Monday, September 29, 2008

Train in vain, Melancholy and the infinite cabbage

Not the train in question. Use your imaginations, people!

So, Amynah and I were supposed to go to Geneva this week, at the invitation of a family friend. Friday evening, we made our way to the Strasbourg’s glass-bubble-encased train station (of which I’ll post a proper photo one of these days) and got on the train.

Well, we sort of got on the train. Friday at five is not the best of times to hopping on mass transit of any kind, and the French train authority is not exactly famed for planning ahead. The train was over-sold by probably 20 percent, meaning anyone that showed up any less than 20 minutes early was forced to stand.

And stand we did… the train was scheduled to leave at 5:20, which came a went with a merry wave. At 5:25, the conductor came on the intercom to tell us we would be delayed for about five minutes. Ten minutes later, he made another announcement that we’d be delayed for another ten minutes. Ten minutes elapsed, at which point he made an announcement asking for some guy to come to the engine compartment. Five minutes later, he made the request again, prompting the chattering teenage girls surrounding Amynah and I to joke that they must be looking for someone who knew how to drive the thing.

Finally, capitulating to the inevitable, the announcement was made that our train was to be delayed indefinitely, and that there was another train leaving from a different platform. Amynah and I made our way over there along with several hundred other disgruntled commuters, only to find that the other train was bursting-at-the-seams full, windows smeared with unhappy faces desperate for a gasp of air, the doors manned by blue-suited rail employees telling people they couldn’t get on.

Desperate, we made our way back to the first train, on the off chance there was any chance of making our connection to Geneva at a later hour. Nope.

Left with a weekend in Strasbourg we hadn’t anticipated, my insane and beloved wife suggested we go for a bike ride: to Molsheim, 25 km to the west of Strasbourg, and then to Offenburg, 25 km to the east of Strasbourg in Germany. For anyone interested in the math, that makes for a ride of precisely 100 km (well, 100.46 km, according to my odometer).

Now, unlike some people, Amynah and I are not accustomed to triple-digit kilometerages on our bike trips. However, the distance was not entirely arbitrary: we actually had business at either end of the loop.

We are planning on hosting a little housewarming this weekend – to be seasonal, we’re introducing our non-North American friends here to the aesthetic pleasures of pumpkin carving. That means locating pumpkins, which me managed to do in a little pick-it-yourself market in a village called Dachstein.

Perfect pumpkins, prepared for picking

Pumpkin supply confirmed, we made our way onward to Offenburg, where Amynah intended to buy shoes and have a decent cappucino. And where last week we were biking through wine country, this time our route took us through the redolent pays de chou: Cabbage country.

Perhaps we could have saved ourselves some biking an made Jack O'Cabbages instead

For some reason, it is a point of local pride that Alsace produces 90 percent of France’s cabbage. They normally fail to mention that 90 percent of France’s cabbage is consumed here as well, in the form of choucroute , a dish that is basically a heap of fermented cabbage supporting another heap of foodstuffs derived from pig.

In any case, we had a pleasant ride through the cabbage fields, which are just about ready to be harvested. We were lucky in that sense, after the harvest we would have been obliged to have biked 50 km while holding our noses.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

When you don't have anything nice to say... photos.

These are from a bike ride we took this Sunday to Obernai, a town about 40 km from Strasbourg. I've written about the route and its glories before, plus I checked the forecast, meaning that I managed to avoid getting lost, subjected to a rain of toads or any similarly entertaining disasters. On the other hand, it was the first time I'd done the route just prior to the harvest, meaning the fields were dripping with purple orbs of Reisling-to-be. I only took pictures, but Amynah assures me that they were plenty tasty.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dear Sir

Look who got published in The Economist (a while ago, and on-line, but still, pretty cool).

Hint: it's not me.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

More velocipedic villainy - and heroism!

I do not have good bicycle luck in France. Within three months of arriving in this country, I broke my arm, falling off my bike. Three months after that, said bike was stolen outright from my apartment building.

Earlier this year, my seat was stolen. And yesterday, I returned from picking up some quail's eggs for dinner, only to discover that my front wheel had been stolen. Replacing it will cost 50 Euros.

Attached to my front tire was a little magnet, without which the fancy odometer/speedometer thing my sister bought me last year cannot function. Even if I replace the wheel, I will still need that part. Not knowing where I could find one, I emailed the company,
VDO Cycle Computing in Germany, asking for information. Within an hour they had responded, promising to put one in the mail for me today - for free!

So, in return, I'm giving them a free ad - if you ever find yourself in need of a bike computer, VDO Cycle Computing is the way to go. I love mine: it's a basic model, yet still keeps track of trip distances, total distances, average speed, and time of journey. It's very easy to use, wonderful for motivation, and their customer service is great. In Canada, you can get them at Mountain Equipment Co-op.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Un Canadien Errant Part III: Chignecto A-go-go

Cape Chignecto Park: all these gorgeous views do get wearisome

Dear lord, I can’t believe I let that hideous birthday photo sit atop this blog for so long. Clearly, I have no shame.

In any case, I will dispense with the rest of my Canada trip over the next few days. At that point, I’m hoping to get back to my local adventures, such as they are, and possible turn over the blog to a very special guest blogger.

Every year, for the last several years, I have tried to go camping with my friends Tim and Jon. This year, taking advantage of my return, we decided to go to Cape Chignecto Provincial Park for a 51 kilometer, four day hike. Cape Chignecto juts out like an arrowhead into the Bay of Fundy, and has been a provincial park for only ten years.

Proof I didn't just download these photos from a tourism website

We arrived at the park about three hours later than planned (due partially to a truck stop waitress that decided to spend her shift taunting me, much to Jon and Tim’s amusement. I think it was the phrase “chicken weenie” that earned her the extra tip from them). The weather was perfect: unusually for Nova Scotia, there was not a cloud in the sky, and the temperatures were in the low twenties. Perfect for hiking.

Then we started walking.

Chignecto’s main appeal for campers is the view: stunning vistas of sandstone cliffs, topped with wind-warped evergreens teetering anxiously over the blue seas 200 metres below. Problem is, the topography is, how shall I put this delicately, uneven.

Of the 51 kilometers we hiked over those four days, 25 of them were straight up, 25 were straight down, and about one was flat. By day two, what conversation we could manage between gasps for air consisted of a) cursing out Jon, who had picked the route and b) searching for synonyms for “ravine.” (we came up with crevasse, gully, gulch, canyon, fiord, valley… we ran out of words long before we ran out of specimens). We were eventually informed by another hiker that the trail was rated “Level 5 Extreme” which meant that it had portions where one had to climb one meter up for every meter forward. This, with a bottle of fine Alsatian Pinot gris sloshing around in my backpack.

Refugee Cove. Being at sea level just meant we had to climb back up

Nonetheless, we did all eventually find our camping legs, and began to enjoy ourselves. In addition to its natural beauty, the park is redolent with history. Our first campsite at Refugee Cove was a place where the Mi’qmaq helped Acadians hide from the Expulsion. Later, we pitched out tent by a stream running though a former field, one of the few remains the ghost town of Eatonville, a shipbuilding hub killed by the switch to steam vessels.

As usual, I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife: a seal bobbed in the waves below the clifftop where we ate lunch on the second day, a hawk flew so close enough to us at lunch on our third day that we could here the wind in it’s feathers, and a rabbit reportedly saw us off on our third day, but I was too beat from the previous night's festivities (stargazing, throwing rocks at a log, making increasingly non-sensical "Yo Momma" jokes) to bother investigating myself.

The privy, in a ghost-field from Eatonville

In any case, it was gratifying for me to be reminded that while my hikes here in Europe do tend to be enlivened by castles and their fair share of beautiful views, Europe still has a way to go before they can catch up to North America’s wilderness advantage.

The inevitable sunset photo, on our own private beach

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Un Canadien Errant Part II: On to Ottawa!

After Montreal, I continued my Canadian adventures in Ottawa, Canada’s Capital of Boredom (coincidently, also the actual capital). I stayed with my friends Jon and Lindy and their kids Abby and Nate. I managed to catch up with Danielle to talk writerly shop before she fled Ottawa for the more stimulating environs of Rock Springs, Wyoming. I also managed to interrupt Julie from feverishly updating her blog long enough to have a quick lunch.

Jon and Abby, in the heritage garden where Jon is a volunteer.

However pleasant all this socializing may have been, I was a man on a mission. That mission: to uncover the truth of Canada’s invasion of Costa Rica in 1921.

Yes, the Great White North engaged - more than once – in some fairly Imperialistic muscle flexing in the Caribbean region in the early part of the last century. In Costa Rica, the immediate cause was a debt owed to the Royal Bank of Canada. According to a poorly remembered footnote in a book I read five years ago, Canada sent down it’s entire navy (all three ships!) to engage in a little gunboat diplomacy to encourage payment.

Reading this, I had images of blockades, the people of Costa Rica cowering as our warships fired warning salvos off their coast.

The truth, it transpired, was somewhat more polite.

The squadron showed up in one of Costa Rica’s ports, where it was greeted with a 21 gun salute. The three captains were then whisked to San José, the capital, by special train. There, they had a pleasant dinner with the President, and enjoyed an opera in his private box.

Not, to say the least, exactly hostile behaviour. Though legend has it one of Costa Rica’s bluebloods gave the Captain of the HMCS Aurora a dirty look when he applauded after the aria.

This is going to be a gripping article, I can tell.

Next: Camping adventures! Unless I get distracted!

Monday, September 08, 2008

La Canadien Errant, Part I

The Cartier monument in front of Mont Royale

Well, I’m back. I’m still battling jet lag, and the multifarious ways France is conspiring to welcome me back with as much annoyance as I can stand (Lost luggage? Check. Unexpected tax bill? Check. Broken oven? Check. Broken toilet seat? Check).

I’m not sure how to account for the last three weeks in Canada on this blog, especially as roughly 95 percent of my readership saw me during that time and thus can correct the distortions and exaggerations to which I am prone. And what fun is that?

Portuguese church on the Plateau

I suppose the biggest surprise was how familiar everything felt. Our last dinner in Montreal was shared with people with whom Amynah and I have had almost no contact in the last two years. Nonetheless, it felt like we’d last fought over the last shreds of JJ Chicken in a Pot* two weeks ago, not two years.

That is not to say that there were not some moments of culture shock. I was astounded at how different Quebecois is from France-French. I waded in gamely, to some effect, but I suspect I’ll have to lose my Old Country accent to really succeed in La Belle Province.

Dilapidated house guarding the corner of Guilford street

The bigger surprise was how much held up to my snootified Euro-standards: living in a UNESCO World Heritage site has not made Montreal or Halifax look any less beautiful to me. Tim’s is as good as I remember it, notwithstanding my recent taste for cappuccino, and I decided, in future, to refer the Rhine Creek after re-acquainting myself with the mighty St Lawrence.

Of course, my main reason for returning to Montreal, other than friends, was to raid Fairmount Bagels.

The Fairmount Bagel experience starts with the purchase. Located in a tiny shopfront in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, the bagel “factory” has been in operation for roughly 70 years.

Where the magic is made

Walk inside, and you see men behind the counter, cutting broad slabs of dough from a giant mass of the stuff on a central platform. These are broken down and hand rolled into tiny, pale rings, that are then boiled in a honey mixture. These are then placed in their dozens into a wood fired oven that burns 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can buy bagels here any time of day, meaning there is often a rush on weekends at 3 AM when the bars close.

I bought my first thirty six the day after I arrived, with the intention of bringing them back to Halifax: 30 sesame, 6 poppy-seed. The counter-lady brought me a tiny bag, in which there were nine bagels. When I gently pointed out the error, she replied “You asked for three and six.”

“Well, I want thirty and six,” I said.

“You said three and six,” she insisted, chin jutting.

“Sure,” I said, which seemed to satisfy her enough that she retrieved the rest of my bagels, muttering under her breath.

Despite her disdain for my communication skills, she did pick out those bagels freshest from the ovens. Stepping out onto the Fairmount street sidewalk, dyed black from decades of ground-in sesame oil, I pulled out a golden cherub’s halo, dusted with angel’s dandruff, warmed as if from the love of a benevolent deity, and took a bite.

It was good to be home.

Next: Canada’s Navy goes to the Opera, and other adventures in Ottawa!

* A specialty of New Dynasty on Clark Street, south of Rene Levesque in Montreal’s Chinatown. Highly recommended. I’ve no idea who JJ is, but I remain forever grateful for his poultry.