Monday, September 17, 2007

Its 6:17 and VIA train number 69 slowly winds its way out of the bowels of Montreal’s Central Station on its way to Toronto. As we emerge from the station, the sun is reflecting off of the glass office towers as it makes its way towards the horizon. The conductor is explaining to a passenger in a thick French accent how they will be responsible for breaking the window to create an exit in the event of an emergency. We pass a basketball court surrounded by low rise (and probably low-rent) apartments, where it appears as though a film crew is setting up large lights for an evening shoot. There are signs of a city in a state of decline, lots of unattended graffiti, dirty streets and buildings, not much in the way of new construction, There is an odd mix of architectural styles. While there are signs of increasing cultural diversity, French and white is still the predominant theme here. The people don’t look particularly happy, but then they don’t look particularly sad either. Most passing conversations are either in French or English, as are many of the signs. For the past 24 hours I have been in a Montreal hotel attending a board meeting of Leading Spas of Canada, one of a handful of associations trying to represent the interests of spa owners. Like Montreal, our industry is conflicted – we know we should be working together, and we know we have tremendous potential if we could, but we just can’t seem to get over ourselves and our petty differences. I belong to 3 of the 4 associations (at one point I belonged to all of them), always finding a few people who I enjoy spending time with as we share stories about our lives and the business of being a spa operator. I’ve always had an affinity for Montreal – a little exotic, but not too far from home, slightly foreign but comfortably familiar. When I visit Quebec my French slowly starts to come back, but I’m no longer confident enough to try to form a sentence in French, so like a bad American tourist, I speak English. Over dinner last night, one of my colleagues from Quebec explains that French Canadians speak the same dialect that was spoken in France when their ancestors left 300 years ago, setting them apart from modern day Parisians. Another tells us how frustrated he is with the separatists, as he feels they are responsible for creating the economic uncertainty that prevents the Quebecois from reaching their full potential. I’ve always looked forward to a visit to Montreal, with excited anticipation, usually choosing to extend my stay by a day or so to enjoy the city. Not this time though. I can’t decide whether its me, or Montreal, but our love affair is waning somewhat. Like my visits to Toronto, I find that I am planning my escape even before I arrive. Perhaps this trip got off to an ominous start. I hailed a taxi outside the train station and asked to be taken to my hotel, which was just a short trip up hill. Normally I would have walked, but I was tired and I had my suitcase, my laptop and my briefcase to attend to. And so, when the driver took a drive around the block I thought it was either an attempt to disorient me, or possibly to avoid one way streets and prohibited turns. However, as he managed to go just the right speed to catch every red light, and when he drove past the street that the hotel was on, I questioned him. He backed up into the intersection and made a big production out of making the turn. Not surprisingly, he was then pulled over by a police cruiser. Now I’m steps from the hotel, with the meter running and the cab driver trying to defend his driving techniques to the police. A fare that should have been $5 or $6 is now approaching $10. The police repeatedly tell the driver to turn off the meter and get out of the car, but he is too busy defending himself and blaming me. I got out, paid what was owing on the meter, and walked to my hotel while the police wrote up a ticket for the failed ambassador to this once promising city. I’m not sure when I’ll be back.

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