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Signs of Life (Ch. 8)

I have had a curious kind of Spring; topsy-turvy. Instead of new life growing in nature all around me, I found a lump in my breast and cancer growing within me. As I journeyed through the acceptance of my disease and the aggressive treatment I chose to undergo, my view of my future changed. Instead of assuming I would have decades to watch my kids grow up, I thought, “what if I don’t?!” and tried my best to be more loving and affectionate. Instead of waking up in the morning and wandering around in my pyjamas with my hair standing on end, I thought, “what if I lose this hair in a few months, and look shitty even if I try to look pretty?” and showered, styled my hair, and put on makeup. I looked at my enormous garden space and accepted that I would have times when I wouldn’t have the strength to dig in the dirt and pull the weeds. I begrudgingly admired the beautiful hanging baskets full of flowers that my furry man went out and chose (something I wanted to do desperately) because I knew if we waited until I was feeling up to it, the season might pass us by. All that time, I was waiting for the surgery incisions to heal, so I could meet the oncology team at the Cross Cancer Institute and forge ahead with the chemotherapy I was told I would need. All the while I wanted my body to heal quickly, I also wanted time to slow down before I had to head into a summer of unknown chemo side effects. There was nothing I dreaded more, now that I found out I could survive general anesthesia and Bodacious Ta-Ta Tuesday.

While I healed, we had follow-up visits in Edmonton, with my plastic surgeon. As the stitches on my breasts faded, and my transplanted tissue started to feel smoother and look as close to normal as I could hope for, and as my abdomen incision slowly closed, my doctor always asked the final question during our visits, “Do you have any questions or concerns?” And Markus would ask, “How soon can she travel?” Dr. Schembri’s eyes would crinkle as he smiled, and he would say, “If you promise to stay in your chair and not do any gymnastics while you are there, you should be just fine to go to your high school reunion.” We have been asking this question ever since we met him. The only high school reunion I would ever go to is not just for any old high school. The high school kids I always want to reunite with are from the Taipei American School. We were a tiny little school in Taiwan. Our experiences growing up there have cemented our friendships, and I am never quite as comfortable in my skin as I am when I am with a group of TAS graduates. This recent reunion was an idea that my friends Dacia and Kerri had come up with last year. Any time you bring a few TAS graduates together, anywhere in the world, we call it a reunion. Dacia planned the reunion at her parents’ B&B in Anacortes, Washington, a little spot of Heaven in the San Juan Islands. Through the winter, we put our heads together and had so much fun planning and chatting about it. When I got hit with Barnard in the Spring, I realized that surgery would probably take a huge bite out of my plans for the May reunion. One more shitty thing that I came to accept this Spring… Until Markus caught me reading the Facebook page for the Anacortes reunion wistfully, and told me, “We are going to get you there. This will be your reward for the surgery and kicking Barnard’s ass. You do your job and rest properly like the doctors order, and I PROMISE you we will get you to that reunion somehow. Being with your friends will be good for you. You’re going.” And that is where the Question came in during our visits with my surgeons, “How soon can she travel?” So ever since March, when I first met with the surgeons, we worked toward the May 24th goal of the Anacortes TAS Reunion. A better carrot, there never was. On May 24th, 1 week shy of the minimum 6 weeks recommended recuperation period, I hopped on an airplane in Edmonton and headed out to Anacortes. Missing only one piece of luggage, I met my best friend Duncan Hsu (I call him Punkin Poo and he calls me Poo Pest – my favourite nicknames from childhood) at the baggage carousel in Seattle, and spent the next 2 hours driving to Anacortes while catching up on the last 3 years we had missed together. Arriving on the sleepy little island of Anacortes, Dacia, Kerri, and my other friends tumbled out of the cozy little house, and their hugs took away all the residual pain of both the surgery and the worry of cancer. We spent the entire weekend laughing non-stop. There was crying, but only when it was time to say goodbye. My friend John made an announcement that he was going to join my CIBC Run For the Cure team, The Suepremes, and fundraise for the Canadian Breast Cancer Society. He passed around his hat and said that he would shave his head at the end of the weekend. He raised hundreds of dollars, and I did indeed shave his precious head at the end of Sunday evening. I had to catch an airport shuttle at 1:45 Monday morning, so I never went to sleep on Sunday. And when it was time to go, each friend hugged me and wished me well, knowing that I was flying home to meet with the oncologists in Edmonton, to face chemotherapy. Collectively, their love and support floated me out the door and up into the sky back to Canada.

When I landed in Edmonton on Monday afternoon, I took a taxi straight to Dr. Schembri’s office for another visit. He does a little victory dance every time he examines me and sees his precious babies, “They’re PERFECT! So PERFECT!” He told me that the sections on my abdominal incision would take some time to fully heal, as it was healing from the inside-out, but that I am indeed Wolverine, as Markus labeled me; my body is healing like a superhero. Knowing I was meeting with the Cross Cancer Institute the next day, to discuss chemo, he said to give him a call in 3-6 months and we could talk nipples. I can’t wait to make that call and get him on the line and say, “Hey there…let’s talk NIPPLES.” I don’t know anyone else who has ever made such a phone call. That one is going to give me a giggle, that’s for sure.

Markus and I rendezvous-ed at the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald later that afternoon, and we braced ourselves for our afternoon at the Cross Cancer Institute the following afternoon. Actually, I mostly just slept, having exhausted myself during my reunion weekend. On Tuesday, we dilly-dallied our morning away, and reluctantly made our way to University Avenue and the Cross Cancer Institute. In the parking garage, we passed ladies on their way back to their cars, scarves covering their heads. I couldn’t swallow past the lump in my throat. Markus grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly and we slowly walked into the lower level of the institute. The very first department we passed was the Wig Department and the rooms where they conduct makeup and beauty tips for those undergoing chemotherapy. I resisted the urge to peek into the door, thinking I would get the chance to see plenty later…

Upstairs at the main registration area, we realized that we were over an hour early, but I stood in line and filled out the paperwork anyway. They made me a special red plastic I.D. card that I would need to bring to every appointment or treatment. I did not like that card. That card was my fear made tangible. I stuffed it into my purse, hoping it would get lost among the mess of receipts and lipstick that lived in there. Then, the registration lady gave me to a volunteer, who was told to bring me to my appointment area. As we walked through the centre, the volunteer pointed out the various areas to us; the lending library, the information department that would be very helpful with resources for families, the 2 cafeterias, the gift shop, the pharmacy, and the labs. The facility is huge. Finally, he deposited us into our waiting area, where a nurse had me fill out more paperwork and instructed me to change into a trusty hospital gown and robe. Then, we were shown into a room where we were told to wait for our different visitors.

Our first visitor was a heavily pregnant young nurse named Magdalene. I kid you not. For someone who has recently lost some of her faith in this unfair scuffle with cancer (if good things happen to good people, and I try my best to be good my whole life, how the Hell did I get cancer, EH?! Explain THAT one, God…), this was a little bit of a punch in the stomach. I had to take an extra breath to answer her questions, as my mind kept whispering, “Mary Magdalene was a best friend to someone who had so much more to suffer than you, Sue.” After Nurse Magdalene left, Markus and I made silent eye contact until our next visitor. She was a soft-spoken representative of the Cross Cancer Institute Tumour Bank. After all of my tumour was removed during the mastectomy, and the appropriate amount was sliced and sent to pathology, the leftover bits had the potential to be deposited into the Tumour Bank to be used for research in the fight against breast cancer. She was there to ask my permission to use the tumour for research, and to make the deposit official. As I signed the papers, I wondered, who ever would NOT give permission? If they could make some use of Barnard and somehow benefit future cancer patients, why on earth wouldn’t I sign? I just had to give a few tubes of blood to accompany Barnard to his future home in the Tumour Bank, and GOOD RIDDANCE to Barnard! That was a very cool feeling, knowing a bit of me was going to stay in the institute and perhaps help others.

Our final visitor was a Nurse Practitioner by the name of Margaret Ann Vlahadamis. She was very dry and stood over by a white board across the room from us. Markus took my hand, and we held our breath. With a very stern look on her face, NP Vlahadamis said, “First of all, before I write all the details and numbers on this board, let me tell you this: based on your tumour’s stage and grade, the oncology team has determined that you will need no radiation and no chemotherapy.”

no. chemotherapy.

There was a ringing in my ears, and I shook my head…what was she saying? Focusing on her lips, I could see her saying, “Breast cancer is fought with several different types of treatments. There is surgery, there is radiation, and there are many types of chemotherapy. You should know that your double mastectomy was a major treatment by itself. Your cancer was completely removed. The pathology revealed that it was a 1.4cm Stage 1, Grade 1 tumour; very slow growing. Your 3 sentinel nodes revealed no lymphatic spread, and during surgery it was found that there was no lymph vascular infiltration within your breasts. It is hormone receptive, but HER2 negative and not Triple Negative cancer. You were very fortunate to catch your cancer early, and for the next five years, you will only need to take one Tamoxifen pill each day. You will have 6 month wellness visits with your family doctor throughout that time, where you will be checked for possible metastasis of the breast cancer into other parts of your body. And that is all.”

Stunned, not believing this could possibly be true, I actually ARGUED with the poor woman. What about my extensive family history?! Won’t that increase my odds of recurrence? My cancer surgeon had warned me to expect chemo. How could it be that I’m all done, that there is nothing further to suffer through?!

After patiently explaining that my family history of breast cancer has nothing to do with the treatment of the breast cancer we removed – WHAT?! (they focus on treating the cancer they hold in their hands – on its characteristics, not on what my future could develop). That my cancer was removed completely by my mastectomy and the Tamoxifen would starve any microscopic bits that might be floating around in my body. That my family history of breast cancer would only be a concern for my ovaries and fallopian tubes down the line, and I would need to approach that outside of this visit. Only then, did she patiently say, “This is GOOD news…”

And only then did her words sink in. No chemo and I am done with the fear of Barnard. I turned to Markus with a lost look on my face; all my anxiety was still built up inside – where was I supposed to put it? Markus repeated what NP Vlahadamis said, “This is GOOD news…” I decided to stop fighting it. Even though I was SURE they were mistaken, that this was too good to be true, I decided to play along. I was confident someone would catch the mistake in a few days and call me with the corrected news and tell me to get myself into chemo…So I turned back to her and smiled and asked what I should do next. She told me to take my new prescription to their pharmacy, and she would be calling me in a few weeks to see how the side effects of Tamoxifen were treating me.

In a daze, I changed back to my regular clothes, and joined Markus in the hallway. We kept looking at each other in disbelief, then he would grab me and laugh out loud and cheer. In the pharmacy waiting room, he sat across from me and kept asking, “What shall we do to celebrate?!” We giggled and said, “I can’t believe it!” too many times before I looked around and realized I was surrounded by people who were suffering from cancer, waiting for their prescriptions, who didn’t have any good news for themselves. Sobered, we listened to the pharmacist explain about the many side effects of Tamoxifen (Hello, Menopause) and grinned when she politely whispered about “vaginal dryness and discomfort” and the various solutions for that. I can buy a fix for vaginal dryness on the shelves of my local pharmacy…can’t say the same for cancer, right?

Tamoxifen grasped in my hands, we retraced our steps to the car; past the cafeterias, past the information centre, past the lending library, and finally past the wig department. I touched my hair and murmured, “I’m keeping my hair…” Markus whooped and hugged me.

In the car, he told me that he was getting dozens of responses to his good news post to my friends on Facebook. He urged me to tell my friends and family right away; that everyone would be so relieved and happy for me. How could I tell him that I secretly could not believe the good news? What if I made the announcement, and I got a phone call the next day, crushing me with the opposite news? I flapped my hands and told him I would write it later. I couldn’t even call my own children to speak the words out loud; I was so scared I would jinx things. We bought a feast at the T&T asian supermarket, and brought it home to the kids. The whole family was giddy with the news, while I sat there quietly wondering. Late that night, I cautiously wrote about my day, sharing the news on Facebook, then sat back and waited for the phone call I was dreading. I put off writing in my blog, thinking I would make it officially good news if nobody called me with bad news in a few weeks.

This week, I got a phone call from a private caller. A voice sounding just like my best friend asked for me…so I yelled, “PUNKIN!!!” and there was a long pause…then, “Uh um, no, my name is John Mackey. I am a medical oncologist from the Cross Cancer Institute.” I swallowed my immediate panic, and laughed and explained about Duncan/Punkin and that his voice was an exact match. With a smile in his voice, John Mackey replied, “Well, if Duncan has the same voice as me, then he must have a very nice voice indeed, haha! I was asked by Doug Goss to review your pathology and double check that you are having the appropriate treatment…he said you are a family friend? I just need your verbal permission over the phone before I open your medical file and read it” Still panicked, I mumbled yes and waited…This was the phone call I was waiting for – finally someone realized that they messed up and my cancer wasn’t all gone and I would have to go to chemo after all and lose all my hair and get sick and be tired and maybe maybe I wouldn’t live as long as I wanted to… There was total silence as he read over my file. I think I held my breath the entire time. When he started to speak, I still couldn’t breathe. He said these magic words, “Sue, based on what I am reading, you can be sure that the cancer has been removed and is gone from your body. The Tamoxifen is precautionary – 5 years of starving any possible cancer that could have been missed on a microscopic level. You should feel confident that you are well. Now, let’s talk about your family history and what that speaks to.” I floated as we discussed genetic testing and I complained that testing positive would endanger future life insurance for me and my children. He paused and said, “Um. You have already had breast cancer. That horse is out of the barn. Life insurance companies will discriminate against you and your children because of that, regardless of the genetic testing results.” I had to laugh when I realized I had totally forgotten that I have breast cancer. It feels good to forget. By the end of the phone call, he had recommended I discuss prophylactic removal of my ovaries and fallopian tubes with my gynaecologist, and wondered if I was ok with that; with early onset menopause. I reassured him that I was done using my ovaries, that the Tamoxifen will imitate menopause for the next five years, and as my mom went through menopause early, I expected it was around the corner anyway. I thanked him for his time and hung up, posting the funny phone call on Facebook. Immediately, my friend Wendy, who lives in Edmonton and is wading through the cancer war like me and knows every doctor out there, posted, “Dr. Mackey is the best oncologist in Western Alberta. You are very lucky indeed!” Holy shit. So, another guardian angel has landed and now I have officially lost track of how many of them are in my life. How blessed am I.

Today, we went to pick up a friend from the hospital in Hinton, and took a little side trip to the garden centre in Canadian Tire. I chose new veggies to replace the ones that have been eaten by frost in our garden, new herbs, beautiful flowers, and seed potatoes. On the ride home, we listened as our friend told us how lucky she was that although she had fallen off of a 20 foot cliff while rappelling, she was wearing a helmet and managed to not break any bones. I shook my head in disbelief, and then I stopped myself. I need to stop this denying of good news. I told my friend that I was so happy that she was safe, and that I was amazed at what a great adventure she survived. How blessed was she!

After we brought our friend home, we settled into gardening. Markus worked on the flowers in the back yard, and I worked on planting pumpkins, tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and cabbages in our vegetable patch. The sun shone down warm on my shoulders, my knees got dirty, and I sweated. Every spadeful of dirt I dug up was rich with pink wriggling earthworms, and every leaf on every plant glowed green with life. I sat back on my heels and looked around me. My topsy-turvy Spring was over. As I breathed in the warm fresh air, I realized that Summer was here, and I was surrounded by new life. I can dig in the dirt and pull weeds and let my hair get messy. I can plant the vegetables that I know I will harvest in the Fall. And I can look at those hanging pots of flowers that Markus chose, and I can see that hummingbirds have come, attracted to the colourful blooms. Ganbaru feels extra good in the sunshine!

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Blessed Be the Gluttons

Gluttony is Good.  At least it was today.  Just in case it really isn’t, Gaby and I decided to visit Basilique Notre-Dame-de-Montréal (Our Lady of Montréal Basilica) first.  We started by thoroughly sleeping-in this morning.  If you’ve never slept in a Fairmont Hotel before, you might want to scurry to the closest one as soon as you can.  The beds are the BEST and they make you want to stay in them all day.  Nevertheless, we dragged ourselves out at 9am, wrestled with the Nespresso machine, then promptly swooned when we tasted the creamy goodness of fine espresso in our cups.  After recovering, we made ourselves presentable, stopped at the hotel patisserie for almond croissants, and took the escalator down to the train station under the hotel.  Yes, there is a train station in the hotel basement (not your average basement – no pool table and moldy cement walls) – you could hop on a train to New York City if you felt like it.  We didn’t feel like going to New York, we felt like finding the Metro, so we wandered around in circles until a charitable lady took pity on us and turned us toward the tunnel we needed to follow.  We bought 3-day passes from the ticket booth, and hopped onto the train to eat our croissants.  2 stops later, we stepped out onto Place-d’Armes station, and walked up the street to the imposing Notre Dame Basilica.  When the enormous entry doors closed behind us, we were enveloped in the hushed silence of the cathedral; the smoky aroma of candles and incense swirling around us.  I’m Catholic, but Gaby is famous for saying that she stays away from churches because she will burst into flames if she enters.  Regardless, we both agreed that it was incredible to see the intricate carvings, the painting, and the painstaking details that went into the creation of churches like this.  Inspired by their spiritual beliefs, the builders made a tangible representation of their faith; awe-inspiring for all.  Columns made from entire trees, ceilings so high they seem to be the sky…I had to sit still in a pew just to absorb it all.  There was a door to the left of the alter that led us to the Chapelle Sacré-Coeur (Sacred Heart Chapel).  It seemed to be a hidden, secret place.  When we entered, the lighter wood that covered every surface glowed in the sunlight.  I followed the Stations of the Cross until I found my favorite one: #5 Simon reaching out to help carry the cross for Jesus, on the way to the Crucifixion. My little boy, Simon, always perks up during Mass, whenever Simon is mentioned in a reading, whispering, “Mama, Simon was Jesus’ friend!” I texted the photo to my son and had to smile.  Before we left, I needed to take a picture of Gaby inside the chapel – Proof of Life – to show she had survived and that we didn’t need a fire extinguisher.  

 

We wanted to also see Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours (Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chapel) and found it down the road with only a couple of turn arounds.  All my friends and family know I am the opposite of a GPS – I am guaranteed to get you lost if you follow me.  Gaby impressed me, pulling out her iPhone and looking at street signs…I followed like a little baby duck.  Only later in the afternoon did she surprise me by laughing and saying, “I’m horrible with directions!”  I’ve never had such fun getting lost before!  If I’m by myself, I’m crying.  With Gaby, we’re like, “woops!” and we’re moving on.  So we made it to the chapel (singing all the way – “Goin’ to the chapel and we’re Goin’ to get maaaarrrrriiied”) and were told by the lady inside the museum that we would need to climb an unGodly number of stairs (yeah, I said unGodly about chapel stairs – I bet if you’d ask Him, He would agree!) to the tower up above.  Deathly afraid of heights, I quaked inwardly and wondered just how high the tower was…but when we made it to the top, I was so busy trying to gasp air and grip my bum because it had met the worst Stairmaster of all time, that I was only slightly terrified of the height.  The little railing around the outside of the tower would stop us from falling to our deaths onto the passers-by in the street below—on a still day.  Today was a little too windy for our liking; some of my photos came out crooked because while taking the pictures, I would suddenly think about dropping the iPhone off the tower, and I would crazily grip it in reflex.  I need an off-switch for my brain.  Despite the gusts, we were still enchanted by the view of the St. Lawrence River and the 2 angels on the towers of the chapel, with their arms outstretched in the blue sky, welcoming all the seafarers home.  It’s good to ignore your fears sometimes.  

 

After we dizzily made our way down the spiral stairs to the street level, we realized that some of our light-headedness was caused by our growling stomachs.  A measly almond croissant is not sufficient fuel for cathedral-exploring.  Having read about a nice little cafe close by, we decided to finish touring the little museum below the chapel, and then go to lunch.  The museum had a very interesting display about the chapel’s founder, Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys.  There was a painting in the house of the religious order she founded, that many doubted was the true depiction of Saint Marguerite.  The painting was x-rayed and an entirely different style of portrait was revealed.  An olden day mystery solved. There was also a creepy little room filled with miniature dolls and dioramas made in the 1950‘s, illustrating the many events in the life of Saint Marguerite.  So many of the dolls had hilarious expressions on their faces – I think the Sisters of the order who made the dioramas just bought little plastic dolls from toy stores, dressed them up, and glued them into the dioramas.  It was an odd room, and I’m not sure I wasn’t hallucinating from hunger, so maybe it doesn’t actually exist.  Exiting the museum, faint with hunger, we consulted Gaby’s iPhone and set forth.  Getting lost in Old Montréal is actually quite lovely.  The cobblestone streets and the ancient buildings make you feel like you are walking in another time.  I kept staring at old wooden doorways, fully expecting little French people to come out, dressed in 19th century clothing.  The shop fronts were sometimes very deceiving – beautiful old windows with wooden frames…and then modern day souvenirs leapt out at us; t-shirts that screamed, “I ❤ POUTINE!”  We eventually found Olive et Gourmando, and entered the BEST lunch experience I have had in Montreal.  It was hopping inside – a line to the door, and people bustling all around.  On every wall, there were chalkboards with menu items, funny stories about the restaurant, and cute drawings.  There was an entire counter dedicated to coffee and pastries.  Did I mention I love Montreal?  If this is an imitation of France, then I might have to visit France so I can eat myself to death.  The hostess told us that we would be table #5 as soon as the current occupants finished up, then we would take the blank notecard she handed us and make our way to the back, where we would puzzle out the menu in French, and give our order.  I am on a lifelong quest to find the perfect Rueben sandwich, so I had to give the OG Rueben Panini a try, Gaby ordered a Cuban Panini, and because you must always say YES to truffle, we ordered the homemade mac & cheese with mushroom and truffles. Yes, we ordered 3 lunches.  We’re on vacation, don’t judge us.  The tables were so close together, I had to humiliate myself and squeeze my large American rear end between our table and our seated neighbors.  I shouldn’t have felt embarrassed – poor Gaby had to witness my neighbor eat her entire lunch with her mouth open.  People who haven’t been taught by their mommies to eat with their mouths closed should be more embarrassed than I am about my bum.  Seriously.  See-Food Lady beside us did nothing to take away from the sheer decadence of our lunch, however.  Even when the neighbor table accidently splashed their homemade ketchup on me, it didn’t bother me.  The paninis were perfect.  Slightly crispy, thin focaccia bread, melted swiss cheese, Montreal smoked meat, sauerkraut, whole-grain mustard, and a creamy sauce.  I almost screamed.  The mac & cheese came bubbling in a cast-iron pan.  All the food was so hot, we burned our greedy hands and mouths as we stuffed our faces.  Oh, the gluttony.  Oh, the glorious scent of truffles, wafting up to our quivering nostrils… We finished lunch with a good, strong, kick-in-the-ass double espresso (actually, Gaby enjoyed a creamy latte while I gulped the caffeine) so we could have the energy to visit one more museum: Musée d’Archéologie et d’Histoire Pointe-à-Callière (Pointe-à-Callière Archaeology and History Museum). We rolled our stuffed selves up and down a few windy streets, completely lost, until we re-oriented ourselves and found our way. We discovered that the museum was going to close in an hour, so we rushed down to the bottom level – one of the coolest parts of the city.  Archeologists had discovered, under the old building, the foundations and remains of the original settlements of the city – starting with the First Nations inhabitants.  The area’s first cemetary is actually right there as one of the displays – creepy.  The little river (St. Peter) that the settlement was built next to, was eventually overtaken, converted into an aqueduct for wastewater, and the city was built over it.  Now, the museum is excavating further, and future museum patrons will be able to take tunnel tours under that part of the city, following the route of that stone tunnel. I look forward to the new exhibit!

 

The whole day has been a bit of a blur, with us absorbing history and chasing food….somewhere along the line we decided to try again to find the famous Queues de Castor—Beaver Tails!  You would only understand our obsession if you’d ever tasted the fresh-from-the-fryer crispy, chewy goodness of this pastry, smeared with Nutella that is melting from the heat of the fried dough, maybe sprinkled with sliced bananas or strawberries…Heaven on Earth. Yesterday’s search for Beaver Tails was a bust.  Today, we found another address online, and tracked it down to the banks of the St. Lawrence River.  On the King Edward Pier, we pressed our noses to the glass doors of the Centre des Sciences de Montréal…and woefully read the sign on the Queues de Castor shop, “SEE YOU NEXT SPRING!”  We turned around and slowly dragged our weary asses up the hill to the Metro station, mumbling all the way, “But it IS Spring…why they no open? We want Beaver Tails…”  

 

As soon as we landed at our home station, we searched for a pharmacy in the underground city.  Nothing hurts more than middle-aged feet that have been pounding the pavement all day, after years of sedentary living.  One more thing I love about Canada?  We are not so Scroogey about our over-the-counter meds.  You can find Tylenol with muscle relaxants at any drugstore, no prescription needed.  Gaby snatched up 2 boxes for the road, and we bought the 2 biggest diet cokes we could get our hands on to wash them down.  A gajillion steps and a few ventures down the wrong tunnels later, and we were back in the blessed Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth.  We didn’t have the energy to make it to the elevators to crawl to our rooms, so we collapsed in the cushy armchairs in the lounge in the hotel lobby.  Slurping icy cold soda, popping Tylenol for our throbbing feet, we made noises of satisfaction that you normally shouldn’t make in public.  I neglected to mention that I am on Day #2 of treatment for Strep throat as well, so I had to gulp down some absolutely disgusting cough syrup.  Following it with a mouthful of diet coke, I realized too late that I really hate the taste of cherry coke. Bleah.  But our day was so good, and the food so fine, that even our complaining muscles and the foul taste of cherry coke could not drown out the pleasure we felt.  After about 30 minutes of recovery in the lobby, our fickle stomachs turned to thoughts of more food opportunities.  We explored the guidebook and the reviews online, and decided our feet would like to eat at the closest good restaurant.  We chose the Dominion Square Tavern.  We had just enough energy to return to our rooms and make ourselves presentable.  Then, we hit the streets.  We are getting better with our senses of directions; we only had to turn back once on this journey.  In just a few minutes, we were opening the doors to one of the best places I’ve ever been to for dinner.

 

Built in 1927, the Dominion Square Tavern has the golden feel of the Roaring Twenties, but somehow has become one of the hottest current spots for people to gather in and share a loud meal with friends.  The low roar of music, working bartenders and servers, and friends laughing and talking, was just as my husband once told me was his ultimate goal for his restaurants: loud enough so that you had to slightly lean in to your dinner companion for conversation, but you don’t have to yell.  Music in the background, but not imposing on your conversation.  The chatter of all the tables jumbled together so you don’t hear one particular voice or conversation.  A gentle roar. Gaby and I were seated at the bar (the place was crowded and busy) where we could watch the very cute bartenders mix drinks in their simple uniforms of tuxedo shirts tucked into blue jeans, white aprons tied on their waists.  I tried a Pimm’s Cup for the first time, and Gaby had a Royal Gin Fizz.  The menu had me drooling, so I ordered the Bone Marrow appetizer, and the Roasted Cod on Pureed Carrots and Kale.  Gaby ordered the Deviled Eggs appetizer, and the Braised Beef on Mashed Potatoes and Greens.  The appetizers arrived and mine almost rose up from the plate and beat me over the head.  There were 2 HUGE beef bones, the length of my forearm, sliced lengthwise, marrow broiled and glistening.  A tiny spoon stood straight up, stuck into the marrow.  On the side, there were 8 points of toast on which to spread the marrow, and a tiny silver bowl of course salt to sprinkle on the deliciousness.  Gaby’s deviled eggs looked like the stunted midget little brothers to my enormous appetizer. It was spectacular.  Of course, my greedy eyes were scolded by my wimpy stomach, and I only managed to down 1 1/2 of the bones of marrow.  It was like eating straight butter – beefy butter…Sinfully good.  The entrees made their appearance, and my stomach immediately rejoined the game.  The roasted cod was tender and creamy, the carrots silky, and the kale gave the dreamy mouthfuls the bite they needed to be well-rounded.  I cleaned my plate like a good little girl – no nagging necessary.  Gaby’s beef was fork-tender, and I think she regressed into her infancy, curling up on her barstool while she savored each morsel.  And since we were on a Romanesque roll, I thought we could ask around for a feather to take care of our full stomachs, and perhaps order desserts as well.  I am not a sweets kind of gal, but the lemon tart looked very nice.  Gaby is a sucker for sticky toffee pudding, and lo and behold there was one on the menu.  No feather needed – just the right amount of dessert came out on dainty plates, and my little lemon tart was presented with flakes of light sweet merengue chips scattered on top.  All of it was so light, I could almost fool myself into believing we hadn’t indulged in dessert.  Almost.  We definitely needed the walk home, to wiggle and shake that dinner down to our toes.  And the desserts must have had a healing influence on our inner GPSs.  We went straight back to the hotel, no problems.  I can’t recall much after that; the food coma lifted just enough for us to stumble into pajamas and Facetime my family, then we slurred, “Good Night, Sweet Dreams” and oozed our way to our rooms.  I lost track of Food vs. Exercise…I really wanted to justify all that gobbling we did all day.  Then I remembered how we like to resolve arguments or competition among the kids…”Let’s just call it a tie!”  Whattayasay?  Gluttons Indulging vs. Gluteus Maximus Toning…Let’s just call it a tie! 

 

Blessed Be the Gluttons, For They Shall Eat the Earth.Image

Beaver Tails, Croissants, and Wine, Oh My!

After waking at 3am to drive to the airport this morning, I am completely exhausted.  But the excitement of traveling and the anticipation of the next few days in Montreal just won’t let me sleep!  My cousin ,Gaby (who flew in from Philadelphia), and I were reunited at the baggage carousel of the Montreal Trudeau airport and were zoomed into the city of Montreal in a taxi whose driver weaved fearlessly between other cars, pursued by what sounded like an ambulance.  Or it may have been the police, but they couldn’t catch us.  We were gallantly deposited on the steps of Fairmont Le Reine Elizabeth (Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth – home of John and Yoko Lennon’s famous Bed-In), and a short time later we entered our luxurious 2 bedroom executive suite on the top floor.  After getting lost a few times, we discovered a formal living room, a dining room that seats 10, a kitchen, 2 bedrooms, and 2 and 1/2 baths.  I think we might need to keep the gps tracking devices activated on our phones so we can find each other in this set of rooms!  We then dumped our bags and rode up and down on the elevators until we found Le Montréalais bistro to take care of our rumbly tummies.  We immediately ordered 2 glasses of sparkling wine and toasted our Spring Break.  After our Pacifique Salad and Smoked Meat Sandwich, we took a walk to search for the legendary Beaver Tails (deep-fried pastry dough smothered in Nutella or other delectable sweet toppings of your choice).  We walked far, pushing through wind gusts like a good little Dorothy and Scarecrow would.  Eyes watering, hair askew, we came upon an empty storefront, with the remnants of Beavertail menus on the wall.  Tragic.  Heads bowed, we thought we would take a shortcut back to the hotel through the Underground City (a warren of tunnels that span 11 miles under the city of Montreal, that are filled with thousands of shops and places to eat and drink).  We now know where to go when the Zombie Apocalypse arrives.   One could live in the Underground City for years and never need to visit the street level.  As usual, I was a dismal failure at being Navigator, and luckily my cousin is a naturally talented pathfinder.  I think I’d rather have her plugged into my car, giving me directions, than my crabby Garmin, who always scolds me and repeats in her jaded phrase, “recalculating.  recalculating.”  Gaby got us back to the hotel through the tunnels, and we rewarded ourselves with pastries and lattes from the Boutique Gourmandise.  It was an eclectic mix of very bright spring clothing and handmade pastries.  We chose the pastries.  Bringing them to our room, we claimed a small end of the enormous dining table, spread out our tour books and iDevices, and proceeded to while away the afternoon, sipping coffees and planning the rest of our week.  At the end our day, we were too tired to get dolled up to eat out, so we ordered some Caesar salad, some foie gras, some fruit salad, and a bottle of wine from Room Service.  Then we settled into our living room and Facetimed my husband and kids, tormenting them with our plans to find a functioning Beaver Tails the next day.  Tomorrow, we will intersperse sightseeing with bouts of eating, followed by strolling along the mighty St. Lawrence River.  If anyone would like to join us in our gluttony, we have a sofa sleeper in the living room, or space on the room-length dining table than could sleep quite a few folks.  Day 1 completed, and things are only going to get better…Happy Easter, Mon Ami!Image

Keep Calm and Buy Booze in the Duty Free Shop

Every 6 months, I fly from wherever we happen to live, to Davenport, Iowa, to visit my Aunt Barby. She is my dad’s older sister, a retired school teacher, spinster, and she could use a daughter around every once in a while. I love her and I love to help her, but I seem to have a travelshitmagnet that activates on all my trips to see her.

1st leg of my trip and my travelshitmagnet is working on full battery power. Before I left Jasper, I deliberately updated my Garmin online, to prevent any weird “Recalculating” glitches hitting me mid-highway. Well, the update ended up giving the Garmin little hiccups, and during the drive through the city of Calgary this morning, every other word coming out of her was, “Recalculating.” All I could do was laugh through my tears, as I drove in circles.No problem no problem – the highways signs brought me to the airport eventually.

At the airport, I stressed myself in the long-term parking garage, trying to commit to memory, the exact spot that I parked my car, so when I return in 10 days I don’t find myself wandering around like a pathetic Gretel, sans Hansel, searching for the breadcrumb trail to my car. I had installed an app in my phone a lonnnng time ago, that is supposed to help you in this exact type of situation. Trouble is, I couldn’t remember how to use the damned app. Hashimoto’s strikes again. I finally took a picture of the concrete pole I was parked next to. No problem no problem!

Wheeling my luggage into the main terminal, I checked-in, went through Homeland Security (I love how you can walk behind the ticket counters at Calgary International Airport in Canada, and in a few steps, you are on U.S. territory…it’s like time travel or something – you don’t even need to get on an airplane, and there you are on U.S. soil). The flight was delayed. First for 13 minutes, then for 25 minutes, but finally we boarded. The pilot told us later, when we were airborne, that the flight was delayed by “weight and balance issues.” What does that mean? Do the fat people need to be divided evenly on each side of the aisle? Did the sports freak a few seats down really need to bring his hiking boots, his skiing boots, AND his snow shoes?! It was a small plane – 2 seats on each side of the row. And for some reason, most of the passengers decided to bring ALL of their luggage as their carry-ons. With few exceptions, it seems that most of them ignored the rules about what constitutes legitimate carry-ons (this explains the “weight and balance issues” the pilot was talking about). And nobody likes to put their bags under the seat in front of them, so all the overhead bins were taken by the time I boarded. No problem no problem- I don’t mind resting my feet on my carry-on. Let’s just get this damn plane off the ground – I have a connecting flight to catch on the other side! The poor flight attendants began to play musical-overhead bins when some of the bags were so big the bin doors wouldn’t close. Still, it seemed we were almost ready to take off. Until the female attendant discovered a pair of crutches hidden under a seat. She asked the passengers around, if everyone was comfortable with the crutches stretching under 2 sets of seats, and was told, “this is absolutely unacceptable” by some crotchety old lady. The flight attendant patiently began to rearrange the overhead bins again, and my poor seat mate finally nudged me and whispered, “help me keep an eye on my leather jacket – it’s changed bins 6 times. I feel like I’m playing a cup game on a street corner in New York.” Sure enough, I turned away just ONCE and I lost it. Good thing it wasn’t a small child or a puppy; later, when the flight landed, it took a few minutes, but the jacket was found at the front of the plane. During this musical overhead bin show time, the plane started taxiing down the runway, and the female flight attendant actually had to get on the phone and tell the pilot to stop. So he stopped. On the runway. I fully expected the traffic jam to cause other planes to honk their horns, but airline pilots are much more polite than the rest of us drivers.

My seat mate was a lovely old man from Medicine Hat (for my ‘Merricun friends, it’s the Canadian equivalent of the town of Mayberry. And my seat mate was Andy Griffith). He said he liked small towns, and never wanted to live in a big city like Chicago, but “it sure is amazing to visit the big city! And, oh my, what about those flight delays? And would you take a gander at the male flight attendant? His eyebrows are quite elegant, and his earrings are diamonds bigger than my wife has! And how do you stay so calm when you might miss your next flight?” I told him that there really weren’t any other options than to stay calm. I had spare clothes in my carry-on in case I missed my flight, and fussing wouldn’t make the plane fly faster. What I didn’t mention was that I had stopped at the Duty Free Shop and purchased a giant bottle of Grey Goose vodka, and it was happily nestled in my spare clothes, inside my carry-on. Every time I felt myself begin to panic about missing my flight, I pictured a shot of Grey Goose on the rocks, with a squeeze of lime. No problem no problem.

5 minutes before we landed in Chicago, the female flight attendant got on the intercom and lightheartedly told us not to worry, we were only delayed by 45 minutes, and we should all be fine, as long as the people who were not connecting to further flights would stay seated so the rest of us could run like mad beasts for our departure gates. Oh. And did we forget to tell you that we are landing in Terminal F and you need to run to terminal E to take a shuttle bus to Terminal C? That’s right, we’ll be landing in Terminal F-you. I had exactly 15 minutes to make it clear across the airport to get on the last plane to Moline, Illinois. Well, I ran like Hell and made it – the last one to board. It turns out, I needn’t have run, because we were stuck on the runway for an hour after that. This pilot told us we were “inexplicable delayed.” Not possible. Inexplicable is aliens landing their aircraft on the runway and us having to wait until they disembark their aircraft before we proceed. Inexplicable is a plague of locusts splattered on the windshield of the plane, blocking the pilots’ view. For the rest of the rational world, there is always an explanation. What was that pilot hiding? Somehow, I thought crutches were involved. During this time, I felt a hot flash coming on, so I aimed the overhead fan towards me. And I discovered my new seat mate forgot to brush his teeth…after drinking all night last night. And also, he forgot to bathe. And the fan kept blowing his aroma my way. No problem, no problem. I made it onto the plane, I’m almost at Aunt Barby’s. And there is Grey Goose waiting on the other side.

I should have bought a bigger bottle. After waiting at the luggage carousel in Moline, through 3 airplanes’ worth of luggage, I decided to face the fact that, while I was running to catch the plane to Moline, the guy who was carrying my suitcase to the same plane, stopped to pick his nose. Maybe I was spared having to spend the night in Chicago, but my luggage will be spending the night there. We’ll be reunited tomorrow, and all will be well in the universe. Actually, I’m not stressed. I’m safe at my Aunt Barby’s house, I have spare clothes in my carry-on, and I have a double shot of Grey Goose on the rocks. No lime, but no problem no problem!

Snowhuddled and Dreaming of Another Place

3pm in Jasper, Alberta, and the snow has been pounding down since dawn.  It brings to mind the beginning of a lovely memory of my 15th wedding anniversary.  I’m going to let you read my diary…just this once. But remember that this is my diary and if you object to controversial subjects such as the Godlike quality of foie gras and sex in hotel rooms, may I suggest searching for a blog to read in the gardening section?

 

“April 14, 2011

Banff, Alberta

Started out at 4:30 this morning.  The furry German  arranged a friend to stay with the children, instructed me to pack a bag, and announced, “Happy Early Anniversary!” as he hustled me into the car.  Drove 2 treacherous hours through slush and blinding snow, and arrived at the airport with just enough time to whisk through the baggage tagging and boarded the plane.  Needn’t have rushed, because my BadWeatherShit Magnet kicked into overdrive.  The snow storm shut down the main runway at the airport in Calgary, forcing us to wait in the plane for an hour.  It was stuffy and hot, and all I could think of was that we didn’t give out medical powers-of-attorney or make our will in case we died on this trip.  Then the furry guy announces, “We are spending a romantic weekend in Montreal, and we will dine in your dream restaurant.”  All worries and thoughts of piddly things like Death and children are instantly replaced with fantasies of Au Pied de Cochon. 

Landed in Montreal at 2pm and messed up the first step of our romantic adventure.  I wanted to be welcomed to Montreal with a French kiss (get it?) but Markus forgot our agreement, and gave me a quick peck when I asked for a kiss.  Hmph!  The rest of the trip HAS to be better!

Hopped on the Express Bus 747 and rode through the city to Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth.  This is the hotel where John Lennon had his “Give Peace a Chance” Love-In.  Rode the elevator to the 19th floor and checked into Fairmont Gold.  On the elevator door, there is a sign that reads “Fairmont” and under it “Or.”  I asked my husband, “Or what?” and he replied, “Or is the French word for Gold.”  Well, duh. 

The room is beeyootiful, and we decided that after we put away our clothes, we would need to christen all the furniture.  Never finished putting away the clothes…then it was time to get ready for our 6pm dinner reservation at Au Pied de Cochon.  How does one dress for an orgy of the palate? 

At 5:15 we called the kids to bid them adieu – after all, we were heading for Heaven on a 6pm reservation, right?  10 minute taxi ride, and we arrived at the temple…a place so renowned it doesn’t even need to advertise the name of the restaurant on the door.  And we entered the pearly gates…

The bustling atmosphere was exactly as we imagined.  Every server and helper smiled, “Bonsoir!” We were seated at a table across from the open kitchen – perfect view of the frenzy.  First up, we sipped a Riesling – not too sweet; perfect for the incoming fois gras…L’amuse bouche was a dice-sized breaded cube of deep fried, liquid fois gras.  Liquid “Or”  hahaha.  Then we moved on to codfish fritters dipped in homemade mayonnaise.  They were just teasers…the entrance of the fois gras appetizers deserved a standing ovation.  I had the fois gras poutine.  Mein Mann had the terrine.  Better than sex.  Well, almost…husband has some stepping up to do…

Anything after that was just overkill.  I had the Duck in a Can – the flavors were divine.  Marinaded duck breast, fois gras, savory cabbage, pressure-cooked in a sealed can, served on a bed of celeriac puree on croutons.  If I could have borne parting with the fois gras already consumed, I would have tickled my throat with a feather as the Romans did, just to be able to finish my entrée, sigh.  As it stood, I had to leave some on my plate.  A sin.  The furry man’s eyes were rolling back into his head while savoring his beef tartar.  It was so perfectly seasoned, he only needed some bread to crunch with it, and he was set for the evening.  We both filled to bursting.  Best money ever spent on dinner.  EVER.

After dinner, we desperately needed some fresh air and a walk.  It was important to shake that food down to our toes, or it might come back up, we were so full.  So we consulted our map, and set out to walk back to the hotel.  The evening was clear and cool, with a brisk breeze blowing all the clouds away from the shining moon.  A lovely romantic way to end an evening.  But after a dozen blocks, we thought maybe we would try the subway – after all, that was an adventure we hadn’t yet tried.  After a couple of turnarounds in neighborhoods that were positively picture-book, we found an entrance to the Metro.  The underground was busy with people rushing to and fro.  We wandered about, consulted maps, and asked the ticket clerk for some direction.  He set us back on track, and two trains later, we were in the underground tunnel that led straight to the elevators that took us to the Fairmont Or Floor.  Or or Bust!  We poured ourselves some much needed Bailey’s in the Or Floor Lounge, my Lovie filled a small plate with sweets, and we locked ourselves in our little room. 

And so, Day 1 is ended, and we go to sleep with shivery memories of bites of heaven, and we will snuggle and be romantic and…ok I’ll be honest – he is watching a San Jose Sharks hockey game.  It wouldn’t be fair to let him treat me to the most romantic anniversary gift ever, without giving a little bit of joy in return, right?  Bonne Nuit!”

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