Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Montreal - City of Festivals

Montrealers celebrate EVERYTHING from construction (yes, we have a construction festival!) to snow during La Fête des Neiges.
We don't let wide variations in heat and cold stop us from getting out and having fun. There is always a festival happening year-round in Montreal, so whenever you plan to visit, you'll be able to take part in the celebrations.

As the summer starts to heat up, so do the array of great festivals.
Piknic Electronik runs from May to October and is held each Sunday in a family-friendly park where you can listen to electronic music. Bring a picnic, enjoy the warm weather and dance to the music. With a $10 entrance fee, you can't go wrong.

Similar to the Picnik Electronik, but for only one week in June is MUTEK, an international festival of digital creativity and electronic music.

If you're a beer drinker and connaisseur, the best can be sampled at the International Beer Festival. Coupons can be bought and exchanged for samples and you can even get a special souvenir tasting mug.

Not a festival, though the atmosphere makes it feel like one - don't forget Montreal hosts Formula 1. Crescent street downtown gets closed off for free concerts and to show off the cars. You may even be able to get your picture taken in one.

Just before the school year ends, you can find the Eureka festival in the Old Port. It celebrates all aspects of science and is especially geared to children and education.

The summer seems to make the city come alive after a long hibernation, but we'll still duck in for some movies at Image+Nation, an LGBT cinema festival. But we head mostly back outside for Les Francofolies, which celebrates French music from around the world with more than 1000 acts.

You never know what you're going to get when you take in a show at the Fringe festival. Anyone can submit an idea for a show and they're choosen by random lottery, so you can get anything from high-quality entertainment to something just a little zany. It's worth the risk!
Or if you're looking for something even more original, if that's even possible, there's the Infringement Festival which runs right after.

Fireworks light up the night sky during the International Fireworks Competition. This is one of my favorite free activities to enjoy all summer. I go to the Old Port to watch them and take a stroll by the river - it's a very romantic outing. You can buy tickets and get a front row seat at La Ronde if you really want to get up close and personal.

One of our most well-known fests, Just For Laughs, brings together the best in international comedy acts. I take in a show every year and always leave with my cheeks and belly hurting from laughing so much. Loads of fun and silliness!

Our biggest fest of all is probably the Jazz festival. This is one fantastic festival. If you're not a big fan of jazz, don't worry, there are tons of extra acts with different styles to please everyone. Just taking a walk and enjoying the free shows in the evening is a great way to enjoy the city.

Right on the tails of the Jazz festival is Les Nuits d'Afrique or African Nights in English. It's a celebration of African music and dance, with performances also including artists from the Caribbean, Central and South America. The influences of African music are far-reaching and this fest brings them all together again.

If you're a fan of films from Asia or anime, look no further than
Fantasia. Hugely popular, you need to buy tickets well in advance to catch a screening.

A relative newcommer on the festival scene is Osheaga, a festival of music and art, held outdoors at Parc Jean-Drapeau.

There is even something for the little ones at La Fête des Enfants, or Children's Festival. It's in August and totally free for families with children under 12 years of age. There's music and dance shows and everything one can think of to entertain children.

Autumn brings POP Montreal, yet another great international festival of music and the arts! Activities related to POP Montreal go on in the city year round; from a craft fair to stuff for kids, so check back on the site often to see what's going on.

Now we're back into winter, but that doesn't keep us hiding inside. We have the Montreal Highlights Festival. This is a celebration of the finest music and food. You can sample dishes from internationally acclaimed chefs. The lights stay on all night for Nuit Blanche, where everything stays open for everyone to enjoy for free. Free public transportation is provided and you can do anything from go to a museum, skate outside under the stars or take a tango lesson. There's always a brunch or pancake breakfast provided in the morning if you've managed to stay up all night.

In conjunction with the Highlights Festival are the Montreal International Music Initiative or MIMI awards, given to talented emerging artists in Montreal.

Oh my, are we done yet? Did I miss anything? I probably did, but that's ok, I'll catch it next year. That's the beauty of Montreal's famous festivals.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Traveling Alone in Morocco

Don't be scared to travel alone in Morocco if you're a female!

No doubt, you will be approached/hassled to buy a tacky souvenir, eat at a certain restaurant or asked for money just about every minute while walking through a busy market, but walk quickly and with confidence and you can still get by.

Moroccans are very welcoming people and in my experience, take a firm "no!" for an answer when you don't want to be bothered. I spent a week traveling solo from Agadir, to Marrakesh, to Essaouira and the Ourika Valley and never feared for my safety.

Yes, it is very easy to get lost in those windy roads of the markets and the crowds and chaos can be bewildering, but you can find sanctuary and beauty to escape to easily.

Some men will ask to talk to you and ask you out for a coffee. If you are not interested, just say "no" and keep walking. I also found they left me alone quicker if I said I was married (which I am) and showed my wedding ring. You also have the option of covering your hair with a hijab. I found I was bothered less when I did that, however during one afternoon prayer, someone tried to pull me into a mosque (and I regret not going in to see).

If you are already shopping at a stall and the owner invites you to sit and have mint tea, it's hard to resist and can be fun. In my experience, they were happy to show me pictures of their family and country, as well as ask me about my home life. Though I'll admit, I had so much mint tea while I was there, I started to get a heartburn just thinking about another glass!

Similarily, if you are invited to their home for a meal, I think you can feel safe doing so. Even when they do not have a lot to offer, they are very giving and love to ask questions about your life and travels. I always carry small souvenirs and postcards from my city to give to people as thank you gifts. Don't be shy to give a little bit of money to pay for your meal, or there may be an item you have and take for granted that they may want or need. For example, I gave a shopkeeper's wife who made me lunch my sunglasses. She liked them and almost cried with joy when I gave them to her.

I don't know too many other countries where you can get such insight into the daily life of the people in such an intimate way. They are genuinely curious to learn more about you, especially fellow women.

On the more negative side, I did have my arm grabbed once by an over-zealous shopkeeper trying to get me to look in his store. I turned around and loudly told him to let me go. When he did not, I raised my fist, threatening to punch him and he ran away. Do not be scared to cause a scene if you need to. He was the most annoying heckler I got, so he is not representative of the people. That was also in Marrakesh, which is a bit more busy and wild than the smaller cities, like Essaouira.

It helps and gives you better service and respect if you can speak French - and I'm sure you'll get even better deals if you can speak Arabic. Even without those skills, I have no qualms advising ladies to go ahead and enjoy the country alone. Dress like the locals and keep an open mind. Take the time to talk to and get to know the locals. I did not sense any danger taking buses, taxis or traveling at night alone. A visit to Morocco is well worth it!