17 Sep 2010

Parking

In a way, it was just a bit too early. The leaves have not quite started turning, only the odd dash of color is already out here and there. But the timing of my former flat mate's visit had to suit his and my rather busy schedules, and not just that of Mother Nature. So we opted for a time span that involved both a long weekend for me (Labour Day) and one for him (Knabenschiessen, which translates into boys' shooting but is not quite as brutal an event as you'd think). This allowed us to plan two getaways, with my friend spending the few workdays between them strolling around Montréal and supporting the local retailers.

Having brought not just fresh chocolate supplies for me to squirrel away to winter stockpiles, but also his hiking boots, my friend was ready and willing to join me in discovering some of the great outdoors. An invitation to a chalet in the Outaouais, and recommendations for a Bed & Breakfast as well as a trail in the Cantons de l'Est were our fixtures for the two weekends, so we planned accordingly and I happily found myself piloting a rental car monstrosity out of town. After a stop in Canada's capital, it was time for our first easy outdoor adventure. We picked the nearby Parc de la Gatineau, which is managed by the National Capital Commission as a quick gettaway destination for - presumably overworked - government employees. At the visitor center, a park ranger suggested a hiking loop of about 3 hours, covering slightly hilly terrain and offering views on the Ottawa river valley. Soon after we headed on to the path, we found ourselves surrounded by wildlife. Unfortunately, it was of the buzz buzz sting sting kind. And while we were of course both equipped with Swiss army knives, none of their countless functions worked against these blood suckers. They only relented when another natural hazard struck: Rain! Luckily, despite having only been under way for roughly 90 minutes, we had just about arrived back at the starting point - the 3 hours indicated may have been adjusted to the speeds of the local demographic. ;-)

Scratching, if not licking, our wounds the following week, we made sure not to leave urban Canada without proper insect repellent again: I bought a product suspiciously reminiscent of Priest Off, hoping that it would protect slightly older boys as well. But we never found out if it does, for on our next hikes, insects were absent (which obviously led us to the conclusion that evil Federalists had sent them over the nearby border into Parc de la Gatineau the last time!). Instead, we encountered differently dressed park rangers and started noticing the competing players in the park scene: The Parc national du Mont-Orford and the Parc national du Mont-Mégantic are run by the Québec provincial government, and their Fleur de Lys-clad rangers charged us $3.50 a head for access to nature. That's still a bargain compared to the $7.80 due in the federally-run Parc national de la Mauricie. But then again, the rangers over there sport a far more varied and attractive range of Canada-themed outdoor gear!

In any case, the investments were definitely worthwhile, for we enjoyed beautiful vistas, verdant flora, delicous rucksack-catered lunches and hours of inspiring conversation on our hikes. The only thing missing was that moose casually emerging from a refreshing bath in a pond, or that family of bears frolicking on the meadow in the - safe - distance. Maybe we should have lured them with our almond-and-honey granola bars after all?

One last question remains: Why did we do all our hiking in parks? The answer lies the different concept of "nature" on the two sides of the Atlantic: Switzerland is interwoven with some 60'000km of hiking trails through meticulously managed countryside, with the sole national park being the one spot where nature is allowed to remain wild, unmanaged and mostly inaccessible. The opposite is true in Canada. National parks are the few places where nature is actually controlled, paths are maintained and the outdoors are within easy reach. Leave them and head a few hundered kilometers north, and you'll find yourself at the end of all infrastructure. There is, as the old pun has it, kana da.

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8 Sep 2010

Balcony

"It's like rain on your wedding day, it's a free ride when you've already paid...", go the lyrics of Ironic, the song by Canadian singer Alanis Morissette. And indeed, it was ironic that the day my new balcony was finally done, summer had ended.

The day also marked the end of a long and somewhat tedious affair. Back when I first visited my future apartment, I noted the poor state and stability of the old wooden structure that went for a balcony. From it, a spiral staircase led down towards the back yard, and if its daunting overhang did not instill vertigo, then the view of the rusty bolts loosely dangling from the brittle wood of the balcony floor surely sent shivers down any spine. Seeing panic flicker in my eyes, the landlord quickly reassured me that he had planned to completely renovate the balcony, and would do so very soon. I took his word for it, signed the lease and moved into the place in the middle of last summer.

By the time I'd gotten my place clean and furnished, summer had already passed and I had never even considered using my balcony. But while looking out over it onto the maple leaves slowly changing color, I made a mental note to purchase deck chairs in spring, so that I could take full advantage of my vantage point in 2010. By then, I reckoned, the balcony surely would be brand spanking new.

Fast forward through snow and ice, and here I was marvelling at the first blossoms on my maple trees. In the foreground, of course, was still the same old and wobbly deck, further weakened by another winter and covered in dirt and wood chippings. I'd spoken to my landlord again, who had come to inspect the entire installation with an expert. Much to his (and my) chagrin, it was determined that the entire, three-storey wooden framework supporting all balconies of the building, was just as unstable as the actual decks and that everything needed to be replaced. Great! And just as I returned from Ikea, with two deck chairs ready to be unpacked and assembled, I got the word that the building insurance company had now officially forbidden the use of balcony or fire stairs in their current state. For a moment there, I was envisioning myself escaping from a raging fire coming up through the front staircase, only to fall to death while descending in the back... I comforted myself with the knowledge that unlike the wooden balconies, the building itself was old enough to be build from solid brick and thus very unlikely to cath on anytime soon.

The renovation project had now gotten much bigger than expected, and the associated price tag probably curbed my landlord's enthusism quite a bit. Nothing much seemed to happen while the days got longer and warmer, and the repeated prodding from my side elicited little response. Eventually, I learned that a construction permit was pending with the city. Of course, the fonctionnaire in question was out of office for his summer holiday - HE probably had his balcony to relax on.

And then, early one Monday morning not long ago, I heard someone knocking, just as I was stepping out of the shower. Clad in a towel, I opened the door - but there was nobody there. More knocking followed, and I finally turned around to see a slightly bemused construction worker standing outside my balcony door, looking at a confused guy with a towel around his waist. With his colleagues, he was about to start demolishing my old balcony and was wondering why I had not cleared away all the (previous tenant's) junk on it. Never mind that I was unaware of the impending start of construction, and not allowed to step outside anyway.

So things were finally moving, and during yet another hot and sunny week, the guys were hard at work outside my bedroom window, completely rebuilding my balcony with new woodwork and properly reattaching the fire stairs. The following week, a new aluminium ceiling cover was mounted, and things definitely started looking up - just as days got shorter. Just before this Monday's Labour Day, inofficially considered the end of summer, the landlord resurfaced, carrying a bucket of protective paint to coat the wooden panels. At last, he boasted, my all-new balcony was ready for me. All I needed to do was waiting another 24 hours for the paint to dry, and then it would be all mine. I was given the go-ahead to get my deck chairs out.

How exciting! Except that minutes after the paint job was finished, a thunderstorm rolled in, the temperature dropped from 30 to 15 degrees, and the first leaves started falling from the trees. That much for summer. Isn't it ironic...

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