Tuesday, December 9, 2014

It's minus 6, so its Ramen Noodle time

There are times when you need to eat a bowl full of soup noodles, preferably spicy noodles with lots of nice yummy things in it.  That was yesterday when the day dawned clear and bright in Toronto which meant that at this time of year it was 28 degrees F or minus 6 C.

The view from our window

Having just arrived from Cayman when it was a pleasant PLUS 32 C, this came as quite a shock so the call went out for the nearest Ramen Noodle shop.

Ramen Raijin is just east of Yonge on Gerrard Street, nice and downtown and fortunately less than 5 minutes from our apartment.

The soup is pork based but spicy with pork belly, pork cheeks, seaweed and the fungus mushrooms that have a Japanese name I can never remember but which are delicious.

Combine and eat.  Now that warms the cockles alright!

Conch City

There are some things that are touristy which are well worth skipping, and then there are things that are touristy that are just brilliant.  Stingray City in the Cayman Islands is one of the latter.

I've been traveling to Cayman since 2003, before Hurricane Ivan which devastated the island, but have never made it to Stingray City before a few days ago.  Some times it was the weather, others were due to something else.  I'd just never made it however Nick said he had a spare ticket and asked if I'd like to join him and Elaine (and a bunch of others too) for a morning's outing.

The weather wasn't great, very wavy with the wind coming in from the North East, just the wrong position for the visit… but that wouldn't stop the trip from going ahead.  It just wouldn't be as calm as the photos.  In fact it would be downright rough.

The trip with Captain Marvin's would visit a site near North East Breaker to dive for conch, the second site would be the Sea Gardens… a bunch of reefs nearby… and the final trip would be on the sandbar that is Stingray City itself.

Now I like conch.  Its a shellfish, probably a large mollusk like a whelk as opposed to a crustacean like a shrimp or lobster, and is just lovely in a variety of ways.  My favorite being conch salad, a raw presentation including chillies and lime juice that I was introduced to back in the 1980's back in the Bahamas.  In Cayman they call it either ceviche or marinated conch but tastes just as good.

The dive site was no more than 15 feet deep and a pure sandy bottom.  I snorkeled for a bit but couldn't see a single conch -- they are as big as a rugby ball and pink, so really should stand out.  However when I hopped back on the boat I saw that it was just I that was incompetent as there was simply loads of conch shells onboard.  The boat crew said we needed only 4 or 5 but there was more than double that amount.

The conch harvest

Fortunately for the conch, or at least some of them, only the 5-year olds and older are fair game.  Others get thrown back.  The way you tell is that the edge of the shell (the 'fan') has to be big and extending out beyond the something or other which looks like a big nobble on the shell (I can't describe it any other way).  The crew could tell and only worked away on the big 'uns with a claw hammer and sharp knife.

The claw hammer technique.  The crew scrub the empty shells and sell them to tourist stores.  They really are a beautiful pink color when scrubbed and cleaned off with bleach.

You bash the shell gently with the back bit of the claw hammer, enough to make a gouge that enables you to stick a sharp knife inside to cut the muscle holding the conch to the shell, and then you pull the poor creature out.

Big, eh?  Lots of guts, goo and slime before you get to the good stuff. There's a long clear string like membrane that looks like fishing twine which the boat crew said was great for male 'strength'.  He offered it around but it was declined by we wimp tourists.

They are bigger than you think and after all the trimming of the guts, goo and slime, there is a white piece of conch about the size of a chicken breast.  It is this that goes to make the conch salad.  Yummy!

Stingray City itself is no bigger than a small sandbar and on the day we went it was chocker block with 4 or 5 boats crammed full of tourists all of whom were feeding the rays with squid, cuddling them and in some cases kissing them.

A calmer and quieter day by the look of it.

The rays were big, probably 6 to 8 feet wingspan so pretty sizable.  If you had a denizens of the deep phobia, you'd have the screaming abdabs.  Fortunately I didn't.  Their skin at the top is rather leathery but underneath they are soft and yielding.  Really weird feel actually particularly when the boat crew picked one up and draped it over your back and head!

I'd love to go back when its less crowded and calm.  This was brilliant!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Gangs of New York

Its been a couple of weeks since we got back from New York and with a couple of hurricanes getting in the way have only now got round to writing about it.

I do like New York, its a great world city.  Only on Friday I was reading an opinion piece suggesting that because of its even greater diversity, London has just regained top slot in the race for the #1 city of the world, a place held for the last 50 or so years by New York.  I don't disagree with that of course (being partial) but that still doesn't do anything to detract from NY's allure for me.

We arrived on a Monday in late October around 11 am so I organised a walking tour of lower Manhattan titled after the movie of the same name that is the title of this post.  That movie was a historical classic, and of a time when the city (and country) was changing from an old world colony to a new world polyglot.  Before this period (the 1860's) America was all about old world colonists.  After it was all about immigration, massive growth and a really new world country.  The Civil War being the devastating catalyst for speeding things up even more.

So I found Alex.

It was a Living Social thing that gave me the idea but none were available so the fallback of Google found Alex (see website www.Alexstours.com).  Timing was right so we headed out immediately and found the church assembly point AND the oldest pizzeria right near by... called Lombardi's and opened in 1905 (see website here).  The pizzas weren't as great as in Chicago or St. Louis but still pretty nice and as it was an icon, the place was jammed.

Lombardi's Pizzeria

However Alex didn't show up at the allotted time.

So I called him and he gave me a whole bunch of stuff about how his 3 different online calendars weren't working properly and said "sorry" an enormous amount of times ... and then said he could be there in 30 minutes.

It gave us the chance to consider where we were.  Its beyond Greenwich Village down to the unnumbered cross streets and south of Houston (which is one of the subway stops nearby) --- incidently Houston is pronounced HOW-STON not WHO-STON because of its Dutch ancestry and the spelling change from HOO-STON which in Dutch pronunciation is HOW-STON.  OK?  Well that's what Alex told us anyway.

It was a brilliant tour and it all comes down to Alex, a young 20-something with an outrageous French accent who conducts tours in English (father is English), French (mother is French), Italian and German (no idea about the last two).

I am so impressed by young people who have a vision and guts to start up their own business and give it a go.  (Alex incidentally plays jazz in a band and that night had a gig but despite this was very casual about continuing on and on).

He was also very knowledgeable (or at least it seemed that way to me) and had a high speed delivery that made me feel breathless and certainly obviated the need and opportunity to ask questions.

So onto the tour, well it all takes place around Five Points, a part of NY above the financial district but below where the rich folks lived.  Once you came off the boats from wherever, you ended up in Five Points.  There were Italian, German, Polish, Russian, you name it nationalities but predominantly the Irish.  They all hated one another but it was only the Irish who hated themselves too -- "You're from Cork, you B*&*^*&".  That sort of thing.  So there were umpteen gangs that were initially set up for self-protection but soon morphed into criminality as well.  So 'protection' was not only from the other nationalities but also from your own gang.

Five Points in the old days -- called so because it was at the junction of 5 streets

Take the tour yourself to find out all the good stuff.  There is so much I could write for ages but I loved the story about the firemen the most.  As all the tenement buildings were essentially wooden construction, fires were frequent and devastating.  Hence the need for firemen.  However the gangs owned the fire stations (which were usually the gathering points for the gangs) and were a good profit centre.  The city paid only the first crew that got to a fire so there was a race (and often battles) to fires.  Also enterprising entrepreneurs may even set the fires and then set an upturned barrel on the nearest hydrant so no competing fire brigade could attend the fire.

One of the old fire stations

These days 1 Police Precinct, City Hall and the Criminal Courts is on top of what was Five Points -- that says something!  Clearly it was so troublesome and after the multitude of riots, the worst being the 1863 version covered in the movie that the city fathers felt that bulldozing the whole place was the best solution.

Five Points today

We ended up after more than 3 hours pretty weary at the Staten Island Ferry right at sunset so felt that cocktails and dinner would be the best way ahead.

This we managed at Harry's in the financial district (see website here), a great steak house that made wonderful Negroni's, a personal favorite!

Tuesday was meant to be our shoppping day as everyone is on sale in New York, it seems all the time these days however after dragging ourselves around the 5th Avenue Uniqlo store, we ran out of energy so decided to go to the movies instead, passing the ticket office on Times Square along the way where we bought tickets for Les Miserables for that night (incidentally we made the movies too!).

I saw Les Miz in London 30 years ago and it was pretty much the same show, pretentious, dark and Jean Valjean having a pretty hard time of things, year after year.  Victor Hugo himself apparently didn't think much of either Marius or Cosette so constructed very superficial characters for them.  However Epernine and Gavroche were great characters and received strong, if brief coverage.  It must be difficult though for any actor to make any part his or her own after so many years.

I won't go into detail about my business meetings but will note that this year's restaurant choice was another simply magnificent steak house in old New York.  Thank goodness, they keep on coming.

By the way, do you know why they call New York the big apple?  Apparently it stems from Harlem jazzmen who in conversation always referred to getting a gig as getting "a big apple" so at some point along the way, those jazzmen's slang went viral.

So Big Apple and of course Alex, thanks.  We had a great time!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Happy Trails

Just back home to Bermuda and the hot, sticky weather my first thought after 2 months away was how old Bermuda looks.  Not surprising I suppose seeing as it was discovered in 1609 and being small has been built over for years now, so there's precious little leeway to build big, new things.  Or money at the moment anyway although I do hope that changes soon.

Looking back on our time away though, here are some thoughts:


What a great City!

That's it.  Nothing else.  OK, one thing someone told me about was the Architectural Society's city tours and how good they were.  He was right.  And this really leads onto a theme running through the trip which is that exploring somewhere through history brings perspective and so much more enjoyment than simply rolling up and trying to get going.  My son, Ali, recently went to Paris for a friend's wedding and visited some of the museums there which he said he really enjoyed.  I found this pleasantly surprising as I thought the young today don't read that much (if its not on a digital device) and don't care much for history beyond the first 20 second sound byte.

Chicago Board of Trade's throne style art deco building


Many of the museums we visited had guided tours of displays, events and such like.  Do them.  These tours are provided for a reason.  They are interesting and informative.  If the guides are enthusiastic (and ours were), this translates into a wonderful experience which brings so much more to what you are looking at.

Warning: You are in danger of learning something…

In Montreal, for example, at the Pointe a Calliere Museum -- the museum of the city -- a temporary exhibit was of one district in the City just outside downtown.  I couldn't for the life of me understand why I'd care about some suburb but the tour convinced me otherwise and reminded me that everyone and everywhere has a story.  All you have to do is listen.

I now know for example why Montreal housing is built the way it is -- outside staircases because property tax at the time was calculated on living space, staircases being considered dead space were therefore built outside.  Made no sense of course as with the city being snowed in for 6 months of the year, these staircases were death traps!

Not many people know that.


The 2 games we went to were brilliant but make me wonder why there are so many games in a season. 162 regular season games is a lot so teams have to have large rotating squads and make sure they win 52% of their games to make it to the play-offs.  (Watch the movie Moneyball to see what I mean). This means the game can be managed statistically; beat that team, rest the good guys for this other team…

Takes some of the immediacy out of things.  Had we realised the St. Louis game was the final one in a 3-game series against LA and they'd already won the first 2 games, we may not have spent the $100 per ticket to watch a game that was fairly low energy (and importance to St. Louis anyway).

I think this is likely the case with NBA and NHL too.


I was hoping I'd like Bourbon but even the smoothest drink felt like a dagger in the throat to me (just like Scotch too).  But when incorporated into a cocktail such as an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan… whoo-hoo!

Draw daggers…

Old Fashioned and Mint Julep… that's what I'm talking about!

Interestingly as a side comment the barman at our cocktail course said that Canadian Rye whisky is the most popular US drink so that now many US distillers make rye too.  This is permeating into Bourbon making as well where the area in which it was originally distilled (Bourbon county in Kentucky) was expanded to the point where it could be made anywhere in Kentucky and still be called bourbon, and then again further still so that bourbon can be made anywhere… and still be called bourbon.

This would never happen in the EU who make sure that you can only legally get Yorkshire Pudding in Yorkshire.  Mind you the French are highly guarded over Champagne and Cognac so maybe the EU learned it from them.


We like movies and when away take the chance of spending lengthy periods in the local Cineplex 24 or whatever the local name is.  If you plan properly, you could spend an entire day in one of these places moving from screening room to screening room -- our record was 4 in a day.  The challenge is to find movies you like in the right order.

The biggest irritant is going out to buy multiple tickets and makes me wonder why these multiplexes don't just sell a day pass, or a week pass for that matter.  Double or triple a single ticket and enable movie goers to stay and go as much as they want.  They'd buy stuff at the concessions and probably generate more revenue for the cinema and at the same time obviate the need to hire people to check for those who hop from screen to screen without buying new tickets.

Make the experience better for moviegoers in fact.


We went out a lot in the last 2 months.  Pretty much across the board we found that service in bars, restaurants and hotels was excellent but stand out moment goes to the Toque Restaurant in Montreal (see link here).

We were recommended this as being one of the best restaurants in Montreal and expecting it would be French-ish, we went.  Montreal isn't as French as I thought it would be nor was Toque.  It was new, elegant and had some French components to it but it was new American… and very nice too.  I'd ordered a bottle of red wine I thought would be nice and while drinkable it wasn't great and for some reason I mentioned this to the sommelier when he asked.

He apologised and asked if he could change it for us.

I hadn't expected this as it was my poor choice in the first place that I was happy to live with.  I certainly didn't ask him to change it.  He offered.

He also said let him choose a wine he thought we'd like… and he did.  And we did.  And it turned out to be a Serbian cabernet.  Very nice it was too.  The sommelier said he didn't want to tell us first as we'd never have agreed to try it.  He was right, we wouldn't.  I wish I'd made a note of the name as it actually was lovely.

As was dinner and the stunningly unexpected service level.


We made some very poor choices regarding luggage in our trip earlier in the year and had cut things down to just the 3 bags … from 6.  Progress certainly but still not perfection.

What were we thinking?

Travelling these days with luggage is a real pain.  Virtually all airlines now charge for luggage -- AA I think was the hold out in the US but they gave up in April when they merged with US Airlines.  Yet another added cost on top of the quoted fare.  Security and Immigration controls are also a pain.  If the US ever increases its Amtrak routing, I'd consider trains more.  No immigration, no travel to/from the airport, no security… sounds wonderful.

Or we could just go tubing…

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Dinosaur or Fossil

I read a review written on Tom Petty's new album today.  The conclusion was that he was still 'relatively' relevant which made him a 'dinosaur not a fossil'.  We went to TP's show last night at the Air Canada Centre so this comment was interesting.  Also in a trip that has seen us travel around the US and Canada quite a bit AND where we have taken the time to visit some museums, it made me think about history being 'relevant' and the characters in question being either 'dinosaurs' or 'fossils'.

This also relates to me too.

This being the digital age, there was a reader comment after the review which said why ask a Justin Bieber fan to review a Tom Petty album?  Decent question that made me chuckle but I suppose the come back to that is why not?  The modern reviewer views TP as a man of the past, or history.

Just as well that reviewer didn't consider Tom Petty's opening act last night, namely Steve Winwood.


Steve joined a Birmingham band in 1964 with his brother when he was 14 as singer and keyboardist and wrote a string of amazing R&B songs picked up by other acts: I'm a Man, Keep on Running, Gimme Some Loving.  He formed Traffic in 1967, then Blind Faith with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker coming out of Cream in 1969….

Unlike many other singers of that era, his voice has held up remarkably well.  Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey's for example aren't a patch on their heyday, clearly Steve sings within his range. 

But in terms of icon, Steve is a big one.

I saw him in Traffic 3 or 4 times the last being I think in 1977 or 1978 just before the band went into another lengthy hiatus.  Not many of my friends liked the band dismissing them as too boring or bland so I'd have trouble in finding people to go with. But they were brilliant live and to my mind pretty darn good last night -- check out Dear Mr. Fantasy below.

Unfortunately the arena was half empty and even for TP a few more came in but still it wasn't jammed like it was for the Queen show we saw here a few weeks back.

Tom Petty looked OK for a 60-something year old rocker.  At least he was standing … although a bit tricky to say whether he was weather beaten or not given the traditional rocker's life on the road.  His voice wasn't as strong as when I saw him last -- some 10-12 years ago -- but then again like Steve, he works within a range that works for him.  I was surprised to see him actually playing solos too.  He didn't before leaving that to his guitarist, Mike Campbell.  But this time he played some and then they extended out some tunes into some very nice interplay.  I call that progress.

From the Toronto Sun's review: they said pretty good and didn't mention dinosaurs more than once or twice.

Of course the audience sang along with the big tunes… me too and they were great to hear live.  

At some point, maybe even fairly soon, like Steve maybe TP will have to move his shows to smaller arenas.  The ACC is a huge aircraft hanger sort of place with people hanging off the walls… I am reminded of the nose bleed seats I'd bagged for the Carole King/James Taylor show a few years back when the music and the A/C units at our head level competed to be heard.  

Not quite nose bleed this time

But it was really nice to see them both back on the road, playing big halls to a lot of appreciative people.  Its probably all they know so better than sitting at home watching soap operas.

Not yet fossils.  Definitely.

Sports Day

Looking back on the last couple of months that we've been away, there's been some really good sporting events dotting the time.  Its not that we've been out constantly but rather there were some anchors that were pretty good to reflect on.  Here they are in no particular order.

Rogers Cup Tennis, Toronto, August 5-10

Both of us love tennis, playing or watching.  I'd prefer to play over watch but if thats not available, I'm happy to watch.  The Toronto event attracts the top players but is one of the few ATP 1000 events that has only men -- they are increasingly becoming co-ed tournaments I think because of the relative lower popularity of the women's game and their need to generate more money on the back of the highly popular men's tour.  The event has a twin women's tournament in Montreal at the same time and they switch back and forth so the men's event is every other year --- we went last time it was in town too.

We had another good crowd from our friends in Bermuda and elsewhere joining us which of course made it even better.  The weather behaved too, unlike last time.

And an underdog won, Tsonga!  What could be better?  Trouble for him is that he was knocked out of the subsequent event in the 1st round!

Chicago Cubs vs Atlanta Braves, Baseball, Chicago, July 12

This was the start of our road trip from Chicago so we just had to take in a Cubs game at one of the oldest baseball grounds still remaining.  The weather was a little drizzly and the team were yet again in a period of transition not having won anything of note since 1908.  The ground was packed which says something for the die hard supporters going back year after year hoping against hope that somehow this year would be different.

In England with the FA Cup there's a remote chance that an underdog may get a favorable draw and avoid the top teams and somehow make it all the way.  It happened a couple of years ago in fact.  But in that competition teams play only 7 rounds.  In the US baseball league, they play 162 so any failings will ultimately out.  The underdog has no chance really.

So it was here too with a moment of madness when a new pitcher threw only a couple of pitches, but both were hammered into the next state and in baseball that's all it takes sometime.

Oh well next year, maybe.

St. Louis Cardinals vs LA Dodgers, Baseball, St. Louis, July 20

We arrived in St. Louis as part of the northerly swing of our road trip to find there was a baseball game on the day we arrived and as it was only just along the road, we thought why not.  The Cardinals have been serial winners of late so the expectation was for a straight forward victory, quite different from the Cubs game.  So was the stadium.  Brand new and jam packed full of bars, restaurants and other places where 45,000 or so could spend their time and money when not watching the game.

Our seats were pretty much identical to the Cubs game too and the ground was packed out.  Same result though as another green pitcher threw away the match in one innings of madness when he gave away 6 runs in 3 mighty hits and again that was it.

I couldn't understand why the crowd weren't more unhappy until someone told us that this was a series of 3 against LA and they'd won the other 2 matches so didn't care much about this one.  In a 162 game season, you just need to win 55% or so of your games.  Which they have.

Took some of the fun out of it somehow.

Ticket prices were more expensive than the Cubs -- $89 versus $63.  That's not a cheap day or night out when you factor in everything else too.

World Cup, June-July 

We didn't go but it seemed like we did as coverage of the event was everywhere particularly whilst the US was involved, but even after it was very well supported in the US.

What an event though.  We got to share the US's agony in Charlottesville (and Brazil's humiliation) as well as Germany's triumph in Chicago.

And it was free too!  Well, apart from the beers in the sports bars...

Truly sport is one of the defining global activities.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Cocktails versus Shooters

I like Living Social, the online deal of the day company that promotes events and special offers in your targeted location.  Quite often they have curios that you wouldn't normally think about so that when you go and have a great time, it all makes for a terrific occasion.

Of course being an instructional tutorial on making Classic Martinis didn't do any harm to its potential attraction either.

So when I saw the deal offered by the Bartending School of Ontario (a very grandiose title for a small shopfront on Danforth) called "Martini/Shooter Insanity" for $69 for 2 people, I thought this was a no brainer.

12 others had turned up for the event with at least 2, maybe 3 birthdays suggesting that it would turn out to be a fun evening.  I was a little alarmed to see that we were by far the oldest but the menu for the evening comprised a detailed list of classic cocktails and another page of what seemed like awful concoctions with names such as 'Swedish Pornstar'.  This sounded fun!

The teacher (what do you call a bartender who teaches others? Not exactly school but…) started things off with the Swedish Pornstar -- a mix of melon liquor and a couple of others that ended up looking a muddy green something which was really sweet and tasted like medicine.  I declined but the others, particularly the young ladies along the bar, chugged them straight back and shouted "Whoo-hoo".  This was a theme for the evening as it turned out.

Fortunately we then moved to the classic Martini, although the teacher did ask preferences for gin or vodka -- vodka won.  He told us that vodka was unknown in North America before the 1930's so the traditional cocktails (Martinis, Tom Collins, Manhattan, etc) were either gin or whisky based and that the Classic Martini was (a) gin based, (b) stirred not shaken -- shaking would bruise the gin and dilute it, and (c ) should be served in the traditional Martini glass not the buckets introduced by the Americans later on to super size the drinks.  

James Bond, he said, was a wuss preferring vodka and shaken over stirred showing his clear preference for watered down booze.  Fortunately for the teacher, 007 wasn't there so couldn't put him right in probably robust manner.

So wrong on so many levels: wrong glass, shaken not stirred… I feel used

I like my Martinis shaken as well, incidentally.

Next was a delicious Manhattan, a bourbon based drink that I requested… perhaps I'm starting to like Bourbon after all!  The teacher added a remarkable feature namely that of adding some smoke to the operation by setting light to some hickory chips and using a device to send a focused stream of smoke into the glass before the concoction was assembled…. and shaken.

Firing up the Manhattan

Served with a cherry in classic Martini glasses, this to me was the drink of the night.

"Ooh, never had this before," was the gallery's comment.

"Not bad, but I prefer Tequila shots," was another.

Reminded me of England.

And so the evening then turned… to shooters.  No tequila on display but there was no shortage of other booze which the teacher used in showing us how to make layered shots in a test tube… really.  Apparently in clubs this is the rage but the tubes have to have flat bottoms, not those rounded bottoms that no doubt are remembered from school chemistry lessons.  


This is because the nanny LCBO believes it encourages people to chug these shots too fast as you cannot put them down anywhere.  With a flat bottom, apparently, you have the opportunity of putting the tube down somewhere and not drinking too fast.  Now, just who is going to savor a drink containing 5+ colors of supreme alcoholic content tasting of Jagermeister … for at the end of the day, that is what all these fancy shots ended up tasting like but with a varying degree of ultra sweetness too.

Our efforts.  Jagermeister anyone?

"Whoo-hoo" as my fellow students said.

Follow my travel blog here on Track My Tour.

The Tale of Two Systems

A while ago my firm included in its client reporting a piece on the differences between common and civil law which our recent visit to Montreal gave me cause to remember.

Common Law is essentially one created over time in Britain and entirely based on precedent, meaning that interpretations have to be consistent over time.  Putting it again more simply it means that anything you want to do is legal unless its specifically illegal (as determined by past events).  This enables lawyers to write meaningful predictive opinions on which people and firms may base future decisions.  Ideal for business in fact.  Civil Law by contrast is statute driven.  Everything is illegal unless specifically permitted by law.  It is based on Roman and Napoleonic law -- Napoleonic law specifically forbids judges to rule on matters of law in any deliberations which of course creates massive bureaucratic snarl ups when things do need to change.

Common Law countries are pink, Civil Law in blue

Timing in life is everything. The British in Quebec were hamstrung by it, not really having the time to incorporate Lower Canada into the other American colonies post-war before the Colonies themselves revolted so introduced the 1774 Canada Act largely to placate the French Canadians as troubles were brewing elsewhere.  After the US secession, the British immediately were confronted with revolution in France and 30 years of war in Europe that pulled resources, immigration and their attention in entirely different directions… just when it was needed in Lower Canada in fact.

However in the usual British fashion, the legal system imposed on Lower Canada was a mish mash.  Common law was introduced for the criminal side -- a move that stopped wanton torture, arrest and all that other stuff the French used as part of their seigneurial rights. You were deemed guilty until proven innocent and could be tortured to confess your 'crime'.  Under common law you were deemed innocent until proven guilty and weren't subject to torture… any more.  On the civil side, Upper Canada was allowed to maintain its seigneurial system and most significantly their religion.  The church in those days held massive power and the belief that universal education was wrong as it would bring false hopes to the masses.  This meant that most of the rural French settlers (the vast majority) were illiterate, uneducated and still maintained their age old allegiances to church and their liege lord.

This was to prove a long term bugbear but in the near term actually helped. In the winter of 1776/7 when the revolting Americans including Benjamin Franklin occupied Montreal looking to encourage Lower Canada to secede with them, as few people actually lived in Montreal and travel during the winter is almost impossible, they published a pamphlet seeking to garner support.  This failed in the main because few people could read (this is actually what the guide said in the museum tour, I am not making this up!) so the Americans gave up and left.  History really is all about timing!

One 'revolting' American

The 7-Years War aftermath saw Montreal grow to dominance in Canada, first outstripping Quebec City as the most important city in Quebec then by maintaining a considerable lead over growing (Upper Canada) Ontario becoming capital city of the colony and guardian of all the major institutions until the 1837-38 rebellion after which the capital was moved to Ottawa, mid-way between Toronto and Montreal (rather like the siting of Canberra in Australia mid-way between Sydney and Melbourne).

Later, the separatist movement in the 1970's spooked virtually all investment and industry into moving to Ontario as well as created an unpleasant atmosphere for the large anglophone minority who similarly uprooted thrusting Toronto into its current position as the most important city in Canada.  Toronto recently took over as third largest city in North America and is one of the top 5 best places to live in the world (according to some major survey).

Sometimes you wonder why it is that people make the decisions they do.  Certainly common law isn't the simplest of systems to work with but does have the principal of equity built into it.  Civil law is tradition based pure and simple.  What happened in the past will happen in the future.  What was Einstein's definition of insanity?  Doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.

I know the feeling

Even the French passed laws in the early 20th century formally separating church and state.  This didn't happen until the 1970's in Quebec when universal education and free healthcare was made available to all -- something that had been the case for many years elsewhere in common law anglophone Canada.

To be fair, it is difficult giving up on past glories… and admit that you are wrong.  We see it in Bermuda which is struggling to accept the fact that it is no longer the wealthy, vibrant place it was in the offshore world heyday.  We also see it more broadly in Europe where the great empire nations of the past struggle to come to terms with their substantially smaller place in an ever changing world.  In such times, you have to adapt or wither and die.  Change in fact.

Common law enables change and innovation.  Civil law stifles it.

In Canada terms, Toronto has won.  Most business, non-oil sand investment and immigration heads to Ontario largely because of its system and English language base.  In Quebec all immigrants are forced into French language schools with the result that most immigrants to that province come only from francophone nations in Africa and elsewhere…. including France, the largest element, where people are leaving because of the economic and social mess in that country.

Toronto's canyon lands
See my travel blog here on Track My Tour.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Who are we again?

Its not been intentional but the past few weeks have seen us visit several places connected with the birth and expansion of North America and it really didn't all click with me until we were coming back on the train from Montreal a couple of days ago.

A couple of years ago we visited Nova Scotia and Fort Louisburg, a significant port controlling access to the St. Lawrence River, and only a few weeks ago St. Louis, a city founded by west and southward traveling explorers and fur traders from New France so we've seen quite a bit of the entire landmass that contributed to the birth of this continent (albeit very superficially).

The blue bits are New France in 1713 but previously so were the purple bits that they lost in the War of the Spanish Succession (around 1710).  75,000 of the total 90,000 French settlers lived in Quebec whilst 2 million lived in the 13 pink states to the south.  Fair to say that any 'control' was pretty minimal in the blue areas. 
We've been in Toronto for just under a month and thought it would be nice to spend Viv's birthday weekend getting to know Montreal.  I'd been there for a couple of days 20 years ago so had no memories of the place at all so found a hotel in the Old Town called the Hotel Nelligan, next to the Notre Dame Cathedral, which turned out to be very nice and then set to exploring.

Notre Dame Cathedrale

First of all it rained.

Apparently this either has or has not been a great summer.  Not, if you like hot sunny weather; great if you don't like heat and mugginess which is the norm.  But the rain…

We chose the wet days for our hop on, hop off bus experience which cramped things somewhat but what they do give is a fast overview of a city that you can then hone down to what interests you.  Overall I think they are great and this despite the sogginess was pretty good.  We actually stayed on the bus for a 2nd time around because the guide doing the narrating (a Frenchman from Paris who'd lived in Montreal for 40 years) was so interesting.  

St. Joseph's Oratory
St. Joseph's responsibilities: the Universal Church, workers and sick people.  Arduous, I would say.  The Oratory grew as a place of healing and remains a pilgrimage destination to this day.

In fact the guides we met in every place we visited were good.  All different and one surprise I had was that the francophone guides were better than the anglophone ones.  No idea why.  The French in my experience (up until my last visit in 2011 actually) are deliberately obtuse if you don't at least try to speak French and if they realize (not difficult to do) that you are English, they double up on the obtuseness.  Not so this time… with exceptions, of course… as firstly they apologized for their poor English and then proceeded to describe things in wonderful, flowery detail even making jokes.  As someone who has struggled with French for over 50 years and still can understand words, but not their sense, I am very impressed by this.

And now a little history.

Montreal was founded in 1642 on a point on the St. Lawrence River called Pointe a Calliere largely because it was the furthest point up the river before a significant waterfall (the Lachine) that prevented further movement up river.  It wasn't meant to be a trading centre but a mission called Ville Marie to bring catholicism to the native Americans living there but of course it morphed into being a business centre too.  The Old Town grew up around the mission and the town's name changed to Montreal (The Royal Mountain) somewhere along the way.

New France, as it was called, grew up alongside the English colonies and it was inevitable that the old world enmities should billow over to the new world and so it was from around 1700 onwards. The French allied themselves with the Huron and Algonquin tribes whilst the English allied with the more numerous and aggressive Iroquois further south.  Strife between the colonies grew and it was the 7 Years War (the first war apparently that began in the new world rather than the old) that brought things to the boil.  

At the time New France had 90,000 colonists whilst the 13 states had nearly 2 million, a state of affairs brought about almost entirely by the systems in each settlement; the French had direct rule by the King of France with their traditional seigneurial rights whilst the English essentially gave away land to the new settlers and held a somewhat looser rein over the colonies (despite what the Americans later said).  So the law of large numbers prevailed and the French lost all of New France by 1763 (and incidentally India too) and Montreal became British (called Lower Canada).

A significant loss of territory for the French.  Mind you the English didn't enjoy much of the lower pink bits for long.  I hadn't realized we controlled Florida in this time before giving it back again after the Revolutionary War.

The aftermath saw Montreal grow to dominance in Canada, first outstripping Quebec City as the most important city in Quebec then by maintaining a considerable lead over growing Toronto (Upper Canada) until the separatist movement in the 1970's spooked virtually all investment and industry into moving to Ontario as well as created an unpleasant atmosphere for the large anglophone minority who similarly uprooted thrusting Toronto into its current position as the most important city in Canada.  Toronto recently took over as third largest city in North America and is one of the top 5 best places to live in the world (according to a major survey).

One thing that surprised me about Montreal was that it really isn't that French a city.

I thought it would be far more so.  For sure French is the dominant language but restaurants aren't all French -- the 'best' ones are good but with a new, more generic cuisine -- and while we ran into some people that could have been lifted straight out of a French caricature -- ridiculous glasses and hairstyle, terrible jeans and scraggly T-shirt inside a shabby jacket… which somehow looks both chic and smart on a Frenchman or Italian.  I'd have looked like a tramp.  Most people weren't like that at all.  Architecture isn't that French either.  Of course the Old Town had most of what still remains of the French influence but change the street signs and you could be anywhere in North America.

This said, we did find escargots, cassoulet and creme brûlée… but we had to look for it.

The train ride there and back was pretty neat too.  

It costs a little less than flying but without the need to go to and from airports, through security and all that hassle.  Factoring all that in and the 4 1/2 hour train journey made pretty good sense.  Had we known where the station was in Montreal we'd have walked the 1/2 mile to the hotel there too!

The museums we went to were terrific too.  The Pointe a Calliere (architecture and archaeology), Chateau Razeray (home of the Governors), the Musee des Beaux Arts (for the Faberge egg collection) and St. Joseph's Oratory (with the 3rd largest church dome in the world) really brought the city to life for us.

We had a great time.  Thanks Montreal!

See my travel blog here on Track My Tour.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


I've been coming to Toronto since 1987 mainly to attend an entrepreneur's course called Strategic Coach but also for fun.  Its a great North American city, now ranked #3 in terms of population after New York and LA, with lots going on.  In fact the Immigration officials find it difficult to understand why I like coming back here and are relatively disbelieving when I say its for fun. But it is.

This also means I've been witness to lots of things happening in Toronto, particularly the construction. But there's been lots of other change too that in retrospect seem inevitable but at the time came as big shocks.

Sam the Record Man

Who doesn't remember Sam's?  Touted as the biggest record shop in the world, when I first started coming to Toronto Sam's was a mecca for me.  I could always find hidden gems of music by artists that I couldn't find elsewhere and at great prices too. Living in Bermuda this meant carrying armfuls of first LP's, then cassettes and later CD's back home.  They weighed a ton!

Then came iTunes and downloading music and Sam's gone completely.

Other stores such as HMV made the transition to DVD's (and not music DVD's at that) more quickly than Sam's and so found a somewhat longer lease of life but with Apple TV, Amazon and Google everything, these stores are redundant.  Obsolete.  Some are hanging on but the opportunity for the mainstream has gone completely.

Some may survive in stripped down mode as niche players because vinyl really does provide better music reproduction but for the most part, the digital equivalent is well good enough… including myself.  I still have my records and a turntable but rarely play them.

Some of my records

Time has moved on and the industry has been decimated by digital with Apple's iTunes in the van now that pirate operations such as Napster have been closed down.

Book Shops

I love books and bookshops and have never thankfully made the transition to Kindles or other iBooks.  But I am a dinosaur.

Actually young people don't read these days.  Well not more than the headlines and maybe an executive summary, but certainly not Dostoevski type books where the central character, Joe the mujik, endures untold hardships and miseries before tragically dying or committing suicide on page 972. The type of books we were asked to read at school for our exams in fact (I still shudder when I think of Thomas Hardy's Trumpet Major -- a hideous book for a 14 year old).

Since Amazon sold books online and then Apple and others digitized books of all types, traditional book shops have been under pressure.  Barnes & Noble's owner is currently trying to take the company private as he figures all their high street real estate is worth more than the business.

I still set aside time to browse and immerse myself in the wonders of book shops and always, just always, come out with a couple of new treasures.  But as I said before, I am a dinosaur.  Virtually nobody else buys books.  Even professional qualifications such as CFA disseminate their required reading list in digital form so no longer do candidates have 4 or 5 feet worth of books to hold somewhere at home.

They don't cost any less though.

Sadly the biggest bookshop in the world near to Sam's just closed down too.

Photo Shops

Time was that I used to have much of my photo developing done in Toronto when I visited.  Bermuda was very expensive for this so waiting a few weeks was really no problem at all.  Photography shops such as Blacks proliferated.

Then came the camera phone and digital camera.

The first ones weren't so great that the quality was better but the ability to have your photos lodged on your computer instead of stuck in albums was a huge step forward for the new generation.  I still have a couple of dozen albums from before 1990 at home that I keep promising myself to transfer to digital format and put onto my computer so I can throw out the hard copies.

Furthermore with old technology you had to keep and develop the crummy photos too.  How many times have you had only a couple of good ones from a roll of 24 or 36?  If you're a lousy cameraman like myself, the answer is quite often.  The ability to take hundreds of shots without fear of running out of film therefore is compelling.

So is the quality today. I have friends who are 'real' photographers and say that the old film format produces better shots and as with vinyl and music I can believe it.  But I really don't care.  The new digital camera on my iPhone produces results that are just fine for me.

Blacks recently closed their megastore near the Eaton Centre and I happened to go in there a couple of times in the last couple of weeks.  The first for a picture frame and the second to develop some photos on an underwater camera where I have no idea what the results will be.  They are now niche players in a digital world again providing more services than simple photo development.

Copying and Printing

This is more of a work in progress as legislation hasn't caught up with technology yet enabling the use of digital signatures and storage at a total level.  Someone told me yesterday that Canada last year passed laws allowing digital signatures… so the need to print and physically sign has gone.

The only thing that remains is the ability to do absolutely everything digitally via computer apps storing paperwork in someone's cloud.  That is coming.

I attended an Apple workshop today discussing the role of iOS (their mobile operating system) for business all of which centered on the growth and diversity of apps available for all types of business.

Where is Kinko today?  Not around for sure.  Again the major office supply shops such as Staples and Office Depot are still around but most printers have been relegated to niche players providing specialist services generated by someone else's digital medium.

Scary prospects for someone who keeps a hand written diary!

And as for construction, the subway is still the same size as it was 20+ years ago crazily but the view of downtown is simply canyon walls everywhere.

The lake is somewhere over there...