A fowl problem

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A few doors down from my apartment complex is a small shop that sells plants. I've never been inside since --being a small place-- there would be the obligation on the shop keeper's side to make polite conversation and only appropriate word I know the Japanese for is 'tree'. The conversation would therefore progress something like this:

"Good evening. Are you looking for a particular plant?"

"Tree."

"I'm afraid we don't have anything as big as a tree. How about this small shrub?"

"Tree."

"No, I'm sorry, we really have nothing larger. What about a herb garden?"

"Tree."

"Are you on day release from a unit for the mentally disturbed?"

"Tree."

"If you say that to me again, I'm going to be forced to call the police."

"… tree?"

Clearly it was not a good idea to go inside. I therefore have always just passed by, looking at the small array of pots on the pavement. Last night when I went out to get a pint of milk, one of the pots had become the perching ground for a crow.

Sapporo crows have two main distinguishing features. Firstly, they are the same size as my cat. Secondly, they are ballsy feathered fiends who fear no man or beast, probably because there is no man or beast they wouldn't consider eating. That said, they usually at least take a hop back if you get within touching distance. Undoubtedly, this is because a head on attack requires the room to spread wings.

This crow, however, did not move. I stopped before it and wandered whether it was stuffed. Its shiny black eyes implied it was the real article but it made no move to get away. I debated touching it but thought I would probably lose my hand.

This concern transpired to be a real fear of the shop owner since, upon my return journey a few minutes later, the crow was being interrogated by not one, but FOUR police officers. Most likely they had been called out due to fears that said fowl was scaring away customers / preventing the owner leaving the premisses / a look-out for a pot plant heist. The officers had the bird surrounded but appeared unsure about the next step. How do you handcuff a crow?

While the crow was remaining mum on all subjects, I personally felt its cock-sure attitude in the face of armed forces spelt a clear message:

"You got nothing on me. I've got friends in high places. REAL high places. And your eyes? They're breakfast."

I moved along in case I was about to bear witness to a terrible crime.

The next morning, both crow and police had gone. It remains uncertain as to who got rid of who. Notably, I have not seen the store owner since.

Snowflakes to baseballs

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I woke up on Easter day and it was spring.

Despite the fact it had been snowing the day before, I was only halfway into town when I had to unzip my winter coat and stuff my hat into my bag. Then one of the snow grips on my shoes snapped off. The message was clear:

It is now spring. Residents are supposed to dress accordingly.

And that was that. It never snowed again. The next day was a monday and I walked into campus to find the piles of snow rapidly melting. In the more sheltered areas between buildings, workmen were taking pickaxes to the larger chunks of ice so they would disintegrate more quickly. By Tuesday, the snow blowers were on the sports courts clearing them ready for the spring season. I walked to class on Thursday to the rhythmic twang of tennis balls on rackets as the clubs swung back into action.

Around this time, I began to suspect Japan was actually a giant reality TV show inside a climate controlled dome. I hoped it was more in line with 'The Truman Show' and not 'The Hunger Games'.

I read the Hunger Games to prepare just in case. I find it suspicious there is no release date for the movie in Japan yet.

Within a week, the snow had all disappeared. The white and grey frozen ice mountains have been replaced by newly seeded grass. The risk of falling flat on my back each time I step outside has gone...!

…. switched for death by bicycle or by flying baseball. Both road and pavement are packed with biking students and every square of grass has at least seven others throwing baseballs in some complex catch pattern that always seems to cross the path I want to take.

In short, there is never a season for which it is inappropriate to wear a hockey helmet.

On a Thursday

"Eleanor!"

I recognised the person who was shouting from the bike racks next to the international student centre. He was an Indonesian student in my Japanese communication class along with (among others) a woman named Eleanor. I therefore did not take much notice until he jumped in front of me.

"You are from England!"

I struggle with my surprise while trying to compose an answer that consisted of something other than 'I know'.

"Um, I …. yes."

"I know someone there. Laura. Do you know Laura?"

"……..."
In my imagination, I freeze the scene and turn to the camera that I know is making my life into a prime-time TV drama. I lift an eyebrow in disbelief.

"Ahhh." Back in reality, my accoster was nodding wisely. "There are many Lauras in England."

"It is a country of … millions ... of people," I say weakly.

"I assumed you were studying Earth Sciences! In my country, we have an exchange with England for Earth Science!"

... and therefore every British person does Earth Science? I suppose that would make them the number one country to do a study exchange with but rather harder to find anyone to feed you upon arrival.

"I'm actually faculty in Physics," I reply. "What are you working on here?"

"In my own country, I am an assistant professor!" came the declared answer. "Here I am working on my PhD!"

Did that mean he was a professor without a PhD?

Thursdays. Arthur Dent was right; you just can't get the hang of Thursdays.

I escaped to have lunch.

Bath time

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Baths used to be more relaxing.

I lay in the bubble laden water and watched the source of my stress step carefully along the damp edge of the tub. This had been the first time since I had brought Tallis to Japan that I had taken a bath[*], a fact I hadn't appreciated until the panic stricken cat call reached my ears.

"YOWL!"
HOLY CRAP. YOU'RE COVERED IN WATER! AND IT'S DEEP! COME OUT! COME OUUUUUUUUUT!

I had ignored the cry which had resulted in a furry form leaping precariously onto the bath's ledge. Being a cat, Tallis' balance is naturally excellent. Excellent… but not perfect. Her paws slipped dangerously as she made her way towards the taps. I sighed and reviewed my options. An additional complication in this situation was that I was holding a large book out of the water.

(Yes… the ideal relaxing evening… a soak in hot water while reading my novel. Currently, it was more stressful than the battle I was reading about.)

If Tallis would fall in the tub, I would doubtless have to sacrifice my tome to a watery grave and fish her out. While I doubt she would drown, I strongly suspected the water would run red. From my blood. This was not part of the evening I had planned. I therefore settled for holding the book (a meaty hardback) in one hand and encouraging Tallis to jump down (in the right direction) with the other. This success lasted all of two minutes before she was back up.

"Yowl?!"
You're still alive! Maybe it's not so bad and …. SO MUCH WATER! WHHHYYYY??"

She was no more impressed the second time. Or the third. In the end, she jumped onto the floor and I covered her with a gobbet of bubbles. The indignity sent her fleeing from the room. However, the peace was shattered, not least because I couldn't rule out the possibility of a flying feline leap into the tub from a spot outside my sight. NOT RELAXING.

Since attempting to do the washing up while the bath was running had resulted in somewhat luke warm water, I abandoned the venture. Next time when I want to chill out, I'll just go and stand outside in a gale. MUCH more relaxing.

--

[*] I hasten to add my apartment has a shower

Cooking pizza in Nippon

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Today I completed a task that I've been attempting for six months.

I bought a microwave.

Now you might think --logical readers that you are-- that purchasing a basic kitchen device in the land of futuristic electronics should not have been a half-year quest. Indeed, a stroll through any electronics store would reveal a multitude of promisingly shaped food heating devices. Since a typical Japanese kitchen will boast a hob but no oven, microwaves are big business. Walking from one end of a shop's kitchen utilities floor to the other will take you from the most basic food heating box through to full portable steam ovens capable of cooking everything from bread to roast chickens.

What I was after was something in the middle of that range. I was no master chef, disappointed in my inability to produce seven tiered cakes as bribery to the snow gods (although with still no break in the weather, I was more seriously considering it). I just wanted to re-heat food and maybe cook a pizza or bake a handful of cookies from time to time. In short, what I wanted was a convection microwave.

While I wasn't able to read the majority of the descriptions beside each device, it was fairly easy to narrow down the aisles of black boxes to the ones focussed on the product I had in mind. Familiar brand names such as Sharp, Panasonic, Toshiba and Hitachi met my eyes, known world-wide for exactly these microwaves.

Whipping out my phone, I made a note of several promising serial numbers. Back at home I planned to google each one, grab their English manual and check out the reviews on UK and North American sites. Easy no?

After all, there was surely NO WAY that ALL THESE MICROWAVES, manufactured by international companies, were ones SOLELY FOR THE JAPANESE MARKET? With not a single one of them having an ENGLISH INSTRUCTION MANUAL?

… I think you can tell the way this went down.

If you feel this is truly unbelievable, try google on the 'Sharp re-s204' or 'Panasonic ne-s264'. It turns out these companies are all secretly Japanese and do not offer any of their home country selection anywhere else in the world. Who knew? You can't even write 'Sharp' in kana, the Japanese phonetic script. It would have to be 'Sharupu'. Yet, it is a closeted Japanese corporation.

So completely unlikely did I find this entire situation that I kept re-trying and searching for different brands and models. For six months. So when I tell you it can't be done, be assured that this was a thorough investigation. I even looked at pictures of the microwaves available in Europe to see if the model number just changed because the front panel was printed in Japanese. A cunning idea, but unyielding in its productivity.

The problem was that with the more complicated microwave ovens, I strongly suspected I needed an instruction manual I could read. If I was happy with something that just required a time to be set I could certainly manage, but without access to an oven, I really wanted something more advanced.

In the end --after realizing that the snow was never going to stop and hot food would be needed year round-- I searched for the simplest design and alighted upon another Panasonic model with a grill, oven and microwave function. Most notably, this microwave had an amazon.co.jp review from a foreigner who said he could manage it without being able to read the instruction manual. I clicked 'this review was helpful' and hoped I wasn't foolish to place my faith in a man named 'Raymundo Jr'. Also encouraging was a translated review on a second site which stated that it was so easy to operate, it could be managed by the elderly. I remain hopeful that the quality of the translation had no baring on the un-pc nature of that remark.

That settled, I showed it to my parents who had offered to buy such a microwave as a Christmas present. Christmas… Easter … it's very easy to get these Christian holidays confused. However, when they tried to buy the microwave, their credit card was refused.

This is quite clearly because SECRET JAPANESE MICROWAVES ARE NOT FOR FOREIGNERS.

I put down my own (Japanese) credit card. They have responded by declaring the item is not yet ready to ship. If I emerge from the likely secret service investigation with a microwave, I'll let you know. Else, I'm putting a BBQ on my balcony.

 

Stopping the rock

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Today, I bought something awesome. Strips… of plastic. Thick clear wedges with a similar consistency to a child's chew toy. I did not gnaw on them.

But I did think about it.

As you can tell from the photograph, these wonders of engineering are not teething toys shaped for animal-fearing fruitarian children. Rather, they provide the equivalent force of FOUR baby elephants in an acrobatic combination to hold your furniture fast against the force of an earthquake.

My first quake since returning to Sapporo happened only a couple of days after my arrival. I was seated fetal-style in front of my gas heater, with my eyeballs pressed into my kneecaps. The aim of the game was not to fall into a deep jetlagged-induged slumber at 6pm and --as you can undoubtedly tell-- I was totally winning.

Being in an earthquake is like being on a boat or suffering from a sudden dizzy spell. I looked up groggily and tried to determine if my brain was making it all up.

Bowls rattled. I saw the cat turn tail and try to flee before realising the danger seemed to be EVERYWHERE. She froze and mewed.

This quake was not in any way serious, but it was prolonged, shaking the apartment for several minutes. It was even long enough for me to produce some kind of reassuring response to my petrified feline. I held out my arms.

"Yo. I can hold you but it won't help. We'll just sway together."

This transpired to be completely satisfactory. Possibly Tallis' longstanding enforced role as my dance partner as I bounced around the apartment was paying off.

No earthquake can beat Katy Perry.

I meanwhile, was watching my crockery. It sat on an open bookcase with stylishly misaligned shelves. While fairly secure during normal operations, being shaken about always came with the slight risk of COMPLETE AND UTTER DESTRUCTION. I yawned and tried to get my fogged-up brain to think. It produced the single thought:

Which garbage day would be for broken crockery?

You can see why I thought I might be imaging an earthquake. Fortunately, nothing broke.

Now however, we have SUPER ELEPHANT POWER CHEW TOYS to fix all the problems! Shaped as long wedges, they slide under the front of furniture to tilt them backwards very slightly. This means that if they are rocked, they are more likely to tip back against the wall than throw your plates at your cat. The bookcase feels considerably more stable, so much so that I moved the complete "Lord of the Rings" hardback volume I had been using for stability from its bottom shelf. It's now across the room holding the cat tree in place.

For some reason, I never finished reading that book.

The city God forgot to colour in

Japan is celebrating the arrival of spring. Last week contained a public holiday to mark the Spring Equinox. Pink plum flowers are appearing throughout Tokyo and the city is preparing for next week's hanami celebrations where hoards of people will descend on the parks to gape up at the famous cherry blossoms. As I walked to work this week, I wondered if I too should be celebrating the arrival of the warmer weather...

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… and decided, on reflection, no.

To be fair, the weather is showing signs of changing. It no longer snows all day, every day. It now snows all day some days and some snow all days. The periods of heavy fat flakes are shorter and a bold attempt at rain in the form of sleet has started to appear.

With only the smallest of considerations to confirm that 'The Day after Tomorrow' was indeed a movie, I can honestly say this is more snow than I have ever seen before in my life. I mean, the last time I saw a whole pavement must have been the best part of five months ago. If I had started building snowmen in November, by now I could have created an UNDEFEATABLE ARMY with which to rule the WHOLE WORLD.

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Except the sticky heat of Florida. But that's going under water soon enough.

Then I googled images of Sapporo (to try and determine if we ever even had pavements) and discovered that the annual snow festival had already had the same terrible idea.

So enjoy your spring, Tokyo, but be warned: we're coming.

P.S.  Please send sweatshirts.

On Balor's Needle

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In my teens, my favorite author was Tamora Pierce. Pierce writes historical fantasy books about --and I quote the author-- "girls who kick ass". In one of the later books, her heroine Keladry is forced to confront her fear of heights by climbing down a rusty iron staircase that winds around an observation tower named 'Balor's Needle'.

I couldn't honestly say that the outside staircase to my apartment bore a strong resemblance to the decrepit death trap in the novel, but it was close enough to make me cling to the hand rail. While the concrete steps and their high outer wall did not suffer from rust, I was fighting large patches of ice and snow that always seemed to appear at the critical point where the stairs narrowed to turn the corner.

The reason I was taking the stairs was because the elevator was down for maintenance between 11 am and 12 that day. Why I was home at all during that one key hour when I am never usually near the building, was because I had forgotten my access number for the super computing system in Tokyo. It was the only time since I started my position in Japan that I had ever returned home for something. It was also the only time the elevator had been out of use. Since I had started that morning with my trousers on back-to-front, I couldn't honestly say the day was going all that well.

There is no inside stair to my apartment, just the elevator and the outside steps I was now slowly plodding up. Such a design is popular in Japanese apartment buildings, possibly because the probability of such an exit becoming unusable because of fire is low. That said, with Sapporo's snow fall, it seems likely the stairwell would become blocked by snow for half the year and dangerously icy for panicked getaways. I made a mental note to either wait for such a fire to take hold sufficiently to melt the outside snow or for the bodies of my broken neighbours to pile up in the stairwell to break my own fall. I am all about practical planning.

As I reached the 9th floor, I looked across at the opposite apartment building to where the giant Sapporo crows appeared to be attempting a break-in through the top story door. You had to wonder how those birds got so large. Was it from feasting on people escaping down outside staircases?

The problem with climbing stairs is you have far too much time to think about ice, rust and … death by crow.

I arrived at my apartment to find an immensely guilty-looking cat. The source of her crime never became clear however, so possibly it was reflected remorse at my wasting time to return home at such an hour. If so, her emotional pain continued since I decided my mental health couldn't take the walk down the stairs, and I lurked until the lift came back into action.  I replied to a few emails to make it look like I was really in my office … with the door locked just … hating the world… I'm sure that will give the best impression at work.

When I returned I discovered acquiring my access number was only half the battle to gaining entrance to the desired computer. After a frustrating afternoon installing a variety of programs and burying at least three toads in wiccan sacrifice, I discovered I wasn't allowed to begin using the system until next week.

Mondays. They're just there to annoy you.

How to glue your iron

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Today, I covered my iron with glue. Twice.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give this idea no more than a 3. It misses the bottom score purely because it did come off and the first coating peeled away in a single layer, which was satisfying in a similar manner to popping bubble wrap.

This whole sticky scheme started with curtains. I feel I could be forgiven for not correctly predicting the outcome.

The main room in my apartment has a set of patio doors which lead onto a small balcony. In Japan, it is normal for every apartment to have a washing machine, but rather less common for them to have a tumble drier. People therefore hang their clothes out on their balconies which have built-in racks for exactly that purpose. If it ever stops snowing, I'll be able to give that a go.

Since I like looking at the city lights, acquiring curtains for these glass expanses has been low on my job list. The neighboring apartments near me are also not as tall, so I've been blithely waving away the possibility that my indecent state in the mornings can be seen by half of Sapporo. If anyone sees that the site 'www.nakedhokkaidogaijin.co.jp' has been registered, let me know. Nevertheless, the windows do look rather bare without curtains at least framing their perimeter and their absence is often commented on by visitors.

This weekend was not the first weekend I set out to correct this negligence. What had thrown my previous attempts asunder was the difficulty in acquiring the appropriate length of material. My measurements indicated I needed a 188 cm curtain, but the curtains on offer were either 178 or 200 cm. This was particularly perplexing because almost everything else in Japan is a neat standard size, so why on Earth couldn't I find the perfect fit in window outfitting? The architect for my building was clearly a rebel.

Anyone about to suggest I make my own curtains should finish reading this post first. You will then abandon such a notion.

After confirming that a 178 cm curtain would make my home look like a gangly teenager after an unfortunate growth spurt, I reluctantly purchased the 200 cm curtains. My bold plan was to hem these up to the appropriate length. Judging from the time it had taken me to raise the back of my trousers so they didn't trail in the mud, it seemed likely this project would be finished around Christmas.

2013.

Then I would do the second curtain.

On the look out for pet food, I found myself in a haberdashery. This happens when you can't easily ask for directions. Taking advantage of this discovery (since I had no idea what 'haberdashery' would be in Japanese), I hunted down some matching thread for said shortening project and then spotted a truly awesome solution: the no-sew tape for hemming. While I had never used this before, I understood the idea. You only needed an iron. I had an iron. It would shortly be covered in glue.

At home, I hung one of the curtains and pinned it to the length I wanted. I then examined the instructions with the no-sew tape. They were brief… and in Japanese. Still, it wasn't like I really ever read instructions even when in English. I looked at the picture. It appeared to show a strip of no-sew tape being placed just inside your desired hem and then this tape sandwich being ironed. Between curtain and iron there was a second wad of cloth, which I assumed was to protect the curtain from the iron's scalding surface. I shook out the pack and found the roll of no-sew tape and a separate bundle of cloth. This cloth was CLEARLY the curtain protector.

… or more no-sew tape in a sheet rather than tape form.

Sadly, the second option did not occur to me until I had pressed the hot iron down directly onto this second cloth. All layers of it.

For those not familiar with this product, it transpires it works by the finely spun tape or cloth becoming a glue when heat is applied. If it is correctly placed between two layers of material that need to be joined, it fixes them together. If it is in direct contact with an iron, it covers the iron in glue.

This was unfortunate. I unplugged the iron, ran it under the cold tap and began to scrub once it got cool enough not to melt my sponge. This had no effect whatsoever but the glue had been sufficiently thickly applied to form a pealable layer once cool. Pulling it off was a bit like removing dead skin after sunburn. Thought you'd enjoy that analogy.

Once the iron was clean, I went back to the task in hand. Since my curtains were made of machine-washable cotton, there wasn't really a problem with ironing them directly.

… Except for the fact that one end of them was also covered with glue from where the other side of the no-sew cloth had been resting.

Disappointingly, I forgot this until I pressed the iron to that area. We were back to square one, except this time there was much less glue so removal had to be achieved via elbow grease. This was annoying.

Fortunately, this second glue-your-iron experiment had burnt off the last of the outside glue. By the time I had reached the end of the first curtain (I had re-started on a clean patch after scrubbing my heart out), the remaining dregs were sufficiently dry to allow me to re-iron the failed beginning and seal the hem. The second curtain went much more smoothly. Ah, the great gift of experience

The end product is at the top of the page. Please feel free to add copious amounts of admiration below. And yes, that is a giant crayon in the right-hand corner. Why do you ask?

Revenge is a dish best served cold

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Trouble with getting out of bed in the mornings is hardly an unusual complaint. The difference is that while most people don't want to leave the warmth of their covers, I physically couldn't. Carefully, I attempted to extract the leg that was bunched up by my chest. The knee emerged, but the shin was still trapped under my second leg. This limb was stretched out, but prevented from moving away from the wall by the stone-like object positioned perfectly centrally on the blankets.

My cat had found her revenge.

In the end, I tipped forward and fell ungraciously onto the floor. Tallis deigned to open one large yellow-green eye and yawned.

"Do you know how uncomfortable I am?" I demanded. "All my muscles are scrunched up!"

This didn't receive any form of verbal reply but somehow the image of the cat carrier was projected into my brain.

You would think one half-decent kick would shift Tallis along to a more acceptable position but somehow her body mass seems to increase by a factor of 100 when she goes into ball-mode. Remember the Pixar movie, 'The Incredibles' where their youngest son, Jack-Jack turns himself into a canon ball so the villain can't fly away with him? Yeah. Tallis recalls that too.

Perhaps to fully appreciate this problem, I should explain about my bed. When we lived in Canada, I had a Queen sized frame and mattress. To be honest, this was too large (or so I thought at the time) for what was normally just me and a cat. I had opted for that size to match the bedding I had bought while living in a furnished rental in New York. That apartment had a Queen bed, so when I came to buy my own furnishings, I matched the dimensions and reused the sheets. Despite the fact I loved the mattress, I knew a Queen bed was never going to fit in a Japanese apartment. I'm pretty sure that if you put such a mattress in my bedroom, you wouldn't be able to open the door. Actually, you would not be able to have a door at all, since my bedroom door opens inwards. It would have to be unhinged and propped up against the bathroom preventing me from ever using the toilet.

So, it was sell the bed or lose the kidneys. I went with the former.

Since my furniture took three months to ship from Canada, buying a new bed was actually a pretty good move. After some research, I discovered I had three main choices for bed design:

(1) The normal western-style bed with a frame and mattress. This is very common in Japan and almost all of my friends sleep on such a bed.

(2) The traditional Japanese-style futon, which consists of a thick foam pad on a tatami mat floor.

(3) A hybrid option, whereby you have a bed frame with a solid tatami mat top surface on which you then lay down a futon.

My apartment does not have any tatami mats, being pseudo-wood flooring throughout. However, I was reluctant to buy a normal western bed. For a start, I might not find a mattress I liked as much as my old one, which would cause me to SULK each time I went to bed. Secondly, I was IN JAPAN! It was exciting, new and I wanted to integrate by sleeping on a futon!

… Even if no one else was.

I therefore went for option (3) and, after some careful measuring, purchased a 'semi-double' tatami mat bed. A semi-double is in-between a single and double bed in size, with a width of 124 cm (49 inches). It is often the size newly wed Japanese couples buy, before they can afford a double bed. This brings me to one obvious conclusion:

Cats take up more space than husbands.

Or maybe they are just harder to kick.

A Japanese futon is somewhat different from the Western product of the same name. For a start, the term 'futon' refers to both to the foam pad underneath you (the 'shiki futon') and the blanket on top (the 'kakebuton'). The Brits would call a kakebuton a 'duvet' and the Americans… well, I'm going to go with 'comforter' and you'll have to live with the fact it just isn't the same kakebuton fluffy cloud of awesome. The shiki futon is thinner than a Western futon and can be easily folded into three sections for storage. Futons are often sold as a set containing both parts.

An advantage of opting for the tatami mat bed over a straight futon, was that I could have drawers underneath the bed for extra storage. When my bed was delivered, the men assembled the frame but not the drawer set. When I asked why, I received a monologue in Japanese until I decided I would just go and buy a screwdriver. As any Ikea fan will not be surprised to learn, I had to assemble the drawers twice; the first attempt having a key early panel placed backwards.

As a final touch, I purchased a Japanese style pillow which is filled with beans rather than feathers. It's a slightly odd sensation to lie on but it's not uncomfortable. I quite like rolling around on it as a DIY scalp massage. I confess though, that when my feathery pillows arrived from Canada, I did switch them over and leave beany pillow as the optional extra.

So there we had it; one perfectly Japanese bed. Tallis tells me it is exceedingly comfortable. Perhaps I should take the hint and move to the couch.

Jumbos


On the day I was born, my Dad went out to buy me my first toy. He chose a cuddly elephant; a simple design for infants with two big ears, a trunk, two feet and a rattle. The staff at the hospital were dismissive of this gift, informing my parents that babies were not interested in soft toys for many months.

THEY WERE WRONG.

Dad was later to say that this elephant was the most successful gift he had ever bought anyone. It became my constant companion and when I was old enough, I named it:

Jumbo

(Friends party to a recent discussion in which I attempted to name my iPod shuffle 'iPod shuffle' will now realise my inspired christenings began at an early age. Just be glad my cat isn't named 'cat').

As the months went by, concern started to grow that the loss of Jumbo might mean irreversible psychological damage. For my parents, that was, since it seemed likely I would scream for the next 20 years in such an eventuality. Since Jumbo came everywhere with me and had an adventurous spirit with a love of water, insanity was looming on the horizon.

In an effort to protect against the inevitable, Dad went out and purchased a second toy elephant. This one looked exactly the same as Jumbo, but its rattle had a different tone. I named this one:

Jumbo 2

Jumbo 2 was a popular addition but suffered from one very obvious flaw: She wasn't Jumbo 1.

In a desperate second attempt, a third elephant was purchased. This one sounded just like Jumbo 1 but was a different colour, having orange ears and a white coat rather than white ears and a yellow coat. Clearly, he too was also not Jumbo 1.

Oddly, while the second two Jumbos had clearly defined genders, Jumbo 1's gender remained ambiguous. Possibly this is deeply significant. Could these two Jumbos never replace THE Jumbo because of Jumbo 1's unique transsexual life perspective? Did Jumbo 1 feel constrained by the psychological pressures surrounding children's toys? Or perhaps the neutral colour of its original box left it without a feeling of identity that only intensified as I grasped my own. DID JUMBO 1 JUST WANT TO BE FREE?

... that would explain the number of times Jumbo 1 got lost.

Dinner guests at our house would often have to be introduced to the three Jumbos. I would stand by the door to our sitting room and hold up the first elephant.

"This is Jumbo 1."

There'd be the customary murmur of what I deemed was approval, but on later reflection was probably sympathy: This poor mundane child. She would probably grow up to became a physicist. Oblivious to this remorse, I would then proceed to hold up the second elephant.

"This is Jumbo 2."

A polite laugh would eminent from my audience. I would then hold up the third elephant.

"This is..."

"Jumbo 3." They would always chorus.

HOW WRONG THEY WERE.

".... New Jumbo," I would say, astounded at the stupidity of the people before me. What sort of completely ridiculous name would 'Jumbo 3' be? Good grief. These people were supposed to be adults.

Nobody understood my genius. UNTIL NOW.

May I point you all to:

iPad 1, iPad 2 and the NEW IPAD.

When it was launched, Dad sent me an email asking if I'd secretly been appointed Head of Naming at Apple. I replied that my bank account suggested I had not.

How to pack a cat: taking your pet abroad


Oddly enough, the most popular blog post I have ever written is this one; a list of 10 points on micro-braiding your hair. I'm therefore going to draw the bold conclusion (not remotely assisted by the news at present) that there are people out there in search of FACTS. Allow me to present the post I would like to have read before starting this process: 10 tips for moving abroad with your pet. For understandable reasons, this will be highly biased towards a move to Japan!




(1) Check your destination country's website for animal import requirements

Regulations concerning animal import vary widely but I'd found most countries put up fairly comprehensive and user-friendly details on the web. For example, Japan has a super-nice FAQ here. As a rough rule of thumb, if you're moving between countries that share a physical border, the process will be infinitely easier than those separated by sea since importation of new diseases can't really be an issue. When I moved from the USA to Canada, the only essential paperwork for my cat was a rabies vaccination certificate and, if this was missing, the vaccination would simply be performed on the spot.

(2) Start early

I can't emphasise this one enough. Due to its rabies-free status, importation of animals to Japan is a tightly controlled process. The reason my move went smoothly was because I started the paperwork a year in advance of actually moving my cat. The absolute minimum time you will need to import an animal to a rabies-free country is seven months and most likely it will be longer.

(3) Microchip your pet

Regardless of where you are travelling, microchipping your pet for identification will be essential. Each microchip provides a unique ID number that will be scanned when you arrive in the new country to ensure the documents you have correspond to the same animal. Since all your documents must have this number on them, do this step early on. The microchip itself is only the size of a grain of rice and is injected like a normal vaccination into the scruff of the neck. Tallis didn't even blink, unlike when she was subjugated to a gentle tummy examination. Make sure your vet uses an international 15 digit ISO pet microchip which are recognised world-wide. Even if you are travelling domestically, you don't want to have to do this again at a later date.

(4) Vaccination type

Even if your pet is up-to-date with his or her vaccinations, double check the country's requirements carefully. Tallis had several years of rabies vaccinations under her belt (or rather, fur) but Japan required 'inactive' rather than 'live' vaccines to have been administered, so Tallis had to have an extra one. If this happens, check to see if only having one vaccine of the accepted type is sufficient. Japan required at least two rabies vaccinations, but accepted the live vaccine as the first one so long as the second shot was with the required inactive drug.

(5) To quarantine or not to quarantine?

As I mentioned in (1), each country has its own regulations regarding this matter. The cases I am most familiar with are those for the UK and Japan which are both rabies-free countries. Rabies can take up to six months to show symptoms and so, until recently, both countries had a non-negotiable half-year quarantine period for any cat or dog brought in from abroad. However, the use of microchips makes it possible to guarantee correspondence of the pet to the vaccination records so this step can be performed at your home in advance of travel.

For our preparations, Tallis had to have an additional rabies vaccination and then an official blood test taken one month later. The blood works had to be conducted at a recognised laboratory for which there was only one in the whole of North America, situated in Kansas. The test confirmed that the vaccine was present in sufficient quantities in her blood stream to provide protection. Six months after this now-officially-proved vaccine had been given, we were allowed to travel. 

This six month period did not require special quarantine conditions, since Tallis was already resident in the country. We just had to wait, but act as normal.

(6) Paperwork

Japanese bureaucracy being what it is, the paperwork we had to complete was extended but well organised. Two months in advance of our travel, I emailed an application form into the quarantine service division at Tokyo's Narita Airport, where I would be arriving. They confirmed that they now were expecting us on the date and flight I specified and sent a further list of forms to be completed. These had to be filed in by both me and my vet and certified by the government offices of our current country of residence. In the case of Canada, this was all done by the 'Canadian Food Inspection Agency'. I still find that disturbing.

The final touches to these documents can't be completed until a week before your travel, since they require a recent health check of your pet, so make sure you have sufficient time in the crucial last few days. For my part, I downloaded all these forms and then...

... promptly forgot all about them.

Fortunately, Tokyo was more awake and a week before my arrival date, emailed to ask for copies of the completed documents so they could check them over in advance. In a panic, I called my vet to discover they had sorted all this out for me while I was watching hockey games. This brings me to my next point...

(7) Find a great vet

If at all possible, find a veterinary practise who has sent animals abroad before. Strangely enough, the small Blue Cross Animal Hospital that sat in a nondescript concrete hut close to where I used to live had already sent 3 pets to Japan in recent years. I still don't quite know what to make of that. However, if you are even remotely within driving distance of Hamilton, Ontario, I thoroughly recommend going to this Blue Cross clinic on King & Dundurn Street. Their administrative assistant, Trish, has extensive experience with handling the international exporting of pets. Before I arrived, her record for getting through Japanese quarantine was 20 minutes. Now it is 5.

(8) Cabin or hold?

You may not have a choice as to whether your pet can travel in the plane cabin with you or must go in the pet hold. Larger dogs cannot fit under the seat and so must travel separately while all planes to Australia (and possibly the UK) do not allow pets in the cabin. Air Canada won't fly to Hawaii with pets at all, but transports them separately via its cargo service. I have no idea why, since this seems to be an airline, not state, policy.

If your pet can travel in the cabin with you, then you get the peace of mind of keeping your furry friend within view at the cost of space. Crates that go into the hold can be considerably larger than a carrier that must stuff under a seat. That said, Air Canada will not fly with pets in the hold if the outside temperature is too hot or too cold, apparently due to the waiting time before flight. I found this quite off-putting (why should my cat be outside except for loading?) which is one of the reasons I elected to take Tallis in the cabin.

Pets must be booked onto the aircraft in advance and there is a limit on the number of pets a flight will take, so do this early. You will have to pay a fee, but it is likely to be relatively small. For Air Canada, it was $100 to take your cat in the cabin to Tokyo. Carriers (both for the cabin and hold) must confirm to certain size regulations which will be listed on the airline's website. Soft carriers are often labelled 'airline approved' to suggest they are good for in-cabin use, but each airline has different restrictions so check before you buy. The carrier I bought was made by Sherpa and I found it to be good.

(9) Drugs, food, water and toilet

I didn't use any drugs with Tallis. Reading the web suggests that this practice has gone out of favour, perhaps because complications mid-flight are impossible to fix. The vet did give me a natural spray that is supposed to release pheromones to remind a cat of its mother, but I'm unsure if this made any significant difference.

I bought a stack of puppy pads to line Tallis' carrier and then let her drink and eat as normal. In fact, the shock of what a perfectly normal Saturday had become, meant she didn't eat or noticeably drink at all during our journey. I changed the puppy pad a few times in the aeroplane toilet to freshen up the carrier. For water, I tried ice cubes in a cup as a way of providing a less spill-able beverage.

(10) Cost

The total all-in cost of moving Tallis to Japan was not negligible but neither was it prohibitively large. The single most expensive cost was the official blood works which cost over $300 CAD. Then there was the extra rabies vaccination, the health check, a final de-flea spray and the airline's charge. In total, it was maybe $800-1000, spread over a year.

My final advice (which I refuse to put as point (11) for aesthetic reasons) is don't panic. If you start with plenty of time, this isn't a hard process and it's not that tough on your pet. Tallis had no trouble with the long plane journey to Tokyo and was her usual self within minutes of us arriving at home in Sapporo. My fears that this was all a ghastly and cruel act were unfounded... but I was assured this shouldn't stop me producing copious amounts of Tallis' favourite cat food.

Flying pussy cats


The woman behind the desk at the 'Air Canada' check-in counter took my passport, glanced at the photo page and then down at my carry-on bag from which a pair of gleaming yellow-green eyes could be seen.

"Do you have any documentation for your cat?" she inquired.

I lifted a thick black folder and dropped it with a bang on the counter, where it dwarfed the small red booklet in her hands.

"... right." The woman hesitated before saying cautiously, "Is there a form that shows they're expecting you?"

I gathered from the singular choice of the word 'form' she wasn't after one of my three complete document copies. Pity. As it stood, I wasn't going to be able to fit a drink bottle into my bag.

Snapping open the elastic, I withdrew the sheet I had been sent from Tokyo Narita Quarantine Services, stating that my application to import a cat had been received. The Chinese lady working at the counter next to ours leaned over to take a peak.

"I can read some of the characters," she said with interest as she examined the Japanese-half of the bilingual script.

This apparently was enough proof that the document hadn't been forged, or maybe simply sufficient for the airline to declare it not-their-problem.

I understood their concern; like the UK, Japan is a rabies-free country. This means that their regulations concerning the import of animals are extremely strict. Once, this would have meant a non-negotiable six months quarantine (the time required for a rabies infection to show symptoms) but with the use of microchips to guarantee animal identification, this could all be waved with enough preparation... providing you had to right paperwork.

Tallis and I had been on one flight before, when I moved from Florida to Canada. While only a measly three hours compared to the 13 we were about to attempt, it had left me with some assurance that Tallis was likely to deal with it all relatively well. Unlike everyone else I talked to, I was not concerned about her causing a yowling scene on the plane. This was primarily for three reasons:

(1) I have a certain disregard for humanity.
(2) Planes are pretty noisy and Tallis doesn't have a very loud voice.
(3) ONE CRYING BABY and I was home and dry. No one talks about throwing an infant out the plane, though quite why is something of a mystery. See point (1).

Once in Tokyo, we had an overnight stop before going onto Sapporo for which I had booked Tallis into the airport pet kennels. Originally, I had done this because quarantine services threatened to take up to 12 hours even with the finest of leather-bond paperwork. On reflection, however, I realised a stop to stretch gave us both a much needed rest.

By far the most unforgivable event occurred a mere 10 minutes later as we approached security. Seeing what I was carrying, the airport staff waved me into a different line.

"Please take your doggy over there."

.... doggy?! DOGGY? I walked over to the designated line and pulled out a very ruffled and indignant cat.

"Is she vicious?" One of the security staff asked as they saw her struggle.

Well she didn't used to be until you CALLED HER A BITCH.

I plopped the cat over my shoulder and went through the scanner with a curt shake of my head. Humph. We went and sat in the airport lounge where Tallis chose to sit enthroned on my knee and be petted by the surrounding masses.

And after that ... everything went entirely smoothly. The flight was packed but my neighbours were nice, cat-loving types who didn't mind me sitting with the carrier on my lap after take-off. While she didn't use them, I had lined the carrier with a puppy pad against accidents, and changing this a few times during the flight freshened up the container. It also made me appreciate exactly how small a aeroplane toilet is. There truly is not enough room to swing a cat. Trust me.

When we arrived in Tokyo, I headed off to use the bathroom before approaching the quarantine desk, thinking I would be a while. While not a wasted gesture, this proved completely unnecessary since we were cleared for entry in a staggeringly short five minutes. I owe my vet's clinic a suitcase full of lucky waving cats. Or maybe not, since that might send them insane.

Indeed, the worst part of the whole journey (apart from the bit where Tallis was called a dog) came the following day on our short hop up to Sapporo. For this trip, Tallis was not allowed to travel in the cabin but had to go in the hold. When she was returned to me, she was wet all through and smelled terrible, which suggested she had been far more frightened on that short leg than at any point on our round the world jaunt. That notwithstanding, she recovered fast and vocally protested the remainder of our journey to my apartment.

"Meow meow meow!!"

"Look, we're nearly there!"

"MEOW MEOW MEOW"
You've been saying that for DAYS.

Well... yes, but this time it was true. Adorably, there was no doubt Tallis knew she was home. Perhaps she recognised the furniture, maybe the smell of me was enough or she might have reached the stage where she was prepared to adopted any non-crate room as her home. Whatever the reason, she ran around the apartment then fell on her water as if she hadn't drank in days.

This was perfectly true but it was NOT BECAUSE SHE HADN'T HAD THE OPPORTUNITY. She'd just shunned any cup I'd placed in her carrier. My sympathy was limited.

I collapsed on the sofa. In all honesty, before this trip I'd been anxious about the wisdom of my decision to bring Tallis to Japan. Was it truly fair to take a pet on such a long journey? Should I have tried to find Tallis a new home in Canada? Now though, I can honestly say I'd do it again. The secret is an early start, since the paperwork takes the best part of a year to complete (minimum 8 months) but with the right assistance, it was actually a painless process.

"Meow!"

"... You've gone in the bathtub haven't you?"

The perfect carrier


"meow."

"really?"

"Meow!"

"Really?!"

"MEOW!"

"REALLY?!"

So went our conversation as we headed back to the apartment after our final vet's visit before the flight at the weekend.

Tallis was in her spanking new red pet carrier. Since her old one was disintegrating and smelling strongly of cat pee, I had decided to upgrade her before we attempted the 13 hour flight to Tokyo. Extensive googling had revealed two highly recommended possibilities: a bag made by the manufacturer 'Sherpa' and one by 'Sleepypod'. The second of these two was about twice the price of the first but a few inches longer, with fold-up ends that enabled it to slide properly under the plane seat during take-off and landing. Both had good reviews, so it really came down to exactly how guilty I was feeling about taking my cat on this trip.

I'd put in an order for the 'Sleepypod' the week before.

However, it transpired that the whole of Canada was having some giant guilt complex concerning their feline friends and every shop and their supplier was on backorder. Deciding this was secretly a message from my bank manager, I asked a friend to drive me to the out-of-town Petsmart and purchased the Sherpa carrier.

This was the second journey we had tried with the carrier. On the plus side, the bag was sturdy, well ventilated and and a cheerful colour. On the downside, my considerable care and attention to this matter was being utterly unappreciated.

The sparkly clean interior of the carrier was already coated in cat pee. So was I since, as I mentioned above, the carrier was beautifully ventilated.

On our first visit to the vet's that week, I had purchased a pheromone spray designed to calm cats down by reminding them of their mother. Judging by its success this trip, I wondered whether we might be reaching the heart of Tallis' problem with other cats.

I let her out once we reached the apartment and set about scrubbing the carrier down. I was about to apply the same treatment to myself when my phone rang to let me know that my friend and that day's department speaker had arrived. I sniffed at my shirt. Well, I've never been one for suffering alone. I headed out down the stairs.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency


The tags for cows are changing. No more will our Canadian bovine friends accessorize with a triangular green ear ornament detailing their identification number, but instead will model a yellow round disc. However, cows already adorned with last year's fashion piece must not have it removed --since that is illegal-- but rather must have the latest earring added to their attire.

These cows are clearly going to be punk cows.

How did I know this detail about livestock imports? Because I was in the office of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ...

... waiting for them to approve the export papers for my cat.

May I just say that going to this particular organization for my little furry non-consumable pet kitty was highly disturbing? I distracted myself by reading a leaflet on compensation for Government destroyed animals. Wonderful.

Mercifully, the not-for-consumption cat was not present; all that was required was me and the paperwork for her import into Japan. This was particularly good since I wasn't sure I could carry both. The folder containing the relevant documents was bulging at the seams. I glanced down at the top-most sheet of paper. In English and Japanese, the heading read:

"Application for import: dogs, cat, foxes, raccoons and skunks."

Now, it might be just me, but it seems a little surprising that the import of foxes, raccoons and skunks is sufficiently common to warrant inclusion on a standard form. I made a mental note to keep this sheet handy when I was on the plane. If my neighbor objected to being seated beside a cat, I could point out that should he complain and move, he might be located by a skunk.

At length, I was called through to the main office to meet with the Government vet. He stamped my paperwork and told me that he had wanted to be an astronomer when he was small. I told him I had wanted to be a vet for years of my childhood. We both eyed each other, trying to access who had made the right choice.

Then the stamping was done, the papers returned to me with three additional copies. I tied an elastic band around my folder and stuffed it in my backpack. One shiny bright kitty, ready for consumption. I mean, export.

Indecent questioning


"Why didn't you get married?"

You know, it wasn't so much the question that bothered me, but the tense. Namely, the fact it was in the past. Quite clearly the message was:

"Why didn't you get married when you had the chance, since now you're waaaaaay over the hill so there's no point in even CONSIDERING it at your age."

Frankly, I'm somewhat indifferent to the prospect of marriage. It's expensive, divorce doubly so and I just downright hate the idea of having to move any of my books to make room for someone else's lesser tomes.

BUT. That wasn't the point.

I looked down at the five year old as she sucked on her special curly straw the waiter at the Italian restaurant had brought with her drink. I should mention, this was the SAME 5 YEAR OLD who insisted on looking at a leaflet on complications with wisdom teeth extractions while I was in the dental waiting room waiting to have mine taken out. Basically, I deeply regret this child learning to talk. She was also going to get a way cooler dessert than me.

I debated what my reply should be. I contemplated telling her that marriage was hardly a requirement in today's society. That men were inferior beings with bad taste in books. Or pointing out that her mum was divorced and contemplating turning the coal bunker into a burial chamber for her dad, so really it led to nothing but hard work in crime concealment. I thought about saying I preferred women, furries, anime characters or her dessert, that a piece of paper wasn't necessary to prove you loved someone, that I was too young for marriage and no one under 85 knew enough to consider it, that marriage often led to children and she was currently THE LIVING EXAMPLE OF WHY I DIDN'T WANT TO GO DOWN THAT ROUTE.

Fortunately at that moment my dinner arrived. It was fettuccine with sausage. I speared a small sausage, smiled and bit down.

"I just haven't met the right person yet."

Learning to be different


The officially bilingual status of Canada results in a rather more entertaining education system than that in countries with more decisiveness. Outside Quebec, schools operate in English but offer a "French immersion" stream which apparently involves classes been taught in French, rather than the pupils being dipped in red wine and cheese. This is taken up by franco- and anglophone parents alike to allow their children the chance of being bilingual.

In Quebec, the situation is a little more complex, due to the mixed backgrounds of the population. The province has two publicly funded school boards that offer education in English and French. Originally, these were divided according to religion, with the English-speaking side being Protestant and the French, Catholic. However, this system was later renamed to better reflect the true nature of the split.

By default, a child in Quebec must attend a French-language public school but exceptions are made if you can prove your family has already defected to the dark side. For instance, you may go an English school board institute if you have previously attended an English-speaking school elsewhere in Canada, if you have a sibling being educated in English anywhere in Canada or if one parent did their elementary schooling in English.

When growing up in Montreal, my friend had a choice of school systems, since she had one officially francophone parent and one anglophone. Her school was selected based on academic merit and she joined the English school board stream.... and then promptly enrolled in French immersion.

"You decided not to go to a French-speaking school, but to go to an English school and be taught in French?" I asked, just to completely clarify the situation.

"Yes... but I had more classes in English than if I had gone to a French school," she attempted to justify this completely preposterous statement.

Apparently, the French immersion stream results in half the day being taught in French and half in English, giving a truly bilingual education. I admit, I was quite envious. Not that I think I would have enjoyed it at all at the time, but that is what adulthood is about: reaping the benefits of a tortured childhood.

While this system sounded highly beneficial to all and sundry, my friend warned of its pitfalls. The richer population of Quebec tend to be English speakers who have moved into the province. Because of this, the English school board is better supported by the parents which has resulted in the schools being generally of a higher standard than their French counterparts. Such a division increases the rift already present which is what caused this whole divide in the first place.

Catch 22: created by adults, maintained by 5 year olds.

World of ice



May I just say that snow villages are cold?

Well, d'uh! --you might reply, if you were feeling rather mean-- water does have to freeze for this venture to be successful. Did you expect to saunter around huts made of ice in your bikini?

Like you wouldn't enjoy it too if that were possible.

Montreal's snow village is on the island of Sainte-Hélène, just off the edge of the Old Town harbour and easily reachable by metro. The winter had been so mild this year that initially we were concerned the snow village might not be still standing. Indeed, there were signs of deterioration with several of the rooms showing evidence of small roof renovations and a single large collapsed pile of snow at the edge of the village that stood as a prediction of the doom to come. That said, most of the buildings were in excellent shape and the breeze that peeled off their icy walls helped keep both constructions and visitors nicely chilled.

The main buildings in the village were a hotel, bar and church. Surrounding them were a number of little one-bedroom huts that were likely part of the hotel. It was possible to spend the night in one of these quarters but, with prices starting at $250 per person, we did not consider it. To be honest, I'm not totally sure I would have enjoyed the experience. An ice bed is all very well, but what about the bathrooms?!

As a visitor to the village, you could walk into the hotel and wander through the rooms. The standard set-up was a double bed --consisting of a normal mattress on a bed frame made of ice-- and an ice chair. Many of the rooms though, had a theme. There was one with a giant ice hockey player sculpture (naturally a team member of the 'Canadiens', Montreal's home team) with a replica of the Stanley cup at the foot of the bed. Another room had a solid ice racing car and a third, musical instruments frozen into panes of ice embedded in the walls. One room with two double beds had a trough of ice cubes between the mattresses and roses at the head. It was either a chaste way of spending the night together or the scene from a vampire horror movie. Either way, there was clearly no point in lingering.

The most beautiful building was the church. Ornately carved on the outside, the inside was full of transparent icy glass pews and a wide semi-circular alter with high backed ice chairs. The only non-ice features in any of these buildings were the mattresses in the hotel and the odd fur rug thrown across a chair. Without those, sitting was usually regretted and not easily reversed.

Naturally, as a group of four highly educated adults, we admired the skill and artistry of the craftsmanship.... and at the first opportunity, stole a wooden sled from a careless child.

The sleds, which were scattered around the village for visitors' use, resembled that of a dog sled. They had a single seat up front and a high back with long runners the person pushing could stand on once you got moving. Steering proved to be slightly challenging, but Canada has socialised health care so there was a limit to what (permanent) damage we could achieve.

When we returned to our Bed & Breakfast, I had a hot bath. The ice hotel might be impressive, but you can't do that....

Lights, camera.... history



Notre Dame Basilica is set in the heart of Montreal's old town. With its twin bell towers, you could be forgiven for thinking that the name comes from its famous Parisian counter-part. You may even be right, but no one will admit to it; not wikipedia and not the Sound & Light show we attended on Saturday evening.

The flier for this event shows the church nave decked with triangular sails upon which artfully coloured blobs were projected. In a second image, the sails were gone and red and blue lights illuminated different parts of the ornately carved facades. I was therefore expecting the acoustical and elaborately designed interior of the church to be taken advantage of in an abstract interpretation of thundering music.

What I got was a history lesson. Which was somewhat of a surprise.

In 1657, the French settlement of 'Ville Marie' was founded in the new land and with it, a small chapel. The small colony faced difficult times along with their European compatriots up and down the coast but eventually it expanded enough to build a hospital and the chapel was re-housed inside it.

The colony continued to grow and finally in 1672, it got its own parish church which was given the name 'Notre Dame'. The population did not stop there and it reached the stage where thousands of the village worshippers were forced to gather outside the church's doors each Sunday. A new building was needed and an Irish architect by the name of James O'Donnell was brought in for the job. O'Donnell was residing in New York and was originally a Protestant, but converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, quite possibly so he could be buried in his own church. He lies in the crypt alone, so possibly no one else believed in his change of allegiance either. The show mentions that O'Donnell's remains lie beneath your feet, but does not mention his abrupt conversation; wikipedia being a far more reliable source for such juicy details.

O'Donnell lived to see his church open in 1829, but his death in 1830 came eleven years before the construction of its first bell tower. Until that time, the bell was rung from the old church building that was still situated in front of its replacement. While undoubtedly impressive, O'Donnell's design was flawed by his choice for lighting. Behind the alter, there was a large window whose light blinded the faithful who sat in the middle pews. The --undoubtedly more guilt ridden-- parishioners who had slunk to the side were shrouded in darkness. Feasibly no one in the congregation had a problem with this but nevertheless, the interior was redesigned between 1872-79 by Victor Bourgeau, who also designed the intricate pulpit which winds like spiral treehouse to the left of the alter. The front of the church is now covered by an elaborate wooden façade and light enters the church from stained glass side windows. From the outside, you can see an extension now backs onto that part of the church, so presumably the old window is completely bricked up. The interior is undoubtedly very impressive, even if one of my friends proclaimed the pillars to look like Christmas wrapping paper.

All of this was told to us through narration interspersed by --it must be said-- somewhat dubious and sycophantic actors. That aside, the content, which highlighted Notre Dame's history intertwined with that of Montreal's, was extremely interesting. Images of the early settlement were also shown on the sail screens and, when points about the church's architecture were discussed, lights lit the relevant part of the décor.

In 1982, Pope Jean Paul II visited Montreal and raised the status of Notre Dame to a basilica. It also was the location of Celine Dion's wedding in 1994. The show mentioned the former, but not the latter. No prizes for guessing where I got the second fact from.