quite a long way, beyond the quirky island with an airport on it just off the harbour coast, all the way round the bay and probably halfway to Niagara, although the lake and the land and the sky all come to a pale blue blur by that point. The other way you can see the plains of Ontario stretching out forever … I’ll grant you it’s an impressive view but once you get beyond the Toronto suburbs it’s a view of not actually that much.
One of the ‘features’ of the CN tower is a part of one of the floors that’s made of reinforced glass – five times thicker than ordinary glass and looks and feels a bit like plastic. You can walk on it and look down at the ground below. It’s a bit of a mind-fuck in all honesty; children are happy to bounce up and down on it quite happily but adults tend to be more tentative. It’s a very bizarre psychological trick; obviously it’s perfectly safe but because you can see through it, your mind tricks you into believing it’s not as strong as the surrounding concrete. I don’t know if it would be better to be blindfolded and walked to it, so by the time you realise what it is, you’re already safely standing on it.
The function of the CN Tower is actually telecommunications; specifically it’s a TV transmitter. It’s so high so the signals that come from it can be received throughout the whole of Southern Ontario, which is a pretty vast place. It wasn’t originally going to be open to the public at all, but early on in the construction/design they decided to make it a tourist attraction. I wonder how long it took them to recoup the building costs …
I am hoping that the high point of North America is not a symbolic ‘high point’ of my trip. Tomorrow I’m due to go to Detroit (assuming I have no problems crossing the border) – more people I’ve met have asked me why I’m going to Detroit (the incredible shrinking city) than asked me why I was going to Ottawa. And from there on in the tone of my trip changes; the week’s going to be a bit more relaxing and not as much rushing about, then there’s an overnight train journey, then I get to rush around Philadelphia’s thrift stores finding clothes that don’t make me look too much like a scruffbag. #ShutUpSarah. In a strange sort of way, my ‘holiday’ is almost over – what follows is meeting friends, a much different situation and circumstance, much different ‘feel’ to the trip, not as much rushing around seeing new things in such a wide area.
At home, the team I work in is undergoing some structural change and, at the time of typing, things are still undecided as to what’s going to happen with it. My understanding is that an announcement was supposed to have been made today, but I’ve not heard anything yet. Not that there’s anything to worry about, it’s just uncertainty and change, s’all.
On a related note, in an example of the oft-referred ‘small world’ cliché, in the hostel in Niagara Falls I met someone who used to work for the same firm I work for; indeed 8 years ago we were working in the same building and it now turns out there are a couple of people we both vaguely knew in common. She relocated to Germany some years ago and was made redundant late last year … she’s still travelling. Patrick, the chap who runs that hostel, ‘retired’ at the age of 37/38 from his job as a consultant in the logging industry, taught himself how to run a hostel (and visited lots of them to see how they worked), and resisted the temptation to return to his old industry in order to live his new passion. I’m not saying that I have the wherewithal to do anything similar, but it proves there are always options.
And beer. There is always beer.
Oast House Brewery, Dunkel Jesse (5.4%): sweet (honeyed), dark, slightly roasted.
Day10 : Tuesday 24 September –
Little Britain (Dreadzone)
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we will shortly be arriving in Windsor. If you’re getting off here, please make sure you take all your belongings with you. If you’re continuing on this bus, stay in your seats.”
It had been a long and quite boring coach journey; about six hours of looking at flat plains, cornfields, and the occasional small town. There were only about ten people on the coach as it pulled into Windsor; even at the start of the journey it had only been just over half full, and most of the passengers had disembarked in London, some three hours previously. Now it looked like most of the remaining people on board were about to get off too.
We’d started about 8.30am in bright sunshine, but the morning had yet to fully warm up. After hitting a little bit of rush-hour traffic, we’d sped off down the motorway in good speed, arriving in London only about five minutes late. Although we had a stopover here of about twenty minutes, there didn’t seem to be a lot to the town – or maybe the bus station was just in one of the less salubrious suburbs, as is often the way. There was a a small mini-mart, a launderette, a church, and not a great deal else at the crossroads – in the distance down one of the roads were visible the hallmark buildings of the town centre but too far to walk in such a short amount of time. As the bus left London, we passed across Westminster Bridge, over the River Thames, a small but quite pretty river that seemed to wend its way southward through a small wood.
I still needed to change my money, and was getting a little concerned that I wouldn’t be able to do it today; London was due to be our only stopover; although we’d also be stopping in Windsor, this was nothing more than a designated drop-off/pick-up stop. I had enough foreign currency to pay the admin fee at the border, assuming they hadn’t raised the prices and not updated the website, but that was about it.
The coach driver made a brief stop-off at the small town of Chatham, in Kent, to make what looked like a delivery of goods to the bus depot there – it certainly wasn’t on the list as a stop. Chatham was a very boring-looking town, consisting almost entirely of one long street lined with houses set back off the road, a couple of local shops, and a few churches, pretty much surrounded by fields of tall corn stalks, bright in the late-morning sunshine.
Around 2pm, we crossed into Essex – the last county before the border, and headed straight down the motorway towards Windsor. I was still feeling apprehensive; would I be able to change money? Would they even let me across the border anyway? What would I do if they didn’t? This road’s a bit of a dead end; the only real way back would be to retrace my steps for six hours … I’d much rather it didn’t come to that, both because then I’d be stuck on the wrong side of the water, and it would be quite expensive to rebook my onward journey back home. Plus of course I had a wedding to get to and it would be very frustrating to miss it on a technicality.
Windsor itself seemed fairly large; the sign on roadside claimed around 260,000 people, and we travelled through quite a bit of the town before we reached the bus station which seemed pretty much in the town centre; blocks of shops busy with people, and of course a handful of ubiquitous British pubs, although no-one seems to have made the most obvious pub name – maybe there is a Windsor Castle pub somewhere in the suburbs.
After maybe ten minutes of being stationary in the bus station, the driver advised us to transfer over to the coach next to ours; he said there was a problem with the driver’s seat – presumably this had been a problem for most of the journey but he didn’t say. Maybe this was the only place en route he could make the change. The new coach was a little less comfortable, and, annoyingly, didn’t have a working wi-fi either; if I got stuck at the border i wouldn’t even be able to tell anyone.
There were only three of us left now; apart from myself there was a younger lady who sounded like she came from Eastern Europe, and a short woman of Chinese origin who had spent much of the journey looking very slightly lost. At least this meant the border crossing shouldn’t take too long; we were already quite late.
It was only a short ride to the border, down a series of fairly incongruous roads and then through a slightly out-of-the-way tunnel that felt a little like the Mersey Tunnels in Liverpool – the same shade of white ceramic-looking tiles lining a bending road with overhead lights. oddly, the road only had one lane in each direction; I pondered that this seemed a remarkably narrow route for an International Highway, but then as we crossed the toll booths to get into it, there were maybe only two or three other vehicles passing through at the same time. I wondered if it was any busier in rush-hour. Shortly, we reached the other side and parked up at customs/immigration; here we go, this was ‘it’.
The three of us descended the bus and went inside a small building that felt like the inside of a large post office; it was a room longer than it was wide, with chairs lined up in rows alongside one wall as a waiting area, and a tensabarrier snake queue; I almost expected them to call out “cashier number two please”. I was the first one in and got processed by a woman who would have made Hattie Jacques’ ‘Matron’ character in the ‘Carry On…’ film series seem like Bjork; a woman who, if she smiled she might cause an earthquake in Java, and if she spoke more than four words in a sentence would probably need a week of penitence to recover. Maybe she did it for effect; it was hard to tell. The other two passengers were processed by serious but slightly more personable people; the Eastern European lady was having trouble filling in her green entry form (the I-94W) and her ‘cashier’ was trying to explain each question in turn slowly and effectively – eventually he succeeded.
Although the first one in, it took the lady far longer to process me than either of the other two took. I sat in one one of the chairs quietly, as casually as I could – this was weird. Maybe they’d found something odd in my record? Maybe they were confused by my trips to China, Russia, and the UAE and wondered if I was some kind of international smuggler – in actual fact I was smuggling in one item of contraband, but it wasn’t the border guards I was smuggling it past. Maybe they’d discovered my run-in with the British Transport Police over three years ago where I contravened section 20 subsection 5 of the railway by-laws – though as I was neither arrested nor convicted, nor have to pay a fine, I figured this was so minor as to not cause any bother. Maybe I was wrong. The minutes ticked by, and eventually the coach driver came back in to see if I was still there.
“You’re good to go.” she said, putting the passport back on the counter for me to take. They didn’t even seem interested in scanning my bag in their machine. Maybe they just got bored of me and wanted me to move on. Either way it didn’t matter; I was free to continue my journey. I’d made it across the border, out of Little Britain and into the big bad world of Detroit.
Day 11: Wednesday 25 & Thursday 26 September –
Life in a Northern Town (Dream Academy) / Mortal City (Dar Williams)
It’s fair to say that Detroit has a bit of a bad reputation of late. A combination of a belief of increasing crime, lower investment, closure of mainstay industries, and, most recently, a lack of money, have all led to the perception that the entire city is a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland, a wilderness into which few venture and fewer still manage to leave. If life were a video shoot-em-up, Detroit would be perceived to be amongst the hardest of difficulty settings; Mordor to Southern Ontario’s Shire.
This is, of course, complete monkeys. Obviously in any city there are going to be good parts and bad parts; there are areas of Nottingham where I would be reluctant to venture even in daytime hours, and not all of Detroit is a no-go zone. It’s true that Detroit has had a bit of a slide recently – although I’m less fazed by its recent bankruptcy as I grew up in the Metropolitan Borough of Liverpool and that regularly went bankrupt in the mid-80s, mainly due to council wrangling and in-fighting (it was during the Derek Hatton years, when issues like Liverpool made Labour about as nationally electable as a sack of potatoes).
Part of Detroit’s problem, I guess, is not so much that it’s fallen on hard times, but more that it’s fallen from such a height. Other cities in the North of the USA have suffered probably worse (the industrial heartlands of Pennsylvania, or the working-class towns East of Chicago, for instance), but they never had the prestige or national renown that Detroit had. Here was the model working-class city, famous for cars, industry, and music, and now it has … well, just like towns in the North of England, it’s replacing its industries for new ones, and some firms are still headquartered here – indeed General Motors are a leading investor in a riverfront conference centre/shopping mall that looks pretty new and flash. While it is true that Detroit does have a way to go yet before it finds its feet again, it’s nowhere near as bad as people talk about it.
Around Detroit are a number of quite comfortable middle-class suburbs and satellite towns, like Royal Oak, where the worst that can happen to you is you get a speeding ticket from an over-zealous traffic cop. There are areas like the Huron River, part of which are a designated Nature Reserve. And Belleville, a small town snuggled against the sides of the Belleville Lakes on the Huron River, just West of Detroit’s airport, where I’m in the middle of a two-night stay with my friend Kat.
Detroit has a transit system called the ‘People Mover’. This is an elevated single-track railway, which loops around the city centre one-way, with about 13 stops on it. The ‘trains’ run every couple of minutes, but when we hopped on and off them mid-afternoon, we seemed to be virtually the only ones using it, so I’m not sure how popular it is. From it you get good views across the Detroit skyscrapers and a little bit of the waterfront. It’s quite a cool system, which would probably be better served in more touristy cities.
What Detroit doesn’t have is a particularly impressive railway station. While it’s true that the American rail network isn’t as extensive or frequent as, say, the European rail network, several large cities in the USA do have impressive and large railway stations – think of Chicago, New York’s Penn Station, DC’s Union station, etc. Detroit used to have an impressive edifice with multi platforms but that closed in the 1980s. Today, Detroit’s railway station is a single-platform effort in the ‘New Centre’ of the city, over 3 miles out of downtown, which gets one or two actual trains a day (the route from Pontiac to Chicago), and one rail-replacement bus service to Toledo which connects with services Eastbound. To all intents and purposes, the town I live in (Kirkby-in-Ashfield), a small ex-mining town in the East Midlands of the UK and nowhere really in particular, has a bigger railway station than Detroit.
One similarity to Kirkby though is that there’s not a lot around the railway station. Apart from a couple of places to grab food (a Subway store, a dodgy convenience store, an even dodgier-looking fast food joint), the surrounds are fairly, well, dull really – a couple of long wide avenues with nothing much on them. Not a terribly impressive place to be stuck for 3 hours waiting for a bus.
The route to Royal Oak and Belleview took us through the suburb of Highland Park, one of the less salubrious parts of Detroit, although to be fair the main road running straight through it reminded me a bit more of the dereliction of somewhere like the Old Kent Road in London; certainly seen better days but not the hole that people make it out to be. We also passed over the relatively infamous ‘8 Mile Road’, but immediately beyond this was the more Middle-Class area of Ferndale. City of contrasts, certainly; but then, no more so than Birmingham in the UK, where Hagley Road divides Ladywood (bullet-proof vest required) from Edgbaston (Platinum Credit Card required).
One of the surrounding towns even has a very good brewpub; the Black Lotus in Clawson, where a four-beer sampler was gratefully drunk. There certainly seems to be a theme with brewpubs in North America where they generally offer the stronger beers – very few ‘session ales’ to be found in a sea of 5.0% and up beers; the four in the sampler I had at this pub were between 6% and 10%.
There’s not a lot in Belleville itself; we did go out to a Chinese buffet restaurant this evening that’s walkable from Kat’s place, and to the nearby supermarket to load up with snacks for the train tomorrow evening, but the town centre itself doesn’t have a great deal to offer. Two barbers though, so at some point I’ll have a barber-driven shave (though whether that’s in Belleville or Philadelphia, not quite sure yet). I still haven’t been able to change my money, though I have now bought wedding/work shoes so once I get to Philly I shall give my sandals a fond farewell.
Day 13: Friday 27 September –
Road, River, and Rail (Cocteau Twins)
The longest train journey I’ve ever been on was four days. This was from Ulan Bator in Mongolia to Moscow in Russia; we left on the Tuesday morning and arrived on the Saturday early afternoon – had it gone faster than 30mph then it might have taken less time, but that’s another story. On that train we had a cabin to ourselves with two beds, so the overnights weren’t a problem. Mostly, it was quite a scenic routing too – through the woods of Southern Siberia just as the long Winter was coming to an end – Lake Baikal was still a bit frozen and there was still some snow around, but it wasn’t uncomfortably cold when we got off at the stations to have a browse around.
Thirteen hours, in comparison, is pretty small-fry, although note that the journey we took today from Toledo to Washington DC was done in reclining seats, not beds. It was interesting to me to compare the Amtrak service to the VIA Rail one in Canada – there was even more legroom on the American train, although this was possibly as a result of it being an overnight service, and there was a specific ‘lounge coach’ where there were individual seats, like you’d find in city streets or in some waiting rooms, facing out to a wall of window that extended upwards towards the roof so you could look up as well as out, but it didn’t appear to have wi-fi. Not that wi-fi is terribly important when you have a travelling companion, and when you spend half the journey asleep, but it’s a nice-to-have if you need to check admin.
The journey actually started from Royal Oak, but the first train we got was just a short hop into Detroit itself, then we had a three hour wait at the railway station for the ‘bus link’ to Toledo, an hour or so South. It would be nice to think at some point in the future they might resurrect the rail link, but maybe that depends largely on how many people want to go to Detroit … Both the initial train from Royal Oak and the train we picked up in Toledo have a terminus in Chicago, but to do the whole journey by train via Chicago took at least half a day longer, and cost $40 more.
As an aside, Toledo station was bigger and had more facilities than Detroit station. But not that many more services.
We were assigned seating on the train as we boarded; when we had our tickets checked going onto the platform at Toledo everyone was asked if they were travelling alone or in a ‘group’ of people; groups were boarded first so they could sit together – and two people counted as a group so we had pretty much free run of the train carriage.
Now, I’m not very good at sleeping on trains, but a combination of being quite tired, of having eaten too much snack food, and it being Ohio, meant that I managed to get a reasonable amount of dozing time in the first few hours; in fact I was apparently asleep even beyond passing through Pittsburgh. Kat apparently fared less well but still managed a couple of hours shut-eye. I’m actually pretty impressed with this; apparently I don’t seem to snore either – this is something I did always wonder and is one of the many reasons I’ve tended to be reluctant in the past to share a room with people. I, myself, can sleep through an earthquake. Literally, as I did it once, although obviously British earthquakes pale into insignificance compared with elsewhere in the world; if we get one that’s about 3.0 on the Richter Scale (that is to say, one that few people outside seismologists would even notice) it makes front page news.
Washington DC is one of those places, like Beijing, New York City, and the TARDIS, that’s bigger than it looks on a map. Our stopover here was around three hours, because when we were booking the tickets I said to Kat that it would be better to go by train than coach because it didn’t involve a three hour layover in Pittsburgh bus station at 2am, and because I’d never been to DC so thought it might be cool to have a wander around the streets and take photos of famous buildings that I’d only ever seen on the news. We had the option for an earlier train out but that would have only given us two hours and I thought that might be pushing it a bit.
In fact, despite the fact we also arrived about half an hour early, it turned out that three hours was pushing it quite tight – we ended up making it back to the station with about five minutes to spare, although in the event it didn’t matter since they hadn’t even started boarding and the queue was snaking around the station, but we didn’t know that when we were striding up Avenue E clock-watching …
Kat is, effectively, a civil servant (albeit a very minor role) and at the time of visiting, the US parliament were having arguments about agreeing next year’s budget (which has to be agreed by Monday), so it seemed an ‘apt’ time to go sauntering past the Capitol building and mutter inaudible grumblings. It’s not really possible to get as close to the White House plus the fence overlooking it was full of tourists. But in any case it’s the Capitol where the work needs to happen.
Much of central DC is old buildings, sculptures/memorials, and parkland (The Mall); it’s all very nice and pretty, and makes slow progress when you’re taking pictures of everything at every conceivable angle, but there’s not a heck of a lot there. Having said which, it would be easy to spend at least a couple of days there; the Smithsonian Museum buildings themselves could probably fill an entire day if you were museum-minded. But in a way it felt similar to Ottawa – a functional place that exists for a reason, but which maybe doesn’t have the feel of a ‘city’ so much as a ‘small town with important buildings’. It’s a place to spend some time in on the way to somewhere more interesting – although I’ll grant you we didn’t really venture much into downtown.
Philadelphia, conversely, feels much more like a real city, even though it too is full of tourists. It’s been a sizeable city even from pre-independence days and indeed served as the capital of the USA for a short period in the late 1790s/early 1800s. It also feels very safe to walk around the city centre, even long after dark. Our hostel was on a side street close to the junction of 4th & Market, so very convenient for the subway and for the historical district – for example the Liberty Bell was just a couple of blocks away. We didn’t see it; I’ve seen it before, it’s just a cracked bell with no real significance. But it looks nice.
It was also close to a small series of bars and food outlets, a couple of which we popped into at the start of a ‘pub crawl’ of Philadelphia ‘organised’ by the people who help run the hostel. We actually only hung around for one pub because we needed food more than drink, so we slid quietly out to the neighbouring place for some pizza. We’d been hankering for food for some time, but the hostel crowd distracted us with card drinking games. This hostel seemed even more sociable than the one I was in at Niagara Falls.
Barely noticeable from the outside, the hostel doorway opens into the main living area, with sofas, bean-bags, a wooden ‘bar’-like structure with stools, lockers, and a large TV usually screening something from Netflix. Primary colours abound, but they’re not overly garish. A door on the right leads to a large kitchen, whilst straight ahead is a corridor off which are the dorm rooms and the bathrooms. There seemed to be three or four dorms; our dorm had 4 beds but I think at least one of the others was a 6-bed dorm. The staff were incredibly friendly, and a couple of them were often playing music on the guitars and other musical instruments scattered around the lounge area. It’s kind of a shame we didn’t get to spend that long there; although we were there for two nights we’d be hardly spending any time in it.
Indeed, we even had to ‘duck out’ of a ‘pub crawl’ this evening because we’d already arranged to meet up with some friends; this was why we were in Philadelphia in the first place…
Day 14: Saturday 28 September –
For My Wedding (Don Henley)
I’ve never got married. I’ve been engaged twice but never managed to go the extra step. These days I’m also very Quirkyalone so the chances of me ever wanting to try again are quite slim – and that precludes that anyone would be able to cope with marrying me. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t planned a wedding, or at least a ‘ceremony’ to celebrate the concept of two people coming together ‘as one’ – a kind of ‘hand-fasting’ type event.
It would be in a field, probably in the moorlands. There’d be a marquee tent with local real ale and live music (probably folk bands). There wouldn’t be any need for the wedding guests to dress up (‘Don’t wear heels. Don’t wear white.’); the bride and groom would probably be dressed in something either mediaeval or very casual, and barefoot (obviously). There would be vows, but very quirky and specific ones. And there would be singings and readings, but from a variety of sources ancient and modern, and which people would enjoy listening to and taking part in.
This was not that sort of wedding.
That’s not to say that it was boring and traditional; any married couple who have a replica Atom Bomb for people to sign their regards on in the reception area of the wedding meal have to be somewhat unorthodox in their approach to celebration. Plus, they’re going on their honeymoon in October. To Scotland. For a week. I told them to pack a raincoat.
This wedding was the reason I was in North America at all. It was of my friend Aila; she’s the housemate of my friend Dayna, who I’ve known for nine years (it’s actually somewhat fitting that the first place I visited on this passport was the USA, to meet Dayna for the first time, and the last place I’m going to visit on the passport is to the USA, to meet Dayna …). Kat had been a friend of Dayna at college, so when I asked Aila if I could bring a friend, and Aila had said ‘absolutely; we were worried that you’d be at the wedding and not know anyone’, it made sense to invite her (partly because I didn’t get to meet her neither of the last two times I was last in the USA). In the event that wasn’t exactly true; there were a couple of people there who I’d met last time I was over in Philadelphia, in 2009, but Aila was right, I would have been a bit lonely.
We went round to her hotel last night for a pre-wedding natter with Aila, Dayna, and a couple of others, just to say ‘hi’, and I guess to prove that we were really there. They were in the Sheraton, a nice walk a few blocks South of our hostel, and completely the other end of the scale in terms of accommodation But then they were the ones getting married, not us (although I suspect that, again, for my wedding we’d probably stay in some backpacker hostel nearby and celebrate with the rest of the guests. Or camp.).
The wedding itself was in a nice, small church about as far again South of the Sheraton; we’d arranged to pick up one of the shuttle-buses going between the two venues. Kat was ‘distracted’ by the Scottish piper who was playing outside in the churchyard, both going in and and coming out. Hard to say how many people were present; I’m guessing about 70. There didn’t seem to be any traditional ‘bride side/groom side’ division; we chose to sit on the left as when we arrived there were about half as many people on that side so we felt like evening-up the numbers.
Everyone was dressed quite smartly – Kat had taken me shopping in the thrift stores in the Detroit area to get a cheap shirt/trousers/tie, because evidently my work-friendly short-sleeved shirts/blue trouser combo just wasn’t going to cut the mustard. Obviously we didn’t go as far as the wedding party themselves, with their hired formal suits (black, ushers) and smart plain dark blue dresses (bridesmaids). The groom wore a mid-grey suit, and the bride had a strapless white “traditional” wedding dress.
The evening meal was in a function room nearby, and the guests had been assigned seating based on shared interests and friends and stuff. Me and Kat were on what was unofficially described as the ‘Miscellaneous’ table – we didn’t even make it to the ‘Goth’ group! We were about as far as it was to get from the bridal table, although conversely we were also nearest the food – a whole wall full of ‘served buffet’ food. I’ve been to quite a few weddings and the food has been uniformly industrial-school-dinner-dull bordering on naff; my theory here is that most wedding venues, to cut costs, cook food in a similar manner to schools – get cheap bulk pre-prepared food and cook it quickly and simply in large batches. This buffet was exactly not like that – all stupendously awesome food, and there was even a varied and significant vegetarian section, much to Kat’s delight.
And there was dancing. At times with umbrellas. For reasons that I may have been told but, as by that point I’d sampled a couple of glasses of wine, I don’t honestly remember.
We caught the shuttle bus back to the Sheraton, and had a very nice walk through the streets of Philadelphia looking at the weird and wonderful young nightlife lurking around the clubs and bars of a Saturday night, before reaching the hostel, seemingly before quite a few of the other people staying there.
Days 15 & 16: Sunday 29 & Monday 30 September –
On My Way Home (Alice)
‘It’s always sunny in Philadelphia’, apparently. As taglines go, it’s quite catchy, and certainly true of our time here. As sitcoms go, however, it’s a bit naff, and Danny DeVito really has fallen on hard times. However, it being local, it made regular appearances on the big-screen TV in the communal area of the hostel.
However, it is quite a nice city – the centre of it feels pretty safe and calming, and obviously there’s a lot of history and culture here.
We’d spent the first part of yesterday on a tour provided by the hostel, around the city centre, although again we’d had to nip off partway through to get ready for the wedding, although we did see quite a bit of the interesting stuff, mainly involving Benjamin Franklin – the man who seems to have done a bit of virtually everything, from electricity to literature to the postal service to revolutionary activity … for some reason when I was younger I automatically assumed he was President at one point, but that was one role he never had. He probably didn’t need to …
We also saw some of the oldest still-habited housing in the USA (Quebec City is much older than Philadelphia though!), the USA’s first post office (where you can still get letters franked with Ben Franklin’s signature – believed to be the only place in the world where a signature is still a legal franking, whereas back in the day it was very common, if you were important enough), the church organ in the branch of Macy’s (the theory here being that in the heyday of department stores, people would do anything to encourage footfall) which someone plays at midday and 5pm, and, accidentally, a slut-walk.
But today was the day we left. Kat had a train to catch around lunchtime, and I had a mid-afternoon flight. We did take a detour into the very centre of the city though, in order to just admire some of the architecture and the weird sculptures of board-game pieces in the square just across the road from City Hall. It used to be a good skateboarding zone before they outlawed it.
I also finally threw away my old walking sandals today; we hummed ‘the last post’ as they fell into the bin inside the hostel. No flowers though. They were always going to depart today, but the last straw came yesterday when I very nearly tripped over a tram line, and even more of the strap across the bottom of the toes on my right sandal became detached from the base. I very nearly threw them away there and then and go back to the hostel barefoot – it would probably have been safer, in honesty.
The journey back home was pretty dull. I never got stamped out of the USA; the flight I took from Philadelphia to Atlanta was a domestic one, and in Atlanta all I did was walk inside the terminal from one branch to the other, but apparently because I flew out of the country, it’s not going to be an issue as they know I left from the airline records.
I had quite a lot of time to spare in Atlanta airport, so took a slow walk through the terminal branches reading the museum-like information boards about the history and culture of the city, especially its role in the history of Civil Rights – it was quite a forward-thinking oasis in a desert of deep-south hickness. It’s also reinvented itself a few times, notably for the 1996 Olympic Games.
Reached home around 3pm British Time, which may well still have been before Kat did, having passed through Sheffield to meet with my friend Gemma just for a quick spot of lunch. It’s always weird to go back home, it always feel like a bit of an anticlimax.