Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

Run For The Border!

Living in Montreal, I guess I've always taken it for granted that the American border is only a 45 minute drive away and we can pretty much pop down any time we want. I've spoken to a lot of Americans, however, who tell me they've never tried crossing by car because they don't know what to expect and are scared.

Hopefully I can demystify things a bit because the Canadian-American border is actually a very easy border to cross and I assure you it's not scary. You will be asked some questions and if you have nothing to hide, it's not a problem at all.

Keep in mind, this is coming from a woman of colour, who has not always maintained employment, often travels with a white man and sometimes our white child, and has crossed the border at some odd times of day and night. If we can all get through, surely you can!

Here's the breakdown of the sorts of questions you'll probably be asked:
  • What is the purpose of your trip? Where are you going? When are you coming back?
  • How do the people in the car know each other?
  • Do you have anything to declare?
  • Do you have any alcohol or cigarettes?
  • Have you ever been arrested?
  • Are you returning any merchandise to the US/Canada or leaving anything there?
  • Where are you from?
  • What is your occupation?
  • Is this your car?
  • Can you open your trunk? (Border officer will take a quick peak and will often open any coolers or bags. They do this most often in the summer. Check after because they often neglect to close coolers they've opened, which is annoying!)
  • Where will you be staying?
  • Do you have any firearms on you?
  • How much money do you have on you?
They will usually ask a random combination of a few of the above. It's best to answer directly, "yes," or "no," and make eye contact. Don't start making jokes about the small stow-away you've crammed into your modified dashboard. Don't say you don't know or start making strange sudden movements. 

Things that will make your life easier when crossing:
  • Have proper identification - that means a valid passport or enhanced license (Licence Plus)
  • Supporting documents like a visa, permanent resident card, birth certificate, marriage certificate, letter of permission to take a minor out of the country, or car registration, as the case may be
  • Eat or throw out any fruits, vegetables, flowers or plants that are in your car before you cross. They will be confiscated by border agents and thrown out! (Kinder Surprise toys are also not allowed in the US)
  • Have everyone take off their sunglasses and hats
  • Get a Nexus card so you can go through the express lane and answer fewer questions
Border wait times are longest during the summer and in the afternoon. Crossing at odd hours - pretty much anytime after 10pm and before 8am - will get you through the fastest. Also, if you have the choice of more than one border-crossing, pick the one in the smallest town. 

That's pretty much it, so get out there and enjoy the freedom we have here and happy border crossings!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Driving In Montreal

My father was a mechanical engineer. He loved driving. He believed everyone MUST learn to drive (and learn to swim). It was a lifeskill of PARAMOUNT IMPORTANCE. He was accident-free until the day he died, after over 35 years of driving. Luckily I inherited a similar love of driving and I believe a similar skill (though I can't claim being 100% accident-free - there was that one time with the food poisoning and a concrete wall....)
I believe I learned from one of the best and I learned here in my hometown of Montreal. I passed my test during a snowstorm. I can drive standard or automatic and I don't lose my cool on the aggressive, falling apart, pothole-ridden chaos that are the roads of Montreal.

However, my advice for visitors who want to drive in Montreal is: DON'T DO IT!

Really, it's probably not worth the headache. We have a web of one-way streets that will make you crazy. Our infrastructure has been deemed worse than most of the Third-World's. Parking can be an expensive nightmare - also once you do find one, you better know how to parallel park and quickly! We are speed demons on the road who will cut you off in a second, from the left or right. Stop signs are taken as suggestions. Yellow lights mean speed up and get through the intersection. It is all a bit wild, but once you understand it, you'll see the chaos actually has a sense of predictability to it. Many people here drive like they don't care if they get killed or kill you. If you're ok to take that chance, by all means, come play Russian Road Roulette with us.

On the plus side, we have an amazing extensive public transport system. The majority of our taxi drivers are decent, non-shady characters. We have wonderful sections of the city reserved purely for pedestrians and of course we have the largest underground city in the world. Who needs a car in the city then?
I'll concede you do probably want a car to get out of the city, though our commuter trains are a very comfortable and affordable way to do that.

All that said, if you really are game to drive, there are a few things you should know:

  • All our road signs are in French. "Arrêt" means stop. "Congestion" means traffic and "bloqué" means the road/exit is blocked. Since we're under almost constant construction, you'll see lots of that, in addition to "detour." A "sortie" is an exit and an "Expy" is an expressway.
  • You can't turn right on a red light on the island of Montreal. Obey any restrictions for right turns on reds when off the island.
  • This tip is useful for all of Canada: even numbered highways run east-west and odd numbered run north-south.
  • Flashing green lights give you priority turn priviledges.
  • You do not need to yield at flashing yellow lights. You need to treat flashing red lights as a stop sign.
  • At a four-point stop, the person on the right has the "right of way." I'll put this loosely though as much of the time, it goes by who got there first.
  • When you see a green arrow, you can go straight but NOT TURN unless it turns to a full green light or a turning arrow.
  • A sign with a black straight arrow means you cannot turn, you MUST continue straight, even if it would be theorectically possible. Don't anger locals or upset the flow of traffic by trying to get away with it.
  • There are some signs that prohibit turns during certain hours, usually during rush hours. They're in 24 hour time, so understand the system before you get on the road.
  • While there are exceptions, most Montreal drivers seem to be extra impatient with outside license plates. Don't take it personally.
  • We have speed cameras, so you'll receive a bill in the mail if caught.
  • The secret to winter driving is to go SLOWLY. Don't stomp on the brakes either. Everything must be done with a light touch. Winter tires are obligatory on all vehicles from December 15th til March 15th, but Communauto is exempt.
  • Children up to 40lbs and 63cm must travel in an appropriate safety seat and never in the front seat. Taxis are exempt from this requirement.
Above all, use common sense,  keep your eyes open and bring a bucket full of nerves and patience with you.
Good luck and happy driving!

Feel free to comment with other tips and experiences!