Beer journalism is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes, it can be a grueling, punishing vocation.
I’ve just now pulled in from Montreal on the train, and although the Mondial de la Biere is by no means over, I’m pleased to be well away from it. As beer festivals go, it’s the best in the country; probably one of the best in the world. I think, though, that three days of it is enough for anyone. Especially if you have a media pass and you’ve been given the ability to sample everything that you want. Three days will pretty much allow you to do that, especially if you took the time beforehand to figure out what was going to be there. If you spend three separate four or five hour days at the festival talking to people and covering events, you’ll get through quite a number of samples. Not enough to be problematic, but certainly enough to experience a pleasant rolling buzz caused by both the properties of the beverage and the overwhelming sense of camaraderie.
That doesn’t sound like a recipe for disaster, and for the most part the festival itself went pretty well. The difficulties that I ended up experiencing were mostly of my own making. It’s due to this increasingly bizarre concatenation of circumstances that I’m pleased to be home and looking forward to clean sheets and my own bed.
I think that the problems stem from the fact that I hadn’t budgeted adequately for the logistics of the thing. You need to get to Montreal. You need a place to stay. You’ve got to get around once you’re there and, since you’re going to be putting away a not insignificant number of four ounce samples, you’re going to have to eat. You can’t just stand there punishing the complimentary media foie gras. There are other food groups, after all.
I booked the train tickets about a month and half in advance when Via Rail had their summer seat sale. They were something like 50% off, but came with the stipulation that they could not be exchanged or refunded. It was only once the train had left Union station for Montreal that the attendant explained why that was. “Ah. You are taking ze long way round,” he said. It turned out that the return ticket took me through Ottawa, which is something like a three hour detour.
It was alright. I was filled with high spirits. After all, I was going to THE beer festival. No Problem. It was only three hours. Besides, it had been a cheap ticket.
And then I got to the hotel.
I had booked a room in a dorm at the Universite de Montreal. It had been all I could find when it came time to book a room. Now, I have to tell you that it reminded me significantly of my dorm room at Mount Allison. It was akin to a monastic cell furnished by IKEA. It had its points, in that it was clean and reasonably priced. It also had some relatively severe disadvantages. The mattress was foam rubber, encased in kind of pleather. The sheets were in no way large enough to remain on the mattress. If you shifted even slightly while lying bed, they would come away from the mattress, exposing the jagged cracks in the pleather surface, subjecting your legs to all manner of tiny scrapes. Because it was a dorm, there was no ensuite bathroom, but sharing a communal shower is little hardship during the summer when there’s no one at the university. Most importantly though, the window had no screening.
At first, that was a kind of blessing. You could lean out the window and see the neighbourhood to the north of the university; a sprawling metropolis of twinkling lights stretching off into the distance. It had also been 40 degrees in the shade the first day, and the cooling breeze was certainly welcome. It is, after all, a building without central air conditioning, and was built to retain warmth during the harsh Montreal winter. When I arrived, the room was heated to something like 30 degrees.
I don’t know if you know this, but populations of the same species of animal that live in different regions develop different accents. That is to say that while a pigeon is a pigeon anywhere, the noises that they make will be slightly different. You might be familiar with the sound of a Toronto pigeon, but the Montreal pigeon sounds slightly different; Almost as though they had adopted a jaunty French-Canadian joual accent.
I learned this to my chagrin on the first day, when I returned from the shower to hear a rustling of feathers and a throaty coo from the other side of the door. The pigeons had gotten in through the open window and had roosted on the small refrigerator. There were two of them. Now, I’m not nervous around animals, so I shooed them out of the room, closed the window and got some toilet paper from the bathroom to tidy up after them. No one wants to contract Psittacosis on their vacation.
I unpacked and I slept fitfully with the window open, listening to aggressive cooing from sill. I tossed and turned because of the cooing, removing the sheets from the mattress. There was no choice, since the room would have been stifling with the window closed.
The next morning, I woke and headed off to get a cup of coffee from the vending machine in the lobby. Upon returning, I realized that I had forgotten to close the window. This time, the pigeons had nested between the fridge and the wall, directly on top of my bag. I shooed them away, as I had the previous day, but they seemed reluctant to leave. There was a very good reason for that. The pigeons had chosen my bag as their nesting site. I don’t know whether it was the bright yellow that attracted them or why they had chosen my bag, but it was obvious that the female was less afraid than it had the previous day.
Some hotels advertise a continental breakfast, but very few advertise free range pigeon eggs.
What would you do in that situation? How do you dispose of an egg? It was pretty much doomed from the get go. You couldn’t take it downstairs and lay it on the lawn. You could probably just throw it in the garbage, but who wants their hotel room to smell like a pigeon omelette, especially in 30 degree heat? My solution was to pick it up using the washcloth the hotel had provided and place it gingerly in a depression outside the window. It seemed the best option since there were now two very aggressive pigeons staring at me accusingly. Of course, I was greeted half an hour later with the sight of yolk on the pavement below.
It was like something out of Hitchcock. After that, they would literally not leave the sill. For the last two days of my stay, there was constant cooing. I tried to explain the problem to the concierge, but with my broken French, all I could manage was “Il y a des oiseaux dans la fenetre.” I think they must have assumed that I had not gotten past the grade three french primer: “La plume de ma tante est sur la table.”
I tried a compromise, by shutting the drapes, but I was awakened at 3:30 in the morning by an extremely angry bird that had become entangled. I don’t know if you have ever woken up with an irate winged rat staring at you, but I have and I can tell you that it’s the stuff of nightmares, especially if you’ve been subsisting on a diet of beer festival food.
After three nights of sleep in a hot room, with a cracked pleather mattress that cut my legs after the sheets were inevitably pulled away, being constantly serenaded by squab, I was sleep deprived and groggy and not having much in the way of fun. It is possibly this sleep deprivation that was the reason that I didn’t notice my pocket being picked on Friday afternoon at the beer festival.
I cannot imagine what the people at the bank thought when I called them to cancel the card. I had become a slightly inebriated paranoid wreck who was muttering “The French took my wallet and the pigeons are trying to get me.” I sat up most of last night, after being awakened twice by the pigeons. They had made their way into the room. On one occasion, I thought one had perched on top of the wardrobe just in order to stare at me. It may or may not have been a dream, but it became clear to me that the incident with the egg had caused some kind of terrible ornithological karma.
It has to be said that I love Mondial. And I love Montreal. I’m content to walk through Outremont or Westmount and look at the lovely houses, or to sit in the old city and watch people discover the traditions and heritage of a proud people.
However, I’m extraordinarily glad that for me, at least, Mondial de la Biere 2011 is over. After the seven hour train ride, Toronto has never looked sweeter, and I have never been more pleased to see the Peregrine Falcons that circle over my apartment building.
(editor’s note: Jordan will probably return to writing about beer in the next few days, whenever his tattered psyche repairs itself.)