It is winter here in Melbourne, the rainy season.  We have come full circle, living among students at University College on the University of Melbourne campus.  It was the very first place we stayed when we came to Australia over eight years ago.  I read an amusing memoir a few years back about an American TV comedy writer who lost his job and decided to “retire” at the age of 28.  He went to Florida, of course, moving in with an elderly piano teacher in a retirement village since he was too young to buy a condo.  He signed up for softball and shuffleboard and tried to fit in with people twice his age.  The young students here seem to tolerate us, but I suspect our gray hair renders us more-or-less invisible most of the time.  This was a Women’s College originally, which shows up in the attractive flower gardens and the extraordinary effort to make food for two hundred residents both nutritious and palatable.  

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We sometimes see students who think nothing of wearing their pajamas to dinner.  Monday and Tuesday, however, they all wear black gowns for “high table.”  Their tradition goes back to Oxford and Cambridge, where a table was set on a dias for the master and fellows of the college who sat, quite literally, above the undergraduates, no doubt engaging in scintillating conversation about arcane subjects.  It actually pre-dates the Middle Ages, when families co-habited with servants and animals and members needed to eat above the others if they hoped to eat at all.  At high table here, the students are served their dinners and allowed to partake of wine, but the noise level in the hall has driven us to fetching our dinner plates beforehand, like elderly orphans begging for scraps.

We are recently back from a sabbatical sojourn in Washington DC and Montreal, Canada.  When my professor spouse first mentioned the invitation to speak to a gathering in Quebec City, we were living in Washington DC and Montreal was our very next stop.  The timing of the talk didn’t register until I put it on my calendar.  It was for April 8, five weeks after our scheduled return from the sabbatical.  If push came to shove, you could get from Montreal to Quebec City by dog sled during the winter we just endured.  Melbourne, on the other hand, is not even in the same hemisphere as Quebec.  To get to Quebec City requires getting on at least two planes for nearly 24 hours and passing the time between meals reading or watching a movie or two or six or annoying your seat mate with your life history in excruciating detail.  I try to spend most of my time sleeping.  

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Melatonin is a hormone made by your body’s pineal gland, which is inactive during the day, but begins to produce melatonin when the sun goes down.  Melatonin levels in the blood rise sharply and you begin to feel less alert.  With any luck, you get very sleepy.  This helps regulate circadian rhythms, the “body clock,” which gets upset when you start whizzing around the planet at 550 miles per hour.  The pills you buy over the counter are usually lumped with vitamins or herbal medicines and are completely unregulated. They can give you very weird dreams and I would not suggest taking them, but they do make sleep possible during jet sitting jaunts of long duration.  I am a jet sitter, not a setter.  Setters are dogs.

We booked seats on a Qantas flight to LA, stayed overnight at an airport hotel, then flew up to Montreal the next morning where we stayed put for nearly a week.  With that recovery time, the talk in Quebec was just about doable.  

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I’m sure most people drive or fly from Montreal to Quebec City, but the train is infinitely preferable to either.  You check your bags in the station and get meal service if you book business class.  There is wi-fi and a large window to watch the world flying by at a reasonable trot.  There is the seductive rocking of the coach as it rolls through the countryside.  It was Spring, officially, but still plenty of snow on the ground.  

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The narrowing of the St Lawrence River below Cap-Diamant (Cape Diamond)  provided the name given to the city.  Kébec,  an Algonquin word, means “where the river narrows.”  Founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain,  Quebec City is one of the oldest cities in North America and a major tourist destination in Canada. The ramparts surrounding the old city (Vieux-Québec) are the only fortified city walls north of Mexico. The city of half a million is the capital of the province and home to Laval University, the venue for my wife’s talk.  I had been there only once before, on our rather casual honeymoon in the middle of December twenty-eight years ago.  

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The City is known for its fine food and French Canadian charm.  On this trip, we were fortunate enough to get a lot of both.  Our University professor hostess went out of her way to make us feel welcome.  Even though some sites, such as the Fortress, were not really open for tourists, I was glad we were not there at the height of the season.  The old city is small enough to be overwhelmed by millions of camera-happy visitors like me.  

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The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was one of the most important engagements in North American history.  It was a pivotal battle in the Seven Years’ War, known as the French and Indian War in the United States.  The battle began on the 13th of September 1759.  It was fought between the British Army and Navy, and the French Army on a plateau just outside the walls of Quebec City on lands originally owned by a farmer named Abraham Martin.  The battle involved fewer than 10,000 troops between both sides, but proved to be a deciding moment in the conflict between France and Britain over the fate of New France. It decided the future of Canada.  

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General James Wolfe’s plan of attack depended on secrecy and surprise. A small party of men would land by night on the north shore, climb a tall cliff and overpower the garrison that protected a small road, allowing 5,000 soldiers to ascend the cliff by the road and then deploy for battle on the plateau.  The culmination of a three-month siege by the British and several aborted forays, the battle lasted only fifteen minutes. British troops successfully resisted the advance of the French soldiers and militia under General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm.  Both generals were mortally wounded during the battle; Wolfe received three gunshot wounds that ended his life within minutes of the beginning of the engagement and Montcalm died the next morning after receiving a musket ball wound just below his ribs.

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In the wake of the battle, the French evacuated the city and their remaining military force in Canada and the rest of North America came under increasing pressure from the British. While the French forces continued to fight and prevailed in several battles after Quebec City was captured, the British never relinquished heir hold on the virtually impregnable Citadelle.  With the Treaty of Paris, France ceded most of its possessions in eastern North America to Great Britain in 1763.  

We have a friend who grew up here.  During the Winter Festivals in January and February, he would take part in one of the most grueling events of the season— ice canoeing across the Saint Lawrence.  It is the only way to cross the swollen river when there is too much ice for ferries, but not enough to form an ice bridge.   Crews of five athletes alternately push their canoe across the ice on the frozen parts of the river, and row in the open water with currents of four knots and tides of over 15 feet, encountering ice blocks weighing a few tons.   Our peaceful ferry ride across to Levy is as close as we will come to the practice,  

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The talk was well received and we were soon winging our way from Quebec to Toronto in time to board a giant Cathay Pacific jet bound for Hong Kong, a slight detour on our way back to Melbourne.  We used to live in Hong Kong but the city is changing fast.  The airport is brilliant and there are even more stunning skyscrapers but the air pollution seems worse.  I don’t imagine the air quality in the Special Administrative Region is at the top of PRC’s concerns about Hong Kong.  The so-called “umbrella revolution,” the pro-democracy demonstrations must have put China’s leaders out of joint.  

The reason for the Asian stopover was an invitation to address yet another group of students, and to introduce my wife’s new book—  “International Capital Markets :  Law and Institutions” to the Asian market.  

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We didn’t have a host or any other appointments other than the talk, neither did we have a week to get our brains and bodies back on Hong Kong time.  We took it easy,  threading our way through the intricate maze of walkways and roads observing colorful people and noisy birds.  Each morning we woke to the eerie calls of gibbons, sounding out their loud calls from Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, a stone’s throw away from our hotel.  

My wife caught up with one of her friends and I caught up with one of mine— How Man Wong.  He has a small  but effective outfit called China Exploration and Research Society, now based in a village  at the south-east tip of Hong Kong Island called Shek O. Finding How Man “at home” is quite a trick, since he is almost always on the move.  I was lucky.  Catching up on the most recent of activities of CERS took half a day, and  I was only getting a superficial picture.  While his main focus remains on China and the Tibetan plateau, he has been venturing into Myanmar, Bhutan and even Cuba.  Recording the adventures of 102 year-old pilots who flew over the Himalayas and supplied China during WW II;  trying to save freshwater dolphins in the Irrawaddy River with a cell phone message from Jackie Chan;  repatriating Burmese cats to Myanmar and honoring Cuban-born performers of Chinese opera.  His work boggles the mind.   Check out the website— and see for yourself.  

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Three days later we were back with Cathay Pacific logging nine more hours in a tube from morning ’till night, flying on the backs of ancient plants and decomposed dinosaurs.  From late spring to the beginning of winter.  

We are in College now, back to our morning walks around Princes Park, petting the resident cat and lining up for meals in the dining hall.  The motto at University College is Frappe Fort or “Strike Hard,” which has been re-translated by the administrators to make it sound less threatening, a little less like something out of “Game of Thrones,” —  The politically correct version is:  “What you do, do with a will.”  Even if it involves indecently long periods spent on airplanes, waking up to Gibbon calls and loading up on Melatonin.  

Who can argue with that?