Play tourist in ottawa I

Well, as the Occupy Wall Street movement raged and endured batons + pepper sprays, global capitalism never missed a beat. Starting from? The English.

On my first day in the city I discovered first-hand that the English consulate in Montreal is nothing more than 2 closed glass doors on the top of an office building downtown. Supposedly, its sole function is to serve the English nationals who make investments in Montreal. Last example I can think of that notion, the Brits were dropping bombs in Normandy. If not for the Americans and a few Canadians as well, the Brits would’ve been driven into the English channel by the Germans for a second Dunkulk. And their heavy bomb investment would’ve made no better than the Lehman brother’s mortgage bets. But sorry I digress.  Now, rhetoric aside, the English do have a good reason. Back in 1970, in an a series of events dubbed “October crisis”, the independent activists of Quebecois kidnapped an English diplomat in Montreal  and demanded an exchange of political prisoners. (for more details on the only peace time War Measure Act in effect in Canada, here is your wiki link  Well, I can’t really blame the English for holding a grudge, it was only 40 years ago. Northern Ireland, anyone? OK, I should shut up, there may be a few English men in the audience.

Consequently, I need to go to the nearest post, Ottawa for an appointment.  As I explored my options on the internet, it appeared that, the Brits at the consulates do not see applicants in person anymore. All “personal” contacts have been outsourced through a commercial entity, the World Bridge. OK, fine, since that’s my only option, I happily handed over $150 online just to have “an appointment” with a World Bridge “officer”.

The day started when I woke up at an ungodly hour to catch the 2nd bus outbound for Ottawa. If you have never driven on a Canadian highway, it is just like the US highway, minus the cars. I counted about 2 cars per minute before I fell asleep from heavy boredom. It was not until 5 minutes outside Ottawa, I started to see a reasonable traffic flow, semi-resembling a lazy afternoon through Amherst MA.

Now don’t be fooled, traffic jams in cities can be as bad as DC rush hour. I walk by a thru-city parking lot called Rt15 everyday in Montreal. But once outside, there are probably more moose than cars.

Anyway, so I arrived 15 minutes early as instructed to see this “Officer”.  My expectation was high since I paid $150 for a 15 minute appointment, a rate even the 1% would envy.  I checked and rechecked everything before I left for the 2 hour bus ride. Now, I am standing in this pristine lobby of an office building downtown Ottawa, took a deep breath and checked in to get a security badge.  As most things in life, the higher the expectation, the more disappointed one ends up. The officer was obviously in a hurry so he powered through everything in 10 minutes. One picture, ten digital finger prints, staple together the support documents, stuff my passport and legal papers in an envelope, another 300$ for visa fees and expedite service. Then I was out of the door. For all three of my visa related questions, I received the same answer 3 times “as long as you followed the online instructions, you are fine.” Well, it was too late then to pretend I didn’t speak English. but oh well, I guess at least I am doing my part to stimulate the Euro economy. Oh wait, the damn Brits are not even in the bailout program.

As I carried the envelope stuffed with all my neatly stapled legal documents downstairs to the DHL service. Yup, even with a $600/hour rate, I don’t get to leave it with the company.  I couldn’t help but feeling cheated. Well, there are a lot of disadvantages not being born in the “right” country, eh? The Brits charge the same rate for most Asian/African citizens.

I believe there is more common ground than not between societies. You throw money at a problem and get some stamps in the end. Except that, in a capitalist country, you pay an entity and get a receipt; in less savory places, you hand it to a couple of shady individuals with or without names and you certainly don’t get a receipt.  In the end, shit may get done somehow.

Since now I have 6 hours to kill before my bus ride. I wondered into an afternoon of fun in Ottawa, a small and quaint government town.

(PS The British did mail back my visa stamp in 4 days, expedite indeed. So I considered that $450 well spent. On the other hand, the Swiss was much more pleasant despite their 14 hour work week. I was able to hand in my application without my passport, and speak to a lovely quadruple lingual officer who looked over the entire application on the spot. After I brought in the passport and $84 CAD, the visa was in my hands within a week. They are so efficient that they only gave me 2 weeks leeway at the end of my trip, while the Brits gave me 6 months. I guess you get what you pay for.)

French much? Non, Pour some English on me, s’il vous plait

Oct 30 2011

I have been reminded many times that Montreal is very French.  On the first night I drove in, the only English signs I saw off the highway were, well, Wal-Mart and Burger King, followed promptly by Pizza Hut. Hooray, global capitalism.

It was not until the next day when I ventured into the city proper did I get a full dose of the Frenchism. Everywhere I turned I saw letters with funny hats. My ears were full of accented pronunciation of French vowels. French always sounded funny to me, instead of the easy flow of its Spanish or Italian cousins, the French made its vowels as if they have a mortal need to fully stress their throat muscles. It sounds more like a cardio-larynx exercise to me than a way of communication. But I am prejudiced for no good reason, so forgive my digression.  As I entrée and sortie the metro, I quickly realized that I was swimming in the ocean of French. The announcements, the signs, the maps. There is some English here and there, but more like after-thoughts as if the painters realized they couldn’t fill all the room with French so they threw in some English last minute, such as “do not pull this trigger uselessly or without good reason”. I managed to get off at the right stop by furiously reading station names; no sooner than I sortied I was thrown into the streets with more French names. I was getting looks trying to pronounce “Avenue Maisonneuve” and “Rue Jacques”, but I was confident that I failed to top Herman Cain’s “Uzi-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” stunt (who can top that American jingoism), J there goes my chance to make the Colbert Report.

As I wondered semi-aimlessly down Sherbrooke st., around McGill; I came to a sudden halt when two well-dressed young ladies passed by, I wasn’t sure at first why I stopped, and please stop your perverted thoughts, you all know I am not a gawker, I only people watch occasionally. J Sorry I digress. Then it came to me, they were speaking ENGLISH! I have never thought I would ever get this excited to hear English, as if I was an expat lost in the middle of Borneo jungle for a month. As I sauntered further down the central city, more and more English conversations drifted by, mixed with French here and there. So it turns out that Montreal is divided linguistically into east and west. East side, actually the geographical north and north east, (go figure how Frenchies read their maps), will fall into the French territory; while the west side is predominantly English. But almost everyone speaks both fluently. For the next two weeks, I only ran into two persons who wouldn’t speak English to me. one claimed to be visiting from France so I forgave her. The other looked like he just got punched in the face by an Asian so I forgave him too. I heard it would get worse once you venture further into the rest of Quebec, but I would not be surprised.  After all, this province has been trying to pull a secession out of Canada for years, without any success; much like the past two centuries of French history, from Napoleon’s grand invasion of Russia to the recent Greek bailout.  defeated much? (the independence move did come pretty close in 2006 when the referendum was defeated 51%-49% by popular votes. But some Anglophones decried foul play by the independence party of the Francophones, and so on and so forth…dirty politics is everywhere)

I concluded my day without much success, as if the frenchiness was rubbing off on me. The English were capitalist wankers (will explain in the follow up episode “playing tourist in Ottawa”), the Swiss in Montreal work from 10-1, 4 days a week; and they throw in 2 more hours on Friday to complete a 14 hour work week (at least at the consulate), what a lovely schedule. And as to Quebec, it seemed that to get anything official done, it would take 2 days to 4 months depending on what it is and who you ask. Hooray, there goes my first day of orientation.

However, on my way back, when I was more familiar with the metro and had more spare time to observe other than looking for station names, I did come to an appreciation of several pieces of French engineering. For starters, my Montrealite roommate raved about how ingenious the metro system was designed. Well, at line junctions at least, I agree it is quite nifty. So when 2 metro lines cross in Montreal, unlike many other cities that place trains of the same line on the same level, the Montreal system puts the trains in-bound on the same platform, and out-bounds on the other. Because it makes a lot of sense; statistically, more people on an inbound train will continue on inbound, and vice versa.  It leads to reduced cross traffic congestion and faster transfers; I literally walked off the orange line and proceeded 30 feet on the platform to get on the green line.  Also the metro cars run on rubber tires, which I saw for the first time. Apparently many other cities from around the world followed that design. Since all the metro is underground, there are minimal weather elements that affect rubber tires’ performance, and these tires provide a noticeably smoother and quieter ride. There is still the metal rail of course, to guide the train; but the main drive-train leads to the rubber tires that run along the concrete rail outside the metal tracks.  Funny looking but pretty cool, it was pioneered in Paris by the French, naturally.

At the end of the day, French was sounding smoother and in my mind I stopped to mock it as much, although I still think it as peculiar.  I realized that there is at least one similarity between Montreal and me, Montreal is a French city that speaks some English, I am a China man that speaks some English. I hope as days progress, I will find more common ground between us and learn to appreciate and even grow fond of the city, much like I first moved to Baltimore. These days, I proudly declare that I miss the charm city often. And meanwhile, I need to find myself a French class.


La fin de French much

First Leg

Oct 28-29, 2011

so, the trip north was delayed and delayed again, while I labored to transform my house into a welcoming rental unit, more or less. it didn’t feel good to leave it behind, but it is what it is, right Jweezy?

driving through the thicket of friday traffic in NJ and NYC was quite an adventure, to say the least. my lovely GPS got me on and off 95 four times, a few times less sensible than others. btw, it costs 12$ to cross GW bridge these days, thanks Mayor Bloomberg. that’s half of a bottle of single malt at my liquor fire sale. You money grabbing capitalist whor…….free GW crossing, this should be the first clear message for occupy wall street…

Saturday was rather uneventful after bidding a few teary farewells in Amherst MA, only to have the unprecedented October snow storm of NE to wade through. A chilly and messy send-off, how appropriate and reflective. It was a perfect excuse not to drive, but most likely won’t work with INS bureaucrats. so I soldiered on. I was able to outran the storm after an hour, and enjoyed the remnants of fall foliage in the beautiful state of Vermont.

I would be lying if not admitting that going through the border check point was a tad nerve racking. Naturally, the entrance for the US side was blocked off with a cruiser, so I pulled a Uee in the middle of the highway to “enter” the US in order to hand in my departure paper. apparently saturday night is slow night for the federal Customs and Border Protection facility. when I walked into the building, all 8 of the gun toting uniformed agents quickly congregated around me like grammar school children huddled outside the primate display at the zoo. after realizing that wrestling a scrawny asian to the ground with their batons would be a bit excessive, they proceeded to ask me the reason for entering. well, in order to comply with the law, I am here to hand in my departure paper. they were genuinely surprised to hear that while passing my passport among them as if Indiana Jones found a new piece of ancient Egyptian epitaph.  Gee, I had no idea that getting thrown out of the states after living here for 15 years without ever leaving is considered highly irregular. I was ordered to fetch more paper work from my car over and over while the agents scrutinized my papers from college to grad school to NCI. finally most of them were convinced I was a real person with real papers that is really leaving the states. the monkey show was effectively dismissed. the remaining two agents punched away on their keyboards and inquired disdainfully why I never left the US as if I committed a mortal sin. ” because you fucking assholes made it so hard to get a visa to come back” I screamed in my head instinctively, while I put on a smile and said ” I thought you guys had a “love it or leave it” policy, so I chose to “love it” to the max.” (John, I thought you might like this part). well, no, that’s not really what i said. I offered the poor student excuse and 911 made travel difficult for students with tox background, etc. etc. Meanwhile, a confused white couple came in and of course the agents had to leave the strange asian standing in the corner to tend to more urgent matters of telling the canadian to show proof that she’s engaged to the american. finally, they meandered back to me after much wrangling with the canadian only to tell me that they were finished with me 10 minutes before. as a last token of kindness, at my repeated requests, one of them reluctantly made a copy of my departure paper with the date written so I could keep it as a record of my lawfulness. then they took my passport, told me to pull another Uee and handed the passport back to me out on the highway exit. as I watched the agent walk away, I almost put the car in reverse and drove back. on paper, I was gone. and technically, as long as they don’t send out the patrol cars to chase after me, I can go back, pick up spank on my way home to Maryland and all will return to normal. but I dutifully drove on another 100 yards to get myself greeted in French.


For the few times I have crossed between Canada and the states. I was always received more warmly by the Canadians. Maybe they are just better at pretending to be polite, but I digress.  I was still reeling a bit from my bitterness and my natural fear for authorities when I walked into the Canadian building. I was made more nervous when i saw one of the two agents processing me was a stunning tall blond. Now, we really don’t want to sound stupid in front of Miss Quebec here. I was dreading that my car was going to be turned inside out when the male agent took my key and walked out. yet he only wrote down the VIN number, took a glance at the neatly packed vehicle (thanks much Sue!), and asked what was in the boxes. “Books, papers and kitchen stuff…” I tried to mention the most harmless items I could think of, (btw, there is also the $9000 cash I hid inside my backpack but I bit my tongue). He thanked me and handed the key back without even taking a second look at the car. Meanwhile I realized Miss Quebec’s English was not nearly as good as her French, so I wrote down all the answers to her questions. She flashed a smile and almost apologetically told me they had to charge me 245$ to import my car before letting me through. So, that’s all? Here, take my wallet, and the $9000 cash I was reluctant to declare, maybe in return, just a little French lesson? while the other agent breezed through the paperwork, she started to teach me simple French phrases. oh geez, really, take your time,  I have 5 folders of papers the Americans just went through, don’t you want to see them and ask more questions? better, we could translate all of them to French, isn’t Saturday a slow night? Aren’t you at least a little bit curious what might be hiding in the trunk? After all, I am not leaving your country, I am COMING IN WITH A CARFUL OF STUFF, on a Halloween night. Maybe you want to be just a little more of an asshole because I am feeling quite uneasy here.

nope, it was over before i knew it and then they drop the bomb on me.  completely blind sided, I never saw it coming and there goes the first victim of my trip north. Les lovely Canadiens told me that I was supposed to file an export paper for my car with the Americans 72 hours prior to my departure. Interesting, no one ever told me that on the other side. consequently, the Americans could seize my car indefinitely if I ever drive back in Mr Zoom zoom here. huh, so the nightmare just never ends on the American side. For those of you who had ridden in it, hope you behold the fond memories.


So I went on with my now strictly Canadian Mazda to the lone dark road stretched in front of me.  I had contemplated many times how I would feel when I cross the border, whether I would breathe the freedom and let out a cry of relief or overcome with grief and crash into a giant Canadian maple tree. I always thought the latter would be more likely given my history of being a tree magnet (You oozers surely know what I am talking about).  In reality, I was so numbed and shaken that I couldn’t even communicate with my GPS, well, normally our communication consists of the calm female voice saying “recalculating” while I call her lovely names. So after being repeatedly ordered to turn at non-existent intersections, I showed her my calculation by wondering into the vast country side of southern Quebec. The overwhelming smell of cow dung and seasoned hay reminded me acutely of western Mass that I left behind just hours ago.  Surprisingly, not only they speak French here, all the road signs are in French as well. huh, who would’ve thought of that? I managed to utilize my remaining brain cells to guess “nord” as north, which really saved my butt; because going “sud” would definitely book me another date with those gun toting agents again. And they might be even less friendly to see me return so quickly. And I had the sense to realize that the numbers on speed signs were in Kms not miles, so I didn’t fly down some pitch black Quebec-country dirt road at 80 mph. (some of you had done it otherwise:). just when I thought I had circled every single farm twice in southern Quebec, I found a sign with many French words, but one of them was “Montreal” and that’s all i needed. An hour later, I was crossing the St. Lawrence river into the city of Montreal. btw, Montreal is an island, for those of you who care to know.


As the city lights shined on me and traffic thickened, I closed my eyes for a second and told myself, this is either the beginning of a very bad ending or an end to a shitty beginning. But nonetheless, here I come, canadia.


Le fin de first leg