Sunday, January 28, 2007

'Normal blokes cocking about'

The Top Gear team (L-R) Clarkson, Hammond, May

8pm to 9pm Sunday evening was one of those TV head-to-heads that cause bickering across the nation's living rooms. On BBC 1, Kevin Costner's hauntingly timeless portrayal of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves went more or less completely ignored (and not just because of that bloody Bryan Adams song), as the live finale of Celebrity Big Brother went up against the start of the new series of the motoring programme, Top Gear. It'll be interesting to see the viewing figures for the major channels - I'm not holding out much hope for Channel Five's rerun of the Nutty Professor in that particular battle. Rather, 'Five' as the channel is simply referred to these days. I'm sure inevitably it will become '5ve', then just '5', then 'ƒ', or something. The nation's remotes, clickers, zappers, widgets (depending on where you come from) were doubtless fought over as the UK chose between feckless gits hooting at the stupid and racist; and Big Brother.

For the uninitiated - and in this case that basically means for the non-Brits reading this - the annual slagfest of Celebrity Big Brother has this year been crapped to a new low by the gormlessness of Jade Goody and the rest, but then spectacularly enlivened by allegations of racist bullying from three female celebrities towards the Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. Tens of thousands of complaints from members of the public launched police investigations, caused questions to be asked in the House of Commons, and even the burning of effigies in the streets of Shetty's Indian home city. Oh, and soaring ratings. With the future of the Big Brother format hanging in the balance, and even the future of Channel 4 uncertain as well - London Mayor Ken Livingstone called for them to be stripped of their franchise for their racism, which is a tad rich coming from him, I think - Shilpa won the contest by a landslide public vote.

But going against that - and if I was still a betting man, getting more viewers than it - was the first episode of the ninth series of Top Gear. Again, for my international friends, it's a light-hearted topical motoring show with a mixture of fast cars, reviews, and mindless pyrotechnics. Having said that, the show's Wikipedia entry says right near the beginning that it has 350 million viewers worldwide, so you probably already know about it. Presented by three 'normal blokes cocking about' to use their own words - Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May - the franchise was rejuvenated in 2002 after being cancelled the previous year due to falling viewing figures. Since then the knockabout format has pulled in the public, and also a few Emmy's and BAFTA awards. But the series 'rocketed' to the UK's attention when a landspeed attempt last summer went appallingly wrong, and almost killed Richard Hammond in a 288mph dragster crash. Tonight, in that first new episode they showed the footage of the accident, and the nation tuned in.

I don't think I ever used to watch Top Gear, even in the musty days of Quentin Wilson and Tiff Needell - and certainly back then Big Brother was just a glint in a Dutch TV executive's eye. Since Jeremy Clarkson took over presenting duties, it was banned in our house - along with anything featuring Noel Edmonds, Jeremy Beadle, or Tommy Cooper (the latter for a very good reason, which we don't discuss). And I certainly don't watch Big Brother, ahem, of course. However, having said all that, Clarkson can be - look away now Dad - highly amusing. For instance, here is his review of the Vauxhall Vectra VXR - a vast improvement on the Mark One Vectra, which he reviewed by 'remaining mute and drumming his fingers on the roof of the car for a full minute.' Yet it's also highly annoying at the same time. I just don't get it.

You get the feeling that the producers of Big Brother would leave a dead hooker in the house to generate ratings, so the BBC's decision to wait until now to show the footage of Hammond rolling through the grass is fair enough, I guess. I did watch it - if nothing else to get the info so I could write this post - and it was rather odd to see the studio audience essentially cheer him for not dying. But it was handled well, after the usual cocking about - and a rather amusing attempt to repave a section of road in 24hrs - they showed the tape and had Hammond describe what was going on. At almost the exact time over on Channel 4 Shilpa Shetty was being crowned the winner of BB, an item which made second place on the BBC's 10 o'clock news (Hammond's return was the next piece).

So why do I like watching Top Gear? It crassly glamourises speed - something the show's producers adamantly deny - it gives Clarkson a stage for his sometimes iffy sense of humour, and tonight's celebrity guest was Jamie Oliver, for pity's sake. I have no interest in cars, I've never driven or even had a lesson. I don't know one end from another, when they talk about horsepower and transmissions and stuff they may as well be talking a foreign language. They rely far too much on daft stunts, blowing up caravans and soforth, and they do it all in front of a braying studio audience of sycophants. But it's great. I can't explain it, I watch it every week, feeling slightly dirty. Of course, when put up against Big Brother, I'd quite happily watch anything. Even Kevin 'I'm Rah-bin of Lock-ersley' Costner on the other side...

Apologies over 'racist abuse' on BB
Official Top Gear website
Top Gear presenter critically injured
Top Gear's Hammond cheats death
Youtube clip of Top Gear's aquatic car challenge

Friday, January 26, 2007

Bonus Canada photos

This fantastic photo was taken by Craig from the top of Grouse Mountain - 'The Peak of Vancouver' as the blurb on it's website says. A privately owned mountain, which is an odd concept to me, on top are plenty of ski runs and other entertainments. They got a great day for their trip, as every day after that it was shrouded in rain and mist. We did go for a walk near the base, and could just about see the large gondola cable car whirring into the murk. This view looks due south, with North Vancouver in the foreground, then the green of Stanley Park joined to the downtown, and over the next short stretch of water is Kitsilano where we stayed - the slight green bump in the dead centre of the picture.

Looking out of the grimy front window of the SeaBus crossing over to the city of North Vancouver, one of the outer suburbs of Vancouver - not to be confused with West Vancouver, which is also to the north. It lies adjacent to the District of North Vancouver, all of which are part of the Greater Vancouver Regional District. By the time you've worked all this out, you're across Burard Inlet and have arrived. The jetty reminded me slightly of Manly, a large floating pontoon with a food court attached. The cloud in the photo was lying over Grouse Mountain, as mentioned above, and the shipping clogging the channel were large tankers making their slow way to the city port. Industrial containers and huge mounds of yellow sulphur for export awaited them.

The False Creek Foot Ferries (easier to type than say), ply their dinky trade around the centre of Vancouver. From the bridges over the water they look like toy boats you might play with in the bath, and up close they look just as small. For $2.50, you get a short trip over the inlet that would take half an hour on foot, so they are well worth it. But each one can hold about twenty people at the very most, so they are mainly used by tourists rather than locals. Here's a closer view of them I took on Granville Island before our short jaunt over to English Bay beach. It took about five minutes, but it was well worth it.

Backpackers getting a free show. Part of the experience of staying in hostels are the fire alarms that (usually) happen at night. Andy took this just after we arrived, and in our sleep-deprived state had gone out for beer and burgers in an attempt to revive us. A cheap backpacker hotel had apparently either had a fire or a false alarm - we weren't sure which - but the fire crews had turned up to give the tall building the once over. Denied entry to their dorms, these guys had grabbed a pizza from next door and were sitting on the back of a fire engine to watch the spectacle.

Montréal's old town, or Vieux-Montréal, is one of the oldest urban areas in North America. Some of the buildings date from the 17th Century, and this greenish dome is the Marché Bonsecours, opened in 1847. As any reader who passed Tricoloré-level French at school will know, marché is a market - "Escuse moi, monseur, ou est la marché s'il vous plait?" was my stock phrase learned for a 4th year trip to Normandy (we had to ask someone at least one thing each). From what I can remember, the accosted Frenchman pointed over my shoulder at the large outdoor fruit market we were standing next to, and walked off. No such people to ask here, as Vieux-Montréal was largely deserted on a cold midweek morning.

The 1967 World's Fair was held in Montréal after Moscow discovered at the eleventh hour they couldn't bring together the funds needed. The mayor of the growing Quebec city decided to not only host the event, but host it on a series of specially-built islands in the St Lawrence seaway, constructed from the earth excavated when the city's Metro was tunnelled. There were 90 pavilions, including this - the Habitat '67 housing complex on the Quai Marc-Drouin, designed by architect Moshe Safdie. Meant to depict affordable housing of the future, ironically now that future has arrived they are highly sought after and very exclusive. Here is the Habitat '67 website, with pictures of the units themselves, which actually look quite nice close up.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The wrong kind of snow

Totally gnarly! (and soforth)

Another of the UK's great institutions is under threat. I'm talking not about the House of Lords or Big Brother here - I'm talking about Ski Sunday. With it's immediately recognisable theme tune, for almost twenty years it was fronted by the legendary David Vine, usually pictured standing ruddy-cheeked halfway up an Alpine slope cheerily introducing the latest downhill action. I know these days 'legendary' is an over-used word, but it certainly applies to Vine when you look at the list of TV programmes he's fronted over the years - Sportscene, It's a Knockout, Quiz Ball, Rugby Special, Match of the Day, A Question of Sport, Grandstand, Superstars, Starshot, the Winter and Summer Olympic Games, the Eurovision Song Contest, Miss World, Wimbledon, and the snooker - the latter two for 20yrs apiece.

We used to watch it almost every week in our house, although to my knowledge no member of my family has ever been skiing, or has any interest in winter sports. It served a useful stopgap between the end of Sunday Grandstand and the beginning of the decent evening television - and it didn't involve antiques, which is always a danger in that part of the schedules. Back in those days, it was always the Austrians and the Swiss that dominated the downhill in their distinctive colours (which I think were red and yellow respectively). There were always a few token Italians, Germans, Canadians and French taking part, as well as the various 'comedy nations' - like the British. The lone Brit would always run near the end in semi-darkness and trail in 45th, whilst men in overalls swept the deserted finish area.

It's an incredibly dangerous activity, of course, and whenever a lyca-clad tyrolean would cartwheel into the red netting it would be greeted with a hoot of laughter from certain quarters of my family - although not me, compassionate soul that I am. My Dad still talks about the Japanese skier who fell over exiting the starting gate, for example. Back then Ski Sunday focused almost solely on the downhill, with the odd slalom event thrown in for a bit of variety. These days it features all kinds of things, including jokey comic sections where the current presenters make their own equipment out of ironing boards and film the results - the Top Gear pillocks have got a lot to answer for. As if that weren't enough, Ski Sunday also now includes that impudent upstart of 'people on planks' - snowboarding.

Not just tricks and jumps, but the high-octane Snowboard Cross (or Border Cross), where four riders belt down a narrow funnel at once, over obstacles, and includes a fair bit of argy-bargy - it's the closest thing to Rollerball I can think of. Somehow I managed to watch the debut women's Olympic final in Turin last year, whilst I was on holiday in Paris. It was certainly spectacular, crashes and controversy even before the clear leader - American Lyndsey Jacobellis - attempted a needless trick over the final jump and fell over, losing the gold medal to the Swiss rider Tanja Frieden who had fallen and was making up ground (which I think my Dad would have appreciated).

But even this is under threat, as I hinted at the start - and it's all down to the weather. Alpine Europe is currently in the midst of a snow crisis, as vastly below-average falls have seen many resorts closed. The OECD has warned that many low-level resorts could soon be unviable, as some banks are refusing to offer loans to resorts under 1,500 metres as they fear for their future snow cover [bbc]. Last weeked the most famous downhill in the sport - and the only one I've heard of - Kitzbühel's epic Hahnenkamm, had to be cancelled at the last minute because it wasn't sufficiently covered. A last-ditch effort to helicopter snow in was unsuccessful, and the world championship event was instead switched to Val d'Isere in France. This is a major concern for Vancouver, scheduled to host the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. If the climate continues to become erratic, Europe's skiers may have a serious disadvantage. Maybe then the British - masters of the mild-weather activity - will have our day!

Concern over European 'snow crisis'
Vancouver 2010

Friday, January 19, 2007

Band photos...or are they?

Someone pointed out to me a while ago that whenever friends of mine get together and have a picture taken, it looks like we're a band posing for an album sleeve photo. Looking back at a few old group shots, it's uncanny. So here's a small experiment - I've cunningly mixed up some of those pictures with a few of real bands I've pilfered off the internet. They all follow the key rules of band photography - namely to include at least one of the following - there should be at least one person not looking at the camera, someone sitting or standing apart from the rest, something unusual in the background, and lots and lots of emotive staring into the middle distance. Play along at home and see which ones you think are the real musical combos...









(obviously if you know me, it makes things slightly easier. And yes, that is a goat)

Monday, January 15, 2007

Back in Blighty

The only way to stay warm in Montreal

It's not much fun going back to work - but then if we didn't have to it wouldn't be a holiday, we'd just be tramps. Lots of those in Vancouver - fewer in Montreal, for obvious reasons. I got back to Edinburgh on Sunday afternoon at 5pm, and then went straight back to work the next morning. The time differences aren't as bad going this way as they were in the other direction, as we were all waking up well before dawn on our first few days in Canada, before getting acclimatised to the new timezones. Thankfully that only lasted a few days, but our continual travel between these major North American cities always reset our clocks for a while. I'm not after any sympathy of course, just making the point that everywhere is a long way away in Canada, it's one enormous country.

The final day in Montreal we climbed the 'Mountain' in the centre, Mount Royal, that I was on about in the previous post, which took about an hour with several stops for snowball fights and picturesque photos as the night before had dumped a few inches of snow over the city. It made the walk all the better, as Quebec 'neige' is proper stuff, dry and crunchy, and the cold temperatures meant we had almost the whole place to ourselves, apart from the odd jogger (appearing outside in that weather wearing lycra, I just don't understand it). We even built a snowman in the centre of the viewing plaza at the top, where I was last four years ago in the warm summer fighting the urge to elbow any of the hundreds of schoolkids charging about.

The flight back to Vancouver was much better than the one out, although it was longer at almost 6hrs. With a final day there, I met up with Andy and Jess again and we walked around the Dr Sun Yat Sen Garden, a small but very beautiful Chinese garden in the heart of the city named after the first president of the Republic of China (in 1911), who made three visits to Vancouver to gather funds for his struggles to overthrow the Qing Dinasty. It had also snowed here, and in fact was -6˚C, so the whole garden looked especially sparkling covered in ice and frost. After a brief bit of shopping (have to take something back for the office), it was off to the airport and home, via Amsterdam.

Since we left, several things have happened to people/places we encountered. Firstly, Craig in Montreal said the day after we left they got 30cm of snow dumped on them, which must have been amazing (for us tourists, not so much for the winter-weary locals) - and fortunate given our flights leaving without hindrance. The Seattle Seahawks aren't 'Hawkin' On' any more, as they lost the next playoff game after the epic Dallas win, going down with the last kick of the game (ironically) in Chicago to the Bears. But for them to get to the final four in the NFC was a great achievement, and I'll certainly never forget that Dallas game (or where we saw it). The day after I visited BC Place Stadium (see my photo here), strong winds punctured the air-supported dome and the roof collapsed (see another photo here) []. The pristine inside of the stadium was swiftly covered with several inches of rainwater, thankfully nobody was hurt.

Photos are still coming in from the trip, when I get a minute I'll stick together a special post of the best of them from the other people who were there, and then I suppose it's back to the type of standard post I've been clogging the internet with for the last few months. I do have a few ideas, but we'll see if any of them are interesting or not (I'm guessing not, but we'll see). So until I go away somewhere again - well, until I pay off the credit card bills - thanks to Craig and Anna for letting us stay with them in Quebec, and if you're ever looking for an apartment rental for a holiday in Vancouver, go for Chocolate Lily, it was superb (link below). I'm off to get out my map of the world and a dart to see where I'm going to next...

Dr Sun Yat Sen Garden, Vancouver
Seattle Seahawks Official Website
BC Place roof to be repaired this week
Chocolate Lily Apartment Rental

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Two Cities In One

Fire hydrants need to be found under snow

Montreal takes it's name from a small tree-covered hillock on the centre of the main island, which was called Mount Royal by some explorer no doubt trying to win favour with some crusty monarch back in Europe. We had planned on climbing the "Mountain", which rises to the dizzying height of 764ft - 100ft lower than Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh - but on leaving the flat in the late morning we were met with dry blustery snow. By the time we came out of the Metro at Peel Station the snow was a few inches deep and the temperature had plummeted, not exactly mountain climbing weather. Well, it is I suppose, but only if you had bottled air and were planning on tackling the West face of K2, or something. A brisk 700ft stroll needs to be done in more pleasant conditions.

So we did what all true Monrealers do, and went underground. The Underground City, or 'La Ville Souterrraine' as they say round here is a monumentally large and confusing system of subterranean passages and shopping malls that spill for miles in every direction. There are over 20 miles of them, to be precise, spread over 5 square miles. When you think about it, that's one enormous area. There are over 120 access points to the network, and people wrestle with large heavy doors to escape the cold weather and nip underground. That's the reason for them, of course. When the temperature sits in double figures below zero for several months at a time, it's handy if people can do their daily business without having to go outside. In some countries, they do this by driving everywhere. In Montreal, they bung another city underneath the cold one.

True Montrealers (I think that's the term, although it could be Montrealites), go from their houses in the suburbs on the Metro, get off at their stop, walk through the underground city to work, go for lunch in one of the foodcourts, then back to work before leaving the same way and catching the Metro home. You can live an entirely normal productive life and never have to go outside (after you arrive at the train station, unless you have some kind of crazy hamster-style tube from your nest to the nearest public transport stop). 80% of all the city's offices have direct access to the underground city, as do 35% of all the shops and businesses. This number seems much higher when you're walking through the passages, as predictably every possible alcove and corner is taken up with some tempting way to part you from your hard-earned Loonies and Toonies.*

There are problems with the system though. Firstly, and most obvious, it can be an expensive way to get around, unless you have iron willpower - or a rapidly depleting holiday budget. Also it's incredibly easy to get lost - there are signposts, but if you don't know where the indicated places are, it's not much point identifying them. All the Malls look alike, and you end up navigating by recognisable shops - like Bikini Village in our case (I can't think why that stood out). Food courts are approximately every 500yds, so it can be punishing on the waistline too - although all that walking can help in that regard. Getting lost with all that food everywhere is even more dangerous, although it is good - food courts in the UK just aren't as good as the ones over here. Connecting tunnels and passageways are usually only on one floor (out of four or five), so sometimes you can be in the right place, knowing where you're going, only to have the smug grin wiped off and you turn a corner and walk straight into a Tie Rack.

But as much as I have no real opinion either way about shopping - unless tshirts or shiny gadgets are involved, it's an interesting way to spend a few hours if the weather is being un co-operative. We had several minor shopping things to get done, and we managed to accomplish all of them in the space of a few hours, including a trip into the behemoth that is the Hudson Bay Company. It has to be one of the biggest department stores in the world, it just stretches off in every direction. It has several exits to the Underground City, of course - clearly labelled and signposted. After all, a captive dollar is an easier one to catch. Hopefully we'll get up Mount Royal tomorrow, as the weather forecast is for a balmy 4C, which around here at this time, is practically shirt-sleeve weather...

* One and Two Dollar coins

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Je me souviens!

Your intrepid heroes take a break

I know I keep talking about the weather - but it isn't half cold here. Today had a high of -12˚C, which is without doubt as cold as I've ever been. You need to bundle up and walk hunched over, especially if the wind is blowing. We set off from Craig and Anna's mid-morning and visited the Olympic Stadium, built for the 1976 Summer Games - which concluded two days before I was born. Apparently still the most expensive ever staged (presumably with inflation taken into account) it had a terrible financial impact on the city, and left them with the huge empty stadium. The Olympic flame was extinguished by a rainstorm and relit by an official with a cigarette lighter, before being hurriedly put out and reilt properly with the portable flame. Also it was the only summer games ever when the home nation failed to win a single gold medal. Something for the Great Britain to aim at in London 2012.

The Stadium has a mock victor's plinth outside, which I'm always happy to stand on - the top step, naturally. This is me doing just that - and to prove how much I enjoy it, this is me doing it four years ago when I was last here - and in somewhat better weather. The stadium is currently closed, as is the slanting tower - which was only added after the games had finished - so we walked past and went to one of Montreal's most popular attractions - the Biodome. Built inside the Velodrome from the 1976 games, in 1992 it was re-invented as a kind of walk-through zoo, although as Wikipedia rather tetchily says, it's 'neither spherical nor a geodesic dome'.

Whatever the outside shape, indoors it's divided into four zones based on an ecosystem from the Americas - kind of like The Crystal Maze only with penguins instead of Richard O'Brien. I was slightly sceptical at first, but it was really good. A continuous marked path leads through the four areas, starting with the Tropical Forest, then the Laurentian Forest, St Lawrence Seaway, and finally the Arctic/Antarctic polar regions. Each part had a number of larger creatures behind unobtrusive fences (a Lynx, Capybara, Beaver), with other smaller things able to roam around (Parrots, Monkeys, Lizards). There was a great gloomy cave full of flitting bats, and underwater glass to watch diving seabirds propel themselves around. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours wandering about looking at Crocodiles and Poison Arrow Frogs and soforth, before leaving and wincing in turn as we went back out into the freezing wind outside.

After a warming curry buffet downtown, we walked around looking at some of the buildings - although rather quickly, and after it had got dark went to the waterfront to go skating. Not that I took part, of course. Several years ago - in fact, the same trip I last came to Montreal - I tried ice skating for the first time on the picturesque Frog Pond in the middle of Boston Common. I'm really not good with balancing/co-ordination activities - witness my efforts to ride a bike on my Crinan Canal post last July, so after a series of mild tumbles I had an almighty fall and cracked the back of my head off the ice, almost seriously injuring myself. Anyway, I learned enough that day to realise skating and me don't mix - it's like glueing a 30cm ruler to the bottom of your shoe and sliding across oily lino.

So I watched, and took a few blurry photos, the floodlit buildings of the Old Town being a great backdrop. The river between the warehouses and the rink had frozen, and it looked as if people had been out skating on it - but the place we visited was a proper rink, with one of those juddering ice hoovers to clean up and everything. The only bad thing was - quelle suprise - the cold. In fact it was so cold I lost all feeling in my fingers taking the pictures and my hands started burning. It had gone past the numb stage, so I quickly legged it into the toilets and held my hands under the hot air dryer until I got the feeling back. On the way home, a series of icy blasts tore between the tall buildings - it must have been at least -20˚C - causing us to yelp and walk all the quicker. We could hear other groups of people swearing and crying out at the same time because of the cold. I can only imagine the people that founded Montreal first came here in the summer...

Montreal Biodome

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Another 24hrs on the go

Another massively long day for all concerned yesterday - although it actually hasn't finished yet. I'm writing this in our friends Craig and Anna's flat in the Petit Patrie district of Montreal. I took this photo many hours ago of Paul looking out of the window at the flat grey water north of Seattle, several thousand miles away on an Amtrak Cascades train to Vancouver. Our whistle-stop visit to the USA ended with a very pleasant 4hr rumble along the Pacific Northwest coastline, with sea views like this almost the entire way. Travelling by train in America can be infuriating at times, as they go so slowly, but also hardly anybody uses them so you're always guaranteed a spacious and comfortable ride.

So the next stop was Vancouver again, which was interesting given the recent comparisons we could make with it's near neighbour to the south. A few weeks before Christmas, the famous Stanley Park was heavily affected by a series of crushing storms. The much-vaunted seawall walk was still partly closed off because of the dangers of falling timber, and many of the inland woodland trails looked as if a tornado had passed through, shredding large trees and spilling branches everywhere. This old tree, which given the age of the city itself, could have been very significant, was one of many toppled. Telethons were in place to raise money for the lengthy restoration.

I was walking through Stanley Park as I had a grey wintry afternoon to kill before the next leg of the journey - the overnight redeye flight to Montreal. Obviously for those of you that know me, if I have a few hours to kill and an aquarium is within sprinting distance, I'll be there like a shot. Vancouver's is pretty good, large tanks of the usual suspects - although no giant spider crabs, so they lose a mark there. I got there quite late - our plane wasn't due to go until 11:30pm so there was no hurry - and I had the place almost entirely to myself. They had a great display of jellyfish, large Amazonian species, and an interesting walk-through aviary with bright pink ibis (ibises?) and parrots of every squawking colour.

However, the big draws were outside as a large concrete pool held four large sea otters, several assorted seals, four Pacific White Sided Dolphins, and four Beluga - the white whale. I have a hard time with this kind of thing. Admittedly it's slightly hypocritical given I'd just enjoyed hundreds of other marine animals in captivity, but the 'beluga show' was too much and after a couple of minutes I had to leave. Checking the aquarium's website, I found some are rescue animals and can't be released - indeed one of the sea otters is the last known survivor of the Exxon Valdez oil spill - but I've always found making them do tricks unpalatable. The trainer dropped a fish into their mouth as they revolved in the water - it just isn't right. So I left the aquarium, and headed back downtown to pack my stuff for the flight.

And later that day, here we all are in Montreal - the 77th biggest city in the world, and the second largest French speaking one, after Paris. This was taken on the docks in a piercingly cold day of around 0°C and windchill on top. The cold I'd developed over the last few days made it all the chillier (I always seem to get one on my travels). Our Quebecois friend Craig (although he's from Oswestry) is pointing out something of note to Alison, as Paul and Craig take photos in the distant background. Our flight over was pretty awful, short and cold, yet the 4hrs was extended to 7hrs by the time difference to negate any sleep I tried and failed to get. We landed at 7am this morning, and it was straight into another full day of holidaymaking without respite, although the fruity pancakes at the Coyote Cafe gave a welcome boost.

According to Wikipedia - Montreal has 'a daily average January temperature of −10.4 °C (13 °F)', so 0°C has to be something of a lucky escape, although it is still noticeably colder than Vancouver - and expected to drop to -8°C over the next few days. That's not as bad as some though, I saw a Canadian forecast for Yellowknife in the far North which they reckoned would get to -43°C when the windchill was included. Now that's parky. Plenty of excuses to nip inside to places like this - the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal on the Place d'Armes in the old quarter. Wandering around looking at things like this is great, but takes it's toll, especially when you haven't had much in the way of sleep over the past 36hrs. I'll be lying in tomorrow. Probably.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Down in the Duwamps

Seattle traffic downtown

The next day, with slightly sore heads, we awoke to unsurprisingly grey and wet conditions. It wasn’t raining too much though, and in any case it was a quick trot from where we were staying to get breakfast. Americans love their breakfast, and what better way to spend Sunday morning than eating a huge amount of food and watching large men in suits dissect the previous day’s NFL playoffs? A head-sized omelette and hash browns later, and it was time for more exploring. The menu had alledged it involved only three eggs, but they must have been from an emu-sized chicken. It was good fuel for the walking we did over the rest of the day.

Pike Place Market is the centrepiece of downtown Seattle, a touristy selection of food stalls, souvenir shops, and novelty or unusual stores. The big draw here is, rather bizarrely, fish throwing, and we arrived in front of the large salmon stall just as men in yellow oilskins were chucking four-foot fish at each other. It was all for the cameras, of course, and predictably there was some audience participation as a portly Texan at the front had a quickly substituted fake fish thrown at him, which hit him in the head. Everyone seemed to enjoy it – but I wondered what the Salmon experts at Tsukiji in Tokyo would have made of it, throwing those expensive fish around for the public’s amusement.

After more exploring, and a quick trip to the Seahawks shop at their stadium, we signed up for a guided walk of old Seattle, which lies underground. A spirited grey-haired gent called Bruce talked us through the 90 minute trip, which began and ended in Pioneer Square. Seattle is an incredibly young city, and was founded to make use of the trees that could be slid down the hill to a natural deep-water harbour – the origins of the phrase ‘skid row’, from where they could be floated south to California to feed the property boom. Originally called ‘Duwamps’, the city was renamed Seattle after a local Native American tribal leader, Noah Sealth.

The tour was in parts interesting, but almost ruined by Bruce’s insistence on cracking continual cheesy one-liners throughout. It made the talk infuriating, as I could never tell when he was telling a fact and when he was making something up to get a laugh. For instance, he said the new city had a major rat problem, and if you took a rat-tail to city hall you would be given a nickel. Apparently the enterprising youths of the time started breeding rats to redeem, whereupon Bruce chuckled and said ”They found if you cut the tail off at an exact age, it would regrow and the rat could be used again. This was Seattle’s first re-tail operation!!”. Retail. Re-tail. Get it? So was that all a joke? Or did it happen? I was left frustrated as he launched into another fact that ended in a gag.

From what I could make out, Seattle’s early problems centred around drainage. Sewage systems hadn’t been installed initially, so when toilets arrived (cue much scatological humour from Bruce), the sewage flowed down a wooden trough to the sea, where it promptly flooded back into the city twice a day. The city then burned to the ground, and when rebuilt the city leaders decided to raise the land level to improve the situation. So the entire downtown area (such as it was), was filled in to the tops of the ground floor windows and a new street built on top. It couldn’t be completely filled in though, as the weight of compacted material used would have crushed the walls of what became the basement level, but used to be airy glass-windowed shops.

So people continued to use the underground areas as the shopping streets they had been designed as, descending steps into the gloom to get groceries and do their banking. I found this fascinating, and wondered about the people who had to work down there, what it was like to go underground to shop. Did it flood when it rained? Were the dark alcoves used by thieves or gangs? There must have been hundreds of rats everywhere? Sadly all of these questions went unasked and unanswered, as Bruce was too busy doing his stand-up routine. Sample joke - ”People used to fall down here from the raised sidewalk and die. Mostly drunks – so in early Seattle we didn’t need Alcoholics Anonymous, as we had a one-step programme!!”

Seattle Underground Tours

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Keep on Hawkin' on

Even tall buildings follow the Seahawks

Once again our luck with the weather changed, and the day after the glorious winter sunshine of Bowen Island, more typical conditions returned as we were blasted with heavy rain and freezing soapy sleet. The slush piled up to ankle height, so our final full day in BC was spent grimacing against the weather as we sorted out travel arrangements and sheltered in bars and pubs. Early next morning, we packed up and took the Skytrain to the main station for a bus to points south – the Greyhound to Seattle. The ride took about four hours, with the unavoidable lineup and fingerprinting at the border. But we all nipped through reasonably quickly, and soon arrived in the Emerald City.

Similarly defined by the weather, Seattle has a reputation for rain, coffee and Frasier. But the weekend we arrived, it was all about the Seahawks. The city’s NFL team was involved in a playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys, which kicked off about an hour after we arrived. Priding themselves on their support, the number 12 was everywhere (12 for the fans – the ‘12th man’). Huge ‘12’ flags flew from the tops of skyscrapers and the Space Needle, and the number was picked out in lights in one of the large office blocks on the way to the stadium. We had something to eat in a brewpub and watched the game for a bit in the busy bar.

Midway through the second half, with the Seahawks losing by a point, we decided to move on and get a change of scenery. The streets were pretty busy as the usual Saturday night crowds were swelled by football fans milling around. Some bars were charging $10 cover to get in, so we found one a few blocks away from the touristy Pioneer Square and when it was free, went in. Called ‘Cowgirls’, it looked like a normal Western-themed bar, with a large mechanical rodeo bull sitting quietly unused by the window, a long bar, and a couple of pool tables. Almost all of the crowd were men, but we just figured that was because of the game, which was on every plasma screen.

Admittedly, it was peculiar why there were dozens of bras hung on a cable behind the racks of drinks. Also there seemed to be a metal rail directly above the sturdy wooden bar, with short sections of rope dangling from it at regular intervals. Still, it was showing the game and it was free to enter, so we crunched through the peanut shells on the floor and ordered some beers. In a stunning end to the game, the Seahawks overtook the Cowboys by a point, then conceded a huge running play that gave Dallas the chance at an easy short field goal to win and knock Seattle out of the playoffs. But – in a twist that almost never happens – the Cowboys botched the field goal attempt and in a frantic scramble the ball was stopped, and the Seahawks won by that single point.

The bar erupted, people were screaming and high-fiving loudly – as American sport fans do – as the hometown team got an unlikely victory. A woman’s voice sounded out over a PA system cheering on the Seahawks, and getting the patrons to shout amusing expletives about Dallas, which everyone was happy to do – even those of us on holiday. Then, with an enthusiastically-met yelp of ”Who wants to see the Cowgirls??”, a group of young women appeared and jumped up onto the bar. Dressed, just about, in skimpy Seahawks shirts that would fail any NFL uniform inspection, they started dancing about and demonstrating what the ropes over the bar were for. I think everyone agreed they demonstrated it pretty well. We didn’t stay though, we had a gig to attend on the other side of the city, so left the ever busier Cowgirls and walked through the streets thronged with jubilant Seahawks fans spilling from the nearby stadium. Keep on Hawkin’ on!! a man shouted at me, dressed as a huge blue eagle. Indeed.

Seattle Seahawks
Cowgirls Inc. (probably NSFW)

Friday, January 05, 2007

Fortune Favours the Brave

Our penultimate day in Vancouver started out with a disappointed peek out of the window at the weather - grey and rainy - probably because of my good weather-related post yesterday. We had planned a day trip out to Bowen Island, a small forested isle a short bus ride/ferry trip from the city. By the time we got to the bus stop for the express to Horseshoe Bay, the rain was verging on the torrential. We're used to getting wet, being British, and a still day of rain is something you can just about cope with - but this was combined with a heavy wind, so it whipped into our faces and was generally awful. But having come this far, we decided to get on the bus with the 'it might brighten up' mentality Brits are renowned for. And boy, did it ever brighten up, as you can see from the ferry crossing.

Bowen Island sits in the Howe Sound, and covers only 20sq miles. The ferry from Horseshoe Bay chugged out towards a small conical island, which we all started taking pictures of - before slowly turning left and heading for a completely different one, the real Bowen Island. A crafty deletion of photos later, and no-one would ever know. Howe Sound is littered with small craggy communities, perched between sea and forest. Massive cliffs rose off in every direction, sprinkled with snow at their peaks. When we docked at Snug Cove, we walked up the hill from the jetty to get a view, and found a small square with artist's studios and bookshops ('Sherlock's Tomes'). The only place open was a small cafe, so we had a great meal and looked out of the window at this view. Well, all except me as I drew the short straw and couldn't see it. But the muddy cliff I could see was delightful.

At the centre of Bowen Island is a large forested hill called Mount Gardiner (2500ft), and Killarney Lake. After our excellent meal, we took a walk in the woods for a few hours around the lake. It was just delightful with the late afternoon sun coming through the trees and the birds flitting about. Apparently Bowen is a haven for wildlife - being an island - but sadly we failed to spot any of the unusual ones, Blacktailed Deer, Great Horned Owl, Pacific Tree Frog or wonderfully named Calliope Hummingbird. Locals have to erect large fences against the deer in particular - the island is home to 2,951 people as of the 2001 census Here's Bowen's Wikipedia entry).

Neither did we see any waterbirds, apart from the occasional duck-type bird, so we didn't catch a glimpse of the Great Blue Heron either. But it didn't matter, as the low season meant we passed about half a dozen people the whole time we were there. The picnic grounds at the southern end of the water had several tables and a large car park, but the only trace of people we found was a child's lost baseball cap. The overwhelming feeling was silence, as the only sound we could hear was the wind blowing in the trees, and the sporadic rustling of a Chips Ahoy packet, or as the French side of the packet calls them - Pepites de chocolat de M.Christie

On the ferry back through Howe Sound, with the last of the sun colouring the tops of the surrounding mountains. We were passed by a small tugboat pulling an enormous wake of logs, that stretched out for about half a mile behind. Trees dominate this landscape, even present above the snowline on the mountain tops, looking like miniature cake decorations covered with icing sugar. It was a great day, and we wrapped it up after a busy express bus back to the city with some sushi takeout - a huge bento box of sashimi, tempura and eel for about £4. Things are so amazingly cheap here for the UK visitor, and to get as much Japanese food as I could eat (and I can eat a lot) for less than a couple of pints back home was a fantastic end to a fantastic day. This is why people go on holiday.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Sunshine on the Wet Coast

The Burrard Bridge gleaming in the sun

As I said the other day, the Vancouver area is often plagued by terrible weather - hence the 'Wet Coast' tag that pun-loving locals give it. We'd only had a few hours of dryness on the first day, I got soaked going on a run (and it almost was a run) to the Liquor Store, as they of course refer to Off-Licences. Or Bottle Shops if you're Australian. Anyway, the city is built on a series of low hills, so water tends to pool at the bottom of streets waiting to catch out the unwary alcohol-foraging foreigner who steps off a dark pavement into what turns out to be an ankle-deep puddle. This morning it was even heavier, and as Andy left at 6am to go up to Whistler snowboarding, I was already awake in the other room, listening to the rain battering the outside of the house.

But, remarkably, it cleared up just before lunchtime. So I set off on a coastal walk to Stanley Park, hoping the rain would hold off. Not only did it hold, but the sky quickly blew free of any clouds, and the sun warmed everything up. The path runs along the harbourside ringing False Creek, the inlet that separates the downtown business district from the rest of the city. In parts, it reminded me of the Sydney harbour seawall, short sections of clearly marked path for walkers, joggers, and cyclists. It's obviously well used, and with the break in the weather all kinds of people were out getting some sun. Towards the far end, it became more industrial - False Creek used to be surrounded by sawmills - and a lengthy detour caused by a waterside apartment constuction took me past old rusting cannery plants and abandoned buildings.

I had something to eat at the giant domed BC Stadium, home of the BC Lions Canadian Football team. I'm always interested in looking at stadiums - for one thing they usually have t-shirt shops attached (although this one didn't), so I walked over and was surprised to find the door open. Inside a football (soccer) tournament was going on, so I watched the games for a bit while I was eating a sandwich. After that I carried on under both bridges that lead from the western suburbs to the CBD, and on past English Bay beach and the scene of yesterday's Polar Bear swim - looking very different with no people and blazing sunshine. The oil tankers still sat there in the bay, waiting to go upriver, and large logs were everywhere, washed up on the shoreline.

I really like Vancouver, it has a great feel to it. At the end of our road you can see snow-capped mountains covered in trees - and I don't mean in the far distance, they loom over the city from almost every angle. With the surrounding water and atmospheric cloudbanks, it has something of a frontier feel to it - and having flown over vast tracts of nothingness to get here, I can understand why. Most places are within walking distance, which is made easier by the fact that pedestrians have right of way over cars, and more interesting by the rather large number of crazy dishevelled people walking around. I've still got another three days here, so I'll let all of you in the blogosphere know what happens tomorrow...

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Swimming with Polar Bears

Why are all these people balancing on slippery wet logs at the beach? To catch a better glimpse of a Polar Bear, of course. This is English Bay, on the southern edge of the fist-shaped spur of land that contains greater Vancouver and Stanley Park. Every new year since 1920 foolhardy souls have jumped into the cold sea and gone for a refreshing dip. The first one attracted 10 swimmers, but things have changed a whole lot since then...

These days the event attracts thousands of people, 2128 is the all-time record set in 2000. Back in the '20s it was probably a brisk swim and a stiff handshake afterwards, but now people put on costumes and charge down the beach in a human wave with a deafening roar. To qualify for a badge, you have to register first, then immerse yourself completely in the water.

There was a marked course that stretched about 100yds offshore, and apparently the first person to complete it got an award of some kind. But most people just splashed about for a bit in the 8°C water, before rushing back out, teeth chattering. The whole thing lasted a few minutes, but other people standing on the beach who hadn't arrived in time to register decided to go in too, and become unofficial Polar Bears - like these people fully dressed.

...and Andy too. He'd been talking about doing the swim ever since we heard about it a couple of days ago - but we turned up too late for the registration. So when a man next to us decided to become an impromptu participant, it was too much for him, and off came the clothes. A quick dive and a fair bit of shouting later, and he'd become a member of the spontaneous Polar Bears.

And thankfully, his new friend (who we later learned was called Warren), had brought a towel, helping Andy to avoid an entire day walking around in soaked clothes. Actually, that wouldn't have been much of a problem, as it had been pouring down with rain all day and we were all soaked anyway. Warren's girlfriend also had a thermos full of Baileys coffee, which seems to be the natural diet of a Vancouver Polar Bear. I know Andy appreciated it.

The victorious pose afterwards. In case you're wondering why your author didn't join in and become a Polar Bear too - well, I was going to, but you know, my contact lenses don't react well to getting salt water in them. And er, I don't drink coffee, so I wouldn't have had any way to warm up. Oh - and someone had to take photos of Andy doing it, so er, that's why I didn't go in. Obviously.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

I just can't resist a balloon

2007, and DUaB lurches wildly into it's fourth calendar year. Blimey. So this is me with a helium-filled friend, taken at about 2am at the NYE party we were at last night. After the tiredness of yesterday, we had a leisurely morning in our luxury pad. One of the great pleasures of visiting North America is walking to a nearby bagel shop in the morning and stocking up on warm savoury treats. I think only the French boulangerie can top it for a start to the day - and the one we found at the top of our road had a huge oven where they were baking bagels as we watched. Thankfully the weather was still decent - always a concern on the 'Wet Coast', so after an enjoyable chat with our host upstairs and a meeting with the cats, we went out for a walk along the beach.

Kitsilano is our home for the next few days, a trendy neighbourhood in NE Vancouver. It's entry on Wikipedia describes it as a '...neighborhood known for it's young families, yoga studios, organic produce shops, and new or renovated condominiums. It is also home to Greektown.' We haven't come across any Greeks yet, but we only started exploring yesterday morning. (I'm writing this at about mid-day on Jan 1st). We walked along Kits Beach for a while, with amazing views over English Bay to the distant shore and mountains. Large oil tankers sat serenly in the water, waiting for someone to steer them up river. They float timber down the river from the upland forests, and every now and again you notice half a tree trunk floating merrily along, plenty of which are washed up on the beaches.

In the afternoon we had a persual of the markets on Granville Island - a semi-touristy enclave of shops and foodie places under the main bridge into the Downtown area. A quick shuttle on a tiny ferry, and we went around the city proper and explored Gastown. We must have walked a fair way, as the jetlag began to kick in again and briefly we began to flag. But only briefly, as we zipped about on the buses (free on NYE), back to Kits and found a fantastic Japanese restaurant for our last meal of 2006. Kibune Sushi served us some wonderful stuff, a perfect pre-party feast. A quick ironing/changing pitstop later, we were back on the way to Granville Island, for an NYE bash.

Being on the far west coast of Canada, we were one of the last groups of people in the world to celebrate the new year. Only Alaska and Hawaii were behind us - and seeing as last NYE I was in Edinburgh, I think I got an extra few hours squeezed out of 2006. This whole business of going away for new year is great, I heartily recommend it. It's such an anti-climax usually, that when you're abroad it's always going to be one to remember. Here's a post about some of my previous NYE experiences, but the ones in Paris and Sydney stand out. And now so will Vancouver, as we ended up at a party featuring some great bands, loads of pitchers of new and unusual beer, party hats, dancing, and cheap champagne. So happy new year from DUaB, and I hope you all have a great 2007. This afternoon we're off to indulge in a traditional Vancouver new year activity, involving polar bears. Stay tuned...