There’s something that few realize about the overall travel experience, and that is that one of the best parts about travelling is actually returning home.
When I return home (even just for a visit, which is what I am doing at the moment,) I find my senses are always heightened. Things look, taste, sound and even smell significant. There are some wonderful things about being home, like tasting my favourite foods or settling into my own sheets and linens at the end of the day.
Of course, such a drastic change can also be one of the most difficult parts of travel, too. I find that when I visit a new place, I learn about something new or see something in a new perspective that will then make me more critical of my home country or hometown upon return.
The first thing I noticed when I landed in the United States (en route to Canada) was the smell. The industrial floor cleaners used in airports have drastically different smells depending on the country. So do the airport foods. Even fast food or fried food, which you would think might smell the same everywhere, smells different country-by-country. I could close my eyes and walk out of a plane and tell you exactly whether we had landed in Chile or the U.S. I suppose this is an inconsequential detail, but even the less-than-appealing airport smells can be oddly comforting when they are familiar and specific to “home” after a 12 hour flight.
Once we arrived in Montreal, I was surprised by how dim the sunlight is here in Quebec. You would think that I would be used to faint sunlight, since I have always (until recently) lived in northern climates. The sheer bright white intense light in northern Chile was one of the hardest things for me to adjust to when we first arrived. But after that, the sun up here in the north seems drastically further away and, especially in winter, is incredibly dim.
Surprisingly, I had forgotten about how dark it really is up here. I feel as though I am walking around with my eyes half-shut in this dim blue light. Of course, it is a bit relaxing not having to worry about putting on sunscreen every time I step out and I certainly haven’t gotten any headaches from the light. Still, the lack of sunshine can certainly affect my mood. Not to mention the cold. Again, you would think I’d be used to it, but it’s surprising how quickly you forget about it when living in a tropical environment for a few months. It was easy for me to underestimate how difficult it would be to re-adjust to a frigid climate!
One of my biggest complaints about life in Northern Chile was the food, which tends to have little flavour and no spices and generously incorporates salt, cream and fattening meats like pork and beef. I ate at home a lot in Chile, trying to make dishes that were familiar to me, mostly from scratch, and hunting down as many spices as I could find. Out of necessity, I became creative with my recipes, often substituting for locally-available ingredients, as seasonal produce was difficult – if not impossible – to find, and in general the variety and availability of pre-packaged foods was slim.
Montreal is a cultural mecca for food thanks to the waves of immigration from all over the world over the past few decades. Even though I knew I would find a lot of variety here, I still couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the choices and wide selection. And while I was excited to finally get some great, fresh coffee beans and have access to fresh sourdough baguettes, the famous sesame Montreal bagels cooked in wood-fired ovens and packaged hummus, after living in Chile, some of the pre-packaged options that are available here do seem a bit senseless. Do we really need chicken broth ($3.99 a liter)? It’s so easy to make my own. I used to be obsessed with flavoured coffee creamers, but when I was in Chile I substituted with homemade vanilla sugar (from this recipe) and ended up liking it a lot more than the artificial flavourings in a prepackaged creamer. How many varieties and brands of spaghetti sauce, salsa, sea salt and cereal do we really need? I also find the array of health foods, such quinoa, slightly amusing. Northern Chile, Peru and Bolivia are the original sources of the healthy grain, but it seems the entire selection of quinoa grown in those regions is shipped up here. There’s black quinoa, white quinoa, baby quinoa, organic quinoa… Then there are the fruits and vegetables. You can get any fruit and veggie at any time from any part of the world. The other day, I saw some sort of root vegetable imported from Africa, summery pints of blueberries from Chile and beautiful bunches of bright green, fresh cilantro at the local grocery.
I’m not criticizing people who love specialty foods or enjoy watermelon in winter. Ultimately I like having such a staggering selection as much as anyone else. But living in Chile taught me that I can manage with one kind of sea salt to cook with, one brand of peppermint herbal tea, and seasonal produce just fine. So while it is nice to have the variety again, I’m not as tempted to buy into it as I used to be.
Since we’re on the topic of food, here are some of my Montreal favourites:
- Santropol coffee beans (available online and throughout town)
- Lattes from Shaika cafe or Grand Cafe (both on Sherbrooke St. in NDG)
- Straight-out-of-the-wood-fired oven sesame bagels from St. Viateur (throughout town) or Dad’s (NDG neighbourhood)
- Kosher sourdough and challah bread (local grocery stores); also baguettes from Premiere Moisson (throughout town)
- Fresh Italian biscotti from NDG bakery (two locations, NDG)
- Hummus, dates from specialty Mediterranean grocery stores (throughout town)