Sunday, December 7, 2008

Going Back To Montreal

I enjoyed my trip to Montreal.

Now it wasn't always like that; in fact, I used to see the city of Montreal as a nuisance that I had to rush through as quickly as possible while driving from Atlantic Canada to some other place in central Canada. For years Montreal was – Highway 20 to the Tunnel under the St. Lawrence, highway 40 to the 417 or the 401, and into Ontario.

I first went to Montreal in 1967 to see Expo 67 with my family. We camped on a farm, and spent every day at Expo. I was 16 years old, and loved everything about the trip; the city was so big it was amazing, but I only got to see it through the Expo site, and longed to see more of it.

In 1971, after graduating high school and getting a job and a little 1970 Austin Mini, I decided to go back and see all of Montreal I missed travelling with my parents in 1967. I rounded up two friends, we bought a tent, packed the car and headed out on our first “Road Trip” adventure. We arrived in Montreal excited and ready for adventure. What we got was FRENCH; no one could (or would) speak English to us, and when they would, they were downright nasty. We went to the famous “Place de Boneventure” underground shopping centre, and couldn't even buy anything because everything was in French, and everyone would only speak French. One of my friends was a drummer and wanted to buy a particular bit for his drum set, but even when we found the Music shop, the owner wouldn't let us in. He wanted to know what we were going to buy, and “looking” was not an option. We were all so disgusted with how we were treated that we got in the car and turned south, spending the rest of our vacation down in New England, meeting friendly people and having a wonderful time.

I probably shouldn't have held this grudge against Montreal so long, but for over 30 years I refused to go back, and spent many vacations in the US. I had a serious prejudice against the province of Quebec and especially the city of Montreal.

This year, I went back to Montreal. My new status as “retired” allows me to tag along with my wife on her business trips, so for the price of an airline flight I get to visit places pretty cheaply, and this year she was attending a conference in Montreal. I had five days to reacquaint myself with Montreal, and I have definitely changed my opinion of this city.

Our Flight landed at Pierre Eliott Trudeau Airport at 7:30, so the cab ride to the hotel was through rush hour, but the driver was pleasant and although I'm sure he was swearing in French at the other drivers he was battling for positions on the roads, he spoke cheerful English to us, and was almost as good as a tour guide with his commentary about the city. He answered his phone at one point, and after a conversation in French, we were told that it was him mother who he claimed didn't realize he was 45 years old, and she was telling him to wear his scarf in the cold. The doorman at the hotel immediately switched to English when his “bonjour” was answered with a “Hello”, and the rest of the hotel staff were equally cheerful and helpful.

I spent five days exploring downtown Montreal, and all of the trip was totally enjoyable. I found friendly store clerks, helpful and cheerful waiters, and generally happy welcoming people. It was Grey Cup weekend, so the city was very busy, and I expect that it must have at times been annoying to wait on and serve some of these football fans with their outfits supporting their favourite team (Who incidentally beat the Montreal home team), but everyone I met was very pleasant. Menu's always had English translations, and stores had signs in English. Everyone I met immediately switched to English once I said “Hello” rather than “Bonjour”. I wish I could speak French half as well as most of the Montreal residents I met spoke English.

There are probably still radical French-only separatists in Quebec, but it seems they are losing the battle. As a unilingual English speaking visitor, I felt welcomed in Montreal, and where I used to say “Fine, let them separate – we don't want them!”, I now would much rather keep this wonderful province as part of Canada so I can go back and visit again.

We had one waitress in a restaurant in Old Montreal who perhaps had a bit of trouble with us four English patrons. I'm not sure she completely understood my request for Lactose free options. I suspect that the subtleties between “lactose intolerant” and “allergic to milk” didn't quite translate properly, and she took my request very seriously, so when I ordered the Creme Brule desert, after making sure I realized it contained milk, she was very worried, and came back to check that I was okay a couple of times.

This latest visit to Montreal has completely changed my opinion of the city. I had a wonderful time, and I will be back to explore this city at the next opportunity. I had a chance to see a lot of the area around St. Catherine's Street, but I know that there is a lot more of Montreal to see and I look forward to visiting again.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Working for a Living

When I retired from my position as school principal of a little elementary school, I told everyone that I would not be working once I retired, and I really meant that. I had visions of doing all the things I didn't have time to do while I was working. I wanted to paint (watercolour), write the novels I've been working on in my head for years, and finally finish all the woodworking projects I've been putting off. . . . . . . . . . Then what am I doing sitting behind a desk again, with a phone with multiple lines, two computers, and file folders and papers spread everywhere?

A friend from high school operates a small company that manufactures transit cases to protect almost anything you might need to move about the world. I have followed his business from the time he and his wife started, and have always admired their hard work and dedication through hard times and empty refrigerators to a thriving successful business. There was a time in their lives when they hadn't taken a vacation of even a weekend in years, so I was pleased when they started taking time off to travel. I have kept in touch with them and we get together quite regularily, so I was not surprised to see get a phone call from him. His question did however come as a surprise. . . “How'd I like to have a job?” . . . . . . they needed someone to help out watching the office while they went on a cruise. He caught me off guard, and I hesitated long enough that I let him get in an explanation, and I was suddenly willing to think about this. I really did not think something would come along to get me back to work, but this I actually thought about, and finally said yes.

It was only for 8 days, and all I had to do was answer the phone, man the front office, pick up the mail, and look after any things that couldn't be put off till they returned. This was something completely different than anything I had ever done, so I thought I'd enjoy it, and I had always been interested in their company, so this would let me better understand what they did. There were three employees in the shop who actually built the cases, but they had plenty of work to cover the 8 days, and knew what to do and needed no real supervision from me. How hard could this be?

I went out a day early to get instructions and right away I saw a problem. I spent years running a school office, but this was completely different. I had a pretty good idea of how they divided up the management of the company from their discussions during times we got together for card games or conversations. He did the design work, the PR, and the negotiations, he organized the shop, he could even build the cases, but she actually ran the office, she paid the bills, she made sure that everything worked and went out on time to customers, so when I went to find out what I was supposed to do, it was her I went to see and find out what was expected.

I should have foreseen the problem. She has been running this office for over 20 years, it works well for her. She knows exactly how things are done and exactly how she wants things done. After all, there is no one else here to ask an opinion, she doesn't have to check with anyone, and how she does things doesn't affect anyone else. There is no one to ask “Why do you do it this way?” or “Why not try this?”. There is no instruction manual, or no guidebook, it is all in her head. This is fine for her, but it makes it difficult to get instructions for 8 days. It's all second nature to her, and it is easy to forget the little things that become important when the only expert is not here. I tried to ask as many questions as I could think of and figured I could rely on my years of being able to always find an answer to whatever the students, teachers, parents or school board officials could throw at me, to come up with something that would work in an emergency. If all else failed, they promised to stay in contact via e-mail if I needed advice on anything I couldn't figure out.

I arrived the first day, was greeted cordially by the guys working out back, but I should have listened between the lines as there was a little hint of scarcest behind the friendly welcomes. They knew something I didn't. They had been through this before – there had been quite a few other “fill-in” front-office substitutes, and they didn't seem to wonder why another new guy was here.

Ok, lets get going, turn on the computer . . . . . . . no off/on switch . . . . . . I spent years assembling repairing, working with, and selling computers – surely I could get this thing turned on. This was to be the story of the job. She didn't think she had to tell me how to turn on the computer, she knew exactly how to do it, and it didn't even think it was a problem, but I had never seen this computer before, and the way it was mounted under the desk made it very hard to examine closely. After about 10 minutes crawling around under the desk I did find a switch, and lights started coming on, the screen flickered to life and it asked for a password . . . . . . she didn't mention a password . . . Fortunately this she thought of, and I found a little hand written “sticky” with a password on it. This was the theme of the first morning. I knew what I was supposed to do, and I had a general idea of what to do, but I was missing a lot of those things she forgot to tell me because they are so second nature to someone who does it every day. I forward the phone when I'm not here, and I know how to retrieve those messages, but what about when someone calls when I'm on the other line . . . . where does it go if they left a message? The fish get fed twice a day with food from the freezer, but there are four kinds of food in there; does it matter what I feed them? Etc. . . .Etc. . . . . . everything I had to do seemed to have a couple of questions attached once I tried to do it.

And then the boredom set in . . . . . I had to answer the phone, and it rang maybe four or five times a day. I tried to sound professional and tried to help, but obviously most customers were more than happy to wait ant talk to someone who actually knew this business, so mostly I was politely taking messages for when they returned. I drove down and got the mail, sorted it and checked for anything important, and read the Princess Auto Catalogue front to back, but most just got left for their return. I check e-mail, but only found two items that I could do anything with. So . . . . . I tidied up her office, I cleaned the lunch room, I straightened up the front room, (even after being warned “they won't like this . . .”) I cooked lunch for the guys in the shop. . . . . . .

Now I would have liked to have more actual “work” to do, but I really did enjoy my time at OceanCase. By the third or fourth day I actually felt I knew what I was doing. I knew much more about what goes on in the office, and I even felt pretty comfortable with what the guys in the shop were doing. This was so completely different from what I was so used to doing for 30 years that it was a new challenge, something new to learn, and I enjoyed it, but most of all I appreciated the opportunity to learn so much more about this business that I have been following and admiring for so many years.
The next time we got together and start talking about what they have been up to with their business, I might have a better understanding of exactly what they do out there.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Sunset In Santos

One of the real advantages to retirement is that I am able to travel whenever I want to instead of just during the summer, Christmas and Spring Break. My wife is still working and part of her job with Halifax Regional School Board is to travel to distant countries to promote Nova Scotia as an educational destination for international students. In September, she was asked to travel to Brazil, and would be visiting cities all over the country, but was to spend five days in Sao Paulo. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. She had her own Hotel room, and there was no extra cost for another person, so I booked a cheap flight to Sao Paulo to see what I could in five days.

Most of my time was spent exploring Sao Paulo, which is an amazing city, but I did get a chance to follow her off on a short side rip to Santos, a city about 80 km outside Sao Paulo. She was in meetings all day and evening, so I had lots of time to explore this interesting city. Santos is actually an island, that has become permanently attached to the mainland. One side of island is a huge container port – I am told the biggest in Brazil, and there was a steady stream of container ships coming in and out of the port, but the other side of the island is a beautiful resort and retirement area with a beautiful beach and over four kilometres of hotels and apartments.

Although I did manage to tag along on a short tour of the rest of the city, the majority of my time was spent wandering the beach, and the areas around the beach. I arrived at about 10:00 am, and had to entertain myself until about 9:00 p.m., so I got to see a lot of this area. There are four kilometres of beach, and the beach is wide and flat. This was the biggest beach I have ever walked on. The distance from the water to the roads was so wide that a group of local youth, set up a full sized soccer game in the middle of the beach, and walking above or below them didn't even bring you close to the game. The beach is an excellent place to walk, and the and is hard and flat, so you are able to walk comfortably all over the beach. In addition, there were bright floodlights spaced along the length of the beach, illuminating the evening soccer game and making it an attractive walk evening after dark.

Although the temperature was around 28 C when I was there, it was winter in Brazil, so the beach was not crowded. The people I shared the beach with were mostly locals I'd say, and primarily walking, running or exercising. There were very few sunbathers are swimmers, even it the hottest part of the afternoon. This was still Brazil however, and the beachwear was definitely the speedo or bikini. Now remember, Santos is a retirement destination, so I was surprised to find that it mattered not the size, shape or age of the individuals, the style remained bikini or speedo.

Santos is built around a series of seven canals that run completely across the island. The majority of the city
is built on muddy sandy land, and the many of the older buildings were not built with the best foundations, and many have developed substantial tilts over the years. The canals now attempt to drain the land making it much more stable and the modern buildings are much more stable. It was interesting to look back at these tall apartment building leaning into each other. I'm not sure I'd want to be living in one of the older buildings.

Between the beach and the street, Santos maintains a beautiful park-like walking and biking area. Ther
e is a nice sidewalk along the street, but there is also a meandering network of walkways gardens and kiosks between the beach and the street. These walkways were well maintained and extremely clean. I even watched maintenance people dusting off the palm trees. There were gardens, fountains and monuments spaced along this area, with lots of benches and seats. There were people walking and running all day and evening along the beach and the walkways. There was also a bike path most of the way along the beach. This was a serious hazard. Although the walkways crossed the bike path in many places, and signs warned bike riders to yield to pedestrians, they were universally ignored, and you had to be almost as careful crossing the bike path as you did crossing the road. The bike riders refused to even slow down for you.

The highlight of my visit to Santos came as I returned to the beach following a meal at one of Brazil's wonderful Barbecue restaurants. As I wandered the beach for the third time, the sun started going down over the hills at one end of the beach. My digital camera came out and I took close to twenty shots of the sun setting. By then most people had left the beach, and although I was warned to be careful walking after dark, the wonderful sunset was worth it. By then, having spent close to 12 hours walking around Santos, I was tired, so I bought a couple of the delicious Brazilian oranges, and a can of mystery soda (I have no idea what it was made of, but it was cold and refreshing), and spent my final hour in Santos relaxing on a bench watching the sky darken and the people walking and running by.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Thoughts on Retirement

Well, school went back in yesterday without me for the first time in 30 years. I retired on July 27th, but of course I was off every summer, so I didn't really consider this "Retired" yet until everyone else was in there planning and working and the students were back behind their desks. Now I'm starting to actually feel retired.

I hear that many people who retire find it hard to adapt to not working. Apparently close to 80% of males who retire end up doing something else, not because they have to but because they just couldn't get used to "not working". It is still early, but I do not anticipate having this problem. I think two things will help me deal with retirement.

The first thing is that I planned my retirement for the last five years. When I got the forms from my employer stating that I was able to retire in June (I could have actually retired in January, but wanted to finish the year), I looked into the financial implications, attended the retirement seminars, and made a decision to retire this year. The result was that I had five years to prepare and plan. I put some additional funds into RRSPs, I made arrangements to have cars paid off, and loans finished, and I started thinking about all the things I had been putting off because there was never time to do it. Each year I saw retirement as one year closer. The interesting thing was that I was not one of those downtrodden, tired employees who saw retirement as a way out of a job that was no longer enjoyable. I loved what I did. I spent 30 years working in the field of education, teaching elementary children and as an elementary school administrator. When I retired I was principal of a little elementary school with 200 students. On the last day of school in June this year, I went to work with a smile and I left just as happy. There were lots of challanges over 30 years, but for most of those almost 5000 days, I loved my job. I had planned to retire, and what better way to finish up a career. I was happy with everything I had done, and although I'll miss some of the great staff I got to work with and will most certainly miss all the students, but I'm now ready to move on and get caught up on all the things I have put on hold or haven't been able to get to because I was too busy.

The other thing that I feel made retiring easier was that I had two excellent role models. My Grandfater retired early for his generation. I don't know the whole story, but my remembrances of his never involve him actually going to work. He often did things to make a bit of money, but generally he was always retired. He lived to be almost 90, and always seemed to enjoy life so much. He travelled all over the world, especially through Europe and Australia, and had so many interesting hobbies. They never had a lot of money, but they always found enough to do what that felt was important. My father was much the same. He ran his own business, building it from a small home based operation to a major player in the field, and he says that when he got big enough "To be a problem for the big companies", they offered him more than he was worth, and he has been laughing ever since, enjoying "Spending our Inheritance". He retired before he was sixty, and now almost 80, like his father, has travelled the world, and always finds something to keep himself busy.

We shall see how I make out . . . . . I have lots of plans, and I will post some of them and follow up on how it goes. It has only been three days so far . . .