From Spain, France, Canada and America… I’m back!

First, a thousand apologies; I have been meaning to write this for a couple of months now. However, as much as I enjoyed writing about my travels, it seems I’m not that motivated when it comes to writing about my non-travels. So I just kept putting it off to tomorrow, to next week, to next month, even though some people contacted me to ask if I had died at Oktoberfest or somehow earned myself an all-inclusive extended stay in a Bavarian jail.

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After all, how exciting is this picture of me stocking up at Costco? (European and Asian friends, think of the Hypermarket version of Carrefour)

So, what is the situation? I was in fact on break for an undetermined duration, and in some ways, I still am. I never wrote about financial matters, but the truth is that I built a small business on the side while I was living the office dream. It mostly sustains me even if I don’t work, but forces a modest lifestyle which limits my ability to visit places like Antarctica (I would add Space, but I’ll wait until Virgin Galactic sort out their technical difficulties). So my plan is to start another business, one which I eventually hope be able to detach myself from and travel, probably not full-time, but more or less at will.

So I did spend a lot of time in Ottawa developing my business concept, but when I say I stopped travelling after Oktoberfest, that is not quite accurate. In fact, I went to a few places I never wrote about. Try and guess which exotic destination I visited recently.

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Leaves have fallen off the trees. Lots of cars but no pedestrians in sight. Very little signage in English. Of course, there is only one possible answer, I was in suburban Toronto. More specifically, driving along Yonge Street, widely but  mistakenly known as “the longest street in the world”, extending nearly 1,900 km from downtown Toronto all the way to the Michigan border. In fact, while you can drive the whole length of that, at some point it becomes Highway 11 and to keep calling it “Yonge Street” makes no sense at all. But it still extends a good 56 km into vast expanses of row houses and McMansions, where not long ago vegetables grew around small towns and villages.

With a population of 5.6 million, the Greater Toronto Area is one of the largest urban centres in North America. It is also one – if not the – most diverse, with over half of the residents born outside Canada. While French is one of the two official languages of Canada, in Toronto it is the mother tongue of only 1.1% of the population, the same as Gujarati, but behind – in order – English, Cantonese, Italian, Chinese (not specified), Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, Urdu, Tamil, Portuguese, Mandarin, Persian, Russian, Polish and Arabic (with Korean, Vietnamese and Greek probably catching-up to French soon). Since many ethnic groups concentrate in certain areas, don’t be surprised if you look at suburban storefronts and have no idea what kind of businesses they are (unless you read the neighbourhood’s dominant language, of course).

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Also in Toronto, I learned the usefulness of pay phones: you can lean on them when making a call.

But before heading to Toronto, I left Munich for Barcelona, to attend La Mercè Festival.

By Castellers de Barcelona [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

By Castellers de Barcelona [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

I wanted to witness this kind of crazy stuff.

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But unfortunately, I was there early in the week and the events I wanted to attend were taking place on the week-end, so all I got was the crazy crowds. It strangely reminded me of the Beijing subway. That is one of the biggest problems I experienced with full-time travel; it is so damned difficult to get the schedule right all the time. Nevertheless, I hoped I could take advantage of the fact that most people were here for the festival and visit one of the most unusual and spectacular churches in the world, the Sagrada Família. When I first visited Barcelona, the line to buy tickets went around 3 city blocks.

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This time it was much less busy and the line only went around 2 block. Unfortunately, that is still at least one block more than I am willing to wait to visit a church, no matter how cool it may be. I will only tell you one thing about it: construction began in 1882 and they are not done yet! Apparently they hope to finish by 2026. Add to my disappointments the fact that it rained for most of my stay, and I found myself with little desire to write about Barcelona, despite my love for the city.

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At least I got to enjoy a beer with Ismael, a local resident and avid traveller whom I had met the week before in Munich. I then headed for Paris, for no other reason than to catch a flight back to Canada. Although I never wrote about it, this was my third visit to Paris in the last 2 years. While I have sometimes written extensively about very short stays (like my 2 days in Brunei), there are a surprisingly large number of places I visited without writing about them. This mainly happened because I went to visit friends or family and ended up hanging out with them without doing anything particularly touristy, or of much interest to people who don’t know them. Suburban Toronto is a good example; I went to visit my good friends and former colleagues Bob and Karine, whom had just moved there after several years in Belgium, where I also visited them a few times in the last 2 years without writing anything about it. A few pictures on my personal FB page were the extent of my sharing for these short visits.

Anyway, after I had already planned this stop in Paris, I learned that by coincidence, several of my relatives would be there at the same time.

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So, after 177 posts, my mother finally makes it on my blog! Second from the left, with her husband, and my aunt and her boyfriend next to me. Behind us, a completely caricatural Frenchman and further back, one of the oldest universities in Europe, la Sorbonne. Lesson learned: 5 people around a table is too many people for a phone selfie.

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I also got to hang out with my old friend and distant colleague Ramu de Bellescize, as well as attend a housewarming party for a Canadian expat couple who work with my friend Ines, who travelled with me earlier this year in Albania. Because I’ve always had friends in Paris – and for several years close relatives – it is by far the city I visited the most often outside Canada, but also the one where I tend to do the least amount of touristy stuff. However, on my last visit there in March or April 2014, which was probably my 10th or 12th to the city, I figured I HAD to visit the Louvres. I love the great museums of the world and couldn’t keep snubbing this one. As I typically do in cities where I’m not in a touristy mood, I didn’t even bother to bring my camera. Luckily I had my phone to take a few shots.

The Louvres is absolutely gigantic, with 35,000 objects on display in over 650,000 square feet of actual exhibition space. It is also the most visited museum in the world, with 9.7 million visitors in 2012.

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However, most rooms are completely empty, and you are left alone with incredible treasures such as this version of the Code of Hammurabi, carved in the Akkadian language on this stele dating back to 1850 BC. This is one of the oldest major texts known to exist and one of the earliest examples of a code of laws. Its 282 laws deal with all manners of criminal and civil issues, and establishes the salaries for a multitude of professions. As you would expect, justice is quite harsh, but the presumption of innocence is introduced and very modern concepts analogous to insurance are established. For example:

22. If any one is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.

23. If the robber is not caught, then shall he who was robbed claim under oath the amount of his loss; then shall the community, and […] on whose ground and territory and in whose domain it was, compensate him for the goods stolen.

Of course, some articles are rather dated:

227. If any one deceive a barber, and have him mark a slave not for sale with the sign of a slave, he shall be put to death, and buried in his house. The barber shall swear: “I did not mark him wittingly,” and shall be guiltless.

Here a citizen of Mauritania would say: “Wow, that’s so 1980’s, dude!” (Mauritania officially abolished slavery in 1986, the last country to do so, but I digress) For Babylonian nerds, the entire Code in English.

So, if the museum is mostly empty, how can they claim to have 9.7 million visitors a year?

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Because on average, 72,695 people per second visit this room, before getting back on their tour buses, through the gift shop. If the Mona Lisa had its own museum, there would never be a line to buy tickets for the Louvres, and if you stole the 4 paintings on the left wall, it would take at least 16 years before anyone noticed they were missing.

After returning to Canada, I also spent a week in the American Mid-West, and I might write a little story about a great exhibit I saw at the Indiana State Museum, on the ill-fated experiment with the prohibition of alcohol. But before that, I really want to write a story about my visit to the Museum of Creationism, in Northern Kentucky. It might take me a while to write, because I am not used to writing about religion, but I think it is worth it.

And now back to travels, in the Caribbean this time. A little preview? I wrote 90% of this in Ottawa, 10% at the Fort Lauderdale airport (Florida), but I am posting it from Port au Prince, Haiti. Between now and March, I will also hit the Dominican Republic, Barbados, St-Lucia, Sint-Maarten, as well as return to Puerto Rico, the USVI and St-Kitts and Nevis. Much more to follow…

#France #Spain #Canada

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