Canada Trip – Overview

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Published on: 2009.05.31

Table of Contents

1. Overview (or scroll down)
2. Day One — Getting to Canada
3. Day Two — Downtown Montreal
4. Day Three — Downtown Montreal & Caroline’s Condo
5. Day Four — Ottawa & René-Max’s house
6. Day Five — Saint-Constant & ExpoRail
7. Day Six — Biodome, Olympic Park

ALL Photos: on Flickr

Overview

As you may know, Marline and I took a trip to Canada for the last week of May 2009. Mostly, the trip was to visit members of her family in the Montreal area, family that I hadn’t yet met. But if that was all, the trip could have been just a couple of days. We also visited because I had never been to Canada before and Marline hadn’t been in a long time.

We left Seminole early on Sunday, May 24, and drove to Dallas, Texas, where we took a Boeing 737 to Montreal, Canada, arriving on Sunday evening. We came back on Saturday, May 30, very early, flying back to Dallas and then driving home, arriving Saturday afternoon. In all, the trip required six days and six and a half hours (150.5 hours).

Following are some general observations on the trip, and then I’ll follow with further blog posts dealing more specifically with each day.

Direct is Better

Flying “direct” is so much better than our usual multi-plane flights. You see, Oklahoma City’s airport only flies direct to certain airline hubs, and rarely to your actual destination. So most of our plane trips to and from here have involved connecting flights in places like Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, or even Washington, D.C.

But this time, because we drove to Dallas first, we could take a direct flight to Montreal, and a direct one back. I think it was the first time in my life I’ve taken a trip by airline that only required one flight.

This way, we avoided the rush to find the connecting flight, the worry that our plane won’t arrive in time to make the connecting flight, one less chance for the baggage to get lost, and much less time in airports in general.

Also, I’ll note here that the Dallas airport is really nice.

Canada

For our U.S. friends, some quick facts about Canada:

* The world’s second-largest country (source)
* The world’s 36th-largest population, at 33.7 million (source)
* Shares the world’s longest common border, with the U.S. (source)
* Like much of the U.S., it was explored by British and French in the 1600s and 1700s
* It is both a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy
* Official languages are English and French

In other words, there are more people in the state of California (36.8 million) than in all of Canada, because much of its land area is empty.

On the other hand, cities like Montreal are jam-packed with people, much like you’d expect from a U.S. metropolis. Montreal is the second-largest city in Canada, with 1.6 million people, roughly equivalent to Phoenix, Ariz. If Montreal was in the U.S., it would be the fifth-largest city.

SOME THINGS WE NOTICED

French Is First

Right off the bat, we noticed the almost-complete saturation of French-speaking people in Montreal. Yes, English is supposed to be an official language as well, but in the province of Quebec (where Montreal is), they act like it’s just French.

Road signs are in French only, waiters and cashiers always start in French first, Metro (subway) employees seemed to speak French only.

From our limited experience, most people speak both languages. When you order in a restaurant or ask directions, speaking English, almost everyone we met switched to English immediately, with varying degrees of success. One exception was the Metro employees, who wouldn’t answer in English at all, and appeared very sour that we didn’t know their language. But that was rare.

In fact, we ran into many people, especially young people working in the tourist industries, who were delighted to speak English. Several of them told us they needed the practice.

Products in the grocery stores (supermarkets) were marked in both languages, including the nutritional information, but the signs outside the stores were in French-only.

One day we drove out of Quebec into the next province, Ontario, to see Canada’s capital city, Ottawa. In that province, all the signs we saw were in both languages, and there were more English-speaking people. For instance, our tour guides at Parliament and the Supreme Court both spoke English very well, though it wasn’t their first language.

Brand Names

It was interesting to see how brand names are handled in another country, especially one that share such a long border and history with the U.S.

Many brand names were the same. Fast-food chains like Dunkin Donuts, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and others were all over Montreal and Ottawa, and filled the suburbs. But some were missing. We didn’t see a single Taco Bell, Sonic, or Carl’s Jr. during our visit. And then there were others, like Tim Horton’s and Harvey’s, which appeared to be everywhere. Sometimes, there were two Tim Horton’s on the same block, each accompanied by a Harvey’s. (Harvey’s had burgers, fries, onion rings, etc., while Tim Horton’s was more like a combination of Quiznos and Dunkin Donuts — they had coffee, donuts, and sub-sandwiches).

It was the same with grocery and retail stores. There were Wal-Mart stores, and IGA grocery stores (in the U.S., IGA is usually found in rural areas, and are small stores; in Canada, IGA was a very nice, upscale store) all over the place, but interspersed with stores we hadn’t seen before, like Loblaws and Metro Plus.

In the grocery store aisles, we found many familiar brands like Nestle, Kraft, Breyers, Frito-Lay, and so on, but many brands we hadn’t seen before. Also, some of the brand names were on products that we didn’t know existed. For instance, there were Lays “Ketchup” chips. Never heard of those. Didn’t try them.

Metric System

And, of course, everything is in the metric system (makes more sense, but that’s an argument for a different day). It was difficult, since the U.S. is still on the old nonsensical measuring systems.

Most of it wasn’t difficult for me to get, because products are similar. My Dr. Pepper bottle, for instance was 591 milliliters, and was exactly the same size as a 20 oz. bottle back home. So I can start making guesses based on that conversion.

When the road sign says “Maximum: 100 km/h”, I can make an educated guess. For some reason, I’ve always known that five miles equals eight kilometers, so 55 mph is 88 km/h. So, “100 km/h” on the road sign is about 62 miles per hour.

Shorter distances are easier, because I’m a sports reporter who covers track and field events. Even in the U.S., track events are measured in meters. One lap around the track is 400 meters. Four laps around the track is 1600 meters, which is pretty close to a mile. So, if a road sign says the exit is 800 meters away, I know that’s about half a mile. Pretty easy once you get used to it.

Temperature is another story. I could never get the hang of it. Yes, I’ve known since I was a child that freezing is 0°C and boiling is 100°C (32 and 212 in Fahrenheit), and again the Celsius system makes more mathematical sense. But the conversion is more difficult. To get from one to the other, you have to subtract and then divide, or multiply and then add.

So, when the weather man says it’s going to be 18°C today, I have to multiply by 1.8 (arriving at 32.4) and then add 32, so I know the temperature is going to be 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

I say all that to say this: while Canada is surprisingly similar to the U.S. in many ways, it IS still a foreign country.

If you drive down a main road in a suburban part of town, without reading the signs, it looks just like it would near any U.S. city. Small shops, gas stations, convenience stores, supermarkets, fast food chains, the occasional shopping mall. But if you stop to read the signs or listen to people talk, then all of a sudden you’re in a foreign land.

People

Just like anywhere far away, the people look slightly different and they wear different clothes. It’s the same if you go from New York City to Seminole, Okla., like Marline did for the first time in 2005. She felt like she was in a foreign country.

There are large minority groups in Montreal, including Haitians, Jews, Asians, and others, but the majority appear to be of French or British ancestry, which just makes sense.

Most were friendly and helpful, if stopped on the street and asked for directions.

But few of them were tall. I’m just under 6’2″ (1.88 meters), and many times I was the tallest person within sight. This rarely happens in Oklahoma. In fact, at some family gatherings, I’m the shortest male on the premises.

Eco-Friendly

Like many U.S. cities, Montreal is moving forward with eco-friendly projects. This is something that’s completely foreign to Oklahoma, especially rural areas. For instance, in Seminole, all the garbage is taken in one container, by the same truck, to the same landfill. There are now several recycling receptacles in town, but only for paper, and only if you drive to those locations to drop off your paper.

Throughout Montreal, wherever you see a trash can, there’s also a recycle bin next to it. Sometimes it’s for plastic and glass; sometimes it’s for paper. But they’re all over the city, in the Metro stations, at bus stops, in restaurants.

Most of the privately-owned vehicles are small cars. Think Toyota Tercel, Volkswagen, Nissan, Mazda. Yes, we saw some U.S.-made cars, but not very many. And very few of them were large. There were almost zero pickup trucks or SUVs on the road. When you do see a pickup, it’s usually a contractor or a company-vehicle with tools in the back. None of this U.S. obsession with driving wasteful vehicles for no reason (of all your friends with pickups or SUVs, how many of them actually use that extra space on a regular basis?)

Gasoline cost 1.044$ (Canadian) per liter, which is about 3.92$ per gallon. In U.S. dollars that’s about $3.50 per gallon, depending on the exchange rate, which changes daily. So, the smaller cars make more sense.

Also, cars cost a lot less money there. We saw car lots, with NEW cars for well under $20,000, which is almost absurd in the U.S. Used car prices were closer to U.S.-normal.

Money

Speaking of money, the Canadian money is just prettier than the U.S. version. Each denomination of bill is a different color, from the five to the 10, to the 20 (I didn’t see any higher than that).

There are no $1 or $2 bills, because those amounts are handled by coins. So, you’d have to learn a different way to make change if you were a cashier. I almost never saw a $1 coin, because the $2 coins are so common. If you buy something and your change is $4.36, you get two $2 coins instead of four $1 coins. Makes your pockets heavier, but that’s about it.

CONCLUSION

I could go on and on, but I have a lot of photos to format, and I want to get on with describing our days in Montreal and Ottawa.

Most of all, Marline and I want to thank her Aunt Micheline for hosting us the entire week. She also fed us regularly, drove us safely, and insisted on paying for quite a bit of our daily purchases. It was a pleasure to stay with her, to talk with her, and to see life from a very different perspective, though her eyes.

We also had the pleasure of meeting and conversing with Uncle René-Max, Uncle Alix, cousins Isabelle, Alexandra, Caroline, Elizabeth, and another Micheline.

To all of them, I say thank you for conversing in English for my sake, thanks for the food, the hugs, the smiles, the laughs, and the acceptance. I felt right at home when in your homes, and I felt like I was with family when I was with all of you.

Table of Contents

1. Overview (or scroll up)
2. Day One — Getting to Canada
3. Day Two — Downtown Montreal
4. Day Three — Downtown Montreal & Caroline’s Condo
5. Day Four — Ottawa & René-Max’s house
6. Day Five — Saint-Constant & ExpoRail
7. Day Six — Biodome, Olympic Park

ALL Photos: on Flickr

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