Parlez-vous Français? An introduction to Montréal


Last November I was happily – if very unexpectedly – presented with an opportunity to visit Montréal to attend the book fair there. As it was only the second North American location I’d visited after New York, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the largest city in Québec.

I only had a few days there, so my first impressions  couldn’t be disregarded. The snow held off (apparently the first major annual fall usually occurs during the book fair) but the weather was crisp and bright, and the cold biting. The people I met were warm and welcoming, with delightfully sarcastic senses of humour. The city itself was clean and a manageable size for doing a lot of exploring by foot. I did notice a high number of beggars, a fact one of my hosts attributed to the wide range in incomes. The smells of onion soup, cigarettes and cologne seemed to be everywhere.

Most people there are truly bilingual – slipping easily between French and English even within a single sentence, in a way that inspires awe in those of us who can only dream of such fluency in any language other than our own. But amazingly, after centuries of wrangling, it is only since the Quiet Revolution and the subsequent political changes in the 1960s and 70s that francophones received truly equal rights in the workplace in Québec and were able to work in French in all fields.

The city feels but doesn’t look as French as I had expected. When I questioned one of my hosts about this seeming lack of older French buildings, he grinned. ‘Yeah, that’s because you destroyed them all.’ The joys of being a Brit overseas! Upon further research I discovered that the period of British rule had certainly been responsible for changing the physical appearance of the place, but then so had the large number of fires in the late 1700s. As with many older cities, the architecture now visible in Montréal represents a hotchpotch of different styles – more European-looking turrets and balconies, Art Deco North American, modern and minimalist, and so on. . .

Apartment building

On the other hand, the food I ate was mostly very French (and delicious), as was the wine I drank – but this could have reflected the tastes of my francophone hosts. The exception to this was poutine – the fondly-regarded calorie fest of chips smothered in cheese curds and gravy. Despite its Québec origins, the dish seems to owe more to North American than European cuisine.

At the book fair, I was particularly interested to meet members of an association of francophone publishers from outside of Québec. There are only one million native francophones outside of Québec in Canada – as such they represent a linguistic minority in their respective provinces. I recognised in them the same passion for preserving a language against the odds as evident in those I encountered while living in Ireland who were striving to keep the Irish language alive.

Less peaceful than it looks

My GCSE-level French is not good enough for me to have had more than the vaguest sense of differences between French usage in Canada and that in France, but of one thing I was assured by many sources: the Québécois are a lot freer with their use of profanity. In particular, the usual types of swear words relating to sex and excrement are deemed milder than the widely-used blasphemous local alternatives (câlice meaning chalice and tabarnac meaning tabernacle, for example) I had a chance to observe the extent to which this transfers into English usage when I went for a peaceful early morning stroll down by the port. Queues of horse-drawn carriages lined the roadside and the driver of one of them kept breaking off his conversation (in French) with a colleague to harangue his poor horse in the strongest English (“F**k you, you f**king c**k-sucker.”)

It is a belief we are often fed by the media that protesting is somehow inherent to French culture. If this is true, then their Québécois cousins are not letting them down. In the financial district of the city, an impressive number of Occupy Montréal protestors braved the bitter cold outside their tents to chat to passers-by. One of my hosts told me that the mayor had agreed to be lenient on them, but a few short weeks later the camp was (peacefully) dismantled by the police.

The issue of Québec’s independence from Canada no longer appears to have as much popular support as it once did – two referendums (1980 and 1995) have returned ‘No’ votes, the latter by a very slim majority – though it still does of course have its passionate proponents. For the most part, Quebecers now seem to feel that it is in their best interests to remain part of Canada, while holding on to autonomy in certain areas.

Nonetheless, it does seem safe to say that Québec has its own culture, quite distinct from the rest of Canada, and, indeed, from the countries whose people have gone towards making it the unique blend it is today. It is greater than the sum of all its parts and I can’t wait to go back.

Pont Jacques Cartier Montréal / Jacques Cartie...

2011 in review


The lovely people at have prepared a annual report for Rocinante’s Droppings’ 2011.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,200 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 53 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

X Factor Nation

Provinces and regions of the Philippines


The crowd waited breathlessly as the singer tapped his microphone once, twice, his eyes darting from side to side. As the introductory notes started up, one member of the audience let out an involuntary yelp. The singer gave a dazzling smile and began to croon, ‘I throw my hands up in the air sometimes, singing ay-o. . .’

The ‘crowd’ consisted of my boyfriend and I, and three members of staff from the Tam-awan artists’ colony in Baguio City, the Philippines. The singer was a fourth member of staff, and this was their New Year’s Eve.

The day before the finals of this series of The X Factor are aired, aspiring Brits might do well to cast their eyes towards the Philippines for some musical inspiration.

Never has a nation seemed better suited to these supersized talent shows, as the popularity of the Philippines’s sister programme – Pilipinas Got Talent – demonstrates. (And for an instant mood-lifter I can’t recommend checking out a few clips on You Tube enough.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, Filipinos have embraced the opportunity to sing their hearts out on national television with gusto.





From the moment we landed in Ninoy Aguino airport in Manila, music and exhibition were everywhere. In the ubiquitous ‘videoke’ (karaoke) bars, tunelessness and even shyness are no hindrance to performing. As Butch Aldana, owner of the institution that is the Penguin Café/Gallery – bar and gig venue for up and coming musicians – as well as former percussionist of Philippine band Pinikpikan, remarked to me, ‘When a Filipino has money, the first thing he will buy for himself is a videoke machine.’

Not quite ready to embrace the videoke microphone, on our first night we eased ourselves in with dinner in Zamboanga in the popular Manila tourist district of Malate. There we watched their nightly cultural show while sampling local cuisine. There’s no guarantee customers won’t be hauled up to the stage to join in, but we managed to dodge it on that occasion. We’d been given a word of warning – Filipinos are as subtle with flavours as they are with volume – we were to expect garlic, sugar and salt in attention-grabbing quantities. Afterwards, a string trio circled the room, playing pop hits from our native countries while a chubby local toddler danced along enthusiastically.

Night-time entertainment in El Nido

In buses, taxis and jeepneys (flamboyant converted jeeps that act as cheap mode of transport) cheesy tunes blare out at deafening volumes. Singing along is positively encouraged.

In the bars of beautiful Boracay, singers vie to be heard over those in the neighbouring establishment. Departing from El Nido airport in Palawan towards the end of our trip, a group of ladies in traditional dress serenaded us as we boarded the plane.

With a full calendar of festivals, in the fun-loving Philippines every day is a party. I noticed many shops, offices and jeepneys with plaques or printed signs reading, ‘The problem with life is that there’s no background music’ – which struck me as somewhat ironic in the circumstances.

If you can't beat 'em. . .

This is not a place for musical snobbery. A visit to the Philippines is the ideal opportunity to put all those years of practising in the shower to good use!

Tea in Alexandria


Standing on the side of the noisy corniche on our last night in Alexandria, we again consulted our guidebook, mouthing pronunciations as we prepared to flag a taxi. We were a little wary – any attempt so far to locate places outside of town had resulted in us wandering around suburban streets in the dark, hopelessly lost.

Alexandria harbour

“Put that away, I can tell you anywhere you need to go,” a young man with a shaved head and streaming nose instructed us.

We hesitated – most previous directions offered in Egypt had led straight to someone’s uncle’s café or perfume shop.

“No, no, no,” Amir assured us. “I don’t mind where you go, I just want you to have a good time in Alex. This is my city!”

We told him the name of the restaurant we were looking for. Brow creased, he discussed in Arabic with his burly friend, Hanif. They shrugged.

“Please, don’t you think it’s freezing?”

As we stood with breezes rolling in from the Mediterranean carrying the smells of grilling fish and sugary popcorn, the April evening was perhaps a little fresher than previous nights, but still very pleasant.

“I have been diving by the fort all day,” Amir continued. “May I invite you for some tea and we can talk more?”

They led the way back from the seafront, into the teeming market in Tahrir Square.

“You know what this means, tahrir?” Amir enquired as we stopped to watch a stall-owner spinning golden feteer dough.

“Liberation, isn’t it?” I offered.

“Yes! You are an Egyptian,” he grinned, elbowing my boyfriend.

Suddenly Amir and Hanif swung right and into the narrowest of alleyways. Instantly the sound of screaming car horns faded. On the other side we emerged into a covered courtyard in which men of all ages – mostly deaf, according to Amir – sat playing backgammon and drinking tea. The floor was covered with sand and sawdust. Hanif found us a table and bustled off to order mint teas.

Tank in Alexandria

“The revolution has been good for Egypt but bad for business,” Amir mused as he lit a cigarette. “Usually I teach diving in Sharm el Sheikh, but now I have to move somewhere else. It’s all low-budget holidays in Sharm. Tell me the truth, are you here because it is cheaper or because you wanted to see our revolution?”

“A bit of both,” we answered honestly.

Amir told us that he was married to a Swiss lady and had lived there for years, but that he was glad to be back. “People have more feeling here.” Hanif was about to move to America, “But he doesn’t speak any English!” We tried to involve Hanif in the conversation, but he just blushed and smiled, and shovelled more sugar into our tea until we protested, laughing.

“I think he will come back eventually,” Amir grinned. “And you will too. There is nowhere like Alex.”

Travel by the Book – a guest post by Sarah Sweeney


I have a special treat for visitors to the roadside this week. My own wonderful Sarah Sweeney – who happens to be a top editor at a major travel publishing company – has contributed her own musings on travelling, writing, reading and editing (my favourite things). Enjoy!


A visit to Vietnam, by way of Mallorca, Ireland and Chicago: par for the course in a week of my line of work. Unfortunately, these visits do not involve literally dodging motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City, admiring the Mirós in Palma or eating my way around the Windy City – instead, I am travelling in my imagination from my desk. And I’m not a bored accountant – no, I’m a travel guide editor. A great job for someone who loves seeing the world, although it’s also useful that I simply enjoy the topic of travel, as, contrary to the assumptions of most, I only journey on work’s time through the pages of whatever I’m commissioning or editing.

Not that this is entirely a bad thing. I’m a big believer that great travel writing lifts off the page or the screen and transports the reader like a low-tech TARDIS. Furthermore, I reckon that the physical travel guide is worth its weight in the bag for more reasons than simply detailing transport routes, where to find the cheapest bed in the cheapest hostel or the latest list of ‘must-sees’. From the moment of purchase with intent to travel, the book you choose as a companion helps take you there mentally  – and later, as a dog-eared memento, takes you back.

Recently, thumbing through my guide to Eastern Europe, I was pleasantly surprised to find lots of messy annotations identifying and evaluating the places that blogmistress Emily and I had chosen to visit – the extent to which we were engaging with the book laid bare. This multi-country guide was the first that I ever bought, for the first trip on which I would be actively involved in planning routes and accommodation. The exotic place names – Moldova, Belarus, Albania (none of these, I’m afraid, were actually on our itinerary) – the sense of locating how all these countries (which then, just at the moment when the EU expanded, felt very unknown to me) fitted together, and venturing into a region behind the Iron Curtain for much of our parents’ lives, and the first part of ours. . . Leafing through the pages, it was like peering into another world. On the road, the thought of losing the book was even worse than losing the diary I was rigorously keeping (this did actually happen). My passport doesn’t bear more than one stamp from that trip thanks to the Schengen Agreement (a brief foray over the Croatian border into Bosnia providing that solitary mark), but my book bears enough contemporary scribbles to take me straight back to the beer hall we targeted because it served steaks, smoke-filled jazz clubs and hostels both fairytale and prison-like.

When my next opportunity for a multi-country trip came up the following year, I threw myself into the pleasures of absorbing information on Southeast Asia, a fairly unknown entity to me at that time. Hypochondriac that I am, I spent most of the time reading the ‘Health and Safety’ section wide-eyed, worrying about rabies and making a detailed shopping list of all the medicines and mosquito repellent items I could possibly need. (I spent £75 in Boots and my washbag took up one third of my entire backpack.) Three months into my trip, I found myself alone on the other side of the world – literally, on the east coast of Australia – as my travel companions’ plans diverged from mine. Free to do whatever my dwindling finances would allow, the book provided inspiration at crucial junctures as I took sole control over my plans. Twice in Australia I shipped boxes home, packed with the kilos that were weighing me down but no longer needed on the road. My prized guides wended their long way home and remain intact instant memory-joggers, long after the traveller bags and bracelets I bought have been consigned to the bottom of a drawer.

Eighteen months after this trip, I started at the publishing house where I still work. Stepping behind the wizard’s curtain, seeing the mechanics behind producing a book, it is impossible to be quite so reverential. And yet, when inspiration strikes, when the plane takes off or when I am charting waters unknown, the busman’s holiday syndrome disappears and I am still itching to read about all the places I can go, things I can do, food I must eat. Or indeed, even as I sit at my desk, where I can easily become distracted from the nuts and bolts elements of my job to being transported to a wooden gulet sailing from Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, a night market in Taipei selling weird and wonderful dishes, or toy train ascending hills into India’s northeast Himalayan region. In a practical sense, I have a travel wish list as long as my arm; in my mind, I travel all over the world every day. The wealth of travel inspiration out there online opens this up even further, and so often, I am right there on that cobbled street, up that mountain or on that sandy beach, taking it all in and planning my next move.

Guidebook action

Planning your next move

Sometimes it seems that with globalisation, the world is getting smaller – and sometimes, with the cost of travel, it feels like it’s actually getting bigger. But when you can be taken on a journey through words – whether instructive guides, inspirational tales or your own memory-jogging scribbles about adventures that you’ve had – anything and anywhere seems possible.

A Travel Horror Story (One from the archives)


Time again for another tale from my earlier travels. For Halloween, I’ve chosen one of my personal travel horror stories. It’s another one from my interrailing trip around Europe – this time from our very first train journey of the holiday. 

Hello hello hello . . . or perhaps dzien dobry (which I can in no way pronounce) to you all.

Writing this in a rather bleary state in an internet café in Kraków (selected because Lonely Planet praised its stunning views, but it turns out to have darkened windows looking onto a grotty street.)

We’ve only been travelling since Monday, but as usual it feels like years already. We left Prague last night after two and a half beautiful days. It was the ideal start to our holiday; a stunning city, people chilled out to the point of complete indifference, the right balance of seeing stuff and just soaking up the atmosphere . . . perfect.

We quickly got into the swing of unidentifiable pastries from the bakery for breakfast, eaten in some sunny spot, wandering around for hours and passing the same place three times, outrageous guesses at pronunciation met with indulgent smiles and encountering some breathtaking view every time we rounded the corner. The incredible cheapness of everything puts you in a permanent good mood, as does the lack of harassment from people in general. On our first afternoon we did a lot of wandering, sandwiched between long patches of sitting, watching and chatting. Our dinner that first night was in a ridiculously cool restaurant in the cellar of the architecture museum – think vaulted ceilings and low hanging lights. The insane prices on the menu encouraged me to go for a similarly insane dinner choice – baked potatoes stuffed with ‘turkey-ham’ covered with plum sauce and garlic cream cheese and served with potato wedges. And surprisingly, it was completely delicious. Just the first indication of many we had that the Czechs are not afraid to mix their flavours. The Czech wine was also very good and dangerously inexpensive.

Prague Castle and part of Charles bridge by ni...

Prague Castle at night

On Tuesday, already feeling like well-established Praguians (?!), we set off on a whirlwind tour of the top Prague sites on our list. A morning in Prague Castle (stunning, if v unusual cathedral; exhausting climb up the tower to breathtaking views; basking outside, and dreaming of waltzing inside the palace; a stroll down Golden Lane where Kafka once lived). A picnic lunch (grand total [cost] of £1) of bread, goats cheese and paprika salami) and then a trek up to the old Jewish Quarter. We found this v trendy and expensive, but having paid into the synagogues got much more of a feeling for the tragedy of the place. In particular, the Pinkas Synagogue, whose walls bear the names of the 80, 000 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia killed in the Holocaust, was simple and yet devastating. After reading about the history of the Czech Jews we felt in serious need of some light relief and went in search of some local beer.

That evening was my favourite so far. In a previously unexplored part of town we had a very authentic-feeling Czech meal in a slightly grotty but character-filled restaurant. We then went to a brilliant jazz bar. The basement area was painted in blue, red and gold and a fantastic Czech band kept us entertained with their interpretation of Cuban music for over three hours.

Charles Bridge in Prague.

Charles Bridge

Afterwards, despite being shattered, we went for another wander on the Charles Bridge, which looked particularly spooky and beautiful in the moonlight.

Yesterday we began our day in a more leisurely manner, with the funniest river boat trip I’ve ever been on. Rather than going either up or down the Vltava as we had expected, the boat just went back and forth in front of the same part of the city for the whole hour!

We spent most of the rest of the day acquainting ourselves with parts of the city we hadn’t yet visited. In the evening we headed back to the hostel to pick up our bags, and then found our way to the main train station, feeling just a little nervous, partly due to the incomprehensible signs, but mainly due to the dire warnings in Lonely Planet about the gassings and robberies on trains into and out of Kraków, especially night ones and especially those arriving from Prague.

However, we found the platform and, after narrowly escaping sitting in the carriages that only went to the end of the Czech Republic, we were foolishly convinced that nothing more could go wrong. Nothing in the course of the night indicated otherwise. We both slept fitfully, but as far as we were concerned, our compartment was locked and we were v safe. We were disturbed a couple of time by people rattling at the doors, but after they went away we thought nothing more of it. That is until the morning (i.e. 5.30 a.m.) when we realised that Sarah’s phone had gone. It had been on the little table by her head but was now nowhere to be seen. I was convinced that no one could have come in without me noticing, as I hadn’t felt deeply asleep. But there was no explanation for where it had gone.

Coat of arms of Kraków

Kraków coat of arms

When we arrived at Kraków and went to change the rest of Sarah’s koruna, only to find they had disappeared, we knew something was a bit odd. All my sterling coppers (amounting to a grand total of 25p) had gone, as had my camera, Sarah’s sunglasses and my penknife. We quickly got onto the police with the help of a volunteer translator and realised we had been victims of the old sleeping-gas ’em then rob ’em trick. We spent all of our first morning looking first for our hostel, then for the police station – only to find that the only English speaker wasn’t in and we had to make another appointment to come back.

Needless to say, my opinion of Kraków has suffered somewhat as a result (especially when we got attacked by evil wasps while trying to eat our breakfast!)

However, we have since snoozed in the park, had a very little wander and sat outside a lovely sunny pub drinking beers. I’m v tired but feeling a little more positive.

OK, that’s more than enough waffle for one day. I hope this finds you all well wherever you are. I’ll write again, hopefully with no more disaster stories (chance’d be. . .).

Icy Mists on the Bosphorus


The Blue Mosque

Squeezed into a taxi meant for a smaller group, we crawled through traffic into the heart of Istanbul, European Capital of Culture for 2010. The heater blew hot air into our faces but outside sleety rain soon turned to snow.

When we’d booked our flights we knew we wouldn’t be experiencing Istanbul as most visitors do – basking on roof terraces in balmy heat, gazing across the Bosphorus from the sunny deck of a ferry, fighting with sweaty crowds in the streets of Sultanahmet – but nothing had prepared us for the four solid days of snow, for the feet quickly turning numb inside fleecy winter boots and the Blue Mosque appearing eerily through icy mists and swirling snowflakes.

Restorative apple tea

We quickly adjusted plans, made the most of the impressive tram system wherever possible and learned to factor in extra breaks to sip piping hot apples teas and delicious foamy sahleps (a local drink made from orchid roots but tasting like frothy custard).

Brave flowers at Topkapi Palace

After an icy exploration of the beautiful Topkapi Palace – admiring the valiant flowers of the Tulip Garden, yellow petals bright against the snow – we treated ourselves to an extended lunch in the excellent Rumeli restaurant.  It was quiet there but the service attentive. We nestled into our corner, boots lined up in front of the well-tended fire, and enjoyed delicious manti (Turkish ravioli), and piles of steaming bread.

Afterwards we felt too full and sleepy to battle the elements again, so we sped straight to the sixteenth century Çemberlitas Hamami, where we spent hours of steamy contentment, tipping bowl upon bowl of hot water over ourselves as sturdy Turkish mamas pummelled and scrubbed other customers. Gleaming clean and toasty warm we dreaded facing the cold outside, but found that our rosy glow lasted all the way back to the hotel, even when confronted with cheeky local boys wielding snowballs.

Another perk of being there off-season was that places our guidebooks described as being jam-packed were merely pleasantly lively. At the popular Pano wine bar we got a table with no trouble and were free to enjoy the excellent red wine until closing time.

Improvised sun bed in the Aya Sofia

In the Aya Sofia two huge cats sensibly warmed themselves in front of the floodlights at the altar. We were tempted to follow suit but instead kept ourselves moving, gazing at the stunning domed roof and stained glass windows.

At the wonderful Grand Bazaar the snow blew in through the fifteenth century gates, but the shopkeepers were chirpy and the banter lively. “You are English? Lovely jubbly,” one quipped proudly. Pretty ceramics and coloured lanterns vied with fake labels and tourist tat for space. I asked one shopkeeper if this weather was unusual. “We haven’t had snow for four years!” he replied. “You should come back in the summer.”

I certainly would like to explore that beautiful city again in the sunshine, but it was rather magical seeing Istanbul’s lights twinkling against the backdrop of an ice-blue sky in the snowy hush.

Snowy Istanbul