The Trip East, Day 11: in which there is more art and less matters

The bulk of the day was spent, as planned, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. They don’t open until 11:00 am, though, so there was time for an errand before.

I went to Centre Eaton and picked up a pair of New Balance walking shoes. An immense improvement! Probably the best shoes I remember owning. Zero pressure on existing blisters from my previous shoes, and a nice springiness to the step. Night and day. Now I can see why Steve Jobs only wore New Balance – not the same model, but still. I might have just found my new favourite shoe.

Anyhoo, I arrived at the MMFA (or MBAM in French, which is more fun, frankly) and discovered it’s housed in three different buildings, only two of which are publicly accessible as far as I know. There’s an old converted church, and there’s this new one:

Two very happy surprises about MBAM. First off, in celebration of a new exhibit of Napoleonic items that were recently donated, admission was free throughout the building. Second, something I didn’t discover until I got into the galleries. I saw someone snapping away with their point-and-shoot. Then another with a DSLR. Security guards were walking by and not saying a word. Could it be? Yes. They. Allow. Pictures.

I had already checked my camera with my bags at the coat check, and not wanting to waste any of the 6 hours I had in the place, I dug out the trusty iPhone and began snapping. Here’s a Renoir:

After a couple of hours in a few of the galleries, my phone battery was almost depleted, so I went back to coat check to recharge, and to retrieve my DSLR. On with the portrait lens, and more photos, this time (I hope) of better quality, although the iPhone’s no slouch either.

Here’s just a small sample of what else I got. Note Napoleon’s actual hat and death mask – both were taken with the iPhone, the rest with the Panasonic Lumix GH2:

As 5:00 closing time approached, I began madly snapping away, barely looking at what I was getting, knowing I could take time to look at it later, albeit not in person. Tired but happy, I also came away from the boutique with a few books.

Rather than heading straight home on the metro, I decided to have dinner in the MBAM neighbourhood first. I wandered a bit in that strange headspace you can get into where you’re so tired and hungry you don’t know what you want. Everything also looked just a bit too classy for my mood.

About then I saw some cheap yellow chaser lights, which led me to Carlos & Pepe, a Mexican restaurant. Turned out to be just what the doctor ordered – and I was the doctor:

Rested and fed, I made my way back to the barracks. A few errands tomorrow, then on to the train, and thence to Quebec City, to attend the conference that initiated this entire trip. My posts may be intermittent over the next few days, as much of what I’ll be doing will be work-related, but I’ll try and keep things up.

The Trip East, Day 10: in which a man’s gotta know his limitations

Dirty Harry was right. I discovered the hard way today that you can’t make 50 year old feet do 20 year old activities for very long without paying for it eventually. Especially in a city with hundred year old cobblestones.

My feet have been a bit achy and sore at the end of the day lately, but yesterday they were really talking to me. On the way home I picked up some new insoles and replaced the worn-out ones in my shoes.

Today, even with the new insoles, I found I couldn’t walk more than a hundred yards without starting to limp. Pretty much constant pain, not unbearable, but certainly distracting. Tomorrow, I make a pilgrimage to the mall to source some better walking shoes and see if that helps.

Today was also the first test of my new migraine medication. I felt an aura coming on this morning, and thankfully I had a dose with me that dissolves instantly on the tongue. Aura came and went, but no headache afterwards. BAM! Take that, inherited condition!

Enough health complaints. Today I spent the entire day in Old Montreal. For me, it was almost completely about the architecture. Around every corner there’s yet another building to gasp at. Here’s a few favourite samples I found while following a great self-guiding tour:

The crown jewel of them all, though, was Notre Dame Basilica. Here’s the sight that greeted me on first coming into the darkened sanctuary from a brightly lit street:

There’s so much detail here, so much decoration; paintings, sculpture, woodwork, all decades if not centuries old. I was interested to find the two statuettes of Ezekiel and Jeremiah that might have inspired the well-known Irving Layton poem:

“What coarse jokes must pass between you…”

I was on a mission for lunch today: Poutine. Everyone must have their favourite place, but I found one in the vicinity, appropriately called Montreal Poutine. It’s run by a few very nice young people, and their take on the traditional dish has some twists, but I opted for the straightforward version. I did offset that with a grilled cheese sandwich with chicken, three kinds of cheese, onions and caramelized pears, and a Maudite to wash it all down:

By about 5 pm, it was getting very overcast, too dark for photos. My feet were ready to give out at any minute, and it started to rain. Fortunately, I was pretty much done with the self-guided tour, so I looked for some place to have supper and rest up before heading home. I almost literally stumbled on this place:

They had a nice artichoke salad, a great grilled cheese sandwich (again, not so traditional, with ham and some kind of gruyere on the inside, and grated parmesan and a cherry tomato on top) and a European orange drink:

(I realized later I could have had a beer – it takes some getting used to a province where the liquor laws are more American than Canadian. Heck, I could have bought a six-pack from the gas station this morning if I was so inclined. But I digress.)

All in all, a good day, to which I meant to add a visit to the Museum of Archaeology and History, but all the museums are closed Mondays in the fall and winter months. Oh well, something for the next trip. I still have one full day left, and it’s going to be spent at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. I loves me a bunch of art, I does.

The Trip East, Day 9: in which Bucky figures prominently

For some reason, I was up earlier than usual, and decided to go to Ile Sainte-Helene. The island has seen a lot different uses over the years – Aboriginal encampment, military post – but for me the one I remember most is the site of Expo ’67.

I was 6 years old when Expo was on, and I’ve never been to the site before now, but somehow the event has held some fascination for me. The optimism, the late 60s styling, the international flavour – not sure if it’s any one of those, or all of them, but I think the big one is the design.

One of the most prominent designers, of course, is R. Buckminster Fuller, or “Bucky” as he was sometimes known. His design for the geodesic dome of the US Pavilion is still standing:

Also extant are a number of pieces of statuary that I assume were on the original site as well, but don’t have labels for some reason:

I was at the park by about 8:00, so there was almost no activity – at least little human activity anyway:

Later that morning, after having made a circuit of the entire island snapping away, I visited a couple of the museums. The first was the Biosphere, tucked into Bucky’s dome. It has a number of interesting environmentally-themed exhibits, including one that had dress designs using repurposed materials. Here’s one made entirely out of books, for example:

But the best part of that museum, at least for me, was the view from the observation deck. It’s an odd feeling being inside the dome but outdoors; everywhere you look, your vision is obscured by that triangular grid. Reminds me of an old Star Trek episode, The Tholian Web:

On to the Stewart Museum, which has been improving its digs in an old military barracks and fort built in the early 1800s. There are a number of interesting artifacts dating all the way back to the first European encounters with the new world. (Sorry, no pictures – my bag had to be checked, and I assumed that meant I couldn’t use my camera phone.) However, here’s a shot of one of the exterior walls, showing some of those holes they shoot guns out of (can’t remember the name for them, can’t be bothered to look it up right now:)

After that, it was back to the mainland, so to speak. I had left my charging cable for my phone back at my lodgings, so I had no way of recharging it using my portable battery. So I made a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Apple Store on Rue Ste-Catherine.

Being a Sunday afternoon, the place was absolutely packed. My errand done, I realized all I’d had to eat that day was a snack breakfast at the Biosphere, so it was time for a good feed. Across the street from the Apple Store was Les 3 Brasseurs, a microbrewery and pub that seemed to get good recommendations. Their medal-winning house “brun” was superb, and I had a nice cordon bleu schnitzel to go with it, since it was Oktoberfest after all.

On the way home, I solved the mystery of the searchlights. It’s an interactive art installation. Passersby can control the direction of one of the searchlights, and the others “react” to its movement. Up to six of the searchlights can be controlled at any one time. I didn’t stick around to try it out, but the people who did looked like they were having fun. Here’s a little info on it.

One last note on what’s turned out to be a long post! I’m finding the sound of French around me is not as alienating as it seemed to be yesterday. In fact, it seems comforting. I do get the sense that when I do the courtesy “merci” at the end of a conversation that’s been all in English, there’s some times when I think I see a reaction flash across the person’s face that seems to say sarcastically, “wow, the anglais is throwing me a bone”. I don’t know. On the whole, though, Francophones have been very kind and very accommodating. It’ll be interesting to compare that experience with Quebec City when I get there – I’ve been told by some people there’s less accommodation.

So thanks, Montrealers, and thanks, Bucky!

The Trip East, Day 8: a new province, a new language

A day filled with mild culture shock. It began in Ottawa, ON and ended in Montreal, QC. But it might as well have started on Earth and ended on Mars.

Well, that’s putting it a bit strongly, but the day (and I suspect, the rest of the trip) will be one long French immersion course. I do have some high school French, and spent a few weeks with a Rosetta Stone course to refresh my memory, but there are gaps in what I need in the way of everyday vocabulary.

That being said, everyone I’ve met so far has been very pleasant and accommodating, and in fact is probably used to dealing with “maudite anglaises” on a regular basis. It was gratifying when my limited French was able to leap to mind, but I suspect people were thinking in some corner or their minds, “look, a talking dog”.

Anyway, on to the day’s activities. After another fine train ride this morning thanks to VIA, I arrived in the Montreal train station, and emerged from the train area to discover these fine art deco murals:

I contacted my billet, and after a bit of a delay while my room was being prepared, I finally dropped off my extra luggage and was off to make the most of the rest of the day.

I decided to make my way to the top of Parc du Mont Royal, a good thing since it took the better part of the afternoon. I had planned to combine it with some other activities on another day, and it clearly needs a half-day of its own.

A ride on the metro, a short bus ride almost to the top, and then it’s walking all the rest of the way. The fall colours and vistas made it far from drudgery.

At the top, I was rewarded with the sight of the iconic cross.

After Mont Royal, I headed off to dinner with the nephew of one of my dear friends. And where else would one go in Montreal, but to Schwartz’s Deli!

We waited in line outside for about 20 minutes, and when we were finally let in, we sat next to an older local couple and another older couple visiting from Philadelphia. The close quarters necessitated conversation, so we talked about this and that as we partook of what must be Montreal’s finest smoked meat sandwiches:

After bidding farewell to my dinner guests, I was treated to a light show coming from a couple of locations near the Place des Arts. What was the occasion? I don’t know, but it was a beautiful sight. I shot some video of it, I’ll post that sometime after I get back.

Now, very tired, I’m pondering which of my itineraries to take on tomorrow. If the weather’s good, it’ll likely be the old Expo 67 site, now known as Parc Jean-Drapeau. If not, perhaps a museum or two in Old Montreal.

The Trip East, Day 7: in which I suffer for my art.

I’m writing this post on my iPhone while sitting in a laundromat. It’s almost the end of another very long day.

It started with an unpleasant discovery. VIA Rail only allows two pieces of carry on luggage on the next leg of my journey tomorrow. Thanks to my recent purchases, I have 3. I called VIA to see about a freight service. Any option there wouldn’t work with my itinerary. So, on my way to the National Gallery of Canada this morning, I stopped off at Canada Post, bought a box and aw tape, and shipped the excess back he. I have a feeling I’ll need to do that once more before the trip to Quebec City, but we’ll see.

Once at the NGC, however, things improved. The place was being threatened by a giant spider, however.

This is, of course, the Louise Bourgeois sculpture “Maman”.

As I suspected, no photos allowed inside the galleries, so today’s pics were limited. Got a shot of the long ramp up to the first level galleries:

What glories awaited at the end of that road! No words are adequate to describe what it’s like to stand in the same orientation to a canvas as a famous artist, know the paint you are now looking at was put there by that artist. The only way to experience that creation more directly would be to watch it being painted.

Van Gogh. Renoir. Rembrandt. Picasso. And so many others, some of whom were unknown to me before today but which have now become new favourites, or at least new interests. Staring into the raw furnace of a Rothko. Basking in the brisk streamlining of Lawren Harris. Gasping at the energy Rodin brings to bronze.

It was 6 1/2 uninterrupted hours of bliss. No lunch needed – I was adequately fed.

Enough gushing. Tomorrow, on to Montreal.

The Trip East, Day 6

Another very long day, at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. For some reason I seem to remember parts of this place, even though I know for a fact I’ve never been here. Maybe there’s just parts of it that remind me of other museums, like the Royal BC Museum.

I started off in the Grand Hall, devoted almost entirely to west coast First Nations.

This space is immense – it has to be to contain several full-size totem poles and replica longhouses. The facing wall of glass makes it seem even larger, and lets in a tremendous amount of light, even on a rainy overcast day like today.

The building is crammed with exhibits, but I’ll try to pick out a few favourite items. In the First Peoples section, I found this interesting sculpture by Jamasie Pitseolak:

Anyone my age remembers those ads for the Unitarian Service Committee, including their address (okay, say it with me: 56 Sparks Street, Ottawa). I found a tribute to its spokesperson, Lotta Hitschmanova. From the exhibit, I learned her actual last name was Hitschmann, but she altered it in order to distance herself from her German heritage.

All the exhibits aside, there were three things I was really pleased with. One, the IMAX film Rocky Mountain Express, which has some spectacular cinematography. For a taste, here’s the trailer:

Second, the Zen Garden outside the Museum’s main entrance:

Third, the Cafe de Musee, the Museum’s restaurant. For some reason, I and one other party of three were the only ones in the place. It turned out to be fine dining for lunch! First, a mushroom soup that was actually a puree, wonderfully rich without being heavy. The main course, a first for me, was quail in a raisin-cranberry sauce:

That was followed by a concoction the chef had come up with herself – won tons filled with cheesecake, rolled in sugar and cinnamon, with a raspberry compote:

Very fine, very French, and a nice preview of dining experiences to come, hopefully, in Montreal and Quebec City.

Speaking of French, the closer I get to la belle province, I’m noticing the more prominent its language is becoming. For instance, because the Museum is actually in Quebec (Hull to be precise), all the signage is bilingual, but with French first. Took my eyes a while to get used to finding the English section sometimes. Seems obvious, but for someone who’s lived most of his life in a French-second world, it takes a bit of getting used to.

The Museum was open until 8 tonight, and for some reason I couldn’t find a bus that took me back over to Ottawa at that hour, so I walked back over the Alexandra Bridge, stopping at one point to get a night-time shot of the Parliament Buildings:

Tomorrow is the last full day in Ottawa, and it’ll be spent at the National Gallery. Like the AGO, it’s a “no picture” place, so I’m not sure what I’ll be able to capture, or even if I’ll bring the bigger camera – maybe I’ll just do it all with the iPhone!

The Trip East, Day 5

Today was spent at Parliament Hill. It’s very strange to visit a place you’ve only seen on TV, on film, etc. especially when it’s filled with such iconic things.

I arrived at the Visitor Centre, and before the tour, I went up the Peace Tower. At the base of the elevator up to the top of the tower, though, was a powerful and moving room: The Memorial Chamber.

The room has a number of cases containing books. The books in each of the cases contain the names of the people lost in each conflict. The central book, the first one in the Chamber, lists the names of the First World War dead. Since the book contains over 60,000 names, each day there is a ceremony held – at 11:00 am, the time of the signing of the WWI armistice – in which one page of the book is turned. That way every name is seen for one full day every year.

The central book case is reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant, which is probably not accidental. The rest of the room is equally reverential, moving, and astounding – and all in a room probably 50 feet on each side.

It’s testament to the impact that the first modern war had on those who lived through it; how clearly different in magnitude it had been from anything before it, and how earnestly they wanted to remember that magnitude, perhaps to prevent it happening again. All the more poignant in that more conflicts were to come – and more dead to remember.

The top of the Tower has a spectacular view.

I also took some video of the tour, and hope to post an edited version when I get back. The only part we didn’t see was the House of Commons, since Parliament is in session.

I could have come back later to see if I could get into Question Period, but it would have meant going back through the airport-level security to get back in the building. Besides, there were other treasures waiting outside – the statuary.

I spent the afternoon running a few errands – a second camera battery, for one – and narrowing down my choices for my two remaining days in Ottawa. After some hard deliberating, it’s the Canadian Museum of Civilization tomorrow (open until 8), and the National Art Gallery. The others will have to wait for another time!

The Trip East, Day 4

What. A. Day.

I left my one-room bohemian digs this morning with an extra burden – a bag of books I had bought at the AGO and ROM. I didn’t have room in my other luggage for them, at least not right now. I made the foolish assumption that I could walk from Bathurst and Queen to Union Station. Yes, it’s walkable, but not comfortably with 3 burdens. Plus, about halfway there, the handles on the bag broke, so I had to carry it under my arm.

Also, about halfway to the station, my phone no longer seemed to be responding to tapping on the screen, which eliminated any quick photos I could take with it. All the snaps I took today were with the other camera, and it’s so much more of an effort to get it out and shoot that I was pretty sparing with it. Here’s one shot I managed to pause long enough to get outside the station. No idea what this sculpture is about, there wasn’t enough time to check.

I arrived at Union Station with just a few minutes to pick up my ticket, and no time to scout for another bag to substitute for the ripped paper one, so I humped all my belongings onto the train.

The ride itself was beautiful. It really is a more civilized way to travel. No stress from driving, no road to be shared with other idiots or maniacs, just smooth rolling comfort and an ever-changing landscape. Granted, it’s a landscape that goes by awfully fast sometimes, but I did manage to get the occasional interesting shot, thanks to the quick shutter on the Panasonic GH2.

Meantime, I did some diagnostics on the phone, but I wasn’t able to correct the problem – still not accessible. It made no sense, and I couldn’t find any mention of the problem or a solution online. (Thank goodness for the iPad, otherwise I would have been completely without Internet access!)

Finally, we arrived at Ottawa Station, and I got the shots I wanted to get before I left:

Farewell, Aquarius, and we thank you.

A short cab ride later, and I was at the hotel. And what a hotel! Modest by hotel standards, perhaps, but in contrast to my last accommodations, it might as well be the Ritz Carlton:

And what a view! The telephoto even picks out what looks like some of the buildings on Parliament Hill in the distance:

I decide to head downtown to the Apple Store and see if someone can figure out what’s wrong with my phone. A kind young lady began taking my information on an iPad to set up an appointment for me, then asked what the problem was. I described it to her, and she said, “Oh, I know what that is.” After a few deft flicks and taps, the thing was back to normal. Turns out I had turned on the accessibility features somehow, which requires multiple taps to activate buttons, and other behaviours are toned down to allow for more ease of use. Except by me. I laughed heartily when she handed back the “fixed” phone!

I spent another hour or so doing some errands while I was downtown: getting my second meal of the day (at 3:00!); picking up a lighter jacket that should work better than the sweat box raincoat I’ve been wearing; and getting a couple of mesh laundry bags to help distinguish clean from dirty clothes (forgot to get them before leaving). I bought a pastry from a bakery in the Rideau Centre that looked like a cinnamon bun, but was tricked out like a boston cream – vanilla pudding filling, chocolate on top. Interesting, tasty, not sure I understood it, but I ate it.

One more thing. Remember that bag of books? Left them on the train. I called VIA Lost and Found, they said they’d call when they located them. Haven’t heard back yet as of this writing. Oddly, I’m not terribly upset about that – I’m just glad some of my more expensive and difficult to replace items are still with me.

Now to bed. Tomorrow, Parliament awaits.

The Trip East, Day 3

A long day at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum). I’ve lost 2 drafts of this post to a crashy blog app, and am too tired to rewrite it, so here’s a bucketload of photos from today. All were taken with the iPhone 4S because I forgot to charge my camera battery.

First, the TTC Museum subway station:

And now, the museum itself, some of my fave pics from today.

More later perhaps, including some Greek and Roman stuff. Tomorrow, on to Ottawa!

The Trip East, Day 2

I spent the entire day at the Art Gallery of Ontario. They don’t allow pictures in there, of course, but a selection of what I was able to get is below. The rest will be links.

When I got there right at opening, there was a line-up – something I’d never seen at a gallery. Turns out it was a member preview for the Chagall exhibit that opens in a few days. I thought about buying a membership just to get in to see it, but the lineup was so big it would have meant I would have had less time to see the other exhibits. Besides, Chagall really doesn’t turn my crank anyway.

My favourite stuff was probably the Thomson collection of medieval art on the main floor – I spent almost twice as much time there as in any other gallery.

What struck me time after time is that I would come across a familiar piece by Emily Carr or Lawren Harris or someone else, something that I’d seen as a print many times, and would have to remind myself that no, this is the original I’m looking at, this is where all those prints came from.

Something that prints don’t allow you to do is examine the craft that went into these pieces: the brushstrokes (or lack of them in some cases!), the colors used to create a certain kind of light, and so on.

The AGO’s renovation (well, new to me at least, even though it’s 3 years old) is magnificent, especially the “Italian Gallery”‘ the one that you see pictures of all the time. Well, you’re going to see a couple more, so bear with me.

You can also see the exhibit that’s been in there since the gallery opened. In the large trunk and the pieces along the wall, the artist carefully stripped away the wood of the tree, revealing the younger version of it embedded inside.

That’s about it for pictures. Other highlights were: the Lawren Harris paintings, as I mentioned; the “salon” recreations (paintings jammed in next to each other, pretty overwhelming in a good way; the larger paintings like this one (the measurements really don’t give you any idea of what the thing is like in person, all the figures are life-size!); the Pope bust; and – well, I could go on, but I won’t.