train to Montreal
Thursday, July 3 2003
setting: Hurley, Ulster County, New York, United States of America
Gretchen and I wanted to be somewhere outside of the United States of America during its birthday hoopla, so today we headed up to Montreal. We dropped Sally off in Saugerties with Aunt Katie and Uncle Lewis and continued driving up to Albany, then we parked the car and caught an Amtrak train for the remainder of the journey. We'd romanticized the idea of train travel to Canada. This was particularly easy for me, since I have fond memories of two trips to Montreal in an Amtrak sleeper car back in the early 1980s. (I'd tagged along with my Dad when he went to visit an old friend in Ottawa.) But the truth of the matter is that these days Amtrak is a poor choice of transportation across the Canadian border. What might have been a four or five hour trip by car took at least seven hours by train. A big chunk of the delay was the result of our passing through two different customs stations at the border: one American, the other Canadian. Back in older, freer days, America was unconcerned about who was heading for Canada, and all one faced at the border was Canadian customs. But since 9-11-01, we've become just a little more like the old East Germany, and blue-coated Homeland Security agents are interested in who is leaving. It might have been worth it had they stamped our passports, but they offered no such formalities.
Another bummer about this trip was the attitude of the Amtrak staff as they walked up and down the aisle. Gretchen would call out to one - just to ask a question about the route, and they'd blatantly ignore her until she ran after them. Perhaps this behavior is the inevitable result of never being able to get anywhere without being barraged with questions. But somehow flight attendants manage to go about their business without demonstrating such rudeness.
The most persistent irritation of the trip was the conversation taking place immediately across the aisle. It was being conducted at a volume that was impossible to tune out, so we couldn't help but hearing what was being said. The two parties to the conversation were a young German man and a blue-collar American burn-out quasi-hippy dude. It would have been one thing had their conversation been interesting, but each seemed to expend most of his words describing the relative sizes of units of measure familiar from his country in hypothesized relationship to units from the other's. Given the poor precision of their knowledge, coupled with the low level of their mathematical prowess, it seemed they were never going to be able to determine which of their respective countries had the lower gasoline prices.
The conversation briefly improved once they abandoned the comparison of weights and measures. After a brief exchange about the marvels of recent technology (particularly Web search engines), the young German man asked his new friend, "Is it true that they [the American government] has replaced the leaders of some countries with clones?" In strict conformity with stereotype, the blue-collar American burn-out quasi-hippy dude had never heard a conspiracy theory he wasn't willing to embrace, so he said, "I wouldn't be surprised at all." The young German man obviously knew something about cloning, that it solves the nature problem but not the nurture problem. He asked, "But how do they [the American government] get them to think the right way?" Here the blue-collar American burn-out quasi-hippy dude was forced to extemporize. He had no idea how the American government could get clones to think the right way, but now he was convinced they could, and he wanted to impress his new German friend with his knowledge of how. So he just made something up, using the few neurological terms he happened to know. "They can go in through the hypothalamus," he said, "and get around to the cerebellum to implant thoughts." It's always a hoot to overhear conversations like this.
We got into Montreal at about 8:30pm and proceeded to walk to our hotel, Hôtel la Residence du Voyageur. We had no Canadian money and tried getting cash out of several machines along the way. One of these was belonged to an HSBC (which has a branch in Kingston, NY), but we had no luck until our third attempt, at a Laurentian Bank. This was less bank machine success than we'd experienced in either Europe or Africa.
Out hotel was a modest place featuring a mix of wood paneling, dreary carpets, ancient brick walls, and a variety of small, ornamental bodies of water. Our room had the tiniest full bathroom possible, a feat achieved by excising the sink. July 4th happened to coincide with Montreal's international jazz festival, and this hotel had been the only place Gretchen had found in Montreal with an available room.
We hit the hip and trendy Rue St. Denis to find a dinner spot. For a Thursday night, the place was full-on rockin', thronged with stylish young adults out trying to have a good time. Perhaps this was the result of Jazzfest, but it might also have been the weather. There was an oppressive humidity to the air and it could have been summertime anywhere on the East Coast, but here we were at the northern edge of civilization (a mere 45.5 degrees north, the same as Milan, Italy).
We decided on an Indian restaurant with outdoor seating, a place called La Lune Indienne. We sat near beside a table having five or six other diners. They would have made for a good United Colors of Benetton commercial: two Asians (one of whom was female), an older white man, and a black guy. The Asian guy and the older white man must have been a gay couple, because I saw then quietly playing footsie. They were all speaking English, though the black guy had a distinctly Canadian accent. As we sat talking, Gretchen was relishing the fact that the people around us would have difficulty determining that we were American. If it weren't for Canada, every nose-talking English speaker would hail from the land that put George W. Bush in office.
The food at La Lune Indienne wasn't too good. The chick peas and mushrooms were undercooked, and the spices seemed kind of weak. But there was something unusual going on in the food and Gretchen later decided it must have been the presence of MSG.
The neighborhood containing our hotel and the hip shops and restaurants of St. Denis fall within Montreal's Latin Quarter. We walked from this into Montreal's Old Town, the core part whose history is a couple decades older than Hurley's. Parts of it looked a lot like streets we'd seen in Paris, though it was marred somewhat by the encroachment of traditional American tackiness, particularly in the form of neon signs. There were also a number of completely new buildings. Attempts had been made to make them fit in with their surroundings, but the glaring precision and cheapness of modern materials is something the Canadian eye seems unable to detect.
Eventually we caught a cab back to our hotel. There were a bunch of black cabbies hanging out on a corner and we just walked up to them and asked for a ride. Gretchen had been doing her best to speak French to everybody she met, but these cabbies were the first people willing to stick with French and not shift immediately to English.
Immediately south of the Canadian border on the way to Montreal.
Crossing the St. Lawrence River.
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