For the next 3 weeks, I’m embarking on a trip through Eastern Canada, visiting Montreal, London, and Toronto. (That’s London in Ontario, not London in the UK.)
I expect to blog about this trip along the way, so if you have no interest in reading about it, simply skip those posts. They’ll be easy enough to identify by the titles.
I decided to take this trip for a number of reasons. First, I’ve never been to Canada before, and I love new experiences.
Secondly, I set the intention to do more international travel, and very quickly thereafter, the opportunity to take this trip manifested, so it was easy to say yes to it.
Thirdly, I’m traveling with Rachelle, who’s currently on tour with her play for the Fringe Festival. Most likely I’ll see some of the Fringe shows along the way.
There are other reasons, but I really don’t need them. This was one of those “you had me at hello” manifestations.
Since Erin and I still have many divorce details to work out, our finances are still co-mingled. So to be fair to her, one of my constraints for this trip is that I want to keep any travel expenditures low — at least low enough that they have no meaningful impact on our joint finances. Ideally it would be great to earn money as a result of this trip, so it more than pays for itself. That can realistically be achieved simply by blogging about it along the way, since new blog posts generate traffic and income. It also makes more of my travel expenses tax deductible because the trip now has a business component to it.
In a larger context, this trip is a bit of an experiment. I’ve been considering the idea of taking a year or more to devote to extended travel around the world (possibly in 2011), essentially running my business from the road. There are a lot of challenges to overcome to make that a reality. None seem insurmountable, but there are some tricky trade-offs to consider. I also don’t know if I really want to commit to something like that.
So first, I want to get a feel for what it would be like to run my business from the road for an extended period of time in another country. This will not only be my longest trip outside the USA, but it will also be my longest trip ever in terms of the number of continuous days spent away from home. While I’m sure to do some touristy things along the way, I intend to keep up with my work as well.
Fortunately I happen to be in the lucky position of being able to define my work as pursuing my path of growth and sharing what I learn along the way for the benefit of others. So for the next few weeks, my work will involve pursuing personal growth through travel and sharing what I learn on this trip. Hopefully I can share some things that you’ll find interesting, insightful, or at least entertaining.
And if for whatever reason, this experiment doesn’t resonate with you, no hard feelings. I certainly won’t be offended should you choose to tune out during this time. Most likely I’ll be too immersed in what I’m doing to worry about that sort of thing.
Traveling to Canada
My trip is already underway. I left for Canada on June 15th, so I’ve been here for a little over 48 hours now. I’m currently in Montreal, Quebec.
Flying to Canada from Las Vegas was painless. Airport lines were short or nonexistent, and my plane landed in Montreal about 25 minutes ahead of schedule.
Before booking my flight, I wasn’t sure whether to travel by day or by night. In the end I opted to travel at night, since I happen to be one of those people who can sleep pretty well on planes (especially after my polyphasic sleep experiences). That way I wouldn’t lose a whole day to travel. I wouldn’t recommend this for most people, but it worked great for me. The travel time flew by since I slept through much of it.
On the plane to Montreal, I immediately noticed a lot of people speaking French on board. The safety instructions were given in English first, then in French.
As I got off the plane, I saw that all the airport signs were in French first, then with an English translation next to them. For example, the exit signs said, “Sortie | Exit.”
Getting through Canadian customs was hassle-free and took just a few minutes. The only issue was that I had to declare that I had nuts on my person — or risk a $400 fine. I didn’t see why I should hide my nuts, so I checked a box on a form to declare them. As a result of that declaration, a security person directed me to a side room, where a very attractive blond woman proceeded to inquire about my nuts. I described them to her, and then I unzipped my bag and plopped my sack of nuts on the counter for her to inspect. She smiled and nodded her approval. Then she waved me on through, so I put my nuts away, zipped up, and proceeded to the taxi area.
There was no line for a taxi, so I got one right away. The taxi driver was bilingual. I gave him the apartment address, and he knew right where to go, so we got there lickety-split. During the ride we listened to a French talk show on the radio.
I opted not to exchange any currency at the airport since I read online that the airport exchange rate tends to be a bit poor, and I figured I’d mostly use a credit card to pay for purchases anyway. I still don’t have any Canadian money yet, other than a penny I found, but there are a few currency exchange places within walking distance that have reasonable rates. Canadian money is very colorful. They have $1 coins, which are called loonies (because they have a loon on them), and $2 coins, which are called toonies. I guess the word toony is derived from the word two. I like the toonies because they look like one coin in the center of another.
The exchange rate between American and Canadian dollars is very close to 1-to-1 right now, so for all practical purposes, I can just interpret all Canadian prices as if they’re in American dollars.
So far, prices in restaurants seems to be equivalent to what I’m used to in large American cities. Tipping is the same as in the USA. I’ve only been here a couple days, but there haven’t been any surprises so far.
One thing I found unusual is that whenever Rachelle and I went out to eat, before bringing our bill, the server would ask us if we wanted to pay together or separately. I think this happened every time we ate out so far. The first time it happened, I shrugged it off, but when it kept happening, I asked Rachelle about why they keep doing that. She said this practice is normal in Canada. In the USA, however, it would be rather unusual. For groups with a certain dynamic, like a large group with people arriving separately, the server might ask if people want separate checks, but for a couple dining together, that pretty much never happens. They’d just bring one check for the table by default.
After Paris, Montreal is the city with the second largest primarily French-speaking population, with 52.4% of the population reporting that French is the language they most often speak at home. (By comparison, English is at 12.5%.)
Rachelle and I are staying in a small one-bedroom apartment in the downtown area, a few blocks north of McGill University. This place reminds me of an apartment I had back in college. It has a very dorm-like feel to it.
We’re also within walking distance of Mont Royal, the large hill from which the city gets its name.
Montreal is on Eastern time, so it’s 3 hours ahead of Las Vegas, which is on Pacific time. My sleeping hours are definitely off, enough that I could easily write a new article titled, “How to Become a Late Riser.” The first night I was here, I didn’t get to bed till 4am. Last night I think I went to bed around 2:30am. I have plenty of energy during the day though. Overall I’m feeling quite fascinated by what I’m seeing, doing, and learning.
From what I’ve seen so far, I really like Montreal. The city just oozes with culture.
One night as Rachelle and I were walking around close to midnight, we happened upon a free outdoor concert. Early today we turned a corner and saw a street that was closed to traffic and filled with vendors (clothes, food, art, etc). That street reminded me of Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.
Many of the buildings have a very European look to them. Montreal also reminds me of the lower east side of Manhattan, where you might see local musicians jamming in a public park together, as well as Greenwich Village. There are lots of interesting things to see and do just by walking around. However, Montreal has a lot more greenery than New York City — and a lot more French too.
Food-wise, Montreal appears fairly vegan friendly. I enjoyed eating at the vegan restaurant Aux Vivres and the raw restaurant Crudessence, both within walking distance. I especially enjoyed the raw fruit crepes from Crudessence.
I wish I had more time to spend in this city, but we’re leaving early Saturday morning, so Friday is our only full day left. Most likely we’ll take the subway to explore the Biodome de Montreal (some kind of bio-dome) and the Jardin Botanique (Chinese botanical gardens).
I find myself utterly fascinated by the bilingual nature of this city. As I walk down the street, I’ll pass people speaking English, then French, then English, then French.
Most shop signs are either bilingual or in French only.
Every merchant I’ve dealt with so far has been bilingual. Most of the time I am greeted in French, but if I respond in English (or dare to use my butchered Franglais), they immediately switch to English too.
I grew up in Los Angeles, which is a multicultural city as well, having an especially high Spanish-speaking population. About half of my friends in grammar school and high school were Hispanic, and many spoke Spanish at home. However, in L.A., language differences fall strongly across race lines. If I walk into a Mexican restaurant where everyone there speaks Spanish as their primary language, no one is going to greet me in Spanish. However, in Montreal, you can’t easily guess a person’s primary language just by looking at them (at least I can’t), so I’ve often been greeted en franÃ§ais.
One thing I’m really enjoying about this trip is the chance to brush up on my French. I took 3 years of French in high school and got straight As all the way through. In my junior year I placed 4th in California in the National French Contest. I was even beginning to learn how to think in French. However, not having cause to seriously practice the language for 20+ years has made my pretty rusty.
This trip seems to be gradually re-activating my French language skills. Every day I’m remembering more of it and pushing myself to keep learning as much as I can.
Fortunately Rachelle knows French reasonably well because her schooling from kindergarten through 8th grade was in French. She’s not at the skill level of the native speakers in Montreal, but she can at least translate pretty well.
The main thing that’s holding me back from trying to converse in French is that I’ve forgotten so much of the vocabulary. I have to relearn so many of the basic nouns and verbs just to communicate the simplest of ideas. My recognition of French words is much higher than my recall ability. So I can understand a lot of it, especially in writing, but it’s incredibly hard for me to speak it. I know how to form sentences, but I’m constantly at a loss for the vocabulary. If I could just re-learn enough of the basic vocabulary, I think I’d have a blast communicating with locals in French. But that will likely take much more time than I have.
Rachelle is a very patient teacher. I’ve been encouraging her to speak more French to me on this trip, so I can practice more. I feel so immersed with all the French around me in this city — people talking, street signs, billboards, etc. — that I’m rebuilding my French language skills at a rapid pace. I’ll bet if I could spend several weeks in a row here and did some vocabulary rebuilding on the side, I could at least gain enough competence to converse with people in a basic manner.
Another thing is that even for the nouns I do recall, it’s hard to remember whether they’re masculine or feminine. The door (la porte) is feminine, but why?
Since I lack the vocabulary, I simply do the best I can. Consequently, I’m constantly communicating with Rachelle in Franglais, mixing French and English together in the same sentences. I try to speak as much French as I can, but when I don’t know the vocabulary, I just sub in English words or guess at their French equivalents. So I might say something like this:
Cette crepe de pommes est tres miam miam. Je pense qu’un blueberry crepe sounds délicieux aussi.
Rachelle gives me some funny looks at times, but at least she’s able to understand what I’m trying to communicate.
My brain seems to be split between thinking in English and thinking in French, so even though I’ve only been here for two days, I’m actually beginning to think in Franglais, which est tres étrange.
As Rachelle and I walk around the city, I feel like Lal from the Star Trek: TNG episode “The Offspring” (where Data builds an android daughter). I keep pointing at things and trying to label them. “Regard! Un petit chien!”
Or I’ll point to something and say “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” And if Rachelle knows the answer, she’ll tell me in French. Then I give her a gleeful smile and and exclaim, “Show me more, father!”
While trying to re-learn French this way is a lot of fun to be sure — if you aren’t discouraged by the dorkiness of it — it doesn’t seem very efficient beyond a certain point. In order to really improve my language skills, I’d need to spend a lot more time studying and memorizing basic vocabulary, especially nouns and verbs.
Interacting with Locals
While I do take plaisir in doing touristy stuff de temps en temps, mostly what I enjoy about traveling is spending time with locals. You get a lot more insider info that way, not to mention practical advice about what’s worth seeing and doing and some social invites to do fun things as well. Usually I prefer to allow these opportunities to arise spontaneously as opposed to trying to plan everything out in advance. So far that’s been working out great.
If it seems practical, and if there’s some interest in it, maybe we could do a meet-up in London and/or Toronto while we’re in those cities. There doesn’t seem to be time to do one in Montreal since we’re only in town for another day and a half, and we have a pretty full agenda between now and then, including some work and some play. If you are interested in a meet-up, please let me know about it through one communication channel or another. Also let me know if you can suggest a good location, perhaps a park if the weather is nice.
Dans le meantime, Rachelle pense que les nuts que j’avais brought elle sont tres tastement.