29 Jan 2012

Brunch

"I'll have to add that to our brunch list" said my colleague. It was Monday morning, we were in the office elevator and I had just told him about this new place out in Montréal's East where I had gone for breakfast. Until this remark, I had not known that people keep brunch lists.

Not that it should have surprised me - Montréal's love affair with this combination of
breakfast and lunch is well documented, there is even a dedicated blog reviewing the scene. The city abounds in places specializing in these meals, which unlike in Europe are not presented as expensive all you can eat buffets, but à la carte at a much more reasonable price. Being affordable, intimate and relaxed, brunches appeal to every social and lingustic class, and weekend traditions wonderfully align around them.

Once you manage to become part of a "brunch gang", you'll be counting the days until it's time again for sleeping in, then getting dressed and leaving your house with an empty stomach, in anticipation of the treat to follow.

Soon after you have met the rest of your gang and conquered a table at the spot of your choice, you will face a choice of omlettes or waffles, french toast or crêpes, scrambled eggs or fruit yogurt. Amidst the incessant chatting on the week's events, you'll decide on sides of toast, bacon or real maple syrup ($2 extra, if you please), and the first of many steamy cups of joe appears in front of you. Being low in taste, but high in caffeine, it keeps fuelling the conversation long after you've eaten through your plate full of carbs and proteins, in whatever form you had ordered them. And this being Québec and not the country south of it, the waiters will keep topping up your cup instead of throwing you out, thus creating this magical opportunity to ease yourself into a very lazy Sunday afternoon without the need to rush someplace else. Typically, it is only when you can't resist nature's call any longer that you will at last leave the table.

As you temporarily disengage from your
convives, you notice how the weather outside has changed, the restaurant has emptied and half of the afternoon has already gone. And you feel merry, for yet another Montréal brunch has throughly nourished your body and soul.

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11 Jan 2012

Escalate

The Montréal metro is a marvel of technology. Or at least it was, back when it was inaugurated in 1966. Unfortunately, since the sixties, very little has changed in both stations and trains. Consequently, a ride on the metro transports you straight back to the time of orange, round shapes, tiled floors and green-dot displays. There is ongoing talk of renovations and even new rolling stock, but so far, the only sign of innovation was the 2009 introduction of the RFID-based Carte Opus.

The creators of the city's subway built it to Canada's harsh winter climate: The entire 70km of tracks is indoors, so as to protect the system from snow and ice. Unfortunately, either by accident or by some design that is too clever for me to comprehend, the entire network also seems to be completely devoid of ventilation. Heavy doors shield each station entrance from the outside, and there appear to be no air stacks at all. Which results in an ambient temperature in stations and trains (no air conditioning in the sixties, remember!) oscillating between a sudatory 38C in summer and a no less absurd 25C in winter.

In other words: On an icy day like today, the difference in temperature between the street and the station can be close to 40 degrees. All that separates these entirely different climate zones are a few meters of escalator between the station entrance and the platform below. And on those escalators, nimbleness is key.

On the stairs moving down, red-cheeked survivors unzip jackets, remove balaclavas and start digging for their Opus cards in their pockets, praying to have the tickets ready by the time they are deposed in front of the fare gate.

Escalating upwards, the stakes are higher still. From the moment you step on the travelator, the clock is ticking and the mad dash to get ready for the cold is on. I have gradually optimized my sequence of movements for stowing my magazine, tying up my scarf, putting on my tuque and slipping into my gloves, just in time to push open the air-tight door and brave the cold.

There is no margin for error: If your zipper gets stuck or your shoelace comes undone, you're sent off to the penalty box - the little alcove between escalator and door where you are left to fix yourself up in the company of equally clumsy fellows. But look at it from the bright side: You've just been offered the very best vantage point to marvel at Montréal's bi-directional escalator ballet!

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2 Jan 2012

Take this waltz

My musically educated convives from the lavish New Year's Eve party scoffed as we tuned into the annual Neujahreskonzert, broadcast live from Vienna during our late breakfast on the first day of 2012. I will admit that the galantry, the exuberance and the rather simplistic waltz tunes may be closer to André Rieu than to the lofty heights of sophisticated classical music. But to the layman typing these lines, there is something soothing and comforting about the Blue Danube and the Radetzky-Marsch with a glass of champagne on January 1st. For as long as I can remember, this is how every new year has started.

Amidst the change all around us (voluntary and involuntary), it is through rituals like this that we strive to retain our balance and bearings. For the commercially secular majority of us, it is arguably the repetitive and reassuring qualities of the holidays that appeal most, and not some obscure religious significance. We could bake cookies any time of the year, light candles all through a long Canadian winter, give gifts on any number of occasions and, really, do without party bombs altogether. And yet, over the past two weeks in Switzerland, I indulged in most everything of the above.

Every year, I tell myself that a deviation from the routine would be nice. And every year, as the family gathers around the Christmas tree and the ever-same videotape (make that a DVD if you're < 20) of drinks, gifts, tree and food starts playing, I cuddle up like with one of these really nice Hudson Bay blankets that I so long to get (hint! hint!). Coming home from overseas, the sensation of familiarity and predictability is a wonderful relaxant.

And so it is that I now head into a new year, full of imponderables, adventures and risks. But I do so with batteries (read: tummy) fully charged, and with faith of the heart. Today, high above the North Atlantic, somebody wil be humming along in three-four time...

Prosit Neujahr!

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