Thursday, August 14, 2014

Quaint and Cold

After the last post about Québec, I realize I may have made it seem really weird, but that's just the Old Québec part of it.  The rest of it is very normal and downright suburban.  Here's a typical street:

They've even constructed these disruptions in some of the streets that allow cyclists through but not cars, so that the street will be quieter and even more suburban.  There's a big car culture in Québec City, and our host Julie noted that there's a lot of kilometers of highway per capita.  Aside from the predominant residential areas, there are a couple streets that seemed to be where social life takes place: Grande Allée and Cartier.  Cartier seems to be more of a daytime place with restaurants and shops and cafes, and Grande Allée seems more like a nightlife area, though we were there Sunday night, so there wasn't much to show for it.  Julie also mentioned the most popular club there just lost their liquor license, and we know from first-hand experience that it's surrounded by construction, so that area might be dead for a while.

I also forgot to post this earlier, but fire hydrants in Québec have signs above them in their immediate vicinity.   At first I thought this was just easier for trucks to see, but it is actually because the entire hydrant may be covered in snow, so the sign tells the firefighters where to dig for the hydrant.

There's also an "annual moving day" phenomenon in Québec.  Apparently all leases end on June 30, even if they start after July 1, such that everyone is moving on July 1 (which is also Canada Day), and renting a moving truck will run you something like $600.  No one understands this.

Yesterday, before we left Québec, I wanted to get some maple syrup.  Julie and Jeff said all maple syrup is basically the same (no preferred brand), but there were differences in boiling time, which would make the syrup thicker and sweeter.  When I went to the grocery store though, the vast majority of brands did not say "100% pure" and had other ingredients, including corn syrup, so if you plan to buy this as a souvenir, check the ingredients label.  They also have it in a can, but I assume that's for recipes that call for large quantities of it.

The grocery stores smell really good and also sell a drink called "Slow Cow," which is placed immediately next to Red Bull, but is marketed to have the opposite effect.  I bought a can, but I haven't tried it yet.

I got some fast food lunch at a chain called ThaiZone, where the food is made to order and surprisingly good for fast food.  Much more excitingly, there was a pet store across the street with these adorable kittens.  (What kind of internet product would this be without kittens?)

We made a quick pit stop at Montmorency Falls, since it was just a little bit out of Québec.  These falls are smaller but taller than Niagara.  There was a long line to enter the park area, but you can park for free on the streets around the entrance if you don't plan to be there for longer than 90 minutes.  To get a really good view, you need to go on the bridge, but since we were just stopping by, we took some mediocre photos from farther away.

When we arrived at the border, we were "randomly" selected for a more detailed inspection, so we had to go into the office and answer some questions.  I wonder if this is because when they asked us where we're from, we weren't sure what they meant (no Asian American does, by the way).  Any time we hesitated before answering or looked at each other, they seemed to be concerned.  Anyway, one of the standard questions is to ask if you're bringing anything into the country from Canada.  I don't think I've ever declared a single thing at customs, because I have nothing threatening, I'm not introducing new plants or diseases, and it just takes longer if you declare stuff, because then they have to inspect it or investigate.  I'm convinced that the customs officers themselves hope you declare nothing so they can avoid this, too.  Didi, however, is a much better person than I am and said, "Oh, we have an orange."  One orange.  I'm pretty sure at this point, the officer was thinking, "Well these ladies are clearly not criminals."  So we had to go get the orange out of the car, and they let Didi eat it at the office, "but the peel has to stay here."  (This also really confuses me, because wouldn't you be worried about the seeds?  Or are fruit diseases spread via the peel?)  After typing things and looking at the monitor for who-knows-what, we were permitted to proceed.

TO THE SLOWEST STATE EVER.  Holy crap.  Maine is full of slow drivers and one-lane "highways."  It's so slow that it makes you sleepy.  It's a very picturesque drive, but it is maddening.

Our host in Bar Harbor had asked us to get some fish and veggies for our dinner, so we stopped by a grocery store, where the guy at the fish counter was ridiculously nice.  We were very obviously clueless, so he advised us on a fish to get (wild Alaskan sockeye salmon, which was on sale for an actually good deal) and how much.  Zack, our host, who is a cook by profession, made us this dinner, that is by far the healthiest meal I've had in, potentially, months:

We have here broccoli with brussels sprouts and onions, a salad of greens I cannot identify, sweet potato fries, and salmon with BBQ sauce.
Brief run-down of Bar Harbor:
It is insanely quaint, but it is genuinely quaint.  Many shops are open for the tourist season, and then they shut down for the rest of the year.  Most residents are teachers at local schools, chefs, or "lobster people."  Doors remain unlocked.  "Town" is used as a proper noun.  As in, "This area on the map - that's Town."  People who live elsewhere live "off-island."  It is perceived as really weird to rent out your whole house when you are not there.  (Zach commented about his neighbor, several times, "He's just not there!  At all!"  Also, he must be off-island right now.)

In August, Town is really full of tourists (considering its capacity).  Parking can be pretty hard to find, but there are places on Cottage for 2 hours or on side streets all day (if you can find availability).  I have concluded that I would hate being a local here, or really anywhere where tourists outnumber residents.  I definitely have a sense of entitlement to enjoy my own town/city without being encumbered by guests who also feel entitled because they have paid to be there or are on vacation having special experiences.

We had lunch at Lazy Lobster Deli, where I ordered a lobster roll and a cup of clam chowder.  (I'm pretty sure I took a photo, but I can't find it now.)  The chowder was really good - flavorful but not too rich.  As for the lobster roll... I prefer Luke's.  I know Maine has better lobster, but I only had one bite of this roll that really tasted of lobster.  The rest of it tasted like water but with lobster texture, so it was very clean and crisp, but I could have been eating cold shrimp for all I knew.  The rolls themselves weren't as buttered and crispy as they are at Luke's, and there were no seasonings to give the meat a little flavor.

The chowder and hot tea were great, because it was unusually cold today.  Yesterday it was around 80, but today was more like Halloween weather.  We had passed a thrift store on the way to lunch, so I stopped by, expecting to nab a $5 sweatshirt with a rainbow, a unicorn, and a cat on it, but instead walked out with a $4 sweater that was 100% cotton and a nice, white cable knit.  As they day went on, this increasingly became the best $4 I've ever spent.  So if you're ever in Bar Harbor, and the weather is not what you thought it would be, stop by Serendipity.  It's a small shop, but they have a little of everything, and 100% of their proceeds go towards a food pantry.

Then we headed over to the park.  When we were getting our pass, we passed a little kid who said, "So is there like a park here?"  Note that at this point, she was probably at least 100 to 150 meters into the forest, surrounded by a national park, but I guess that goes to show that when kids think "park," what they visualize is "baseball diamond next to a playground."  (I would have, too.)  We also passed a couple having a one-sided argument, in which the girlfriend/wife was silent and the boyfriend/husband was reasoning (very patiently, I might add) that he couldn't know what to do to fix things if she didn't tell him what was wrong.  I do not understand this relationship dynamic.  Just tell people what is wrong.  Or remind them, if they "should know by now."  Or accept that they will never remember this particular thing for some reason and get used to reminding them, even if you sigh a little about it.  How is that so hard?  I feel like the answer to every single relationship problem is just communication without belittlement or embarrassment.

Since parks don't really have culture I can comment on, I'll just post a bunch of photos with some captions.  Overall, it looked like how I expect Washington state to look, based on the Twilight movie.  (I'm a huge fan of the first one, by the way.  It's like the worst direction, the worst acting, and the worst source material all came together to make this beautifully awkward movie.  It is hilarious, and I want to watch it again right now.  The scene where they are supposed to be exhibiting irresistible chemistry is my favorite.  It is truly terrible.)

Sand Beach.  This would be a pretty shitty beach for actual beach activities.
Thunder Hole.  The signage for this stop is bad.  It also did not sound like thunder while we were there.  I think you have to go when high tide is coming in for that effect.

Otter Point
A sort-of beach past Otter Point.  The pebbles are mixed in with mussel shells.
Seal Harbor (with actual boats).
Jordan Lake, which sits in front of the "Bubbles," which I assume are so named because "the Boobs" was unacceptable.
Bubble Pond
Top of Mount Cadillac.  Cloud level.  Also, freezing.  Also, windy.  Too windy for Candide.

Slightly farther down the mountain.  Slightly less windy.
Since we stopped so much, it took us probably three or three and a half hours to do the park loop (plus Seal Harbor), but if you were really just zipping through, you could do it in less time.  I think I'll come back another time when it's not freezing (for the summer) and take a boat cruise to go see puffins or do some hiking or camping or something, but our itinerary today was good for getting a taste of it.

For dinner, we went to Side Street Cafe and sat at the bar, since the wait would otherwise have been over an hour.  This is the kind of town where they can serve water in mason jars, and I can't even be mad about it.  Didi and I split a whole lobster and a bowl of lobster stew.

The lobster stew, as far as I could tell, consisted of butter, butter, butter, some oil, and chunks of lobster meat.  It was good.  Whole lobster is by far my favorite way to eat lobster.  I love everything about it.  I like that you eat the entire thing, I like demolishing the shell, and I like dipping it in butter.  In fact, there is really no crustacean that I consider "too much work" to eat.  Four pounds of crayfish?  Done.  But anyway, the lobster was great, and it was $15.  Yay!

Our last stop of the night was Udder Heaven, where the following is considered a "small."

That is a solid three scoops of ice cream.  We mainly stopped by to say hi to Zach, who workes at Mainely Meats, a BBQ joint that is attached to Udder Heaven.  The hostess, who I presume is a Quebecer based on her accent, did not understand what we were saying, and worriedly followed us into the restaurant after we tried to explain several times that we wanted to say hi to Zach, whom we could see from the entrance.  ("Do you want to place an order?"  "Do you want take-out?"  No... as I've explained three times.)  I am very much in favor of cultural diversity, but I think it is a poor business strategy to have your hostess not speak the primary language of the state your restaurant is located in.  I'm sure she understands most normal requests in English, but she must get questions now and then that she just cannot understand.

Tomorrow, we're eating more lobster on our way out of Maine and probably spending the night in Providence, which I keep hearing is cool, but I don't know why.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I should move to Canada.

I am so sore.  Holy shit.  From my calves to my ass.  This is what happens when you go from an entirely sedentary lifestyle to the rigorous physical activity of walking.  Also, now that I am actually using the calories I eat, I am hungry a lot more.  As a result, I have developed a constant craving for a medium-rare steak.

In addition to the soreness, I had to wake up at 10:00 AM today, which is a serious challenge for me.  Street parking here is only permitted for 90 minutes at a time from 9:00 to 5:00 on weekdays, so we had to move the car by 10:30.  Realistically, it probably didn't matter, since as far as I can tell, these restrictions work solely on an honor system.

I was practically brain-dead and really hungry, so our first stop was food and coffee.  We parked at the Citadel (free for visitors for 2 hours, but we may or may not have left the car there the whole day) and walked down the road leading into the southern part of Old Québec.  This road is very quaint and adorable, but it feels very intentionally manicured for tourists.  After checking out some menus and prices, we ended up at L'Omelette.  There, after staring at my menu for approximately seven minutes without actual comprehension due to sleepiness, I mumbled out loud something like, "Why is this so hard?" (the struggle is real, folks), and someone at the table next to us said the omelettes were really good.  So I got an omelette with ham and cheese, and of course, coffee.

I wouldn't say the omelette was "really good," but it was not bad, and the home fries were actually pretty decent.  The price was also much better compared to the clearly overpriced neighboring restaurants, so no complaints.  After two cups of coffee, I somewhat returned to human form, and we went back to see the Citadel.

Since we didn't do the Citadel tour, I will tell you about it based on assumptions I have made, which are based on signs that were in the area in addition to my observations.  The Citadel appears to be home to the 22nd military regiment, and also someone important.  The governor, perhaps, but I don't remember.  There are guards who seem to follow the Buckingham tradition of standing in the hot sun in a tall, furry hat without making any facial expressions whatsoever.  Tourists pose next to them for photos without actually interacting with them in a way that I imagine is probably a little dehumanizing, even if they are not allowed to interact.

Inside the walls
I guess they used to have goats?
We just so happened to catch the changing of the guards, but I don't have any good photos of it.  I have never really understood why this is a big deal though, even at Buckingham Palace.  Imagine the guards are lego people that can only walk with straight knees and in straight lines and can only turn at 90-degree angles.  Add to that someone yelling at them to turn this way and that, and that's pretty much it.  In fact, imagining this with lego people is probably cooler.

You can walk up around the Citadel for nice views of the river and the promenade.  The path is split by the entrance, and the northern one is better; you can skip the southern one.  (These photos are both from the north side.)

After we came down from the Citadel, we walked around Old Québec for a while, and it became clear that the whole area's sole purpose is for tourism.  While this is not necessarily surprising, I can't think of an equivalent neighborhood in New York.  Even Times Square is full of real offices where normal New Yorkers have to go to work, at companies that have no connection to tourism whatsoever.  It is somewhat jarring to be in a part of a city where there is no apparent sign of the typical, modern-day lifestyle, and the only locals around are those working in shops that are designed to serve tourists.  It's how I imagine talking to a Dementor victim would be like - it looks the same and acts the same, but there just isn't any soul left.  I guess it's pretty though.

You can tell locals don't come here, because the bus looks like a bus for babies.
I'm guessing locals don't ride horse-drawn buggies around either.
This is a hotel for tourists.  There was an ad for Starbucks describing it as the chateau lifestyle.  If I live in a chateau, I expect way better coffee than Starbucks.  Didi said this is the most photographed hotel in the world.  I'd like to know who's going around keeping track of this.

A small alley where artists sell their work, which had slightly more soul than the rest of the neighborhood
This is the smallest house front.  I have no idea why this is a thing that Québec thought would be interesting to tourists, but I thought the fact that they thought it was interesting was interesting.  Do they think this is really, notably small?  Or did they run out of things to point out but felt they didn't have enough?  What is the story behind adding this to the map?
To further this illusion of soullessness, there was a street performer singing "Stand By Me" in a quasi-operatic voice without an iota of feeling.  Unacceptable.  Tangentially, there was also a saxophone player in the Montréal subway who was playing "The Way You Look Tonight" at what seemed to be double time.  Double unacceptable.  (Yes, my taste in music is that of a 70-year-old.  I cannot even begin to understand EDM and/or dubstep.  I have no idea if those are separate, if one is a subset of the other, or if they are in fact the same thing, and I definitely don't care.)

We did go see a church (surprise, surprise), called Notre Dame (surprise again), and even in the church there were these creepy soulless-looking statue things.  It was really weird.

Seriously, what the hell?  What's happening here?
I did like an Inuit art gallery, but no photos were allowed inside.  They had rock sculptures, smoothed like marble, with what I assume was ivory in some of them.  My favorites were various versions of whimsically dancing polar bears.  All I have is this shot of a display window:

There's one in the lower right-hand corner, but they had better ones inside.
We then left weird Old Québec and went just beyond the old city wall to the Parliament building.  There is a free tour, which you have to take, since you can't tour it on your own.  The security people are super friendly, whereas I imagine their New York counterparts would look up at you, bored, and curtly demand, "ID."  The tour is a kind of bare-bones history/civics lesson about Québec.  The province has three major periods of history: French rule, British rule, and the Canadian federation.  These are represented throughout the building by the fleur-de-lis, lions, and maple leaves, respectively.  "Je me souviens" ("I remember") is the provincial motto and refers to this heritage.  There are 125 representatives, elected by a plurality from each district.  There used to be an upper house following the British tradition, but not anymore, and that room is now used for swearing in new members and various awards ceremonies.  The ruling party traditionally sits to the right of the speaker of the house, because back in the day, that side of the room was warmed by the sun.  (When I heard this, I assumed it was a bad thing, and then I remembered what country I was in.)  Members join smaller subject-oriented committees based on their expertise, much like the American Congress.  Both rooms (for the current National Assembly and the former upper house) have been repainted to look better on TV and not make members look so ill.

I went to pee after the tour, and you can change a diaper in the men's room here.  It's almost as though fathers are also parents.

Come on, America.  Dads change diapers, too.
Dinner was a bagel sandwich, and it was fine, but uneventful.  Here's a photo anyway:

When we got back, we chatted with our hosts for quite some time.  Some themes had come up before in conversations we had in Montréal; for example, weddings are not that big of a deal here, in that many couples choose not to get married, which is a consequence of the backlash against the church.  We also learned that French Canadians used to be seen as cheap labor and second-class citizens, and things used to operate in English in Québec, despite the francophone majority.  In my experience talking to English Canadians (not on this trip), they still make fun of French Canadians, but I guess it's in a less invidious manner now.  We talked a bit about racial diversity and de facto segregation in the U.S. and being Asian American, as well as normal stuff like how expensive and perhaps detrimentally career-driven New York is.

The attitude here seems to be way, way more laid back, and the focus is more on enjoying your life rather than earning money and achieving "success."  I found people had very similar attitudes in France when I was there, so maybe this is a cultural legacy.  It's certainly very different from the "Puritan work ethic," which I am not particularly a fan of.  Hard work is valuable and rewarding, sure, especially if you love what you do, but assuming financial survival is not an issue, it's overkill when there's a sense of guilt or a perceived inferiority that attaches to relaxation or even just cultivating yourself in ways other than working.  If all I did was work really hard all my life to achieve objective measures of success, and I had never travelled or lived abroad or learned another language, I would be far worse off as a human being.  I would be the most boring person I know.  And let's be real, unless your job is the thing you are most passionate about in life (lucky you), you'll only ever wish you had worked less and lived more.

To life.

And to penises, because I don't think I've ever been to a country where I did not see this word written on public property.  I guess some things are universal.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Bugs and Bagels

Woke up to Richard's Spanish omelette, which was very, very tasty.  I gotta learn how to make that.  As far as I can tell, it's eggs, potatoes, olive oil, and onions, though I'm sure you can put other stuff in it, too.

The only items on the agenda for Montréal today were the botanical gardens and getting a bagel.  Our first stop was the botanical gardens since they closed in the early evening.  (Admission $14 w/ a student ID, otherwise slightly more.)  The ticket includes admission to an insectarium with some truly terrifying creatures.

I think I would just give up and die if I saw this flying at me.
Candide for scale
This one was real (as in alive).
We moved on from the bugs to the gardens, but the order in which we visited the various areas initially led us to believe the place was kind of boring.  The reason for this was primarily that we saw things that are normal to us first.  We first passed the Chinese garden, which I imagine would be cool if you've never seen anything like it, but as Didi and I are both Chinese, we've seen tons of these things all over China, so we were pretty apathetic about it.

Look how apathetic Candide is.

Next, we saw the First Nations area, which is not something that is "normal" to me per se, but it also just seemed to be a forest with a small pavilion with some First Nations artifacts.  I grew up in Pennsylvania, so forests are nothing new to me, and I am not sufficiently interested in trees to notice or care about their differences, except to the extent that they differ in shade-providing ability.  For this type of environment, I'd much prefer yesterday's hike than wandering through an unnatural tree habitat.

I don't think they thought this through.  If you can't tell, there's text on those glass panels.

Between this and the Passion of the Christ fonts, I think someone needs to do a Canada-wide font seminar.
Afterward, we went to the Japanese garden, which featured bonsai trees and had some Japanese artifacts and calligraphy.

The cooler parts, at least to us, were the Alpine garden and the flower gardens, probably because these were plants we didn't typically already see in their natural environment.

I did not realize lilies grew like this.

There was also this sculpture:

While I can't imagine the artist was commissioned to create a sculpture about being a third wheel, I also cannot imagine what else could have produced this.

We stopped by the Olympic stadium on the way back, since it's right next to the garden.  Richard had previously affectionately described this as "the upside-down toilet bowl."

After that, our final stop in Montréal was Fairmount Bagels.  They have a rivalry against St-Viateur for the best bagel in the city/the world, much akin to the rivalry between Pat's and Geno's for Philly's best cheesesteak.  (It's Ishkabibble's on South Street, by the way.  But between those two, Geno's is better, though they are a little racist.  Also, "whiz with" is the only proper way to eat a cheesesteak.  If you're bothered by fake cheese, go sit in the corner, face the wall, and eat your organic kale salad with your homemade dressing, you freaking hippie.  PHILLY CHEESESTEAKS ARE NOT FOR YOU.  Perhaps I have digressed.  Hippies are all right, I guess.)

The sesame bagel is their signature bagel, and I got that with sour cream and salmon.  I am not really a bagel person, and I usually see the bagel as a chore I have to get through whose value is only in providing a necessary vessel for cream cheese and lox.  (Until I find a socially acceptable way to eat only cream cheese and lox, that is.)  This bagel, however, was perfect for me.  It was very sweet (which I'm coming to believe is true of all food in Québec), much less dense than a New York bagel, and just crispy enough on the outside.  I don't think they use the fresh bagels if you order it with cream cheese and lox, so you won't get the piping hot ones straight out of the oven if you do.  Nevertheless, it was very good, and I ended up ordering a second one (poppy seed is not as good here), so you may just want to triple-down on the "Bozo" bagel, which is three rolled into one massive bagel.

Driving to Fairmount reminded me that I hate GPS devices, and that this hatred, though extreme, is not irrational.  They are so, so, so terrible at city navigation.  We definitely took, at a minimum, seven unnecessary turns.  There was also some construction that thwarted our route on more than one occasion, but we definitely made a number of loops that made no sense.  I understand the practical convenience of a GPS, and it is great for long distances on the highway, but for intra-town or intra-city directions, I'm not convinced it's better than looking up directions beforehand, writing them on an index card, and keeping it on your dash.  That has never steered me wrong.  But I guess "technology" is the way of the future, so bah humbug.

Driving also revealed that pedestrians in Montréal are king.  Are you 83 years old and in the middle of the fucking street?  I guess I will yield to you then.  Are you crossing with your three dogs when you don't have the right of way?  I guess I can't kill your puppy.  Don't get me wrong; I am all for jaywalking, but I try to do so only when there is no car that has a superior claim to the right of way.

As we left Montréal and got to somewhere over Vermont, the radio stations all abruptly changed to French.  Prior to that, the station we had been listening to was all in English and came with weird tips before cutting to commercial breaks.  For example, when you read to children, you should point to the words as you read them, so they make associations between sounds and letters, and words and meanings.  When meeting an ex while in a new relationship, have coffee, but not a meal, because the latter is much more threatening.  When you first meet someone, maintain solid eye contact for at least 10 seconds.  I don't remember why, because that advice sounded weirdly creepy, so I started making fun of it, and now I've missed out on the life-altering sage wisdom of 92.9 FM.

When we arrived in Québec (City), we were waiting for word from our hosts (who were just came in from Maine), so we went to a McDonald's for the wifi.  I ordered a McChicken sandwich.  Obviously, I expected it to be a dollar.  It has been a dollar in all the 26 years I've ever ordered a McChicken.  Yet the McPoulet was almost $6.  And the only reason I even ordered it was because there was nothing different on the menu.  No McPoutine or McMapleSyrupSandwich.  I was highly disappointed.  Look alive, McDonald's, you're losing at your own game.

As a general note, I apologize for the lack of humor in these posts.  You'll notice the posting time is consistently in the wee hours, so I don't have enough energy to be funny.  I'm basically just trying not to pass out on my keyboard.