Thursday, 17 October 2013

American Weekend

I have just had a weekend that has revealed to me that life really can be a series of beautiful coincidences (or whatever you prefer to call them, varying according to your personal world view). There's going to be a lot of preamble for each one, so sit comfortably, but it will all make sense, I promise.

This was the long Thanksgiving weekend, so it was my first opportunity to make a trip slightly further afield to soak up the last bits of summer. I knew I wanted to return to Montreal soon, it's no secret that I love it there. On a map, I was looking up where I could go from Montreal for a daytrip, just to mix things up a bit. Burlington, Vermont looked really close, and I'd happened to read an article recently about how cool it was. What's more, it was only $58 return on Greyhound. I decided to go ahead and incorporate it into my plans. It would be my first ever trip to the US. Si pas maintenant, quand?
The drive towards the border was already shrouded in mystery. It was about 9:00 in the morning, and fog was lingering over the cornfields and farmhouses. This area of Quebec - south-east of Montreal - is called the Eastern Townships, a bunch of little towns with English names due to it being a place of refuge for American Loyalists in the eighteenth century. It's meant to be one of the prettiest regions of Quebec, and I want to go there properly someday when the weather is nice.

Maybe it didn't hit me as hard as it would have done if I'd gone to the States straight from the UK; I've been in Canada for a month now, so I've already got used to how things generally are on this continent. But still, I just couldn't believe I was there, in this place I'd felt familiar with since I was very young, but still seemed like I had so much to learn about it. I liked seeing the licence plates and mottoes of all the different states. I liked getting to grips with using $1 notes. I liked that when you press the button at the zebra crossing (or "crosswalk") a voice barks "WAIT!" at you. And did you know that state amphibians are a thing? And that Vermont's is the leopard toad?

My first stop was the Saturday Farmers' Market. There were so many organic food stalls. It was so cheap that I felt no guilt in trying lots of it; I tried some Pakistani-Afghan cuisine, as well as being reunited with Tibetan momos. I also drank a delicious local ginger beer. It was the most gorgeous lunch ever. There were also many artists displaying their work. I bought a print from Hilary Glass, who is a very talented illustrator and a nice person to chat to - check out her Etsy store! It was such a friendly, chilled atmosphere, I felt so content.

Vermont is, of course, the home of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. And there was a Ben & Jerry's store with more flavours than you can imagine. It's on Cherry Street... or should I say Cherry Garcia Street?

The staff there were some of the cheeriest I've ever met! (Would you expect any less, though?) It was a tough call, but I chose Stephen Colbert's AmeriCone Dream.
The photo below makes me insanely jealous of Past Me. I wonder if I will ever experience such unadulterated bliss in a waffle cone ever again.

Burlington sits on Lake Champlain, which is huge; it dips into Quebec too. It's certainly one of the loveliest lakes I've ever seen, so clear and blue. The land you can see across from Burlington is actually New York state! So yeah, this lake gets around.

Here are a couple of other nice places I visited in Burlington:
  • Crow Bookshop, 14 Church Street
    New and secondhand bookshop, with fiction and plenty of interesting non-fiction titles too. I got a book called Slanted & Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture by Kaya Oakes. It was the Pavement reference in the title that got me.
  • Zabby & Elf's Stone Soup, 211 College Street
    This is a nice kitchen with a rustic yet modern vibe. There are piles of pumpkins as you walk through the door, and fresh loaves of bread on display. You can go to the salad bar, or order from a selection of teas and baked goods - I had an iced tea and a strawberry and pecan vegan scone.

On the bus from downtown back to the airport (which is where the Greyhound station is), I got chatting to an older lady. It turned out that she was born just outside Linz, Austria, where I spent half of my year abroad! Another passenger on the bus was listening to our conversation and he was smiling at this thing that had made my day and probably made her day, too.

In some ways, Burlington is what I imagine to be a mini San Francisco. Maybe it was the sloping streets and the hippy vibe. Thank you, Burlington, for giving me such a great introduction to America. This little excursion was significant because coming back to Canada was like "coming home"; indeed, this is the country where I currently reside. It gave me yet another warm fuzzy feeling.

But that's not the end. There's still so much Montreal to tell of.

One afternoon, I was in Drawn & Quarterly, 211 Rue Bernard Ouest, a supercool publisher/bookshop specialising in graphic novels, feeling spoilt for choice with all the great titles. I turned around, and saw a certain Montreal musician whom I admire very much (they seem like they still want to maintain their privacy, which is why I'm not giving their name on this blog). They were with someone, so I was too shy to go talk to them, but I just couldn't believe it!

About three hours later, I was still wandering around Mile End. Long story short, I went into a café and spotted someone I'd met for about ten minutes in a restaurant the last time I was in Montreal. I was this close to not approaching her, as I was sure she would not remember me and it would just be a really awkward situation for both of us. But she did remember me, and she also seemed delighted about our chance reunion. We spoke for ages, we've exchanged contact details, and she's offered me a place to stay the next time I'm down there. This is exactly what I mean when I talk about a beautiful coincidence.

I also got the chance to visit Westmount, a predominantly anglophone neighbourhood, where Leonard Cohen is from. It's a pretty wealthy area. Also, note how the signs say STOP and not ARRÊT ( this even legal?)

Atwater metro station

Heading out of that neighbourhood, into Outremont and back into Mile End, here are a few more places I want to mention:
  • Parc Outremont, Rue St-Viateur
    Lonely Planet describes it as 'one of Montreal's best-kept secrets', and I can't disagree. The houses surrounding it are absolutely gorgeous. Some of them look quite Germanic. The trees and leaves on the ground were so beautiful. I spent a perfect afternoon sitting on the bench, reading.
  • S.W. Welch Bookseller, 225 Rue St-Viateur Ouest
    Secondhand books galore, mostly in English. Some of them are pretty recent releases, in good condition, and under $10. Cool.
  • Crudessence, 105 Rue Rachel Ouest
    A vegan eatery I hadn't tried before, Crudessence has five locations around Montreal. It was pretty expensive but it was good. The emphasis is on using natural, raw and healthy ingredients, and I indeed felt very healthy afterwards; I ordered a pesto lasagne made out of pesto (duh), avocado, tomatoes, cress, and some kind of vegan feta. Eating in vegan restaurants always inspires me to eat better in my day-to-day life.

Finally, I need to mention that this most coveted Montreal achievement has been unlocked: getting people to speak French to me! Last time I was there, even if I spoke French, I was replied to in English. This was most frustrating, but now, it seems that a month in an exclusively francophone area has worked wonders for my confidence. I couldn't be more thrilled about that.

There you have it. I have gone back into this working week with a fresh attitude, all because of the amazing people and places I stumbled across this weekend.