Creating hell on earth

In Lytton, British Columbia the temperature reached 121F on Tuesday. Temperatures across the northwestern United States broke all sorts of records recently, not just by a little, but by a lot. The heat in British Columbia though really drove the nail in the coffin. Temperatures above 100F anywhere in Canada is exceptionally rare anytime in the summer, and summer has just begun. A massive heat bubble is to blame, but what’s really to blame in climate change, principally driven by humans largely dithering on mitigating its impact.

Excessive heat has become a standard feature of summer here in the northern hemisphere but also in the southern one during their summers. Accompanying it are large changes to precipitation patterns that that is making the west even drier and creating large-scale fires.

It’s getting hard to escape the heat. It used to be that we would travel in the summer, but lately the only places that hold any appeal this time of year are the cooler and more temperate northern latitudes. Except now you can’t even count on that. It was hotter in British Columbia on Tuesday than it was in Las Vegas, where the high was “only” 117F.

Where I live (Western Massachusetts) it’s pretty dang hot too, just not anywhere near these crazy temperatures out west. We’ve had highs in the mid to upper nineties since Sunday, which is horrible heat for this area. I make a point of going outside for a daily walk, but not these last few days. It’s too crazy hot for even me to venture outdoors for long. On Sunday I took an early morning walk, but even though I left before 9 AM and mostly stayed under the trees, the humidity was oppressive as the temperatures were in the mid 80s. I finished the walk drenched from head to toe. For a while, I am exercising indoors on the treadmill. I don’t even want to fetch the mail from the kiosk on days like this. Relief is expect to arrive late tonight.

Unfortunately, the United States is perhaps the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses. Our wealth also puts us in a good position to actually do something about it. While there’s lots to do, there are many quick wins that can be done rather inexpensively. It’s excessive methane emissions that are the worst pollutants these days. Fracking wells probably contribute most of this methane. We could require that these wells be fixed and not to flare excess natural gas, or to require them to be capped. Of course we don’t, although the Biden administration is starting to take steps in this area.

Like with covid-19 vaccine hesitation, so much of climate change could be mitigated, but there are obstinate political forces, almost exclusively controlled by the Republican Party, that make it excruciatingly difficult to do much about them. Congressional Republicans are all for infrastructure, as long as improving infrastructure is limited to roads, bridges and the like and, of course, doesn’t raise their taxes. Forget about caps on carbon pollution, investing in clean energy and reducing pollution by expanding broadband access. If these get through Congress, it will be through a reconciliation bill in the Senate where two Democratic senators (Manchin and Sinema) will control the bill and likely water down the serious provisions needed to address climate change.

The effect of all of this procrastination and obstinacy is obvious and all around us. Mother Nature could not be doing more to put climate change right in our faces, and yet we still dither and refuse to acknowledge reality. And as bad as things are now, it’s but a taste of what’s coming, which is much, much more of the same and for longer periods of time. All this will exacerbate human migration and sea level rise, which increases poverty, misery, strife, conflict and the likelihood of war. Climate change is obviously our number one national security threat. We should be working our tails off to lessen its impact here and working with other nations to reduce its impact elsewhere. No one can escape its effects.

As if to hammer in the point, there was the recent catastrophic collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Seaside, Florida, north of Miami. So far the official death toll is twelve, but 149 remain unaccounted for as rescue teams try rather fruitlessly to find survivors. There are two likely culprits to this collapse: rising sea levels and willful government ignorance.

The sea level around Miami is on average six inches higher today than it was when the building was constructed in 1980. This fact, tides and Florida’s plentiful rains caused mostly by salt water, wore away the footings of the building’s pool, garage and likely the tower itself. The problem has been known for at least three years. Local and state government weren’t on top of the issue, and the condominium’s owners seemed in no hurry to affect expensive repairs.

The whole Florida coast is being affected by sea level rise. The Champlain Towers example is a harbinger of much worse to come. These towering condos rest on limestone for the most part, not the most stable of foundations, and easily eroded by sea water which is now regularly encroaching on these properties. Sump pumps can keep water from eating away at the foundation, but like New Orleans it depends on extraordinary human engineering that is costly and ultimately just a delaying action.

Climate change is going to move us inland, whether we want it or not. The only question is how fast and at what cost. Given our dithering on the climate change issue, it’s not hard to figure out the answers: much more quickly than we expect, and at ruinous cost and a lot of pointless misery for millions of us. We are literally creating hell not just for us but for many generations to come. And much of it is wholly avoidable if we simply put the common good before our own selfishness.

Oh Canada! (Part Two)

Last Thursday we passed over the Rainbow Bridge and into Canada, our first trip to Ontario since 2004. Some things have changed since our last visit, but it’s not Canada. It’s the United States. Passing into Niagara Falls, Ontario I realized I actually felt better. For one night at least I was back in a sane country.

I was wondering whether they might not let us in, even though we were just passing through southern Ontario. I was particularly worried when my wife started complaining about our president with the Canadian customs official. But he was cool and had some complaining of his own about Justin Trudeau, their prime minister. “At least your president is transparent. Our guy is really crafty.” Yes, well you have an intelligent prime minister. We have a narcissist Cheeto for our president. Chances are that if Trump decides to launch a nuclear war any missiles wouldn’t be lobbed at Canada. And that’s because Canada in a sane country.

Canadians don’t subscribe to President Reagan’s claim that government is the problem. Rather, Canadians subscribe to the old fashioned idea (for Americans) that government should work for the betterment of its people, all of them. Nowhere was this more obvious to me than simply driving across Ontario. Ontario’s roads are so well maintained that it feels surreal. On the return trip on Sunday, we left our hotel in Cambridge, Ontario. Until we crossed the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge into the USA, my shock absorbers did not have to work at all.

That’s right: the roads (or at least the ones I was on, which includes Queen Elizabeth’s Way and Routes 405, 403 and 8) were bump free. There were zero potholes anywhere. Maybe they use some sort of super concrete. The roads were in excellent condition, in spite of the harsh winters they get around there from lake-effect snow. It wasn’t just the roads. It was also the bridges. The bridge overpasses looked new; no rusting girders and pockets of fallen concrete. The traffic flowed smoothly. Of course the moment we passed over into the USA we were back on America’s crappy roads. This meant bumps, potholes, miles of torn up pavement waiting a new coat of asphalt, many more miles of highway cones moving you to temporary lanes, etc. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s overall infrastructure a D+ grade. Way to go, supposedly greatest country on Earth!

A visit to Canada though proves that a country doesn’t have to have a crappy infrastructure. In fairness, I did see some highway construction. A part of the QEW was being repaired near Niagara Falls. Large stretches of routes 403 near Woodstock and London in Ontario were being widened as well which meant some lane shifting. On Sunday we got off the major highways to get to Stratford, Ontario where we saw a musical. These back roads were in excellent shape as well: not a pothole in the more than thirty miles we rode on them.

It’s pretty clear what the general problem is here in the United States, at least with our roads. We refuse to pay the cost of maintenance. This is largely due to Congress’s refusal to increase the gas tax, or at least index it to inflation. It is currently 18.4 cents per gallon and hasn’t been increased since 1993. It wasn’t enough in 1993 to keep our infrastructure from degrading and it’s worth a lot less now due to inflation. So our roads and bridges keep getting crappier and crappier, resulting in occasional major incidents like the 2007 I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis. It’s easy to predict things won’t change if Congress won’t address the issue; in fact it will just get worse. On the plus side American cars are replacing plenty of shock absorbers, as our roads give them a real workout. I guess that part is good for the economy.

Spending two nights in southern Ontario though (one coming and going to Michigan, where we visited an aunt) brought out other wistful feelings. Today America feels very much like a dog-eat-dog country. People may act nice, but very often they are just snippy or mean. At our performance of Guys & Dolls at the Festival Theater in Stratford, Ontario we sat next to an elderly man. At intermission he stumbled trying to get out of his seat. Almost instantly there were a half dozen people helping him get up again. An usher came by, noted the problem and told the man that their 6’4” usher would be there after the show to help him exit the theater. The concern for this stranger from the people around him was natural and authentic. It was heartwarming.

It’s because Canada is a country that cares about its people because the people feel vested in their country. Obviously Canada is not a perfect country and has its political struggles too, just not on the scale that we have in the USA. I have been told that Montreal has deteriorating bridges and roads, perhaps a result of Quebec choosing to allocate less money toward infrastructure. The sense of unity and common purpose while in Canada though was heartwarming. It made me nostalgic for a time when it was the same way here in the United States. Today, America is polarized to a degree that I have not seen in my sixty years. In addition we have Republicans with a lock on Congress trying to make the situation worse and a president likely to go down as our worst.

I loved my short time in Canada and I felt sad to leave it. When I saw the large Canadian flags flying along the highway, I felt a lump in my throat. It’s a country that has its stuff together, and is generally happy, peaceful and prosperous.

I hope before I die that I’ll see American that way again. Right now it looks like a pipedream.

Hello Nova Scotia

It’s still sometimes startling to go to Canada and realize it’s its own country and not part of the United States. You wonder why you have to go through this tedious customs process when our nations are so alike. Well, maybe not that alike. Canada is hardly a perfect country, since it is ripping up its west to extract oil from tar sands, and arguably it treats its native Americans about as shabbily as we do ours. For all the success of Obamacare, their national health insurance system wraps rings around ours, and for a lot less of their GDP. Still, they do have the dollar (although it is not green) and except for in Quebec they speak English. Canada is far more a white country than the USA. Overall, it seems much more civilized and less partisan. It’s a comfortable place to visit once you make a few mental changes. In particular, you need to think of distance in kilometers, volume in liters and have to excuse the national and regional value added taxes. Their socialism does not come cheap, but it has many advantages.

Nova Scotia sits northeast of Maine and is basically an island as well as a province. It’s not quite the furthest part of Canada to the east, but it is the most accessible to us in the United States. Most Americans never get to Nova Scotia, but fewer journey to Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, places more remote yet still accessible. What I knew of Nova Scotia was minimal: great and dramatic seascapes, hub of a lot of maritime commerce, short winter days with dramatic snowfalls and long summer days. I assume I can throw in moose too, although I did not see any.

Arriving by ferry to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia
Arriving by ferry to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia

I still don’t know much about the place, having arrived via ferry from Portland, Maine this morning. Perhaps the reason it is bypassed by Americans is that it is hard to get to. You can in theory drive to it, but it’s a major hassle. Flying to it is the ideal way to get here. There is also this new option: take Nova Star Cruiselines out of Portland for an overnight passage. Your car goes in the hold either on Decks 3 or 5. Deck 7 acts as something of a traditional cruise ship with lounges and gambling. And you sleep in tiny cabins (assuming you rent a cabin) on Deck 8. Only it’s not quite a cruise. For one thing, it lasts about twelve hours. And although the ship is new and quite attractive, it’s obviously not Royal Caribbean. And there is no lounging around when you get to Yarmouth. You are woken before 7 AM Eastern Time. There is time for breakfast in their cafeteria ($12 a person) but soon you and your car are being hustled off the ship, only to wait in long lines to get through customs.

We were hardly outside of Yarmouth heading along the island’s southeast coast when civilization quickly receded. Our destination was Anapolis Royal, where AAA had listed the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens there as a diamond attraction. And the gardens are quite nice, spread out over fifteen acres, even with a sky that constantly shifted from pelting rain to sunshine. Still, as impressive as it was, it was no Longwood Gardens, something of the gold standard for gardens in North America. For the mostly unpopulated province of Nova Scotia, however, it was quite impressive. Getting there though meant two hours of driving over gentle hills, wholly undeveloped with mostly coniferous pine trees to look at. There are no services along these roads, but they were well maintained and lightly traveled. Occasionally you would get a glimpse of the Bay of Fundy to the west, or an estuary or river, but mostly it was vistas of fields and pine trees to enjoy.

Historic Gardens, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia
Historic Gardens, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia

It was much the same on the two plus hour trip from the gardens to Halifax. There is the occasional small town, but little in the way of civilization. Nova Scotia’s hills can be impressive at times while not quite qualifying as mountains. Of course there are towns and cities other than Halifax in Nova Scotia, they are just generally small and remote from one another. Halifax is the island’s metropolis, and while not quite Montreal it won’t disappoint. It is quite ethnically diverse with plenty to do.

As we are just zipping through Nova Scotia, and will be moving on to New Brunswick tomorrow, we had time for only one attraction in Halifax: the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic along the wharf. It’s too bad. We need to spend a week or more hear to really appreciate this province. I particularly wish we had time to see the northern half of the island, where arguably its most spendid natural treasures await.

I can say that this taste of Nova Scotia has left me yearning for a proper vacation here. Next time I hope it will be a leisurely tour of the island, lasting at least a week. And I’ll make sure we fly in.

Oh Canada!

For someone from the United States visiting Canada is like visiting some sort of parallel universe. It looks so much like the United States. The roads look the same. The houses seem the same. The cars are the same familiar makes and models. But there are differences. Distance is measured in kilometers. Liquids are measured in liters. But these new units were easily mastered. What struck me is that Canada seemed to be missing the sectarian anger and hatred that seems to comprise living in the United States these days. In many ways Canada is a much saner and more civilized place.

In the evenings when not otherwise engaged we watched a lot of Canadian TV. Mostly it was the Olympics from a Canadian point of view. One thing I noticed is that there were markedly fewer commercials during their Olympic coverage than would have been shown here in the United States. In the United States the franchisee (NBC) would feel duty bound to squeeze every last nickel of profit out of the experience for the corporation. So no doubt this meant twenty minutes of more of commercials during prime time, plus myopic attention on the most interesting competitions that would bring in the most viewer interest.

But while watching the Olympics from the Canadian perspective we saw events that I doubt were covered by NBC, including a competitive cycling event that included a Canadian. In Canada every Canadian medal was a triumph and cause for celebration. With the United States collecting over one hundred medals another medal for the United States was pretty much a ho hum affair. Americans only get excited when multiple Americans win medals for the same event, or when one athlete earns more than one medal. In Canada events like Perdita Felicien of Ontario tripping over a hurdle at the start of the women’s hundred meter hurdle was big news. Here was a woman who could very well have won a gold medal for Canada but made a tragic mistake. I wasn’t in the USA to know if it made our sports sections at all, but I suspect if it was mentioned it was buried deeply within.

With the population of Canada about one tenth that of the United States it is natural that a medal won by a Canadian will mean a lot. But the news coverage of the Olympics itself was markedly more restrained than NBC’s. While there was fawning over every Canadian athlete — and lots of Canadian companies were busy flaunting their sponsorship of Olympic events — the coverage missed the extreme hype and over the top flashiness typical of Olympic coverage here in the States.

But it was also interesting to watch Canadian news. It’s amazing how myopic we Americans are. All this really interesting stuff goes on just across the border from us and we are largely clueless. Canada might as well be some remote country in the African bush as far as we are concerned. The big political news had to do with a recent election in which the Liberal Party had won a plurality of the votes, but not quite a governing majority. So it needed to include a few lesser parties to get the governing majority it needed, and the jockeying was interesting. But mainly it was such a joy to be visiting a country where the Liberals were in charge. In Canada being a Liberal is nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed the average Canadian is more likely to be a Liberal than not. Rush Limbaugh would probably suffer a stroke if he lived in Canada because the country seems to embrace its limited socialism. And yet amazingly enough in spite of being a country full of liberals it seemed both happy and prosperous.

Canada is a progressive country that embraces quasi socialism, such as its national health insurance system. We heard complaints from some Canadian friends that in order to save money ambulance rides and eye exams were no longer covered. And there are horror stories that trickle into the States about how medical care seems to be rationed with their single payer plan. Nonetheless with the three Canadian friends we met none wanted to do away with their health insurance system. At most they wanted some modest changes. Three people are not a representative sample by any means. But our discussion with them suggests that we may be getting a false picture here in the states about the popularity of their health care system.

The taxes in Canada take some getting used to. They are markedly higher than here in the States, at least when it comes to sales taxes. Whether it was a meal, a purchase at a drug store or a night spent at a hotel all bills came with two mysterious taxes “GST” and “PST” taxes. GST taxes are apparently a “Goods and Services Tax” applied nationwide and amounted to 7%. The PST (Provincial Sales Tax) is the amount in addition to the national tax that each province (Quebec and Ontario, in our case) add to support their regional needs. It is 8% in Ontario and 7.5% in Quebec. I don’t know what their income tax rates are, but it’s a good bet they are higher than in the United States. (Note to travelers: if you keep your receipts you can get a rebate on your GST and PST taxes.)

Yes, it’s a lot of money in taxes. On the other hand no Canadian has to worry about not having health insurance. Yet there are 45 million Americans who are uninsured. Those of us who do have insurance are being eaten alive by ever-skyrocketing premiums and drug costs. What else do their taxes buy? Well, from this traveler’s perspective their infrastructure is very good. The roads are well maintained. The streets are clean. The crime seems very low. And as best I could tell the citizenry seem quite happy with their semi-socialist state. I know that overall the unemployment rate in Canada is higher than in the United States: 7.2% in August vs. 5.5% here in the United States. But I’m betting that fewer out of work Canadians are eating dog food or living on the streets.

In short my brief taste of Canada was not an unpleasant experience. When it was suggested to me recently that because I don’t agree with my president I should emigrate I spurned the suggestion. But I returned from Canada impressed. In many respects I think they are a much saner and more civilized country than the United States. If being an American in the 21st century means voting Republican, giving obscene tax breaks to the rich, bankrupting the national treasury and delighting in our Darwinian class struggle then perhaps the idea of me emigrating to Canada has merit. But America: are you sure you want to lose a talented hard working citizen like me?

High Speed Tourists

It’s amazing how fast the marketplace can react to change. During our eight-day vacation in Canada we stayed at five different hotels. Every single one of them offered high-speed Internet service. We were connected to the Internet with a fat pipe everywhere we went!

This wasn’t true a few months ago. In a June trip to Raleigh I had to hunt for a hotel that offered high-speed Internet access in the hotel room. I found a few web sites such as this one that helped me find these hotels. As a result the Courtyard North Raleigh got my business. But there was no such access in my room at the four-star Peabody Hotel in Orlando in April, although a cool high-speed wireless service was available in the conference rooms. And the only way I got to the Internet in my hotel room in Denver in March was through a traditional dial up line.

Our electronic life is now too integrated to be away from the Internet for very long. So my wife’s laptop came with us on the trip. A month or so earlier she had installed a wireless network interface card (NIC) in it so she could read her email anywhere in the house. (Curiously she uses it most in the bathroom.) I didn’t think we would have any use for her wireless card on the road. But I was wrong.

A portrait of Internet access at our five hotels:

I booked our room at the Quality Inn in Schenectady specifically because they offered high-speed Internet access. Unfortunately although we brought along the laptop we forgot both an Ethernet cable and phone line cord for the laptop’s modem. But it was no problem: the front desk provided us with a loaner Ethernet cable. Finding the port in our room was the big problem. We eventually discovered it behind one of the beds. Then we had to dig into the Windows 2000 Control Panel and change a few settings. It took about fifteen minutes to work through the logistics.

The Sandman Hotel in Montreal also offered high-speed Internet, but it was pricey: $14.95 a day in Canadian money and the service always started at 3 p.m. We couldn’t resist and they too were glad to loan us a loaner cable. The billing was all handled through the browser. When we opened our browser and tried to reach any page we were first presented with a payment screen. We selected our payment method and were off.

By the time we arrived at the Radisson East in Toronto I figured the gig was up. There were no such ports in our room. However my wife noticed an electronic billboard coming in that proudly announced high-speed wireless Internet service in the conference rooms. Could we pick it up in our room? For the first time in my life I was glad to have a room on the second floor. Her NIC picked up a nice strong signal. Perhaps ethically we shouldn’t have used this connection since we weren’t there on business. To make it work with our wireless card we had to make a couple small changes to our computer again. This time we had to disable a wireless encryption feature. Once done we were off and surfing.

The Quality Inn in Woodstock, Ontario though seemed an unlikely place to find high-speed Internet. It was a couple blocks from a highway and we could see cornfields out of the window. But this was a new hotel and yes they too offered high speed wireless Internet … for $10 CDN a day. We had to call the front desk to get an access code. Again we entered it into the browser’s web page and we were off and surfing.

At the Holiday Inn in Batavia, New York high-speed wireless service was made available to all guests for free. Unfortunately our access was fairly poor. Maybe it was because we were on the fourth floor. The NIC continually sent us messages telling us our connection speed was “low” or “very low”. Every once in a while the signal would drop off altogether. Part of the problem was that the NIC picked up two wireless signals. I don’t know where the other signal came from (another nearby hotel?) But when we told the NIC to ignore the other signal service became more reliable. But the speed always seemed slow and didn’t seem much better than dialup.

In the car my daughter Rosie often was writing with the laptop computer. (We had an adapter for it so it could run off the electrical feed from our cigarette lighter.) What we didn’t expect is how often it would pick up wireless signals when we passed through small towns and cities. Often this connection would last fifteen seconds or less since the range is very limited and we were moving at a brisk clip. But it was encouraging nonetheless. And sometimes we picked up signals in unexpected places, like in front of dirty old garages along distressed looking highways.

So we were very pleased. Here are a few pointers for fellow high-speed travelers. First, make sure your laptop is configured with a wireless NIC and that you know how to modify the NIC’s interface; it can be something of a black art. Certainly bring an Ethernet cable with you too but increasingly you won’t need it or may be able to borrow one at the hotel. Hotels seem to going wireless instead of wired. For a couple years it would be a good idea to have a directory of local phone numbers to access your ISP. But it is clear the days of dialup Internet access are nearly over. Hooray for that. While I suspect you are less likely to find high-speed Internet at Motel 6’s or Days Inn, you can never tell. Increasingly it is becoming pervasive. If you depend on Internet access on the road you may be in for a happy surprise the next time you travel.

City of the Young

For this 47-year-old man riding the subway in Toronto is a striking experience. On most trains I am the oldest person on the car. If the people who ride the subway are a representative sample of the city as a whole then this is the city of the young.

It would make a certain sense. At two and a half million people Toronto is Canada’s Big Apple. Most of Canada is rural. So if you are a young person living in Canada and crave that cosmopolitan experience then Toronto is the place to live.

It seems that they came in busloads. The young adults are everywhere. My wife thinks that there are so many young adults here because Toronto is a university town. But I did not see many students on Toronto’s version of the metro (called the TTC: Toronto Transit Commission). Most were 20 something white, attractive young men and women off to what appeared to be secure white-collar jobs in the city.

Yes, they are a good-looking bunch. The people of Toronto strike me as amazingly healthy. Less than a hundred miles away in Buffalo one can literally view the bulk of America. But here in Toronto you have to look for the obese. In fact if you see someone obese he or she is likely an American tourist.

It may be that being a city of young people these young adults haven’t had time to grow fat yet. This must be it because the fatty temptations here are everywhere. Coffee and donut shops are pervasive. In particular the donut chain of Tim Horton’s seems to have a stranglehold on the city. Curiously absent is the Starbucks chain. Maybe Tim Horton beat Starbucks to the market.

Many American chain restaurants are pervasive here. You will have no problem finding most American fast food chains like Wendy’s, Pizza Hut or Burger King. But so far there is no sign of a Wal-Mart. In fact one of the striking things about Toronto is just how much small business is present. In America a local shopping center would be full of branded stores. Here branded stores are the exception rather than the rule. In Northern Virginia for example if you needed a drug you would likely go to a CVS Pharmacy. In Toronto there are lots of independent pharmacists nearby. I didn’t see one pharmacy chain store.

Nonetheless Toronto is a big city and has the usual big city woes. The traffic on the expressways looks like I-395 approaching Washington on weekday mornings: lots of stop and go. Their metro system is very clean but aging. It generally gets you where you need to go, although it seems rather unremarkable. Still it feels safe and it is very safe for a big city. Its homicide rate is 1.3 people per 100,000. Washington DC’s homicide rate is 45.5.

Our adventures in the city yesterday included visiting Casa Loma, a castle constructed in the early 20th century as a palace for a very wealthy local businessman. It is a fascinating place to visit. We also visited the Ontario Museum and ended up ascending the CN Tower in the downtown area, reputedly the world’s tallest freestanding structure. Alas, yesterday was a day of high haze and humidity, which made for a rather poor view from the observation level. The subway took us where we needed to go, although we still had to do quite a bit of walking. Our hotel room is some seven miles from downtown Toronto. We had to drive a mile or so to a metro station to connect with the subway. The subway is a bit pricey: $2.25 CND for a trip, but still less expensive than the Washington Metro, which charges by distance.

Today we begin the theatrical portion of our trip. We will be at the Hummingbird Centre in downtown Toronto tonight to see The Last Empress, a Korean opera. Tomorrow we will be on our way to Stratford, Ontario to take in two more shows at this famous city renown for its theater. We should be home on Sunday afternoon.

Random observations on Montreal

Montreal is New York City done right. While certainly not as large as New York City it has most of New York City’s charms without any of its drawbacks that I could discern. For example, where are the homeless men in Montreal? They must be here. Maybe it is too cold for them most of the year. Or maybe the police keep them away from us tourists. Or maybe, hopefully, Montreal is an enlightened city and they don’t exist.

New York City feels dirty and smells unclean. Its subway stations are full of rats and trash. Big Apple is a constant ear piercing hell. Despite these drawbacks it is also a place full of amazing energy. I’ve not been to any place on the North American continent that feels so piercingly alive.

But Montreal is civilized. It has a metro, not quite as extensive as New York’s, but reasonably clean and rodent free. Unlike New York’s, which is largely underground, much of this metro system is just at or just below the surface. Rather than riding on rails its trains ride on rubber wheels. This strike me as much more sensible because it reduces the noise level. It is easy to find your way around on the Montreal metro.

Since Montreal is in Quebec and French is its official language I had some concerns that my language might be a barrier. Fortunately I had my daughter Rosie with me to translate, if necessary. But her services weren’t really needed. Those involved in commerce readily speak English well enough to transact business. Most signs are in French and have English translations next to or below them. But unquestionably French is the dominant language here. While Quebecans tolerate English they do not prefer it. This makes it awkward at times since so much of the English culture is embraced. Watching TV in French in Montreal seemed comical at times. Mostly it is the same English programs we see in America that are dubbed into French. It often seemed that the translators didn’t even bother to try to match the lip movements. Even American cartoons are dubbed into French. My daughter Rosie was very amused by Sponge Bob Square Pants translated to French.

Shortly after we arrived Sunday afternoon I went running. Our hotel was on the east side of the St. Lawrence River in Longueuil. I made it my mission to run across the bridge to Montreal and back. It’s quite an intimidating span and I made it most of the way. I could hardly ask for better weather. Montreal was delightfully dry with largely clear skies and gentle breezes. The view from the top of the Pont Jacques Cartier Bridge was spectacular. I could look to the east and see some of the northernmost mountains of the Appalachians. Looking west I had a breathtaking view of Montreal laid out before me.

We only had one full day to try and experience Montreal. I won’t bore the casual reader with details that are easy enough to discover for yourself if you visit. But in brief we spent the morning and the first half of the afternoon at Olympic Park, where the 1976 Olympic Games were held. (Oddly we arrived as the Summer Games were being held in Athens.) The Biodome, the Insectoriam, the huge Botanical Garden and the Parc Olympique Tower were all worth seeing, but are just very nice tourist traps. I was more interested in downtown Montreal. It was there that I hoped I could find the character of the city.

Old Montreal can be found along the riverfront near Vieux-Port. Hawaii has its Waikiki. This is Montreal’s version. While there is no beach, there are piers that go out into the river and lots of places where you can hear buskers, get a caricature of yourself drawn, or eat at a trendy cafe. I was more interested in the streets a few blocks in from the riverfront. In particular the ex-Catholic in me was drawn to the Basilique Notre Dame de Montreal. I never paid money to enter a house of worship before, but it was worth the $4 CAD I paid for the half an hour or so I spent in the Basilica. This neo-Gothic church must look like a toned down version of some of the great cathedrals in Europe. Unlike those cathedrals this one is relatively new, so it gives the tourist some idea of how the great European cathedrals must have looked like in their prime. This basilica is a delight to the senses and was the highlight of my brief time in Montreal. There is much to thrill to: the statues of saints on both sides of the altars and along the sides of the church, the ornate statue of Jesus on the cross behind the altar, the dozens of confessionals along the sides of the church, and the many votive candle displays beneath little shrines of a favorite patron saint. I lit a candle for my ailing mother. The altar itself is lit up in a dazzling array of lights. It makes a logical place for the laser light shows that are held in the basilica on the weekends. Although no longer a Catholic I could be persuaded to attend a high mass here. The sounds of the choirs and the organs echoing through such an ethereal setting would make the experience religious even to this died in the wool Unitarian Universalist.

We had dinner down by the riverfront. We chose the wrong restaurant. A cold front that came through made eating more unpleasant. The ladies were tired. Rosie is not used to being on her feet and my wife’s arthritis made even our limited walking rather painful. A visit to a Ben and Jerry’s revived spirits. We retired to the Hotel Sandman sore but generally pleased with our brief escape in Montreal. We wished we had the luxury of a few more days.

Overall Canada strikes me as something of a bargain for an American tourist. The Canadian dollar is worth about 77 cents. Meals tend to be less expensive than what I pay for their equivalent in the Washington DC area. Even ticket prices seemed very affordable. A historical museum we stopped at offered a family rate of $20 CAD, which is about $15 in American dollars. With those prices and so much to see I will have plenty of incentive to come back to Montreal again. I hope my French will be better next time.