Monday, November 5, 2007

SYN/ACK in Canada

I'm back in Utah again, and I have some final words on last week's visit to Montreal.

I mentioned before that in Montreal, almost everybody greeted me in two languages. Thinking about it, this is kind of a verbal handshake. In walking up to the Canadian, it's obvious to them that my intent is to start a connection, using a verbal protocol. The Canadian, friendly person that he or she usually is, establishes to me that they have two different modes of communication, and they're inviting me to select a preference. Since I only know English, I reply with a standard English greeting of some sort (HELO). The Canadian now knows that I wish to communicate in that language, and they continue with it. It's all very interesting to me, from a technical standpoint.

My class went successfully. I took a peek at the student evals, and decided that the students apparently really did like the class, the instructor, and the facility. It's always a nice feeling. One student even gave me his email address and told me to let him know the next time I was in Montreal so that he could show me around the better parts of town. I hope to take him up on that soon (hint, hint, Dax).

I walked around the mall adjascent to the training center building on Thursday night. I was disappointed to find almost nothing but clothing stores and a food court. I went downstairs to the stores nearer the train station and found a wider variety of stores. At one point I ran into a chocolate store and bought some filled chocolates. Now, I've never been a big fan of French chocolate, especially the highly-overrated Valrhona, but it would seem that as far as chocolate confections are concerned, the French are on their game. Well, the French-Canadians at least. While the shells were disappointingly thick, the fillings were smooth and flavorful, and I ended up going back during lunch on Friday for a few more chocolates. If there were a chocolate store like that nearby, I would be a happy boy indeed.

Walking around the mall after work caused me to head back to the hotel a little later than usual, and I found throngs of people walking the streets. They say that there is safety in numbers, and from what I saw, the cars had a definite disadvantage. When it came time to cross the street, I found throngs of people crossing all at one time, and they scarcely seemed to care whether their light was actually green. They were usually good enough to actually wait for all of the cars to disappear first. I'm worried that I picked up a lot of bad habits while I was there. I'll have to be careful next time I'm walking in Salt Lake.

The crazy people in the hallway made their final appearance Thursday night. There was a definite difference between each of their visits. The first night, two cute, bubbly girls appeared that looked like they were on their way to or from a party. The second night, only one of them appeared, accompanied by a dour woman who was just doing her job. The cute girl with her didn't look like she was having such a great time. The third night the dour woman was replaced with a man who was just doing his job, and didn't really seem to mind. The cute girl with him seemed almost in pain. The final night there were no cute girls, and the older man and woman who did appear looked like they were just doing their job, but they did seema bit friendlier. When I took a chocolate from their basket, the woman asked, "just one?" I hadn't realized that I could have more than once. I took a handful. Man, those are good chocolates.

I was worried about getting back to the airport on Friday. The man at the training center helpfully volunteered to call a taxi agency for me and make sure that there would be a cab waiting for me downstairs that took American Express. We were at the Sun Life building, in front of which there is always a line of taxis. He told me to go down and wait at the front of the line, and that there would be a driver set apart from the rest who would know me by name. When I got downstairs, I saw the line of cabs, but nothing special about them. After a few minutes one pulled up in front of the others. I walked up and asked him if he was waiting for Joseph Hall. He looked at me with what seemed to be recognition, and then rushed me off to one of the cabs that had been waiting, telling me that that was the correct one. I asked that driver (just to be sure) if he took American Express, and he assured me in extremely broken English that of course he did. I had been wondering how the taxi company was going to coordinate its efforts, and I was beginning to be impressed by how they had done it. As we pulled away I saw a minivan taxi pull up, roll down his window and give me an extremely concerned look. That was when I realized that I had taken the wrong cab.

After a couple of blocks I asked the driver if they had told him where I was headed. He said something to the effect of, "no, where are we going?" I told him that I needed to get to the airport. He switched lanes erratically and made right turn. In an apparent attempt to make conversation he asked me where I was going. "Toronto? Some other place?" I told him that I was going to America, and suddenly felt a little silly, like I was an excited little schoolboy: "I'm going to America! It's my first time there and I'm so excited!" He made a friendly reply that I didn't understand in the least, and we drove on.

He was a scary driver, one that made Utah drivers seem extremely calm and patient in comparison. He looked for every opportunity to get ahead, whether or not it was a good idea. At one point as we sat at a red light in the third lane from the left, he kept edging forward, cautiously watching all of the other drivers. When the light turned green he stomped on the gas and screetched across two lanes of traffic to take a freeway on-ramp on the left.

We hit the beginning of Montreal rush hour and it was as brutal as my students said it was. Our car's brakes were sticky, so it was not possible to slow down without a series of jerks. The accelerator also seemed a bit sensitive, and speeding up was just as much fun. As we drove I noticed a two airport exits, seeming to refer to two different airports. I asked my driver which airport we were going to and he said Trudeau. My concern levels rising, I asked if the airport code for that was YUL. It became increasingly apparant that his grasp of English was almost as poor as my understanding of French. The best I could make out was that Montreal used to have two airports, now it only has one, and it's Trudeau.

As we drove I noticed the faire chart on the window. Under the hourly rates I noticed an exception to them: all trips to and from Trudeau-Montreal International Airport had a flat rate of $35 Canadian. Something about it made me feel better. We got to the airport and had a painful conversation about which airline I was taking, followed by another painful conversation on how I was going to pay him. We finally got all of that out of the way and I grabbed my bags and went inside to look for a ticketing agent.

The one that I found was abrupt and perhaps a little unfriendly as she told me that she could not help me until I had checked in at the electronic kiosk. Even using that ended up being an excercise in pain, as the intructions for scanning my passport were vague and ultimately inaccurate. I finally checked in and went back to ask the lady for some clarifications on the customs form. Finding the international security point was a pain, as the entrance was between airline check-in counters. I felt like I was using an employee-only entrance.

I was surprised to learn that I would be going through US customs before getting on the plane, rather than waiting until I was on American soil. I was also relieved, since I only had an hour layover in Minneapolis/St Paul. The customs agent sounded extremely American to my ears as he asked me if I was bringing anything back from Canada. I replied that I had some chocolate and he said, "is that the food that you're declaring?" He waved me through and I made my way to security.

The security checkpoint in Montreal is exactly the same as in America, with only subtle differences. There were still Canadian TSA agents yelling about what would be allowed and what wouldn't, but they were doing it in English and then French (which was backwards from what I expected). They wanted to make sure that we knew the rules about "one hundred mils" (American transation: 3.4oz), etc.

I went through what is now a practiced ritual of taking off my shoes, removing my notebook and my external DVD burner from my bags and so on. I went through the metal detector and then got all but one of my bags. Apparently there was a problem with my larger carry-on bag, but the inspector for my line was busy with a woman who thought it appropriate to bring foil-wrapped plastic containers full of food through security ("It's from my grandmother, eh? You want me to unwrap it? Why?") Yes, non-business travellers are just as annoying in Canada as they are stateside.

With her gone, they finally moved my bag out from the X-ray where it was handled by an older gentleman who was friendly, and seemed to enjoy his job enough that he actually hummed as he put my luggage through several tests. As he opened up my bag some chocolate fell out and he smiled at it. "Chocolate, huh?" He seemed pretty unconcerned about me as he checked through my bag thoroughly enough to make American TSA agents look like a group of blindfolded idiots, but with a friendliness to make those same uptight agents look like they were working for the KGB, doing what is best for "Mother America". It was one of very few times that I was actually impressed with a TSA agent.

As I left security, I trailed a pilot who could not walk more than 10 feet without his wheeled luggage causing him problems. From what I could tell, he just didn't know how to use wheeled luggage. I hoped he wasn't my pilot. I walked around him and made my way to my gate. We boarded a Canadair CJ900, which had a very friendly interior. Everything was white, except for the gray chairs. It seemed bright and almost futuristic, just from the whites and the grays alone. Why don't they do this on all airplanes? I felt like I was on the space shuttle, not a cramped bus in south-east L.A.

I had a window seat, and was soon joined by some guy in the aisle seat who was apparently only interested in sleeping. He woke just in time for his drink order, "Sierra Mist or Sprite". He took a sip, put his cup down, and promptly went back to sleep. An hour or so later I had to wake him up so that I could get out to the lavatory, and he seemed extremely disoriented for a moment. He woke up again for the landing, and then spent an eternity talking on his cell phone while we waited to deplane.

And we had quite a wait, too. In fact, we waited almost 20 minutes for somebody to make their way to our gate to drive the skybridge to the plane. Yay for Northwest Airlines! Fortunately we were 15 minutes early anyway, so it didn't really cause any problems with people trying to make their connections. Unfortunately, I still didn't have nearly as much time as I would have liked. The Minneapolis airport is like an extention of the Mall of America, and is not a bad place to be stuck for an extended layover. I did have enough time to stop by the Wolfgang Puck Express and get a pretty decent pizza, and scoff at the McDonalds on the way to and from it.

The flight into Salt Lake was refreshingly empty, and the flight attendants were surprisingly friendly. I don't get to fly on many Airbus jets, and this one was spacious and almost comfortable. In fact, most of my flights both on Boeing and non-Boeing jets make me dislike Boeing just that much more.

I'm back home now for a while, and then I think I'm off to New Jersey. It'll be interesting to see what early winter is like on the turnpike.

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