Montreal: The City of Saints

Considering how I was already in France for my business trip to Paris, a lot of people assumed I’d take a few days off and travel around France or Europe. You can imagine their surprise when I told them that I didn’t and instead flew back to Canada to spend the weekend in Montreal.

I already had plans to go to Montreal that weekend and it just so happened that it lined up quite nicely with my trip to Paris. It would’ve been nice to spend that extra time in Europe but hey, it is what it is. So that’s how I ended up going from the French capital of Europe to the French capital of North America.

Old Montreal
The streets of Old Montreal.

Montreal is a nice city. I’ve been a bunch of times throughout my life but the last time prior to this trip was back in 2013, so it’s been a while. And even when I went then, it was for an event so I didn’t really have much time to check out the city.

This time, the plan was to actually walk around and see what the city has to offer. It’s always kinda exciting to sight-see in another Canadian city because Canada is such a big country with so many things to see. It’s so cool to be able to fly to another place with different cultures, customs, and in this case, language, and still be able to find so much familiarity.

For example, I wanted to buy some stuff so I went and found a Shoppers and a Loblaws. In Montreal, they’re called called Pharmaprix and Provigo respectively, but they’re still literally the same store with the same layouts and products. It’s kinda cool.

Old Port of Montreal
A Ferris Wheel by a frozen river.

That level of familiarity makes Montreal a pretty comfortable place to visit. Despite being from a different city in a different province in Canada, I never felt like a true foreigner. It was kind of a nice feeling, especially when you contrast it with my experience in Paris where I felt like I was a total outsider.

Montreal is a francophone city and so the linguistic difference alone makes it a very different city to Toronto or Vancouver. That said, English is so widely spoken in Montreal that I never had a problem getting around or talking to people.

Really makes you think though. In the anglophone parts of Canada, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person that was actually bilingual in English and French. I mean, I’m living proof of that. I studied French for a solid nine years of my life and yet I wouldn’t be able to speak it to save my life.

In a way, it’s somewhat inspiring me to brush up on my French a bit.

Ice on the St Lawrence
Sheets of ice on the St Lawrence.

Considering how I was there in the winter, I got a chance to experience the fabled Montreal winter. The weather actually wasn’t that cold when I was there though, just barely below negative, but there was still noticeably more snow there than in Toronto.

I guess in a way that’s not too terrible because it means you could enjoy being outside without freezing your ass off. In general, it seemed like there were more people walking around the city than in Toronto. For example, we went to the Old Port and there were a bunch of people there just hanging out by the water or skating on some outdoor rink.

I literally cannot imagine people doing that here so it was cool to just walk around there. Plus, we saw a bunch of giant ice sheets floating around the St Lawrence which was kinda cool.

Mont Royal Skating
Outdoor skating on Mont Royal.

Outdoor skating seemed like a good idea so we also went to Mont Royal to both check out the view and to do some skating. The skate rink at Beaver Lake was kinda nice. I’ve always enjoyed skating and I honestly think outdoor skating is the best way to enjoy it.

There’s something about being outside that just beats any experience in an indoor rink in my opinion.

Mont Royal in general was also a pretty nice walk. The snow was nice and fluffy, the lights were nice and warm, and so it felt pretty comfy. We even saw a bunch of raccoons doing raccoon things too which was kinda cute.

Two Raccoons in a Tree
I thought raccoons hibernated in the winter.

At the top of the “mountain” is the Belvédère Kondiaronk. There was a plaque there that said that Mont Royal was the reason why Montreal is called Montreal. That was probably more interesting that the view, which was solid but really not that exciting. Really did make me wish that Toronto had a panoramic viewpoint of the city that wasn’t a condo though.

Another notable sight that I went and checked out was the Notre Dame. I couldn’t go into the Notre Dame in Paris because it was under reconstruction so the Montreal one was the first one I could go into. Despite that, I thought that I might’ve been hitting a bit of “church-fatigue” after seeing so many churches already in France.

But man, Montreal’s Notre Dame is really nice. The outside of the church isn’t that spectacular but the interior is really nice. The shrine is so intricately detailed and there’s this beautiful blue and gold colour that really stands out.

Notre Dame Montreal Interior
The inside of Montreal’s Notre Dame.

Another interesting thing is that the stained glass windows of the basilica doesn’t go over biblical events like every other church. Instead, it covers the history of Montreal and features key players like Jacques Cartier and the aboriginal people he met. That was pretty neat.

No trip to Montreal is complete without some solid food. Being the largest city in Quebec, there’s a lot of options for Quebecois food, the most famous of which has to be poutine.

I didn’t really know where to go for poutine so I just googled it and one of the recommendations was La Banquise, a diner known for their poutine and craft beers. We had to wait outside and then wait even longer inside to get a table but it was totally worth it.

There were so many different types of poutine and the portions were amazing and the taste was even better. Definitely one of the best poutines I’ve had in my life.

La Banquise Poutine
Bacon, hot dogs, mushrooms, gravy, cheese curds, and fries.

I’m also not really sure if this is a thing or not but I always think that Quebec is known for their breakfast/brunch diners. It might be because of Cora’s or something, but I’ve always had that association. We went for brunch one day as well and as you can imagine it’s just a ton of great food.

American diners are nice too but I think that they’re sometimes just too unhealthy. Too much grease and fried food. I’ve always thought that the French Canadian diners just seem to offer a healthier selection of food but also just keeps the calorie spirit alive. It’s nice.

Overall, I enjoyed my time in Montreal. It’s cool to be able to go somewhere that’s not super far from Toronto but still have such a different vibe and culture. I could definitely see myself spending more time there.

Paris: The City of Love

Normally, when I travel for work, I end up going to somewhere in North America. Occasionally, some people in my company had the opportunity to travel to Europe or Asia and I really wanted a chance to do that as well. So last month, when a project came in that required on-site support in Paris, I was pretty excited when they asked me to go support it.

France is one of those countries that I’ve always wanted to go to but since it’s France and is so easily accessible, I figured that I didn’t really need to make any plans to actually go and that I’d just end up there sometime somehow.

I was right and that’s how I ended up on a plane to the City of Love on Valentine’s Day.

Hotel du Collectionneur Lobby
The lobby of my hotel.

While I was in Paris, I had a lot of random flashbacks to my time in London. And not because they’re similar; in fact I think the two cities are fairly different. I think I kept making random comparisons in my head because just as London was the capital of the British Empire, Paris was the capital of the French Empire.

And as we know, the French Empire extended quite far as well, taking over significant swathes of both Africa and Asia. It’s interesting because just as you’d see a lot of Indian and Chinese people in London, you see a ton of African people in Paris. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it, but it’s one of those things that is kinda interesting when you’re just walking around the streets taking in the sights.

The Champs-Élysées
The Champs-Élysées.

But for me, France is a unique country because its one of the progenitors of Canada. Canada is essentially like a weird love child between Britain and France but then they got divorced and Britain got full custody of the child. Considering how I’m from the English speaking part of Canada, I definitely see more influence from Britain than France, but it’s cool to be able to say that I’ve been to the capitals of both countries that formed mine.

Since I was there for work I didn’t have a whole lot of time to do some in-depth sightseeing but I really appreciated just walking around the city. The city was incredibly walkable with many famous sights within walking distance of each other.

In general, I thought that Paris was a pretty nice city. Despite it being winter and all the greenery was missing, I thought the city was quite beautiful. There’s a lot of nice streets with a lot of cool buildings on them. I think it’s really nice how each building’s architecture is so intricate. Each building’s facade is covered with these nice terraces and fancy decorations.

The Hôtel de Ville
A city hall that’s called a hotel for some reason.

And that’s just the normal buildings. Once you go to the notable buildings, it gets even more spectacular. When people think of France or Paris, one of the buildings that comes to mind immediately is the Eiffel Tower. Since Paris is in that part of Europe where they set height restrictions on new buildings, the Eiffel Tower still reigns supreme as the city’s iconic landmark.

I have to say though that my first impression of the Eiffel Tower was somewhat disappointing. It’s not as tall as I thought it would be and in fact it’s a bit.. chunkier than expected, so it didn’t really look the same way as I pictured it in my mind.

That said, the Eiffel Tower is a quite nice at night when it’s lit up. I’ll admit that it isn’t as impressive or grand when you compare it to a lot of the modern towers, but it has a certain level of magnificence to it. Especially when it sparkles at night. That’s a really nice touch and I felt like that made it special.

The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower sparkles.

Speaking of special, the most unique thing I’ve seen in Paris was actually Sainte-Chapelle, a small chapel near the Notre Dame (RIP). This was completely off my radar but my cousin recommended me to go check it out so I did. I had to wait about thirty minutes to get in and when I finally did.. I was underwhelmed.

The interior of the chapel was kinda small and dark and didn’t really strike me as being that impressive. I was planning on just leaving when I saw these stairs going to the second floor. I figured, what the hell, might as well check it out, and went up.

And wow, the second floor was entirely the reason why people wanted to go to that place. It was amazing.

Seriously, pictures do this place no justice.

I think that stained glass windows are really nice. It’s a really beautiful artistic medium and it requires so much skill to put together. I’ve seen a lot of stained glass in a lot of churches in my time, but Sainte-Chapelle was something completely out of this world.

You’re talking about an entire room covered in giant floor to ceiling stained glass windows. It was honestly breathtaking and no pictures could do it justice. I went on a day that was somewhat cloudy and so as time passed the lighting in the room changed and every time that happened it made the room feel different. That was so cool.

Outside of the sights, I also have to admit that the food and drink culture in Paris was quite nice too. In general, I thought that the restaurant food quality was quite good; every meal I had was pretty solid. That said, I spent like a week in France and I’m still not really sure what French food really is.

I really enjoyed having a basket of baguette delivered to my table at every meal though.

What stood out was the wine. French wine is known worldwide and man, the French really do love their wine. It’s available everywhere and it’s so cheap and good. I went to the supermarket and bought a bottle of red wine for 3.50 EUR, which was cheaper than a pack of Magic cards, and it was still a really good wine.

French Wine and Magic Cards
I definitely got more value from the wine than the pack of cards.

My cousin said that the French love their wine so much that the quality of the wines you get in France are always gonna be good. From what I tried in my time there I have to admit that the wine was actually quite nice.

The only complaints I have about the dining experience in Paris was that first of all, it was more expensive than I thought it would be. Berlin was the only other major capital in the Eurozone that I’ve been to so that was my frame of reference but Paris is definitely more expensive than that. Secondly, I really did not like how all of the restaurant staff just take their time with everything.

As someone from North America, I’m so used to having waiters constantly come by like every ten minutes asking if everything is ok. It feels like it’s a bit much sometimes but I much rather have that than what I experienced in Paris. It honestly felt like they just seat you and just abandon you. It takes like twenty minutes to flag down a waiter and then another twenty minutes for them to do anything about your request.

I honestly felt like I was physically aging while eating at restaurants there. Food and drink quality was nice but the service was just abysmally slow. But I guess that’s just how it is there.

French Food
Cheap and tasty food at Le Bouillon Chartier.

Overall, I had a really good time in Paris. It seems like an incredibly lovely city with a lot to see, do, and eat. Since I was there for work I didn’t have a chance to check out any museums or do anything super time consuming, but the city’s made a good first impression on me and I would love to go back and check it out some more.

That said, I’m in no rush. I feel like Paris is one of those cities that never really changes and so it doesn’t really matter if I go back next year or next decade, everything will still be there.

Amman: The Middle Eastern Crossroad

For me, when I think of the “Middle East”, I typically think of the desert, sand coloured boxy buildings, and Islam. Places like Istanbul and the Gulf cities are not really representative of that because of their unique locations and histories.

This is why I was pretty interested in visiting the third and last country on my recent trip to the Middle East, Jordan.

Jordan sits at an interesting location in the world because well, just take a look at its neighbours. To its north is Syria, its east is Iraq and Saudi Arabia, south is Saudi Arabia again, and to its west is Israel and Palestine.

It kinda lies in the middle of a very problematic area of the world but somehow it itself is not that problematic. It’s like a small little oasis in the middle of the Levant.

Amman Cityscape II
Amman has one of the tallest flagpoles in the world.

When I first got to Amman, the capital of Jordan, my first impression was that this was exactly what I pictured a Middle Eastern city to look like. It had a lot of rolling hills, there was a slightly yellow tint in the air due to the desert sand, and there were all of those traditionally Middle Eastern styled buildings.

Already I could tell that this was a vastly different place than any other place I’ve been to before.

To me, Amman got more interesting the more I looked around just because of it’s unique place in the world. For example, the two major touristic landmarks in the city are the Amman Citadel and the Roman Theater.

The Roman Theater
The Roman Theater with the Citadel in the background.

Both the Citadel and the Theater are Roman ruins that date back to almost 2000 years ago. I didn’t really put too much thought into it when I was looking into places to go in the city but when I got there I was like, “wait a minute, Rome is so far from here”.

And then that’s when I remembered my religion classes from so long ago when they were talking about how Jesus was arrested by the Romans and all of a sudden I had two simultaneous thoughts:

  1. The Roman Empire really expanded a lot further than I thought
  2. This was literally the area that Jesus was from

The first thought was mostly in relation to where I was. For example, the Citadel is on a hill in the center of Amman so from there you get a really great panoramic view of the city. So when I was there, you’re walking around these Roman ruins in this Middle Eastern city, which is already kinda cool, but then the call to prayer started.

The Temple of Hercules
The Temple of Hercules and the squatting Chinese man.

Now I’ve heard the call to prayer a lot already on that trip, but that one was special.

Since you’re on a hill in the middle of the city, the call to prayer comes up from the city all around you and you’re just, surrounded. It was definitely a really cool experience to be by these ruins looking out into this vast city and then being surrounded by this ambiance.

The second thought I had was a bit more philosophical because regardless of what your religious beliefs are, there’s no denying that religion has played a huge part in shaping humanity.

And three of the world’s largest religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, originated from that part of the world where Jordan is. Even if you just look at Christianity and Islam that’s half of the world’s population right there.

King Abdullah I Mosque
A big blue mosque, but not the biggest or the bluest.

That by itself is a bit crazy, just thinking that this area was where everything began.

It’s compounded by the fact that if you leave Amman, you’re only a couple hours drives from other places like the Red Sea and Jesus’ baptism site. And that’s already like, home of the Greatest Hits of the Old and New Testament.

Speaking of which, I had a great time in Amman but like Taipei, the best time I had in the country was when I left the city and went out into the country. Aside from the before mentioned places, Jordan is home to Petra, a ridiculously cool ruin, the Dead Sea, the weirdest body of water ever, and Wadi Rum, a red desert.

If you ever go to Jordan those are must visits.

The Petra Treasury
The Treasury at Petra.

Anyways, back to Amman. Due to Jordan’s geographic location, it has a mix of people of all faiths and beliefs. As a result it’s a bit more progressive and liberal than other places in the Middle East. They even make their own wine and beer, which is kinda cool.

Some people also celebrate Christmas so it was kinda cool to see a bunch of Christmas decorations being put up when I went to the Boulevard, a large outdoor shopping strip.

It was a bit weird though since when I was walking around there it seemed like there were a whole lot more guys out there than girls. It was oddly disproportionate, especially since the guys seemed to hang out in herds. Like seriously, there were like always groups of like 4 – 10 dudes just hanging out around the shopping center, which felt a bit strange to me.

Christmas in the Boulevard
Christmas in the Boulevard.

In general, Amman is kinda cool to walk around. The city sprawls out over a bunch of hills so it’s really easy to find a restaurant or cafe that looks out over the city. Makes for some pretty cool places to hang out. Certain areas even kinda remind of places in Seoul.

Even just walking around the city doing random stuff is kinda fun. On one night, we went and just bought a bunch of cheap snacks from the convenience store and just sat around some staircase talking and eating. That was fun.

But, considering how everything is on a hill, it makes getting anywhere kinda painful without a car since the hills make it so that you can’t really walk in a straight line anywhere; you always have to go around. Plus, the hills mean that there’s a lot of elevation going on so it’s tiring.

Amman Cityscape III
Amman at night.

One thing that surprised me about Amman was that the city was a lot more expensive than I thought it would be. Before I went on my trip, I figured that Turkey and Qatar would be the more expensive places with Jordan being the least expensive, but it turned out I was wrong.

Oddly enough, Jordan was the most expensive of the three countries that I went to. Even more than Qatar, which was really surprising. Especially so since the average salary in Jordan is lower than the other two countries as well.

I was talking to some locals and it really did seem like cost of living was a really big problem. Coming from Toronto, I get it. Our salaries are of course a lot higher but we also have a lot of problems with things just being way too expensive.

Overall, Amman was alright. I think it was a nice city but for the most part there isn’t that much that’s pulling me back there. On the other hand, Jordan as a country is quite interesting. It’s a land steeped in history and culture and there’s a bunch of really sweet natural spots too. Would go again.