On adventure upon the high seas, part 5

Sunday 30th September, Mar Cantábrico near A Coruna.
NE force 4, 1020 mbar.

The boat cuts through the quiet sea, as it has continuously for the last four nights. By 3am we’ve reached the Spanish coast at Cape Ortega, heading west on the last leg. To port lies the dark mass of Galician hills, black against a bright, moonlit sky, with lights picked along roads and great lighthouses semaphoring their unique messages out to those watching for them. Trawlermen rumble past along the coast, nets out in the waters. Ahead of us I can see the glow on the clouds from the lights of Ferrol – Franco’s birthplace – miles away, still hidden behind the headland. As our phone signal has reappeared on reaching inshore waters, I text Carmen, my friend from A Coruna who is celebrating her birthday back in London.
“I can see your house from here”, I say.

Light thickens as the clarity of night is discoloured by dawn, still hidden behind the mountains. We round the last cape at Covas, where the echoes of great gun emplacements lie quiet alongside the lighthouses. We pass within a few hundred yards of the rocks, close enough that I can see the white spray surging up the cliff.

The proximity alarm goes off as we pass the waypoint, our computerised chart plotting our route as we turn south towards A Coruna’s old town on the headland, and the harbour further into the bay. I wake up Michael, now that the journey involves decisions. And rocks.

Welcoming us is The Tower of Hercules, a Roman lighthouse built by the Romans around 1900 years ago to protect their Mediterranean fleets as they passed up the coast towards Brittany and the vital tin ports of southwest England. It is the oldest continually-operating lighthouse in the world. Renovated sympathetically in 1791, it still even retains – mocked up in the masonry cladding around the original tower – the impression of the sloped external ramp on which barrels of lamp oil were wheeled to the top. As we arrive at around 7am, the moon, my companion these last few nights, slips quietly towards the Atlantic for the last time.

Sailing up the marina there are plenty of ribs rushing around, all carrying youngsters, it seems. Perhaps there is some kind of sea school, or competition taking place. The Guardia Civil eye us a they pass by on a launch, and a couple of middle-age fishermen. Towering over the marina is the strange modernist Port Authority building, two stark white pillars that trap two glass-jewelled office platforms surveying the harbour from above. It looks very odd, but I warm to it.

Mooring up to the wooden jetties that criss-cross the marina, Michael and the others disembark for the harbourmaster’s office. Technically I have arrived in Spain, but can’t get off until the others have wandered around a bit and no one will notice a surprise fourth crewman. After a while they return, freshly clean and glowing from the showers. I take a key to the gates and wander past racing yachts, fifty-footers like Salamander, power boats, and a couple of pretty impressive motor cruisers – though not quite in the megayacht range.

In a blissfully scalding shower, I close my eyes and my vision swims and sways as my legs struggle to adjust to surroundings that for once are not moving underneath me.

On adventure upon the high seas, part 4

Saturday 29th September, Bay of Biscay.
NNE force 4, 1009 mbar.

The rocking and rolling of the boat, the incessant creaking of the cabin walls, and being occasionally flung across my bunk do not make for a restful night’s sleep. The watch rota is three hours on, six hours off, so when given the opportunity to sleep at night it’s foolish to turn it down – even if actual sleep is harder to come by.

Back on deck for 9am to relieve Martin. A third day of waking up to nothing but the ocean on all sides. The sun is up already, it’s bright and warm, and the northerly-blown swell still rolls us around on its back, but we’re losing speed. In an effort to pick up more wind without changing direction, we all get ready to do some actual sailing under Michael’s guidance. Turning into the wind, we reef the mainsail down to just a duvet-sized sheet, and unfurl the genoa to it’s maximum extent. With the wind from behind us we hope that without the mainsail literally taking the wind out of it we will be pulled along faster. We’re not. The huge acreage of sail empties and fills as the wind gusts one way or another, whipping to and fro with a loud crack. We put everything back as it was, ropes flying around capstans and through our hands. While it was all for nothing in the end, it feels good to be playing a part in rigging the ship and trimming the sails – reminding us that it’s not all autopilot in these days of GPS and electronic terrain-following charts.

The race is on to get Charlotte to the airport in A Coruna in time for her 3pm flight on Sunday. Midway through the Bay of Biscay with just under 24 hours to go we’re looking good for distance but poor on speed. There’s nothing for it but to use the engine.

The day creeps by, the sun sweeps across the bow, and the crew graze their way through the provisions. Without a great deal of sailing to do – no tacking, no making ropes or mending sails or swabbing decks – I feel an tinge of cabin fever, the four of us in a cockpit perhaps 10 feet square. I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s and eat cereal bars and sip whisky to pass the time.

I also make a discovery – I’ve forgotten my passport, which means I will be illegally immigrating into Spain – sounds like fun. It’s impossible for every port to rigorously check every boat, so all borders are porous to a degree. But Michael and Salamander are heading south for Lisbon, Morocco, the Canaries and then St Lucia, so it’s getting back home that presents a more pressing problem.

I cook a final curry – Indian and brown rather than Thai and green this time – and we settle in for the final night at sea. On watch at 3am, the night is once again clear and the moon is finally full and wears a halo behind each passing cloud. It’s certainly a humbling experience to be out at sea, in more than 4,000 metres of the North Atlantic, on a little boat tossed around by the wind and waves. There’s plenty of time and space to think, listen to the waves. Too much, even.

On adventure upon the high seas, part 3

Friday 28th September, Bay of Biscay.
SW force 3, 1050 mbar.

I sleep uneasily. The ship rattles, the wooden partitions of the cabin creaking with the pressure of the waves on the hull. Everything creaks and groans. The ship rolls and pitches strongly, and I am tossed from one side of the bunk to the other, and resort to trying to brace myself against each wall with my feet. But the motion is not because the weather is rough outside. In fact, sometime around 3am I awake to almost total stillness, only the gurgle of water under the keel. It feels like we’ve slowed almost to a stop. I can hear Michael and Martin talking on deck, and a barking sound as the engine is started, sending reverberations through the ship. The wind has dropped and changed direction, and we need the engines to keep our speed up in order to get to A Coruna in time for Charlotte’s flight back for work in London on Monday.

 

Around 6am I climb up to the cockpit to take watch. It’s dawn, and the sun still lurks behind the horizon, although its light has set low clouds on fire with pinks and oranges, announcing its arrival. After a few minutes on deck, I see the first of them – incredibly quick, incredibly close, just a metre or two from the boat, grey, glistening, smooth, and streamlined: dolphins. Three or four of them ride alongside our bow-wave in the near darkness, leaping clear of the water in pairs, in perfect unison. After a while they drop behind us, perhaps put off by the sound of the engine.

 

The sun rises behind the clouds, and the rest of the crew join us. Rigging the genoa and letting out the full sail, we pick up speed to reach an impressive 7.5 knots and kill the engine. Realising the game is back on and with no diesel engine to distract them, the dolphins return – the full pod of perhaps 20 or more. They dance about, dodging in and out under the boat, leaping up in pairs and threes, racing each other through the bow-wave. Just them and us in the empty ocean.

To see them is to smile. They’re enchanting, effortless. And very hard to photograph.

A lot of gulls appear around us too, assuming if there’s dolphins then there might be fish to spare. The bay turns out to be quite different from its reputation – and very different from my experience of the Channel. It’s calm outside, sunny, with sparse clouds. Time passes.

That evening, another Thai curry, another long night watch under a near-full moon on a glassy sea. The wind turns around to the north, blowing from behind us. My efforts to let out the genoa to pick up more of the changing wind do not go according to plan when I fail to notice that the hank of the rope was left on the winch; the ropes are tangled. I admit defeat and wake up the captain to sort out the sails. It turns out I did the right thing but badly, and with genoa and mainsail trimmed, we pick up speed on our way due south.

The tailwind causes the boat to pitch and roll as the waves overtake us, blown from behind. It makes the simplest of tasks difficult: do not attempt to piss standing up, while pouring tea successfully requires synchronising kettle and cup, as both are now moving. By the time I head below at 4am, the warm front has arrived and swamped us in cloud. The air is suddenly damp, chilled. The bright moonlight has gone and the glassy sea is darker, more menacing, the white caps of the waves now a snarl of teeth in the darkness.

On adventure upon the high seas, part 2

Thursday 27th September, Western English Channel.
SW force 4, 1020 mbar.

I emerge groggily from below decks to find the dark clouds have dispersed, the sun is shining and the wind has dropped. After last night’s experience I had secretly hoped we were nearly there, so I am pretty disappointed to discover that I can still see the English coast. My god, sailing is slow. Having had to tack a bit through the night because the wind was against us, we’ve not even reached as far as Plymouth in 18 hours of sailing. However, my stomach is relieved to find it is a calmer sea through which Salamander cuts a brisk pace, and when cups of tea and oatcakes go down and stay down, it seems I have found my sealegs and am declared fit for duty.

We pass by several tankers, big enough to still loom large even from half a mile away. Otherwise the horizon is empty. The sun’s reflections give the sea a strange, glassy appearance. It could almost be ice – like a glacier, but moving in fast-forward instead of at a eponymously glacial pace.

We trim the genoa, and soon clear eight knots. I doze off on the cockpit bench, the creaking of the sails, gurgle of water under the bow, gentle rocking and lack of sleep is too much not to. A bit like a London night bus, in that respect. By the afternoon the English coast has disappeared and we are sailing down the channel midway between England and France. The occasional yacht passes by, signature triangles of white sail in the distance.

 

As the light falls, I go below to make myself useful by cooking a meal, the first substantial thing that’s passed my lips since I got onboard. Green chillies, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, garlic, more chillies and green curry paste – the provisions aboard leave little room for manoeuvre for those that can’t take the heat. Thai green curry all round, and we dine washed down with two bottles of white under a rising moon. As darkness smothers the boat, the lights of Roscoff and Portsall appear in the distance. We have left England behind, and Brittany lies ahead of us.

 

On night watch at midnight under the light from a nearly full moon that sears through thin clouds, I follow the French mainland as we pass the headlands beyond Brest, tucked out of sight at the end of the estuary, while the many lighthouses and beacons of the Breton coast score through the night. From the control panel in the cabin, I can monitor our progress on the computerised navigation map as we pass the Isle d’Ouessant, and a proximity alarm sounds as we pass the programmed waypoint. I head upstairs and adjust the autopilot’s heading for our new course south. We have entered the Bay of Biscay.

On adventure upon the high seas

Wednesday 26th September, Poole Marina.
S force 5, 990 mbar.

The plan was to leave last night, but there were still too many unticked items on the list of things to do, the wind was against us and Michael, the captain, was happy to have a vegan shepherd’s pie and a final sleep on (or at least docked beside) British soil before we left. He had waited 12 years for this, after all, so another night would cost nothing.

And so we’re up at 7am for breakfast and final preparations – filling water tanks, stowing everything for getting underway. Every square foot of cabin floorboard seems to hide endless cavities, and each is packed with tools and spares – hardly surprising for a boat that is about to embark on a journey around the world.

Soon enough we let slip the lines and the 47ft yacht Salamander coasts out of the marina under power. First stop is at Poole town quay for diesel, and to the chandlers for navigation charts of our route: across the Channel, around the coast of Brittany, across the Bay of Biscay to A Coruna on Spain’s northwestern tip.

At midday, despite ominous clouds in the distance, the going is good. Cruising out into the channel we cross the chain-link ferry that runs the three hundred yards between the Isle of Purbeck and Sandbanks, and pass Brownsea Island and its tourist boats adorned with images of England’s last surviving red squirrels. As we approach the Jurassic Coast’s immediately recognisable Old Harry Rocks I take the helm and turn her into the wind, deadening the breeze enough that Michael and Martin can untie the bands holding the mainsail in place. Unbound, we haul out the sail to second reef, unfurl the genoa, and, tacking back into the wind, find ourselves under sail at six knots – enough to kill the engine.

 

Out in the Channel, the swell rises with the wind and the boat surges up and down. I have often travelled on the large, cross-channel ferries to France or Holland, and on smaller hydroplane ferries linking the islands of the Adriatic. But being chucked about at sea on a considerably smaller craft is, if you’ll excuse the pun, a very different boat. The sky darkens to a grim slate, a squall of rain comes and I can feel bile rising in my throat.

Between retching over the side, I can pause long enough to consider how peculiar seasickness is. The nausea, caused by the disorientation of differently moving horizon and boat, brings with it a woozy, druggy feeling that pulls upon the eyelids and urges you to unconsciousness. Even taking the helm for a while to force me to focus on my surroundings isn’t enough. My eyes are closing as I stand. Struggling down to my cabin, I barely make it to the loo (or ‘head’ in mariner’s terminology) in time – somewhere I will be spending much of the next 12 hours.

Later that afternoon I try eating a bit of ham, which reappears in seconds – surely a world record. With night falling, I head to my bunk. Slipping in and out of consciousness I am plagued by weird, hallucinogenic thoughts and dreams. Sometimes hot flushed, sometimes shivering cold, it’s like a psychological fever. Outside the wind and waves grow steadily more fierce – the logbook shows force 5, force 6, rough seas. I am thrown around and frequently woken by the ship’s pitching and rolling, the fleeting feeling of weightlessness as she teeters on the peak of a wave before plunging with a crash into the trough behind. Through the hatch from the main cabin I can see the others illuminated by the red glow of the gyrocompasses, against a backdrop that alternates between the grey night sky and a black wall of water as the ship pitches on the waves. Feeling terrible and conspicuously useless, I head back to my bunk, try and brace myself in such a way as I won’t be chucked about, and wait for morning.

Chicago – a guide to the windy city

I spent two weeks in Chicago in January 2012 while loafing around the States. For me Chicago is a city I’d always wanted to visit. The vast industrial and slaughterhouse underbelly of the American Midwest, the tales of politics and prohibition-era hoodlums, home of the skyscraper.

But for me, it was mostly a musical pilgrimage to the home of Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard, Lil’ Louis and Ron Hardy: the home of house music.

I landed some work writing travel guides for Guidepal, a startup travel guide company that has seen many millions of it’s free smartphone app-based guides to 70+ cities downloaded in barely two years. For two weeks, I Couchsurfed my way around the city. From Greektown, to the Mexican heartland of Pilsen, to the golden onion domes of the Ukrainian Village, I found inspiration, dug out hot tips and found the low down from people I met in the bars and cafes, my wonderful Couchsurfing hosts, Time Out Chicago, Lucky Magazine and many other places. Braving the snow and -15 C temperatures, I spent an enjoyable fortnight (American readers: that means ‘two weeks’) heading out into the huge Chicago metro area, from the Lakeside, to the hipster paradises of Wicker Park, to the home of America’s favourite architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the suburbs, and even a couple of nights deep in Englewood, in tragically neglected, derelict south Chicago. My Airbnb hostess, Annie, swore vehemently that the police were wrong to say it was the ‘worst place in Chicago’.

“Can’t be anything worse than the third worst place in town,” she cackled, flashing her toothy grin.

At 8.5 million people, Chicago is a huge city best seen from the top of the John Hancock Center at dusk, where the lights of the city grid stretch off to the horizon in every direction. By foot or by bike or by the elevated L-train metro system, it’s a great city to explore, with over a hundred varied, characterful neighbourhoods. Chicagoans have a bluff, Midwest down-to-earthyness about them, a welcome relief from Los Angeles and New York City, where practically everyone you meet seems to think they’re the next big thing.

I loved it, and would move there tomorrow. If only winter wasn’t coming around again so soon…

You can find my guide to Chicago over at Guidepal.

Abandoned Six Flags, New Orleans

Six Flags New Orleans, formerly Jazzland, is a theme park on the outskirts of New Orleans. Hit by Katrina in 2005 it was for a time submerged under several feet of water – the brown tide marks are still visible throughout the site. While the City and the park’s owners are tied up in legal wrangles over responsibility for the mess, Six Flags lies abandoned, its rollercoaster carcass steadily stripped for scrap and sinking slowly back into the bayou.

 
[nggallery id=2]

New York

 

Night becomes day while I slip in and out of a truly uncomfortable sleep despite Greyhound’s claims of extra legroom and comfort, for which they congratulate themselves heartily whenever possible. Outside is a bland cityscape – a hinterland-scape – of turnpikes, roadside diners and McDonalds, nondescript housing and brown inbetween-land somewhere in New Jersey. But my heart skips a beat when I turn to see, stretched across a window of bright skyline carved out against the barely lit foreground, the crests of Manhattan’s spike-topped tower blocks and domes.

A sharp turn flings the bus into the Lincoln Tunnel, an entrance that shares the great square brownstones and muscular turn-of-the-century style as the city’s tenements, while inside its honeycomb white-tiled surface feels barely high enough to hold a modern supersized bus. The yellow sodium lights flicker flicker hypnotizing orange as we advance through the tunnel, and I awake with a start only minutes later at the base of a giant tower block at the Port Authority Bus station in the heart of Manhattan island and the middle of the madness of the city.

“Welcome to New York City”, says our driver Jarrold, a south Asian Montrealaise. “Sorry for the delays. Because of those officers at the border, we’ve been together almost 11 hours,” he chirps irrepressibly. “If they do that again, we will fire the lot of them.”

“Goodbye, have fun, enjoy Detroit”, says one of the group from Montreal who has come down for New Year’s Eve, as I have. She laughs at her own words, thinking on my travel plans to the motor city. “You know when you just can’t believe what came out of your mouth?”

One bag, two bags, three bags, coat. I struggle out of the surreal underground car park that is the bus terminal, built over several floors with road exits emerging at several different heights above ground level. I have no idea how that plugs into the rest of the city. New York City planners have clearly been hitting the meth pretty hard. I see a sign that says 8th Street and head towards it, only to be faced with turnstiles. An automatic gate opens from the other side and I walk through it. “Excuse me sir,” comes a firm voice, and I turn to see a sturdy female member of NYPD’s finest beckoning me. “You have to pay to come in here.” “Where’s here?” I ask, wide-eyed. Her eyes smile even if she doesn’t as she redirects me out of the subway and up to street level, another first timer inhaled into the city and sneezed out onto the streets.

The first thing I see at street level is the New York Post building, a modern skyscraper wrapped in fine steel gauze thrusting up with journalistic integrity from among lesser buildings. Modern towers and stone and brick buildings from two centuries ago jostle for space along the streets, where the height of adjacent buildings careens wildly up and down depending on, apparently, nothing.

I am heading to 6th and 31st Street. I am at 8th and 46th. I stride off. Wearing one bag and carrying two others I am a wide vehicle from whose bow-wave pedestrians have to move. In combat jacket and bags as far removed from Louis Vuitton as can be imagined, I feel like a human White Van – battered and in the way, but would you argue with it when moving aside is easier? I eye up street stands selling pastries and coffee, but the weight on my back demands to be dealt with first.

Cars are everywhere, but go nowhere. Having a horn is a sufficient reason to use it. At 8 degrees it is a full 15 or even 20 degrees warmer than the snowy Montreal I left behind almost 12 hours ago. Snatched conversation slips past my hood, American, Spanish, city speak. “An’ did your driver give you directions? Nawh, he did nawht”, someone behind me says rhetorically, loudly. A middle-aged businessman in a suit strides past in earmuffs. Three streets later I see a young, pale, wiry latino with gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes rocking a very different look but wearing the same utilitarian black ear muffs. For two so completely different styles, either one of them must be doing it wrong or earmuffs have a broader appeal in this city than I’d imagined.

40th, 38th. The streets tick down. But which way is 6th from 8th? I stop and ask. “6th Street? Well this is 36th Street. Do you mean 6th Avenue?” My first lesson: Streets run east/west, Avenues run north/south. Off I lurch, a greenhorn again, with a pocket full of Canadian funny money and too many bags.

I cross streets at traffic lights, walking in front of hordes of yellow cabs that are corralled behind the zebra stripes like a Red Sea held temporarily in check. I fight the urge to turn to complete strangers and say: “Hi there! I’m Mick Dundee, noice to meetchya.”

Where 6th Street should be instead I find Broadway, which feels strange to see that actual signage of such a remote and yet familiar name. But it doesn’t look like Theatreland at this end. I turn into a crowd of people and find myself next to a bold brass plaque and imposing doors bearing the name Macey’s, the department store. Shoppers are looking at fantastical mechanical window displays, steam-punk creations of ice blue and white and glitter, with pale, huge-eyed marionettes playing instruments, riding rockets, dancing on strange clockwork devices. On the other side of the street, Giselle’s already preternaturally long and slender legs are elongated to biblical proportions across the length of a 50ft advertising hoarding around the Victoria’s Secret store. All bee-stung lips and smokey eyes, propped on her shoulders her legs stretch up like a ladder to Babylon; or perhaps Babel, effortlessly compressing the distance between different spoken languages into an unspoken one.

I can see the apartment building now, as a siren screams the passing of a NY fire department tender. Only a few minutes wrestling with the door locks stands between me and whatever I feel like doing after 11 hours on a bus. But the view pretty much just brings me to a halt.

Nothing says New York like the Empire State Building, and it stands close enough from this apartment’s floor-to-ceiling windows for me to see the texture of the marble fascia and the art-deco fan motifs on the window casements, close enough to see the flash guns going off from the black specks looking down from the observation deck, far above me. Just beyond that is the instantly recognisable sunburst arches of the Chrysler building peeking above its nieghbours, and to my right a tower capped with a golden spire as if it were a cathedral, but the effect makes it look like something from Ghostbusters and I suddenly think of angry Sumerian gods and marshmallows. Beyond that, resembling two giant oil well pump heads on some super-sized oil field, are the supports for one end of the Brooklyn Bridge. And in the distance, an impossibly long way away visible only because I am 35 floors up already, is more and more and more New York disappearing into smoke and haze.

Everyone in New York was once in New York for the first time. And now me.

Goodbye Montreal

 

Three months has gone by quickly, quick enough to remind me how quickly time passes even when you’re not having fun, and actually doing really mundane things.

Just walking around this city makes me realise how much I like it, even while realising how little I’ve scratched the surface of Montreal, or the huge expanse of Quebec – Canada’s largest state – outside the city limits. The broad streets lined with bare-branched winter trees, improbably wide North American cars, and the brick triplexes that are unique to this city (a housebuilding split into three flats with a presumably lethal-when-iced stairway to each); the alleyways between streets one can look down that keep going for miles through block after block; the cafes and bars whose names I don’t know and never visited, and all those I did; the 1960s metro, filled with modern art and stained glass, with trains running inexplicably on rubber tyres instead of rails; the easy beauty of your womenfolk, and they way they can veer from restrained European chic to dancing drunkenly on tables and bars in the blink of an eye, the tip of a cocktail.

Histoire de la Musqiue à Montréal, by Frédèric Back, 1967
Downtown Montréal as seen from the mountain.

I’ve loved the view from your mountain, la montagne, paths of crunchy russet leaves opening onto views of the steel towers of Montreal’s once important but now eclipsed business district, and behind it Buckminster Fuller’s dome for Expo ’67, the Habitat 67 housing blocks beyond the port, like a jumble of Lego blocks fallen mismatched, overlapping each other, and beyond that the vast expanse of the St Lawrence valley.

Habitat 67, designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie for the Montréal's Expo '67.

I was startled by the Olympic Stadium from 1976 – a year before I was born, it’s scandalous sweeping concrete curves and towers still conjuring the optimism of a future that was imagined decades before, still hoped for despite wars in Vietnam, the oil crisis, hyperinflation, economic and environmental decay.

Le stade olympique never got its opening roof to work properly, and took the city 30 years to pay back the $1.47bn it cost lending "the Big O" the new nickname "The Big Owe".

I loved your powdery snow, snow so fine it clung to everything yet still failed to infiltrate my shoddy footwear, and I loved your crisp, wintry days – such a change from overcast Britain – where a cold winter’s day could still bring sun and blue skies and send the ladies who lunch from Outrement scuttling out to bask around coffee at café tables. I loved speaking your names in your language, like “Mo’rey’el” and “Aray-anne”, and just speaking your language in general, or hearing it percolated through a slew of different dialects and regions; Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire.

He wasn't busking. He just comes to impersonate Hendrix for fun.

I met local lunatics dressed as Jimmy Hendrix, dancing jerkily like they were plugged into the mains; Frenchmen by the score looking for work; Anglophone students from Alberta exhausted from defending themselves just because they hailed from the oil-rich west; and endless folk espousing the excellence of the Montréal bagel over the New York bagel, or viande fumée over pastrami.

But in the final analysis you wouldn’t give me a job, you bastards, and if I can’t work I can’t stay. I feel I can blame the government in part – Canada is the world’s second largest country, but has a population of 30 million. There are more people in London than in Quebec and all the Maritime provinces put together, so it seems to me there’s room to spare. Schoolboy French, a glass ceiling and a culture of jobs-through-contacts didn’t help either.

(The “working holiday” visa that would have made this process much easier is only available up until age 30 – unless you’re French or, curiously, Irish. Perhaps it’s because they’re Catholic.)

Montréal bagels: more bready, less cakey and dense as those from NYC

And so I shall see in 2012 in New York City, returning only to Toronto for a couple of weeks before heading west to Detroit and Chicago. I won’t “see the real winter” as Montrealais keep reminding me, although I’m sure that continental Illinois and Michigan are not going to be exactly tropical by comparison.

Now that's some snow.

My French has improved, for sure, but not enough, and not well enough to cope with the local dialect spoken at speed and against the backdrop of pub noise. I bought some dresses for my niece and chatted to the shopkeeper for some minutes before the question of where I was from came up, and she explained she’d only been in Montreal for about as long as I – she was Parisienne. This made perfect sense as I could actually understand her, instead of just looking increasingly baffled until the inevitable switch to English, as with the locals.

I never found my groove, my niche, my social security number nor job to get up for in the morning. Which made for a funny sort of visit, neither touristy nor living and working. The most I had to show was a morning spent doing psychological clinical trials for $100 and three days of painting and decorating.

So I leave not a penny, nary a sous, richer. But richer for the experience.

Things what I have seen in Montreal, #3

Cuisine edition: Quebec of course, being French-ish, has a long and glorious history of fine cuisine, masterfully prepared dishes of exquisite beauty and a general cultural appreciation of fine food that surpasses other, lesser nations. Here, then, are some of said cultural gastronomic treasures.

The first, go-to constituent of traditional cuisine quebecoise is equal to anything the French can muster:

Poutine!

Poutine, as you can perhaps tell, is in fact chips and gravy. You know, like you get in fish and chip shops in the Midlands. The difference is that this is served with cheese curds. I’m not wholly sure what cheese curds are, though I have in mind to ask one of my friends who no doubt makes her own cheese in her spare time. But they taste pretty good, and the alternating feeling of jostling a hot chip around your mouth and occasionally biting onto a cold curd is quite interesting. It’s still chips, cheese and gravy though, whichever way you look at it, but like a Royal with Cheese, poutine is sufficiently popular for the big boys to want to cash in on the action:

Chez BK, indeed.

Another speciality local to Montreal is viande fumée. In the same smoked, boiled, kosher, Jewish-style beef tradition as from the mighty Brick Lane Bagel Bake, this is essentially the New York-style, thin-sliced pastrami. Even describing it as such is enough to have the viande fumée SWAT team kicking my door in, so I must clarify that it is not the same as New York pastrami, but is of the same tradition, and so a bit different from the vast slabs of thick cut smoked beef served up 24-hours a day in Spitalfields. It’s pretty good; hot, meaty, not greasy (because it’s boiled) but deliciously unctuous, and while technically served as a “sandwich” it arrives as a huge plate of meat with a light dressing of bread. Loads of mustard and a cornichon are essential extras.

Montreal's viande fumée

This is from Lester’s, a quite up-scale place at the end of my road (everything is quite upscale in Outrement, even the cornershops. It’s full of children’s clothing shops and hasidic Jews too, talk about leaving home to arrive at the same place, but that’s for another post). However, the place to get your smoked meat sandwich is Schwarz’s on St Laurent, which is always packed, often has a queue of 30 or more people lining up down the street, and is so famous it even has a biography:

You bought the meat, now read the book

At lunchtime after college, I like nothing more than to pop into one of the local restaurants where standing is the norm to pick up that great North American staple, the hamburger:

Bun's - bringing you quality cheap eats

Served with a six-inch-long gherkin, which they call a cornichon – despite not being the delicious, crisp, crunchy, French-style cornichons available in England, that I spend hours searching for fruitlessly in Turkish supermarkets. This restaurant is called Buns, the burgers are $5, delicious, and – read it and weep people – the cheese is free. There’s a girl who works in the Rue St Laurent branch (“Halifax girl”, because she told me she’s from Halifax) who I talk to at the end of every Friday night and who looks more and more miserable each time. I assume this is because summer is over and this means she’ll be going back to Halifax, rather than it being the cumulative effects of talking to me.

From the supermarket:

The horror.

Everything you heard is true.

 

Italophiles among you, get your head around this:

I'm sure this wouldn't be allowed in Italy. Am suppressing the urge to say 'zoinks'.

Not a pasta style I am familiar with.

 

And I saw this on St Catherine’s Street, the main drag through down, where office workers need to be fed and fed quickly. Sometimes you just need to eat quicker than the style of food you feel like eating will allow. For these occasions, there is KONOPIZZA:

Konopizza - for when you really need to hold a small, conical pizza
in one hand while doing something else

Cone? Pizza? Konopizza! Simples.

 

Finally, cliché though it is, I have to mention the tea situation. I walked around the old port a few weeks back on a sunny Friday and stopped off after hours of photographing churches and looking at ruins and bones and stuff for a cup of tea and a sit down. Everyone seemed to be ordering coffees with long and complicated sounding names, but my heart soared when I saw “pot of Earl Grey” on offer. It arrived looking like this:

Not what I had in mind.

A bowl. I am expected to drink out of a fucking bowl, and a tiny one at that. Canadians, bless them, have mistaken tea for some kind of romantic or pre-harakiri ritual to be solemnly observed, rather than the life-affirming, loin-strengthening, massive-mug-draining, utterly commonplace and without faff quotidian thing Brits know it to be. Needless to say, it didn’t come with milk either.

The situation in the supermarket is no better:

Not impressed.

See how much tea there is? Wrong. NONE OF IT IS TEA. It is all blueberry extract with ylang ylang and bullshit like that. Shelf after shelf of the crap. The only things I could find that remotely looked like tea were the bizarrely named Orange Pekoe Tea (Tetley and Salada), or the equally bizarre Twinings Irish Tea:

I feel Twinings have reneged on their Englishness for commercial reasons.

So here I am, in the Francophone side of town in a deeply Francophone state, and lo and behold, manufacturers have twigged that perhaps marketing your product as English Breakfast Tea might not be a moneyspinner. But everyone likes the Irish, right? Job done. A mere $4.50 for 20 bags, the swines.

Of course, with one of the highest numbers of restaurants per capita of any city in the world, Montreal also has a boatload of world class, internationally-renowned eateries. None of which I shall be visiting.

The storm before the calm

 

There is a moment of doubt before taking your first pill, your first line of something, your first tightly wound rizla bomb or acid tab. There is, at least the first time, a fractional moment when the possibilities of what may or will happen swim up to the forefront of your mind, suddenly thick with doubt as you lift the narcotic to your lips, the pipe to your mouth, the note to your nostril, whatever. Do you jump? Will it ever be the same?

That moment passes, but is replaced by another soon after. The woozy feeling of the drug’s fingers reaching up through each artery, from the pit of your stomach, driving a flutter to the heart, before reaching your mind: vision swoons and sparks, colours phosphoresce, perceived distance expands and contracts. Before mind and body are taken hostage completely, before you submit to the experience willingly or not, there is a moment again of doubt – tinged this time with panic, or fear. Because now it is in you, and no matter what your poison, you must run the course.

There are other times, other occasions that recall these moments. Moving to a foreign country with nothing but the clothes on your back and a sense of – potentially misplaced – optimism is one of them.

The prospect is exciting from sufficient distance, but looms larger and more real as the date approaches. Practicalities to be ticked-off preclude too much thought. The elation of arriving somewhere new or unusual carries you so far, but after the tourist sights have been seen, after days wandering town drinking small beers and coffees, taking photos of buildings, looking in windows at things you won’t buy, looking at people you won’t – or can’t – talk to, coming back each night to a hotel room, there is an emptiness that quickly grows to fill your days in lieu of anything else.

As adults, we don’t often have the experience of being alone, without friends or contacts. The first day of a new school, first day in a new town – these are experienced usually long ago as children, and at the time come with the support of family and friends from other places. So it was with some surprise that I realised the last time I was in this position, I was nine years old. Of course there’s Skype and email and Facebook, but it’s not the same. It’s at times like these that you realise what social animals we are.

Without purpose, without a social network to hand, with a language barrier and with the days growing shorter, it’s easy to focus only on what isn’t working. And it would be easy to succumb to that, to jack it in and take a route back to easier, familiar ground. But that would serve no purpose. I don’t want the feeling of safety; I’m looking to ride out the need for it, landing the other side. There either will be buried reserves of strength, stamina and optimism that can be tapped, new skills and discoveries that will alter the way I approach the world in the future, or there won’t.

I’ve taken the jump, swallowed the pill. I’m over the wave of panic, and I’m looking up. And I absolutely, categorically, hope everything will never be the same again.

Things what I have seen in Montreal, #2

This beast was just left on the pavement outside my hotel, along with piles of other detritus that had been tossed out of a flat that was being gutted. A lot more interesting than old saucepans and mattresses though.

 

It still seemed in pretty good nick too, complete with ancient 1970s (?) circuit boards inside that looked like some kind of 6th form electronics project to modern eyes. But looking closely revealed this:

 

 

So there you have it. I am going to rename this blog, Leslie on Reverb. Actually Bass Swing Bass Walk also has a certain ring to it.

Montreal – a painted city

A minotaur, holding up the Rosemount overpass, Atlas-style

Spending days in a city with no one but the city herself for company goes something like this: wake up, breakfast, pick place on map, and start walking. Fortunately Montreal is a very walkable city.

First thing that struck me was how I’d ended up, again, in Hackney. When I went to see a friend in Barcelona for New Year’s several years ago we stayed in Raval, a down-at-heel barrio filled with Turks and recent immigrants and frequented by the usual low-rent arty types that find themselves in such places. Kebab shops, gyros, bars and haircuts – like Hackney. Then in Madrid, we stayed in Lavapiés, and found it much the same. Now my international tour of Hackney has crossed the Atlantic.

My hotel is on the edge of the Quartier de Specatacles, the museum, art gallery and theatre pedestrianised district east of downtown. Immediately around me is the Latin Quarter, whose latino qualities are either very deeply buried or non-existent, as it is mostly made of restaurants, cafes and bars and shops more reminiscent of Camden. It even has a community of crusty punks that sit around surreptitiously drinking and panhandling by the roadside. To the north, up slight hill is the Plateau, west is the gay village.

weird things on sale in the Latin Quarter

A stroll around on my first day led down Rue St Catherine, an artery that runs through the city for miles. New building sites, cheap eateries, the occasional strip club, grungy bars, art supply shops, galleries, coffee shops and graffiti everywhere left me in no doubt that this meant chalking up another international Hackney stop-off.

At the end of my road is a small square, Place Emilie Gamelin. It has a sloped grassy bank running down to a concrete plaza on which is marked out three checkered boards for playing giant chess. There is a water feature that wells up into three tree-like metal twists atop the hill, and then flows down a channel to a covered gutter at the bottom. Standing at the outflow at the bottom I thought how pleasant it was; the sun shining, the thoughtful men standing around the four-foot high rooks and pawns, chin-in-hand, the music playing from speakers mounted on high poles. I looked at my feet and saw a syringe tumble out of the water channel and bobble around the gutter. Druggies? Urban regeneration? Works of public contemporary art? All very familiar.

Unlike Hackney, however, Montreal is covered in graffiti of a very high standard. No so much grafitti as murals, in fact. Each of the two or three parts of town I’ve been to have a different flavour, some more serene, others more urban, but the quality – and the fact that none have been overwritten by tags – is the same (click on the image to see full-size).

There's quite a lot of this.
Like some kind of zombie Ray Charles
Arabesque grafitti on St Catherine
Back wall of a jazz club

Some are recognisably urban. Some are pretty bizarre. Some are just pretty. Some make no sense whatsoever.

I'm not sure what's going on here. Seeing as it's a Portuguese chicken shop, perhaps they're trying to tie Megallan's voyages with.. the discovery of the chicken? I'm not sure.
My friend Isabel warned me to "look out for Racoons",
I wonder if she meant this wacked out bunch
Winter scene in the Latin Quarter
Summer scene in the Latin Quarter
Grafitti with a Swan Lake vibe, in the Plateau
A loading bay painted with surreal, twisting scenes.

There’s also some Parisianesque details – these streetlamps have a certain Belle Epoque feel to them:

Parisian-esque street furniture? Or just wishful thinking.

I also like the mix of new and old. I’ve only walked through it quickly, but the Old Port dates from the 1700s and has a lot of massive limestone edifices with Greek-temple style architectural features, plinths, columns, and so on:

 

Everything later than about the 1950s looks very modern, practical and largely uninspired. I don’t really have a picture that captures it precisely, but there’s something about the houses built in the 19th century that makes them pretty much all look like something out of the Munsters or the Adams Family – all neo-gothic bricks and tiles, pointy roofs and oh honey, let’s have another turret:

We want classical. No, Gothic. Wait, fuckit, put it all in.
Like a brightly painted Scarborough, or something
Would have been interesting to see how that one
got past the planning committee.

I’ll keep looking to bring you the ultimate in Adams Family real estate…

 

 

On leaving town

The view from my window - my international tour of Hackney continues...

Waking up in the morning and realising that today is the day that you pack your life into a handful of bags and move to a foreign country is a fairly odd experience.

Months of talking about it, referring to it, explaining it to others using the same stock phrases and expressions, the same practised nuanced shrugs, gives way suddenly to actually doing it; actually packing, actually printing boarding cards, actually hurrying to the airport and actually panicking a little as what you’ve done seeps in.

Having to run from Liverpool Street station to London Bridge carrying three heavy bags while wearing para boots and a parka on a warm day because of traffic didn’t help.

Things looked up when I found myself sitting next to an attractive young francophone lady on the plane, but after starting a conversation with her she then said something in French to the stewardess and was promptly moved to a spare seat over the way. I tried not to take it to heart, and instead chatted to Jules, a 20-something photographer, snowboarder and chef from Montreal who had been visiting his girlfriend in Brighton. Would he be staying in Montreal for a while? “Hell no, it’s freezing. I’m heading to Vancouver in October,” he said. I tried not to take it to heart.

The flight passed without incident, apart from a beautiful view of Greenland through gaps in the clouds which the captain was kind enough to point out to all of us engrossed in watching Thor, the film showing at the time. I can safely say that I believe I enjoyed Thor much more because I couldn’t hear the dialogue. Greenland was a vast sea of white, with mountainous peaks jutting up through the ice sheet. What you expected to see, in other words, but impressive nonetheless. You could see the snowboarder in Jules thinking, “Whoah, great fresh powder, man”, or whatever it is boarders say.

Banking in low over the city, Montreal spreads a long way out. I haven’t been to North America since 1998, when I flew to and from Los Angeles en route to Mexico. There are similarities – you get the same grid of streets that are everywhere in the new world, and always look alien to my European eyes. You get the street blocks of flats, familiar to us only from countless scenes in crime films or The Wire, and reminiscent of our tower blocks until you see them up close. There’s the remnants of the Olympic stadium from the 1960s, which looks so deliberately space-agey and ’60s that it looks like a prop from Barbarella.

The immigration officer at Montreal airport (IATA code: YUL. Obviously they’d run out of relevant letters) gives me one of the grim stoney-faced looks as all border guards around the world are trained to do. He asks a lot of questions about where I’m going, who I am, what I do and why I don’t have a return ticket. He writes down things on a pad of paper. He taps on a computer and looks at a screen I can’t see. Is he checking I work for The Big Issue? Is he looking for previous articles I have written? Or is he just playing solitaire? Eventually my tale of visiting relatives across the continent in Michigan and British Columbia and a print out of my bank balance is enough to convince him to let me in. A few cubicles down, an elderly Indian gent is getting obstreperous about being made to wait, shouting “I’m a senior citizen, don’t harass me”, while harassing the immigration officers.

There’s a shuttle bus to the centre of town for a mere $8, which gets you a day-pass around town like a London travelcard. From the outskirts of town to the west, the bus cruises past insane North American style road mega-junctions, with a dozen freeways on 50ft stilts arcing through air under and over each other. Birmingham’s spaghetti junction has nothing on this. We run past decaying factories smeared in graffiti and youf statements (‘fuck tha police’), through to former factories now converted to warehouse apartments, and onto main streets lined with little wooden-fronted Victorian town houses. We cross intersections inhabited by either vast, glass and steel downtown skyscrapers or old colonial churches, carrying copper-green domes. Montreal and Quebec City are among the oldest cities on the continent.

My hotel is at the end of the line – the bus station. My hotel reminds me of the scenes set in New Orleans in the film Angelheart – all darkly painted wood and twisting stairs, over-the-top plasterwork around the ceilings and wonky floors. It’s 7pm local time, midnight UK time. I’ve been up for about 17 hours since 6am. I’m speaking French to people who apparently understand me, because they speak French back – more than I get in France.

Time for a shower, an explore, and to find out what piss passes for beer around these parts.