Montreal and East Coast, August, 2007

Thurs 8/16/07
A long day on the plane. I got up 4:45am and slept on and off most the way all day. The first plane to D.C was one of those nice big kind, had 4 movie choices on your personal screen. I watched “Hoax”; it was ok. At the layover in D.C., I checked voice mail and learned Karin just gave birth to a boy this morning!

Montreal was having a nice Seattle like weather today, a beautifully sunny and mild eve. The custom took a long time, then bus plus shuttle. I finally got to Joe’s hotel after 8pm. It was a nice little room on 10th floor with a good view of the city. Most the TV channels were in French here. I found it happened to be playing “Age of innocence” after shower, in French, watched a little and went to bed before 11. Joe gave me a very touching poem on one of the nights he wrote when he was woken up by Zonebe’s snoring.

Friday 8/17/07
After a good night of sleep, I woke up before 7, just waiting for breakfast (starts at 7). I’m on East coast time already. Joe has a few sessions to go to in the morning while I’m starting my day of exploring with the map Joe labeled here. Internet connection doesn’t quite work here: I couldn’t ssh to my school computer to check work email, it seems anything that requires authentication doesn’t work. So I will have to post the traveling log later.

It was a windy but sunny day. We walked west on a main street, St. Catherine, towards McGill University. Lots of shops on the way and I ended up buying a couple of cute outfits. McGill was a nice enclosed university with lots of open grassy areas. The school was still lively even though it’s the summer season. We had a picnic lunch on a hill after visiting McGill. We then spent some time in the “Montreal Museum of Fine Arts”. It had a good collection of Canadian art, and a nice collection of African crafts. One block west of the museum starts the gallery land. Galleries lined up door to door. It made a nice gallery hopping tour of eclectic styles. I learned there was a big Inuit people population here so there were lots of stone sculptures and crafts of their style.

After the culture tour, we headed north towards Park du Mont-Royal. It was a huge park, much bigger and deeper in the woods than I expected. It would make a long in-city hike and yet deep in the woods that’d make you removed from the city. Joggers and bikers shared the wide gravel path winding around the slow sloped hills. Joe commented he saw more joggers in 10minutes in the park than the whole week in the city. It was a really nice hike.

After we got all walked out from the park, we went to china town to get food. We got some hot soupy rice and zong zi. I had the best zong zi ever (the steamed sticky rice and meat wrapped in bamboo leaves)! Mom used to make them when I go home (those were even better) but I haven’t gone home for a long time!

We went for more walk at night, was going to catch the light show at the Notre Dome church but was too late. We ended up stopping by shops and I bought a nice dress at an Indian shop. I did more shopping today than the whole year. We found things open much later here, outdoor seating at café and restaurants were full after 9pm. It had a metropolitan feel to it but not as crazy crowded like NYC.

I love the summer weather here (at least these few days), it's mild like Seattle and sunny, and with insects and froggie singing which brings out a real summery feel. Another thing I like about Montreal is its abundance of parks. Even though it’s a metropolitan (more than 3M population compared to the 6ooK of Seattle), but there were more and bigger park land it seems.

Saturday 8/18/07
It was windier and colder in the morning today than yesterday. We had an early lunch when I found out the shop with all the hot fresh stuff opened pretty early and couldn't resist the temptation of hot zong zi. We had the Cantonese variation of it, sticky rice with chicken in it wrapped in lotus leaves, but we both agreed last night's zong zi was better. We found some dried plums I liked last night, now I'm loaded up for more to take home.

We walked in "Old town Montreal" part of the city. I liked the old buildings charm and the cobble stone roads. The fist stop was the Montreal History museum. The exhibit was put together well. It had a bit personal touch by having a panel introducing a family of each time period (the role of the members, the daily routines, etc.). It transitioned nicely to the next period so you could see how the city developed. The temporary exhibit talked about the big 1700 fire in the city and the legend of a black slave being framed for it. It took the form of having visitors solving the puzzle and introduced lots of social context in a story-telling way. I took a nap on a couch after a heavy dose of history, while, mainly because we stayed up past 1 watching TV and I woke up too early waiting for breakfast. This happens every time when we stay somewhere that has cable; I must be suffering from TV withdraw.

The town originally developed around the harbor. We then walked along the St. Laurent waterfront, called "Vieux-port" (means harbor view). The weather was gorgeous by now. They even had a shop renting bikes and roller blades. There was a big plaza on a slope there "Place Jacques Cartier" that had street entertainers, flower shops on the carts, and portraiture artists. On top the slope was an old governor's mansion ("Chateau-Ramezay") where people dressed in old time period's clothing and had a garden of that time period (lots of herbs and couple fruit trees!).

We took the Metro there to cross a bit of water to the “Plaine des Jeux” island to visit the Bio-sphere. There happened to be some Montreal fair there that every family with children was out. On the stairs climbing the sphere, I estimated the adult to children ratio was a little over 1. I’ve never seen so many strollers in one place. I learned from Joe that a bio-sphere was a self-sustaining ecosystem that can be viewed as a scaled down version of earth. But this was more of a teaching bio-sphere, with lots of hands-on science activities to teach children about nature and conservation. It was a great kids place.

We then went to the 5pm service at Notre Dame. It was a magnificent church. The sculptures and decoration was very gothic. The sculptures radiant in gold silhouette against the light blue stained glass. I learned from the history museum that the Irish architect of the church, James O’Donnell, liked his work so much that he converted to Catholicism so he could be buried there. The organ sounded so beautiful, the singer had a rich and deep voice, and the pastor and the reader spoke passionately. The service was in French, but I felt the solemn and deity in the air. When it came to the greeting part, plenty of kisses-on-both-cheeks replaced hand-shakes.

It was the busiest wedding day we've seen. We saw 4 weddings around the Jacque Cartier area, and another two around the Notre Dome church in the eve.

Sunday, 8/19/07
Today we visited Quebec city (2.5 hours from Montreal). We got there after 11, and another guide Roch gave us a close to 3 hour walking tour highlighting places to see in our 3 hour free time. The tour bus driver Sergie and walking guide Roch were really good, filled us with plenty of history, interesting facts and anecdotes. That made it a big difference than just seeing the sights. Interesting facts I learned: Quebec was founded by Samuel de Champlin in 1608 (we even got quizzed on this). Montreal means "little town"(yeah, of 3Million), and Quebec means "where river narrows". Religion (Catholicism here) impacted the history, language and social aspects of the province greatly. Commonly seen green roofs here are made of copper; they are quite long lasting, 70-100 years. The famous hotel "Chateau Frontenac" costs $300-$2500 per night and lots of famous people stayed there. I learned so much about maple syrup (I slept through a lot of the talk on the way there but I stayed fully awake for that)! 75% of maple syrup is made in Quebec prov. The color, grades, storage of the syrup. Serge talked about it with such proud passion. Housing were very affordable here, 3B apartment costs $300-500. 35K people were civil servants. 52% of income goes to tax, and a large portion of it goes to good health care and road maintenances. I noticed they had lots of nice bike trails all around. There is an ice hotel that operates 3mo of the year (>$400 per night). Last year they added a chapel and had 16 couples getting married there!

Roch showed us the lower town a little bit. There is this huge mural that took 16 artists 8 months to complete in 1999? It creates the illusion of a 3D building. We took a picture of me standing by the painting which looked like me standing by a real building. Roch told the depiction of each figure in the mural which made the painting extra interesting. We then drove out to this "Montmorency Fall" which is 30m higher than Niagara. The water in the river bed was shallow and very clear. There were islands of seagulls hang out on the fast flow. I wish we had more time there so we could have came up close to the fall. After that we went back to the city and had a highlight of the upper town.

We started the self-exploring tour around 2 at the intersection of the upper and lower town, the “Chateau Frontenac”. I found a piece of sculpture I really liked in one of its basement shops there but it cost >12k!

There was so much to cover, so we walked fast. We first walked up town, saw their big park, citadel (great view of the lake), the regiment building. They were having Monet exhibit at their Art Museum, but we didn’t have time to go in any museums. On the way back down, we visited the Notre Dame church of Quebec. Roch said 90% decoration there were in gold. The place indeed glittered in white and gold, but I liked the one in Montreal better. The lower town had more shops and galleries and a street full of restaurants. The restaurants here were also very European – had lots of outdoor seating. I really liked all the buildings here, there were all very characteristic and well maintained. The city had rules against outside decorations so no obnoxious signs of commercialism (even McD’s arch was of a modest size). At the bottom of the hill was miles of grass and waterfront. But we didn’t have time to explore.

The bus made an extra stop to this little missionary museum “Maison des Jesuites de Sillery” on the way back. I really liked that too. I learned a little history about Jesuits converting Indians. It was sad that so many died.

The guides boast 75% of their clients come back, as it really takes 3 days to explore the city. I really like the city. It is the city that has the most history and the most European influence in all the N. American cities I’ve seen. The city is also very clean and open and had much more than I expected. They say the more popular time to visit is actually September and October when maple leaves turn color. I have to say it does deserve their claim of “the most beautiful city in Canada” and would love to go back for at least another day of exploration.

Monday, 8/20/07
We walked around the neighborhood around the hotel a bit in the morning, saw a couple more churches (and bought more zongzi from Chinatown, but the formula wasn't as good as the first day's). We decided to try standby to Boston this afternoon to make more time for Boston since there seemed so much to see in Boston. There were 3 flights that afternoon. But it turned out Air Canada does not have standby so we paid flight change fee and got on the 6:30 flight. I read a book "The Four Agreements" while hanging out at the airport all afternoon since I always had the lines hanging on my wall. The book had some good points but seemed a bit repetitive. It was a short flight than expected, only 45min to Boston. Qi helped us figure out the night stay remotely before we flew out. We ended up in a luxury Hilton by the airport. I really like the décor in the rooms and the hotel interior, even the dresser was made of very nice cherry wood and granite slab. They also had a very nice workout room and a good sized swimming pool. So we took advantage of the hot tub and the pool; it was very relaxing. Lesson learned: it can be really difficult to find lodging in the summer, even on a Monday night.

Tuesday, 8/21/07
First day exploring Boston. We crossed the famous Charles River and headed to MIT. The bridge was marked with increasing numbers which I first thought represented each graduating class until we saw 100 instead of 2000 mark. The last one was 364 and ¼, some marks had the word "Smoots" on it.

We first walked around the campus. The Computer Science building was EMP like. The Infinite hall was very long and supposed to be exactly alight with sun to East and west. The campus was lively and the incoming freshmen look so young to me now! It's the pre-orientation week. We joined the 10:45 tour. Our tour guide was a sophomore genetics major. She was very enthusiastic and really brought out the highlights of the school. I felt the MIT philosophy of promoting experimentation and creativity was quite inline with Google’s. She told about the "hacks" at MIT, the friendly pranks there. I remembered my old colleague friend Dave had a book on them. One hack was a police car shell that got put on the top of the Great Dome, with a thick manual detailing the instructions of dissembling. The tallest building in Cambridge was the Atmospheric Science building with instruments sticking out on top. The architect twisted the Cambridge floor limit by raising the first floor on stands and making each floor extra tall. We got a flavor of the dorms and freshman lives. MIT came to feel like a great place to go for science and technology with balanced humanity and sports after the tour. We also learned the meaning of the number marks on the bridge. The bridge was measured in full length of a student named Oliver Smoots who was about 5’4 as a fraternity initiation effort. Coincidentally Oliver later became the president of the International Standards committee!

We then walked further north for Harvard and visited the MIT museum on the way. I really liked the holograph and the robotics machinery (some were Rube-Goldberg like) there. It rekindled my interest in Computer vision.

I found a few nice furniture stores on the way to Harvard, one called “Heartland”. Harvard had a more consistent building style, had a very prestige look from the red brick walk to the red brick buildings. Again we joined a great tour. The tour guides were more outgoing and had more tales to tell, with an air of Ivy-League arrogance. This one was geared more towards historical and architectural aspect of the school. We learned about Harvard and Cambridge rivalry, e.g. the great hall burned for 30min before the fire station next door came to rescue. There was also the Harvard and Yale rivalry where one famous prank was that at a football game, Yale students tricked Harvard fans into holding cards which collectively spelled “We Suck”. The Wiener library was donated by the mom of the student who sunk in Titanic so one stipend on the money was that every Harvard graduate had to pass the swim test. We also learned the dorms some presidents lived, a justice and the uni-bomber lived in the same dorm (at different times). The guides told about the naked run and primal scream tradition at the end and we all performed the primal scream ritual together to conclude. It was a very entertaining tour.

We then visited the Harvard art museums. I was thoroughly impressed with its collections. The Fogg museum had bigger European and American collections than SAM (Seattle Art Museum)! They mainly came from two collectors’ donations. It was definitely a worth-while visit there.

The liveliness of the MIT campus reminded me of how much I liked being part of a college campus. Both tours were highlights of the day. The MIT one made me want to go to school there and the Harvard one was entertaining and reminded me of its ivy-league status.

Wednesday, 8/22/07
We took the Metro to the South station and started exploring the harbor. We walked the most popular leg of the 47 mile “Harbor Walk” from pier to pier on the board walk. There was some gorgeous boats against the blue sky scenery. We then walked up to Quince Market and spent a lot time looking from the Hayes market which we finally learned only happened on weekends. We then walked part of the Freedom trail southbound towards the Boston Common. There were quite a few historical sites. One of the highlights of the day was the guided tour of the “State House”. It was built on John Hancock’s cow pasture. Distance to Boston is always measured to the center of the house. A beautiful sculpture of the nurse feeding the wounded reminds me of the Pieta form, I guess it’s a civil version of the theme, and makes me more human and touching. I learned about the political composition of the state and lots of fun facts. The ceiling frescos were by Sargent. One hall’s columns were made of whole pine tree trunks. The craftsman who did the black lace railing on the stairs liked the pattern so much that he decided he never wanted it to be repeated elsewhere so he destroyed the mode! The story about the cod hung in the House and Senate rooms. We got to visit the governor’s office.

Wednesday is the free Boston Museum of Fine Arts night, and we were there for a good 3.5 hours. They had a good collection of famous artists local to the region like Copley, Sargent, and a surprisingly good collection of sculptures and artifacts. We took a nice overview tour. My favorite part though, would have to be the discovery of the drawing sessions! There were people drawing the sculptures and then found a live drawing circle. Just as I was envious of the drawers, I learned from the facilitator that it was free to the public every Wednesday with the drawing board and material all provided for! Of course I sat down and even Joe joined in. That just made me want to move to Boston and I’d go draw every Wednesday if I did.

Thursday, 8/23/07
We started the day exploring the NewBury street. It was a long street full of shops, restaurants and some galleries. I found Boston, at least the NewBury area, a place of European flavor. It’s full of pedestrians, with old brick houses flecking the streets, restaurants on the first floor of residential buildings with outdoor seating, and large galleries with small front doors hidden in the shopping bonanza. The galleries were pretty high quality, with a range of styles from antique focused like
, to modern abstracts. At the east end of NewBury, we came to the Public Garden. It was established in the 1800's, and is quite large with lots of lawn areas, flowers, and a few statues. There was also a small pond in the middle where tourists cruised around in small boats decorated with swan carvings. Directly across from the garden was the Boston Common, another big park area. We restarted the Freedom trail from the beginning heading north. We passed by the empty Hay Market again and grabbed a slice of pizza from Hay Market Pizza, like the locals. I haven't had pizza for at least a year, so that tasted extra good. A favorite section of the trail was the Italian district, “Little Italy”. You hear Italian more than English here, and Italian groceries and restaurants were everywhere. It was a nice quiet neighborhood with lots of trees. We got to the north end and saw the US Constitution (a.k.a. “Old Iron Side”, the longest commissioned navy boat since 1790). I liked the NewBury street area. I could envision living on CommonWealth street (one block north of NewBury with lots of beautiful stone townhouses), so I could frequent the galleries, parks, and of course the MFA! We took the Metro back to Chinatown to load up on some zongzi for the road for tomorrow (a shop there had really good ones as we discovered Tuesday night). We saw a couple Hispanic musicians singing and playing guitars in the subway that I liked a lot. Then we walked home and I made veggie soup with pork dumplings (from China town) for dinner again. I liked the Hostel International (HI) Boston here a lot for its cooking convenience and cleanliness. It was also nice to strike up conversations with guests from all different nationalities.

Friday, 08/24/07
We still covered a lot of distance in a half day today. Today was extra hot (wearing black top didn’t help). With loud cicada, it felt like a real summer day.

After checking out, we paid a visit to the Google Boston office (very near MIT campus- good choice of location no doubt). I was surprised to find it had grown to size of 100 people! They had healthier snacks too. We then went to the Hay market a third time since it was open today. It had LOTS of fruits at amazingly low price. We cut across the two parks again on the way back, and revisited NewBury. A mime person gave me the idea that they make the best model; it’d be fun to go to the park to draw them. We discovered another two nice galleries on NewBury, “NewBury Fine Arts” and “Gallerie d’orsay”.

We also visited the Boston Public Library on the way back. It was one of the most magnificent libraries I’ve seen! It was of the neo-classic Roman architecture style with grand marble staircase and columns, and sculptures and frescos throughout. It had a nice large courtyard with a pool and fountain in the middle. Lots of people sat studiously in the large reading room on this hot summer day. I just loved it.

After going back to the hostel, we had leftover dumplings for lunch and went to the GreyHound to NYC. Only after the bus started we realized we left the zongzi and fruits at the hostel! Oh well, I’ll have to cope with the zongzi withdraw now. We ran into a lot of traffic on the way to NYC: the 4.5 hour trip turned into more than 6 hours! We finally arrived after 9. It’s hot and more humid here.

I’d have to rephrase the living there clause now. The first day in the city I was a little bothered by all the construction noise and the crowdedness (especially compared to Montreal). But Boston grew on me more over the last few days. I’d love to live there for a while to frequent the galleries, parks, MFA, the public library, college events, and the historical sites. Joe also really like what we saw of Boston in the last two days and is especially attracted to the college town atmosphere (Boston is the quintessential college town after all).

Saturday, 08/25/07
It’s Neha’s big day today. We arrived at “Jewel of India” restaurant close to 10am. Shortly after, we went outside to form the crowd welcoming the “Barrat” (groom party arrival on a white horse). Amish, the groom wear a traditional white Indian gown with turban, and Neha wore a beautifully embroidered dark red sari. It was a condensed traditional Hindu wedding, 3 days turned into 2 hours. The priest explained all the symbolic meanings of each step in the sequence. The ceremony was rich in symbolism and meaning. For example, the exchange of garlands of flowers signified their acceptance of each as lifelong partners. Their circling around the sacred fire seven times symbolized the asking for a blessing in: their commitment to spiritual and religious life; commitment to earn their livelihood honestly; to be blessed with children; the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment and religious elevation; harmony and progeny; the purity, strength and fragrance of all seasons that they want to enjoy together; and the request to the Lord to give them the Union, Devotion and Companionship. The seven vows by taking seven steps emphasize harmony and strength in life. I found the symbolic rite very profound in guiding a healthy long lasting marriage, and realized the essence of such relationship was really universal.

After the ceremony, we had a delicious lunch in that restaurant. We then had 5 hours to bum around before the reception at 7. We visited the NY Public Library; it was another grand classic Roman architecture style building. We also visited the new Google office there. It was a huge building that took up a whole block. Again, they had a healthier selection of cereal and snacks. We then hung around at Borders for a while. The reception was at an event renting place called "the Manhattan Loft" on the 11th floor. We had the cocktail hour on the roof top. It had a good view of the other skyscrapers. The reception was very nice. Many women changed the saris and men changed into suits. Neha was now in a beautiful bright turquoise blue sari. All the different style and colors of the sari were like a fashion show. We sat with the other Googlers that were Neha’s former officemates. The food there was very tasty and authentic, and had some dishes that I hadn’t seen in regular restaurants. I had the Indian ice cream for the first time, and it was my favorite. It was like vanilla ice cream but had a little nice subtle flavor that I couldn’t describe.

The dance followed. It was techno music with an Indian music flare played non-stop. It even tired me out quickly. Most the guests were on the floor even the elder Indians; this was in complete contrast to most the weddings I’ve been to where the majority of guests were off the floor in an hour. I felt the people were as vibrant as their colorful saris.

Sunday, 08/26/07
We explored some interesting neighborhoods in south Manhattan. After getting off the subway at the south end of Greenwich Village, we walked to the “Washington Square Park” where “Searching for Bobby Fisher” was filmed. There were indeed a lot people playing there. One observation we made was that races seemed to be more integrated here: plenty of black and white playing speed chess against each other. It was nice to see that. We then walked west to the West village neighborhood, and then walked along the Hudson River shore for a while, and then back east to the Soho district. I liked that area quite a bit. It had lots of interesting shops. One favor was this chocolate shop called
the Evolution Store. It had a wonderful selection of high quality fossil, rocks, shells, butterflies, and other collectibles. And the staff was really knowledgeable and helpful. We spent a lot of time there and bought quite a few items. Walking a bit more south east was the Little Italy neighborhood. It was a very busy restaurant district with lots of outdoor seating and the food scene and smell made me drool. We then visited the adjacent China town. It was just as crowded but a bit run down. We found a shop that sold fresh noodles, tofu and zongzi. I wish we had a shop like that nearby. Back in China while growing up, we always bought noodles fresh never dried. But the zongzi weren’t as good the Boston ones. We also bought a fresh Guava, a fruit I've never seen fresh before (looks a little bit like a barlette pear). The afternoon went by quickly. We went back to get the luggage and hopped on an airport shuttle.

It's been a really nice vacation that feasted the eyes. I thought about what I took away from the trip. The rich history, beautiful scenic viewing, and Neha’s wedding were of course on the list. Seeing all the masters' works and the whole experience made me very inspired about painting.