Nubbie (In order to minimize information leakage, hereafter referred to as “N”) and I decided to play AirBNB arbitrage this year – renting out our house here in Alameda on AirBNB and living in other less expensive spots for a month at a time. I have worked remotely for a number of years and N began to be able to do so last year so the timing was right.
N is the AirBNB whisperer, she can spot issues with a potential rental by carefully scanning photos and reading descriptions for clues about the reality behind the presentation, like a Kremlinologist looking at grainy black and white photos of the politburo in the ‘70s: “He’s been airbrushed out. She’s been photoshopped in.”
We spent a month in Montreal, where I had lived a very long time ago after graduating from architecture school. The city wraps around the eponymous mountain (Mont Royal), leafy green, with the downtown core below its south slope and north of the St. Lawrence river and an older industrial area between the core and the river itself. Montreal is on a large island and driving northwest to Ottawa one gets a sense for the volume of water that Central Canada holds, crossing numerous rivers and driving by blue, clear lakes, rimmed by deciduous forests.
The city is active and prosperous with lots of new construction and an active technology sector, quite a change from when I lived there. The large number and size of older, beautiful religious buildings – churches, convents, hospitals, schools – is indicative of the power that the Catholic church had in the province from its founding until the ‘60s.
We biked everywhere, along the Lachine Canal, an old industrial waterway and now a national park, surrounded by old factories converted into apartments, through downtown, along Sherbrooke Street and up to the Plateau. We frequented a couple of fine markets – what we would call farmers’ markets here in the U.S. – with fine meats and locally made cheeses (The dairy industry in Quebec is strong politically and so protected with tariffs: cheese is about double the price in Canada as it is here in the land of the free.) Always in search of the perfect pain au chocolat or crossaint d’amande – the patisseries in Montreal produce insanely high quality goods.
We had lively discussions with friends about America, immigration, Trump, trade and culture. Quebec stands alone in Canada as a majority French speaking province, one where language and culture are understandably important. Great Britain received Quebec as a colony in the Treaty of Paris after the Seven Years’ War (Sugar was such a valuable commodity at the time Britain almost took the small Caribbean island of Guadeloupe instead of the entire French territory.) America later picked up sections of the territory that extended around the Great Lakes and south after its war of independence.
We also spent a month in Calgary, in a barely furnished (Ikea minimalist) and equipped AirBNB downtown near the high school I went to 40+ years ago. Using the kitchen to make meals was a bit like being back in college where you only had one pan and two dull knives with which to prep a meal. Nostalgic. We got into the habit of walking to a coffee place every morning, often along a small river that meanders through the city core. The smell of poplar trees, sound of magpies, cool mornings, rain when it came cold and bracing, passing quickly as thunder clouds built, menace, unleash a downpour and move on.
We had some glorious weather and hikes in the mountains about one hour west of the city. Jagged, broken limestone peaks, occasional glaciers in the first range in. Snow at modest elevations – summer is a fragile, close run thing in the Rockies. Rolling foothills giving way to the wide flat prairie spreading East, gridded with gravel and paved roads marking sections of land.
The Canadian oil business, which drives Alberta’s economy, is going through the wringer, this time because no one wants a pipeline running through their backyard either to the U.S. or to a coast where products can be shipped to global markets.
We spent a fair bit of time in the Northeast quadrant of the City where there are solid South Asian restaurants with a variety of regional cuisines. Immigrants are drawn there in part by the affordable housing. Canada’s immigration policy tends to draw more highly skilled folks (And a higher percentage of the population than the U.S) than the U.S. so the area feels prosperous and well tended.
One saturday we drove to Pincher Creek, a couple of hours south of the City along the deep green foothills, scudding clouds, rain building. Purple blue black of mountains and sky to the west as storms moved in, open prairie to the East, the bright green of newly planted crops, Canola, hay and wheat. Large ranches and wheat farms, a sense of wide open emptiness. Stopped for coffee at a Tim Hortons as a chilly rain pelted the car, hard driven by the wind. Huddled next to several Hutterite women with polka dot scarves and long bulky dresses right out of Little House on the Prairie each nursing a sweet, creamy, caffeinated beverage.
Finally, we spent a month in Mexico, in Guadalajara, which, although North of Mexico City, is one degree in latitude further South than Cancun. We rented a snappy modern penthouse apartment in what seemed like corporate housing, with a quiet courtyard and a large balcony that looked out over the leafy neighborhood of low and mid rise commercial and residential properties. Jesus, the building super, took good care of us. Sitting on the roof deck watching the sun go down, listening to parrots, dogs barking, horns honking and car alarms going off in that random way that reminded me of New York City in the ‘80s.
We walked every few days to an older part of town where we found tortillerias and a bustling covered market with produce, meats and dairy. Folks largely put up with my attempts to speak Spanish, which are now passable.
Americans tend to think of Mexico as either beaches and all inclusive resorts or drug lords and narcotraficantes but there is a thriving middle class that has benefited greatly from free trade and an open economy; I chatted with a cafe owner who had lived in Australia for 10 years, traveled in Canada and whose husband had started a tequila brand and was promoting it in North America and Europe.
We went to an Italian opera with Spanish super titles in a 19th century opera house, folks dressed up for the event, looking sophisticated and urbane. We heard exquisitely beautiful folk music with a flamenco dancer providing rhythm tapping on a wooden dance platform at a modern cultural center in the suburbs. Walks along streets with crumbling and heaving sidewalks, by older extant casas – our neighborhood, about a mile West of the centro historico, must have been a bedroom community back in the 30s and 40s.
Over 250,000 folks have suffered violent deaths in in Mexico since 2006 (Five times the U.S. murder rate, itself not a happy figure) and there are over 35,000 people who have been “Disappeared” (Now an active verb in Mexican Spanish). At a traffic roundabout near our apartment, folks had draped posters with heartbreaking photos of missing relatives, a grim testament to the challenges faced by the lower income folks from the drug trade, common criminals and corrupt policemen and malevolent government officials.
The backyard oven continues to churn out bread and this year coffee. I buy green beans in 50 lb bags in a local warehouse in West Oakland that sells coffee from all over the world (I am after them to bring beans in from Mexico, which has an active coffee culture and grows great coffee in a number of states in the country.) The first few roasts were, shall we say, very dark (Others might say charred). “Dark roast? No, more like charcoal.”
I roast the green beans in pans on the deck of the oven, stirring them from time to time; it has taken me awhile to figure out what temperature the coffee roasts best at – it goes through two “Cracks”. Professional roasters – and home roasting machines – use temperature profiles to roast coffee, running through a range of temperatures. I cannot do this so my roasts vary in color and are not consistent – but that is part of what makes it a challenge.
I am working on making sourdough Panettone – the Italian brioche with fruit and peel – with a good friend of mine who is an engineer and has Italian roots. Bryan does the detailed research and tests recipes (Very empirical), I am more of a “Throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.” experimenter. Brioche is a yeast leavened bread made with butter, eggs and sugar, the latter three ingredients make it very hard for the sourdough levain to do its work – I do not use commercial yeast (That would be cheating.). Recipes are both annoyingly complicated without explanation, and equally vague and unclear (I suppose this could be said of Italy.). When things work, the result is beautiful (This could also be said of Italy.).
N and I went to the Hispanic supermarket in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland to buy food for Christmas dinner (Carnitas, tortillas, black beans, salsa, guacamole) the other day. I love the hustle and bustle of the spot, which reminds me of Mexico (N calls it
my happy place). A line up of folks on the street buying fresh tamales from a couple of baseball hatted guys with a stack of coolers working off the back to the pickup truck. Several kinds of fresh salsa on offer, freshly baked tortillas, large vats frying Chicharron (Pig skin), a large display of spices in large quantities and at much lower price point than what you would see elsewhere. Mounds of fresh fruit and vegetables – shiny, deep green peppers, orange-yellow and red mangos, spiky looking pineapples, Nopales (Cactus) peeled and ready for cooking. Crema and soft white Mexican cheeses.
Lexie went back to the heli skiing lodge in British Columbia, this time as an assistant manager and isn’t home with us for Christmas as she is working there. She spent the summer in Central America, traveling and learning Spanish; she was pretty much to only student at the school she attended in Northern Nicaragua, as the country was shut down by general strikes just after she arrived.
Liam splits his time between Santa Cruz where his business is and Oakland where Adrienne his girlfriend lives. We have them over for dinner regularly. He and I watched Unforgiven last night, a Clint Eastwood western shot outside of Calgary in the early ‘90s, now more than 25 years old. “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever gonna have.” The men in the movie are brutish, tending towards action, the women are feisty but essentially helpless, the children obedient and the gun rules them all. It seemed, well, quaint and out of date which I guess it is.
I thought it fitting to close with a prayer from Compline, the evening service from the Episcopalian (Anglican) church.
Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the silent hours of this night, so that we, who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may repose upon thy eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Indeed. Have a blessed, healthy and prosperous 2019.