Friday, July 10, 2009

Au Revoir, Montreal

We leave, physically, at least, on Sunday. Tomorrow is forecast to be windy and raining, but even so it will be very hard to leave this place.

See some of you soon.

Love from J, D, M, and I.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


If Michael Jackson had to die young and tragically, the silver lining, for me, was to see Stevie Wonder eulogize him last night in a live outdoor concert as the Jazz Festival opening grand evenement. Before Mr. Wonderful finally came out on stage at 10 pm, it was already apparent that Montreal loves both musicians. Motown artists, including Michael Jackson both as the wee one of 5 and as a mature solo act, featured heavily in the recorded music they blasted from the speakers for the many, many (in my case 4) hours that people were sitting or standing on the concrete to stake their place. So when Stevie first took the stage and announced that this performance was going to celebrate Michael, the crowd cheered and anticipated the magic that was to come.

He started with "I Can't Help It", the track he wrote for Quincy Jones that ended up on Jackson's breakthrough Off the Wall album. After that, though (let's remember Jackson had died just 5 days prior), Wonder's concert paid homage by simply pausing to play recorded excerpts of some of his favourite of Jackson's songs. That, and Wonder's daughter Ayesha Morris who is part of his backup vocal section, sang a sad, jazzy ballad, I think it was a jazz standard but couldn't tell you the title. (She is good, with a clear, sweet voice, but not the dazzling vocal talent that her dad is. Nuff said.) He also ad-libbed some Michael shout-outs during "I Just Called to Say I Love You." It was kind of odd, just stopping the concert to listen to recorded tunes like that. But for me it was also moving to see that the great Motown legend and widely acknowledged musical genius Stevie Wonder is, like any of us shmucks standing there on the concrete, a fan of Michael Jackson. Nine years Jackson's senior, and a figure to whom Jackson was constantly compared as he was coming into his own as an adult solo performer, Stevie Wonder is a fan of Jackson's! He seemed geniuinely annoyed and disgusted by the Jackson scandal machine, encouraging us to just buy Michael's music if we want to help his family. And he was just sad about Jackson's death, you could tell. The two of them had much in common besides fame, talent, critical accolades, and some stylistic similarity: both were Motown icons who started as child prodigies. What a strange and strong connection that must have been.

The rest of the concert was everything I could have hoped, aside from the severe physical discomfort that attends probably most free concerts in outdoor urban places (the necessity of camping out for 4+ hours just to be able to see the stage, nowhere to pee without giving up your space, a flat audience area so short people are screwed unless they're in the front row, getting poked in the eyes by umbrella spokes, burned by cigarettes ....I could go on but won't). Lots of crowd singalongs, which I loved, especially how the francophones knew the songs so well but kind of mangled the words into their own versions of the lyrics. He was generous about playing his big hits; you can only imagine how tired he must be of some of those tunes, but he knows how we long to hear them, so he performs them energetically, getting his buzz off the crowd. He got us to sing the la la la's of My Cherie Amour, and the French parts of Michelle Ma Belle, and the whole chorus of I Just Called. His live performing style is very loose, informal, and he cracks jokes the whole time and gives lots of time to his excellent band to do solo bits. His percussion section, the trumpet player, the sax, and the guitar and keyboard players were all really good, really held their own on stage and played well together. And it struck me throughout how very jazzy so much of Wonder's music is, has always been. 

He looks good, a little heavy maybe, but happy and well, still enjoying performing and still a deeply religious man. Maybe his faith is how his star has only continued to rise, while Jackson's story turned so weird and sad. Wonder is now 59 years old. Who knows if I'll ever get to see him perform again. I'm so glad I did. He ended the show with a recorded Jackson medley, with his band and singers just standing downstage and dancing along. It was a good ending. The rabid fans in my immediate area were all dancing along too. Dave, not nearly the Wonder or Jackson fan I am, and tired from standing on the concrete for 5 hours, had arrived home over an hour before me and gone to bed. He'd left the house later than me, waiting for the sitter to come, and never did find me in that mass of humanity. After Wonder et al left the stage, the rain got heavier and the fireworks started exploding off the tops of the adjacent buildings of Place Des Arts. I floated along with the crowd streaming east down de Maisonneuve, then St. Catherine, past the long sidewalk lineup outside Foufounes, and a mere 10 minutes later I was inside our house, where it was quiet. 

And thus began Jazz Fest '09. I can hear music from the Place just sitting here in the study with the windows open. It's going to be a musical feast to end our days in Montreal. Sad and sweet.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bonne St. Jean!

Salut, nos amis,

We celebrated St. Jean Baptiste Day by painting a Quebec flag on Milo's face and attending a picnic in Parc Lafontaine with some friends from Dave's scholarly home away from home, the CCA. The weather cooperated, and Milo made many enthusiastic friends with his flag-face. It got awkward, though; the spirit of Quebecois nationalist bonhomie kind of falls apart when you can't communicate with your fellow partiers in French.

I guess now is as good a time as any to confess that the French we all planned to learn never really materialized. Milo's daycare is bilingual, but that's more incidental to the staffers speaking one language or the other. There's no formal educational programming for French or English there. The main result is that Milo now feels comfortable playing with kids he can't understand, and he knows a few "French" songs that he sings sometimes, to our great bemusement.

As for Dave and I, we both took a 10 -week class at our local leisure centre, Dave's was a twice-weekly lunch hour conversational class and mine an evening "Level 2" with limited conversation and mostly grammar. Most of my classmates were international students at McGill who were fluent in English. Dave's class was more of a mix, but same problem: the only native French speaker was the teacher. That's no way to learn a language, sadly. After having had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be immersed in a language (okay, I HOPE it was not just once in my lifetime!), back when I lived in Mexico as a teenaged exchange student, I see now that it's the only way, at least for me. Certainly the quickest way. A lot harder to pull off when you live with your own nuclear family. And our friends here all speak fluent English, Dave's colleagues too. The only "real" French conversations I've had since moving here have been very brief exchanges involving grocery delivery, subway ticket purchases, navigational directions (giving and receiving), and simple greetings. I will say that my comprehension improved somewhat; now when someone on the street addresses me in French I usually get the gist of what they're saying on the first go, unlike back in Jannuary. Over all though, despite the odd time watching French tv or listening to French radio, I score low on learning French. C'est la vie.

Above: the eerie modern ruin of the Expo '67 site. Rotting glue-lam beams, weeds growing through concrete, still-futuristic design disintegrating into the soil. Oddly peaceful, lots of birdsong.

In other news, we only have 2 more weeks here. It's hard to believe our time here is almost over. We don't quite want to believe it. But the Jazz Fest starts this week, so that softens the blow somewhat. STEVIE WONDER is playing the first free concert!!!! We will be there, camped out if necessary. I am anticipating many great things from this show, among them a stirring tribute cover of a Michael Jackson song or two.

About this poster, on St. Catherines Street near our house: Montreal's suburbs are their own municipalities, so like all such cities, it loses out when people leave to live the suburban dream. 

For those of you following our movements, we will leave here July 12 and fly to Winnipeg, where we will enjoy some summer fun with Dave's brother Tom and his tribe for just over a week, then we will touch down in Calgary only long enough to pick up a few things, including a brand new car (I know! Weird! But Sylvia finally died right after we left Calgary and we need new wheels), then it's off to the Okanagan to visit Dave's parents. We'll return to Calgary August 1 and spend the next few weeks getting resettled.

We'll be really busy in the next two weeks getting packed up and ready to leave, so I don't know whether I'll have time to post to the blog, but I will try, okay?

Smile, please.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

French word of the day: manifestation; protest

Our first day here in Montreal we saw a protest snaking down Rene Levesque boulevard. It was a sunny and frigid day, January 10th, Israel had mounted a recent offensive in Gaza, and people in Montreal organized a march that went on for blocks and blocks. We stood there watching for a long time, and when it was too cold to stand still any longer, we turned and walked toward home; we still couldn't see the last marchers in the procession. That made an impression on us, first of all, that this is a big city; second, that it's a cosmopolitan one, with many citizens still strongly connected with their original homelands, and still politically engaged with their original struggles. Finally, that it's a huge university town: many of the marchers were students.

The ongoing protest of Montreal's Tamil population is tiny by comparison, but it's been ongoing for months, maybe years, now. We've seen them staged in front of the U.S. embassy on Rene Levesque Boulevard almost every weekday for the last several months, and yesterday they marched down Rene Levesque past our house. We pass by them when we take Milo home from daycare. They wave Quebec, Canada, and red Tamil Tiger flags, they hand out leaflets pleading for intervention in Sri Lanka where their Tamil families remain. Lately I sensed a sadness from them as we passed by, a feeling of hopelessness that hadn't been there before. It seems yesterday was a crucial turning point in their 26-year civil war. The Tamil rebel fighters are surrounded in the jungle by government troops, and they have conceded defeat.

So maybe we have seen the last of the Montreal Tamils' protest. Yesterday, Victoria Day, was fine and sunny here, everyone out walking, but what a bitter day it must have been for them.

French word of the day: homard; lobster

Bonjour, Tout le Monde!

Another sign of spring: everywhere in Montreal restaurant windows these days, you see signs that say "Fête de Homard"-- Quebec's lobster season is upon us. Even before now, Milo was asking us for lobster. Who knows why or how he even knew of its existence, maybe his maritimer heritage was speaking to him. The restaurant lobster parties (if we are to translate the signs literally) are about $25 a plate, which seems too good to be true, with lobsters retailing at about $18 per for a small one. We figured we'd throw our own lobster party and have a good feed chez nous. And nosh we did.

We made a whole project out of it: first we made lobster bibs, everyone got one, we even made a tiny one for Iggy even though he's too little to try shellfish yet. Then we painted a lobster on Milo's face, as we paint something on Milo's face every freakin' day lately. Then Milo, Iggy and I trekked to La Mer, a huge fish market near the Village and a fair hike east from our house. Our two wriggling lobsters were put into a plastic bag and we transported them home underneath the stroller. We plopped them into a huge pot of boiling water for 3.5 minutes, then the shell-cracking began.

You have to love lobster (or any shellfish) enough to think the labour is worth it. It had been years since I'd wrasseled a big crustacean, and it takes some skill and elbow grease. Also some willingness to get hurt; I lacerated my thumb on the shell while prying the tail apart. After about 20 minutes of waiting for his first hunk of claw meat, Dave the Prairie Boy's face assumed a familiar expression, the one that says, "give me a good ribeye any day, it's cheaper and it doesn't bite back." Nonetheless we all enjoyed our feed and even had a little meat left over, so I boiled the shells with some veggies to make stock and made a tasty bisque for supper tonight. Lobsters do NOT scream in the pot; that's an urban myth. It's crabs that do that.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The unbearable cuteness of being

One of the major ways we've interacted with Montrealers on the street is in being barraged with adoring cooing in French: "ah, c'est tout petit! ... tout mignon, ce n'est pas tres vieux?. .. un petit garcon or une fille?". . . etc. Old, young, black, white, male, female, well-heeled and down on luck: people of all descriptions are enchanted by a wee baby in a sling. Countless people have never before seen a baby in such a thing, which is weird, considering Montreal is pretty tough to navigate in a stroller. The Metro lacks elevators, and the sidewalks tend to be narrow and/or crowded in our part of town. Part of the appeal for people in our part of town is the rarity of seeing a baby at all; this is a neighbourhood of students, professional couples, and elderly/disabled and low income people who live in the social housing projects around here.

Other Iggy news: he's now eating solid foods and getting nice and chubby!

We've had some field trips to report on:

The St. Patty's Day Parade
This was right in our neighbourhood, down St. Catherine Street. Refreshingly home-spun, not a lot of corporate presence at all, but the down side was that the lack of organization made for two things you don't want a parade to be: gappy and quiet. Many times it looked like the parade was coming to an anti-climactic end, when it was just the next brass band trying to catch up with the rest of the parade. The marchers were mostly small community groups like Irish dance groups, churches, Irish music groups, and rec sports teams. The spectators were mostly families with kids and drunk people of all ages and backgrounds happy to have an excuse to be publicly drunk in the middle of the day. What impressed me was the enthusiasm and bonhomie of the crowd. The parade lacked any real dramatic impact, but everyone was just enjoying being out in the sunshine and enjoying the day. They shouted and cheered the same for every group that was marching. It made a big impression on Milo, though, his only previous experience with parades being the Bowness Stampede parade, which is very small scale and totally homemade. He sometimes likes to play parade, where he dresses up in something unusual and walks back and forth in front of us and we're supposed to exclaim over what it is he's supposed to be. Nothing gay about that.

Cabane à sucre
We went to a real Quebec sugar shack with our friends Michelle and Anthony. To give a rudimentary definition, a sugar shack is the house on a maple syrup farm that serves traditional Quebec food in a nostalgic atmosphere. It's a popular early spring outing for families here.

Snow still on the ground, but temps getting warmer and the sap flowing in the maple trees. Here's a snap, but for the full report, I refer you to Anthony and Michelle's exuberant Montreal food blog, called An Endless Banquet. They are true foodies, gastronomic adventurers par excellence, and witty and generous writers to boot. Their blog is a must for anyone planning a trip here. Anyway, we had a blast, the music was fantastic, me and Milo danced up a storm, and the food was, well, I'll let AJ do it justice since he's the professional food writer.

Quebec City
We figured we'd best make it there at some point while we're living here. Dave had been twice before but I never had. We were there over the Easter weekend, and I highly recommend that as a good time to go; mostly the tourists at that time are Quebecois, and the crowds are small but the weather warm. To be truthful, we only got a very brief glimpse of the city. This was one of those trips that really makes you question whether travel with small kids is worth it. That said, the old town is gorgeous and we had two lovely meals that Milo behaved enough for us to enjoy.

Dave and I celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary on Earth Day. My mom was in town visiting, so we had a sitter and we went to Laloux, one of Montreal's great restaurants. We'd been there for a full meal deal for our dating anniversary back in February, and the desserts were so good we just had to experience it again. I can't do them justice, because the desserts as described on the menu don't actually sound that great. You have to taste them to believe. And we are believers now. Oh yes.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Nasty, brutish, and short: the violence of bugs' lives

Milo and I visisted Montreal's Insectarium last weekend. It was really cool. Not a comprehensive collection of insects, nothing to please the real entomologist, but a greatest-hits display including even non-insects like the (arachnid) tarantula. Actually about a dozen different hairy tarantulas. There is a very disturbing display of a taxidermed tarantula and pepsis wasp engaged in a battle to the tarantula's eventual, agonizing death. The pepsis wasp stings the female tarantula, paralyzing her. Then the wasp lays HER eggs inside the alive-but-paralyzed tarantula's oviduct, then the eggs hatch and the wasp larvae CONSUME the tarantula while she is still alive. Until she isn't. And you thought you were having a rough day.

What do you call that? It can't be parasitism, because that suggests there is some mutual benefit going on; in the event, it's hard to see what's in it for the tarantula. And how did the pepsis wasp evolve that way? Isn't it kind of bizarre that one species can rely so completely on one other species, not for just for food but for reproduction? And how did that first pepsis wasp, fresh from the primordial ooze, say, in its uniquely waspish language, "What's a safe place to lay my eggs, a place where my larvae can incubate and then feast before venturing out into the world? I know! That huge hairy spider over there looks perfect!" If there are any entomologists among the readers of this blog (fat chance), please enlighten us in the comments.

Other highlights of the Insectarium: the softball-sized, glittering jewel-toned beetles from Africa, who can lift 2 kg with their pincers. The stick insects, who are very hard to find among the actual sticks in their terraria. And the scorpions, slightly bigger than tiger prawns, which have so captivated Milo's imagination with their deadly stingers. We bought him some scorpion socks at The Gap today. The Insectarium is part of the massive Olympic complex, where there's also the botanical gardens and conservatory. So we'll be back there soon, I'm sure.

Milo's new thing is making up gibberish words and telling us they're French. The kid's a card. Don't know where he gets it.

Winter is letting up some. Regular above-zero temps now, sun, glovelessness. Spring is nigh!