1997: Europe 2004: Canada/UK


Sunday 30 May

Went to Cambridge today, which was a relatively short 2-hour journey by train. I must say, thanks to Gong Yu (a former colleague) and his wife who showed me around, I had a wonderful day!

Waking on the ‘hallowed’ grounds of Cambridge (which, instead of being a conglomerate like the other universities all around the world, is more like a union of number of colleges) was quite an amazing experience. Considering that Issac Newton himself was once a master of the Trinity College here, you can literally feel the history enveloping you.

However, one comment of the snobbishness of the English system is that much of the beautiful lawns in the various colleges are off limits to the lowly students. The lawns are only accessible to those above a certain rank. :-)

Photos of Cambridge (opens a new window)

As a tourist (and any new student at Cambridge worth his salt, I would imagine!) we went punting along River Cam. We started from Darwin College, then went down to King’s, Trinity and then St John College. It’s definitely not as leisurely as shown on TV, as I found out after a short stint at the helm – proof in the photos!

Punting along Cam River (opens a new window)

1997: Europe 2004: Canada/UK


Saturday 29 May

The flight to London was smooth and, fortunately, uneventful!

After a break at the rather delipidated (but cheap!) hotel, I ventured into London on the subway. After coming out of the subway – and still sleepy I might add – I immediately went on those double decker bus tours around town. I think this is in fact a great introduction to London, just to get your bearings and see what are the interesting sights, from the outside, and if you plan to spend more than a few days in London. But bring a jacket if you plan to sit on the upper deck! :-)

Trafalgar Square webcam

Sunday 30 May

Spent most of today at <a href="”>Cambridge.

Later went to dinner in Brick Lane with my friend Sharmim, a champion in Eskrima I know from a few years ago. According to him, Brick Lane (where he and many migrants grew up in) used to be a very sleazy part of London and it was only in recent years this whole area had become a trendy place full of ethnic restaurants.

Monday 31 May

For the very last night in London, on impulse decided to go the West Side to catch a musical. So, simply hopped on a tube and went to Picadilly Circus.

The result of all this hot blood rushing to the head was that I ended up going to The Phantom of the Opera. I guess I was a little conservative given the myriad of choices around, so decided on something familiar (I have seen an Australian production in Melbourne in 1992 and have also listened to the Andrew Lloyd Webber original of the full show with Crawford/Brightman on vinyl numerous times), given the kind of prices I was expecting to pay. The tickets I bought were the most expensive for the last-minute tickets, in the order of about S$140! Finally, given all the extravagance (and the lack of time before the start of show) had to settle for a £2 hot dog from a convenience store for dinner, a far cry from the glamour of attending a musical in London…

For the show itself, the phantom put in a very emotional performance and had a good voice. However, perhaps because of the familiarity, I felt Christine’s role needed a more powerful vocal!? Overall I considered the standard at Her Majesty’s Theatre to be quite comparable to what I saw in Australia.

After the show, went CD browsing for a little while before heading back to pack. There is still a 12-hour return flight to Singapore coming up.

Photos of London (opens a new window)

1997: Europe 2004: Canada/UK

Quebec City

Wednesday 26 May, train ride to Quebec City

Another long train ride. Time for some more reading…

Something else which I discovered on this second overnight ride to Quebec City. I was very curious as to how the train conductors remembered, for overnight trains, who to wake up and at which stop? They didn’t seem to be using any electronic gadgets nor a list of passenger particular and, plus, depending on availability of seats, they don’t seem to mind if passengers changed to a different seat.

Curiouser and curiouser…

Well, it turned out there was a very simple and low-tech solution. The conductors simply used a post-it note which they stick on the luggage compartment above each person! This was done immediately after they have verified that you have a valid ticket. May not be elegant but definitely straightforward and simple to implement!!

Thursday 27 May

Reached Quebec very early – around 6am. Naturally was still quite sleepy because there was shuttle transfer (in a mini-van) at Charny first, which was about 45 mins away by car. The transfer shuttle dropped me off at the main train station. This was still a good 15 mins and long climb away from the bed-and-breakfast place I had reserved. Since there was extra charge involved to ask the mini-van driver to drop me off at the B&B and the fact that the reception at the B&B was not open till 8am anyway, I elected to sit it out at the train station. This, I suppose, was as close as I had ever gotten to experiencing sleeping at an airport/train station while waiting for a delayed flight/train!?

My very first impression of Quebec City was a slight dampness in the chilled air, slightly foggy, and a medieval-looking city – due to the obvious looking Ch�teau Fountenac. The main river flowing through the city also gave me the strange feeling of going back in time, like those French “period” movies. Amidst all this, I was fighting to stay awake!

Had lunch at the Restaurant Le Relais, which is inside the old city and just across the road from the picturesque Ch�teau Fountenac. The decision for choosing a place was actually not an easy one, with many places along the same road, and all bustling with people – mainly tourists, and not necessarily foreigners like me, but many Canadians as well. In the end, settled on a place with smiling waitresses that was a little quieter and with a reasonably-priced menu. :-)

Did not intend to have a heavy lunch, but felt ravenous after smelling the food from tables around me… I chose a corner table with a streetside view and ordered pasta. I must say, the bread that was served was very, very nice indeed.

I am to happy to say that the mystery of the “cracker with the soup” was solved. Normally (as in from my previous experiences), bread is served together with the soup. However, since arriving in Canada, on quite a few occasions, crackers were served with the soup. Probably a French-Canadian speciality!? Anyway, I was more concerned on how did the locals eat the cracker-with-the soup?? Well, it seemed that I had the same style as the waitress’ father: throw the cracker into the soup until it is slightly softened. I hope that does not say anything about me…

The afternoon became very sunny and warm. I joined a walking tour of the old city, which lasted about 3 hours. By the way, this is something I do highly recommend because the old city, also known as the Citadel, is not very big and you do see and learn more by walking and seeing things up close. An example is the canon ball buried in the roots of a tree on the roadside – very easily missed. Or the opportunity to have afternoon tea in an old-fashioned house.

Had a very late dinner that night. In fact, I was already the last customers in the pizzeria and I was initially a little worried that they would not accept another customer.

I had a table by the streetside again, facing the main thoroughfare Rue St Jean. Sitting, while having my meal, I felt a little like James Stewart in Rear Window (directed by Alfred Hitchcock). Why? Because the window presented a kaleidoscope of people going about their daily business, heading to their final appointments for the day, or simply rushing home to loved ones.

There were the casual strollers, fast walkers, on bicycles, or in cars. They were totally oblivious of me, of course. There were satisfied customers coming out of the gelato shop (very nice by the way because I had tried it earlier…) at the corner. Then there were the surprises. Two groups of people meeting in the street and then, for some unknown reason, started dancing together! There were two girls dressed in totally black and white only, with their faces painted the same colour! Heading to or from a costume party, perhaps? Finally there was a couple walking their dog – a dachshund, just like the one I used to have.

Friday 28 May

The day started ominously, with dark clouds and a light drizzle. The drizzle did in fact turn to a heavy and windy downpour. I was a bit sorry to be leaving so soon, but after all, I still have a plane to catch (from Montreal) that evening!

However, despite the wet weather, still managed to squeeze in a quick visit to the Ursuline Chapel. This chapel is essentially a 2-in-1 chapel. There is one section which is open for public worshipping and another section – the cloister area – which is at right angles to the public section. The cloister is cordoned off (but still visible) and restricted to the Ursuline Sisters.

It was rather fantastic on the inside. Much of the artwork on display in the chapel are actually priceless antique treasures, like the altarpiece, or many of the paintings brought to Canada during the Catholic-Protestant conflicts in Europe for preservation. And, just to imagine, in the height of the Order, there were some 450 Sisters singing hymns together in the cloister area. What a sight to behold!

There are apparently only about 62 Sisters left, according to the lady at the door. The rows of empty seats perhaps reflect a little of the fallacy of the ideology of building a religious empire!? Perhaps the learning and perfecting of religion in solitude is not the way? Christianity is supposed to be practiced and lived by? However, the Ursulines were responsible for much of the education in the New France (as Canada was known) and Quebec.

After the chapel, I went a little further down the alley to the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. There was a local guide who told me some fascinating history about this church. Apparently, the pews used to have doors for keeping out unwanted family members; another practical use is to keep in the warmth in the harsh Quebec winters. The seat of the bishop was made from the Treaty Tree, which was an oak tree around which the native Indians used to congregate and held meetings. A treaty with the French was also signed under the same tree. To me it seems religion (at least Catholicism) was less political than back in Europe, which was part of the reason for the influx of migrants to the new land, I suppose? North America did succeed in providing a safe haven to those who were under religious prosecution.

Why the fascination with churches you may ask? For the tranquillity, perhaps!? Also, I believe at one stage in the history of mankind, the church (or religious institutions) was the main benefactor who sponsored much of the artistic expressions and creations. What it boils down to, an atmosphere for contemplation to marvel at the artistic creations of past masters. And, quite often, the acoustics are quite fantastic (as I heard at the Madeleine in Paris in 2003). I am quite certain that if I had more opportunities for travelling in Asia then I would make the point of visiting various historical Budhist temples, although I might be a bit put off by the hustle and bustle of the really popular temples. I do prefer some peace and quiet, even if it is out of the way.

On to London now!

Photos of Quebec City (opens a new window)

1997: Europe 2004: Canada/UK

Prince Edward Island

Saturday 22 May

The train journey from Montreal was reasonably pleasant, provided you can get used to sleeping in a normal upright seat. This is the cheapest option on the train by the way. Then you have the bunk bed options, and finally the private rooms.

As another bit of interesting but perhaps useless information, I also discovered how the stewards on the train remembered which passengers they needed to wake up before arriving at each station. Since this was an overnight train that stopped at various stations in the early hours of the morning, I should think it is imperative to get it right! :wink: Well, the system was very simple and I would say about 99% foolproof. It just involved a simple Post-It note stuck to the luggage compartment above each passenger. No computers, or messy notepad. Neat, isn’t it?

For me, the long time spent on the train was kind of meditative. Time for contemplation. The train is somewhat like a time-capsule, which transports a person slowly (relative to an aeroplane) from one place to the next. During the journey, you are suspended in time, with no contact with the outside world except through the passive and detached view from the window. Moving to a planned destination, but possibly where many unknowns await.

Sunday 23 May

Had a bit of an incident today. Well, I almost missed the bus heading from Moncton to Prince Edward Island (PEI). After I alighted the train at Moncton, while waiting for the bus connection – another 3-hour journey – I was just leisurely wandering the downtown area and little did I realise that Moncton is actually 1 hour ahead of Montreal. Fortunately, as I sat down and about to enjoy a half-hour session responding to my emails and perhaps updating my website, I noticed that the computer displayed the “wrong” time. At that point I had only about 10 minutes left before the bus was due to leave. This was followed by a quick exit (with full refund) and a mad dash back to the train station, where the bus was about to move off, with my bags onboard!

Well, as they say, “All’s well that ends well…”

Currently safely settled in at the B&B in Charlottetown that I had arranged, the City Gardens. Will head to the downtown area now.

(10pm LOCAL time)

Just came back from a fantastic lobster dinner in downtown. This was at a place called Water Prince – the Corner Shop, named so because it sits at an intersection. Though a little pricey but highly recommended. Sorry, no pictures – too busy eating!

Photos of Charlottetown (opens a new window)

Monday 24 May

Rented a car today, and for the next two days in fact. Planned to do a bit of drive-touring on the island.

Followed the Blue Heron Drive for today, which is a almost-200km long scenic drive in the central part of PEI. There are many points of interest along the way, although I visited only a handful given the amount of time I had, and all related to Anne of Green Gables, a series of novels written by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Disclaimer: I am not a fan in the strict sense, since I have never read the novels, but I have only seen the America-produced TV series. I am sure the Anne-purists will have a field day with that one!

The drive was quite hassle-free. Despite the fact that I have never driven on the right-hand side of the road before, it was surprisingly painless. Even managed to successfully negotiated a few 3-way stops too. Furthermore, the traffic was light and road signs very straightforward to follow. However, I must admit the windscreen wipers did go off a few times (instead of the indicators), and I was often searching for the non-existent seat belt on the right and the handbrake on the left!

The landscape in central PEI consists of series of gentle undulating hills, covered by bright, moist green grass, and complemented by the various shades of green of the coniferous trees. The regularity was interrupted by the occasional red of freshly upturned earth, ready for planting. Then there were all these nice, English-style cottage houses all over the place.

While I am not an Anne-fan, I really enjoyed the visit to the Green Gables House – the house she modelled the Cuthberts’ house after. However, I was told that the Green Gables in the TV series was NOT the real thing… but I loved it anyway for its homely feel. The tranquillity of the Lovers’ Lane and also Haunted Woods in the area immediately surrounding the house made it easy to see how such environments have inspired Montgomery to write all the novels she did.

To cap off the day, I treated myself to another sumptuous dinner, although no lobster tonight, at the Lobster on the Wharf. Just the plain old fish’n’chips, with a soup, an appetizer and a beer to go. Suffice to say that I am quite satisfied!

Sights along the Blue Heron Drive (opens a new window)

Tuesday 25 May

Today was very cold, all day long. It was cloudy all the way till shortly before I reached North Cape (the northern tip of PEI), just after 3pm. However, it got colder and colder even though the sun was out…

Drove to the western side of PEI and followed the Lady Slipper Drive today. The total distance for the round-trip was about 380km. The countryside was quite flat, and more heavily wooded compared to yesterday’s route. Most of the time, I had the sea in full view, since the highway kind of hugged the coastline. There were many small communities along the way, and very, very to go past.

Visited two lighthouses today. West Point was the first one, which in fact contains a guest room, converted from a former lighthouse master’s quarters. The second was at the North Cape, roughly halfway along the route. Here is the Atlantic test site for electricity-generating windmills and there were many huge beasts around. By the way, the Cape is or on the edge of the Arctic Circle – not that I realised how far north I was at the time.

Ended the day with a nice steak and some dessert at a place called Harbour House Restaurant. Very nice indeed. The soup – some orange-based concoction with rosemary – was quite delicious. Again, ended the day with a very full stomach… Oh, just in case someone out there thinks that I am some 100kg giant. For the record, I had very light lunches for the past few days: soup and bread on Sunday, a cinnamon roll yesterday and some sandwiches today. :-)

Sights along the Lady Slipper Drive (opens a new window)

Wednesday 26 May

The bus heading to Moncton was scheduled to depart at midday, so only had a few hours left this morning to walk around the town centre of Charlottetown. Managed to get to Province House where the plans for a single Canada was debated over and laid out close to a century ago.

No more incidents before boarding the train to Quebec City. Return to normality…

1997: Europe 2004: Canada/UK


Friday 14 May

After a grueling day (almost 24 hours in fact) spent either in an airport or in the air, I finally reached Montreal. At first, things did not appear that well because it was pouring down in buckets as I was coming out of the airport.

After a short rest in my hotel, I ventured into the night scenes of Montreal. Or, more specifically, I went to my first milonga, at Dancing Mocha Joe. Actually I was a little tired so I did not dance at all, but it was wonderful to be bathed in the Tango music – even if it was after a 20-minute walk from the nearest Metro station…

Saturday 15 May

On Saturday morning, this little exchange took place.

As I set out to discover Montreal, a car drove next to me and stopped. The driver, a man, said, “Hi, I am Italian. Do you know where xxx is…?”

In reply, I said, “Sorry, but I am a tourist…”

“Oh, a tourist…”??

I think that pretty much killed the whole conversation. Which brings to mind: since when do we introduce ourselves by the categories we belong to?? I mean, instead of using names? :wink:

Sunday 16 May

Joined a half-day city tour today.

First impressions of people of Montreal? Extremely friendly, very helpful and courteous. From the pedestrians on the street offering directions, to the helpful and patient shop assistants, up till now, I have had nothing but favourable impressions.

The city itself reminds me very much of my hometown, Melbourne. There are pockets with intense activities: either cultural events, or concerts for teenagers, or just bars, or caf�s, and there are heritage buildings which portray the historical roots of the city.

Some shots of the city of Montreal (opens a new window)

17-21 May

This week is the ICASSP 2004 Conference, which is the main reason for me being here, so not much to tell really.

Apart from the technical meetings – which I have learnt a thing or two from, I am glad for the opportunity to meet up with old friends again. For example, there was the friend from ANU whom I last saw in Paris (during my previous trip) as well as a senior who is now working in London, at Imperial College. Naturally, through them and other colleagues, I was able to make more professional acquaintances.

A couple of observations of social behaviour at the Metro stations here. Firstly, people waiting at the platforms automatically make way for the alighting passengers. Secondly, when on the escalators, again, there is a unspoken convention of standing to the right-hand side to allow people to move through. I think Singapore or Singaporeans have a lot to learn from people of Montreal in this regard. No rules or “guidance” are really necessary – just some consideration for others and common courtesy.

There was a slightly amusing incident two days ago (18 May). As I was coming out of the Metro station, the elderly gentleman in front of me picked up a copy of the free newspaper they have at all stations. He promptly sized up the newspapers against his head. A little puzzled, I continued. Then I realised what the purpose of incomprehensible actions: it was raining that morning, and he was going to use it as a shade… :-)

Photos taken on St Helen’s Island (opens a new window)