Residential Experiment #3: The Plateau Row Home (Montreal)

Montreal 2011 (36) (1024x680)
One of the perks of living in various places for a few months at a time is finding out what you do and what you don’t like as your home. Given that we eventually want a stable home, these residential experiments help us understand what our ideal home might look like, and where it may be located. Thus, in an effort to keep track of what we’ve learned, this is one of a series of posts where we evaluate the places in which we temporarily resided.

Nickname: The Plateau Row Home

Location: Montreal, Quebec

When: Summer of 2011

Basics: 1 bedroom plus office ground level row home on a tree-lined street in Montreal’s famous Plateau neighborhood.

As soon as we stumbled onto the idea of living in a number of places around the world, Montreal landed at the top of our list. Aside from gallivanting around the globe, we are honestly trying to find a place to grow some roots and start a family.

Both of us had visited Montreal on various occasions and felt a strong pull towards it. Our respective crushes on Montreal are quite reasonable considering Montreal is consistently rated as one of the world’s most livable cities, was called “Canada’s Cultural Capital”, and was also named a UNESCO City of Design.

The day we moved in we went for a walk through the neighborhood and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was “at home” – comfortable, safe, and relaxed. Despite the fact that Montreal is only a few hours east of where Marina and I did our graduate work, given the language and cultural differences between the two provinces, it really feels like a foreign country.

Since we were now out of our home province, both Marina and I were working 100% remotely – a goal I had set for us earlier in the year, when Marina was still working full-time at the university while I was working from home. While I certainly loved the flexibility afforded by remote work, the sense of isolation started gnawing at me over the latter months in Kingston. Having both of us working from home made the situation much more appealing, as we were able to share meals, discuss projects, go for walks, and run errands during the day together. The downside of both of us working from home was that we would sometimes distract each other – when one wasn’t being productive, the other one also struggled.

Our place was located just off of a main (but only two-lane) street with multiple independent grocers, bakeries, cafes, butchers, gyms, parks, restaurants, etc. This meant that we walked essentially everywhere, while our car was merely a nuisance. If we were to stay longer, I would have sold our car and simply used public transportation (nearby and efficient) and signed up for a car-sharing service for those few instances each month when we might require a vehicle. In addition, Montreal has a fantastic segregated bike lane system that runs across most parts of the city and is used by many locals – one of the best I have seen anywhere. Thus, biking would have been another option.

During this residential experiment, I think we learned much more about the type of area in which we’d like to live rather than specifics of our dream home. Being able to walk or bike to essentially everything you would ever need is very important to us, possibly more important than other factors. Also, having access to green space where we can go for a run, or walk, or throw a Frisbee around, or have a picnic is key. Reliable public transit that could take you (almost) anywhere you would ever need to go really made owning a car redundant. Lesson: the less we have to use our car, the happier we both seem to be.

Our street: the car had to be moved twice weekly

Montreal is a city with countless cultural events occurring on an ongoing basis. Having access to these events also made a big difference – we never felt bored. For instance, we attended Formula One, the Just for Laughs Festival, Fireworks Competition, and bumped into Bradley Cooper, during our short stay here. There was always something to do, and this, we learned is also critical to our happiness. Thus, we now know that we need to be living in a relatively large city (Montreal is the 2nd largest in Canada, and the 15th largest in North America).

Our actual home was rather quaint and sparsely furnished, but it had a fantastic office space with a wonderful view of the street, as well as a small deck in the back for soaking up some sun. Having a dedicated office area to do my work was a definite bonus over the dining room tables I had been using in the previous two residences. While we had yet another budget television set, given the lack of cable, we never really turned it on. Instead, when faced with some downtime, we would go for a walk. This, once again, reiterated what we already learned – we’re better off sans television.

Here is a detailed summary of items that either improved or tarnished our experience in the Plateau:

The good:

– All our wonderful new Montreal friends (whom we now dearly miss)

– People outside all the time

– Tolerant and less materialistic society (at least in our immediate neighborhood)

– Strong focus on family

– Great active transportation options

– Dedicated office space

My "office" (the space is empty as the photo was taken when we were moving out)

– Close enough to walk to anything we needed

– Running space (at La Fontaine park)

 

The bad:

– Parking is a major headache (had to move car twice a week for street cleaning, and sometimes could not find a spot on our street – same goes for guests who visited)

– In our neighborhood French was the predominant language and many individuals spoke next to no English. This was only a problem because I tend to be a rather social person and my French is terrible, thereby severely limiting my communicative abilities. If we stayed longer, I would take French lessons though I am well aware this would always be an issue for me.

– Far from most friends and family

In conclusion, we both miss Montreal and see it as a potential place to live at some point in the future.

Peter

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From crickets to tarantulas: sampling Southeast Asia’s culinary oddities

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NOTE: An edited version of this story was previously published in the Globe and Mail (read it here).

As I swiftly pick a cricket from a paper bag and deliver it to my mouth, my brain, hard-wired to protect me from mistakenly poisoning myself, revolts. But it’s too late. Sensing the cricket’s prickly legs on my tongue, I quickly transfer the crispy insect to the back of my mouth and begin to gnash it to bits with my molars. The only perceptible flavour is soy sauce, while the texture vaguely reminds me of a deep fried shrimp tail. Before I can reflect any further on the qualities of the bolus of mashed cricket in my mouth, I swallow.

“You’re right – it’s not that bad!” I exclaim, forcing a smile.

My partner, Marina doesn’t seem convinced. With a look of disgust she retorts, “You have a leg stuck in your teeth.”

As is typical of decisions you later regret, it all started with a healthy dose of peer pressure as we perused a night market in Chiang Mai’s walled city, in northern Thailand.

“You’ve got to try one”, encouraged Tim, a British friend of ours with a peculiar appetite for weird foods. As nonchalantly as if it were freshly popped kettle corn, he had been happily munching away on barbecued crickets he had purchased from a street vendor.

As we continued down the dimly-lit street flanked by vendors on either side, squeezing past the flow of sweaty, sunburnt tourists, the satisfaction of having overcome such a gross feat began to sink in. Sadly, that first momentary lapse in judgement – the result of which I was picking out of my teeth for some time after – was only the beginning of my reluctant adventures through Asia’s culinary oddities.

I dined on frog which had the consistency of tough lobster, but disappointingly, tasted like chicken.

I avoided gagging on bone-riddled water snake by imagining I was consuming an overcooked haddock.

I slurped up raw clams that had been left to roast in the sun, which, unsurprisingly, tasted like raw clams that had been roasting in the sun.

I actually enjoyed a nice beef stir fry that happened to include a healthy dose of red ants, which despite being visually unnerving, were largely imperceptible in both texture and flavour.

The most psychologically challenging dining experience of the trip, and frankly, of my entire life, involved a deep-fried tarantula – hairy legs and all.

As a group of us sat checking the drink menu at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, our Cambodian friend, Long, emptied the contents of a brown paper bag onto a large plate.

“They’re just spiders”, Long reassured us, as he broke a leg off of one palm-sized arachnid and popped it into his mouth.

According to Long, the consumption of tarantulas in Cambodia began as a means to survive the dramatic food scarcity throughout the country during the rule of the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, many years after the fall of Pol Pot’s regime, tarantulas remain a delicacy among locals and a curiosity for tourists.

Shortly following the historical explanation, the plate of tarantulas appeared under my nose. My heart immediately started racing as everyone at the table chimed in with the usual coaxing. Using my fork, I removed one of the spider’s eight legs and fighting my gag reflex, I began chewing what might be described as a crunchy straw.

But this was the easy part.

Despite my prior triumphs over crickets and snakes, I was frankly petrified of biting into the tarantula’s meaty body. I imagined the crisp outer layer cracking, and the tarantula’s inner contents exploding in my mouth like an over-ripened cherry tomato.

Dining on tarantula in Cambodia.

Instead, as I bit into the spider’s body I encountered white meat that had a softer texture than chicken and tasted only like the garlic, MSG, and salt in which it was cooked.

To be perfectly honest, despite the visual appearance of these bizarre local delicacies, none actually tasted that foul.

The most violent assault on my gustatory sense was committed by neither insect nor arachnid, but a fruit offered by a vendor in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam. Referred to by the locals as the “king of fruit”, durian fruit grows in trees and looks like bowling-ball sized lychee. The most obvious characteristic of durian fruit is its highly pungent odour, which has led to the prohibition of its consumption and possession in numerous public places throughout Southeast Asia. If you can get past the smell, you’ll be rewarded by a flavour somewhere between week-old chopped onions and freshly soiled hockey equipment, and the texture of lumpy mashed potatoes.

In truth, I’d choose tarantula over durian any day.

Peter

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