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Montreal 2003: Day One
Added: August 12 2004

Wednesday, August 13th, 2003.

Almost universally, when I go on any kind of major trip, I wind up packing until late into the evening. I feel like I have to double- and triple-check everything; I have to remember to bring everything that I might need. In this case, a 2:00am bedtime means that the 6:30am alarm clock is a little extra brutal.

My father drops me off at a nearby MARTA (subway) station, and, after the long ride through town, I wind up at the airport about 7:40am.

As I wander through the baggage claim area on the way towards the gate, I'm stunned to see a familiar face. It's one of my Summer League teammates, who's there to pick up his mother. The previous night's misery makes for some conversation about the team and about my absence that coming weekend. He understands, and agrees that I'm probably making the right move. But I have to laugh at the coincidence of bumping into him. It's like Fate reiterating that I'm doing the right thing. We talk until his mother arrives, then go our separate ways.

For the record, I tend to fly on an airplane about once every three years. (Read: one roundtrip, so, okay, twice every three years.) So I'm completely inexperienced about airport procedures. Luckily for me, Hartsfield is wholly lacking in signs with instructions. I can only assume that they figure they're not necessary, granted that the overwhelming majority of flyers fly on a regular basis.

I decide to go with Old Reliable, and head for the gate. I hit the security clearance area and discover that there's a problem: I haven't checked in, and I'm carrying three bags. The security guard chuckles and points me back towards the check-in area.

One of my close friends flies pretty often, and after hearing him rave about Delta's e-ticket check-in computer thingy, I figure that's where I'm supposed to start. The machine tells me to swipe my credit card, but I don't have the one I used to buy the ticket. So there I am begging for help. One Delta employee comes over and gives it a shot, and fails. Dumbfounded, he grabs another employee, and her attempt ends the same way. Simultaneously, it dawns on them: I'm flying to Montreal. The computers only work with domestic flights, and Montreal is not a domestic flight. Yes, I should have known that. We all chuckle and they point me to the International check-in area.

I get to the International area, and there's a line out the arse. I've already killed a good forty-five minutes in my meandering idiocy, and the two hours I've allowed myself is quickly evaporating. Fortunately, not long after I take my place in line, a gentleman arrives and requests that anyone flying to Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, or Montreal head to another shorter line. This means that I go from being fiftieth in line to being second in line. Check-in goes surprisingly quickly, and I head back to the security area. All clear, and I head to the gate.

Remember that part about packing late into the night before any major trip? When I finally go to bed, I usually tell myself that I'll catch up on sleep on the plane. You know what? That has never actually happened. Instead, I end up listening to CD's and flipping through radio stations, wishing I were asleep.

As we approach Montreal, I notice something about the houses we're flying over. There are tons and tons of swimming pools. I'm talking more-than-Florida / more-than-Southern-California swimming pools. It seems like a majority of the houses we're flying over have them. And it's baffling: why have a swimming pool in a place where you can only use it five or six months out of the year? I live in a city where you could use one nine months out of the year, and there might be five of them in my neighborhood of 175 homes. Oh, and the few houses we fly over that don't have them don't have to worry: each neighborhood has a giant one, larger than the big one that's in my own neighborhood.

We arrive in Montreal right on time (semi-impressive, granted that half of the flights I've been on in my life have been delayed). Those of us on this flight seem to have been cursed, however, in that we seem to have arrived at the farthest gate possible. The walk from the gate to the baggage claim area feels like a mile, and I'm not exaggerating. Up some stairs, down a really long hallway, down some stairs, down another really long hallway, more stairs, more hallways. I swear I didn't walk this far at Hartsfield, and it's ten times bigger than Montreal-Dorval.

I eventually emerge in what appears to be another security checkpoint, but is actually Canadian customs. I pick what seems to be the shortest line, and once again have to deal with the curse. With four people ahead of me, one of the two agents serving my line decides that it's time for lunch. The entire line behind me groans, and we watch in horror as every other line gets shorter and shorter, and people who arrived long after we did breeze their way through.

Finally, I get to the customs agent, and he asks the requisite questions. When I filled out the Customs form on the plane, I left the "food" box blank, granted that my cereal bars don't count in the categories listed as food (meats, vegetables, dairy products). He fills in "yes", and tells me that the agent at the end (after I get my baggage) will ask me about it. He asks me about my destination, and I say "Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu" (where the tournament is specifically being held) in a halfway-decent French accent. I don't know if the accent has anything to do with it, but he suddenly stops asking questions and allows me to pass.

I get to the baggage claim, and recoil in horror. Watching all of the bags rotate around, I realize something. In all of my previous flights, I've loaded up my two trusty duffel bags. But one of my duffel bags has a broken zipper, and out of my fear that someone in security might need to go through it and be unable to zip it closed, I've borrowed a small suitcase from my father. The realization: I can't remember what it looks like. Half of the bags on the conveyor look exactly like it. I check all of them, and not one of them has his name on it. Finally, a blue suitcase emerges, and it dawns on me: his is blue, all of the rest of the similar ones are black. Ahhhh.

I get to the final customs agent. She takes my form, scans it over, and clears me through without asking about my food. Or anything else, for that matter. Weird. (I found out later from some locals that Montreal is considered "easy" as far as customs goes.)

In advance, the other Head Observer and I realized that our flights are within 90 minutes of each other, so the plan is for me to meet him at Domestic Arrival. I had been expecting for Customs and baggage claim to take an hour or more. Instead, even with the delays, it took only about thirty minutes, leaving me with extra time to kill.

Taking the advice of my Summer League captain, I wander over to the ATM machines and take out Canadian currency. (This is apparently the cheapest way to get currency, as opposed to going to an exchange place and converting American dollars.) My next stop: food, granted that my flight only supplied me with a Coke and a small bag of pretzels.

I get to the Burger King inside the airport, and am completely shocked to see that a Whopper costs $4.99. Okay, airport inflation, sure, but $4.99? Ah, yes, the joy of a slightly lower-valued currency. $4.99 in Canadian dollars is roughly $3.50 in American dollars. Yep, that makes more sense. (This is not the only time I recoil in the days ahead.)

I place my order, hand over a twenty dollar bill, and am stunned when the cashier hands back two fives and a whole mess of change. I shove it all in my pocket, opting to sort it out later and praying that it's right. When I get back to the table, I pull out the mess of change to figure it out. Lo and behold, Canada has two-dollar coins. Sure, America's got two-dollar bills, but have you ever seen one? (Strangely, I have one in my wallet that I was given for filling out a survey a few years back. I figure it's a good backup.) I poke through all of the change, count it out, and, yep, it adds up.

After eating, I kill some more time looking at the shops at the airport. Not much later, I find myself with this child-like curiosity and start staring out the windows at the buildings around the airport. Here I am in this new city, in a new country, but without transportation. All I can do is stare at the horizon.

Finally, I head downstairs to the Domestic Arrival area. He's told me he'll be wearing a straw hat, and, eventually, a straw hat emerges. As he approaches, I wander over and introduce myself: "Hi, I'm Chris." His response: "No, you're not." The pic I sent him was of me standing next to a teammate, and he thought I would be the other guy. Oh, and: "I thought you'd be older." (Doesn't help that I look young for my age, but this ends up being a rather common expectation as the weekend progresses.)

The original plan was to hitch a ride to the fields with a few of his friends from a Vancouver Masters team. Only, it turns out that there are seven of them, and they're renting a seven-passenger van. We get to the rental area and, yep, it's one of those new-fangled vans that has two separate seats in the second row rather than a single full-length row. They get their gear in, and we figure we're about to hire a taxi. Suddenly, one voice says, "I think we have room." I cram my duffel bag between the second-row seats and sit on top of it, the seventh player takes a nice (illegal) spot sitting in the middle up front, and we're in. For whatever reason, the guy sitting in the middle front has to be the tallest guy in the van, making our situation slightly obvious.

As we're pulling out, we notice one of the parking garage reps chasing after the van. We immediately think we're screwed: that they're going to bust us for having nine people in a seven-person van. We get to the exit, and he walks up to our lane. Then, he moves across to the next lane. The entire van breathes a sigh of relief, and a voice from the van tells the driver to get us the hell out of there.

The tournament is being held in a city called Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, a good hour-plus drive away. It's a rather uneventful drive, save for a few insane lane changes and a road sign that claims we're heading west when we're actually heading east. (Yes, we freaked out.) Oh, and one of the guys in the van asks if anyone else noticed how many swimming pools there were in Montreal.

As we arrive in Saint-Jean, we drive by a gas station, and I notice that the sign out front claims that gas is 79 cents. I'm stunned, and note to the others how phenomenally cheap gas is in Canada. That's when they break the news: in Canada, they don't sell gas by the gallon, they sell it by the liter. That 79 cent rate translates to approximately US$2.20/gallon. (At the time, gas in Atlanta is in the $1.40/gallon range.) I mentally scratch "cheap gas" off the lists of things to find in Canada.

We arrive at the fields, step out of the van, and realize something. It's hot. Really hot. Somewhere in the range of how hot it was in Atlanta during the days leading up to my departure. Yep, I packed a whole bunch of long-sleeve shirts, and I suddenly realize that I'm not going to need a single one of them. It seems totally insane to fly a thousand miles north, and end up with the same weather.

One of the tournament directors points out where the other Head Observer and I are staying. The tournament is being held on a military college campus, and they've rented the "Captain's Quarters" for the volunteers. It's a really nice house. Best part: it's about fifty yards from the fields. (Score! Chris gets to sleep until fifteen minutes before game time!)

The Captain's Quarters. (Day Four)

After dumping off our stuff, we head back to the fields to see if we can help in any way, assuming that we'll deal with Observer-related matters later in the evening. The next several hours involve all kinds of miscellaneous, um, crap. After dropping off supplies at the pre-tournament gathering, I end up helping one of the tournament directors to move fifty-four (yes, fifty-four) giant (yes, unbelievably huge and heavy) water bottles from the house to the off-site fields location.

While unloading bottles, I get my first taste of one of my main curiosities of the weekend. Quebec, as you probably know, is a largely French-speaking province. In Montreal proper, most people are bilingual. But as you get away from Montreal, you start to find more and more areas speaking French exclusively. I took French for most of my pre-college scholastic career, and though I've forgotten most of it, I'm still eager to give it a try. Well, the manager of the complex speaks exclusively in French. And here's where my excitement takes a beating: when he offers some advice on how to effectively move the water bottles, I'm completely lost. Fortunately, the TD is there to translate, and I offer up a meek "Merci".

We drop off the truck at the pre-tournament gathering, then discover that we still need transportation back to the fields to finish a few other tasks. Another of the head tournament director offers us his car. But it's a stick-shift, and the TD with me can't drive a stick. I had no plans to drive while in Canada, but here I am driving around Saint-Jean in the head tournament director's brand new Honda Civic.

While we're back at the fields, I look up and notice something floating up in the sky. A few minutes later, more and more appear. It turns out that the same week we're in Saint-Jean, there's a major hot air balloon festival going on, called Montgolfieres. Work slows to a halt as everyone watches tens of balloons float directly over the fields. (Later that night inside the house, I hear explosions. I run outside, and catch a major fireworks display - lasting twenty minutes or more - coming from the festival location. I think to myself: can you imagine having this every night this weekend?)

Balloons fly over the fields. (Day Two)

After eating dinner back at the pre-tournament gathering, the TD and I head out to the grocery store to buy supplies for the house. There, I receive the next major surprise about Canada. I decide to buy a disposable camera; cost: $9.79. I get to the cashier, and am stunned when the total rings up $11.27. Yep, that's $1.48 in tax. It turns out that in Quebec, there's a 7% federal tax and a 7.5% provincial tax. And you thought you paid a lot in sales tax.

We make it back to the house, and I finally get a chance to discuss Observer-related issues with the other Head Observer. We decide to discuss things on the back porch of the house, which is a few yards from the Richelieu River.

The view from the back porch. (Day Two)

The topics of the discussion range from the minor to the major: what options we'll allow teams in terms of what we do, various thoughts on rules calls, etc. My panicking going in begins to ease a little, as it seems like we're hearing each other and accepting each other's advice and opinion. It makes me feel like I have something to offer in terms of my own experience. He eventually adds that he wants me to be the designated Head Observer when we're on the field. In my head, it's a little surprising, but, at this point, I feel like I can handle it.

The discussion lasts an hour or so, before both of us realize that it's nearly 1:00am, and we have a 7:45am Observer meeting planned.

Man, I'm glad we're only fifty yards from the fields.

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Montreal 2003: Prologue
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Montreal 2003: Day Two