Christmas break

Harry at McGill in Montréal


To recall correctly the last blog was pretty bleak as it covered the academic side of exchange. So as a bit of an indulgence this installment will be dedicated to fun things that happened over the fabled ‘holiday period’ after finals. It was a long time coming.

Exchanges at McGill (especially those whose years are not pass fail) work ridiculously hard and so may feel a bit disappointed that they haven’t explored Canada or the US (or Cuba for a cheeky few) as much as they liked. Christmas is a pretty good opportunity to cram in as much opportunity for future anecdotes as possible to make up for this. Ignore returning to your families and loved ones. Here are a few ideas for what you could do.

Some of the work I do out here is for part of an extended research project. For the last day of term a few post docs and PhDs as well as our group supervisor went out for a Christmas meal and it was a really wholesome way to mark the transition from term time to holiday. All the more reason to get in with your lecturers guys.

If you’ve got a hobby that can only be practiced on campus the first few days of the holiday seem like a pretty good time to binge before travelling further afield. Over the fall semester I’d collated a load of negatives and had been dying to do some printing in the MUPSS darkroom. Consequently for three straight days I was a nocturnal crustacean residing in the basement of the SSMU building doing whatever I could to prolong the period of time before I had to return the darkroom key to the photography society executives.

A friend and I had a couple of all night sessions where we’d leave at 3 am (perhaps against McGill policy) and resolve to meet as early as possible in the morning to pick up where we left off. A lot of the results were pretty questionable, especially so as we had found some discarded negatives lying around of an unusual nature…

We had an unusually warm winter (writing this on January 8th it is positive four degrees!) though snowy activities are still feasible if you rent a car and do a bit of driving. With my flatmates a dog sledding session was arranged and so we drove off for a few hours north into more rural Québec. For two days and night we stayed in a chalet with access to an outdoor heated Jacuzzi near on the same site as where the sledding would take place. Unfortunately I was laid out with a post-exam flu but my flatmates assured me they had an amazing time. Repeatedly.

Though I did not take part in the sledding or the subsequent days hiking I spent a solid half an hour with the huskies, one of whom was a puppy which had as much control over its limbs as a substitute teacher has over their pupils on a school trip. It sensed my vulnerability due to illness I suspect as it paid me the most attention out of anyone, which I think justified the entire trip.

Following that I made a trip to the Big Apple, New York City, to visit a friend who would be leaving on exchange themselves in January. The first day there my phone confessed that I’d walked 23 km and even then it seemed like I’d barely scratched the surface of America’s cultural capital. This monumental effort in bipedalism was in order to cover all the touristy stuff one feels they have to see but is not actually that fulfilling. Camera in hand it was a good exercise in taking photographs of the street. If people got grumpy I could tell them I was that guy from Humans of New York. I was even able to get a few photos of NYPD officers but later found out that is actually an offence to take photographs of them. Be warned.

The remarkable thing about New York is how every inhabitant seems to be an individual. Their own larger than life character. In many cultures it is more important to be considered part of the whole and a sort of identity collectivism may be imposed by culture or the state. Since New York has been a destination for those seeking a fresh start from all over the world, and as an American city harbours values of self-actualisation and a sense of self that exists outside of the rest of society, everyone I came across seemed to have an exaggerated personality. It is probably for this reason that artists and creatives find comfort and room to grow there.

From the guy who scammed me a crafty five bucks thirty seconds after I’d got off the greyhound bus to the gentlemen hacking the metro for fellow passengers. The two guys who did a gymnastics routine on the actual metro train carriage and all the people who served behind counters who just wanted to talk about the British accent. There is a Little Italy, Latin Quarter, Korea Town and seven China Towns (incidentally the only place one could get a meal on Christmas day). Much like touching an electric fence, once you visit New York you feel compelled to go back and touch it once more, just to ensure it is as exhilarating as it was the first time.

The next couple of days were a little more laid back. Good selection of museums include the Natural History museum, MoMA and the Met, but to be honest some of the most interesting times were spent going around those parts of New York that are not on Manhattan island, like Brooklyn and Queens. I was recommended to stay in hipster haven Williamsburg but could only find a place to stay in yet-to-be-gentrified east Williamsburg, and it always seemed like a more representative view of what day to day life in New York was for the people who lived there.

The friend I was visiting was also kind enough to invite me to their family Boxing Day meal and so it was possible to have a little traditional festive spirit. McGill runs an international Christmas group system catering for those who might not be returning home. It is worth going to some of their events to get ideas and to meet like-minded people. No one wants to be alone on Christmas. Cue jingle bells or some other cheesy festive music.

From there I managed to return to Montréal the day a friend began his week-long stay with me in my flat. It was a weird Schrodinger-cat situation where having someone from the UK in Canada somehow violated a superposition that had been established between the two countries. We had a pretty good time sampling what the city had on offer as I think we went out more times in a week than I have the whole fall semester.

A trip to the Casino on one of the islands also snuck its way into our itinerary and even though I panicked and bottled gambling after losing ten dollars (disappointing I confess) the trip was made worth it by the free soft drinks, live band and general sense of crushing despair that filled the room. One fascinating feature they employ, however, was that they give you a free five dollars in credit and then with each subsequent visit a further credit installment of an extra five dollars upon the previous one. Over the course of five or so visits it came to a free fifty or seventy-five dollars. Of course, this is meant to be an incentive to start gambling and then start betting you own money, however, if you like you can cash out immediately and just collect the money. Let us just say that on that night my loss of ten dollars seemed more like five. Pro tips for exchange.

The last couple of days of the holiday involved a rather spontaneous trip to Toronto (arguably the only city, other than Montréal, worth visiting on the eastern seaboard) which saw us visit a greenhouse, a pier and the general downtown area. Whilst on the pier we noticed there was a pool hall nightclub under renovation. At the time we did not know it was under renovation and assumed it was abandoned and thought it a unique opportunity for photography. There were lockers and coat racks left unguarded which gave the whole experience a Fallout 3 feel, as if we were scavenging for supplies. It was only when we were wheeling around on some office chairs and we were told we were trespassing did we realise we were trespassing. We also met the precision driver who had worked on Gran Torino, The Dark Knight trilogy, 300, Mad Max and Spectre.

Mid-afternoon the next day we went to catch our ride share only to find out it had been cancelled leaving us with no transport back to Montréal where lectures started at 9:30 am the next day. Haste was made back downtown to the bus terminal where the earliest journey we could make was at 12:45 am the same day of lectures. After killing time in the terminal we went to watch Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and returned to our bus on the platform. The five or six hour journey was delayed and saw us arrive in Montréal with next to no sleep at 7 am.

The return to a term time schedule has never been so abrupt and painful.

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