Sunday, 29 December 2013

The First White Christmas

Charles and I are back up in Ville-Marie, Témiscamingue, for Christmas. And while it would be out of character for me to not admit that I prefer it here in summer, it is exceptionally beautiful in winter, too. This has been my first-ever White Christmas and—boy, oh, boy!—has it turned it on for me. So. Much. Snow!

On Christmas Eve, we went to Midnight Mass with Charles's parents. Miraculously the church didn't burst into flames for hosting me, but that's a story for another time. On the big day, we had the full-shebang of roast turkey and bûche de Noël, and then the child-cousins killed lots of things dead on the newly-gifted X-Box: some things are universal, I guess.

It felt weird to be so far away from my own family and friends, that's the penalty of so much change. Thankfully all my French lessons are beginning to pay off, though. While the northern Québec accent still has me stumped on some pretty stock phrases, I can now communicate with non-English-speaking members of my new family-in-law and don't feel as bewildered by the conversation as I did back in July.

Yesterday, Charles and I decided to go work off the Christmas stuffing by snowshoeing at Rivière-des-Quinze, about 40km north of Ville-Marie. Stunning! There were only a few other adventurous souls out there, and we had the delight of a fresh track. The little bays, the long vistas and the abundant evidence of an active beaver population ensure we will be back again for a picnic come summer. The track we chose was quite rugged, and as I stopped and stared up one last major climb I was surprised to find myself suddenly on the verge of totally losing my s**t. It was nothing that some water and a good handful of dates and dried figs couldn't fix; however, after two hours of walking, when we finally doubled back on our tracks at the very beginning of the circuit, we found we could barely see them due to the effects of wind and snowfall. Having recently lost one of our beloved cats to hypothermia during a cold snap in Montréal, it was a healthy reminder to not be blithe about a harsh environment simply because it's not the Australian desert.

As we headed back to Ville-Marie, we realised that yesterday, the 28th, was the six-month anniversary of my arrival in Montréal. That was quick! Almost instantaneously, I got a craving for poutine, so we headed to the local casse-croûte, whereupon I promptly demolished a medium heap of that particularly Québécois delicacy—a new world record for me and a most appropriate way to celebrate.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

On va vers hiver

It's here! For weeks the anticipation has been building. Will it or won't it snow tonight? This weekend? Before December?! And tonight here it is, the bright, white blanket putting all our childish fitfulness to rest. And again with the firsts—this is my first First Snow.

Two weeks ago as I walked home from class at lunchtime, the sky dusted down the tiniest of snowflakes that melted as they touched my jacket. This is it!, I thought. The next morning it tried again, and the more adventurous of my two black cats—tropically born and bred—came trotting into the kitchen after his morning garden survey with a sprinkle of white flakes across his back. Definitely it! And then...nothing.

Ice has slunk into the nooks and crannies, making my daily walk treacherous, with every puddle and pooling frozen on the footpaths and often hidden under piles of leaves. Between last Friday and today the lake in Parc La Fontaine has incrementally frozen, too. And now the late night revellers who want to challenge the ice have had to resort to bigger and bigger objects to throw at it to test their respective strengths. Drunken man vs ice. The ice has obviously remained resolute, and logs and rocks and garbage sit dejected on its surface.

In preparation for their trials ahead, the city's squirrels are as fat as they are going to get after early November's feast on Halloween's abandoned pumpkins. The sight of the mauled and maimed remains of jack-o'-lanterns strewn throughout the neighbourhood has been more gruesome and disturbing than most people's costumes!

But tonight I'm content to go to bed and dream of crisp, clean snow. And I hope to wake up tomorrow to a fresh new city that will charm me all over again. I will enjoy the novelty of my first First Snow while I can, at least until the relentless cold forces me inside and I begin to dream of summer.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Rediscovering the Forgotten

As predicted, I have managed to make myself pretty busy of late, but one of the things I am up to is 20 hours of French classes a week. My trip to class takes me through the beautiful Parc La Fontaine every morning and back again at lunchtime. I amuse myself with the squirrels' antics on the walk through the park, and I was quite amazed when I first saw the elusive champagne-coloured ones that live there. This morning as I wandered through, I realised that apart from a couple of days in Adelaide in May 2009, I haven't experienced an autumn for over a decade. A decade! Quel surprise! Maybe it's the novelty of it all, but I am finding this autumn in Montréal especially spectacular.

Last week, Amy, one of my oldest friends from my hometown, came to visit for five days. On her first day I took her for a walk up the Mont-Royal. It was yet another gloriously sunny day, and tiny yellow leaves were gently raining down through the sun's golden rays onto the wide, wide path. Oh, just stop it, you! We were both seriously impressed.

One of the great pleasures of a Northern autumn is harvest season, and the boys and I have been solid in our appreciation of that. The weekend before last we went apple picking at Vergers Philion, near Hemmingford, down by the U.S. border. Philion is an organic orchard and the air was filled with lady birds. I spent a busy five minutes trying to stop one or two from risking drowning in the port-a-loos on first arrival, only to realise there were 50 more banging on the door trying to get in. I just had to leave Mother Nature to deal with it in the end.

We picked about 7.5kg of apples and pears, and my great excitement of the day was Russet apples. I had never heard of them before: tough skinned, sweet and very firm in texture, they were once known as leatherjackets, and were hugely popular in Victorian times, though now fallen somewhat out of favour for anything other than cider production. What I was most fascinated to see were the 'cracked' ones on the first few trees we encountered. Cracking is technically a fault, caused by inconsistent water supply during the formation of the fruit, but it appealed to my Ugly can be beautiful too philosophy, and I picked a cheery armful, much to Lolo's bemusement. They were superb with cheese and bubbles the next day when we had visitors.

The other produce we couldn't help but see on our little road trip was pumpkin: totally ubiquitous around here at the moment! Strangely, though, Canadians don't eat that much pumpkin, certainly nothing like Australia's obsessive consumption from weaning to old folks' home. I'm having contraband thoughts of sneaking some seeds of my beloved Jap variety in from the Old Country to blow the minds of a few folks I know who think of them as only for making pie and as decorations. We've been busy eating pumpkin and peanut dip, pumpkin risotto, roast pumpkin, pumpkin in tagine, and roasted pumpkin seeds, peasants that we are! Interestingly, I encountered an article this week by a Paris-based writer, David Lebovitz, who noted that, despite the Légumes Oubliés movement in France, pumpkins still have too much of an association with war-time deprivation there to be commonly found in the markets. I also recall relatives of my former Italian bosses dismissing them as "pigs' food".

Autumn, pumpkins, Russets: forgotten, ignored or neglected all. When combined with a five-day visit from a beloved friend of over 20 years, it has been quite a pleasant couple of weeks of appreciating the Forgotten.

P.S. I've read no more of Proust than his infamous homage to the madeleine, but having been eating said cakelet for breakfast a bit lately, I can quite appreciate what all his fuss was about!

 Cracked Golden Russet apples:
hitting every branch on the way down as they fall out of the Ugly Tree!

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Stop Press: Alien Mother Ship Saves Day

Previously on Reason and Wonder, I discussed the fact that you can see the Montréal Olympic Stadium from the corner of our street. Since we are moving apartment tomorrow (I know, again!), I thought I'd procrastinate a bit this morning and post some images of a recent trip we made to the stadium because, well, it's totally awesome!

I fell in love with the Olympic Stadium the very first time I came to Montréal, back in March 2011. It seriously looks like an alien mother ship has just plonked itself down in the inner suburbs north of Downtown. But until a few weeks ago I hadn't seen it up close.

A couple of Fridays ago, Charles decided to cash in some extra hours he'd accrued and take the day off work. It was a lovely sunny day, so we thought we'd go take a picnic to the Botanic Gardens and have a romantic wander around. It turns out that because of the giant topiary exhibition, half of the rest of Montréal had the same idea. It also cost twice as much as it usually does to get into the gardens, but there was still an hour-long queue to get to the ticket booth. We decided that we no longer wanted to share our romantic afternoon with so many people, so after I had sulked over our sushi for a bit, Charles suggested we go for a walk around the Olympic Stadium, just across the road, instead.

Wow, wow, wow!

I love the Olympic Stadium even more now: it totally turned the day around.

Thanks, Charles! xo

RIP Jeffrey Smart

Thursday, 15 August 2013

My secret crush

I am loving Montréal. I fall for it more heavily every day. But on my way here I had a brief encounter with another city and I developed a full-blown crush on it. Tokyo, I think I love you!

I have been wanting to go to Japan for years. Flights from Cairns to Tokyo were always so tantalisingly cheap, but for reasons too boring to explain it was too difficult to go before I had a mortgage, and once I had a house to pay off on a single income, well, international travel was at first too much of a luxury, and then purely a necessity in order to see Charles.

When it came time to book a one way ticket to Canada, I discovered the horrible truth that one way tickets are most certainly not roughly half the price of a return ticket! So I put those cheap Jetstar Cairns/Japan flights to good use and booked my flight with a 44-hour stopover in Tokyo. Boy, oh, boy, am I glad I did!

Harajuku Station at 9:20ish am. Where did 400,000 people just go?
One of my Cairns workmates, the lovely Hedy from Tuulikki Titine, showed me a Tokyo city guide by Ebony Bizys from the blog Hello, Sandwich. It was very helpful and I will be forever grateful to Ebony for inspiring me to explore Shimokitazawa. I was also surprised at how much I loved the back streets of Harajuku, away from Takeshita Street, or as Ebony so helpfully suggests as a mnemonic device, "Tacky-shit Street." Most appropriate!

I had 'dinner and a show' at Hiroki in Shimokitazawa, which with its traditional wood fit out and two bickering chefs was everything I had hoped for from my lunch. The layered okonomiyaki was superb washed down with a beer after an already solid morning of tramping around the city looking at vintage shops and awesome stationery. It was so huge that when I collapsed from exhaustion on my hotel bed at only 8:30pm, I still did not feel the need to eat anything.

Hydrangeas are native to Japan. I did not know that!

The next day was my birthday, and while I had hoped to get to the Tsukiji markets at 4:30am to be let in to the tuna auctions, I had also realised my hotel supers (in the perfectly kitsch Hotel Hoshikaikan) did not have enough English to book me a cab when I wanted one. The Tokyo subway doesn't start running until around 5am, but the highly contested battle for entry to the market is done and dusted by then, and you know what? It all just got too hard after weeks of packing and cleaning and tidying up loose ends and all the rest. I now have an excellent reason to go back!

I did make it to the outer market by about 6:30am and that was really quite enough of a birthday present. (Morgan had joked that I was the only person she could think of who would imagine that a 4:30am trip to a tuna auction would be a birthday treat to oneself! I'm sure I can think of a couple of others like me though.) I had a great time just wandering up and down, eating sweet omelette and sushi for breakfast and finally figuring out that those things that looked like cocoa-dusted turds were actually dried bonito ready to take home and shave, paper-thin, into dashi stock or as a garnish. I've always been fascinated by the way it does a little death wriggle all over again when the shavings get sprinkled on a hot dish. I also wished I had had enough cash and stomach capacity to have something from the hole-in-the-wall soup and noodle vendors on Shin-Ohashi Dori. I missed them on my first whirl around and when I stumbled upon them they smelled so good but by that stage I was down to just enough yen for the metro ticket to Tokyo Central and they were cash only. Another excellent reason to go back!

On my next swing past, just over an hour later, this was completely butchered up into steaks and sashimi slabs.

Edamame. I heart you!
After the market started to wind down, I wandered up to the Ginza district and promptly wished myself back at the markets. High-end retail just wasn't cutting it that day and, anyway, I was too early. One thing none of my guide books or the travel websites told me was that most retail in Tokyo doesn't open until 10 or 11am. Yes, it stays open until 8 or 9pm, but opening times are a relaxed, civilised affair that certainly don't align with an early riser traveller trying to pack as much as possible into 44 hours.

Soon I was off, however. Whisked away by the Narita Express for my flight to Vancouver and my new life in Canada. I'll be back though, Tokyo. Mark my words! I love your food, I love your busyness, I love your hybrid aesthetic of tradition and cutting edge, I love your vibe, I love your ceramics. I LOVE your ceramics! Two nights were nowhere near enough!

Walk all day. Plant face here.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Summer lovin' might be time to take a break from gallivanting across half of Québec to tell you a little bit about my adventures.

Just as I had hoped, I have been having a relaxing Northern summer, and it's been almost like finally having a honeymoon except for the fact that Charles has had to work. A few weeks ago now, we went for a trip to Charles's home region, almost nine hours' drive from Montréal, to spend some time with his immediate family—just the 15 of us! Only one brother-in-law was missing.

On the drive there we stopped at a picnic area for lunch and within 10 minutes Charles had snuffled out something he had long told me about: a patch of wild strawberries. They were everything I had hoped they would be! Tiny fruits as small as my little finger nail with more flavour in each one than a whole handful of commercially grown ones. There were also a few wild blueberry plants and raspberry canes, but it was just a little bit early for them, sadly, and there were only one or two ripe ones to be found. Charles showed me the types of spots the strawberries like to grow in—sunny patches that aren't prone to water-logging—and after that I was on the scout.

When we arrived at Charles's parents' home in Ville-Marie, Témiscamingue, we learned that a relative had been out picking wild strawberries and had discovered a plot so good he'd picked enough to make jam. Proving that blood is not thicker than a good confiture, he refused to tell anyone where his special spot was. I was scandalised, but apparently that is just how it goes, so we determined to find our own patch and be childish and not tell anyone else where it was either.

The next day we drove up and down the back roads, me oohing and aahing over the scenery while Charles eyed the grassy verges like a hawk. After two hot, dusty hours we stopped at yet another prospective patch—me losing a little hope if the truth be told—and blam! There it was! The motherlode!

What followed was one of the most perfect 30 minutes of my life: picking teensy, ripe, wild strawberries and the occasional blueberry under the summer sun in a daisy field with my beloved. Yep, perfect! We only stopped because that summer sun was pretty ferocious and we were starting to get sunburnt, but after half an hour of solid picking by two grown adults we were able to hold our heads high and return with this great bounty:

Um, yes, well...ahem! Do you like the way Charles cleverly chose a colour co-ordinating t-shirt for the outing? Oh, look over there! What's that?

Suffice to say no jam making for us, but we did have renewed respect for the elderly relative who had done so well. The next morning we were doubly lucky enough to be able to eat all of the haul for breakfast ourselves—the kids don't like blueberries (what!?) and the adults were kind and claimed they had already eaten a lot of wild strawberries this season, so we should have them. Since we still had to hull each berry, it took us another 30 minutes to polish them off.

So, as you may gather, I have had a very happy introduction to the joys of wild berry picking in North America. I look forward to it being a regular summer event over the coming years, just as I am looking forward to going apple picking in Autumn/Fall. Below is a picture of our special wild strawberry patch, the berry plants well hidden down below the daisies. But come now, beyond vague geographical hints, don't imagine for a second that I am going to tell you where it is!