Monday 23 February 2009

Penguins, Ice Slides and Maple Snow Lollies

The 2009 Montréal en Lumière Festival and other weekend Highlights

Alex and I have just enjoyed our second weekend in Montréal, in which we have not only managed to complete the furnishing of our apartment but have also celebrated Alex's birthday in style thanks to the Montréal en Lumières festival. The event, also called the High Lights Festival takes place every year in the city and was started up ten years ago as a celebration of life in the city and to get people energised and out of their houses to raise spirits (and profits) in the midst of the bleak winter months! It lasts from mid February until the start of March and includes live music performances, fine dining experiences, activities for kids, firework displays and a whole lot more.

On Friday evening we went to something called the Soireé au claire de lune (Moonlight Soirée) at the Biodome and Olympic Center. The Biodome is a kind of indoor zoo, a set of self-contained ecosystems containing plants and wildlife from all over the globe. There is a tropical rainforest zone (which feels just as hot and sticky as the real thing). It is particularly atmospheric at night when you catch glimpses of bats flying past your head as well as crocodiles and flamingoes by the water's edge.

Next is a marine zone, with fairly convincing sea cliffs complete with nesting seagulls and underwater viewing areas to see crabs, starfish and even piranhas.
Then there's an arctic and antarctic zone where you can see antarctic penguins and arctic birds up close (They are kept separate, in case you are wondering).

Something that really brought the experience to life though was that the centre had employed various actors and improvisation artists to interact with visitors as you wander through.

I met a ship's captain, a lost fisherman, and weirdest of all, a set of human-penguin hybrids in a training session for a bobsleigh race!

After we'd finished going round the Biodome, we went up the tower of the Montréal Observatoire (second time for us), this time for some night-time views of the city. While viewing some spectacular vistas over downtown and Mont-Royal, we also saw a magician and tarot expert, then wandered down to another room where red lighting and logs created the effect of sitting round a campfire.

Two cowboy-types told a funny story about a shoemaker and his wife and the deals they made with the devil (a character which is very common in local stories thanks to the Catholic influence). As with the best raconteurs it was as much the way the story was told as the story itself that made it so funny and memorable, especially when they started translating for each other but got mixed up about who was doing what language! All in all it was a really unusual experience and a great way to celebrate Alex's birthday.

On Saturday we paid a visit to Atwater Market, a really high quality market selling fresh fruit and veg, French cheeses and top quality meat and sausages. After that we went to pick up a microwave we'd found via Craigslist for the bargain price of $40 (25 pounds). We carried it back home on the underground and the bus which was fun! In the afternoon we were driven around to a variety of people's houses to buy furniture, by a man with a van who charged only $25 an hour! By the end of the day we had a bed, 3 bookshelves, a kitchen table and chairs and a futon, for only a couple of hundred pounds in total.

We spent much of Sunday making the apartment nice, arranging furniture and cleaning, but by the evening felt relaxed enough to put our feet up and play Super Mario Galaxy and Guitar Hero on the Wii. We also cooked our first proper meal in the house (albeit using the stove in the empty flat upstairs as ours is still not connected!). We had Butternut Squash stuffed with mince & veg (and for a taste of home, flavoured with Henderson's Relish - Sheffield's finest sauce - which Giles had given us as a leaving present). Delicious. It's really starting to feel a lot more homely now!

But back to the festival. Unfortunately our moving efforts on Saturday meant we missed the Festival du Fromage that ran during the day - a real disappointment given Alex and I are such huge cheese fiends! But not disheartened we set out to enjoy the evening festivities in Vieux Montréal. There was a real festival atmosphere, and a great deal going on, from rides in a horse-drawn carriage to huddling under heat lamps and listening to the live music (which was really excellent, a sort of French version of the Levellers!).

They also had open fires where you could frazzle sausages on sticks or toast marshmallows - we thought this was a really novel idea and just the thing for a winter festival! There were also a couple of maple stalls. As you probably know, maple is very popular in Canada, and is made from the sap of the maple tree. There is a tradition that when the first syrup of the season is made, it is poured over snow and rolled around a stick to make "taffee" lollies - and at the festival they had trays of snow where you could try this out for yourself, which was definitely a new experience for me! There was also La Glissade, a slide running the whole length of the Place Jacques Cartier, made entirely from blocks of ice! It was a very impressive site to see, and the kids seemed to be loving it. We would have had a go but the queues were a little long.

There's still a week to run of Montréal en Lumière, it culminates next week in something called the Montréal All Nighter - where all the bars and restaurants open all night long and street parties continue until morning. Sounds like a lot of fun; you can be sure we'll be there. From what we've seen so far, Montréal is certainly living up to its reputation as a party city where there's always something going on. When this festival finishes it won't be long until the next one starts, as this website and many others show. I'm particularly looking forward to the Comedy Festival and the Jazz Festival.

The snow has continued on and off for the last few days, I've been very impressed how everything keeps running here - buses still run on time, people go about their business more or less as normal (admittedly with thick boots and lots of snow shovelling!) Here is a picture I took this morning out of our window - the streets were a hive of activity, with the bin men emptying bins and sticking markers in the ground next to cars they want the owners to move, mini snowploughs clearing pathways, people digging their cars out, and in the midst of all of this a school bus trying to get past!

You can find more pictures to accompany this post on Flickr (don't forget to let me know your Flickr ID so I can add you as a friend so you can see all of them) and also on Dr Alex's blog..

Until the next time!


Friday 20 February 2009

First Impressions of Canada & Québec

The beginning of our life in Montréal

J’habite à Montréal. I live in Montréal. It still hasn’t sunk in. It’s been a real surprise to me how easy it was to uproot and set up life in another country. There were a lot of things to do, but none of them were difficult or troublesome. In a future post I will write a list of all the steps we went through to get over here & set up. For now I’ll try to give an overview of the start of our life in Canada.

First of all, I must apologize for the recent radio silence, not only has setting up home in Canada kept us very busy, I haven’t had a laptop to work on (since IBM owned my laptop) or very much in the way of Internet access – only using my N95 and in Internet cafés. I haven’t been able to manage much more than a few Twitter updates. I do have my desktop Mac set up now and we are due to get Internet connectivity on Tuesday so I hope to resume normal service now.

Anyway, the good news is that we have found and moved into a nice apartment in Montréal, we have heating and hot water (although no gas yet due to an unpaid bill by the previous tenant – that’s being worked on). We have social insurance numbers, health insurance numbers, a Canadian bank account and Canadian mobile phones (cellphones). These last four things we were able to sort out all in the first day even though we didn’t have an address yet, which was very impressive.

Most of our time has been spent doing admin and furnishing our apartment – some of which is proving particularly difficult with a low budget and no access to a car! We did find time at the weekend to meet up with my IBM podcasting buddy Jean-Francois Arsenault (JF) who showed us around some of the sights of Montréal such as the 1976 Olympic Stadium and the views from Mont-Royal, the mountain giving the city its name. Montréal is a beautiful and lively city, on an island some 70 miles long and has a range of architectures from old colonial French style buildings in Old Montréal to the modern skyscrapers downtown.
One of the biggest adjustments has been the weather. Huge piles of snow and thick sheets of ice are commonplace here, and it rarely gets above zero C. However it has been very dry and sunny, with only one day of rain and one of snow so far. This means that it’s actually not as unpleasant to be outside as I feared, and the snow makes for some spectacular scenery.

We’ve been here just over ten days now. Mrs Alex (Dr Alex) has started her new job as a post-doc researcher for the Biotechnology Research Institute and meanwhile I am getting various household matters sorted and starting to make plans for my own career & personal development. Thanks to the very useful website (which also enabled us to find our apartment), I have made contact with someone who will give me French lessons in exchange for teaching her Web design. In general you don’t need to know French here, despite signage and broadcast media being predominantly French, almost everyone is bilingual. However this works both ways, if you want to work in any way with people, as I do, then you need to be able to speak both languages – which is why I want to dust off my rusty 1995 A-Level French and bring it up to a working level with some personal tuition. To be able to pay for it in time rather than money is fantastic, as money is understandably scarce at the moment. As far as my technical career, I'm also getting involved in Montréal's tech entrepreneur community, and plan to attend a get-together next week. I intend to establish myself as a freelance consultant; networking will be a key part of making that happen.
Well, I don’t want to make this first post too long. Alex has put together an excellent photo journal of the lead up to and our first days in Canada, and I have also uploaded lots of photos to Flickr (note that you need to log in and be marked as Friend on Flickr to see the people photos – although scenery photos can be viewed by anyone). So if you want to know more, have a browse through those. And over the coming days and weeks I will come back and post some more posts with details about the different aspects of life in Canada, I intend to cover:

  • The steps we went through to emigrate & get set up here
  • Living in a bilingual province
  • The people and the culture
  • The snow & ice
  • The cold temperatures
  • Adjusting to life post-IBM
  • Dealing with the Canadian establishment and Canadian companies
  • Differences I have observed between the UK & Canada
  • Shopping in Canada and brand equivalents

So enjoy the photos and come back soon. Feel free to leave a comment if there’s anything in particular you’d like to know more about, and as always I am contactable via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MSN and ooVoo. You can find my contact details on Facebook, or drop me a tweet or a comment below (including your email address) and I will let you know what you need to know.

Au revoir!