Montreal

The leaves are falling in Canada, and of course across the Northern Hemisphere, but that is an inference and an assumption. I have watched the trees from my apartment’s window and can confidently speak for them at least. The colours were amazing, but it is now coming to an end, indeed one tree already has completely bare branches. Soon the only green will be the conifers, and of course, the grass, when it is not covered by snow.

I do not indeed to spend much of this winter, 2018-2019, in Canada, I have done my time in this season here over the past four years. I feel the concept of ‘brass monkey’s cold’ is one I now grasp. Walking on ice and landing flat on my backside is also an experience I have had, as is dressing as one leaves one building and undressing on entering the next. I shall take a break.

It has been an interesting month though. In the last letter I talked about visiting my brother and seeing my extended family in the Cape in South Africa. In October he came to Canada for a few days while his wife Lynn was with friends in New York. We had planned to meet at Pearson airport and go up to Montreal for a couple of nights. Of course when one is working to a schedule things can and do go wrong. The last fast train from Toronto to Montreal was at 17:57. Derek’s plane was scheduled to arrive at 16:16, so we should have made it. Of course the flight was late, so we had to rethink the weekend. We did check what a flight would cost, and the answer was too much.

We took the airport train to Union station, bought tickets for the next day and then found a reasonable hotel near the station in Toronto for the night. The journey takes about 5 hours and is actually rather tedious, so it was a pity we had to go up on Friday and return on Saturday (Derek’s plane from Toronto was at midday on Sunday).

The hotel in Montreal was called Hotel Quartier des Spectacles near the centre of the city. The reception and accommodation was on the upper floors of a building on Sainte-Catherine Ouest. Lynn had sent a message to Derek saying their hotel in New York seemed to be a slightly dodgy area. Well ours turned out to be right next to a sex shop. If one looks at the hotel website this is airbrushed out. It was actually quite adequate, reasonably quiet despite being on a busy road, and was not too expensive.

Since we only had a few hours in Montreal we walked up to the top of the plateau Mont-Royal, which took well over an hour, and had coffee there. We got back into town through a combination of public transport and an Uber and then hopped on a sight-seeing tour bus. We sat on the open top deck, it was very chilly. These buses are old London route-masters that have been imported to many North American cities for the ‘hop-on hop-off’ tours. The guide said ours was built in 1969.

We had lunch at a pizza restaurant, something I had cause to regret. Please feel free to skip the rest of the paragraph. About halfway back to Toronto on the train my stomach made its presence felt and I had a brief bout of violent diarrhea. Fortunately the toilets on the train were easily accessible, very clean and there was no queue. I carry various provisions in my medical kit and these include charcoal tablets for just such unfortunate events. I think they work, but it may just be a placebo effect. What caused this? I suspect the ham on the pizza! Derek was fine fortunately.

I was ok by the time we got to our Super 8 hotel in Toronto, and was able to go out and enjoy dinner and wine. Indeed for the most part, on this trip, the food and wine were excellent. I do think a dining car on the train would attract customers. It is a source of deep regret to me that it is no longer possible to have dinner on the train from London to Norwich. That used to be such a treat.

On the Sunday morning we took a car to the airport and I negotiated a price for the driver to take me on to Waterloo. The drivers I have had recently are mostly from Pakistan or neighbouring countries. They have generally been about my age. I am filled with admiration for the way they work. It is possible to make a living doing this, but only just. Their goal is to build up a fleet of cars and hire people to drive them, thus extracting value from others. The limousine and taxi business in Canada provides an excellent example of how capitalism works. It has been greatly shaken up by the arrival of Uber and all the drivers complain about this. There is a social safety net, but it is not great.

It was really nice to have a chance to hang out with Derek. He turned 60 this year which is quite shocking to me. My sister Gill had a brilliant idea for a memorable birthday present: we bought him a balloon flight for two in the West Country in the UK. Their problem will be fitting it in when they are in the UK, and the weather is good enough. One attempt has already failed because of low visibility!

On the last Saturday of October I was invited to a Halloween party. Most people make a great deal of effort to dress up. I got second prize for least effort! I did ponder it and then realized that the only thing I had to wear (other than going out and buying things) was my Doctorate robe. Actually this gets used so infrequently that I should have worn it. It was fun, but I was the only one there without family, and knew so few people that I was happy to accept a lift home at about 9 pm. At this time of year there are porches in the town have hollowed out pumpkins, with candles in them making eerie glows.

A great deal of the past week has been taken up with reading a PhD thesis, sent by a colleague in South Africa. We, as academics, undertake marking of our colleague’s student’s PhDs because there are times when we need people to look at the theses of our students, and it is a big task. I have always allocate three full days for a thesis. This one is going to take at least five days. Sadly it is a bit like the curate’s egg, ‘good in parts’. It was informative though, and had I read it before I submitted my last article I would have had to have written that differently. The last three chapters were really interesting, the first three left me feeling brain dead. Oh well.

I need to plan my research and writing program for the next few years. The first question I have to ask is: is there anything I really want to do? I am fortunate because there is some really interesting consultancy work I need to look at and this is going to take a couple of weeks. As important I will be doing it with a colleague who has similar experiences to me in Southern Africa and who is about my age. These things matter for good collaboration. The one thing that really interests me is what will happen as donors stop providing money for the Anti-retroviral Drugs that are keeping so many millions of people alive. Some countries can afford to provide them for their citizens.

Films

There are two small, old and quaint cinemas close to the apartment. I was invited to go and see “The Wife” at one of the cinemas last week. This was a thought provoking film. In brief: a young academic is teaching creative writing. He marries his top student who is extremely talented. She writes the books that are passed off as his and which are enormously successful. He is awarded a Nobel prize for ‘his’ writing. The film ends with him dying of a heart attack in the Stockholm hotel. It was really about power, honesty and relationships. It was so very interesting and also well made.

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