Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Why I love travelling but hate actually going places.
(Pictured: Schmoozing at Ayanna and Raj's wedding in Montreal)
Good evening brothers and sisters. I must apologise for the relative length between this and my last post. A combination of exam time, international jet-setting and crippling laziness mean I have not had occasion to get to the computer and actually write down my many wonderous observations for the benefit of you, the public. So what have I been up to?
Well, let me tell you - I have visited the new world and seen it with my own eyes. What a thing to have done. I have experienced both the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, and - albeit accidentally - had a little taster of Texas. But I will get to that eventually. For you shall see even the best laid plans can be ripped usunder and brutally defiled by bureacracy and paranoia. The plan was this - visit Montreal with my better half, meet her mother, see a bit of the town and then attend the wedding of her best friend at which she was to be a bridesmaid. Easy! But what was all that about bureacracy and paranoia? Well, I will tell you.
Kaki left Japan for Montreal a week earlier than me, to do general wedding-oriented stuff that a hirsute and uncivil Scotsman had no place in. I was to leave from Kansai airport for Dallas Fort Worth and transfer to Montreal. Again, easy. Nothing to it. Or so I thought.
A quick word for those of you going through U.S. customs - Don't. I have never been subjected to a more invasive and accusitory screening procedure anywhere in the world. One step inside a U.S. airport and it's 100% clear that innocent until proven guilty doesn't cut it here. I was subjected to probing and unnecessary questioning to prove I was indeed who I said I was and fingerprinted like a common criminal. In addition to this, all passengers had to remove their shoes and put them through the metal detector - to the obvious displeasure of the Japanese passengers, whose custom it is to have specific footwear for indoors and outdoors. Making them take off their shoes and stand around in their socks in the dirt goes against the most basic principles of decency in Japanese. It considered both unhygienic and tremendously uncivilised. They could've put a tarp down, but no - this is U.S. Customs and the only important thing is security. I could see some kind of ad campaign: U.S. Customs - Because We Don't Give A Shit About Yours. Because for some reason there is no transit in U.S. airports, which would have allowed me to stay in the departure lounge and go straight to my plane, even though I wasn't visiting the U.S. I had to fill in the immigration papers and the rather erroneous form asking me if my purpose of visit was business, pleasure or international terrorism, and if I had taken any part in any war crimes or acts of genocide during WWII (I wonder if they actually ever expect to catch someone out with that? That would have to be one severely dumb terrorist, or slow, senile Nazi). In addition to this, I realised too late, that this means I had to re-check my baggage in Dallas. By the time I figured this out, I had wandered past a security desk and was not permitted to go back for my luggage, which sat in plain sight on a conveyer belt. That's how it happens in U.S. Customs. Bam! You're meeting your girlfriend's mother in some other guy's clothes. It was 24 hours before I would get my stuff back.
However, when I eventually arrived I had a tremendous time. We stayed for the first few nights at the rather stylish abode of Kaki's friends Steven and Dahlia. They have a beautiful house, a wiiiiiiidescreen TV, a pool table and a homosexual pomeranian. We were made to feel very welcome and treated to barbeque and beer. Since I don't really get jetlag, and Kaki suffers from it in a big way, I had a few mornings on my own, which I utilised by watching the Sopranos in the highest definition possible on that truly massive TV. My favorite Soprano is Paulie Walnuts, which probably reveals more about my character than it should. In any case, after my sweetheart had raised herself cursing and baggy-eyed from her pit we'd go to town and see the sights. We took in Montreal's scenic Old Port area, from the shore and from the river, and we patrolled the stylish centre-ville streets of St Laurent and St Denis. Finally, we sampled the colours and culinary delights of Chinatown. Montreal is a beautiful city, comparable in so many ways to any city in Europe, and not just for the chatter of French spoken on every streetcorner. The city is overwhelmingly Catholic and many beautiful churches can be seen, dating back to around one hundred years ago, notably the massive St Joseph's Oratory also St Patrick's Basilica (which I would visit for the wedding).
We passed by Dawson College, the spot where a week previously a psychotic 25 year old gunman walked into the school and started shooting at random. It made me think about how lucky we are in the UK to live in a country where use of guns is not so widespread. The worst we have to worry about is getting chibbed by some wideboy outside the kebab shop on a Friday night. Could you imagine if these idiots had guns? Scotland has more than it's fair share of street violence, and some places aren't exactly safe, but I count myself lucky every day that guns aren't a part of our culture. Think about Dunblane - after that there was a huge armistice of weapons. My Grandad was a farmer, and he handed in every gun he had. That's the sensible pragmatic solution. But that couldn't ever happen in the States. Guns are a huge part of their culture, and nobody seems to think to say, I know, why don't we just make guns illegal? "But then only criminals will have guns" they would say. But it would stop high school kids blowing each other away with their father's hand cannons and automatic weapons which they *need* to hunt small bunnies. So stupid.
Anyway, sorry for that little digression, back to what I did on my holidays.
We also went to Ottawa, where we toured the Canadian Parliament building and I was strongly chastised by a mountie for applauding one of the politicians, which apparently you aren't supposed to do. Hell, I was just being polite. Outside I got my picture taken with some genuine mounties. I have nothing but respect for these people. They're like a dapper F.B.I. on horses.
I did eventually meet Kaki's mother and sisters. Despite my fears, they actually turned out not to be terrifying as I had anticipated, but very welcoming. I put my success down at least in part to my almost supernatural ability to charm women over the age of 40. I went round to their place for dinner and ended up meeting a seemingly inexhaustible supply of relatives who turned up. I think I made a good impression anyhow, despite minor difficulties - Kaki's mother has a very strong African accent and sometimes I can't follow what she's saying, although a lot of the time she has no idea what I'm saying so I guess it all evens out. What the hell, we'll get used to it.
The wedding, of course, was quite an event. I had prepared for it by wrapping myself in my kilt and all the associated paraphanelia. I cut a spectacular figure walking into the church let me tell you. Since the bride was West Indian in descent and the groom Sri Lankan, I was clearly nobody's relative - people just assumed I was a bagpiper, though why they'd hire one is beyond me. The bride and groom both brought a little of their culture to the proceedings - there was Caribbean music and Sri Lankan dancing. It was very colourful and impressive. After the wedding we removed to the Ritz Carlton for the reception (classy!) where I quickly befriended the white-coated gentlemen at the free bar and started to mingle. I got a bunch of attention for my kilt-wearing, including a dozen people asking me if I was wearing anything underneath (no) and some even asking to take a photo with me. There was also a few people who came to me to practise the standard North American art of cultural denial - ie coming over and explaining to me exactly why they are Scottish too, and describing their family's rather tenuous links to the Motherland, which are rarely convincing and always make me feel a little uncomfortable for some reason. Nevertheless I had a great time, and I must have had a fair amount of booze because I danced without feminine coercion, which is rare for me.
When it was time for us to leave, Kaki's mum dropped us off at the airport and we lined up to once again traverse U.S. customs (which is done in Canada for some reason). I maintain there would have been no rush if the guys in front of us hadn't been checking in boxes of guns for which they needed a million forms. I was fingerprinted and interrogated AGAIN and we arrived at our plane with five minutes to spare, as I hopped on board tying my shoelaces. Of course, then we sat for around three quarters of an hour waiting for the rest of the passengers to get on board, before finally taking off. At this point it was obvious to us that we were not going to make our connecting flight. When we did get off we ran for the flight but found it had already left. Despite the Captain of our first flight's heroic attempts to stall the flight so that all the passengers could get on board, apparently this Captain didn't feel the need to stick around. So we did all we could - we left, forced the airline to give us a hotel, which they did as it was their fault, and disappeared into Texas. We were seperated from our luggage, for the second time in my case, so we had very little to keep us going. I changed some money and we went back to the hotel. We ate lunch and tried to chill out and see the bright side of it - two countries for the price of one and all that. The only thing to do in the area was go to the mall, where we went shopping, ate fajitas and saw a Kung Fu movie. We also saw Oprah's gopher Dr Phil, who was in the mall promoting his wife's book. I had no idea who he was so failed to be star-struck. I wonder if Phil is his first name or last name? Anyway the next day we went back and got on the plane, and when we arrived, a day late and a day of nenkyu (holidays) less, I opened my luggage to find it full of ants.
By this point I was more or less completely hacked off and was glad to get home and roll immediately into bed.