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London, Paris, and the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Daytime

August 18, 2016

Wednesday was so packed with so many interesting experiences that I hardly know where to begin. We explored Ottawa, we began exploring Montreal, and I have no idea what to call the incident with the dog on the highway.

Let’s go chronologically. After almost a week of cloud cover that occasionally included torrential rain, we woke up this morning to bright sun and mostly clear skies. We had hoped to take advantage of the (finally) excellent weather by renting bikes from Ottawa’s bike sharing program, but they make you pay for the app before they make you pay more just to find out the locations of the bikes, and we didn’t manage to find any locations on our own.

Luckily, everything we wanted to see was pretty close together, so walking was a good plan B. It took several attempts to find a suitable place to park the car, but eventually we found a convenient (if pricey) lot and explored Ottawa on foot.

Byward Market encompasses several blocks of the neighborhood that shares its name. The market includes a bunch of restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops, as well as lots of outdoor stalls selling jewelry, trinkets, and farm-fresh produce. Most exciting to us was the produce, as we were completely out of vegetables, and everything in every stall looked fantastic.

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For five Canadian dollars I bought a basket of Kirby cucumbers and a basket of tiny sweet carrots. The woman running the stall washed them for us, and we dug in right away. They were the freshest, most delicious cucumbers I’ve ever tasted. Hands down, the best purchase of the trip.

Just a few blocks away is the lock system for the Rideau Canal, which connects the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario. Since I was a kid I have always been fascinated by canals, so Sam and I happily watched as canal employees operated the locks to allow a few private boats to pass through.

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Then we heard the music. We weren’t sure what it was at first, and then everyone started running back up to the street to see it. We figured out that there was some sort of parade going on, so we followed the crowd to go take a look. It turned out that it wasn’t a parade exactly–it was the beginning of the changing of the guard on Parliament Hill.

Ottawa is Canada’s capital, and the three Parliament buildings sit on a massive lawn right next to the canal. I had read somewhere that they have a ceremonial changing of the guard similar to the world-famous one at Buckingham Palace, but I forgot to check on the exact timing in order to coordinate our visit. Not only did we end up in the right place at the right time quite by accident, but our accidental timing gave us a better view than many people who had shown up intentionally early just to get a good spot.

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The Parliament building is extraordinary–a stunning example of gothic architecture at its finest–and the ceremony was very entertaining.

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My favorite part was when the commander of the new guard inspected everyone’s weapon one by one by looking right down the barrel of each rifle, kind of like when Daffy Duck peers into his shotgun to find out why it’s not firing, only to have his beak immediately blown off.

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As the ceremony ended and the old guards and their band marched away, we got a great viewing spot once again.

 

By this time it was getting pretty hot out, and the ceremony had dragged on for about 45 minutes, so even though I was completely energized by our good fortune, Sam was a little worn out. That was bad news, because it was time for our longest walk of all: down to the bottom of the canal and over Alexandra Bridge.

The bridge itself–a cantilevered steel bridge that spans the Ottawa River and connects Ontario to Quebec–is nothing special, visually. But a walk over it provides incredible panoramic views of Ottawa, as well as Gatineau, Quebec (the city on the other side). The scenery is pretty fantastic no matter where you look.

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And of course, in the middle of the bridge you can stand in both provinces at once. So we did.

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Ottawa is also known for its many wonderful museums, but Sam has little interest in fine art or Canadian history, so we declared ourselves to be finished with Ottawa and walked back to the car to start the two-hour drive to Montreal. And it wasn’t even noon yet!

Our drives on Canada’s highways have been rather uneventful, but that changed drastically in one of the strangest moments in the history of our road trips.

For most of the stretch between Ottawa and Montreal, the highway is bordered on both sides by woods.

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We were driving along at around 115 km/h (roughly 70 mph), and suddenly I saw something dart out onto the highway from the left side. It was a medium brown color, and for a nanosecond I thought it was a deer, but it was small for a deer, and it was running, not leaping like a deer does. For another nanosecond I thought maybe it was a squirrel. Either way I had absolutely no time to react. It was headed straight at our car, almost as if it was trying to run into us. As it got closer I realized with horror that it was a dog, and that I was definitely going to hit it. I was going pretty fast, and there were several cars right behind me, so slamming on the brakes would likely have made things even worse. And it was coming at my from the side, so swerving wouldn’t have helped me avoid hitting it. But everything happened so quickly that long before I got anywhere near finishing any of these thoughts, I heard the thud.

Instinctively I checked the rearview mirror, terrified. But what I saw completely amazed me: the dog looked unhurt, and changed direction twice in the blink of an eye, finally running off the road and into the woods on the right side.

The entire thing had taken two, maybe three seconds by this point. My brain was on overload trying to process everything and the resulting emotions. I was relieved, I was confused, I was concerned for the dog, and I felt deeply, deeply guilty

Sam and I were both pretty freaked out by the whole thing. Sam wondered if we should have stopped to check on the dog, but the dog disappeared into the woods so quickly that I’m sure we wouldn’t have found him. We shut off the music and just talked it through for a while, trying to figure out whether there was anything I could have done differently, and wondering how the dog was doing and how it survived the collision.

I didn’t actually see the dog hit the car (or the car hit the dog), but one thing I’m sure of is that he hit the side of the car, not the front end. My best guess was that the dog either ran into my door and bounced off relatively unharmed, or maybe it somehow used my door to push off and change direction.

A little later we stopped for lunch, and sure enough there were scratches (not dents) in my door.

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The deep scratch high up on the door is the one that really confuses me, and makes me think that it might be from the dog’s hind paws jumping onto and pushing off of the door. I’m still not really sure what happened. I’m just glad I didn’t kill that dog.

Throughout the trip Sam and I have been seeing a fair amount of roadkill–mainly squirrels, raccoons, and deer. We had never come very close to hitting any animals ourselves, so we’ve been wondering how such a thing happens, especially in broad daylight. Now we know. I always take “deer crossing” signs seriously, but I’m going to be even more careful now.

Eventually we made it to Montreal. I was originally expecting to arrive somewhere around 6 p.m., and thus do only one thing besides getting dinner, leaving the rest for tomorrow. But we got into town at around 2:30, so we had plenty of time to shift our itinerary.

I was in Montreal once before–17 years ago, almost to the day. I had an awful time. It wasn’t Montreal’s fault, really: the weather was stiflingly hot and humid, my wife and I had an eight-week-old infant in tow who barely stopped crying all weekend, and we stayed in a bug-infested house that was so close to freight train tracks that it shook every time a train passed. So I don’t feel like I’ve really seen Montreal, and I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity for a do-over. The beautiful weather was a good start.

We started with a slow, meandering drive through Westmount, a residential neighborhood known for its windy, hilly streets and charming houses. It turned out to be a perfect introduction to the city.

Toronto feels like a smaller, cleaner version of New York or Chicago. Ottawa feels a lot like a less-populated, greener London. Montreal is Little Paris. This is largely due to the language; in the other cities, signs are in both French and English, but in Montreal there’s little English to be found. Everyone speaks with a French accent, and even KFC is French here–it’s called PFK (chicken = poulets).

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But Montreal’s link to Paris is deeper than just the language. You can see Paris in the architecture, in Notre Dame Cathedral of course, and even in many of the street names. Westmount immediately gave us the feeling of being in a Parisian suburb, and that set a perfect tone for the rest of the day.

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I love Paris, and I loved feeling a little like I was back there. And although my French is lousy it’s good enough that I didn’t feel terribly out of place.

One of the major things that separates Montreal from Paris is Mont Royal, and that’s where we went next.

If the downtown is the heart of the city, then Mont Royal must be Montreal’s eyes. Rising high above the city, Mont Royal is pretty small for a mountain but it’s where the city got its name, and the whole mountain is a gorgeous park known for its winding paths lined with foliage, and for the views of the city at the top.

We found a parking spot at the bottom and started climbing. We chose to skip the winding paths and opted instead for the stairs, which are wooden with thick iron railings, and cut through the trees with little room to spare, making them quite beautiful in their own right. And while the stairs are the most direct route, they’re no shortcut–as we climbed 537 steps, according to Sam’s count.

 

The walk up to the top was ohmygawd exhausting, especially after all the walking we had done in Ottawa in the morning, but once at the top we were rewarded with beauty everywhere we looked. A stately chalet sits at the top, with a massive stone patio that offers better views than Toronto’s CN Tower or Ottawa’s Alexandra Bridge. Foliage in the foreground, the city rising up behind it, and purple mountains in the distance, with blue skies and fluffy white clouds overhead. Even on a patio packed with selfie-stick-waving tourists, it’s breathtaking.

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There were two additional touches I really appreciated. First, whoever runs the park thoughtfully added cute little guides telling you what you’re looking at, and did so inconspicuously without detracting from the beauty of the scene. One each pillar of the stone railing along the patio’s edge there’s little bronze rifle sight that’s embossed with what it’s pointing to.

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Additionally, sitting on the patio away from the edge is an upright piano that’s one of several scattered around the city, just sitting there waiting for someone to play it. As we took in the view, a young Asian girl played the main music from Super Mario Bros. When she finished, someone else sat down and played Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. We ended up seeing a few of these pianos around town today, and each one added a bit to our day.

Once we got our views and made our way back down those 37 steps, it was time for something with a decidedly more urban feel.

Jean-Talon Market is kind of a cross between an American farmer’s market and a Middle Eastern shuk. It’s more dark and mazelike than a farmer’s market but there’s not nearly as much shouting or shoving as there is in a shuk. Almost all of the stalls are selling fresh produce, though a few sell flowers and some of the shops on the outskirts sell cheese or fish or freshly butchered meats. We didn’t end up buying anything, because they were selling basically the same stuff that we saw in Ottawa, but we had fun wandering up and down the aisles inspecting everything.

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We also came across some fun stuff, like the display at one end of the market where popular music played as long as people pedaled the four artistic bikes. One energetic family kept the music going for several songs.

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And near where we parked we saw another public piano, this one decorated a bit more interestingly.

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So many of the cities we’ve been to don’t bother with stuff like this and just focus on adding bike-sharing programs and scattering a few statues around in strategic spots. That’s all well and good, but a lot of them end up looking and feeling roughly the same. More than any statue or bicycle ever can, little touches like this really help give a city its character.

Parking was bit of a hassle, as was all day long. Montreal’s parking signs are a bit confusing in terms of their placement and because no two signs say the same thing. Also, many blocks are reserved only for residents, and in several places there would be a seemingly random section of the block where nobody’s allowed to park. I lost count of the number of times we’d get all excited about an open spot only to learn that it wasn’t rly open to us.

Parking aside, we had a wonderful afternoon in Montreal, but now it was time for dinner, and we were most excited to indulge in poutine.

Poutine, for those who don’t know, is a French-Canadian delicacy that basically amounts to a plate of French fries smothered in a sort of gravy and sprinkled with cheese curds.

One of the most frustrating things about traveling while keeping kosher is that we rarely get to sample traditional local cuisine. Even when there are kosher restaurants, they tend toward pizza, deli, or falafel regardless of what the rest of the city is eating. But Montreal has several kosher restaurants, and two of them serve poutine. One is a dairy restaurant that serves traditional poutine, while the other is a deli that serves its poutine with chunks of smoked meat instead of cheese.

I’ve only ever had lousy knock-off poutine I was excited to have the real thing in its proper home. Sam had never heard of poutine before yesterday, but when I described it to him he fell instantly in love. Deciding between the two restaurants was easy: we chose the deli, and thus the smoked-meat poutine.

And then we got there and found out that they were out of poutine. They had fries and they had meat, but they were out of the special poutine sauce, and without the sauce it’s just French fries. We still had a delicious meal, but it’s a good thing we saw so much today, because tomorrow we have to make time to head back to the deli once they’re restocked.

All in all it was a pretty great day. We’re still a little upset about the thing with the dog, and my scratched-up door will continue reminding us. But we finally had good weather again, we really enjoyed Ottawa, and we are absolutely loving Montreal so far.

One thing that this trip has been missing at times is the sense of wonder and exploration that makes these trips so magical. We’ve had it here and there–when we rode the ATV, when we went fly fishing, in the Thousand Islands, and even a little bit in Milwaukee–but we’ve also had several days when we basically knew what to expect and got pretty much what we expected. Today we had that sense of wonder all day long, every step of the way.

I can’t wait to do some more exploring tomorrow.

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