After leaving Queenstown and the wedding of the century, I commenced my North America marketing trip. Coming without J2 made the flight over a bit less fun, but there was one upside to solo travel–since I had no seat mates on the Air NZ flight from Auckland to San Francisco, I was able to turn my economy seats into what they call a “sky sofa”, allowing me to more-or-less stretch out in something akin to comfort for the 12-hour flight. I wouldn’t say it compared with an actual 180-degree flat seat, but it was close enough, and at the price I paid, quite acceptable.
Arriving at Dulles at just after 1am, I of course missed my car rental agency’s opening hours, but lucked out by being able to convince a rival agency with 24-hour service to rent me a car for about 8 hours at a pretty good price. Unfortunately, I was pretty exhausted and out of it and not only started to drive up the wrong side of the road but also managed to head in the wrong direction on the Dulles Toll Road, causing me to pay not one, not two, but three unnecessary tolls to get from the airport to my friends’ house.
In DC I mostly got to see friends and do some shopping, there being no agencies to meet with there. So much has changed even in the year since our last visit that I can hardly believe it, from the construction of new neighbourhoods in Northern Virginia to the opening of new interesting restaurants. I did not manage to see all the friends I’d have liked to see there, but I made a good dent, and we’ll just have to try to see the people we missed when we come back next year.
My first meeting of the trip was up in Philadelphia on the Friday of my arrival week, so rather than “waste” a night up there with no one to see, I turned it into a day trip. Fearing the traffic on I-95 I left DC around 6am (for an 11am meeting) and of course got to Philadelphia just around 9am, giving me plenty of time to kick around and wait for my meeting time. The meeting was with an agency whom we’ve seen before, both in the US and in NZ, and they are frequent sources of guests for us, so it was really a “catch-up” session. Happily, not long after the meeting, during which I spelled out all that we’re changing to our three annex guest rooms, they booked a two-night stay in two of those rooms. Ka-ching!
After returning to DC for another two nights (and experiencing a classic summertime thunderstorm on my last night in town) I left on Sunday morning to kick-off my road trip, heading to the tourism hotspot of Dayton, Ohio. That’s a good eight-hour drive from DC, a drive that I anticipated with some dread, fearing that I would not have enough podcasts to keep me entertained between NPR stations, but my friend Ken, who himself was taking a 10-hour drive to Nashville that weekend, recommended downloading an audiobook, which I dutifully did. What a great idea!! I listened to Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, about the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the country’s first documented serial killer as I headed in the direction of the Windy City (and beyond) and was riveted. There’s nothing like gruesome murders (told in a very subtle way) to make the time pass by.
Dayton is a town that I probably could have happily lived my life without ever seeing, but the meeting that I had there was more than likely worth the trip (I hope), and I surprisingly found a pretty good sushi bar for my dinner there. Sushi is one of those things that I just cannot find easily in NZ, so I am happy to take any opportunity outside of the country to indulge in one of my favourite treats.
From Dayton it was a relatively easy drive to Chicago, though I had to cross through the State of Indiana. This was my first time visiting Indiana, and if it is my last I would not mind at all. The state of the highways in Indiana is scandalous, with more potholes than even New York City can muster, and loads of debris on the road, including a truck tire just sitting in the middle of the roadway that I came extremely close to hitting (thank goodness Waze had warned me of a “hazard ahead”, and I caught sight of it milliseconds before I’d have hit it).
In Chicago I once again stayed at my friends’ beautiful house in Bucktown, a really convenient place to be based. My meetings there were all excellent, and I not only got to have more sushi, but also some really excellent Mexican food, and it’s all quite reasonably priced. I even found time to experience some culture, visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, a museum that I cannot recall ever having visited before. (The ticket price to get in–a whopping $25–may explain some of that.)
Next stop after Chicago was Motor City, though to be fair I never actually set foot, nor even see, the city itself. Instead, I based myself in the suburbs, with the sister of my friend Kris, whom I’ll see later in LA, stopping en route in Ann Arbor to visit the famed Zingerman’s Delicatessen for lunch (and having a quick catch-up with a high school friend, who saw me “check in” there on Facebook and popped by to chat while I had my sandwich). Again, very good meetings in the Detroit area, including several that were organised for me by Kris’ mother, who told her travel agent friends that our lodge was a “must” for their wealthy clientele.
Leaving Detroit on a drizzly and miserable Saturday morning I headed into Canada toward my first stop in Toronto. Crossing the border at Port Huron I was surprised to get a bit of an interrogation at Canadian immigration (I think I surprised him by saying i live in New Zealand, despite showing him a US passport and driving a Tennessee-registered car). But the process was quick and before long I was in the Great White North, speeding east on the really nice Canadian highway and stopping for a break at a really nice Canadian rest stop to have my first order of poutine (which was not really nice).
My base in Toronto was the home of a friend of mine from Beijing days, a Chinese-Canadian who is a real Chinaphobe and who now works for a cigarette company though he does not smoke. He warned me many times that he has three young kids, and may not find it a very restful place to stay, but his daughters (ages 5 and 7) and his 2-year old son were absolutely delightful, the five-year old really taking to me, much to my surprise.
I had the Sunday of my stay to use to explore Toronto a bit, so I headed into town for a wander, taking in a bit of the Pride parade while I was at it. This was my second-ever Pride Festival, and the first of course since SCOTUS legalised same-sex marriage in the US the previous Friday, and the atmosphere was truly electric, and the entire city was covered in rainbow flags, much to my surprise. The parade went on for several hours, despite persistent drizzle, and the rain did nothing to dampen the mood of the revellers, the vast majority of whom were almost certainly straight.
While in Toronto I also got to go to a Canada Day fireworks display in downtown, probably one of the best I have ever seen (take that, Beijing Olympics!), and since my friend’s tobacco company was a sponsor we got to go to the VIP viewing area and slurp oysters and drink lovely Canadian wine during the show.
On Canada Day itself I drove to Montreal, figuring that I wouldn’t be able to have any meetings on the holiday, and the traffic would be light. I had not really figured on just how far Toronto is from Montreal, though, and was surprised that it took more than six hours to get there. Still, I arrived in plenty of time to walk from my B&B to the famed Schwartz’s for a lunner (since it was my lunch and dinner in one) of smoked meat on rye with a side of fries, a pickle and a Cott’s Black Cherry cola. This is a quintessential Jewish-Montreal experience, and it did not disappoint–in fact, I was a bit relieved that the sandwich was not anything like as big as a NYC pastrami sandwich, so I did not feel quite as gluttonous for having it.
I only had one meeting in Montreal, first thing on the morning of the 2nd, so the rest of the day was free for me to explore this city that I last visited in college in the mid-1980s. How I wish I had taken the time to visit during the intervening 30 years, since this is a great and very visitable city! Not only is getting around really easy, thanks to a C$10 all-day transit pass and good walking shoes, but there are loads of lovely neighbourhoods to explore, and some fantastic markets. I had thought the St Lawrence Market in Toronto was impressive, but it pales in comparison with the markets in Montreal! The first one I visited, the Atwater Market to the west of the downtown area, was relatively small, but still had a huge range of stalls, and a large selection of ready-to-eat stands. (I had lunch at a place serving the cuisine of Reunion Island (a French overseas department near Madagascar), which was sensational, making me wonder why that island is not better known for its food.) But the second one I went to, Jean-Talon, is the city’s largest and reputedly the largest outdoor market in North America. And what a market it is, too! Loads of vendors selling beautiful produce, meats, seafood and everything to go with them, and at very reasonable prices. I could not resist the allure of the oyster bar, where about a dozen varieties were on offer, and where they put together a degustation platter for me of six varieties (all of which were excellent), and the gelato place had some really interesting flavours, including a burnt maple caramel one that I had to try. But the best find of the market was the spice shop. As I entered, I asked the person who greeted me (and who turned out to be one of the owners) if by any chance they had mastic, and she said something like “what kind of spice shop would I be without mastic?!” before producing a beautiful tin of the stuff. When the guy handed her the tin to pass for me, she asked what I planned to use it for, and when I said it was to make ice cream, the two of them exclaimed excitedly and we embarked on a lengthy chat about cooking, spices, New Zealand, etc etc. I wound up with not just the mastic, but two varieties of pepper that I had never heard of (probably since they are imported from the source exclusively by this little stand) and several unique versions of things like cardamom and fennel that they source from top-notch growers. I spent about 90 minutes with them, and left feeling like I had made new friends. (The young guy who was helping me for most of my visit happens to have just moved back to Canada after living in Suzhou for 6 years, and is a food geographer, something I never heard of before but that I wish I had studied to become myself.) And they do mail order! (you can visit them at www.epicesdecru.com or, in English, www.spicetrekkers.com).
I hated to leave Montreal, but there was an enticing carrot at the end of the road, a visit with Cindy and Paul in the Boston area. Driving back into the US I had an even more strict interrogation than at the entry into Canada (being asked “why did you visit Canada” in an accusing tone really startled me, as though there was something wrong with visiting our friendly neighbours to the north), but it was efficient at least.
On the way south through Vermont, though, my “check engine” light came on, making me fear that I was going to go through what happened last year once again, with my car giving up the ghost at the most inopportune time as I entered the city or something. So I phoned the rental agency and was told to go to a nearby Dollar Rent-a-Car to exchange the car. Googling yielded a location more-or-less on my route in the Boston suburbs, but when I got there all I found was a Hertz location, and they could not help me (but Hertz owns Dollar, so that’s why it appeared as such on the map), and they said Dollar only has depots at the airport, so off I went to Logan. Manoeuvring Logan Airport is bad on foot, but doing so in a rental car that you are trying to exchange is virtually impossible, since I had to take the car not to the rental return area, but to the rental pick-up area, and you can’t there from here. I literally circumnavigated the depot building six times before finally giving up and having one of the return guys guide me to where I needed to be (it involved going through an “employees only–severe tire damage if you cross this line” area, which naturally put me off when I encountered it), an undertaking that took nearly 90 minutes in total. Luckily, I still managed to miss traffic and I got to Cohasset just around 6pm.
On July 4 we had a quiet day, doing not much other than my favourite thing in New England–preparing and enjoying a seafood feast comprising not just lobster and steamers, but also oysters that we picked up at the Whole Foods nearby. These New England oysters even surpassed the ones in Montreal, especially the ones from Cotuit, which I’ll have to seek out again sometime. Cindy even made a cherry pie, making it a truly American celebration. It’s always great hanging out with Cindy and Paul and the boys, and this year was no different.
My stay in New England continues for a few more days, and then I’ll be in NYC for a whopping two weeks, visiting with my mom and attending to some business and shopping in the city. The story of that part of the visit will follow!