Archive for the ‘Canada’ Category

Two Weeks In Toronto

Posted: February 8, 2018 in 2018, Adventures, Canada

…and just like that, two weeks in Toronto have come and gone. A tout a l’heure, Canada. You are always good to me.

I’m writing this from the Dallas airport, because somehow Dallas makes sense as a layover between Canada and Salt Lake City…

Ahem.

Being in Canada was so nice. My main objective was to see my friends (and to speak French as much as possible in Montreal), so I can’t say I did too many touristy things. I’m teaching an online course while traveling, so I spent quite a bit of time hanging with Amanda’s cats at her apartment, setting up the lessons and making the course able to (mostly) run itself. We’re currently midway through week 2 of the semester and the students are getting the hang of it, so hopefully all that planning will pay off when I’m cycling through New Zealand!

I did hit up a couple interesting spots in Toronto though. Here are the highlights:

Museums

Early in my trip, Amanda and I decided to check out the special exhibits at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). We started with the extremely detailed Vikings exhibit, complete with an audio tour accompaniment and placards in both French and English. Hooray! According to the exhibit, “viking” was originally an old Norse verb meaning something similar to sailing. You might say say you’re going a-viking, and then over time the people who went a-viking came to be known as Vikings. However, not all scholars agree about the word’s origin, so take that with a grain of salt. Interestingly, Vikings were buried with “ghost ships,” usually the nails that would’ve made up a ship, so they could sail in the afterlife. The more you know!

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Viking ghost ship

From there we visited the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit, which was amazing. Then we quickly skimmed through the Christian Dior dress exhibit just because, and then we went through the dinosaur exhibit and into the bat cave! This was the best because of the voiceover, which allowed you to interact with the “bats” in the cave and…best part…you could press a button to hear the narrative in French! Needless to say it made my day.

 

Prehistoric life! That big skeleton is a giant sloth.

We also visited the Aga Khan, a museum dedicated to Islamic art, Iranian art, and Muslim culture. While the building itself was impressive and the main exhibits were cool, Amanda I were both less than impressed with the special exhibit, which is why we were there. Called “Listening To Art, Seeing Music,” it seemed like it would be an exhibit of Islamic music, instruments, etc., so we were disappointed to discover that the “exhibit” consisted of a digital soundboard, background music, and an instrument “petting table” that contained a small oud, ney, a Nepalese drum, part of a gamelan set, and, randomly, a tiny glockenspiel. Not exactly impressive. However, our cheery and passionate tour guide for the regular exhibit made us smile at least!

Markets

Did you know that by law, a farmer’s market must be open at all times in Toronto? For that reason there is always at least one open. St. Lawrence Market was most impressive, being an indoor market with an atmosphere unlike any I’d experienced before. Here, I happily tasted “salmon candy” (essentially salmon that has been dehydrated and coated with maple – also called “Indian candy”) and a butter tart. All three of my Canadian friends were shocked to learn that butter tarts are unknown in the United States, and after tasting one I understand why!

With Eva and Marlyse I also visited Kensington Market, an outdoor area of Toronto with tons of shops, restaurants, cafes, etc. We visited Pow Wow Cafe, a First Nations restaurant known for its Ojibway tacos and cedar apple cider. The tacos are quite different than what we think of as tacos, being made from bannock (fry bread) and covered with either beef, chicken, or pork with salad and chick peas. Quite different, but delicious!

Ojibway tacos…yum!

Outdoor Attractions

The day after returning from my weekend in Montreal, Amanda and I drove to Niagra Falls, which I’d never seen. The falls were beautiful, with clear blue-green water filled with chunks of rushing with extreme force. I haven’t seen the falls from the US but we could that side in the distance, and I honestly think the Canadian side might be better!

With Eva, I visited Allen Gardens, a large park and greenhouse containing tons and tons of plants. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a greenhouse quite so large before.

Moose at Allen Gardens. 

Just two days ago, I set out to explore some of the trails of Toronto, which I now know is known as the “the city built into parks.” It’s true – there are trails everywhere in and around Toronto. My plan was to walk to one not too far from Amanda’s house that would lead me to Evergreen Brick Works, which is supposed to be a cool place to visit. I can’t say for sure though, as I never got there. Instead, I found myself on a four-hour walking adventure in search of a trail I’d somehow missed a turn for. I did at least find part of the Crother’s Woods Trail called the Sun Valley Trail, a short 30-min loop that probably looks better without so much snow. I’ll have to attempt some more trails next time…

The People’s Tour

One of the highlights of the trip was a free tour Amanda, Eva, and I took in Old York. Hosted by TourGuys and called “Death, Disease, & Destruction,” the two-hour Old Town Toronto walking tour took us from Old City Hall to St. Lawrence Market, telling us “the peoples’ history” of the area. Did you know that the first mayor of Toronto, Scots-Canadian William Lyon Mackenzie, won by buying whiskey for everyone who voted for him? Toronto produces more alcohol per year than the entire country of Germany, so I guess Smith’s victory was fitting! The tour also mentioned some duels to the death, the fact that Toronto has the biggest LGBTQ community in the world (and had the first pride parade), and lots of details about Canada’s relations with the United States, taking in “American refugees” (slaves escaping on the Underground railroad) and mainly just working to create a country vibe different than that of its southern neighbor. I wish I could remember all the details of the tour; there were so many crossovers between Canadian and American history that have sadly already left my mind.

This is St. James’ Cathedral, rich with history. The graves shown belong to Samuel Jarvis, John Ridout, and members of both families. In 1817 Jarvis and Ridout had a duel to the death outside the church (learn more here), and the family feud continues today; St. James actually has separate mass times for the Ridout and Jarvis families! According to our guide, St. James is also significant for being the first church to support gay marriage in Toronto.

Board Games

Although I never got to visit, it’s worth noting that the first board game cafe in North America (and maybe in the world?) was opened in Toronto. Called Snakes and Lattes, it now has three Toronto locations, and I hope to visit next time I’m there.

Friends

Of course, the ultimate highlight of my trip was getting to just catch up with my “French band camp” friends. Eva, Marlyse, and Amanda, it was amazing getting to catch up with you, and I hope we can do it again soon. Come to New York!

Next stop: Salt Lake City Utah! This weekend I’ll be leaving on a road trip to hike across part of southern Utah with Val and Tracie. Good times ahead!

En-route to Salt Lake City

A Weekend In Montreal

Posted: January 31, 2018 in Adventures, Canada
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 Ah Montreal, a beautiful city of dual languages. I love Montreal for the opportunities it offers for French immersion: When you visit a cafe, the menu is in both French and English and the background music probably contains French lyrics; when you walk down the street the snippets of conversation that tickle your ears are in French (or English with a French accent); when you enter a market the products are labeled first in French, and the cashiers greet you with a friendly “Bonne journée” as you place your fresh produce on the counter. This is a city where strolling through a park or sipping tea in a cafe is a perfect way to spend an afternoon, but there are plenty of things to do if such a laid-back immersive experience isn’t your idea of fun. Here are some of the highlights from my weekend:

Atwater Marché (Market)

Montreal has quite a few large and inviting markets full of fresh produce, meat, cheese, bread, and French language. I enjoyed practicing my conversation skills as I bought celery, carrots, bread, and cheese to munch on throughout the day. Marlyse and I spent quite a bit of time here, simply because the atmosphere was so inviting. I highly recommend visiting Atwater and/or Jean Talon for a genuine Montreal market experience. Olympic Park In 1976 Montreal hosted the 21st Summer Olympic Games. As some of you know, I fell in love with the Olympics as a young child and never lost that association despite the corruption, beuracracy, debt, etc. that I now know is tied to the Olympics. Thus, I was excited to visit Olympic Park, an area of Montreal still used for various events. Seeing the Olympic rings, the line of flags of many countries still waving, and the majestic Olympic stadium was euphoric, even if everything felt a bit dead on this rainy, cold, and icy afternoon.

The Biodome

Within Olympic Park is an incredible place called the Biodome ($12 with student ID!) The Biodome contains five different ecosystems located in the Americas, each containing flora and fauna from that area. It was somewhat like an indoor zoo, but the fact that each area mirrors an environmental terrarium gives it a more inviting feel. The animals did not seem as caged as they do at a zoo, as they had plenty of space to move around and explore. Marlyse and I both agreed that the tropical rainforest biosphere was the highlight, complete with sloths, a capybara, many birds, and two cute golden tamarin monkeys (plus lots of educational placards to learn more). Definitely worth visiting!

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Victory Point board game cafe

Like many major cities, Montreal is catching the board game bug and has opened quite a number of board game cafes (apparently modeling Toronto, whose Snakes & Lattes is the most infamous). On Friday evening we visited a quaint little cafe called Victory Palace, which just opened this September. Unlike some board game cafes, the owner of this one is fairly involved in customers’ experience, happily explaining the rules to a game and/or offering game suggestions from the wall of games available to play. Marlyse and I had some fun playing Patchwork (a great 2-player game if you like Tetris) and a game we’d never heard of called Ghost Blitz. If you visit Montreal, this cafe is a good place to spend a rainy afternoon.

Hurley’s Irish Pub

A weekend in Montreal would be incomplete without visiting at least one live music venue. On Friday night we traveled to Hurley’s Irish Pub, touted as one of the best places to hear Irish and Quebecois music in Montreal. We were hoping to catch some quebecois trad. music, but the Irish band Swindlers playing that night was equally enjoyable. Hurley’s is also a whiskey bar, so if you enjoy whiskey like I do, it makes for a nice drink to accompany the music.

Parc du Mont-Royal (Mount Royal Park)

On Saturday we walked through Old Port, an area of Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) complete with cobblestone streets and European-inspired architecture. There’s not much to do in Old Port on a cold January morning, but strolling along with a cup of tea in hand is a nice way to start the day. From there, we took a bus to Mont-Royal, a park that offers plenty to do throughout the year. As we struggled up the hilly street leading to the park we saw runners, walkers, skiers, and even a couple cyclists braving the cold and enjoying the (often icy) paths within the park. We, however, set our sights on another goal. One of the charms of Mont-Royal is a 1 km staircase leading to what might be the best view of the city. The stairs don’t take long to climb and visitors can step off to explore the many paths adjacent to each level. At the top, I found it both ironic and charming that what is possibly the best view of the concrete skyline is offered from one of greenest and most natural areas of the city. Like all of Montreal, Mont-Royal is a work of art.

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Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC)

Speaking of art, after Mont Royal we decided to visit the Leonard Cohen exhibit on display at MAC. The exhibit was so (unexpectedly) powerful that I’ve chosen to write about it in a separate entry, found here. To my great amusement, another exhibit at MAC this weekend was “Pictures For An Exhibition” which featured a series of drum heads featured along the walls of a large room. The drum heads were displayed to tell a story of sound and silence, and as a percussionist I greatly enjoyed interpreting the story of each head. Perhaps this isn’t everyone’s favorite exhibit, but I certainly appreciated it!

Luminotherapie

I’m beginning to think Canadians really enjoy lighted, interactive artwork (which, as my friend Amanda pointed out, might be because it gets so dark at night in the winter). Last time I was in Montreal (chaperoning a French class trip), the students and I attended Montreal en Lumiere, the annual festival of light. There was no light festival this weekend, but there were light-inspired forms of art throughout the city. The most interesting was Luminotherapie, a series of thirty seesaws that light up and make sounds as you ride them, creating a sort of contemporary music/light show. We had fun trying out a couple seesaws and enjoying the city view as we jumped up and down. Next to the see-saws were some public fires, where we spent some time warming up before moving to our next venue.

Bistro à JoJo

If you’d like to experience blues music in Montreal, I recommend Bistro à JoJo. A somewhat divey bar, this is where blues music reigns. On Saturday night over reasonably priced drinks we listened to Dupré & Millaire. Jean Millaire is a skilled guitarist who masterfully creates guitar loops and plays over them, while Andrée Dupré has a deep, gritty voice that works so well for blues. Truly French québécoise, she sang songs in English and in French, to the delight of what seemed to be a completely francophone audience. Well worth it, and no cover fee!

Montreal specialty foods

Montreal is known for three foods: Smoked meat, poutine, and bagels. As a native New Yorker I was skeptical of this last claim to fame; how could a Canadian city brag about its bagels when New York has the best?? Marlyse and I made a point to eat each of these foods while in town to see what all the hype was about.

  • Smoked meat: This is interesting. We went to a place called Reuben’s Deli, supposedly one of the best places to get this sandwich in Montreal, and it was not what I expected. Smoked meat looks a bit like thin strips of corn beef, but it’s nowhere near as salty and much more tender. I’m not a huge fan of deli meats to begin with, but this wasn’t too bad.
  • Poutine: This is another interesting creation. Essentially, poutine is a mix of soggy fries, cheese curds, and gravy in a bowl, and you eat it with a fork. Marlyse suggested we get this as a post-drinks, late-night snack and I would agree that this is the best way to experience poutine. We went to Frites Alors and they did not disappoint.
  • Bagels: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I really enjoy Montreal bagels. In New York, our secret is the water that the dough is made with, which makes the bagels fluffy and delicious (plus, a real New York cream cheese is amazing). In Montreal their secret is also in the water, which they add honey to in order to give the bagels a sweeter flavor. The result reminds me a bit of sesame balls, mochi, red bean buns, or a similar Asian food; Montreal bagels are crunch on the outside, and sweet and chewy on the inside. I really enjoy that sort of texture, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed my bagel this morning. I don’t think I can rank a NYC (or Long Island) bagel or a Montreal bagel; I would consider NY’s bagels to be more like breakfast foods, while Montreal’s are like a slightly sweet snack.

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There you have it, a weekend in Montreal from start to finish. I wish this city existed in a warmer region; I love the culture but I do not enjoy the cold nor the fact that walking along a winter sidewalk is like training for an ice skating competition (I only fell once, a real accomplishment for my klutzy self). Perhaps next time I’ll visit in the summer…

Au revoir Montréal, et merci pour les souvenirs (memories). Now back to Toronto!

Leonard Cohen

Posted: January 30, 2018 in Adventures, Canada, Uncategorized

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During our Montreal weekend, my friend Marlyse and I decided to check out the Leonard Cohen exhibit on display at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal (MAC). I know Leonard Cohen mainly for his songs “Hallelujah” and “Dance Me to the End of Love,” but it turns out that he is a real cultural icon in Canada, and particularly in Montreal, his native city. We had no idea what to expect at the exhibit, so we only allotted 1 ½ hours at MAC before closing time. When a staff member at MAC mentioned that there were seven hours of material in the Leonard Cohen exhibit, we began to wonder if our brief timing was a mistake.

The exhibit begins with I Heard There Was A Secret Chord, described as “participatory humming experience that reveals an invisible vibration united people around the world currently listening to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’” Real-time data shows how many people are listening to the song online, then converts that number into a choir of that many humming voices singing the song. MAC visitors enter what looks like a small teepee with microphones hanging from the top and become immersed in what is at once a physical experience. Sitting in that chamber with a couple strangers as the hums of Cohen’s most famous song washed over us was somehow humbling, intimate, ad moving. I got the impression that this exhibit was clearly a respectful tribute to this Canadian icon, who passed away exactly one year before the exhibit opened.

After the humming experience, we walked further into the exhibit and came across a multimedia experience called Listening to Leonard. On the wall outside of a large room were the names of eighteen Cohen compositions, each of which was covered by an artist or band. Upon entering the room, we were greeted with a surround sound version of “Dance Me to the End of Love” covered by Douglas Dare. Four speakers strategically placed at the four corners of the room caused the music to completely wash over and through us, and on each wall soft lights in blue, red, and gray tastefully offered a visual accompaniment to the music. A dozen or so museum visitors were sitting/lying around the room, many on the comfy couch in the center, with their eyes closed, completely immersed in the music experience. We sat down along a wall and allowed ourselves to become equally immersed. I don’t know how long we stayed there, but all I can say that being in that room was a powerful experience.

In today’s society music has in many ways become part of the background; the ease in which we accumulate music makes us fail to appreciate its importance, and we seldom take the time to truly listen. In this room, it was practically impossible not to critically listen to these reverent covers of Cohen’s music; each chord, lyric, and vocal inflection had a meaning and a message that could not be ignored. I found myself feeling a connection to Cohen and to the other individuals in the room, as we all let the sounds wash over and through us collectively and individually. At some points, only a few people were in the room, and at others, as many as twenty listeners were present at one time. In each situation, I felt the atmosphere change, but the reverence and respect we all had (or, in my case, was quickly developing) for Cohen as an artist was clear. It was like a memorial and a tribute at once. I don’t know when I last listened to music so deeply and completely – if ever – and I very much appreciate having gotten to do so at MAC.

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Experiencing “Listening to Leonard.” The picture does it no justice.

Somewhat begrudgingly, Marlyse and I eventually moved on, realizing our precious time at MAC was quickly coming to an end. As we quickly walked through other parts of the exhibit, I found myself appreciating the intimate layout of the exhibit. In many areas, a little placard described the experience a visitor could have by then entering into a small room. For instance, we walked through one thin, tiny door that led to a small viewing room in which a 20-minute film was playing with/about Cohen. Three pairs of headphones meant that only three visitors could experience the film at a time, making it feel like a personal experience. Now I understand why the museum worker asked us if we still wanted to enter MAC when we only had an hour and a half.

The last part of the exhibit we visited before having to exit was called The Poetry Machine. As I learned, in Canada Cohen is known not only for his music but also for his drawings and poetry. In this room, a 1950s Wurlitzer organ is surrounded by speakers and gramophone horns. A single organ bench allows a visitor to sit at the organ and press keys, each of which summons the voice of Cohen reading lines of his poems. Again, this was an intimate and moving way to get to know the work of Cohen, pressing keys individually or simultaneously to create a cacophonous story of the artist’s work. We only were able to spend a couple minutes in this room, but the fact that we didn’t know what to expect – and the resulting shock and awe when we touched each key – made even those minutes powerfully worthwhile. The Leonard Cohen exhibit will be at MAC until mid-April, so if anyone reading this is able to visit Montreal before then, I highly recommend spending a day here. I wish I could return.

Greetings from Quebec!

Posted: January 27, 2018 in Adventures, Canada, Uncategorized
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My delicious meal accompanied by letters from past diners in the table drawer at Lola Rosa.

Salut tout le monde,

I’m writing tonight from Montreal, Quebec! It’s cold here, but being surrounded by so much French makes up for it. My friend Marlyse and I ate at a great little restaurant called Lola Rosa tonight and seeing the menu written in French and English made it even better. Yes…I am a francophone nerd.

So, my big adventure has officially begun. I’ll write more about why I’ve decided to take the semester off to travel in a later entry, but my trip getting here was so cool that it’s worth a short entry to start things off. Let the adventures begin!

“Eh?”

It’s amazing to think that just three nights ago I was heading back to my Brooklyn apartment after wrapping up the amazing CUNY Games Conference, my head swimming with ideas about games for learning as I crammed four months of clothes into two carry-on-sized backpacks. I kept running my hands through my short hair – eight inches of which I’d chopped off and donated the night before – and reminding myself that although cool things were happening that I’d be leaving behind, this adventure would be worth it. New hair, new ideas, time to go!

The next morning I woke up bright and early, knowing how easy it would be for one late train to screw up my travel to the airport if I didn’t leave with plenty of time to spare (the last time I traveled to an airport, a broken train track resulted in an hour-long detour attempting to catch my plane!). Luck was on my side: Every train arrived early or on time and I wound up at the airport an hour sooner than planned! I was moved to an earlier flight, there was no line for security, and as I walked down the empty corridor to my gate I received free samples of a latte and pastry. Not a bad way to start the day! As I sat at the gate waiting for my flight, the elderly Canadian couple next to me kept saying “Eh?” as they struggled to hear each other, making me smile even more.

Oh Canada, a country I’ve always loved. I’m looking forward to catching up with my “French band camp” friends over the next two weeks and enjoying their wonderful homeland. Allons-y!

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Welcome to Canada, home of “Francais” buttons, ghost Viking ships, unique light festivals, and good friends!