27 April 2010

Touch down

Today, I will touch down at Montréal airport, to be greeted by a city veiled in a thin layer of snow, covering the fresh green leaves, the tulips and the daffodils. According to the pilot's announcement, Montreal is going through a - hopefully final - cold spell. Having already seen very warm and sunny days over the past few weeks, a few flurries do not scare me at all.

A year ago, this would have been very different. For it was precisely one year ago today that I touched down at Montreal airport full of hope, curiosity and not least anxiety, ready to begin my Canadian adventure. A big, fat immigration stamp on my visa marks April 27, 2009 as the beginning of a new chapter in my life.

When I woke up this morning and realized the date's significance, I was dumbfounded. How could it have been a year already? Hadn't I only just spoken to that immigration officer, made my case and hoped to be admitted? Wasn't it just a few weeks ago that my co-workers had welcomed me to the team with a breakfast buffet, and my sole Montreal friend cooked a festive meal in my honor? It feels like yesterday!

But actually, it doesn't. Because the more I think of it, the more colorful and detailed my memory of the past 12 months grows. All the things that have happened! I discovered new favorite places, tackled new professional challenges, changed old routines. I found a place to live, experienced the multiple facets of life in Montreal through the seasons, learned to navigate the city and establish myself as one of its residents. As dull as it may sound, the creation of an everyday routine can be quite time-consuming.

And then the people! I've got to know new colleagues, made new friends and truly bonded with someone I did not even know way back then, in 2009. The joyful mix of French and Hanglish spoken still enchants me, and by now I actually understand most of it. Considering all this, it feels hard to believe that it has really only been a year.

Last weekend, my dad asked me on the phone if Montreal would feel like home to me by now, and I hesitated to give a clear answer. Today, I am returning from a short business trip to Toronto, reading La Presse in the lounge, flaunting the Québec drivers license as my ID, and going through my mental grocery list as we approach Montreal. I look out of the window as we descend into the city, imagining where exactly, in this labyrinth of streets and lights, the people I care about are buzzing around right now. I blindly navigate my way from the plane to the taxi stand, and chit-chat with the cabby about le Canadien before giving him directions to my flat.

Now, as I open the door, toss my bag into the corner, make hot chocolate and kick back on the couch, there is no more doubt: I've just arrived home.

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19 April 2010


One of the best investments I have made since moving here was the $1.52 I spent on a "no junk mail" sticker for my mailbox. After a familiarization period (for the mailmen, I assume) it has dramatically cut the amount of junk that lands in my mailbox, including the dreaded Publisac, which is essentially a garbage bag hung weekly on your doorknob.

That leaves very little which actually makes into my mailbox. Bills, yes, some of the city's information flyers (in two languages, bien sûr), political propaganda (only in French if from the PQ) and... yes, indeed, the odd personal letter. This last case excites me by far the most.

Call me old-fashioned, but in this time of technology-driven global connectivity, where I can videochat with folks around the globe for free, and exchange emails at the speed of light, a hand-written message sent overseas is a truly touching statement. From the red and blue ribbons on the airmail envelope, to the exotic stamp (try finding Helvetia on a map!) and postmark, it all recalls a long gone era. The fact that the letter actually took time to reach its destination only adds to the sense of purpose.

Inside, a hand-written note usually carries a very deliberate message. This is not a quick click on the "reply" button in your email client, somebody has set aside time to carefully articulate and document thoughts, feelings and emotions. And just the handwriting itself can hint at the personality of its owner (in my case, you'd be excused for thinking of me as a furious psychopath, or a young schoolboy ;-).

Thus, when I was recently treated to a personal letter - even including artistic masterpieces on the envelope - in my mailbox, I read it at once and then vowed to set aside some quiet time to pen an adequate reply. Last Saturday, on a rainy night and in the company of a glass of red wine, the moment had come to take my fountain pen for a little spin. Once done, I duly sealed the brightly marked airmail envelope, ready for mailing on Monday. And this morning, I joyfully stopped by the letter box outside the subway station, and sent my air mail on its way.

Or so I thought. But in a quite literal two step thinking process, I grabbed one of the free newspapers handed out at the station, only to read its headline: Nuage volcanique coupe liens aériens avec l'Europe! Mmmh... maybe I should have sent a message in a bottle?


12 April 2010

Southern Comfort

"Oh,you always go to these funny places!" That was the reaction I garnered from one of my colleagues at work when, chatting about my plans for Easter weekend, I mentioned that my destination was Nashville. Yes, that's right: Music City, U.S.A., right down south in ol' Tennessee!

To European ears, Nashville and its neighbor, Memphis, are synonymous with Americana music and the free-wheeling spirit associated with the United States. Polish truck drivers, Swiss cattle farmers and, indeed, Turkish cabbies, they all dream of one day cruising through the hills of Tennessee.

And even if I struggle to associate myself with any of the above groups, I was still quite excited about a long weekend down south, visiting good friends in the home of country. My Vermont-based friend, who joined me on this trip, had fled another southern state a few years ago and has shared many colorful anecdotes about the people there to prepare me. They were, ahem, not too flattering. And my first impression after arrival seemed right on cue: "Ya have a blessed day now, hun" drawled the hefty woman at the rental car check-out. She probably did so out of sympathy, for we hit the road in a liberal weenie Toyota Prius, not a pick-up truck as appropriate.

My focus on our car is not accidental: It turns out that Nashville is very much a car city. Or, to be precise, not much of a city at all. Instead, endless suburban sprawl spreads out from a comparatively small and unremarkable city center, and the landscape is dotted with gigantic houses in even larger, picket-fenced plots of land. Strip malls, gas stations, fast-food restaurants and, most of all, churches, complete the scenery. In such an environment, a car is the only possible means of going - well, anywhere really. I suddenly realized that with my European socialization, I would be completely unable to live in such a way - and that Montreal is very compact in comparison.

When not busy driving from one attraction (Vanderbuilt University campus in full spring bloom) to the next (full-sized replica of Athens' Parthenon), and not relaxing on the veranda of our friends' beautiful estate sipping Yuengling, we were mostly eating. And mostly deep-fried stuff. (As our friend put it: "They would fry newspaper and it would still taste good!") Do not mistake this for a complaint - The southern cuisine, from fried pork and chicken to cornbread, biscuits and sweet peas, was definitely tasty and comfort food in the best sense. I enjoyed my three days of Easter indulgence. But the local fare was concocted for the hard-working farmers of yesteryear. When consumed by today's SUV-from-door-to-door population, it does leave some traces. Mostly around the waistline.

And the music? Well, there was not as much of it was we had hoped. Due to a family issue, our friends' booked babysitter was unavailable and our planned night out at some smokey country bar fell through. When we then strolled along the short strip of music clubs the next afternoon, Easter Sunday to boot, the town wasn't exactly on fire. So we had to substitute by tuning into one of the countless country music stations on the radio (Ha! Eat this, pick-up truck!). At least during our southern style Easter brunch, in a beautiful colonial house in an upscale black neighborhood, there were two banjo players plonking along and providing an appropriate soundtrack to the serene setting...

So I guess I'll just have to return for more music. No doubt there has to be plenty of it. In the hour we sat at Nashville airport waiting for our respective flights home to depart, my friend and I must have seen at least ten passengers carrying guitar cases. I just hope they don't fly on United...

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06 April 2010


Being outgoing and going out are not necessarily the same, and while I am doing okay on the former, the latter has indeed been a bit short in supply since my arrival here. No surprise then that I jumped on the opportunity when a friend asked me to join him at the annual Bal du Mont Royal, a festive charity evening organized by the grandly-named Young Leaders Circle.

While my friend's main selling points for the event were the tax-deductible admission fee and the open bar, my interest was much more the feeling of "belonging": Of being part of a locals-only social setting. And expecting a real ball, I got all excited about dusting off the grande garderobe for a glamourous dance night (yes, I am lastingly damaged by Vienna's Opernball). It was almost a bit of a disappointment when the ticket only referred to a tenu de ville, i.e.business casual. No bow tie, then. But the Borsalino hat still had to be - and earned quite a few compliments, most notably from the girl at the coat check, who said that she had waited all night to put something into their fancy hat boxes...

Despite its name, the bal is not a formal dance, which I could have figured by the fact that one wasn't expected to show up as part of a couple. Instead, amidst the futuristically decorated setting of the Montreal Science Center, a stunningly beautiful and sophisticated crowd of up and coming 20-somethings gathered to socialize while flaunting what they've got (not just business cards and degrees, obviously). The open bar certainly did provide the grease to make the proceedings much more fluid! And eventually, in the wee hour, people did start to shake a bit of a leg, to rather uninspiring techno grooves no less.

Still, or maybe because I got away largely without dancing, I very much enjoyed living through this evening of real-live Vanity Fair. Let's just say that I have gained many insights into the latest Montreal fashion trends... ;-)


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