Today was almost a total disaster. It was pulled back from the brink by helpful and friendly people and a little bit of luck.
This whole trip has been anchored by one very important appointment in Montreal: at the US consulate to sort out our visas. That appointment dictated our route and how quickly we drove it; it has generated hours of planning: from organising the paperwork to the endless, infuriating online efforts to get a visa appointment here, to the search for an RV park close enough to public transport that we could get to the consulate by 8am. It had all come together. To start with at least.
We got up at 6.15 (though Philippa and I had been awake for much longer) and dragged a frowsty headed Tom to the breakfast table, before going out into the sunshine to find our bus. The 45 Express into Montreal was full of commuters with heads in papers, wearing smart suits and resigned expressions. We had put on our smarter clothes too, ready for our day in the consulate. In fifteen minutes we had roared over the bridge across the St Lawrence and emerged into the gloomy labrynth of the bus station. The consulate was a ten minute walk away through downtown streets just beginning to get busy. We joined the small queue outside the grey granite consulate. When the doors opened, the security guard inspected everyone’s papers before letting them inside. When he got to our sheaf of documents, he stopped. “Sorry”, he said “you don’t have a D-160 and without that form, you can’t come in. You will have to make a new appointment”. The bottom fell out of our little world at that point. It sounds simple enough to make another appointment, but from personal experience I can tell you it takes many hours – days -of doing nothing but endlessly clicking through a series of pages on the State Department website until – entirely randomly – they allocate a small number of appointments somewhere in a six week period. It was not going to happen. He moved us out of the queue and that was that. We went back through everything, standing on the pavement looking desperate. My mind was racing; “it can’t be…”, “there must…” “Surely we…” but like a terrible hangover, there was no brushing this aside. He was right. One key form was missing.
I realised though that if we could get online to the State Department website, we might be able to fill it in, submit it, print it off and make it back to the consulate today. So we raced up to the tourist info place a few blocks away, only to find that their internet terminals were not connected to a printer. Thankfully, a nice guy at the bureau de change pointed us in the direction of an internet cafe a few blocks further on, which we hurried over to. It opened a little after 8.30 and Philippa went in, while Tom and I went for orange juice and strong coffee (respectively) across the road.
The form required her to upload a photo of herself and amazingly she found one that she had sent on an email that she was able to use. Half an hour later she ran out brandishing the form and we dived in a cab to go back to the consulate. We joined a queue of about three people waiting for 9.30 appointments, but the same guard was there and ushered us forward. We were in! We picked a number and waited our turn somewhat anxiously, before finally being called up to a window. The woman who dealt with our case found other problems due partly to the fact that they had changed the rules in between our initial application for the visa, and our appearence at the consulate. But she couldn’t have been more helpful. She really wanted to make it work and she did. The downside was that they needed 72 hours to process the application which means we have to go back next Tuesday, and then wait until Wednesday to pick the passports up by which time we had intended to be on the Gaspe Peninsula. But the alternative could have been much more complicated. We were shaky with relief by the time we headed out and the guard asked us if it had all worked out – honestly what a great bunch they were. We staggered back out onto the street, hitting a brilliant wall of sunshine and feeling dazed.
As we fretted, Tom was an absolute trouper; going along with whatever we did with no fuss and no questions. He waited patiently at the consulate and followed our lead. So the next stop was for him. We went to Montreal’s science center, Isci. It has every kind of hands-on experiment imagineable. From diverting water over turbines and generating electricity, to blowing giant bubbles, playing with sound, and my favourite: animation, They provided a flat surface and some props with a stop motion camera which gave you thirty frames to create an animation. We made pipe-cleaner people who danced and jumped and when we played one back for the first time Tom’s eyes lit up and he absolutely roared with laughter. He couldn’t believe it, so of course we all made more.
For the rest of the day we explored the old port area, found bookshops and picked up camping information for Quebec, and generally played the part of tourists. We ended the day in a great little Belgian restaurant in the old quarter. A raucus private party was going on on the terrace and we heard bursts of it whenever the back door was opened, but the dining room was a little coccoon of peace. Moules, steak and salmon, frittes of course, good beer and an attentive waitress with a ready smile. Honestly, everyone we have dealt with here was been warm and friendly – only too pleased to help. Its erased the miserable experience I had with my friend Mark back when we were about 17 and Greyhounding around North America. Then, Montreal was a place of rain, unfriendly Francophones and a bus station baggage handler who deliberately left our backpacks in the rain because we hadn’t got enough money for a tip. We couldn’t wait to leave. This time it will be a pleasure to come back. The day that began with disaster, ended with a warm feeling of contentment.