Thursday, June 15, 2017

Journey to the East

Rockport, Massachusetts

Monhegan Island, Maine

Quebec City

Canyon St-Anne Falls

Montmorency Falls

Vieux Montreal

Habitat 67

Twelfth Night, Stratford 2017

Our visit to the East was precipitated by our daughter’s college graduation from Boston University, where she earned a teaching degree for special needs kids, and surprisingly, already got a permanent job in the fall, where the school obtained a grant to extend the summer school year through the end of July, so with the help of waivers, she’s already a working girl even before she graduated.  As a result, a vacation built around her would suddenly not include her.  So we spent as much time with her as we could, visiting two graduation ceremonies, a smaller indoor College of Education ceremony where the professors that educated her offer personal thoughts as they send her and others along through a “Robing ceremony,” where they actually place the graduation robes around their students, which sounds like something out of Hogwarts and Harry Potter, while the next day the entire school celebrates an outdoor ceremony, which includes laudatory speeches, including a commencement address provided by Bonnie Hammer, a long-time television executive and current chairmen of the NBC Universal Cable Entertainment Group, owned by Comcast, while also a graduate from this same university in the 70’s, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree.  While she is listed among Fortune’s "50 Most Powerful Women in Business" and offered personal anecdotes about the difficulties breaking the gender barrier in the television industry, where among her exploits was adding wrestling and the Kardashians to the cable landscape, her speech was for the most part unexceptional, offering a be-true-to-yourself mantra that seemed to be the theme of the day.  The smaller indoor ceremony was more intimate and much more powerfully uplifting, as the desired goal with each of the graduates was nothing less than changing the world, where built into this startling realization is how entrenched society has become in settling for so much less, receding into isolationism and nationalism, afraid to envision a bigger picture, as if we are not part of a larger world around us.  It seems the whole idea behind education is to broaden one’s horizons, to become better informed, not just about this country but about the world, creating strong advocates for making better choices even as government is hell-bent in cutting taxes and setting financial limits restricting public education.      

After a weekend of breakfasts and dinners, we headed for the coast, most notably the same Cape Ann region depicted in Kenneth Lonergan’s 2016 Top Ten List #5 Manchester by the Sea, where small, picturesque fishing villages dot the landscape along with plenty of roadside seafood shanties and restaurants featuring plenty of lobster, though some of the more familiar establishments hadn’t even opened yet for dinner as it was still too early in the season.  There is a surprisingly leisurely change of pace, where everything slows down and no one is in such a hurry.  It’s all about taking walks along the ocean and enjoying the fresh sea air.  To that end, we moseyed up the coast to Portland, Maine and enjoyed the view for a few days before meeting an afternoon ferry at Port Clyde making daily trips to Monhegan Island about ten miles off the mainland, a place we have never been before, but resembles one’s idea of what Ireland must look like, especially the primitive look and the lush greenery on the rolling sweep of the land, where no cars are allowed on the island, though we happened to see a few.  This may have been the most unique aspect of our trip, as the island itself has a large inn just up the hill from the ferry landing that serves breakfast and dinner, offering small rooms overlooking the ocean.  The spartan aspect of this experience was a bit of a shock, as while there was electricity, also shared and private showers, there were no heaters in the room, and only the bare essentials, no room even for a chair, where the first night was the coldest night on record, forcing us to sleep with our clothes on just for warmth.  Bluntly put, it was one of the coldest nights I’ve ever experienced.  The inn had a communal fireplace that burned during the day, where people gathered around it for warmth, including a sewing lady and her book-reading friend, literally sitting in the same spot for hours on end, as it was the only warm place.  The restaurant had a few electric heaters, making it a more pleasant experience, but afterwards everyone was on their own.  Surviving the night was not a guarantee, and that first night seemed to last forever.  Fortunately, the sun came out the next day and brightened everyone’s spirits, as there are a series of trails along the island (, also groups of birders that get up at the crack of dawn and set out with sophisticated, foot-long camera lenses wearing knee-length boots, exploring the many trails and even the muddy swamps that are otherwise impassible.  The island is just less than two miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, but is very hilly, making most of the walks something of a challenge.  Only 32 residents live on the island year round, where there seems to be a utopian spirit among them, as it may be a reclusive haven for artists and writers.  It is a throwback to another era, not at all congested or overcrowded like the rest of the East coast, with only a few cars on the island.  Mostly people walked, or used golf carts to get around, where there were a few restaurant choices, also small general stores that do some business, but not much to speak of.  Everything that can be deliverable must come by ferry, where there is Internet access, but some homes are without electricity.  Of unique interest, there is another small, uninhabited island just across from the ferry, but there is a single house affixed, and a group of six clearly visible goats that move about the entire island chewing fresh grass.  While we were there, we did see a man row across the bay in a rowboat and walk up the hill into the house, spending the night, where there is no electricity on his island, but there are extremely steep stairways built.  By the next day we noticed the man rowed back and simply disappeared, where he may own a house on the regular island as well, and may move back and forth as he pleases.  We never saw him in person, only from afar, and could only imagine what his life must be like. 

One of the surprises on the island was meeting a family on one of the 1st floor suites that had been coming here over the same Memorial Day weekend for nearly twenty years, where the patriarch, a distinguished lawyer, was barely able to get around without the help of a golf cart, but he pronounced himself an expert martini maker, serving drinks all around to his extended family of a dozen or more, some of whom were staying in a nearby rented cottage with no electricity.  Sitting along the outdoor deck chairs overlooking the harbor and the nearby island, it was impossible not to mingle with this family, as they were a gregarious bunch coming in from all over the world, from Boston, London, and Montreal, basically celebrating a family reunion, as one of the daughters discovered this place over twenty years ago and they’ve been coming back ever since.  Their single rule on the trip was not to talk about Trump, as opinions could quickly escalate into fiery diatribes of negativity.  It’s curious that the open reception of friendliness and hospitality from this family improved our visit, as they were a welcoming bunch, with diverse personalities all around.  Catching the early morning ferry back to the mainland was no problem, with cars waiting where we left them, with our journey traversing through the solitude of the state of Maine, taking us into Quebec City by that evening, passing through neverending hills and forests on small roads, where you have to wonder who actually lives out there in this rural isolation, with humans surrounded on all sides by natural wonders?  Arriving in Quebec was a revelation, as we stayed in a modern condo unit overlooking the Saint Lawrence River, among our best accommodations ever.  Quebec City is an enchantingly beautiful city, unlike any other in North America, a throwback to the age of romanticism, with 18th and 19th century houses tucked away on narrow cobbled streets, where an old city is safely protected behind fortified stone walls, though you have to ascend city streets or climb up hundreds of stairs to get there, or ride an elevated tram that takes you to the center of Quebec City, which is the impressive grandeur of Château Frontenac, the most photographed hotel in the world, rising 18 floors, with more than 600 rooms.  Perched atop a cliff overlooking the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the chateau has come to symbolize the city itself, as it exists in its own magnificence, especially when seen from across the river, (, rising high above into the sky, as it is easily one of the most awe-inspiring sights to behold.  Quebec City is largely a walking city, as groups can be seen on daily walking tours at all hours of the day, where the only requirement is that everyone in the group speaks the same language, where guides speak as many as 8 different languages.  Mostly we saw plenty of school kids marching up and down those stairs, some completely exhausted, but they’re kids, so they recover quickly.  One assumes these are educational tours, where Canadian kids are getting a taste of their own history.  Only one day did we get in the car and drive somewhere, visiting Montmorency Falls, just a few miles from Quebec City, the largest waterfall in Quebec province, and at 84 meters, they are 30 meters higher than Niagara Falls, offering a suspension bridge that crosses the crest of the falls.  Even more impressive was the Canyon St-Anne Falls (74 meter drop), particularly the rocky gorge that has a trail navigating around the falls, offering a zip-line across the gorge for those daredevils, also offering rock climbing, where rappelling the canyon walls are permitted with supervision, with three suspension bridges crossing the canyon.  With many scenic overlooks, this was a well-designed walk through a natural wonder, only about a half-hour from Quebec City, well worth seeking out.        

Quebec retains an affinity for French culture, distinctly unique among Canadian provinces, which includes the language, the arts, and culinary tastes, where it is a distinct yet central force of the region’s personality, where at least in the city, conversations quickly move back and forth between English and French, as most residents are skilled in both.  Once you get outside the main cities, however, people are not so bilingual, and are more rooted to French, in some cases defiantly so, as in the 60’s and 70’s there was a political move for Quebec province to secede from the rest of Canada, declaring their own independence, believing this was the only way to maintain their French heritage.  This goes back 250 years, when France lost power to Britain, as Anglo culture has been continually pecking away at their sovereignty.  At least initially, this was the land of the Iroquois Indians, where the Vikings may have been the first Europeans to set foot in Canada, but it was the French that first established a foothold in Quebec, initially called Kebec, where frequent trips back to France were necessary, as food was scarce, particularly in the brutally cold winters, but fur traders established a lucrative business, selling their wares on the streets of Paris.  Spreading throughout the territory, the fur trade moved into what would be the United States as well, where at least 35 of the original 48 states were mapped or settled by Frenchmen, leaving behind French-named cities like Des Moines, St. Louis, and even Detroit.  But the most impactful event took place in a battle between the French and British in 1759 on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, now turned into a national park, where the solemn quiet is a tribute to those that died on the battlefield, with nearly 600 dead, including both military generals on each side, but after a short skirmish of just under 30 minutes, the British prevailed, resulting in the entire continent coming under British rule for the next century and beyond.  An interesting side note:  Because the British were awarded it all, including the entire Canadian province, this influenced how they decided to deal with the American colonists, forcing them to pay for the costs of the French and Indian Wars, claiming it was their homeland the British were defending.  The resulting taxes on all imported goods so infuriated the colonists that they openly rebelled, eventually leading to an independent nation.  This fleeting independence has eluded the French-speaking Canadians, who have found it unsettling, maintaining a historic 19th century motto on the Quebec license plates, “Je me souviens,” or I remember.  From 1900 to 1910, for instance, 325,000 French-speaking Canadians emigrated to the United States, two of whom happened to be the parents of American Beat poet Jack Kerouac (Léo-Alcide Kéroack and Gabrielle-Ange Lévesque), who spoke French until the age of 6, and was never confident in his English until his late teens.  Federal law in Canada in 1969 stipulated that all services across Canada be written in French and English, while in Quebec province, to prevent dilution of the language, all newcomers, including children of immigrants, are required to enroll in French-language schools, which is still the case today.  A 1995 referendum on Quebec succession from the Canadian Union was narrowly defeated, but over time, interest has waned, as few kids today have any interest in reviving this issue.  While Montreal has the second largest French-speaking population outside of France, Quebec City is a small town by comparison, but it must be said that people throughout Quebec couldn’t have been more gracious, switching from language to language with ease, but they certainly appreciate any and all efforts by visitors to speak a few words in French, especially in working class districts, as it shows a sign of cultural respect. 

The best restaurants in all of Canada happen to be in Quebec City, which rivals any North American city, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or New Orleans, where culinary arts are taken more seriously, as this exemplifies the French culture, where almost all use local ingredients, where the farm to table concept defines what’s on the menu, where quail and squab (pigeon) could be served, along with other wild game on occasions.  At the top of the list is probably L’Initiale, an elegant and sophisticated restaurant run by a husband and wife team, with Chef Yvan Lebrun running the kitchen while his wife, Maître D’ Rolande Leclerc runs the floor.  The attention to detail is what separates this restaurant from others, while the mood and decors are reminiscent of the 30’s and 40’s, recalling Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.  Rivalling the top spot and just a few steps away is Panache, beautifully set within the Auberge Saint-Antoine Hotel, a riverside warehouse restored from the 1800’s.  Desserts feature Quebec cheeses, mostly soft or semi-soft, with more than 500 varieties that are unique to the region.  As they are unpasteurized, made from raw milk, laws prevent them from being exported outside the province, but they are served in restaurants, so they were a real treat.  Both of these restaurants are in the lower quarters beneath the elevated walls of the old city, an old port area that used to be run down and completely avoided, where nothing was operable for decades, but the area has been completely rebuilt and is now a cultural showcase set within tiny streets featuring restaurants, sidewalk café’s, museums, art galleries, antique stores, and rising church spires, where the renovations kept the backdrop of the original wooden beams and the grey stone walls, with windows looking out at the St. Lawrence River.  In earlier visits to this town, almost all the time was spent visiting the old quarters, walking the narrow streets, viewing the artists at work, visiting the tiny shops, where it has such an old world European flavor.  Taking a bus into a working class shopping district, we also enjoyed Le Café du Clocher Penché, a popular yet unpretentious restaurant, another renovation effort with high ceilings and an imposing vault door that belies the fact that this was once a bank.  Perhaps the real surprise was a restaurant that doesn’t even have its own website, but has become an online sensation through word of mouth.  Called iX Pour Bistro, set a few miles out of town in an otherwise run down and dilapidated neighborhood displaying plenty of graffiti on the walls, there are only 9 tables, each requiring reservations in advance, where the owners carefully space the arrivals so they can give each new guest their undivided attention.   Run by just two guys, the smiling and overly gregarious Vincent Ozilleau, who greets the customers while re-explaining the daily menu and extensive wine list written on chalkboards around the room, while the overly shy chef Benoît Lemieux, wearing shorts and a moose hunting cap, works alone in the kitchen, preparing God knows what, as each course is a heavenly sensation, where it seems impossible that it could be prepared by a single guy in such a small place.  I mean, where do they keep all the wine, or the ingredients, as there is simply no room to speak of?  But these guys shop and do all the food preparations every day before the 6 o’clock opening, having it all ready by the first guests.  Both guys seem like potheads, or Martin Short characters from Canadian Second City Television, with Ozilleau calling his partner’s culinary skills “absolutely crazy,” but the food they produce is among the best and most delightful experiences anyone could ever have, and I mean ever.   This intimate yet completely unpretentious place has it all, offering a truly cozy feel, where after the meal, I had to shake the hand of Lemieux in his moose cap, as this defied all expectations and was a completely satisfying experience.             

We arrived in Montreal in a torrential downpour of rain, where we were fortunate to have a place to stay dry and out of the storm.  Montreal also has an old city district called Vieux Montreal, a beautifully preserved historic district with cramped streets, some off-limits to cars, allowing pedestrians free access to explore outdoor café’s, budding neighborhoods, and colorful boutiques, finding restaurants on just about every city block, where the machinations of government are just a few short blocks away.  As we were walking to dinner one evening, the downtown area was packed with secret security agents on every corner, some carrying submachine guns, suggesting these are not guys to mess around with.  Later we learned former President Obama was in town to deliver a speech on climate change at the Montreal Board of Trade just days after the current American President pulled America out of the Paris climate change agreement, joining Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries to oppose the agreement, otherwise signed by 195 nations, including the biggest polluters, which happen to be China, the United States, India, and Russia, in that order, with China and the U.S. more than tripling the rest of the world in CO2 emissions.  Montreal burst onto the world scene in 1967 hosting the World’s Fair, which was a huge success, where 62 nations participated, with over 50 million visitors in just 6 months, adding skyscrapers and a modern presence, even a major league baseball team, becoming a cosmopolitan cultural center, the prototype of a 20th century city, designated in 2006 as a UNESCO city of design, joining Buenos Aires and Berlin as cities that “inspire synergy between public and private players,” where the Expo included the construction of Habitat 67, a 12-story prefabricated housing complex designed by Israeli-born but Canadian-raised architect Moshe Safdie, the first building he ever designed, consisting of 354 cubist blocks built one on top of the other that were assembled into 146 residences, each with its own roof garden, (seen here in a view from the water,  Earlier, during the era of Prohibition in the United States, many traveled north to Montreal, which developed a somewhat racy reputation of liquor establishments and bawdy houses, all cleaned up before the Montreal Expo of 1967.  In 1999, the Quebec province became the first in Canada to accept homosexuality by changing the definition of the word “spouse,” removing all distinctions between same sex and heterosexual couples.  Gay marriage became accepted throughout all of Canada in 2005.  Montreal, in particular, has become one of the most welcoming North America cities for gays, while at the same time developing a reputation for an extremely low crime rate, making it one of the safest cities to live in, while also becoming one of the favored destinations for Hollywood movies and the television industry.  In addition, immigrants are part of a changing melting pot, with 1.1 million new immigrants coming to the country from the years 2000 and 2006, making up 20% of the Canadian population, with Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary as the primary destinations, where entire neighborhoods of Mandarin or Cantonese speaking Chinese can be found in Montreal, adding new religions and customs to the French-Catholic traditions of the Quebec province, as well as nearly 70,000 indigenous people from the 11 First Nation tribes, expanding the borders of what constitutes Quebec identity.  Among the most remarkable art exhibits we saw in both Quebec City and Montreal was an Inuit Art Exhibit, featuring indigenous works from First Nation tribes working in the Arctic regions north of Hudson Bay, including Baffin Island and the territory of Nunavut (seen here:  The Canadian government purchases the art from an Inuit art collective, guaranteeing a fair price for their work, before distributing the works in art galleries. 

Our trip through Toronto was less eventful, never really being impressed with this city, which is like any other big city.  Toronto is currently in the midst of a building explosion, where they are constantly constructing high rise buildings to house its burgeoning population, where the city is already filled with these spiraling towers, with so many in and around the downtown region, creating a problem of congestion that will only get worse.  Already the city awakes at 6 am to the sounds of construction, with literally dozens of construction sites creating that constant decibel level of sound and annoyance, where at times it’s impossible to hear oneself think from the avalanche of noise.  Nonetheless, these high rises are like community ghettos, with symmetrical balconies mathematically aligned outside each unit, where if you are occupying one of these units, as we were, it’s impossible not to stare over at these other buildings, where the experience recalls Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with so much humanity naked and exposed, sprawling out onto these tiny balconies, one on top of another, where people have nowhere else to go, as they seem to have reached a dead end.  Imprisoned by their circumstances, they are stuck in these massive behemoth structures.  As darkness nears, one tends to stare into the windows of others, where an elegant room reflects inordinate care, while in the unit just above, an Asian violinist is seen practicing, sitting atop his desk.  While there was little presence of the homeless in Quebec City and Montreal, they are everywhere to be found in Toronto.  Actually we were happy to move on to Stratford, one of our favorite places in Canada to visit.  One of the first things we discovered is that the town’s best fine dining establishment, Rundles, which is to Stratford what L’Initiale is to Quebec City, will be closing at the end of the year, as the owner has the building up for sale, where he is expected to retire in comfort somewhere in the land of his dreams, all of which made our final visit very bittersweet, but their heightened excellence is unsurpassed. 

At Stratford, Shakespeare plays dominate, where we saw the latest versions of Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, with an overly whiny Juliet, whose behavior was less than exemplary, feeling entitled, like an overly pampered and spoiled brat, which certainly undermines the play, yet the poetry is heavenly, where Romeo is a prelude to the character of Hamlet, and despite one’s familiarity with the play, each renewed experience at different stages in life can only compliment Shakespeare’s enchanting vision.  Interestingly, Chicago recently produced a theatrical version of Shakespeare in Love, the delightful late 90’s movie that won an Academy Award, starring a simply radiant Gwyneth Paltrow, also winning Best Actress that year as Juliet.  The story amusingly recreates Shakespeare in the throes of writer’s block as he struggles to write his next play, which turns out to be Romeo and Juliet, but it begins as Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.   Twelfth Night, on the other hand, was simply superb.  Shakespeare reaches unparalleled heights when original music accentuates the proceedings, as it does here, where Brent Carver in a Holy Fool character, similarly used in King Lear, sings gloriously melodic songs whose poetry echoes pure enchantment, with the aid of reverberating bowls that add celestial layers of sound, adding a magical realm to a dizzying production of cross-dressers, identical twins, shipwrecked youth, and misdirected love, where the question of identity becomes the centerpiece of the play.  Actually, this was the theme of the festival this year, with all the anxiety over immigration, globalization, and Brexit.  Is identity at odds with diversity, as identity can both unite and divide?  Am I Romeo first?  Or am I first a Montague?  Twelfth Night is a chaotic comic universe where ordinary rules are suspended, as one of the principle characters is a girl masquerading as a man, finding it easier to earn a living, where as a women alone she would likely be easy prey for men that would take advantage of her.  But to her surprise, it is another woman that falls in love with her, thinking she is an educated and well-versed man, somewhat dazzled, perhaps even blinded, by her wit.  Stratford pulled out a couple of war horses, a couple of guys who have been part of the repertoire for decades, literally maturing and growing up before this audience, where they have become namesakes with their faces associated with the festival.  In this case it is Geraint Wyn Davies and Tom Rooney, playing a couple of rogue characters spending their lives in taverns, seemingly plucked out of the world of Falstaff, as both love to merrily drink and gab to excess, where their little bit of fun upends the balance temporarily and sends the play into utter folly, descending into the mad antics of farce, but this bit of lunacy only shrouds the play’s greater purpose, which is to find love at the end of a long and arduous journey, where we finally come face to face with our better selves.      

If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall.
Oh, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor. Enough, no more.
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

But this is the play that also gives us…

I hate ingratitude more in a man
Than lying, vainness, babbling, drunkenness,
Or any taint of vice whose strong corruption
Inhabits our frail blood—

…And ends with a song

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

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