Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Good things come to an end

The last 12 months have probably been the best in my life. I have visited over 30 countries on all continents except Antarctica, completed an MBA from a reputable institution, found a job and made friends along the way.

I am proud of this blog, and will cherish this record for the rest of my life. I have been thinking about the future of this blog for some time now and, sadly, decided that it would be best to conclude it now. My new life will no longer be blog-friendly because:

- I will no longer be studying at INSEAD
- I will no longer be visiting a different country every week
- The confidential nature of my work would make the postings frustratingly vague and unhelpful

For these reasons, this will likely be the final posting on this blog.

I would like to warmly thank my readership for your support and loyalty despite my sometimes irregular posting habits. I certainly wouldn’t have been as motivated and dedicated to the blog without you.

I was surprised to see how many “strangers” contacted me for information regarding INSEAD, travel or other topics, and it was always a great pleasure to respond to each of them. I will still receive the comments posted on the blog or the emails sent through it, and will continue to help any way I can.

Merci et adieu!

Olivier Mineau

Getting back to work

I am now very well settled into my waterfront condo, and had my first day of work on Monday. People are very nice, and the orientation was well organized. My first two days were very light, but this will change dramatically very soon. My parents were in Toronto for a few days, so we had dinner at “The Fifth” on Friday night and at Via Allegro on Tuesday night. It was nice to spend some time with them, especially in this transition period. I wouldn’t have had the courage to go clothes shopping to the extent that I did without my mom.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Getting started in Toronto

After clearing customs, I picked up my rental car and headed to the movers. They gave me some paperwork to take to the Customs office nearby. When I arrived, the lady had all kinds of questions and requested proof that my goods were originally from Canada. She told me that my shipment had to be inspected and that it would help if I could find bills for the furniture. Frustrated but in control of my emotions, I thanked the lady and called my parents to find out if they had the receipts. I then cancelled the movers and the elevator reservations for the next day. I then met with the daughter of the landlord, who gave me the keys to my new apartment. That night, I had dinner with Jon and then slept on his couch. The next morning, I called my contact at Customs to confirm that she had received the documents my organized parents had sent her. She had, and was impressed by how much we were able to find. About 10 minutes later, she called me back to let me know that my stuff was released from customs and that I could take possession of it. I went back to Brampton to sort out the paperwork, before dropping by Renzo’s place to chat a bit. In the afternoon, I went shoe shopping, something I absolutely hate to do. I ended up buying 3 pairs, as well as a few other things for the apartment. I then visited Jon’s work and then went to Meaghan’s neighbours for a BBQ and pool party.

The next day, the movers delivered my stuff and I spent most of the day and evening sorting out the apartment. I had dinner at Kelsey’s with Jon, and then purchased a 32 inch LCD screen and a PS2 at Futureshop. On Saturday, I drove up to Greg’s cottage and we spent the day outside, playing Frisbee and swimming in the shallow lake.

I accepted to start work early, so my first day will be August 28th, which is next Monday.

Snowboarding in the Andes

Hangin' loose in the Andes!

Pictures from Valpo and Santiago

Pictures from Iguazu, Cordoba and Mendoza

Santiago de Chile

The first thing I noticed when I landed in Santiago was a special welcome sign for Canadians, Americans, Australians and Mexicans. A “reciprocity” tax is imposed on these nationalities, with Canada being the highest at U$132! After paying by welcome tax, we purchased very cheap bus tickets into town. We got off in Barrio Brazil and walked over to the Hostelling International hostel nearby. The prices in Chile are about double compared to the prices in Argentina. We dropped our bags and walked to a nearby Peruvian restaurant for lunch. We had some pisco sour, a strong local drink which includes raw eggs. We then walked downtown and visited the Cathedral, the market, and parts of Bella Vista. We had pisco before dinner at a fancy seafood restaurant. Tapan was once more asleep at the table so we took a cab back to Barrio Brasil and dropped Tapan off. Leo and I walked around Avenida Brasil for a bit before having a last drink and going to sleep.

We got up early the next morning to visit Valparaibo, a costal town which once was the economic center of the country. It is also famous for its century-old funiculars going up the cliffs all over the city. We walked through the market, the harbour, the main streets and the main squares. After walking around all day, we had lunch at a very fancy and touristy restaurant. The seafood was fresh but not prepared well according to my taste. The wine and service were very good, however. We walked around the city all afternoon before heading back to Santiago that night. Once in Santiago, we went out to Avenida Suecia, where we had lunch at Bedrock restaurant. Around 11pm, I decided to go use the internet down the street and told the guys I would meet them in a specific bar, but Tapan didn’t get what I said so when I returned to the bar an hour later, they were no longer there. I walked up and down the party-filled street a couple of times, before I saw Leo run out of a bar to find me. It was our last night together, so we stayed out until 5am, when everything is forced to close. The next morning, we had lunch at a seafood institution in Barrio Brasil, before I walked Tapan and Leo to the airport shuttle stop. After a sad goodbye, I napped a bit in the afternoon, before walking around the evening, and having lunch in a nearby restaurant. I also made arrangements for transportation and snowboard rental equipment for the next day!

The driver was on time the next morning to take me to El Colorado ski station, about an hour out of Santiago. After a few more pickups, the driver took me to the main office where I rented a one-piece snowsuit, gloves, googles, boots and an excellent Burton snowboard. They asked for a U$400 deposit for the board. Everyone else in the minibus was going to Valle Nevado, the ski center right next to El Colorado, so I agreed to go there also. Valle Nevado turned out to be higher, with more runs and less people. The view was absolutely breathtaking, There was a 2-for-1 special on ski tickets, so I bought two and sold one at a bit less than half-price. I then locked my bag inside a locker and hit the slopes. I made friends with a local couple who showed me around the mountain. The one thing that really sucked is that they don’t have chairlifts on one side of the mountain; they only have those things you put between your legs to drag you up. These are extremely awkward with a snowboard, as you are standing sideways rather than facing the front. About 1 hour before the bus left, I decided to take a break in the restaurant in the middle of the mountain and took a 20-minute nap. When I went back outside, I discovered that someone had taken my snowboard. There was an identical one with the reverse stance very nearby, so I figured perhaps someone took mine by accident. I advised a ski patrol, and he told me to walk back to the main complex and speak to customer service. I walked back in the deep snow and advised security. Shortly after, the bus driver arrived and when I told him someone stole my snowboard, he told me to get in and that we would settle it at the main office. I thought I was U$400 poorer all the way back to Santiago, but figured I wouldn’t let it ruin my awesome day of snowboarding. We I got back to the office, they told me someone had found my snowboard, and that I would be refunded for my deposit. Big relief! That night, I had dinner at the “Fat cow” restaurant near the hotel, and slept very well.

On the last day of the trip, I walked around all day. I climbed the big hill to the Holy Virgin statue, which took about one sweaty hour. I visited the Pre-Columbus Art museum, which had very interesting native art. I then picked up my luggage at the hostel and took the bus to the airport. I had dinner at the airport, chatting with some Canadian workers. The flight to Miami was uneventful, and the connection to Toronto, successful. I was back to Canada for good.

Crossing Argentina

Iguazu is located at the junction of two rivers which act as natural border between Brasil, Paraguay and Argentina. Canadians need visas to visit Brasil or Paraguay. However, any taxi driver says he can take you across and back without problems. My plane finally landed two hours late. I was hoping that I could find Tapan and Leo in town without trouble. I took a cab to the hostel, and met Leo as soon as I arrived. We checked into our triple room and walked to the bus station to go to Iguazu Park. We had lunch at the Selva restaurant, which offers a good buffet and parrillada. We then took the little train to the falls. The water level was at its lowest in 30 years, with many parts of the falls completely dry. We walked around for a while and saw different animals. Just before sunset, we jumped the rail and walked around where the falls are normally pouring. A park ranger started yelling at us. As we walked back towards the exit, he offered to give us a ride in the back of his pickup truck. We made a few stops as he lowered and stowed the Argentinean flags. Exhausted, we took the bus back to the hostel to shower and went out for dinner. I had a very good pepper steak with the best wine bottle of the trip, a Terrazas Reserva Malbec 2003. We then had drinks on a nearby terrace and there was a Brad Pitt look-alike right behind us. Iguazu was exceptionally warm, almost 30 Celsius.

The next morning, we walked to the spot where the rivers cross and the countries divide. There were a few monuments including a Falkland Islands war memorial, as in every other center in Argentina. The Argentineans still seem sour about the defeat… We had pizza before boarding a 20-hour bus to Cordoba. We left at 1pm and we planned to arrive around 8am. The “semi-bed” bus seats recline and there is foot rest and enough legroom. They serve airplane meals and put on movies. We saw the first half of a bootleg of Mission Impossible 3, before the air conditioning broke. The attendant finished his shift and left with the DVD before we saw the end. He was replaced by another attendant who was incapable of fixing the air conditioning. We had to stop for 2 hours at a bus depot while they fixed the AC. We finally got back on the road, but the air conditioning pump made an incredibly loud noise which kept the whole back of the bus up all night. I moved to the front of the bus and managed to sleep quite well. We arrived in Cordoba just before lunch time, and had a difficult time fitting all our bags inside the tiny bus station lockers. We decided to leave for Mendoza the very same night, hence spending two straight nights on a bus.We walked to a parrillada recommended by Lonely Planet and enjoyed different meats and other local specialties. After lunch, we tried to visit several churches, but all were closed in the afternoon. Cordoba is a university town of over a million people, and is an interesting mix of old buildings and modern architecture. We had pizza dinner and Tapan was falling asleep at the table. We walked back to the bus station and boarded a bus to Mendoza. The lights went out as soon as we left the station, with no movies, no blankets or meals.

We arrived in Mendoza around 6am the next morning. It was much colder in Mendoza than anything we had previously seen. The plan was to take a bus across the Andes to Santiago de Chile, but the pass can close for severe weather conditions. It can be open for days, before being closed for weeks. The pass had been closed the previous two days, and many travellers were anxious to get across. The bus ticket is much cheaper than the flight, and the bus ride through the Andes is spectacular. We decided to take a bus to a small village in the Andes and stay there overnight, before taking the bus across the next day. Just before the bus boarded, Tapan used the ATM to get money out and the machine swallowed his card. He was pretty pissed off and Leo and he walked over to the information desk for help. The guy called the ATM company, and they said that someone would come over soon. We waited by the machine for 15 minutes before an armoured truck pulled up and three policemen armed to the teeth and two executives jumped out of the back. I was impressed by the rapid and serious response to our problem. However, we rapidly figured out that they weren’t coming for us, but rather coming to replenish and service the machine. The lady said that they couldn’t give his card back to him and that he had to go pick it up at the bank at the end of the day. After some arguing, pleading and joking around, they finally accepted to give Tapan his card back. We missed our bus to the Mountains, and learned that the pass would be closed all day. The busses that had left that morning would have to turn around and come back. We rushed to the LAN Chile office a few blocks from the bus station and booked expensive but quasi weather-proof tickets to Santiago the next morning. After some walking around, we ended up sleeping at a basic decent hotel near Plaza Chile. After almost 3 days without changing or showering, we were all due for a good scrub. We then had lunch at an all-you-can-eat buffet and parrilla. After a heavy lunch, we walked around to all plazas and major sights around the city. In the evening, we had dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant, where Tapan was again falling asleep at the table, exhausted from the walking around and sleeping poorly on the bus. We enjoyed some of Mendoza’s finest wines, which is famous for its wine production. We walked back to the hotel and called it a day.

The next morning, we took a taxi to the airport where they banned all liquids and gels as carry-on items, even for flights within South America. Tapan had several things confiscated. Shortly after take-off, we experienced some of the roughest turbulence I’ve even been in. The short flight was otherwise uneventful and we landed at a very modern airport in Santiago.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Buenos Aires!

I met Leo as planned at EZE airport. Since it was 6am, we figured were in no hurry to get into town, so we decided to take the 2-hour, 25 cents public bus journey into the city. The Lonely Planet indicated that we needed to take the 51 bus. As we boarded, we crosschecked the information with the driver, only to learn that there were several 51 bus lines, each coming to the airport but going to different destinations. We took the wrong bus for a while, and connected with the right one when we spotted it driving behind ours. It’s now winter in the Southern Hemisphere, so the temperature is chilly. We arrived at Constitucion, a bus terminal near the constitutional government building. The area is identified as being especially dangerous by BA standards (safe city by South American standards) at night. We then walked 20-30 minutes to the hostel booked by Tapan, the End-of-the-world hostel. It seemed quite nice when we walked into the lobby. Since it’s the low season right now, accommodations are cheap and plentiful. The rate was less than $5 per person per night. As we were shown our room, we rapidly understood why it was so cheap. The 2-bed room was small and without heating, and smelled like a hockey locker room. A small portable “tan-light” heater was hidden in the closet. As we plugged it in, it illuminated the room as if there was a second sun. I peeped through the window, only to find out that it was not actually leading outside, but rather in an enclosed parking garage. We closed it to limit fumes from coming into the room. The toilets were pretty filthy, completely flooded and with hair everywhere. The walls were paper thin, and we could hear “everything” that was happening in the room next door. We figured that it would be fine for a few days, since we did not intend to spend any time there. At least, the hostel offered free and fast internet access. A letter from Tapan informed us that he would be joining 2 days later, as he had secured a 10-year American transit visa and rescheduled his flight.

We headed out and took the subte (subterrano, subway) to the main bus terminal, Retiro. We gathered information about going to the Iguazu falls, Mendoza and Santiago de Chile. We then walked around Puerto Madero, a chic and trendy neighbourhood on the harbourfront. We had lunch in a steakhouse, where we enjoyed a finely prepared filet mignon and a porterhouse. Argentina is rightly renown for its beef and wine products. A steak in a reasonably chic restaurant costs around $5, and a good bottle of Malbec wine is between $1 and $25+. After lunch, we purchased some ferry tickets to Colonia de Sacramento in Uruguay for the next day. We then walked around all afternoon, seeing the major sights downtown BA has to offer. All are condensed within a 30-minute walk radius, so it’s very easy and pleasant to walk around. We saw the English tower, the Casa Rosa where Evita Peron made her famous speech, the Cathedral, the Congress, the oldest church in Argentina, the Obelisk etc. We also saw about 100 people demonstrating against pay cuts at the French Hospital, which happened to be located right across the street from our hostel. About 300 policemen in full riot gear were ready to quash the demonstrators should need be.

We then returned to the hostel to change. Leo contacted an Argentinean friend, and we set a rendez-vous at Unico, a bar in Palermo. I had another steak in a restaurant in Palermo, but it wasn’t as good as the one at lunch. I only ate half of it, thinking I had enough meat for one day. We hung around Unico before moving on to a bar specialized in board games. We played Jenga for a while. We kissed our Argentinean friends goodbye (only one kiss in Argentina, not two like in Canada or three like in France) and went for a last drink in another bar, where we met some girls on vacation from Cordoba.

The next morning, the fast ferry took about an hour to reach the port of Colonia de Sacramento. Colonia is a very small town located about 100km from BA, about half-way to Montevideo. It’s so small that Thrifty actually rents golf carts and quad bikes to get around. It was founded by the Portuguese, who were using it to smuggle goods into Argentina. Spain eventually kicked the Portuguese out. It has a fortified center, and many charming small streets and restaurants. The access to the town’s 6 museums costs about a quarter. You will find everything in the museums, from old maps to stuffed animals to weapons to reconstructions of traditional houses. It even has the skeleton of a fully-grown blue whale. We had lunch at El Torreon, a touristy restaurant right on the water. It was expensive by South American standards, and the food was ordinary. In the afternoon, we visited museums and tried different local drinks, such as their version of Sangria, which is made with white wine, or Grappa miel. (Grappa, the Italian liquor, with honey) We climbed the lighthouse, and saw pretty much everything there is to see in the town. We caught the last ferry back to BA, this time taking the slow ferry. It took over three hours to reach Puerto Madero. We missed the last train to San Telmo, where we intended to have dinner that night. It makes very little sense that the last subte is at 10:30, considering Porteños don’t have dinner before 9pm, don’t go out until 1 or 2am, and don’t come home before 6 or 7am. We had dinner at a Tango show restaurant, and I was truly impressed by the sheer strength necessary to dance Tango. The dance is spectacular. I also met a girl from Saguenay, who just arrived in BA to study for 5 months. We then visited another bar with live music, before going home around 2am.

The next morning, Leo and I walked around and stumbled onto Cromañon, the infamous bar where 194 people burnt to death a couple of years ago. There are still many flowers, messages and pictures from the victims and for the families. I can still recall the images broadcasted on the news when the terrible accident happened. The emergency exits were padlocked, and many people did not make it out. After this sobering visit, we walked back to the hostel and saw Tapan getting out of a taxi. It was nice to see him again. We helped him with his bags and moved into a three-person room. We also met Ellie, a charming Welsh girl, who happened to move into the fume-filled room we were just leaving. We invited her to join us for lunch, and she gladly accepted. We had lunch in Puerto Madero (steak, for a change) and then went to the bus station to book a bus to Iguazu. The bus ride takes about 20 hours, and costs $50. I checked the internet and learned that flying there only costs $100. As Leo and Tapan booked the overnight bus, I purchased the Aerolineas Argentinas flight online, as I hate busses and sometimes get motion sick on long journeys. Afterwards, we walked around the chic Recoleta neighbourhood. We arrived at the cemetery 10 minutes too late, so we weren’t able to pay our respects to Evita, who is buried there. It was only 8pm, much too early for dinner, so we decided to go to the board game bar for a while before dinner. They opened the door just as we arrived, and we were their first customers of the day. We played jenga, ate empanadas and chatted away. Next thing we knew, it was passed 5am, we completely forgot about dinner and we were still playing jenga.

The next day, we slept until early afternoon. Leo and Tapan left for the bus station so Ellie and I had lunch together, and spent the day lazily walking around BA. We had dinner in the Lavalle area, and I went to sleep early, exhausted and recuperating from the previous night.

I showed up at Aeroparque, the domestic airport in BA, at 6:30am this morning, for a 7:45 flight to Iguazu. When I arrived, I was informed that my flight was delayed by over two hours. This means that I will not make it to Iguazu on time to meet with Leo and Tapan. I hope they get my email and we are able to meet up later on today. I am about to board the plane and Dan Brown is about to teach me what the Holy Grail actually is.

Lastly, I am impressed at how much I am able to communicate in Spanish. I understand almost everything, and can get my messages across. Another month or two and I would likely be fluent! Too bad I can’t take any more time down here.

I won’t be able to upload pictures until I return to Canada, but I will make sure to do so shortly after I arrive.

¡Besos de BA!

Update on move from Florida to Toronto

On Sunday, my second day in Florida, I booked my flight to Buenos Aires on the 2nd and from Santiago to Miami on the 15th. I also started going through the boxes I had packed before leaving for INSEAD. I forgot how much junk I actually own… I have several boxes full of souvenirs from different periods of my life, from birth to elementary school to summer camps. I’m glad I actually kept that stuff, and I hope to be able to enjoy it for the rest of my life. The only problem is that the boxes multiply as the years pass by. I repacked some, and discarded certain insignificant items. I brought down and stacked all the boxes into the entrance hall to make it easier for the movers, and to do a little exercise. I didn’t have the courage to go through my all my clothes, 90% of which should go to the garbage or donation bin. My clothes must have at least 5-7 years on average, so I will need to go shopping before work starts. I actually hate clothes shopping, which is why my gear is so dated.

On Monday, I continued to stack boxes and inspect my furniture. The rep from the moving company estimated that I had about 3000 pounds of stuff. I was also informed that the movers would come on Wednesday around 1pm, which leaves me plenty of time to go to MIA and catch the AA flight to EZE. I booked my return flight to Canada to connect perfectly with the return flight from South America, giving me 3 hours between the two at MIA. On Monday evening, I prepared a meal for George, a friend staying at my parent’s, and his “little brother”, Chad. I prepared salmon as appetizer and a rack of lamb as main. We also had cheese, but didn’t make it all the way to the Key Lime pie.

On Tuesday morning, I slept in before going for ribs at Houston’s with George. Frequent readers will recall my description and picture from the Houston’s ribs around Christmas time last year. World’s best! (Special mention to Baton Rouge, a chain in Canada) I also visited George’s new house near my parent’s. It’s about 20 years old, so he’s renovating it thoroughly. I think it will look very good. I didn’t have very much to do in the afternoon, so I volunteered to prepare dinner. I purchased an unusually large whole yellowfin snapper, which I intended to BBQ. I was concerned that the outside would burn and the inside wouldn’t cook, so I deviated from the typical BBQ technique by placing a layer of restaurant-grade foil on the BBQ and cooking the fish on it. The result was very encouraging. It was very easy to flip the fish around, and it stayed nicely in one piece. I served it straight up, with Milos’s “My Sister’s” Olive oil and capers. The filets came right off the fish, leaving all bones behind. My dad, the yellowfin expert in the family, would have been proud!

On Wednesday, I prepared my backpack for my two-week trip to South America. I didn’t want to do any laundry while over there, so I actually packed a lot (too much). I managed to make it all fit in my 70-liter bag, which is on its last miles. One zipper is completely bust, so I am keeping it closed with safety pins. The movers were right on time, and did a fantastic job of wrapping up my belongings and managed to move everything without damaging neither the merchandise nor the house. It took them just under 3 hours to complete the job of doing the inventory, marking every item and stacking it safely in the truck. I tried to make myself useful around the house by backwashing the almost overflowing pool, but ended up busting the hose and flooding the lawn… At least I learned from my mistake… George prepared yellowfin sandwiches while I completed my last tasks in Florida. Fortunately, I checked my email right before leaving for the airport. Tapan informed Leo and I that he was refused boarding at CDG because he did not hold an American transit visa and would be delayed a few days.

He then drove me to the Tri-Rail station, which goes directly to MIA. It was the first time I ever took the train, and my experience was positive overall. The conductor was hilarious, making jokes every time he came on the microphone. There was a problem with the air conditioning. He started it at every station, but it would stay on for a minute and stop functioning. Florida in the summer is not particularly pleasant without air conditioning, so the train felt more like an oven. Also of note, the ticket controller in the train actually carried a pistol.

At MIA, I checked in for my flight, and watched the TSA officer man-handle my backpack as if it was a bag of manure. I had a slice of Sbarro pizza, a couple of Heinekens, and boarded my flight. I was happy to find out that I had the bulkhead, which gave me nice legroom. As I cracked Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code open, I looked forward to meeting Leo, and eventually Tapan in Buenos Aires.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Pictures from my new apartment

These pictures were included with the ad. I made the floorplan myself.

Rebuilding my life in Toronto

It was nice to see some familiar faces when I arrived at Montreal’s PET (Dorval) airport. I dropped my luggage into the rental Buick Allure, which has the interior cheapness of a Geo Metro. They dropped me off at my sister’s, which I use as my base while in Montreal. Her place has almost everything I am looking for in an apartment: nice open kitchen, bright with lots of windows, stainless steel appliances, etc etc. After chatting with my sister and her housemate, I went to bed a little too early, around 10pm.

On Friday, I woke up very early with only one mission in mind: finding an apartment in Toronto. I also activated a prepaid SIM card for my cell phone, as well as deposit some massive tax return cheques which had been sitting in the envelopes for some time. I used the following websites during my apartment hunt:,, and All day Friday, I paged real estate agents and fixed some 11 appointments for viewing on Monday. Friday night, I had dinner with my parents at a Greek restaurant in the Greek district. This particular restaurant is said to rival the best, such as Milos, but at half the price. The chef did deliver decent food but in my opinion, could not match the finesse and exactitude of Milos. The chef is reportedly an ex-Milos, but that fact remains to be established.

On Saturday, I did much of the same: looking at apartments online, and researching different topics such as which telephone/internet/cable TV company to sign up with and other similar information. By Sunday night, I had 3 more appointments, which brought the total to 11 on Monday and 3 on Tuesday. I hoped that it would be enough to find the “perfect” condo. I only looked at condos which were walking distance to Bay Street, which is where my office is located.

Late afternoon on Sunday, I flew to Toronto and had dinner at the Wyndham Bristol Palace airport hotel with my Dad. I then took a cab to the Intercontinental downtown and checked into my spacious room, which had the dimension of most apartments I am looking at. On Monday morning, I started at 9am with a visit of “Radio City”, a midtown development. The pictures on the ad were very nice. I was immediately disappointed with the size of the unit when she opened the door. The finishes were nice, but there was no way I could fit my living room and a dining table. A double bed would have been a stretch in the tiny closed bedroom.

I rapidly expressed my disappointment to the agent, but she did not have anything else to show me. I had some time before my next appointment so I stumbled onto a brand new rental community in a brand new building: the Jazz. The units were brand new, bigger than Radio City, and the location was very good. I was happy to have a backup plan should all other visits be unsatisfactory. I spent the rest of the day looking at apartments which all had some major issue, such as too small or ugly kitchen. By the end of the first day, I had visited 10 apartments (1 agent did not show) but only 2 of them were considered seriously.

On Tuesday, I had a few visits but only two were mildly interesting. I didn’t plan to spend much more time in Toronto, and knew I had to move rapidly to secure an apartment, so I decided to make an offer on a one-bedroom apartment in the Pinnacle, a brand new building about 5 minutes from work. The unit was fairly spacious, but over my budget and with a pretty poor kitchen. My bid wasn’t sent by the agent until the next day, so I waited around at Jon’s place all day and played Grand Theft Auto San Andreas on the Xbox all day. By the end of the day, the agent informed me that a decision has not been made, and that there was a competing offer for the same amount, but with the lease starting 15 days before my offer. By that point, my irrevocable offer became revocable, so I decided to look through the ads one last time while Nathan and Jon fired away at GTA. I found two new ads in the Toronto Star website, one of which seemed absolutely perfect for my needs. Here is the ad as it was published online:

65 Harbour Square, Live on Torontos fantastic waterfront! Best condo building in the city! 1 bedroom, fantastic designer reno, new kitchen, stainless appliances, granite bar, cable, drapes, hardwood floors throughout, walk-in dressing room by Organized Interiors, locker, high floor. Very upscale building, free bus service to Loblaws, Kensington, Bloor Street, etc, beautiful 7th floor rooftop gardens with BBQ's and large indoor pool, gym, private lounge/bar, restaurant, movie & bridge nights. 416-XXX-XXXX

The pictures accompanying the ads made the unit seem even more attractive. When I visited it the next morning, I knew this was the one. The owner, a 82 year-old gentleman, show me around this very luxurious 20 year-old complex. It is located about 7 minutes on foot from work, very close to several grocery stores, includes parking and utilities, has a nice gym which I actually intend to use etc. The only two minor problems were that the unit doesn’t have ensuite laundry, but laundry rooms are available on every second floor, and there is only a French Balcony, which is basically a door but no balcony. Otherwise, it has a beautiful stainless steel kitchen, a huge walk-in dressing room, a hotel-like bathroom, a spacious living room and floor-to-ceiling windows.

I told the owner that I would take the unit immediately. I offered to show him my letter of employment and credit report, but he said that in 25 years renting apartment, he’s always made a gut decision on people he trusts, and has never gone wrong. He turned down my documents and agreed to draft up the leasing agreement. He then drove me to the RBC Main branch so I could get a draft for him, and Voila! I had my apartment. I booked flights for Florida as soon as I returned to Jon’s, and we ordered Chinese food and played the addictive GTA game all evening.

On Saturday morning, I had brunch with Jon at the Golden Griddle. I then returned the nice Audi A6 we had rented at Hertz, and I flew directly to Fort Lauderdale. I had a simple pasta dinner watching championship poker, and chatted with a friend of the family for a while, before going to sleep. I will go through all my boxes and decide what needs to be shipped to Toronto and what can stay behind. I will also buy a flight ticket to South America today to catch up with Leo and Tapan. I intend to leave on August 2nd to Buenos Aires, and fly back on the 15th from Santiago de Chile. It appears the adventures are not quite done yet this year.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Pictures from la Côte d'Azur

The French Riviera

After sleeping a couple of hours, my phone reminded me that it was time to pick up my friend Philippe at CDG. The drive from Ile St-Louis to CDG at 6am only took 15-20 minutes, before the Paris traffic really kicks in. I arrived a bit early so I tried to trade in my Citroen C1 for a category C car, which I was paying for. I got a 307 fioul instead of diesel. Not only did it cost 3 times as much in gas, but it was also significantly less powerful than my 307 gazoil. Philippe was having a coffee when I arrived at his terminal. We quickly dropped his suitcase in the 307 and hit the road. We had a short useless stop at Orly to try to get a diesel car, as the price of fioul in France is unheard of in North America. We first stopped in Fontainebleau so I could show Philippe our house. I broke in a private property for the second time in two days to show Philippe my room and the inside of our house. We had a refreshing drink before taking the A6 down to Dijon, and getting off towards Dijon for the heck of it. Once in Dijon, we decided to head for the Alps, and took the road for Grenoble. We continued past Grenoble until we reached Bourg D’Oisan, a small village in the Mountains which is all about Mountain biking during the summer, and all ski during the winter. The Tour de France was about to pass a couple of days later, so many German and Dutch caravans where parked all along the road where the bikers would pass. We found a reasonably cheap hotel right on the main plaza. We had traditional fare for dinner, and it was ok. Nothing too great… After a quick drink near the hotel, we called it a day.

The next morning, we started driving around 10am, and headed for the Riviera, with a couple of unplanned detours. We had lunch in a Reunionese place, where I broke the back of the chair I was sitting on while leaning back. Another god-sent message to tell me to shape up and lose weight… After lunch, we were stuck in Gap for some time as the Tour was passing nearby. Philippe pulled a nice maneuver and we were able to skip most of the jam. A few hours of driving later, we were pulling into Philippe’s parent’s summer house near Ste-Maxime. It is very nicely decorated, with a pool and a BBQ area. We jumped in the pool as soon as we arrived, while his father fixed some drinks. We had a nice dinner discussing life, work, studies and everything in between. After dessert, Philippe and I went out to see the marina area in Ste-Maxime. We went to the Casino at night, but they didn’t let me in because I had “sport shorts”. If they had pockets, I would have been let in. Sandals and dirty shirts weren’t a problem, however. We turned around, met some guys from Nanterre and chatted with them for a while before going back home.

On the second day sur la Côte d’Azur, we slept quite late and spent almost all day around the pool with Philippe’s parents. We went for a drive in the nearby hills. We had both lunch and dinner at home. We did make it into the casino on this night. Philippe rapidly doubled his money, while I lost half of mine. We agreed that it was a good time to quit, and walked around the boardwalk before going back home.

On Tuesday, we also lazed the day away reading by the pool and enjoying the weather. On Tuesday night, we celebrated Philippe’s birthday (and my graduation). Philippe’s dad prepared very strong sangria before dinner. After a copious dinner accompanied by fantastic local wine, his dad brought out 3 Monte Cristo, which we enjoyed with calvados and cognac while talking about life.

On Wednesday, Philippe and I took the ferry to St-Tropez to check out the weekly market, where they sell everything from ham and cheese to clothes and decorative items. After a stroll through the market, we drove to the Porquerolle Island, which is a natural reserves protected by the government. We took a wrong turn on the highway and ended up in Aix-en-Provence. Philippe asked directions at an Agip gas station but the crazy attendant was absolutely nuts and completely ignored him. Philippe started looking at his maps and he started screaming at him like mad. Philippe told him off and the guy was so angry that he wanted to run out of his booth to fight with us. We drove off laughing our heads off and finally found the Porquerolle island. The island has a few restaurants and hotels, and caters mainly to French tourists. After a pretty bad lunch, we rented mountain bikes and explored the island. We found a beautiful and calm bay where we snorkelled for a while. The water was extremely clear, and I managed to dive to at least 8-10 meters by holding my breath. After returning the bikes and taking the ferry back to land, we drove back to Philippe’s for another delicious BBQ meal. We bought a set of 1000 bornes (1000 miles) cards and played with his dad after dinner. I went to sleep early to catch my 6:10am flight from Nice to Paris. The drive to Nice at 4am was “sporty”, but I had problems finding the rental car return center for Alamo, which is located apart from the others at Terminal 2. I proudly presented my passport to the check-in agent, who responded that I was not registered on the flight. I gave her my reference number, and she started laughing hysterically. I had booked a flight for June 20th, not July 20th! This little mistake cost me another flight ticket, this one for 160 euros! Ouch! The brand new airbus took us to CDG, and I sleep at the Ibis Hotel “by the hour” rooms for 3-4 hours at CDG, before checking in with British Airways for Montreal via Heathrow. The flight was delayed by 1.5 hours, and I only had 2 hours between the flights. I cut the security line at Heathrow, and a bunch of people followed my lead. This lead to total chaos in the security lines, as people started arguing over who should be allowed to cut the line. While security guards attempted to restore order in their line, I was rapidly screened and made my flight. It was nice to be welcomed by my parents in my hometown: Montreal! The funky INSEAD year abroad is now officially OVER.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Breaking into Tapan's Parisian apartment

"Break a leg"

Getting my stuff back from Tapan

When I arrived to Paris, I was supposed to call Tapan to retrieve the suitcases I left behind, and stay with him before picking up my friend Philippe at the airport and heading to the French Riviera. I picked up a very crappy Citroen C1 from National Alamo at Orly and headed to Paris. I called Tapan, but it did not ring. It simply gave me an error message that my correspondent was not within range. I drove to Tapan’s and knocked on the door. Unfortunately, there was no answer. I noticed the door next to Tapan’s was leading to the garbage chute on the inner-courtyard. I opened it and noticed that Tapan’s kitchen window was opened. There was a good 3-meter wide, 3-meter deep concrete gap between the balcony where I was standing and the window ledge. I immediately rejected the possibility of jumping to the window.

I left a note on the door and started walking around Paris looking for an internet café, which was surprisingly hard to find. I finally got found one near St-Michel and checked my email to see if there was a message from Tapan. There wasn’t so I sent him one, as well as sending him an SMS, a Skype, Morse code and smoke signals. I had a crepe to go for dinner and purchased a bottle of wine to drink while watching the fireworks of the 14th of July. I then found an Egyptian bar and had a shisha while thinking about how I could get my stuff. As I sat outside with my shisha around 1am, I watched the restaurant owner next door board up his windows, and it inspired me to somehow build a bridge from the balcony to the window. I walked back to the apartment looking for bridge building material. I reached the apartment empty-handed, but figured I would start to look inside the building. I found a cheap 3.1-meter long aluminium and wood ladder on the floor below Tapan’s and tried it on for size. It barely reached the ledge, holding with 3 inches on the ledge and less than 3 inches on the balcony metal guard rail. I pulled the ladder back and tested its sturdiness by setting it on the stairwell and standing on it. It seemed to withhold my weight appropriately. I put the ladder back in place as steady as possible, took a couple of pictures with my camera and hoped the neighbours would not catch me breaking into Tapan’s apartment. I gave myself the all-systems go, and slowly and carefully made my way across the ladder. I reached the window, reached my foot on the sink and in I was. Only then did I start shaking and feeling the adrenaline injected into my veins. I walked to the door and opened it from the inside. I also found a key which would use to lock the door from the outside and slide under it when I was done. I made myself at home, took a shower and used the internet, before going to sleep on the couch cursing Tapan’s name. It turns out he left spontaneously for Spain a couple of days before and forgot I left stuff at his house.

Pictures from Prague and Bratislava