Chapter II: Boston to Montreal, Ottawa, Lake Superior

of Travels with Samantha by Philip Greenspun
May 26, 1993

Ted and Eero, two of my best friends, kept me company the whole day. It felt so good to be with them that I began to feel homesick in advance. Eero had finished his Ph.D. six months before and taken a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania. I was happy for him, but MIT seemed much bleaker without his companionship. Eero was just up for graduation and the hooding ceremony.

"Falcons and new Ph.D.s are the only creatures to be hooded," Eero observed.

May 27

Eero and I ran around the house looking for things that might conceivably be useful and threw it all into my minivan until there was no room for a passenger. A brand-new forest green Dodge Grand Caravan doesn't make much of a fashion statement, but it will hold seven cameras, a filing cabinet, Rollerblades, a mountain bike, clothing for four seasons, 50 books, hundreds of audiobooks, lectures on tape, and camping gear.

Every hour further knotted my stomach, accelerated my breathing, and killed my desire to go. After looking forward to this trip in the back of my mind for six years and thinking about nothing else for a month, all the wonderful things I could do with a summer in Boston paraded themselves before my eyes:

Memories of butterflies in my stomach before previous trips stiffened my resolve. I joined the evening rush hour exodus from Boston on I-93 North.

After an hour, traffic thinned to the point that I often could see no car in front of me. Virtually the entire trip could have been characterized as "sunset," and it was lovely to see both the scenery and the light change at 65 mph. My doubts about the trip faded with the light, and by the time I entered Vermont, it was hard to imagine why I'd gotten so worked up. A sumptuous dinner and warm reception from some family friends awaited me in Burlington.

May 28

Downtown Burlington has some quaint brick buildings, but the cold rain falling on the grey waters of Lake Champlain didn't inspire me to get out and sample the lakeshore bike path. By 9:15 I was on the Interstate speeding north through beautiful rolling hills, accompanied by a fine selection of classical music on the radio.

"You'll know you are in Canada when it gets ugly," said my friends in Burlington.

They weren't wrong.

God blighted Quebec by scraping a glacier over it until it became nearly as flat as the most boring parts of the Midwest. Vermont's beautiful mountains stop just at the border and are replaced by overworked-looking fields. The divided four-lane highway becomes a dangerous undivided three-lane demolition derby. Bucolic rural towns with lovingly made and maintained buildings melt into cheap, aggressive developments of thrown-together and ugly structures. Rest stops with free coffee and cookies disappear. Most of the radio stations are still pop, but the lyrics and announcements change over to French. In fact, more of the songs are in French than in France itself.

View across the street from Montreal's youth hostel Montreal stands out from the rest of Quebec like a diamond in a plate of mashed potatoes. Gleaming office buildings tower over bustling streets and intimate old neighborhoods. Every part of the city teems with streetlife and the pedestrian rules. The youth hostel is an old townhouse in a particularly nice section of downtown. I checked into a 16-person mixed-sex room, then drove straight to Old Montreal, which was curiously dead. A few tourists shuffled about at a lugubrious pace.

Along with every other tourist, my first stop was Notre Dame with its famous chancel and lovely modern stained glass. If you'd come straight from Paris's Notre Dame, you'd be struck by the small scale, the lack of ambition, and the crudeness of the artwork. However, sitting down to a couscous at a nearby cafe immediately conjured up memories of Paris. Well-dressed women, tall and lean in their trench coats, hunched together in conversation before stepping outside for a cigarette. Trim men in fashionable sport jackets read neatly folded newspapers. I read the Mirror, Montreal's alternative/arts newspaper... correction, Montreal's Anglophone alternative newspaper: Canadian customs officials are seizing large shipments of American small press books at the border searching for books on homosexual themes; The Mirror was banned from a public library in a nearby suburb because of an explicit AIDS prevention article.

Personal ads in the Mirror are distressing. Five times as many men are looking for women as vice versa. There is an implicit assumption in all of the ads that only Anglophones need apply (one or two said a French speaker would be OK). Subtlety is out. A "professional black woman is interested in developing a long-term relationship with a single white lawyer." Nobody blushes at explicit sexual and financial requirements.

One woman attempts to raise the tone: "Wild SW artsy fartsy redhead sks (20-40) to enjoy films, muzik, SNL reruns & won't run from the occasional theological chat."

A man rejoins in another ad: "Once my Manuel enters your artsy-fartsy and knocks you out about and thoroughly spermeates U, fini la theological chats."

Despite the "post op transsexual lesbian 33 wait don't faint I'm happy, employed with many interests seeks gay woman for relationship," I tired of the newspaper. After a tour of the waterfront, I sampled the fabled Underground Montreal, essentially shopping malls clustered around metro stations. A movie theater inside shows movies only in French--no English subtitles, not even for a Branaugh Much Ado about Nothing that had been dubbed. I protested, "In Paris you can see English movies with French subtitles and even French movies with English subtitles." An usher apologetically said, "There are theaters for Anglophones and tourists on St. Catherine Street."

It struck me then that two cities of the mind share one physical city. With separate newspapers, TV stations, movie theaters, neighborhoods, and personal ads, it is amazing to me that an Anglophone and a Francophone can even hold a conversation because they've so little common ground ("Did you see that great article in the newspaper yesterday... oops, I forgot that you don't read my newspaper.") Ontario and Vermont have bilingual highway signs, but here even the Byzantine parking regulations are laid out only in French. It feels like lunacy, but Francophones claim it is the only way they can preserve their culture in the midst of 270 million Anglophones.

As an American nursing his junior high school French, I was treated as a neutral in the Anglophone/Francophone war and was able to enjoy the carefully tended exotic culture here. Only French style and high-tech could have produced the shockingly hip Musée de Rire (Museum of Humor), which had opened on April Fool's Day. Automatic elevators and doors unfold the history of humor before visitors wearing infrared audio receivers. Sound bites in the appropriate language are broadcast from invisible transmitters at various locations. Claire, a trench-coated 25-year-old who held herself like the most sophisticated Parisienne, was just behind me in every room.

How did she feel about sharing her city with the Anglophones?

"For me, it isn't a big deal. I've lived all my life in a quiet French-speaking suburb, and I only meet Anglophones when I come downtown to work in a hotel. All the same, I don't think Montreal is so segregated by language. I'm very open-minded."

Does she have any Anglophone friends?

"Actually, no."

Did she feel a strong tie to France?

"I've never been to Europe. I take all my vacations in Florida and the Caribbean. I want to be warm."

I retired to the youth hostel to relax with Samantha, my Macintosh computer. Computers had helped me earn my crust of bread for 20 years, but I'd never been given to anthropomorphizing them. My PowerBook 170 laptop changed the way I looked at machines, however. It was the first machine that liberated me from rather than chained me to my desk. I brought it on a group bike tour in New Zealand. Most of the other cyclists were young German women. Every night I would pull out the PowerBook to write my diary, and they began to joke about it.

"It must be your girlfriend since you insist on spending every night with it. What's her name?"

"It's just a machine."

"She has to have a name!" they demanded.

"Well, I've always wanted a girlfriend named Samantha," I replied. The name stuck.

Samantha was going to keep me from being lonely on this trip by fetching electronic mail from friends around the world. I wouldn't be alone; I'd be sharing my trip with a hundred friends by exchanging personal messages and sending everyone a trip report each week. After ripping apart the hostel's phone system and connecting to the network, I found only a few pieces of mail. I decided that I had to send in order to receive, so I sent messages to a dozen friends and retired to my crowded, poorly-ventilated dormitory. In Montreal's Botanical Gardens

May 29

Despite Gore-Tex weather, I decided to be a megatourist. My first stop was that quintessential British institution, the Botanical Gardens. These are allegedly the second best in the world (after London's Kew Gardens). The Chinese garden was primo, but the Zen Garden in the Japanese section was nothing compared with the Huntington Library's in Pasadena. I walked across the street to the 1976 Olympic complex, which frightens with its vast concrete wastelands and inhuman scale. It contains a small zoo masquerading in the best politically correct style as an environmentalist "BioDome." More interesting was the ride to the top of the "world's tallest leaning tower," which was delayed by Quebeçois labor disputes until 1987. Montreal's Olympic Stadium This tower holds steel tethers for the Kevlar "convertible top" to the stadium. It is a darn impressive piece of engineering that enables the stadium roof to be reeled in.

The sun came out so I biked up to the top of Mount Royal, the source of the name "Montreal". That this 800' peak gets the title "mountain" should tell you a lot about Quebec topography. My rad L.L. Bean mountain bike drew Patrick and his brother Danny into conversation with me.

"We're French but we think the Frenchification of Quebec is stupid, especially the separatist movement. Young guys like us just want jobs."

We admired the views of the St. Lawrence and downtown and then I descended for a heavenly éclair au café -- "French food; American prices". I cycled around the ritzy Anglo Westmount area and back through downtown. So many people were out at 5:00 PM on a Saturday that it reminded me of Italy during the passeggiata.

International youth finally appeared at the youth hostel. An Australian couple, an English girl, and two German girls were sitting out on the front stoop discussing America.

"America has the worst racists in the world, and the press covers it up," noted the English girl. "Just read Noam Chomsky."

"I don't know," said an Australian. "I've lived there for a year and found that a black guy with a college degree and a middle class car is treated like a middle class person; someone of any race who looks and speaks like a member of the underclass is treated badly."

"Well, that's even worse then, isn't it? They only evaluate people on the basis of how much money they have," retorted the English girl with a triumphant expression.

"I don't know why U.S. newspapers always report on neo-Nazis in Germany but never on all the neo-Nazis in the U.S." said one of the German girls.

I'd just returned from several weeks in Germany, so I had a cogent explanation for this. "You probably hate your sister more than any minority, but you don't suggest putting her into a concentration camp. Why not? Because much as you might hate her, you don't deny that she is part of your family. U.S. bigots might dislike blacks, but they don't say that blacks aren't American--they can't really imagine a U.S. without all the minorities, and thus there aren't many true neo-Nazis. Germans by contrast have a very clear idea of who is and who isn't German. Dark-skinned people aren't German, even if they've lived in Germany for a few generations. German bigots have a very vivid imagination of what Germany would be like without the minorities."

"We aren't prejudiced!" exclaimed the German girls. "We don't like foreigners living in Germany who don't work--they just live off taxpayers like us and our parents. But neither we nor the rest of the German people dislike Turks, most of whom work hard." (The front page of the next day's newspaper carried a story from Germany: neo-Nazis burned five Turks to death.)

My friend Klaus told me later that most of these people are refugees and can't legally work because they are supposed to be repatriated to Yugoslavia or wherever once it is safe.

I showered, changed, and ran down to the Place des Arts to L'Ópera de Montreal's Die Fledermaus. The 90% Quebeçois/10% American cast was first rate and the pit orchestra was the full Montreal Symphony Orchestra. The hall seats 2,500, about the same capacity as Boston's Symphony Hall, built in 1900. However, the modern Place des Arts was constructed to give each patron much more room and hence the result is a concrete monstrosity with approximately the same size and acoustics as an American basketball stadium; the singers had to be amplified for the recitatives. Trying to understand the (mostly) German singing and read both French and English supertitles was enough of a challenge to make the evening interesting.

I collected my email just before going to sleep, but nobody had replied to the messages I sent the day before. My friends had forgotten me.

Sunday, May 30

After fortifying myself with a coffee éclair and a bowl of café au lait, I hit the Trans-Canada Highway for the two-hour drive to Ottawa. The road was four-lane divided but a bit uneven and completely devoid of either rest stops or McDonald's! Canadians don't put their money into highways--the Trans-Canada wasn't even completed coast-to-coast until 1962. Rolling hills were the scenic highlight of the trip.

National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa) Ottawa comes up out of nowhere, and it is hard to find the center of this sprawling complex of undistinguished modern government buildings. Imagine if Washington's L'Enfant Plaza had been hit by a tornado and all the buildings were set down intact but in a random arrangement. You'll get a surface parking lot next to some fairly nice three-story structures next to a horrifying concrete-and-glass bureaucracy palace next to the new Moshe Safdie-designed art museum. Canada has 1/10th the population of the U.S., and Ottawa is only 1/10th the size of D.C. -- about 300,000 people. Queen Victoria was ridiculed for picking this backwater as the Dominion's capital back around 1850, and her critics may have had a point.

Moshe's creation, the National Gallery of Canada, was my first stop. Even before going in, there were many things to note. First, in Washington the art gallery is just "The National Gallery," as though it is absurd to contemplate any other. Here they've a more outward-looking perspective and almost apologetically note that it is only "of Canada." Despite some good Lawren Harris paintings, the Canadian collection was ultimately a disappointment. I remembered better Canadian paintings in Toronto and kept thinking that the whole category betrayed a lack of inspiration. Styles were clearly derived from first Europe and then the U.S. There was no coherent way of looking at the landscape, as developed in the Hudson River School. In fact, oftentimes the landscape appeared confusing or threatening. Canadian artists must not have had the unqualified love affair with their land that American artists had.

Next stop was the Museum of Canadian Photography, which is in plush digs but had only two small shows to present and no permanent collection. Vainly trying to turn a Cirrus card or MasterCard into some cash, I combed the big downtown mall for cash machines. We think that we have the ultimate mall culture, but the Canadians have us beat. Savage weather has led them to mall up their downtowns on an unprecedented scale. Malls aren't out in the suburbs, but smack in the middle of downtown where you'd expect to find individual shops and little streets.

One museum and one mall over quota for my flat feet, I grabbed my bike and I started around downtown, across the bridge to Hull (a French town in Quebec) and then back around the Parliament buildings, which pointed up another big contrast with Washington: the Parliament buildings don't have the same kind of antitank fortifications that our Capitol Hill has. I started up the riverside bike path, but got stuck after six miles. Just as I needed to ask directions, a 21-year-old Chinese girl appeared. She was named Maple by her parents who immigrated here 25 years ago and developed a tremendous streak of Canadian patriotism. In terms of appearance, seriousness, and decidedness of personal philosophy, Maple the very image of Lily, the first woman I ever loved.

"I'm not happy with our Canadian welfare state. How can people be content to live on government handouts? Why don't they work to have more freedom and live a better life?"

Had she ever traveled to a country where incompetence and lassitude are the norms?

"No. I've only been to Florida."

I recommended she visit Egypt, and that got Maple started about tourism.

"Why would you even want to come to Canada? It is so expensive."

That Americans will promote their hometown, no matter how dreary, I'd always taken to be a sign of idiocy. When Maple wrote off her whole country, I realized that it is just a matter of love. When one loves something, be it rusting car, bulldog, or pot-bellied balding man, it becomes beautiful in one's eyes (that doesn't stop the neighbors from laughing, unfortunately). That love makes the ugly beautiful is a cliché, of course, but that love explains an otherwise intelligent person's faulty opinion of a place is something I hadn't realized. Americans by and large still have that Puritan notion that the land is a gift from God; their bayou might smell like a swamp to you, but they love it.

After parting from Maple, I biked another 12 miles or so up the Rideau Canal to Hog's Back Falls. Towards sunset, there were clouds of insects that it actually hurt to encounter at 15 mph. All the other cyclists were apparently having the same problem, for they rode with their mouths clamped tightly shut and those without glasses winced painfully as they squinted with their heads down.

My teachers in public school unanimously predicted that I would come to a bad end, but even they would probably have been surprised to find me at the Ottawa City Jail. In fact, this has been converted into a youth hostel and the cells are quite cozy. Everyone there directed me toward the Peel Pub's US$0.70 spaghetti plate. Two 20-year-old French girls from across the river in Hull took an interest in Samantha and we started to chat. We talked long enough that I learned about their French heritage, which would not have been evident from their unaccented English. It turns out that the Quebeçois in Hull are truly bilingual and fairly well integrated with the Anglophones, in stark contrast to the Montrealers.

Monday, May 31

Nothing but driving. Appallingly bleak scenery obscured by relentless rain for the first six hours. By the time Lake Huron came into sight, the landscape got a bit more interesting, particularly as some of the trees had yellow and red leaves. If there had been more sun, it would have looked like Vermont in the autumn.

The one decent photo that I took during an entire rainy day in Ontario:  a strip mall with a Canadian Bible Society shop next to an Adult Entertainment Parlour. What could not have been confused with Vermont was the pitiful state of Ontario farmers. Without U.S.D.A. farm subsidies, they are reduced to shabbiness if not actual poverty. Farmers have to make money on the free market, and they do it by driving ancient trucks and using dilapidated facilities. I couldn't help thinking what a miserable life these people have out here. The landscape is terribly boring, the weather is bad most of the year, there is nothing manmade of any distinction, and there are no people around. If not for their cable TV, I'll bet that people in these 1500-person towns would go stark raving mad. It is no wonder that most are so anxious to up and leave for the cities.

I took one decent photo the whole day: a strip mall with a Canadian Bible Society shop next to an "Adult Entertainment Parlour."

It was just about 9:30 when I checked into the Algonquin Hotel in downtown Sault Ste. Marie, the junction of Lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan. Prices and elegance level are about 1/10th that of the hotel's namesake in Times Square.

June 1

Determined to make it back to the good ol' US of A, I went straight down Main Street to the impressive, if absurdly named, "International Bridge." One gets a much bigger welcome to the U.S. and Michigan than one gets in Quebec. There are free maps, tourist guides, and friendly chatter. My first stop was a small truck stop for poached eggs and toast. My waitress was a plump healthy bleached blonde.

What was there to see in "the Soo"?

"Pretty much nothing."

Didn't she want to move away?

"Yes, but I'm not old enough. I'm only 16."

She looked tired enough to be 20.

Tahquamenon Falls, 2nd largest East of the Mississippi; Upper Peninsula of Michigan

The landscape is a bit on the flat side at first, but the trees were pleasingly multicolored considering the season, and numerous little lakes break up the monotony. Lake Superior is jewel-like, although with the water at 40 degrees and the air at 46, I wasn't tempted to swim. I stopped at the famous Tahquamenon Falls, second largest East of the Mississippi and exactly 1/1000th as impressive as Niagara.

Lunch was in the ore-mining town of Marquette. I settled into the old-fashioned Vierling Saloon for a lemonade, soup, and Cajun chicken salad from the "Heartwise" portion of the menu; yuppie eating has gotten this far at least. I'd been feeling a bit lonely through Canada so I tried to retrieve my electronic mail while waiting for my food.

It should have been a two-minute operation with the Vierling's staff kindly lending me their credit card processor line, but computers somehow never live up to their promises. Friends send email to me at MIT through the Internet, which started out in the 1960s linking computer scientists doing research for the U.S. Department of Defense. Internet today is a worldwide network linking over 10 million computer users (and doubling every year) from Australia, Japan, Russia, Senegal, South Africa, Israel, Italy, Ireland, Canada, and everywhere in between. The most basic Internet service is email, where a collection of digital information is sent from one user to another. I could mail a chapter of this book, for example, from MIT to a friend in New Zealand in about 30 seconds. Unlike a fax, the actual characters are sent so that transmission is error-free--a piece of email can be forwarded 100 times from one user to another without the little corruptions that would occur in a fax or photocopy. Best of all, the service is free to most users!

Rather than make a long-distance phone call to MIT every time I wanted to read my mail, I signed up with America OnLine, a commercial network with local phone numbers through the U.S. and Canada. For $10/month, I could receive and send an unlimited amount of electronic mail through their Internet gateway, a computer hooked up both to America OnLine and Internet. I simply instructed my computer at MIT to forward a copy of each message to my account at America OnLine and my friends didn't even have to learn a new email address for me.

America OnLine had a local phone number in Marquette, but somehow Samantha couldn't establish a connection. I was thus forced to assuage my loneliness by conversing with strangers.

Scott, John, Mary, and I talked about life in Marquette. They'd all visited California and John had even lived there, but none would trade the beautiful scenery and weather for their peaceful Upper Peninsula life.

"I'm a mechanic at an ore mine," said Scott in a gentle but almost incomprehensibly thick Upper Peninsula accent, "and John welds at the mine next door. Together the mines employ about 2000 people, and that's the basis of the whole economy for this 50,000-person town."

Scott bought me a drink and asked me to tell him whether his daughter was making the right choice in studying mechanical engineering, specifically human limb replacement.

"She turned down U. of Michigan to go to Michigan Technical University here in the U.P. I work 70 or 80 hours a week so that she can concentrate on making something of herself."

What did he do with his leisure time?

"There isn't much, between working, lifting weights, and riding my big Yamaha."

Mary, the bright-eyed bartender, fielded calls from her 10-year-old son and told me about her life in between. She married a carpenter at 20 and divorced at 24. She had a bachelor's in psychology and was about to go back to school to study nursing.

"My son wants to be a surgeon. He says he's going to support me once he gets his first job. He'd like to have kids, but he hates girls. He talks about us two adopting."

Did she think about remarrying?

"It is difficult to find a suitable man here."

It hit me then: for a guy in Marquette, a surefire pickup line has got to be "I don't work in an ore mine, I don't own a motorcycle, and I don't shoot animals."

A view of Lake Superior from US Highway 2, which runs along the southern shore

A view of Lake Superior from US Highway 2, which runs along the southern shore Old U.S. Highway 2 runs nearly straight from Marquette to Duluth, connecting the main streets of a dozen reasonable-size towns, mostly stretched along the shores of Lake Superior. An open sky hosted several large cloud banks, with occasional rain and a bone-chilling cold. Towards sunset I began to appreciate the beauty of the Midwest: the separation of earth and sky and the reflections of the evening sky in numerous lakes. Capturing it would require a patient photographer who didn't mind either freezing or being bitten by black flies (or both). I didn't stop to try.

How big is Lake Superior? Thirty-two thousand square miles. Thirty-two times the size of Rhode Island. Four times the size of Israel and New Jersey. Twice the size of Holland and Switzerland. As big as Maine and Ireland. That much I knew, but I wasn't impressed until I drove for an entire day at 60 mph and just barely made it from one end to the other.

Chapter III: Minnesota, Sinclair Lewis, and Jewish Bikers

Table of Contents

Related Links

Add a comment | Add a link