The World Next Door

I had the pleasure of attending the SIAL Canada convention in Montreal last week. As a first time visitor to Montreal I must confess I didn’t know what to expect, but when my plane flew over a Sears on its approach to Trudeau International Airport I figured it must be just like home.The ride downtown past graffiti-covered buildings, over congested pot-hole ladden roadways and crumbling bridges in a cab driven by an immigrant driver who wasn’t fluent in English — or French for that matter — further built on my misconceptions that Canada was just like New Jersey.

I guess what should have tipped me off that I was entering a different world was when one of the airport skycaps remarked to two women that they were lucky they were in Montreal this week because it was 18 degrees. I immediately regretted not packing my full-length L.L. Bean down coat until I stepped outside and realized he was talking that Celsius nonsense. My hotel thermostat was also in Celsius and I never quite figured out the ideal temperature.

In Montreal time is told in military units, which until you get used to it makes it hard to tell that a restaurant open until 21:00 is really open until 9:00.Another culture shock was that just about everything was written solely in French. At first I was confused, but I quickly learned to adjust. While Montrealers speak French as their main dialect, most are fluent in English and are eager to help. From studying signs and putting two and deux together in my three short days there I was able to learn the basics to get by:  Stop in French is “Arret”; “A Louer” means space available; exit is “soitre” and perhaps most important “Liquidation” means big sale at The Hudson Bay Company, or “La Baie” as the locals call it.

Downtown Montreal was actually quite charming — a vibrant, clean, cosmopolitan city that nicely mixes Old-World stone buildings with modern steel-and-glass skyscrapers. The Palais des Congres de Montreal Convention Centre where SIAL was held was like any other American convention center with the notable exception that the mens rooms did not have paper towel dispensers (only electric hand driers) but did have condom vending machines.

Another cool feature: the reverse bottle vending machines on the convention floor. You simply put a bottle in it, push a button and it is sucked away somewhere inside the machine to be recycled. I simply had to try it so the next day at the show I brought my plastic Snapple bottle that I bought before boarding the plane in Newark. I put it in the machine and it just flashed and beeped. This machine is so sophisticated that it reads the bottle to make sure it has a code showing it was purchased in Quebec.

And speaking of bottles, I have a gripe with this green movement push to make plastic water bottles thinner and thinner. During a SIAL press conference I tried to open a complimentary water bottle. But it was so thin that squeezing it to loosen the cap caused the water to spout out all over my suit — the good Polo Ralph Lauren one from Lord & Taylor. At first I attributed it to my clumsiness until I saw the exact same thing happen to the gentleman in the row in front of me. I was so mad at that bottle that after the press conference I threw it into one of those reverse vending machines. Because the bottle was from Quebec the machine eagerly ingested it. It will likely be born again as another thin Canadian water bottle.

C’est la vie.



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