insects and Labatt Bleue
Saturday, July 5 2003
setting: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Our hotel had a sort of continental breakfast if one could get up before 10:00am. This morning Gretchen and I did, but just barely. The breakfast didn't appear to consist of anything more than bad coffee and sugar cookies. I had two servings of each.
We walked northeastward down Sherbrooke all the way to the Jardin Botanique de Montréal in Parc Maisonneuve. On the way, the disturbingly-unbalanced tower of Olympic Stadium loomed ever-higher on the horizon. Most of the housing we passed along the way was townhouses featuring slightly-distateful combinations of 70s-style brick veneer and some sort of stonework. Much Canadian urban architecture could be classified as either "slightly-distateful" or "excessively modern-institutional."
The only pants I'd brought to Montreal were some shorts with a hole in their crotch and a pair of flip-flops to which my feet were not yet accustomed. I did most of my walking today barefoot so as to keep the flip flop straps from carving into the flesh on the top surfaces of my feet.
We hit the Chinese Garden first, wandering through the surrounding "forest," around the artificial pond, and up to the summit of the 18 meter artificial "mountain." According to the brochure, this is the Chinese Garden outside of China. It's very much in keeping with my æsthetic. Natural things were made to look natural, and manmade buildings integrate well with the surrounding nature. There seemed to have been an effort to emphasize the miniature, and also to recreate the largness of the natural world at a smaller scale. Each of the banzai trees looked like an ideal excerpt from a model railroad set.
Next we went to the Japanese Garden, which (to us) was much less beautiful. A more European - or specifically British - sensibility pervaded the plantings and arrangements, and there had been no effort to disguise the hand of man. Much of the Japanese gardens consisted of mowed lawn - not all that different from the sort one finds around a trailer in Redneckistan. The fussy austerity reminded Gretchen of the difference between Chinese and Japanese food (Gretchen hates sushi).
There was a banzai display, but it was inside a room in a building and looked more like a museum exhibit than a garden. The most absurd element of all was a room dedicated to the "rock garden." Every time I hear someone talking up the austere contemplative beauty of a Japanese rock garden I just want to punch him in the nose. (Luckily, though, we were not on a guided tour.) The only part of the Japanese gardens that had any allure was the lazy stream-shaped pond, home to a variety of different-colored carp. Using her animal quoting voice, Gretchen declared, "We have it good here!" She's always happiest when she sees animals living pain-free lives.
We had lunch of food obtained from the café-style Pavillon Fuji, a retail arrangement seeming designed by (or more especially, for) shoplifters.
Our last activity in the park was a visit to the Insectarium. Sadly, most of the insects were desiccated corpses impaled on pins, though there were a few terrariums featuring crickets, spiders, scorpions, centipedes, and (most impressive of all) walking sticks. It wasn't a good experience for anyone with concerns for the rights of invertebrates; Gretchen was horrified by the cramped shoebox-sized spaces provided to the tarantulas.
We used the free park trolly to get back to Sherbrooke and then walked a good number of blocks southwestward until a municipal bus came along, and we rode it all the way to the Musée des Beaux-Arts. Tickets were free and we toured everything not hidden in a special exhibit. Actually, Gretchen managed to sneak into one of the special exhibits too, but when I followed her one of the security guards ordered us to stop in French.
There were flights of stairs leading back and forth between the two of the levels, but the risers on the stairs were only about three inches high, so one found oneself skipping every step just to avoid the hassle of all those steps. But since the treads on the stairs were so long, the resulting gate was ridiculous, uncomfortable, and somewhat dangerous. Here was yet another case of artistic form getting in the way of reasonable ergonomic function. A better design would have been a simple step-free ramp - then someone in a wheelchair could have used it too.
Back out on the street, we ducked into a used bookstore called Academic & General Book Shop. I went immediately to the computer section to see what was what and found the shelves groaning with useless tomes on such forgotten subjects as Microsoft Word 5.0 and VIC-20 BASIC. This bookstore clearly needed a computer expert on staff just to know what things to either throw or give away. Once we went to pay for the books we'd selected, we immediately realized what the problem was: the prices were far too high. A hardcover linear integrated circuit handbook from 1986 had a price of $65, and a softcover copy of Fast Food Nation was $15 (both prices Canadian). I managed to negotiate a still-somewhat-expensive $15 for the IC handbook (simple linear ICs have changed little since 1986), but the main reason we bought anything at all was a feeling of sympathy for the cluttered mom and pop operation.
This evening we toured Rue St. Laurent, another hip and happening Montreal street. By now I was desperate for an ice cold beer, so we sat down at a table in front of überfashionable place and, responding to a barrage of advertising I'd just experienced, I attempted to order a Labatt Bleue. I take it Labatt Bleue is some sort of plebian swill, because the waiter sniffed that he didn't have any. Even Gretchen made a noise suggesting that I was overdoing it on the whole slumming in Montreal thing. So I ordered the least-pretentious brew they had, a Becks.
Gretchen had been noticing all day that the random men of Montreal had been demonstrating an unusual interest in her breasts, which were showcased by one of her sexier blouses. She was wearing a bra, but she'd noticed that it was common in Montreal for women of many different body types to walk around wearing tight shirts and no bra at all. For my part, I was noticing that when I was sitting in front of this überfashionable place, passing girls had a much greater chance of turning to look me in the eye than any other place I'd been. This wasn't the first time I'd observed women being attracted to the trappings of money, even when exhibited by a slob like me.
A few doors down we found a funkier, skankier place featuring lots of bright red plastic lamps, motorized disco balls, and big plastic chairs made to look like hands. So we stopped there for a drink, hoping perhaps they'd have Labatt Bleue. They didn't, but they did have Molson Dry and a waitress whose beauty Gretchen couldn't stop talking about.
We had dinner at a Thai place that offered the promise of "no MSG." The food was excellent and I put away yet another Molson Dry.
Heading back down the other side of St. Laurent, we busted a left (eastward) on Prince Arthur, which is brick-paved pedestrian-only mall for a few blocks. It ends spectacularly at the tree-lined Square St. Louis. From a block or so away, it appears as if the mall is disappearing into a forest. When we got to the square, we discovered that it had been taken over by a massive big-budget film crew. So we found a spot on the grass just off-camera and sat down to read our new books while the director kept taking and retaking the scene. At one point Gretchen saw one of the child extras being reprimanded for staring into the camera. Nearby, somebody finished smoking a joint, rolled another, and kept at it. "He must be so baked," Gretchen observed. "No," I retorted, "It probably just makes him feel normal." Most of the stoners I've known do absolutely everything while stoned and their conscience is barely altered.
Much like yesterday, back in our dreary little hotel room we watched cable teevee and played Scrabble, a continuation of a game started yesterday (again Gretchen kicked my ass, but just barely). At one point I went to the bathroom and finally offloaded what remained of that MSG-laden Indian food we'd ingested two nights ago. It hadn't exactly improved since I last saw it. The unburdening process stank up not only the tiny bathroom, but our hotel room as well. It's a good thing that both Gretchen and I find the subject of feces so hilarious.
Montreal has a huge fireworks show every summer at around this time of year. We could hear the distant thunderclaps tonight just as we prepared to go to sleep. I found it interesting that they chose to have to have their fireworks festival on July 5th when they so easily could have "just happened to have it" on July 4th. I get the feeling that Canadians are celebrating their differences from the United States more these days.
A tile mural on the wall of the Garden Snack Bar.
A chipmunk in the Chinese gardens.
The leaning tower of Olympic Stadium rises over the Chinese Gardens.
A carp in the sluggish stream of the Japanese Gardens.
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