(james benedict brown) on the road

Trains, planes, automobiles, buses, ferries, streetcars

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 28 January, 2006

We’re now back in Montréal. I say we this time, and not I, because it gives me great pleasure to be back in the company of my darling belle. We followed a giant arc from New York to Montréal, via Albany, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Toronto and Ottawa. On the left, in fact, is a photo of train 63 ‘The Maple Leaf’ pausing at Niagara Falls (New York) before we crossed the border and back into the land of the free. It doesn’t look much like a railway station, but it is… a set of railway sidings next to a boarded up warehouse, with a small sign saying ‘Amtrak: Niagara Falls’ on it about sixty feet away. Two of the passengers in our car didn’t even realise we had reached their station, and were close to being carried away with us into Canada, such was the non-existence of the station.

In New York we ate, drank, slept, walked and explored very well, thanks in no small part to the kind hospitality and friendship of a long time friend of Bea’s family. From a central location in the Lower East Side we criss-crossed Manhattan on foot, ascended the Empire State Building and meandered through Central Park. This was only my second visit to the city (see the archived blog posts from November of last year for my first). My affection for the city comes from a new relative proximity… before moving to Montréal, New York was always an ultimate destination; somewhere at the end of a long and expensive trans-Atlantic flight that set it apart as an expensive and ‘special’ destination. Living so close to NYC has changed things. Now I can enjoy it as a city that I feel I know, that I can wander through with no obligation to do the tourist sights. For many visitors New York can be an exceptionally expensive destination (much like London can be to people from outside the UK). Accomodation is usually the biggest financial drag. So having friends who are kind enough to put us up, and being able to travel there on the cheap makes all the difference. Some of the best things to do in NYC are free: the Statten Island ferry, the foot/cycle path around Manhattan’s shore, the view from the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park… and for an aspiring architect from a small island on the cold and damp side of Europe, walking and looking. I will be back soon.

On Sunday morning our train slipped out of Penn Station and we began the twelve and a half hour journey to Toronto. As I’ve mentionned before, Amtrak is a network between a rock and a hard place: zero political support from the state that owns it and virtually zero practical value as a useful public transportation network. I sincerely hope that it has a future, because the our journey into Canada summed up Amtrak’s greatest characteristics. Yes, it was shabby and slow, but it was supremely comfortable and utterly relaxing. I see no need to fly between Montréal and New York at this time in my life (except for romantic gestrues of course)… the train is cheaper, greener and a much more enjoyable form of transport.

In Toronto we were again treated like royalty, with gracious hospitality from another long time family friend of the Munbys and Porters. I look forward to offering the same kind of unquestioning hospitality to the offspring of my university friends in a few decades time :) We ate out and explored the city. Amongst other things, we took a ferry across to the Toronto Islands, about fifteen minutes off shore into Lake Ontario. Here on Ward Island (see photo) we discovered a car-free residential suburb of attractive small houses, each built, modified and decorated individually. Children and pets were playing freely and safely outside, and the pace of life was a few notches below what we’d found in Toronto itself. My recent sojourns in the remote Small Islands of Scotland have exposed a broody side of me that wants to escape to a remote island and make babies close to nature. Perhaps Ward Island would allow me to one day satisfy this broodiness while remaining close to repertory cinemas and other twenty-first century essentials…

We travelled from Toronto to Montréal on Wednesday, taking an extended layover in Ottawa, the nation’s capital. We arrived and found the city calm, after months of built up for Monday’s general election. Canada has followed the tendency of many ‘western’ nations, and has elected a conservative government. The NDP, Canada’s “third option” didn’t do as well as hoped, and came in shy of the number of ridings needed to hold the balance of power in the new goverment. Their campaign buses were being returned to Greyhound at Ottawa’s bus station when we arrived. Jack Layton’s head appears to have had a chunk removed from it in this photo, as the vinyls were begun to be removed so that the buses could return to their normal duties.

The numbers of the new parliament, however, are not convincing. A red minority government has been replaced by a blue one. Canada has it’s sixth ‘western’ (i.e. from Alberta) Conservative prime minister. Of the other five, I don’t recall that one lasted a full term. The shortest lasted just four months. My understanding of Canada as a peaceful nation of folk who rejoice in a democratic and liberal society remains, but I am understanding more and more about the divisions within this vast country, and they are much more complex than those south of the border. Despite an extremely well educated and politically aware populous, most Canadian’s understanding of their fellow nationals seem blurred by inaccurate myth and preconceptions. Here are my wildly provocative and inaccurate observations. Québecers largely couldn’t give a damn about the rest of the country, and have lost out as a result (the Bloc Québecois diving in the elections because they got arrogant and attacked the wrong opposition… the Conservative party won several seats by actually addressing issues that Québecers care about). Newfies regret getting involved in the first place (they joined the federation in 1949). Nova Scotians seem to hate the west for their current boom and Québec for not taking an interest in them. Albertans are fed up of being screwed royally and sent from boom to recession by a government that’s taken and never given, and British Columbians are too busy living in paradise to care. Oh, and broadly speaking (and certainly not those that I know personally) most Ontarians give the impression of having absolutely no understanding of anyone outside their province.

Good thing no-one reads this blog, eh?

*j*

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3 Responses

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  1. ulli said, on 29 January, 2006 at 12:33

    I read your blog. Sometimes. And I love the photo of you and B. amidst all those carrés.

  2. Gem said, on 30 January, 2006 at 04:42

    Lovely to have you back. I’ve missed you over the last week. No clever comments or intelligent views on life to brighten up my working day.
    Never go away again!

  3. Andrea said, on 21 July, 2007 at 15:08

    Thank you for pointing me to this “old” post.
    I’m from Italy and I don’t know much about Canada, except for sparse news from my girlfriend’s relatives who live there and the South Park movie. ;-)
    BUT…
    …have you ever read Mordecai Richler’s “Barney’s Version”?
    Quite an interesting and reccomended reading. And not only for the Quebec setting…


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