To Toronto and Montreal

Lake Ontario and brooding clouds, enroute to Montreal

Ten days after returning from Europe, and after nearly a week of city-closing winter weather in Dallas (thick ice, then five inches of snow), I flew to Toronto, Ontario. Canadians are equipped – physically and mentally – to handle winter, so the few inches of fresh white and slick roads did not trouble the fellow driving the Toronto Transit Commission’s Airport Rocket, route 192 from the airport to the end of the subway line. It was after midnight when I hopped on the Rocket, but this was Toronto, a civilized and safe city, and I gave no thought to riding public transit, and saving about 50 bucks in taxi fare. Was at the Holiday Inn on Bloor St. West by 12:40, and in deep Z-land by 1:00.

Up and out the door Monday morning, for breakfast at Tim Horton’s: bran muffins, milk, and coffee. And – I never get tired of writing this, almost every time I chronicle a trip to Canada – I smiled when I looked around the coffee shop and said aloud, “every single one of these people has health insurance.” Hopped back on the subway to Union Station to pick up a train ticket to Montreal that I would use two days hence, then ambled across the street to the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. My dad the traveling salesman was a big believer in transients availing themselves to hotel public facilities, and I cast my eyes upward when I plunked down in a big lobby armchair and connected (using my Fairmont Hotel loyalty number) my iPhone to the internet. Did a bit of work, hopped back on the TTC, back to my hotel.

I needed some exercise, and at that moment slapped my forehead. Had the T-shirt and gym shoes, forgot the shorts. It would have taken an hour to track down a store to buy a pair, and I am a thrifty soul, so I rolled up my flannel pajama bottoms and headed to the gym for ten miles on the bike. It was a great workout. Changed into teaching togs, and headed to the Rotman School of Management, my eighth visit. First stop was lunch across St. George Street, at Innis, one of the U of T’s residential colleges.

At 2:30, I met my Rotman host, Mara Lederman, and after a short yak we headed to her undergraduate strategy class. The class was nearly all Asian. After a quick talk, I departed, grabbed a quick nap, and at 6:45 met longtime Toronto friend Lorne Salzman for dinner. We had a great dinner, and an even better and prolonged conversation about end-of-life careers (he is contemplating departure from a large Canadian law firm, after a long stint), books, politics, and life. Lorne is a great fellow.

Up Tuesday, back to the gym in my rolled-up PJs, out the door for a muffin at Tim Horton’s and the traditional visit to Soldiers’ Tower on the U of T campus, which commemorates men and women from the university who died during the two world wars. And after almost every visit, I pass on to you the memorable line inscribed on a wall of the tower, above the names of the 1914-18 fallen, from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides:

Their story is not graven only on stone over their native earth, but lives on far away, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.

Thucydides' wonderful quotation and names of World War I dead, Soldiers' Tower

I had on previous visits noticed on the 1939-45 wall the name “D.F. Britton,” but never paid attention to the title, “Wren.” I didn’t recognize that word, and looked it up later that day: a Wren was a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service; nearly 7,000 Wrens served during World War II. After returning home, I did a little research and learned in an e-mail from a Wren stalwart that Dorothy served on three of Her Majesty’s Canadian ships, died in Toronto in March 1945, and is buried in St. John’s Church in York Mills, Ontario. Thanks, Miss Britton, for what you did for us; rest in peace.

Met a friend for a coffee, then ambled back to the Rotman School for a two-hour airline-alliance presentation to MBAs. Mara and I were seriously hungry, and we repaired to Mercurio, a splendid wine bar and café for a bowl of pasta and a long discussion of her research on various airline industry topics. Headed back, borrowed an office, and worked the rest of the afternoon. But there was more teaching, and from 7:30 to 9:40 I delivered to night-school MBAs. Despite the hour, they were highly engaged. At the end of class, I collected my compensation, in the form of a Rotman hooded sweatshirt. Whoopee! Dinner at ten was two cups of yogurt and a banana.

I was up a bit after five on Wednesday the 9th, brewed a mini-pot of coffee, packed up, and hopped on the subway for Union Station and my first train ride between Canada’s two biggest cities since I was a grad student in 1977. Via Rail Canada, the Amtrak of the North, tries hard, but is bedeviled by many of the same issues we see south of the border. I had a business class ticket, and the car, though lacking storage space, was comfortable and well-equipped, with free wi-fi, electricity, and a firm seat next to a large window. Unhappily, we left an hour late. The ride was interesting. Early on, we skirted Lake Ontario several times, passing snowy beaches, a slurry of snow and ice undulating like a wavy carpet. The service was friendly and attentive, with plenty of coffee, hot towels, then a hot breakfast. Views of towns from the tracks are inevitably untidy, but if one looks to the horizon the scene often improves, as in the series of church spires at Brockville. Not visible but just beyond the parishes was the St. Lawrence River. My native land was less than a mile away – the border runs down the middle of the channel – and I suddenly had an AT&T signal on my iPhone!

We arrived in Dorval, a Montreal suburb (the airport was a couple blocks from the train station) at 12:45, and I hopped in a cab to meet some colleagues from Bombardier, the airplane-maker. The taxi driver, Mr. Ishac, was a cheerful immigrant from Lebanon, a Maronite Christian. It was a short ride, but a rewarding T-t-S experience; we covered a lot of ground. What struck me most was how his attitude differed from that of the driver who shuttled me from the parking lot to DFW airport three days earlier. Both emigrated from Muslim countries (the latter from Algeria) in mid-life, and both with engineering degrees – more education than they needed to drive people for a living. The Algerian man was bitter. Mr. Ishac declared the place “paradise,” spoke proudly of his children (“I am doing this for them”), and expressed a sense of serenity that we should all embrace. May God bless him.

After the quick meetings at Bombardier, I hopped onto a bus on line 72 of STM, Montreal’s excellent public transit system. The driver was another happy guy, bantering with a passenger. It had just stopped snowing, and the cleanup effort had begun; at one point we got stuck behind a tandem cleanup crew, one truck a sort of giant snowblower that shot the white stuff out of a big conduit into an adjacent dump truck. I had never seen them before, but the next day Montrealers said they were a common fixture. When I hopped off the bus, the Francophone driver said, bade me adieu with “Stay out of trouble, pal.” I then hopped onto the swift Metro, and was at my hotel in no time.

At 6:45 I met my longtime friend Gary Doernhoefer, a former colleague at American now General Counsel of IATA. We ambled to his posh apartment, had a beer, and walked to dinner at Da Emma, a great Italian place in the cellar of an old stone building that was once a women’s prison. Simple food, really good. I had a filling pasta and bean soup, and a main course of roast rabbit, tender and flavorful. We yakked for a long time.

A snowbound Queen Victoria on the McGill campus

Up the next morning, out the door, breakfast at Tim Horton’s, then to spend 40 minutes with Peter Todd, Dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, and into the classroom of Prof. Mary Dellar to give a lecture on airline advertising to about 50 Bachelor’s students. We paused for lunch, joined by another lecturer, Bob Mackalski, an energetic and entertaining Ph.D. student. It was a lot of fun. Back to school, and two back-to-back lectures, one to MBAs and a second undergrad talk. I was plumb wore out at 5:45. Walking out just at dusk, the lights of office towers reminded me that this is a province where virtually 100% of electricity is generated by falling water. Sustainable. Nice.

I worked in my hotel room for an hour or so, then headed onto the Metro, up to dinner at a place that has become a favorite, Bieres et Compagnie, a restopub on Rue St-Denis that has scores of brews from all over the world. But no need for far-flung product when Quebec’s small brewers produce great stuff. I sat at the bar, where a young guy with a blonde Mohawk, lots of tatts, and plenty of piercing held forth. To see him work was like a time-and-motion study; I’ve almost never seen anyone move in so many directions so quickly. As I have written before, I don’t think we sufficiently respect that kind of work (cooks fall in the same category). I enjoyed a wonderful casserole of roast wapiti (explain/check) with caramelized onions, potatoes, corn, and cheese, Quebec comfort food, perfect on a cold night. Beer 1 was Boreale Rousse, an amber ale; beer 2 was Blanche de Chambly, a white beer in the Belgian style. The meal was all the more fun because Les Canadiens, the hometown hockey team, were on TV, and the bar crowd erupted when the Habs (as they are locally nicknamed) scored goals. On the trip back to the hotel, I met another cheerful bus driver, a young woman who greeted and said Au Revoir to every passenger who boarded. Being happy at work is so important, a lesson I share at the end of almost every class.

Up early again Friday morning, a bit of work in the hotel room, out to Tim Horton’s (four of five mornings that week started at Tim’s) for oatmeal, a muffin, and a coffee, then onto bus 24 west on Sherbrooke Street to Westmount, a solid and affluent inner suburb that I have come to know over the years. The place was largely built from the 1900s to the 1930s, and there’s a solidity to the place that is very attractive. I hopped off, walked up Grey Avenue, snapped a couple of pictures of the street where a friend, Kenny Saxe, grew up, then back onto the bus.

Grey Avenue, Westmount

At 11:30, I met Dean Rockhead, a fellow I first met five months earlier at a conference in Long Beach. Dean was a longtime Air Canada guy, now working for Via Rail. We yakked about the airline and railway business, but the most interesting conversation focused on his father and grandfather, who from 1928 until 1980 owned and operated Rockhead’s Paradise, a jazz and R&B club on Mountain Street. Through the years they hosted the likes of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Dean recounted tales of visiting as a kid. It was pretty cool. (When I got home I did some digging and learned a bit about Dean’s grandpa, Rufus, a Jamaican immigrant who ran the place; his was a remarkable story of triumph over racism, and refusal to bow to either organized crime, which was quite strong in Montreal, or corrupt politicians.)

Underground shopping mall

After lunch, I stepped out of the warmth of underground Montreal (a lot of downtown retailing and eating takes place one floor below the street, along a series of tunnels and concourses) into the biting wind, hopped on the STM 747 express bus to the airport, and flew to Chicago. A great week in a wonderful and civilized country. As I told every one of the six classes that week, I hold their nation in the highest esteem. “Kinder and gentler” is what it is.

I got a bit stuck in Chicago. Linda and MacKenzie were glad to see me at midnight, and I was glad to see them, and my pillow. It was a short night, up at 6:20, out the door to build a wheelchair ramp.

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