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A brief trip to Northeastern America, in Three Acts

April 15, 2017


The first thing I saw in Canada was a snowplough. Actually, the first thing I saw was an insane queue at immigration, as apparently, waiting for a relatively clear patch of sky, all the planes had arrived at once, and ours had been stuck on the runway for a while waiting for a spare gate before we could disembark. But after about an hour and a half of that, and then my surprisingly quick passport check, the first thing I saw once I left the airport was a snowplough.

montrealalleyOne of the good things about living in a city that has about 3 seasons of winter a year is that on almost every trip you’re in love with the weather at the destination. One of the bad things is that you tend to underestimate how bad it can actually be. It was -10 degrees in Montreal, and the snow was falling like confetti. The snowplough rumbled past, clearing a temporary path for the traffic to flow through. I wished I hadn’t forgotten my scarf.

The city bus (the only public transport from the airport to the city) eventually arrived in the city centre, and I dragged my suitcase on its useless wheels through the piles of snow to my hotel, wiping the accumulating snow off my face from time to time. I’ve not seen snow like that off a snowfield, and it was pretty exciting.

I’ve become quite slack about researching destinations before arriving, and I tried to think what I knew about Montreal. Turns out, nothing. But what did I know about Canada? Only what (mostly American) TV shows and movies had taught me. More or less, that was: French-speaking, snow, ice hockey, moose (…mooses?), polite, a kind of fun-sounding sing-song way of speaking, and Tim Horton’s. I think that’s about it. Well, the snow was right, and the accent was there too (and it was fun-sounding). No moose yet.
I knew they spoke French in Quebec, but what I didn’t know was that it’s the primary language, and that street signs, announcements, banners, and every other written form is in French first, and usually only. Several of the people I met were clearly uncomfortable speaking English. An activist tried to stop me to tell me something about fishing (I think), and give me some literature. When I told her I didn’t know French, she looked kind of blankly at her French pamphlets, waved them around uselessly and said “oh”.

montrealhillI was over in this corner of Canada/America for a week for work, visiting three different spots. Knowing that time wasn’t going to be on my side if I wanted to be a tourist, I was had come over a couple of nights earlier to spend the weekend here. I was on my own budget for the first couple of nights, but given my work gear and a need to stay fresh I had forgone my usual hostel situation and put myself up in a reasonably-priced hotel, which it turned out had strange, possibly religious-themed paintings down the halls, shared bathrooms, some kind of weird inconsistently-heated radiator, was located above a glaringly neon red Sexe Shop, and was proudly displaying its not-particularly-ambitious Certificate of Good Functioning 2015.

Looking online, apparently bagels are a thing here. So I made notes of those that were supposed to be the best, and figured I’d check them all. This got me to walk all around the Plateau and Mile End areas, which was a pretty nice walk. Probably one of the biggest surprises for me was how the most defining motif of the city to me (aside from Snow, and French) is Art. I don’t know if I was just in the right area (and I might have been – just down the road is the Place des Arts), but art seems to be everywhere. There are posters and paintings up in most of the cafes, behind many of the shop windows I walk past, I seem to notice a disproportionate number of art galleries, and there are full-wall street murals everywhere. My walking travels took me through the Plateau and Mile End areas, and the buildings all through there were pretty colourful too. The bagels themselves, by the way, were pretty unimpressive. Like the crazy foreigner I am, I asked for something to go in them, rather than just eating a circle of hard bread. The girls behind the counter looked a bit put out, but were prepared to sell me packets of salmon and cream cheese. I had to take them to a snow-covered park bench and try to fumble all the parts together – which proved more difficult than expected with no scissors to open the salmon packet. No matter how many times I washed them in the snow, my hands smelled like salmon the rest of the day.

montrealskiThe city of Montreal is based around a mountain called Mont Royal. I haven’t looked it up, but especially with the French pronunciation, I have a feeling the two names might be connected. (OK, I looked it up after I wrote that, and they are.) Apparently the view from the mountaintop is pretty nice, so I hiked up for a look. Turns out it’s not so much a mountain as a kind of big hill, but still, when it’s covered in snow, it makes for a kind of adventurous-feeling walk. Also, people just randomly skiing past you on their way back down helps with the illusion. The view was pretty good, although the buildings looked a lot bigger from the lookout than they looked from when I was down amongst them, which isn’t how I thought perspective was supposed to work.

Heading back down the mountain, I passed through McGill University, which was all closed up for the break, but still had a bunch of students playing a mysterious game in the snow, all running around with hockey sticks between their legs and throwing volleyball-sized balls at each other. As tempting as it was to just shrug this off as “Canada”, I asked someone on the sidelines what was going on. She being university-educated, French was happily unnecessary. She asked me if I’d seen Harry Potter. They were playing Quidditch. “Hey Paul, go Beater!”, someone called from the field in Potter code. Apparently, the girl told me with what was probably a fair amount of excitement, this is a bit of a thing in Canada. There’s a league for it and everything. I asked if this happened in other places as well, and she pointed to one of the girls awkwardly shuffling through the snow with a hockey stick wagging between her legs like the world’s most punishing tail (I wonder if they were wearing shinguards). “She’s from Europe”. So apparently there’s some over there playing it too.

The sun came out, and I got through my day of meetings, the reason I was there. But you don’t want to hear about that. Then I enjoyed some of their classic gourmet poutine, heard about and regretted not being able to enjoy one of these sugar-shack experiences (where they head into the forest and tap the maple trees to extract fresh maple syrup), and headed to the airport, en route to Washington DC.

District of Columbia

The DC airport is about 15 minutes’ drive from the White House, and while the airport is kind of but not really in the state of Virginia, the White House is kind of but not really in the state of Maryland. Here’s something I didn’t know – the District of Columbia is not officially in any state at all. Back around 1790, with none of these fledgling states being too keen on the idea of the one ring to rule them all being placed in any particular state, George Washington decided to have Virginia and Maryland each cede a bit of space along the river, removed that area from any state loyalty, named it the District of Columbia, and established the government there. The whole thing was only 100 square miles, which makes touristing pretty easy. The most difficult thing to find was my hotel.

DC is small, but has a lot of people coming and going, visiting, lobbying, and doing all sorts of things. So accommodation is scarce, and expensive. My Ethiopian taxi driver dropped me off at the address, took his tip and left. But the place was impossible to find, as it wasn’t signposted at all. I randomly entered an apartment building and asked the concierge if she knew of the place, and she told me I was in the right building, but she doesn’t deal with it. Turns out it was some guy’s studio apartment he rents out or something, weird for a “hotel”. I had no information about what room number I was in or anything, so I had to call the contact number I had (international call) to speak to the woman, who said that yeah they never got my card number so it was never actually booked.

So she made me read out my card details on the phone so she could charge me then and there, including an additional fee of USD160 for some bloody reason, which I later found in the small print but certainly wasn’t part of the bundled price, making the place more expensive than other better places around. Then the operative said that she would email me with the room number and door lock code and wifi code and everything. I kept checking my email, but nothing came through, and I realised at this point there was a decent chance they didn’t have my correct email on file either. I rang them back and was right. I just got her to tell me the details over the phone. She didn’t give me the code for the actual entrance into the building though, I realised later, I had to ask the concierge for that.

I got to my little studio room by going to the 5th floor then down a corridor that smelled funny, passing a resident taking his dog for a walk, which barked at me as I passed. I got into the room, which had the aircon on freezing blast for some reason, but quickly figured out how to turn that off (though the remote was missing).

At least it was warmer than Montreal, which is good because the window wouldn’t shut. I got an early night and let those traffic noises lull me to sleep, as I fully expected to be woken up at 3am by a domestic incident or something.

lincolnmemoial2Following a fairly rubbish sleep, I got up early and spent the morning wandering around those world-famous sites before my meeting. The White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol. Another thing I learned on this trip was the difference between the White House and the Capitol. I realised I’d had the images of the two kind of conflated in my head, as if they were the front and back on the same building. Not sure how that would have worked with the giant dome on top, but I guess I’d never given it much thought. Anyway, now I know. The wonders of travel.

All those sites are within walking distance of each other, a respectful distance apart, along lovely garden walks sometimes lined with cherry trees. In contrast to Montral, it was gloriously sunny here, and I was strolling about in a T-shirt, very much enjoying the warmth. And the scale of everything is as impressive as you’d expect. Not just the landmarks, but in the city the streets are wide, and the buildings tall. The whole place is also very clean and well-looked after. It’s not often that I can sincerely say things like this, but it is a pretty inspirational area. It really does make you reflect on what people are doing here, what they have done in the past, and where the country has come from and what it’s been through. It does make you respect it and want to be a part of it. The huge, solemn structures, the calm greenery and long pool, and the inspirational speeches on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial come together to create a real stately sense. The hordes of schoolkids and Chinese tourists thronging the Lincoln Memorial (which I later learned is on entirely reclaimed land – an old map I saw has this whole space being river) screaming at each other did however ruin the atmosphere somewhat and made the little sign asking for silence and respect just kind of stand there looking a little embarrassed.

lincolnmemorialThe meeting went well, but towards the end, and throughout dinner, I began to get itchy and itchier. Once I was free from company, I took off my shirt and checked – yep, I’d been sleeping with bedbugs. Of course I had. A fairly unfruitful search of my mattress confused me until I realised the bites all over my head and arms suggested they were up that end – I pulled away the headboard and there they were. Watch out for that one, people. As this place had now ticked off the last box in the checklist of Features of a Shitty Hotel, I felt like I didn’t have much more to achieve by staying, so moved to another place a few blocks away, throwing down another wad of cash to get a last-minute room adjacent to the “Mechanics Room”, which was full of metal pipes clanging and knocking against each other all night as I writhed about trying to rub my arms against the coarse sheets.

The last thing to do before leaving DC (after dousing myself in hydrocortisone) was check out Ford’s Theatre, famous for being the theatre where Abraham Lincoln was shot. This was again crawling with schoolkids, although they were less offensive in a location like this, despite a worryingly large number of them waddling about wearing bright red Make America Great Again caps.

fordstheatreThe theatre experience opened with a walk through a museum they’d built in the basement, full of info about the country at the time, Lincoln, the Civil War, and the theatre. It’s interesting to think that the President of the United States just used to be some guy who people would just ask for jobs (and he’d give them), and who would casually attend random plays. Also, Lincoln apparently had a dream about his own death a few nights before it happened. Freaky. Then it was into the theatre itself, which is still a functioning theatre. I took a seat and listened to the Ranger Talk (by a girl in a park ranger outfit, because I don’t know, in America that’s who gives speeches? There was nothing parky about the place) which was all about the events of the night. And up there to the right, looking over the stage itself, the presidential booth where John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head in front of a whole theatre full of people, before jumping down to the stage itself, shouting a declaration, and running off stage right. It was fascinating being right there and seeing how it all would have played out, including going across the road to the house that Lincoln was taken to, to rest and hopefully recover, as apparently it took him 9 hours to die after being shot point blank in the back of the head. I never knew that was something that you could come back from. Although, I suppose, he didn’t.


The final leg of the trip took me to Chicago, where I put my jacket back on and dove out of the rain into an Uber to the city from the airport with a woman who, as we rolled slowly through the suburbs in the crawl of traffic, had time to tell me about her fight with cancer, and how the toll on her had meant that she’d had to give up her job as an outreach counsellor for street kids, a job she missed as she knew all too well what it was like being out there, having been out there and addicted herself in her past. She also said she loved my accent, and kept asking me if I knew what she meant (though I feel like that had nothing to do with my accent). Closer to the city, the tall grey and brown blocks of the city rose into the low cloud and she told me about how although she’d lived in Chicago all her life, it wasn’t until this later stage of it that she’d started coming into the city centre and realising that there were real people living real lives here, with so many things to do – it wasn’t all just office blocks and dreariness after all. She was looking forward to showing this to her teenage son soon. The city unfortunately didn’t go out of its way to prove that vibrancy to me that night, as after checking into my hotel I wandered around the Loop – the central portion of the city – trying to find something to eat and was completely let down by the total absence of anything open, at only about 9pm. I later found out that much like the square mile of the City of London, this place is dead soon after office hours.

beanreflectionLuckily, during the day it was more alive, and I also found you didn’t have to go far to get out of it. To the east was a nice long park holding the only real thing I knew to see before I came to Chicago – the Bean. I didn’t realise at first, as the photos never seem to show it, but viewing the bean from underneath is the thing to do – the reflections bouncing off themselves all over the concave bottom make for a pretty fun sight. Right near there, within the same park, is the Jay Prtizker Pavilion, which I’d never actually heard of, but recognised the architectural style of from that episode of the Simpsons where Frank Gehry designs a concert hall after crumpling up and throwing away a ball of paper. Although he’d hate that that was how I recognised it. At any rate, it looked pretty cool.

Over the bridge to the north is the Navy Pier jutting out onto the lake, and the Magnificent Mile luxury shopping district, where I bought absolutely nothing. I did get some Garrett popcorn later though, which was sweetly delicious, covered as it is in the sugariest coatings I’ve ever seen. This was where I got my only real taste on this trip of the infamous American Sizing, where I ordered a small which took me two days to get through. Carry on up through that shopping district though, and I was pretty surprised to find a beach right there, bang in the middle of the city. This city might be built on a lake, but it’s a huge one, and it feels just like a calm coastline – looking straight out, it’s about 100km until the invisible other side, and it carries on much further lengthwise. Luckily I was there on a sunny day, and it was great to just sit there and read my book and feel like I was on a relaxing, kind of cold coast.

The nice weather held as I walked around the city as well, back down Magnificent Mile. While the buildings are skyscrapers, there’s a nice pseudo-Gothic feel about many of the facades, and also a convention (doesn’t seem to be a law) that the facades are not heavily branded – so the architecture of the buildings stands alone. With them all rising into the sky with the alleys in between, it feels kind of like Gotham City. Ctrumpchickenomplete with a villain’s tower – the glaring exception to the no-branding-on-buildings rule, Trump Tower. The building itself actually looks pretty great, a sense very much diminished by the garish 20-ft tall TRUMP emblazoned across the whole width of the river-facing front. While I was there, a protest group was setting up a blow-up chicken in the likeness of Trump over the river from the building, calling him “Chicken Don” for his refusal to do as other presidents have, and release his tax records. Apparently there was a bit of a kerfuffle when he put his name on that tower as well, but that level of arrogance apparently takes some beating – to the extent that it has prompted the lawmakers to look at changing those laws.

Moving away from that piece of classlessness, I felt I was in need of an artistic fix, so headed to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. Which was something of a mistake. I keep trying these places, and keep being vastly disappointed by the things some people manage to convince others qualifies as art. You can usually find a couple of decent things, but it usually requires trawling through about 90% of self-congratulatory wank. Luckily, the Art Institute of Chicago, back down by the Bean, had a much better variety, including a couple of classics like Nighthawks and Picasso’s Old Guitarist, as well as some pretty funky stuff by Ivan Albright. That night I enjoyed Chicago’s #1 Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, at least according to the posters, at Pizano’s. It was pretty damn tasty. Less like a pizza, it’s almost more like a pizza-style pie, which arrives in something like a cake tin, with a deep pastry-like crust, filled with cheese and various pizza toppings. It’s delicious and super heavy.

modernartAfter spending all the nice weather inside museums, I obviously waited until another crap, cloudy and rainy day to try and get up the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower. The introductory video tells you all about the rise of Sears, and how as it became an institution, it became necessary to bring all the employees in under one roof, resulting in the creation of what was at the time, the tallest building in the world. The video was less clear about what happened to all those Sears employees, but now the building is full of a variety of different businesses, including an insurance company by the name of Willis. Being such a tall tower with amazing views over the city, I had tried to get up there over the sunny weekend, but the queues around the block and 2hr+ waiting time kind of turned me off. So I came back on a gloomy Monday and was able to walk straight in. The girl in the foyer was obligated to tell me that there would be no view, but as I’d already bought the ticket as part of a set with the Art Institute, I might as well use it. I figured I could at least have a coffee up there and read my book.

There is no café at the top of the Willis Tower. Instead, there are a bunch of windows and binocular stands, and a fairly unimpressive gift shop. The windows all looked like frosted plastic on the side of a lightbox, giving a vague white glow to room, as the few people who had made it up this far were milling about aimlessly, trying to find something to do to justify having made the trip. There wasn’t much to be done. Back on the ground floor, it had started raining again as I came back past the Bean. Turns out this thing is actually called Cloud Gate, which didn’t make much sense to me until I saw it on my last full day there, when the clouds came back down and covered the place in mist. The mist in the gothic buildings does look pretty great, so there was that to enjoy.


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