Thursday, 22 November 2018

On lost cellphones, curries and an early winter

This entry is partly the result of prods from the Maternal Unit.

Riding home from work on Monday of last week, I stopped in the middle of NDG to give directions to a woman in a cowboy hat. This involved pulling out my iPhone to consult a transit app. As I prepared to set off home, I remember a moment of uncertainty when I couldn't find my black gloves which I had removed to use the iPhone. I found them in my crate and set off for home. Around 9 PM, I suddenly realised I didn't know where my iPhone was. I tried phoning it, but I couldn't hear it and I had an uneasy recollection of having set it to silent mode recently. After a search of my messy condo didn't turn it up, I went out and retrace by bike the roughly 4.5 kilometres to where I had last had it. This did not turn up the phone. The trip back was made all the more stressful as my headlamp began to lose its charge. (Recharging it had been on my to-do list for the evening.)

When I got home, I called my mobile service provider to suspend service. I spent an uneasy night, tossing and turning as I mentally debated how soon I should go out and buy a new iPhone between mentally kicking myself for not having activated the "Find my iPhone" function, for having lost the thing in first place and for being so upset at having lost an electronic device. Yes, I am neurotic or something.

I went to work the next morning. However, the lack of sleep and stress led me to leave by mid-afternoon with my sympathetic managers' blessings. When I got home, I found a message on my answering machine with a British woman's accent saying that she had found my cellphone nearby and left a number to call. (While my cellphone is locked by fingerprint, I long ago took a photo my business card and have that displayed as the initial image on my cellphone. Thus if you were to pick up my phone and try to turn it on, you would see my name, addresses (both snail and email) and phone numbers. The logic was to accommodate just such an eventuality.) I phoned the number. She was at home in Westmount (thankfully below Sherbrooke Street). I grabbed the best bottle of wine I had in my wine cellar and rode up to retrieve my iPhone. I did my best to express my gratitude. I am not sure I fully conveyed the full extent of my considerable relief. (I suspect she had been walking her dog when she found it.)

As mentioned previously in this blog, I have returned a number of cellphones over the years, usually found when biking. The Maternal Unit in her prods expressed the opinion that I had easily earned enough karma to allow rapid return.

I then had to go to my mobile service provider in order to restore service. This took a while and by then night had fallen. So I headed off to Hurley's Irish Pub on Crescent Street. This establishment is well known for the best poured pints of Guinness in Montreal. It also does decent pub grub. There was beef curry among the specials, so I opted for that. One of the waitresses said it was good when I placed the order.

It was.

It was, hands down, the best curry I have had that wasn't either in an Indian restaurant or homemade.

That might sound a bit like faint praise, but I have eaten in some very good Indian restaurants (Mother India in Glasgow springs to mind) and I eaten some extremely good homemade curries, some made by my own hand. Also, I have eaten worse curries in Indian restaurants and made far worse curries.  (As well, please note that by "Indian", I mean the Indian sub-continent including Pakistan and Bangladesh.)

I let the staff at Hurley's know my high opinion of the beef curry. This included the manager and/or owner who happened by and who I encouraged to have the curry added to the regular menu. He seemed receptive to my enthusiasm.

The next two days of the week (Wednesday and Thursday) involved biking in some very cold temperatures (-10 C and beyond). The forecast for Friday called for snow, so I brought die Fleddermoose inside on Thursday night. Sure enough, there was easily enough snow to signal an end to biking for the time being. In my particular definition of the seasons, this means winter has come. This is relatively early, given that one year I biked until the Christmas holidays. It also might be temporary the forecast is calling for rain and above zero temperatures on the weekend and following. Still, it feels like winter.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

On bikes, lights, further thoughts

For reasons that I am not going to discuss here, I went through a phase of uncertainty which lead me to want to be damn sure I was within the law regarding bike lights in Quebec. I would be bloody embarrassed and bloody angry if, after writing a slight smug post about bike lights, I was to be on the business end of a $127 ticket for riding without a proper light. So yesterday, I went to a police station to check that I had the right information. Unfortunately, I failed to convey that my bike (Floria die Fleddermoose) was fully (and possibly overly) equipped with reflectors and thus having a Light & Motion Vis 360 on my helmet* was not adequate according the officer at the desk.

When I returned home, I looked up the regulations on the SPVM** website. From it I could tell that die Fleddermoose was easily within the requirements vis-à-vis reflectors. However the requirement "[a]t night, every bicycle must also carry, a white headlight or light and one red tail-light, both of which may be flashing" was sufficiently vaguely worded that I was wondering if I had needed to dip into my bag of semi-discarded bike lights to find a couple of MEC turtle lights to make die Fleddermoose legal.  The whole insecurity thing lead me to go back today to the police station and verify with the SPVM that when riding a bicycle compliant with reflector requirements, that if I am wearing a helmet equipped with proper lights, I don't need to put lights on the bicycle itself. Thankfully, this proved to be the case. As well, the officer at the desk wasn't the same one as yesterday so I was spared looking like a crazy person.***

As it was, I had already visited SPVM stations three times in as many days owing having found an iPhone on my way to work on Friday. By my count, it was at least the 8th lost cellphone I have come across since the day I graduated from Library School in 2000, and 4th I came across while biking to work. This is easily worth my time as I would want anyone who found my cellphone to try to return it to me. Also, one time, the cellphone belonged to a real estate agent who was so grateful he gave me a card with $100 in it.

I would like to state that I very firmly support the SPVM's attempt to get cyclists to have proper lights at night. Nothing in my comments should be construed as negativity towards the Montreal Police, only a desire for great clarity. Of course, if I get a ticket for not having the right lights coming home tomorrow, I reserve the right to very, very angry with the SPVM! ;-)

* This incorporates a fairly powerful forward headlamp with rear facing red LEDs in a USB rechargeable battery pack.

**SPVM = Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal

*** Then again, I probably am.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

On why it is important to have bike lights at night

Biking home from work yesterday (October 29) at around 6:30 PM, the police were stopping westbound cyclists opposite the Vendôme Metro station. (I was going East.) From the body language, I believe they were doing a safety blitz telling people to have proper lights and reflectors as nights are coming earlier. And I could be wrong.* It is definitely the time for it and there is a lot of need for it.

So it was with some amusement that I saw this CBC news article about two wanted men being nabbed because they were spotted riding their bikes at night with no lights. There is something ironic in this as they drew attention to themselves by not drawing attention to themselves! ;-)

My route home yesterday (November 1st) took me to the corner of de Maisonneuve and Atwater. There was this sign right next to bike path.
So I think I was right.

Because it didn't fit the flow of the post, I left out that the cyclist behind me in front of Vendome had asked me what I thought the police were up to. When I told him, he concurred and said that he often yelled "Lights" at unlit cyclists. 

Sunday, 16 September 2018

On twin railway stations

Not for the first time, my bike travels in the UK have taken me to the St Pancras YHA which is kitty corner to St Pancras Railway Station. In turn the latter is across a side street from King's Cross Railway Station.  The rationale for having two major railway stations one beside the other goes back to the late 19th century.

In the second half of the 20th century, St-Pancras was considered redundant by British Rail. It was allowed to run down, in favour of King's Cross. In his book, The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul, Douglas Adams describes it as deary, but beautiful place for lost souls, including minor Norse deities. It was also an entry point to Valhalla. Even into the 21st Century it was decaying. However, it was revived by being selected to be the endpoint of Eurostar and thus was re-baptised St-Pancras International. The choice of St Pancras eludes me, as I would have thought one of the Southern railway stations. Victoria or Waterloo would seem more logical. However, the upshot is that St Pancras was given not only a new lease on life, but also a significant amount of sprucing up, to the point that it now seems to be the posh railway station in London. It feels posher than the other ones I have visited in the last year (Paddington, Euston, King's Cross, Marylebone and Victoria.) This may be partly connected to the attached St Pancras Hotel which among the cars parked outside was a McLaren sportscar.

King's Cross Railway Station did not escape notoriety in late 20th literature either. If anything, it was more subject to it to the point that there is a shop dedicated to the mythical platform 9 3/4 as mentioned in the Harry Potter books. There is a luggage trolley embedded in the wall for tourist to be photographed with. Long lineups form for such devotees. I was not among them. I did buy a postcard for Alisa, as she is a devotee of Harry Potter.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

On wheels, canals, tunnels and Kelpies

On the train to Edinburgh, I dug out my cycling map of the area as I had the plan of leaving the bulk of my clobber at the train station before catching a train to Falkirk as it was a weekday and I could not expect Donald or Dominique would take time off to greet me. (I would be staying with them.) Looking at the map and listening to routine announcements, I realized that the train I was on would stop in Falkirk. I checked with a member of the train staff about the logistics of getting off the train in Falkirk. The hitch was that the platform in Falkirk was too short, so would have get the bike out of the bike space and put it in the forward vestibule of coach F for Foxtrot while the train was stopped in Stirling. This I did but it was stressful to run back and forth on the platform.

From the station in Falkirk, I found the Forth and Clyde Canal and followed it west to the Falkirk Wheel. It raises boats from the level of the Forth and Clyde Canal to that of the Union Canal. It is a brilliantly simple exercise in engineering, modern art and tourism. All three elements are at play at multiple levels.

It is also located at part of the Antonine Wall. Constructed on the orders of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, it was an earthen version of the more famous Hadrian’s Wall. However, for various reasons, it was abandoned in a favour of the more southerly location. Unfortunately, it was poorly signed so I wound up following the new Interchange Canal between the Forth and Clyde and the Union canals through Scotland’s second canal tunnel. At the other end, I turned East on the Union Canal’s towpath, in search of the Antonine Wall site which my maps said was close but which Google Maps couldn’t locate. I went through the first Scottish canal tunnel which a panel cheerfully described as having been worked on by Burke and Hare before they started killing people for the anatomists. The towpath was narrow enough and slippery enough that I walked the bike through.

Coming out the other side, I deduced I had missed the Antonine Wall, so I headed towards the town centre for lunch. Afterwards, I headed back towards the Wheel by road and managed to find the site. The wall and ditch isn’t hugely impressive except for the fact that it is there after nearly two thousand years. Even today, in its present, eroded form, it would slow down a horde of ravening Picts, giving the Roman Legion a better chance. Also, the fact the Romans could build it probably suggested to the wiser Picts that the Romans had a superior power of organisation.

I took the F&C canal East to the Kelpies. These massive horses’ heads are of a piece with the Falkirk wheel in their being Millennium projects and being clad in stainless steel. The Kelpies differ from the Wheel in that they don’t have an inherent practical function. I caught a train into Edinburgh. It was still too early to get to Donald Dominique’s, so I paid a visit to Cadenhead's Whiskey Shop. There were a number of people there. While trying to make up my mind about what to buy, I overheard a clerk explaining to an American couple that Campbeltown was a well regarded whisky region with three distilleries. I couldn’t resist voicing the observation: “Yes, and two of them are owned by the same company that owns this place! But they make very good whisky!”

After some shopping both there and elsewhere, it was time to head over to the New Town to Donald and Dominique’s house. As luck would have it, Donald and their youngest daughter were just getting out of cab as I arrived. I was made at home in their gorgeous Georgian home. I think the room they put me in has half the floor space of my condo and with its high ceilings, the same volume! It is a grand residence.

Today, I slept in, had breakfast and lazed until a little after noon, when I bid my farewells and cranked up and over to Waverley Station to catch a fast train to London. As luck would have it, my seat was in coach F for Foxtrot in the parlance of LNER. As well, I had window looking East, so had the chance to replay in reverse my trip prior to Edinburgh.

I had supper tonight in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, as rebuilt in 1667. It has frequently by Charles Dickens, Dr. Johnson and Charles II if memory serves. And of course countless others. I ended up in a Gothic vaulted undercroft adjacent to its Wine Cellar Bar room. It was packed, as might be expected on a nice evening on a Saturday night on the first of September.

Friday, 31 August 2018

On travels by ferry and train

After supper in the Ferry Inn in Stromness, a chance remark about the difference between a ketch and a yawl resulted in me chatting with a Brit living in Wales with the improbable name Vasco (he was half Portuguese) and an American woman named Sofia (a cycle-tourist). She was involved in education in San Francisco. This is relevant as the conversation drifted on to the topic of second or dual language education in schools. The three of us each had differing experiences on the subject. In some way, I had the broadest knowledge having experienced the school system in Quebec and California. She was amused by my account of how the vice-principal at La Cumbré Junior High warned me that as a non-Latino, I would in the minority. This provoked giggles from my mother and I, as an anglophone, I had been a minority student for the previous six years.

The next morning, I caught the ferry to Thurso. I realized that the jaunt  to the Orkneys had been poorly planned as it was far too short. Next time, I should plan on at least a week! 

The last vehicle off the ferry was a Porsche Convertible that was on a mission to visit all the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) stations in as short a time as possible.

The day was like the one before with bright sunshine, wind and light rain that came in short bouts. There was a distinct swell on the sea which allowed me to wonder at how the seabirds glided just inches above the rising and falling water. I caught sight of a pod of dolphins which I called out to the other people in the quiet lounge. (I was technically breaking the rules but as the response from the patrons was a genuine “thank you for letting us know”, I think that I was justified.) I say dolphin in the sense that they were members of the dolphin family, but I am not sure which species, as we didn’t get that long a look at them. I saw one leap out of the water and my memory was that it was largely black with a blunt head. That would make it a pilot whale. However, it was silhouetted against a bright, sun reflecting sea so I may be mistaken. Some else said they were common dolphins.

In theory, I had 33 minutes to get from the ferry terminal to the train station. Google Maps said it would take 15 minutes. However, both are not guaranteed owing to the vagaries of wind, weather and tide, the ferry being particularly subject to both. I was therefore anxious to make a rapid departure from the ferry. Luckily, the bike parking spot was nearest to the exit doors the drill was bikes get off first. The only downside of this was that I didn’t have time to gawk at what I think were a pair of Alfa Romeo Montreals, a type of car designed in response to Expo 67. Once off the ferry, I cranked half to the train station which despite a wrong turn, I got to in...fifteen minutes! I could have stopped in the town centre of Thurso to buy a sandwich for lunch.

As it was, I lunched on Orkney cheddar and oatcakes as North East Scotland went by. The grey seals were again on their beach, which contrary to a previous entry was on Cromarty Firth but somewhat further North. (I will correct the error at a later date.)

I caught the train to Edinburgh this morning. I was disconcerted to see a party of young men in Hawaiian shirts sitting a table with a case of Corona and an excessive number bottles of spirits of a flashy nature. This included a round tray box full of miniature bottles of assorted vodka shooters. They also had a bottle of Crystal Skull vodka. Despite the train having left at 7:55 AM, they started in on the drinking. I guessed they were a stag party. They were already sufficiently noisy to the point that not only that I didn’t ask if they knew that Crystal Skull is a joint venture involving both Dan Ackryod and the Newfoundland Liquor Commission but I decided to find a seat in another coach, most notably the quiet coach which also has the benefit of being closer to the bike. I inquired with a crew member about the rules about bringing your own booze on board. Unlike Via Rail, there is no restrictions beyond responsible behaviour.

Crossing through the mountains was gorgeous with just the right combination of sun and mist. As well, there were familiar sights from when I biked along this route on an earlier trip. (The railway, the motorway and NCN route 7 all follow the same path.) One sight was the Ruthven Barracks. If I remember correctly, my best friend James is connected with the Ruthven family.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

On eagles ancient and new

I caught the early passenger ferry from John O’Groats to Burwick. The crossing was witnessed by some grey seals. It involved not getting run down by the Amundsen Spirit, 66 thousand ton crude oil tanker. 

From Burwick,  it was a quick ride to the Tomb of the Eagles. This was a chambered tomb from the Skara Brae culture and thus roughly 5000 years old. Its’ name comes from the number of eagle bones found in it. The culture appears to have practiced what is sometimes termed sky burial at first (or leaving the bodies out for birds to eat) followed by actual burial once the bones were picked clean. It had been discovered by a local farmer and amateur archeologist. The place was privately run, so we were allowed and encouraged to handle some of the artifacts! One of these was a toe bone from a white-tailed eagle (or haliaeetus albicilla or sea-eagle).

There was also the Burnt Mound which consisted of the remains of a Bronze Age building of uncertain function, but was probably something akin to a sauna or sweat lodge in my opinion. (The description of why is too long and boring.) Next to it was a large midden that consisted heavily of peat ash.

Next it was a shed which had started life as a German WWII ambulance before being converted into a mobile home and used on a trip around the Sahara! It eventually wound up being used as a shed by the person discovered the place!

The Tomb of the Eagles was located on a cliff top overlooking the coast. Walking back along the cliff top path, I passed a cove cut into the cliffs. I saw at least four grey seals floating in the water.

From there, I had a short ride to the Tomb of the Otters. This was identified as interesting in 2010. Some of the stones had been seen when the mound they were part of had been removed to make a car park for a restaurant. The owner had asked archeologists if the stones were significant and had been told no. Several years later, he investigated by himself by inserting a camera. There was a skull in evidence which resulted in a “I told you so.” The Tomb has only been partially excavated but is already proving unusual as the entrance way faces North, rather than South as is more common for such tombs. Also, it is partially excavated from the bedrock. Rather than being “buried in the sky”, the bodies were left underground to be eaten by otters as evidenced by old otter scat, hence the name. The young and somewhat uncertain man presenting the background and some artifacts, told the party (three young Americans and myself that DNA found in the teeth was being analyzed by specialists in ancient human DNA in Copenhagen. They are due to present their results next year. As we were being educated, an older man was bringing in supplies for the bistro. He overheard me comment that the experts likely had the data by now and were likely figuring out what it meant. He took exception to this and said they were world renowned experts so they did not need “to figure things out.” It turned out that he was Hamish, the man who made the discovery! I must confess, I found him somewhat limited in the processes of academia. While the experts can say that the people were of X genetic stock and are fairly closely related to this group of modern Europeans, those results are not the be-all and end-all of the the process. Were I involved, I would want to think about what the data implies. For example, if the genetic analysis suggested a relationship with ancient Egyptians, there would be one hell of a need to first double check the results and second, come up with a theory or two. On the other hand, if it turns out they were Basque, a phone call to warn the Home Office about potential ETA claims to North Sea oil revenues might be in order. ;-)

Anyway, the partially excavated tomb was only large enough for three at a time, and not that comfortably at that. Particularly when thinking about what might lie undiscovered. I was intrigued by the fact that clay had been used as mortar, unlike Skara Bray and Maes Howe. However, my claustrophobia and I were glad to get out.

Still, it was a fascinating tour. 

The bistro was a handy

I made a wind-assisted zoom to the Kirkwall SYHA. I stopped at the 58 8’ fruit winery and rum distillery to sample fruit liqueurs and J. Gow spiced rum. (Captain Gow was an unsuccessful Scottish pirate.) Unfortunately, there wasn’t a bottle worth its duty allowance for sale. Especially the Tattie liqueur. I double checked my Scots with the saleswoman that it was indeed a potato derived drink. I smelt the contents and decided against tasting it.

Possibly on the strength of the spirits confused, after changing at the youth hostel, I set off on quest to procure an Orkaidian flag. (Picture a Scandinavian flage where the background is red and the cross is blue with a yellow surround.) I was very nearly overly successful. I came upon a bike store (and Warhammer game outlet) that I visited the last time I was here. In the window was a biking jersey patterned after the Orkney flag. It met my high-viz requirements. Had there been any in stock in my size, I would have bought one. Unfortunately, all they had was XXXL. I am not that fat. I did find a flag.

Down on the waterfront, I moseyed around before entering the premises of Kirkjuvag, a local gin distillery (gin is having a renaissance in the UK. Also, Kirkjuvag is the Norse for Kirkwall.) I tried their gin with tonic as it was cocktail hour. While I sipped, a pair of New Zealanders came in with a lot of clobber. Closer examination revealed part of it to be diving gear. We chatted and it emerged they had been wreck diving in Scapa Flow. They were killing time before their ferry to the Shetlands. Eventually, the staff said that they would be closing in a few minutes. (It was a store, not a pub after all.) We finished our drinks and left.

I wandered about cross-checking various restaurant menus with my guidebook and tastes. I settle on the Bothy Bar which is part of the Albert Hotel on the grounds they served lamb which is strangely hard to find outside an Indian restaurant. As luck would have it, the Kiwis came in as well!

After supper, I retired to the Hostel and finished reading the Orkneyinga Saga about the earls of Orkney. This proved relevant.

This morning, I set off for Houton in order to catch a ferry to the island of Hoy. I missed one ferry by about ten minutes, so I had time to go to a museum about the Saga in Ophir. It was built there as it was the site of one episode of the saga when during a feast one Svein got upset that another Svein’s drinking horn was smaller than his and therefore it gave him an unfair advantage in the competitive drinking that was a feature of Norse feasts. This resulted in hurt feelings and later a death. Bear in mind that these are Christian Norsemen! Behind the museum there was the ruins of a round church and the drinking hall. Or at least what is thought to be the hall. However, the ruins of the hall seemed far too small to have been the scene of the events. There was also the remains of a small round church.

The weather was bright and windy. Alas, it was blowing in the wrong direction. It rained from time to time but only briefly and lightly. As I could see a long way, I knew not only that the rain was coming but also it would only be a short shower.

When the ferry got back, I was the first to get on. The next was a dump truck with a load of gravel. That was it! The ferry had space for many more but evidently, this wasn’t a popular sailing.
Hoy is the Norse word for High. So the Island of Hoy is named after its high hills, the highest in the Orkneys. It is distinctly hilly coming close to mountainous. Certainly quite steep, with cliffs in evidence.

It was also home of the museum dealing with the history of Scapa Flow as a naval base. Unfortunately, the museum was closed for renovations and the temporary exhibition in a nearby hotel wasn’t as deep as I would have hoped. 

After lunch at Emily’s Tearoom, populated by fit retirees in trekking gear, I headed towards the North End of the Island, alternately helped and hindered by the wind. There was a feeling that often get in rural Scotland of being caught being between the old and the new. A landscape that feels primitive yet has been lived in for millennia. Maybe that was Diana Gabaldon was tapping into when she started Outlander, being in both the past present. The feeling was reinforced by the sight of an old telegraph pole which someone had top with an orange traffic cone.

At a col, there was a lonely grave and plaque explaining its meaning. In the 1770s, a young woman had committed suicide. As this was a sin at the time, she was buried in an unmarked grave, in un-sanctified ground at the border of two parishes. Her coffin and well preserved body was found by accident by peat cutters in the 1930s. After a time, she was given a proper burial and a tombstone. 

A little before the ferry dock, I turned up a valley to reach the Dwarfie Stane parking lot where the RSPB has set up an eagle watch. station. White-tailed eagles have this year hatched and fledged their first chicks on the island in over 140 years. They very happy about this, but want to make damn sure some wanker doesn’t muck things up. So, they have someone keeping an eye on the eagles. I am not sure if she was a volunteer or was paid but there was a young woman with two spotting scopes on tripods there. In addition to keeping track of the eagles activities, she was there to educate the public, not to mention point out where the eagles actually were. The nesting site was at the top of a cliff quite a distance away on the other side of the valley. When the juveniles were in flight, they could easily be mistaken for crows. When perched, they tended to blend in with the vegetation, even when using the spotting scopes. The wing tags the RSPB had fitted on them helped make them more obvious.

Really fun to see. I feel very lucky, nay, privileged.