Archive for the ‘Editorial’ Category

So…I am very pregnant right now and we are in the process of moving to a different part of the city, to a slightly (only slightly) larger apartment with a slightly (alas) smaller kitchen space with far fewer cabinets and drawers. So it will still be a while before I post again about cooking.

However, we will be eating out quite a bit over the next week or so, and checking out new restaurants in our new neighborhood, so perhaps I will recommence reporting about our restaurant experience in the city.


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Voting from abroad

This was my first time voting in absentia. I had filled out a simple questionnaire on a simple absentee voting website, and a few weeks later received an absentee ballot for the local elections in Rhode Island. ignored this ballot, since I didn’t know any of the candidates. Several weeks later, the ballot arrived for the primary elections. I almost disqualified myself by using a pen instead of a pencil to fill in the arrow, but after rereading the instructions just before sealing the envelop, caught myself and went over it with pencil. I wasn’t sure how much postage to use on the large catalog envelop, so stuck about nine permanent domestic stamps on it and hoped for the best.

Somehow, my husband was able to wrangle an absentee ballot from North Carolina, where he’s from, instead of Rhode Island, where we had last lived in the US. I’m not sure how he did it, but perhaps I might try that the next time around to get a ballot for New Jersey. I really don’t have any ties to RI, and the only politician I ever recognize is Buddy Cianci.

We’ve been following the campaigns and debates online. Fortunately, all the major news websites have been live-streaming coverage and we’ve been able to watch from Canada. I think this is the first time that I’ve ever watched both party convention coverage as well as all of the debates. Either I’m finally becoming an adult, or absence from the US makes the heart grow fonder and develop an interest in politics where previously none had existed.

The Canadians and non-Americans all find the campaign to be both amusing and bemusing. I admit, I felt the same way regarding the recent Quebec elections, so I suppose that must be the standard response when one witnesses an election in which one is ineligible to vote.

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**Study permit process complete, this post has been updated.

Although I have a work permit, I need a study permit in order to take any classes in Canada. And since I live in the province of Quebec, I need a CAQ (Quebec study permit) before I get a (federal) study permit. While I have a CSQ, which means I’ve passed the Quebec portion of the application process for permanent residency, the CSQ has no bearing on getting a study permit.


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We submitted our application for permanent residency over a year ago, but processing time for American citizens is estimated at 22 months. This is supposed to be a quick processing time, especially since we’re Americans, my husband has a skilled job, and I work, too. However, the long wait time means that we got to again experience the joys of renewing our work permits in order to continue living and working legally in Canada.

Since the US and Canada are members of NAFTA, we can cross the border with just out passports (no entry visas needed). However, in order to live and work in Canada, we need work permits. I’ll talk about study permits another time, but if we want to study, we’d need those in addition to the work permits, and my study permit would be tied to my work permit’s expiration date, which is tied to my husband’s work permit. This is why I stopped taking French classes, because the registration dates and my work/study permit dates wouldn’t match and I almost got into serious trouble when asked about it at the border once.

We were supposed to get an initial work permit valid for three years, the length of my husband’s initial appointment, however due to a misunderstanding and a missing document (an employment equity chart – proof that my husband can do his job better than a Canadian), we only got a permit for one year, forcing us to repeatedly renew it. You’d think that it would be easy to renew it for the additional two years, to match the three-year appointment letter from my husband’s employer, but that’s not what happened. For one reason or another, we’ve renewed our permits several times over the past three years.

We’ve applied and renewed our work permits in a variety of ways, though I prefer going to the border because of the immediate gratification of walking away with the new permit. We came through the Highgate Springs, VT border to get our first work visas. We once mailed them in and they came back in a reasonable amount of time. We renewed them again in person at the Champlain, NY border, and went to the Highgate Springs border a few weeks later when the RAMQ (Quebec health insurance agency) refused to process our sun card renewal because of a typo on my husband’s work permit. He’s supposed to have a closed work permit, which restricts him to working only for one company, and that field was blank on his permit, thus making it technically an open work permit. The border agent by the VT border said that the RAMQ were probably “busting our balls,” but he fixed the typo, anyway, without extra charge and we were able to extend our medicare cards. Mind you, it costs us each time to renew each permit, so this repeated renewal thing isn’t cheap.

I far prefer to go through the VT border than the NY border. My theory is that most of the traffic through the Vermont side are Quebeckers with Vermont weekend homes, and that the traffic through the New York side are tourists or cross-border shoppers hitting the outlets and trying to wheedle their way out of paying duties once they return back home. The lines are always longer at the NY border, anyway, and the drive to (and through) Vermont is more scenic than to NY.

Providing the required documentation to obtain a work permit can be an arduous yet comical experience. As my husband has a PhD, he had to present the original diploma, which is a large document, written in Latin, and framed in a large, ungainly, waist-high frame. I still remember seeing the mass of little styrofoam peanuts wafting about the little border control parking lot as my husband struggled to remove the ungainly frame from the even larger box in which his parents shipped it to us, as bemused border agents and his bemused wife looked on. I often wonder if they’ve found other styrofoam peanuts of like species and have established a styrofoam peanut colony there. The border control agents glanced somewhat blankly at the huge diploma for a couple seconds, and then back into the box it went. We also had to lug that same boxed frame for several blocks, in the rain, to get it specially copied for inclusion in our permanent residency application. We still keep the diploma in the fame, in the box, just in case.

No permit renewal experience is ever the same. Usually, the officials look slightly confused, and they disappear for a long time researching things or asking colleagues about procedure. I don’t necessarily fault them for this – each country and visa situation is different, and the border officials often look very young. A few weeks ago, we drove to the NY border to renew our permits, only to be told that they couldn’t do it until 2 weeks prior to the current work permit expiration date. The alternative would be to mail it in to Alberta, but that would take time and we wouldn’t be able to leave the country while waiting for it. This was a source of great anxiety for my husband, whose employer had been sending him strongly-worded emails telling him to submit his renewed permit months in advance of its expiration date, or face delays in processing his pay check. That border official had also asked to see our CSQ or CAQ, but I told her that you only need that for a study permit, not a work permit. Anyway, we left without the renewal. My husband wanted to immediately go to the Vermont border, to try again there, but one trip to the border had been enough for me, and we went back home.

On our way back into Montreal from a recent weekend trip to NJ, we again tried to renew our work permits, this time armed with a new appointment letter which clearly stated that my husband’s employment was continuous for six years, and was not two separate jobs as the agent had said. And fortunately, we walked away with the renewed permit, good for three whole years. At one point, the official started to ask for my husband’s diploma, but fortunately, she was able to see in her computer records that the diploma had already been seen.

I might even take French lessons again. But that means…applying for a CAQ and study permit. ::sigh::

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For three years, I have passed by a pretty little gated garden by the convention center. The gate is always locked, but one or two caretakers are often seen planting beds of flowers and maintaining it. There are park benches and park trash cans with liners. There’s a water fountain. And there are no visitors because it is always kept locked. It’s a secret garden.

I made up my own story about the secret garden. Perhaps one of those groundskeepers in olive jumpsuits was actually an eccentric billionaire whose one pleasure in life was furtively tending to his personal garden. At night, when the moon was full and reflected on dew drops hanging from the flowers, he would sit on a bench and enjoy his private park.

Today, I saw two men installing ash trays outside of a nearby restaurant hotel, and asked them if they knew anything about the gated garden. Apparently, it’s owned by La Presse, a local newspaper whose offices are adjacent, and it’s “just for show.” It’s kept well-maintained, but the only time they’ve ever seen it used was for an annual La Presse event. Otherwise, no one gets in. Numerous requests for weddings have been denied. That’s it.

So there goes the eccentric billionaire fantasy. But at last I’ve discovered the secret to the garden at St-Antoine Ouest and Place d’Armes.

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The other night we had a small “casserole protest” wander under our window and as we walked home from dinner tonight we ourselves wandered into a mostly naked student march on St-Laurent. While the May 16th event was “nearly naked,” I have to report that more than a few of the marchers tonight were completely naked, and others sported merely strategically placed red tape and socks. One or two were completely covered from head to toe in red scarves, in defiance of the controversial Bill 78, but the theme tonight seemed to be “less is more.” One of the nearly naked came right up to us gawkers with a friendly smile and outstretched hand – bewildered, I accepted and murmured “bonne chance” – as what else should one say when a nearly naked stranger wants to shake your hand? I guess he was just saying hello to us for being there for the public display. To my surprise, they did not march through St-Catherine into the Francofolies festival, but continued on up St-Laurent, split in half by a flashing squad of Intervention police (these are the police who manage demonstrations – they were often at the MUNACA protests last fall).

Quebec students have been “on strike” since February 13, 2012, which is…112 days today? In addition to the above two encounters, my personal experience with the protests have included:

  • marching with them during the 2011 MUNACA strike as quid pro quo for their support of our strike
  • being stuck in traffic on McGill College Avenue as students marched against traffic, making gestures intended to encourage drivers to honk their support (I didn’t honk; I had just driven back from Burlington, VT, I was hungry, and they were delaying my dinner)
  • scurrying through a pack of at least forty shield-beating riot police on my way to work at the Peel and Sherbrooke intersection as they prepared to intercept a student march there (the police presence was definitely overkill that morning, and they seemed to match the protesters one-to-one)
  • having to walk to work (takes 40 minutes uphill) because a smoke bomb had closed the metro that morning
  • viewing a masquerade-themed march under my window (I was home sick that day)
  • many days at work distracted by loud news helicopters hovering over McGill and the downtown area – even on days without protest events
  • many nights at home distracted by the loud sound of hovering news helicopters by the Palais de Justice and Old Port, covering students protesting there

It’s all entertaining, frustrating, engaging, comical, absurd, and stressful. As an American expat, I keep thinking, “this would never happen in New Jersey.” In April, the US Consulate issued a travel advisory about student protests in Montreal. Last week, we had visiting family members from NJ and NY who were concerned about about news reports about student violence (one couple experienced a casserole protest first-hand during their stay in the Plateau). I haven’t witnessed violence myself, from either protesters or police. Just inconvenience, distraction, amusement, and stress. As an experienced marcher from the MUNACA strike, I know that marching through Montreal means basically hanging out, but moving. Moving slowly. And lots of pausing so the stragglers can catch up and maintain appearances that the marchers are one solid mass and not a disjointed trickle. It’s repetitive and sometimes dull. It’s cold and wet if it rains, or hot and sticky when it’s sunny in the summer. I’m fairly sure that 99% of the protesters are nonviolent, and that only a small minority are extremists.

Do I support them? I looked up the current in-state tuition fees for Rutgers (a state university in NJ and my alma mater) and compared it to the equivalent Quebec resident fees at McGill. The Quebec fees were almost a third of the price of the Rutgers fees. So a part of me who scraped together money for extra summer classes and books thinks that the Quebec students are just entitled brats who should just fork over the extra $300+ increase.

Then a part of me thinks that well, maybe if students had revolted in NJ, I wouldn’t have had to scrape quite as hard to muster up funds for part of my education. Maybe the funds my parents had saved for my education would have stretched farther. Perhaps I’m just jealous of their verve.

I can’t say definitively if I support them or don’t support them, since it changes from day to day, depending on how their actions affect me. When I had to walk to work, I wasn’t feeling especially supportive. When I saw the videos of the 100-day march, I was duly impressed by the magnitude of the demonstration and thought that perhaps they had something going for them after all. I have a feeling that the naked-themed protests will continue as the summer progresses. Will they sway my support for the cause? I don’t know…it might depend on whether I have to touch another nearly naked guy in the future.

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Ok, so this isn’t food-related.

I grew up in the NJ suburbs, where everyone had their own driveway, every adult had their own car, and every house had their own washer and dryer. Now I live in the city and I use the communal washers and dryers on my apartment floor. We’re not allowed to have our own machines because the building is too old to handle them all and they’re not willing to spend the money to upgrade the plumbing. The machines run on prepaid laundry cards and they’re small. Or just seem small. Despite it being just the two of us, my husband and I generate an embarrassing amount of laundry, roughly 8 loads per week. That’s right – 8 full loads. Sometimes more, rarely less. At $3.75/load, the costs add up.

So you can imagine the incredible inconvenience of losing one of these laundry cards, which happened at the start of the year. I told the building concierge, and a new card arrived 2 weeks later for a whopping $35. And then a couple weeks after that, the new card stopped working. It still had about $20 left on it, but the machines wouldn’t accept it and the charge station wouldn’t accept it. I mailed it in for a replacement. The replacement took a month to arrive, but at least they replaced the $20 charge on it.

Since it knew that it would be a long wait this time, I decided to investigate other options. The first week, I had our laundry picked up by our dry cleaners for fluff and fold service. I like them. They’re friendly, they’re not that expensive, and they deliver. But when they delivered our laundry back to us, ~7 loads of laundry came to almost $100. That’s right. About $14 per load! And while everything was neatly folded to fit in their plastic carrying bags, they were not folded to prevent wrinkles and they had been harshly washed so that everything felt very rough. I hadn’t included any delicates, because I didn’t want anyone handling them. At least everything smelled clean. But that option was not for us.

Next, I went to a laundromat. There aren’t any in my area, so I drove ten minutes to one on Parc Ave.. It was nice to be able to do five loads of laundry simultaneously, however the machines were more expensive than our apartment machines, especially the dryer which was roughly $4/load. That was over $7/load and more for off-street parking. And after suffering through creepy staring laundromat guys, some of whom I suspected frequented the laundromat purely for social reasons, I accidentally dropped three flour sack towels onto the wet, muddy street as I was unloading the car. I threw them away. I hate laundromats.

I actually tried handwashing some items in a bucket, hand wringing, and laying them out to dry, but that was very tough on my hands. Even though I now wear rubber gloves to wash dishes and clean, my hands are very roughened and cracked, as if I do manual work. Also, it was too physically awkward to lean over the bathtub to plunge everything up and down and empty the water and repeat. I was exhausted after washing only a couple things. My back started to hurt, and it would have been too much work to do that for our laundry needs. I saw something that looked like a toilet plunger with holes in it that you’re supposed to use in the bucket instead of your hands, but I didn’t think that would be very good for my delicates and it still didn’t solve the problem of hand wringing.

Desperate, I then decided on a more “green” approach. Surely some hygienic eco-freaks have come up with a viable alternative to washing machines. Enter the Wonder Wash and Laundry Alternative centrifugal spin dryer. The Wonder Wash looks like a small propane tank, and works like a manual ice cream maker or a butter churn. Clothes go in, a tiny amount of detergent, water, and then it’s cranked by hand for a couple minutes to agitate. Drain and repeat until the detergent is mostly gone. This process takes considerably longer than the 2 minutes advertised (2-3 minutes wash, 1 minute drain, 1 minute fill with water, 1-2 minute rinse, 1 minute drain, etc.). I also rested the machine on a towel because the suction cups at the bottom are difficult to remove. But how to dry? In a centrifugal spinner, of course! The spinner is the size of a large coffee urn. I like the spinner more than the washer, because it’s faster and takes less effort because it plugs into an outlet. Wet clothes are carefully arranged in the tub so that the heaviest is on the bottom and the lightest on top, then it spins out all the water like a high powered salad spinner. When it was loaded correctly, it made only a quiet whirring sound; when not, it banged around or made loud thunking noises until I rearranged the clothes. No matter how many times I rinse the clothes, I still find soap residue in the water expelled from the spinner, so I think it greatly improved the effectiveness of the Wonder Wash. After 2-3 minutes, the clothes are done and can be hang dried for another couple of hours until they are fully dried. The clothes are indeed dryer out of the spin dryer than out of a regular washing machine. One full load in the Wonder Wash and centrifugal spinner equals half a load in one of the regular apartment washing machines.

It sounds crazy for a modern woman living in an 90% Ikea-furnished apartment to be doing her laundry by hand crank, but to me it beats the alternatives listed above. I get a good arm workout with all of the churning, and I have more control over it so I don’t have to get my car and drive out to the creepy laundromat to wash our clothes every time there’s an issue with the new machines. And now that I’ve invested in our own machines, I won’t feel as bad about spending money on doing so much laundry, since I can offset the cost by doing some of it by hand, or most of it and then finishing the drying process in the regular dryer. It’s great for washing delicates. I’ll still use the regular washing machines for some things, like queen-sized quilts and when the laundry basket gets backed up again. I was able to do queen-sized bed sheets, though, and later a couple large bath towels. While the spin dryer greatly speeds up air drying, it does not remove pet hair like a regular dryer does. If there’s ever another 3-week power outtage, at least we’ll have clean laundry. Shipping from New Hampshire to Montreal equaled the cost of the two products together ($141.85 USD shipping, $42.95 USD Wonder Wash, $145.00 USD spin dryer), however the total cost of all of that equaled a very basic top-loading washing machine (just under $400 CAD at Sears). So I think it’s worth it. Until we can get our own regular washer and dryer, that is.

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