Sunday, September 25, 2011

Driver's Ed

I’m sitting in a desk in my old high school and surrounded by sixteen year olds. To my surprise, I am not the oldest person in the room. One guy in the back is probably my mom’s age.

The instructor pops a VHS into the rolling television on the cart and presses play. Cheesy music invoking the eighties quickly fills the room. The dark screen flickers.

A boy is at an arcade, playing a SEGA racing game. He sways back and forth with excitement as his red sports car sweeps skillfully through the course. But then it becomes a real car, and suddenly the car is no longer invincible. This isn’t a game anymore. This is LIFE.

The narrator walks solemnly through a junkyard of crumbling automobiles stacked in ominous towers. He places his hand on a car folded accordion style, knowing that he looks deep and brooding yet boyishly attractive. He knows that, because of this, kids will listen to his message. He presses his neatly combed hair aside and says to us, “Driving is just like a video game, but you’re playing the game of YOUR LIFE.”

These chilling words introduce a scientific study on the recently discovered effects of alcohol on driving. A number of brave Canadians volunteer to drive a car through an obstacle course lined with cones in the wastelands of Canada, and then get hammered and drive through that same obstacle course again.

The experiment begins with the group of strangers grouped casually in the parking lot. Each of the participants slips into the driver’s seat and glides through the meandering path of cones, swerving gracefully to avoid a padded wall.

When they return, they sip from plastic cups of beer administered by scientists and chat civilly. After consuming their first serving of beer, they weave through the course with a few minor scrapes. A second round of beers is passed around. The participants laugh and tell stories that are hilarious. They drive around the course again, tipping over a few unlucky cones.

The method repeats itself until their BACs reach the legal limit, .08. The horde of participants cheers as they take turns funneling beer into each other’s mouths. A male participant gets into the car with his beer helmet still strapped to his head and pounds the gas pedal, careening into the padded wall and laughing uncontrollably. A whole family of cones is sacrificed to science and one remorseful doctor weeps. The male participant continues to drive around the bends of the course with the padded wall still attached to the front bumper and fails to stop at the end, speeding blindly onward to a remote town in the Yukon with two flailing scientists trailing behind.

The narrator appears once more in the junkyard of woe and tosses his cardigan casually across his broad, muscular shoulder. “Teens have too much confidence. They think they're invincible. Do you really think it won’t happen to you?” he asks in an accusing tone.

The scene shifts to the living room of an orange traffic cone that lost a child during a Canadian study on the effects of alcohol on automobile drivers. “He was a good cone,” she says tearfully.

The boy innocently playing the racing game suddenly finds himself in a pair of goggles meant to simulate the blurry vision of a drunk driver. He swerves from wall to wall of the simulated Grand Canyon, loses control of his wheel, falls out of the padded seat onto the arcade floor. He rolls on the dusty concrete desperately trying to ply the goggles from his face, but they are permanently fused to his skin.

The narrator enters. He says, “I want to play a game. The game of your LIFE.”

The boy screams and uselessly tears at the goggles.

“The only thing that will remove the goggles is time,” says the narrator as he crosses the arcade. He casually tucks his hands into the pockets of his pleated pants. The goggles are locked to the gamer’s face until the next morning, when he wakes up in a strange bed with a strange traffic cone and no memory of the terrible things that happened that night at the arcade.

“Driving is the hardest thing in the world. You have to make the right decisions,” the narrator croons from the hood of a totaled car. He is naked from the waist up, but for an ascot.

It’s a sunny summer day in the Yukon and bunch of friends with bushy perms picnic in the Canadian wilderness. A car drives up with a padded wall attached to the bumper. A passenger’s legs are hanging out the window. Five or six people in white coats are running and flailing behind it. This is Stacy’s ride home.

“Stacy, get in the car,” barks Stacy’s boyfriend. But she doesn’t want to get in a car full of angry drunks. Finally, she gives in to his demands and hops into the passenger’s seat. They speed through the scenic country road, drinking and giggling, swerving from one lane to the other, missing a moose by mere inches. A minivan is driving down the same road in the opposite direction. Inside, a family of traffic cones is having a wholesome discussion of gymnastics.

I cannot see what happens next, my eyes are too tightly shut. When I open them, bagpipes are playing Amazing Grace. One doctor is on screen. “If I knew then what I know now about the impairing effects of alcohol on Canadian drivers, would the knowledge be worth the lives that were lost?”

The screen goes black.

What have we learned today?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Prostate Cherries

One day in Montreal, Dave and I went to the Jean Talon Marketplace near Little Italy. On either side of us wine vendors passed out samples and wedges of smelly cheese were plopped onto scales. We stopped in front of a produce stand that displayed cartons of an unusual green fruit with a papery outer layer, similar to onion skin.

“I think it’s a tomatillo,” I said, recalling a similar fruit I had on one of my last nights in Prague with a kiwi-like flavor.

A French-speaking man gave us each a piece of the alleged tomatillo to sample. Peeling the skin off, Dave asked the name of the fruit. The French-speaking man sent us an English-speaking man to deal with our English speaking.

“It’s a ground cherry,” the English-speaking man announced, baffling us both, for neither of us had heard of a ground cherry before. “It’s called a ground cherry because you don’t pick them off the tree. You wait for them to fall on the ground. That’s when you know they’re ripe.”

The French-speaking man pushed a half empty-carton of ground cherries towards me and I picked them up. Dave and I each took one cherry and attempted to return the carton.

“No, take them,” the English-speaking man insisted. I took the free food. “He gave them to you. And they’re good for you, but especially for you.” He pointed to Dave.

“I eat a carton of these every day,” the English-speaking man continued. “They’re good for the prostate.”
I passed the carton of ground cherries to Dave. Perhaps he needed them more than I did.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Montreal: Puffins, Penguins, and Pitcher Plants

If I ate too much in Montreal, I must have cancelled it out walking. Montreal has some delightful brightly colored buildings and old architecture. Rue Duluth, off of Boulevard St. Laurent, was a street of eccentric facades with elaborate murals and a restaurant resembling a ship. We found a shop devoted entirely to things made of alpaca wool, including small alpacas.

On the second day in Montreal, Dave and I wandered the paths of Montreal’s Botanical Gardens. Inside of the conservatories, we saw the flora of the rainforests and bananas growing in a peculiar upward fashion that is apparently normal for bananas.

From across a room a spotted a large terrarium containing some of my pitcher plant Angelina’s estranged cousins.

I didn’t have to imagine the sort of insects that would get swallowed up in those pelican-mouthed plants; I saw them shortly after in the Insectarium. Most of the bugs in the Insectarium were tacked up under glass, save a few startling tarantulas tickling the sides of their tanks. Some of the tacked up critters made me wonder if Fern Gully was based on a true story.

Nature never ceases to astound me.

The Botanical Gardens provided me with dozens of opportunities to dust off my French skills, to Dave’s dismay. I used every opportunity to ask the whereabouts of the W.C. and order ice cream flavors that I don’t know the words for. Every time I got stuck, I found myself looking to Dave as though he would explain the whole situation in Spanish and everything would be alright.

We spent about a quarter of our time outdoors photographing this fat squirrel eating cookies.

After a long walk through the bonsai forest and the thrills of the shrub garden, we decided to take a dinner break. Chinese lanterns are lit up throughout the botanical garden when the sun goes down and I intended to see them glow. We asked a woman at the information desk where we could have a quick dinner before the lanterns lit up, and the woman at the desk directed us to Sherbrook, an alleged commercial street full of eateries. This barren highway called Sherbrook led to a steakhouse in one direction and tumble weeds and broken dreams in the other.

By the time we gave up on walking this road to nowhere, we were too famished to look at anything at all.

Dave and I spend the rainy last day in Montreal at the Biodome, a giant dome in Olympic Park that replicates five different ecosystems and fills them with native plants, birds, and the occasional porcupine. As with any animal sanctuary, the best room replicated the artic climate and was populated by penguins. Luckily for us, we arrived at feeding time for the aquatic birds.

The puffins are my favorite. They flap their wings like undersea pterodactyls when they swim after scattered scallop shells. When on land, Dave sees the look of British royalty in their faces, forced to endure the humiliation of sharing a room with the common mure.

You can read about food and chocolate in Montreal in my last two posts.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Montreal: Le Menu

Crepe Nutella served on a beautiful woman.

Montreal is a delicious city. The streets are paved with maple syrup and smoked meat sandwiches and all of the restaurants play Arcade Fire. Here are more highlights of my epicurean eating experiences, for to describe each individual meal would be rather self-indulgent.

Dave heard that bagels from Montreal were even better than NYC bagels, so we went to two different bagel shops to seek the truth. The first shop, Fairmount Bagel, had a impressive variety of bagel choices, such as caraway seed and chocolate chip, although the chocolate chip bagel bin had nothing to offer us but crumbs. St. Viateur Bagels didn’t have as much variety, but one could sit down in the cafe with a hot buttered bagel and a side of cantaloupe and watch Looney Tunes. That’s what I did.

The biggest difference between the Montreal bagel and the New York bagel seems to be the thickness of the “O.”

New York Bagel: o

Montreal Bagel: O

Make of it what you will. A good bagel is tasty wherever it may be baked.

At Canadian Maple Delights, a tasty tourist trap in Old Montreal, I savored a scoop of maple gelato. This combined two of my favorite foods: maple syrup and gelato. It put a smile on my face for several hours that nothing could squelch.

On an ill-fated search for a chocolate shop on Rue Duluth, we stumbled upon a café called Soupesoup. It was as though someone suction cupped wires to my head while I slept, tapped into my imagination for recipes, and served them to me upon a bed of mixed greens. The menu was mainly things I would cook myself, like beet and quinoa salads, squash soups, and fancy grilled cheeses.

Dave was on a mission to find poutine, a Quebecois specialty that consists of a pile of fries and cheese curds sopped in gravy. To my delight, we found Patati Patata, a restaurant that serves poutine as well as food that is not slathered in meat and gravy. I had a spicy bowl of borscht on my last night in Montreal and have craved beets ever since.

I ate a lot of crepes this past week. My favorite was the maple syrup crepe. I realized the obvious: a maple crepe tastes exactly like a pancake with maple syrup – and it essentially is a pancake with maple syrup. But that doesn’t make me want one any less.

If your wondering why I did not discuss chocolate, it's because I have a whole post dedicated to chocolate hedonism.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Juliette et Chocolat

I awoke in Montreal after a night of wide-eyed half-sleeping with a piercing headache and sour stomach. The sunlight seared my eyes. My skin emitted a nuclear heat underneath the sheets. While Dave smuggled some eggs, toast, and herbal tea from the continental breakfast, I took a long, icy shower. Doctor Dave diagnosed my disease: I had a chocolate hangover..

How could I have managed to eat that much chocolate? Excess seems to be my forte, especially when I’m travelling. For instance, I just ate most of a wedge of cheese that isn’t even mine. Dave bought it today at the Jean Talon Market. Neither of us knows what sort of cheese it is or what animal produced it – the vendor spoke almost no English – but that did not stop me from shaving most of it into my mouth while Dave was researching crepe restaurants.

And now to the source of the inevitable chocolate hangover: One dark chocolate fondue pour deux with an array of sliced fruit and one 78% dark Tanzanian hot chocolate at Juliette et Chocolat. This was, essentially, my dinner after watching Dave eat a smoked meat sandwich at the Schwartz’s on Meat Street. I was the lonesome vegetarian in a famous Jewish deli with a slice of buttered rye in my hand and a frown in my heart. I deserve chocolate; I deserve a lot of it, thought I.

Juliette et Chocolat specializes in hot chocolate and other melted sorts of chocolate. Pastries and little chocolate engravings of Kama Sutra images that I find very, very amusing are also available for the chocolate voyeur in us all.

Did you ever spend ten dollars on a single glass of hot chocolate that made you sick the next day? I did, and I regret nothing. This is not Swiss Miss. The last time I ordered a hot chocolate so thick that it required a spoon was in Prague, but this stuff had an entirely different taste and a clumpy, moussy consistency. The fondue pour deux came with two different percentages of dark chocolate and was entirely too much on top of the hot chocolate, but as I said before: I regret nothing.

Tomorrow I’m going to try to go to another chocolate shop that was closed today. A tip for anyone going to Montreal: Almost everything is closed on Monday, so don’t bother.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Inflatable Travel Companion

Sometimes I fantasize about dressing up as a man and travelling around the world, possibly on a pirate ship. I would hack off my side braid, let my leg hair flow freely, and wear unflattering pants. Perhaps I would also don a top hat and waistcoat, like George Sand. After the metamorphosis is complete, I would probably look like this:

Perhaps a woman can legally travel anywhere save the interior of a mosque, but she has to fight to justify it every time. People always make a tremendous fuss about a woman who travels alone. The world is not her oyster. More than half of the world – Asia, Africa, most of South America, the frequently forgotten Antarctica, and even half of Europe – is considered too rugged and volatile for the gentler sex. If her exploration destination is at war and she is going to have to wear a burka, it almost seems like too much of an effort anyways.

It is commonly accepted that a travelling lady needs protection beyond the soothing warmth of a cast iron pan clutched in her lily-white hand.

With whom are you travelling? the inquisitors ask the travelling woman. For less threatening sojourns, like the Jane Austen museum or a day-trip to suburban Iowa, a small group of women will suffice, as long as they hold their rape whistles firmly between their teeth while crossing parking lots. Sometimes other women are acceptable companions for a trip to New York City or touristy European cities because there is safety in numbers.

For more extensive or long-term excursions, a travelling woman is expected to have a strapping and assertive male companion, gifted in boxing and the martial arts, a sort of white knight to protect her from baby-punting gypsies and the sex trade. But women, be wary, for white knights only want one thing… unless they are gay. God forbid the travelling woman should be ravished by her white knight.

Therefore, a woman needs a strapping and assertive homosexual boxer. No straggly arms and plucked eyebrows for this job. A woman needs a burly, gay boxer to escort her through the gritty, dangerous world and give her the freedom to wander where she will. Paul Bunyon meets Paul Mitchell.

But there is a sore lack of burly, gay boxers in this country. The demand far exceeds the supply. And this brings me to my ingenious invention: The Inflatable Travel Companion. Think Autopilot, but more lifelike.

Rather than posting an ad on Craigslist for a “Travelling Woman seeking Gay Boxer for trip to India,” the travelling woman can dial a phone number, talk to a friendly automated representative named Heather, and purchase what is essentially a blowup doll that respects her need for platonic camaraderie. A male companion that isn’t going to poke her awake in the middle of the night to request that she “help a guy out.”

The Inflatable Travel Companion is made of 100% LEAD-FREE vinyl manufactured in the USA. For $39.95, you will receive one Inflatable Travel Companion with a drawstring nylon storage bag and a free bicycle pump. A hundred dollar value, yours for only $39.95, plus shipping.

But can you really put a price on that kind of freedom?