Some randomly-selected impressions of Montréal from a visitor

Just wanted to drop some thoughts, not a comprehensive post, just things that surprised me or I found especially interesting, as regards our recent vacation to Montréal.  Poorly labeled photos from our trip may be found here, and in succeeding albums, if you’re curious.  In no particular order then!:

1. So many beautiful churches.  You could spend a whole trip just visiting churches.  Probably my favorite part of the trip right there – many American cities would love to have just one church of the visual splendor we encountered again and again in Montréal.  A strange thing it must be, though, to be a functioning church and also a tourist attraction.  The Basilique Notre-Dame had a laser and light show one evening we were there, for example (we didn’t go).  Basilique below:

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2. No free soda refills anywhere!  (Hey, I drink a lot… drink soda a lot.)  Not even that nice America-themed diner we ate at where we were informed “the portions are big because we’re modeled after the states”.  You’ll like your soda with a can, and a glass, and when the can is empty you’re done!  Except for the casino – yes, our city passes came with $25 in free credits, so we visited.  Not only free refills, but actually free soda, period, there.  Casino and Bec below.


3. Some more casino thoughts since I’d never been to one before.  Our city passes gave us $25 in credits – $25 is probably nothing to the casino, the *minimum* bet at Blackjack tables was $10, you could go through $25 in an instant and I’m sure people do.  Slot machines have gotten way more complicated than “line up three of the same and you win” – how about 50 different arrangements that count as some kind of victory?  And finally – a lot of people there just didn’t seem that happy.  The experience was not as glamorous as Oceans 11 might have predicted.  The happiest people we saw were those watching the live music – you know, not gambling.  Below, catching the bus to the casino.


4. And now some thoughts on language!  People really will greet you with “Bonjour-Hi!” – friendly and a way to figure out your preferred language. We bought some items at a convenience store and didn’t reply to the greeting, so the clerk was forced to say “voulez-vous un sac do you want a bag?”  There was bilingual signage, especially, in “official” places (like the airport), but I was surprised how French the city was in terms of conversations overheard and plenty of French-only signage as well.  Just observing people use French was a lot of fun for me – it was probably especially fun watching the children when we visited the zoo.  “Regarde!  Un ours, un ours!”  Photo below is not the Zoo Ecomusee, which we took a train to, but is the Biodome, a sort of zoo closer to the city center.


5. The 747 bus was a great way to get from the airport, and the Metro subway system was a great way to get around town too.  I learned that bus stops were “arrêt”, above-ground “real” train stations were “gare”, and subway stations were just “station”, said as you would speaking French.  Below me in a Metro station.


6. Oh right, other thing about restaurants that struck me was that if paying by credit, they bring the card reader to your table and have you run it.  Makes sense from a privacy perspective, did think it made the experience feel a little less professional/formal as compared to the United States habit of letting the waiter run the card.  Below is Bec at a nice French restaurant with some Quebecois cheeses.


7. Just a few other French word things that surprised me – saw “patate” for potato almost everywhere rather than “pomme de terre”, which is what I learned in school.  Quotations were indicated by << >> rather than, what I at least, would call quotation marks!  Saw “comptoir” which just means “counter” a lot of places to indicate a food place – we had lunch at “Comptoir 21” one day.  Generally was very pleased with my ability to read-stuff, and say stuff if I had time to think about it, understanding what other people were saying as they were saying it definitely the hardest thing.  Below, eat fresh.


8. Just one more thought!  If you’re thinking about traveling from the United States, we found that easy-peasy.  The Montréal airport has space for an *enormous* line when it came to processing travelers entering Canada… and, at least mid-day in mid-May, there was almost nobody in it, we went pretty much straight through, had to answer a few questions about where we were staying to the French-accented border agent, a fine experience.  On the way home, the Montréal airport actually pre-processes US travelers so that, when you land in America, you’re just like another domestic traveler, which is nice.  Below, Montreal from the air as we depart.

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Thus ends this random collection of impressions!  To learn more check out the photo link above or, better yet, visit yourself, I highly recommend the trip.

Our irrational airport security

Bruce Schneier has a review of Harvey Molotch’s book Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger in the latest issue of Reason magazine. I think I’ll pick up the book, though I haven’t yet – but I did want to share a couple thoughts prompted by the review about why that annoying security line at the airport just doesn’t make sense.

1. Our current security measures focus on specific places and specific types of threats – for example, we spent an awful lot of manpower trying to protect airplanes and airports, and also target specific types of threats (knives, say). But we also leave a tremendous number of other possible targets unprotected – after all, if we tried to offer every potential terrorist target in America the same kind of protection we offer airports, every person in America would be a security officer. So, then, what is the effect of our airport security? In essence, we’re spending a tremendous amount of money just to force terrorists to switch to other targets, or to use other tactics – and that just doesn’t make sense. (This is assuming airport security would actually stop a terrorist, itself a highly debatable point.)

So what should we do? Spend that money on investigation and intelligence instead. You get a lot more bang for your buck paying a mole to infiltrate a terrorist cell and find out what they’re really up to than you do paying for 100 TSA agents. And you don’t have to dehumanize every innocent airport traveler either.

2. Our fears of terrorism are wildly out of proportion to the actual threat – and sometimes we react in ways that makes us less safe. Many people have pointed out that the giant security lines that form on busy travel days have a higher density of people than any airplane would. Molotch points out that more people have died in car crashes since 9/11 because they didn’t want to fly (either because they were scared, or to avoid the TSA) than died in the terrorist attacks. So perhaps we should relax a bit. To quote the review,

In addition to urging people to be more reasonable about potential threats, Molotch makes a strong case for optimism and kindness. Treating every air traveler as a potential terrorist and every Hurricane Katrina refugee as a potential looter is dehumanizing. Molotch argues that we do better as a society when we trust and respect people more. Yes, the occasional bad thing will happen, but 1) it happens less often, and is less damaging, than you probably think, and 2) individuals naturally organize to defend each other. This is what happened during the evacuation of the Twin Towers and in the aftermath of Katrina before official security took over. Those in charge often do a worse job than the common people on the ground.