Thursday, July 31, 2014

J'aime le Centre-ville (Montreal edition)

Part two of our French Canadian vacation took place in the form of a few days in Montreal. It was tough leaving quaint and picturesque Quebec City in the rear view mirror, but I was excited for another city adventure. It's about a three-hour drive from Quebec City to Montreal, and I knew as soon as we approached the city that it was going to be a culture shock. 

Despite being home to nearly half a million people, Quebec City felt small. The streets were designed in a way that it felt much smaller. Montreal is more than three times the size of Quebec City, and I felt it right away.  The skyline felt much bigger and more modern, and I was immediately excited to traverse the streets.  Our hotel room wasn't ready, so we set off to explore the neighborhood around the hotel.

We were staying on Rue Saint Denis near the Latin Quarter and the Village. We didn't really know what that meant in terms of a good location, and we quickly discovered what a great neighborhood it is. We strolled down Rue Sainte-Catherine which is a pedestrian only street garnished by beautiful strands of pink lanterns that remind me of cherry blossom time in DC. Rue Sainte-Catherine runs through the Village, a vibrant neighborhood with restaurants and shops and a large gay population. I love the welcoming vibe in Montreal. The Village embraces its residents and visitors of all diverse backgrounds so much so that the Metro station on the street is adorned by rainbow colored posts. It's awesome.

Rue Sainte-Catherine
Metro stop in the Village
Lunch was on the eclectic Rue Saint-Denis at Mache. My husband was sold by the poutine, and I had a grilled cheese with four cheese and bacon. The cheese was melty and delightful, and it was joined by delicious sangria.   The sangria made left me the need for a quick nap and a regroup after the drive and busy walking afternoon.

We saw signs for a circus in the street, and after talking to someone in the Metro learned that it was really a Cirque de Soleil style performance taking place twice that evening less than a block from our hotel. We headed out to check out the Cirque, and it was amazing. It started on the street, and the performers encouraged the crowd to follow them a few blocks to a public square where they put on about a half an hour long performance. The entire crowd was engaged, and it was so much fun. I can't even describe how cool it was seeing hundreds of people following these performers through the sidewalks and streets to watch their performance. It was really an amazing sight.

Around the crowd following the performers
Our hotel was only a few kilometers from downtown, so we walked there. We didn't realize before coming that Montreal's International Jazz Festival was still happening (we thought we'd missed it). The streets were filled with people and music. That last night Michael Buble, Diana Ross, Snoop Dogg and the Bare Naked Ladies were all playing. Just a few small names. We followed our people watching by checking out L'Entrecote St-Jean for dinner, a restaurant that has a fixed menu that includes steak frites, a distinctly French meal. It had good reviews on Yelp (how did we find good restaurants before Yelp?), and it was a very interesting dining experience. No Chez Boulay from Quebec City, but a solid outing.

One of the most noticeable things about Montreal's street design were its many bike lanes. There were even bike stop lights. In Michigan I've heard complaints that we don't need bike lanes that we can only use a portion of the year, and Montreal is proof that a northern city can invest in bike infrastructure that will be used year round.

On the way back we experienced round two of the street cirque. This one included performers being suspended above the street, including a woman playing a violin. It was stunningly beautiful. The street was packed at 9:30 pm with people watching the free performance. Restaurants had patrons overflowing their terraces. It made my urbanist heart happy. 

Street cirque, take two

I wanted to go for a run on Saturday morning, but the walking from the past week was taking a toll on my legs and back. Instead I decided it would be an amazing idea to hike to the top of Mont Royal, the highest point in Montreal. The park towers over the city near McGill University, and I'm just like my dad - if you show me something tall or treacherous, I'm going to want to climb it.

The views at the top were spectacular. Montreal was spread out at our feet, and it was stunning. We were treated by more breathtaking views as walked down a wooded trail on the side of the mountain. We could see Montreal's old Olympic park and sweeping views of the mountains in the distance. It was well worth the burning calves to get up there.

Sweeping panoramic views from the top of Mont Royal.

And amazing views on the climb down

We spent the afternoon exploring Old Montreal, the oldest part of this beautiful historic city.  There were people sunbathing on the lawn near the river and shops along the area's cobblestone streets. It's also the home of the stunning Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal where on this Saturday afternoon a wedding was taking place. Crowds were gathering outside of the church to see the bride and groom emerge into the square. What an incredible spot for a wedding (with a few hundred tourists as extra "guests"). 

Views of Old Montreal
On our last night of vacation we took a chance at popping into Taverne Square Dominion in downtown Montreal. On the website it indicated there were no reservations before 9 pm, and we took a chance at 7. We were able to seat at the bar for another incredible dining experience. Before I get to the food, however, I have to talk about the atmosphere. It was renovated four years ago back to its original 1927 gradeur. The space is gorgeous. It was the first legit cocktail menu we saw in Quebec, and we are suckers for a good cocktail. I started with Rye and Basil, and it was amazing. My husband had a mint julep. Also delicious. We then proceeded to work our way through the cocktail menu trying different things. My favorite was the Rye and Basil while my husband's was the Canuck (complete with a shot of maple syrup.) Dinner and dessert were as good as the cocktails, and it was a great final dinner in Quebec. 

Delicious cocktails at Dominion Taverne

I insisted on running our last morning despite the many miles we'd been walking during the week. We decided to run down the pedestrian mall on Rue Sainte-Catherine through the Village. It's a great spot to run, and we were amazed at the crowds leaving the clubs at 8:45 in the morning while we were getting up and moving. I don't think even on my wildest night I've left a club that late. Well done, people. Well done.

Our last mandatory stop in Montreal was Fairmount Bagels. We were told that Montreal bagels are worth the trip and the wait, so we mapped out the Metro/walking trip. The line was relatively short, and we emerged with our bagels that we ate on benches on the street. They were delicious - sweet, fresh, topped with tons of cream cheese. They were very different than bagels I've had anywhere else, and they were worth the wait. 

Montreal was one of the most eclectic mashes of cultures, languages and experiences I've ever had. There were festivals and public events everywhere. I don't know that I've ever been to a city that was so engaging in so many different ways. We got just a taste of Montreal, and that taste leaves me wanting more. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Screeching Halt

This spring/summer has been the age of fast. I broke my half marathon PR twice. I shattered by 5k PR. I rocked out my first triathlon. Everything was going according to plan until it wasn't, and my world came to a screeching halt.

I've talked a lot about my struggles with Crohn's, and my life philosophy is that Crohn's can suck it. Hard. I haven't had a serious Crohn's setback in more than a dozen years. Let's be honest - I was due. But as these things happen it sneaks up on you in a way that there's no preparing. I was just blindsided one lovely July afternoon.

I had a scheduled surgery to remove a (what turned out to be) benign abdominal mass. I had the exact same surgery back in 2011, and the masses then (and now) were scar tissue from previous abdominal surgeries and endometriosis. The masses were quite large and painful, so it was necessary to extract them. In 2011 I had the surgery on a Thursday and was back to work the following Monday. I did have to take a month off running, but otherwise it barely slowed me down. I expected the same type of thing this time. I had presentations scheduled early the week after surgery, and I fully expected to be giving them. It honestly never crossed my mind that I wouldn't.

The day after surgery (a Thursday) I felt good. Well as good as one does after just being cut open the day before. I ate okay, got some sleep, and overall felt like I was recovering normally. On Friday things started to change. I felt very nauseous and started throwing up around mid-day. I couldn't keep anything down. When my husband got home from work we decided with the amount of pain and nausea I should go to the ER. After some anti-nausea and pain medicine, I started to feel better. A CT scan revealed a bowel obstruction, and I was admitted in the middle of the night.

The next day the on-call surgeon (NOT my surgeon) decided all I had was "swelling" and that I should stop all pain and nausea meds and "walk it off". (I'm not making this up). I'm a tough guy, so I did. I managed to keep down some clear liquids, and I was discharged that evening. On Sunday I was feeling rough in the morning, and I was throwing up again by afternoon. I threw up overnight and on Monday morning, so I just called my surgeon to get in with him in his office. 

When I got there he didn't know anything about what had happened over the weekend, and he decided on the spot to directly admit me to the hospital. At this point I hadn't kept down food in nearly a week and was extremely dehydrated. I was in the hospital Monday afternoon and spent a few days just taking pain and nausea meds and getting nutrients through an IV.

On Wednesday my surgeon decided he wanted to do a small bowel x-ray to see what was happening with the obstruction. For those of you who have never been lucky enough to have a small bowel x-ray, you drink a ton of this super gross, thick, chalky contrast, and then there is a series of x-rays as it moves through your small intestine. Here's the thing about this particular x-ray on this particular day: the contrast didn't move. It was stuck, and it was miserable. Later that afternoon I thankfully threw a lot of it up.

Thursday morning my nurse walked in and said, "They're coming to get you right now. You're having surgery." They quickly took me to the OR (thankfully my husband got here before they took me back), and I was out for abdominal surgery number two in a week. I woke up in severe pain, a haze of drugs, and the dreaded nasogastric (or NG) tube in my nose. I quickly realized this wasn't going to be fun.

When I had my colon removed and bowel reconstructed back in 2000 and 2001, they used an NG tube. It's an instrument of torture that doctors like to use on patients. Essentially the tube goes through your nose, down your throat and into your stomach to suck out the stomach contents. Sound disgusting? It's vile. And it hurts. 

An NG tube selfie. I'm this brave to post this.
I barely remember the few days following surgery. I had visitors who are blurry in my memory. The tube was hurting my throat and nose, and I was just miserable. On Monday my surgeon removed my tube, and I started to feel slightly more human. But Monday brought a new surprise - a sudden pain in my arm where my PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) was. The PICC line was necessary for IV nutrition, and it has an unlikely side effect of causing a blood clot. Guess who got that unlikely side effect? That's right - this girl. They stopped fluids into my PICC line and did an ultrasound on my arm that revealed a blood clot. I immediately went on a blood thinner IV drip, and blood clot was added to the list of things we were dealing with.

Showing off my defunct PICC line/blood clot.
My first time in the sunshine after ten days in the hospital.
Having the PICC line removed forced the food question because I was no longer able to receive nutrients through the IV. I started eating clear liquids and slowly progressed to more food, and luckily it became quickly apparent that the surgery had worked to remove the obstruction.  Then it became dealing with levels of blood thinners and making sure my level was "therapeutic". I was finally released from the hospital on Friday evening with a promise to give myself shots of a blood thinning medicine over the weekend in order to get my levels to therapeutic. What a great addition to the weekend.

I honestly thought I'd be better quickly and back to work this week. I was sorely mistaken. I am still very sore, very tired, and just slow. My days consist of waking up, eating breakfast, showering, taking a nap, eating lunch, taking a nap, watching some TV, taking another nap and being in bed by 8 pm. I don't recall my body ever needing so much sleep. I'm not sure when I'll be back to running, but at this point I'm still hoping to be back at it by mid- to late-August to start training for the New York City Marathon. I still want to run New York even if it's not the race I'd originally hoped for. I've also lost nearly 20 pounds, so I'm much weaker than I was a few weeks ago. Eating again and gaining back strength is a priority.

My body has certainly thrown me for a loop the last few weeks, and it's been crazy trying to go from 150 miles per hour to completely stopped. Everyone keeps asking me if I'm bored or going crazy. To be honest I feel kind of content and still. It's a weird feeling for me, and it's not one I expect to get used to.

It's been a challenging month. Who knew that taking that first walk around the halls of the hospital would be one of the hardest things I've done this summer? The walking is getting easier. Now hopefully just a few more weeks of walking before I can run.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

J'aime le Centre-ville (Quebec City edition)

It's no secret that I love downtowns, but now it is proven that I love French versions too (or at least French Canadian)! My French is still abysmal after a week in French Canadian cities, but my love of downtowns and amazing cities has grown even more (I didn't think it possible, right?) While I've had Paris a the top of my travel list for a while, buying a new house quashed any ideas I had in my head of going to Europe. We decided that we'd do a North American version by heading to Quebec City and Montreal. It was a week filled with spectacular street design, delicious food and cocktails, hard running terrain and a lot of walking. It was exactly what we needed.

On the more than 13-hour drive from Lansing to Quebec City we worked on my French. And by "worked on" I mean my husband said phrases, I repeatedly them horribly and then got frustrated and turned up the radio. We were tested while stopping for dinner and attempting to convey our food order to the young woman who did not speak English. It wasn't pretty, but we ended up with food - even the right thing we ordered. My husband took French in high school, but he was rusty. I starred blankly at the girl speaking French and then blankly at my husband until someone made something work. I'm very helpful like that.

It was around 9 pm on a Monday when we drove into Quebec City, and it was love at first sight...or first street design is more like it. As we exited the freeway into the city we didn't find eight sprawling lanes of traffic like we have here in Michigan, but more narrow streets with crosswalks and bus lanes. It turned into a lovely boulevard with beautiful houses on either side of the street. And then we drove down Grande Allee toward our hotel, and I looked at my husband and said, "Shut up. This is amazing." It was late evening on a Monday, and people were everywhere. The street narrowed and then suddenly became one way with little (or no? I'm not sure) warning. 

I was so tired after the drive that I'd proclaimed we were going to bed early, but after I saw the city I knew we had to go explore. We checked into our quaint auberge (inn) on the fabulously designed Rue Saint-Louis and headed out to check things out. We were just a few blocks from the world renowned Chateau Frontenac, and we headed there to see what was happening. Again, let me reiterate, now nearly 10 pm, people everywhere. Amazing. We walked in neighborhoods around our hotel and discovered the street blocked off a few streets from our hotel. Rue Saint-Jean had people walking everywhere, terraces filled, and my heart nearly exploded with city happiness. 

Rue Saint-Jean. 10 pm on a Monday. In love.
Tuesday was Canada Day, and the city was filled with celebrations and again people everywhere. It was also nearly 100 degrees, which was shocking weather for that area. My husband hates warm, humid weather. I love it, but we generally vacation somewhere cooler in the summer because of it. We were foiled by the very warm weather in Quebec City, which was warm even by my standards. 

Historic Chateau Frontenac near our hotel

Square near the Chateau. So beautiful.
Rue Saint-Louis, right by our hotel
We headed to Lower Town in the morning to check out the shops and galleries near the water. It was a beautiful view as we walked down the stairs. There were some fantastic shops on Rue Petit Champlain, a street that has been recognized as a great neighborhood by the Canadian Institute of Planners.

Looking down to Lower City
The quaint Rue Petit Champlain
Lest you think I made it up.

We browsed, took photos and walked around throughout the morning before heading up to check out the Canada Day celebration at city hall. The Governor of Quebec was there, and the military was out in full force. Several passed out during the ceremony because of the heat, and they have a fancy goat as their mascot. Honestly...I can't make this stuff up.  The Canadian military is legit. (Did that come off as almost sincere?)
This is a goat in a fancy cape. Seriously.

Canadian soldiers lined up outside city hall

Later we headed to check out more celebrations at the Plains of Abraham. The Plains of Abraham is a huge and gorgeous park in the middle of the city that was the site of a battle between the French and British in 1759. The park was filled with people, games and music to celebrate Canada Day. 

That evening was the first of several delicious dinners, this one at Bistro 1640 in the heart of the city. After a warm day it was perfect evening for crisp sauvignon blanc, a delicious duck breast, and the company of my favorite guy. We discovered that despite our fears many in Quebec City spoke English. My husband's French improved over the days we were there. I discovered that if I starred blankly at someone speaking French to me they would adjust and speak English. Winning.

In front of the Chateau heading to dinner
A delicious white wine on a hot summer night.
The next morning I was itching to go for a run, and we headed out in the morning. The temperatures were still hovering in the low 80s on a sunny, gorgeous morning. It did not bode well for a run. Humidity was high, and Quebec City is hilly. We all know I love the hills, but the hills combined with the heat were a bit much even for me. At any rate we ran, and it is always worth it.

Running was also critical because my husband was on the search for poutine. Poutine is a decidedly Quebec dish that tops French fries with cheese curds and gravy. I can get behind the gravy, but cheese curds are squeaky. And gross. I was not loving the poutine, but my husband was happy.

My poutine face.
Following poutine we headed to Parc de la Chute-Montmorency, a gorgeous waterfall and park just outside Quebec City. The falls are 272 feet tall, a full 99 feet taller than Niagara. It's also viewable from the freeway which is very interesting. We walked across a suspension bridge over the falls which was disorienting even despite my general love of heights. We the walked down the stairs beside the falls to the bottom which was gorgeous. It was a workout of more than 400 stairs back to the top, but it was totally worth it (and again we had poutine to burn off). 

Suspension bridge over the falls

What...these little stairs?

I like to jump in front of stuff. It's my thing.

How about a closer look?

Who wears white shorts to a waterfall? This girl.
We had friends from Lansing who just happened to be in Quebec City at the same time, and we met them for drinks in the Lower City that evening. It was raining, but that didn't deter the crowds. We had drinks and appetizers before we bid adieu.  Chris and I ambled up Rue Sous-le-Fort to have dinner at a restaurant of the same name. The food was incredible. My husband ordered the escargot, and I was immediately jealous that I hadn't done the same. It was delicious. I did have bison sausage for dinner (which was incredible and not as weird as it sounds). It was a great way to cap off a gorgeous day.

Thursday was our last full day in Quebec, and it was flawless. It was also the celebration of the City of Quebec's 406th birthday, so there was a lot going on. In the morning we perused the antiques district in Lower City before heading back city hall for more military ceremony and to check out the weird goat mascot. We then headed toward Grande Allee for lunch.  This street is so well designed for public space - restaurants and terraces everywhere. It appears that they removed a lane of traffic on each side to accommodate terraces. The street is narrow, cars move slowly, and it's a great space for pedestrians, bikes and cars. We had lunch on a terrace before heading to The Running Room, a local running store chain. It was about a kilometer walk to Rue Cartier which was another greet street with lots of shops, restaurants and people on foot and bike. 

Lunch on Grande Allee
One of the things we noticed about Quebec City is how beautifully they repurposed old buildings and seamlessly integrated the new with the (very) old. At one point we saw an old church that had been preserved as the face for new condos. An old hotel was turned into a hospital. It was extraordinary their attention to preservation and detail. 

An old hotel turned hospital.
The face of a church saved for a condo development. Gorgeous.

Following the obligatory running shirt purchase we headed to the Quebec Parliament Building for a tour. We ran into our friends from Lansing who just happened to be there as well. Parliament was in session, and we got to observe a bit of it. It was fascinating for us political nerds (our friend is also a lobbyist) to check out how their government works. It's quieter than ours. And more orderly.

On our last night we had an insanely amazing dinner at Chez Boulay. I don't even remember what was in the appetizer we had except she mentioned some kind of melty cheese and venison terrine. Yes, please. It was melty and amazing. I wanted to drink it. I had duck again for dinner, and my husband had bison cheek. The food was just so decadent, and I didn't want it to end. 

We stumbled out of dinner to art on the street and people everywhere. Quebec City was entering the start of a five day festival to celebrate its birthday. The evening was flawless, and it was the perfect capstone to a lovely few days in Quebec City.

Art on the street and reflected on the city's wall
The most beautiful sunset ever.
Before leaving for Montreal on Friday we went for a last run in Quebec City. The morning was much cooler, and we headed to the Plains of Abraham to enjoy the views of the St. Lawrence River as we ran on the bluff along the water. Running in new cities never gets old - it's the best way to scope the place out or enjoy the last views of a marvelous place. We left Quebec City more relaxed and happier than we arrived, and isn't that the point of vacation? C'est le vie!