Bonjour de Montreal! Comment ca va? Nous sommes tres bien. I could write a few more sentences, but why strain the brain on vacation? High school French only gets us so far here, the second largest francophone city – Paris being #1 – on earth. Nevertheless we make an effort with the wait staff and shop keepers. Our Spanish is much better, so we find ourselves saying gracias instead of merci, bano instead of toilette, la cuenta instead of l’addition, etc, etc. So far the locals have been patient, some even think it is funny. Hahaha!
Our VRBO townhouse (https://www.vrbo.com/en-ca/cottage-rental/p9748973?adultsCount=2&haExternalSourceId=6d31481f-5945-47a2-9a52-cb141d87159a%206a70320f-a7c1-4a12-a5b3-04d504dbdaca%20hasc%20email&uni_id=8832260&utm_campaign=HACA_TRV_RES_HASC_replyReservationBlank_PPB&utm_content=listing-id-127.9748973.8832260&utm_medium=email&utm_source=SYS&utm_term=20230530) is situated within walking distance of the main attractions and would be perfect if not for a few inconveniences, like air con without a remote to operate it. The first night here it was tres chaude. Yes, very hot. And humid. No windows to open. No fans to turn on. No a/c. It took a day and several text messages to the host that mostly went unanswered, and finally a phone call to VRBO admin, before we sorted out the various deficiencies. And, of course, there was the inevitable argument between us, Craig not wanting to hassle the host, and me livid about her indifference. Always good to get the fighting out of the way early on in a trip.
Mon dieu, Montreal est tres belle! The history, heritage buildings, parks, food, shopping … all exceed our expectations, which were helpfully lowered by a friend who exclaimed “WTF are you going to do in Montreal for a week?!”
The multicultural inhabitants are all so stylishly turned out. Edgy coifs, fabulous foot wear, designer clothes. We feel like country bumpkins in our travel garb. Decidedly unhip. Craig quickly remedies his sartorial sins by spending several hundred dollars on Rue Sainte Catherine, reputed to be the longest shopping street in Canada. I am still schlepping around in yoga pants and a jean jacket, completely overwhelmed by the retail offerings. I honestly don’t even know where to start, but am planning a trip back, solo, just to shop.
We do the requisite hop-on-hop-off bus tour, for an orientation to the city. Brigitte, our guide, mistaking us for Parisians (is she blind or just jonesing for a tip?), immediately starts spewing rapid French, none of which we understand and it is only when I try to reply that she realizes we are English. When we tell her we are from B.C. she makes the ever popular joke about B.C. meaning “bring cash”. Hahaha!
Mont Royal Park, 200 acres of green biodiversity, was designed by the renown Central Park designer, Frederick Law Olmstead. It’s windy and cold at the top but we hop off the bus anyway for a panoramic view of the city. Meh! The photo just doesn’t translate. Maybe Montreal is one of those cities better appreciated up close and personal.
It is surprising how little English we hear on the streets. Frequently we remind ourselves that we are still in Canada. In fact, one of the reasons we decided to travel here is not having to leave the country to do so. Travel health insurance for Craig would require a mortgage on the house! So we plan to explore our own glorious country for the foreseeable future. You know, the hot spots, like Edmonton and Saskatoon. After all, we’ve been to Mexico a dozen times but have yet to see Haida Gwaii.
Why is it that we are drawn to other countries, when we already live in one rich with history, culture and natural beauty? And even though we admire the courageous adventures of the early explorers, who thought they had “discovered” North America, we don’t often reflect on how our country came to be. Here in Montreal that history is palpable and celebrated. Rah! Rah! Way to go Cartier, Champlain, Columbus, and all who came in search of the new world. Cabot, Hudson, and George Vancouver. Franklin, Pond, Lewis & Clark. LaVerendrye, Marquette, Joliett, Radison. And many more. And especially our ancestors, leaving the cities and fields of the old world, arriving in the land of opportunity with few material resources but lots of optimism. We are ever so grateful to be born here and not there.
The massive Musee des Beaux Arts, a complex of five buildings, is the largest art gallery in Canada. Founded in 1860, it is also the oldest. And a recent survey declared it the most visited. After spending a few hours admiring the 19th century art and puzzling over the modern art we sashay over to the Ritz Carlton hotel for drinks in the lobby bar. Amazed that they let us in the door, and acting like we belong, we try not to gasp at some of the prices on the menu. You’d think that $199 would get you a whole bottle of Dom Perignon, but that’s just for a glass, just 5 oz. The bottle costs $999! Gasp! I go for the $16 glass of Prosecco and am grateful when the waiter brings a small plate of “free” nuts and olives.
The Barbie Expo is another biggie, the largest in the world. Are there actually more Barbie exhibits on the planet? And, if so, why? Expecting, or maybe just hoping, to see Ryan Gosling decked out as Ken I put it on my must-see list. The hidden agenda is that it is housed in the posh Les Cours Mont Royal shopping mall, another must-see. Another meh! We leave feeling glad it was free.
The exhibit is close to Reubens, one of Montreal’s famed delis, where we share a plate of brisket sliders, eating more beef in one sitting than we have all year. And holy cow is it ever tasty! We’ve also sampled poutine. Tasty but looking like a dog’s breakfast. And bagels, Kettlemans being a short hop from our crash pad. Not sure why, but the pickles just taste better here.
Leonard Cohen, one of Montreal’s most famous citizens, was born in the upscale neighbourhood of Westmount. Some say his ghost haunts Saint Laurent Boulevard, where he frequented the delis and bars and eventually owned a home. Named after one of his songs, the “Tower of Song” is large mural that memorializes him. Funnily enough there’s no such memorial to Justin Trudeau, another famous Montrealer, in the works. Maybe once he’s dead? And judging by the current political climate some would hope that happens sooner rather than later. Also little evidence of Celine Dion, apart from her voice on the playlist of a few restaurants. Getting kinda tired of hearing how her heart will go on.
The Boulevard St. Laurent, better known as “The Main”, divides Montreal into east and west, but also by language, ethnicity, and class, with the predominantly wealthy, educated English-speaking population to the west, and the working-class French-speaking population to the east. Immigrant communities lie in between, a first stop for initially Jewish, Chinese and Italians, and later Portuguese, Greek, Arab, and Haitians seeking a better life.
An evening wander down the Main is supposed to provide a “glimpse into the beating heart of the city at night”. Lonely Planet’s words, not mine. There are now Starbuck’s coffee shops, 24 hr fitness facilities, and a lot of Mexican taquerias scattered amid the decaying, seedy, run-down buildings and boarded-up shops. Progress? I think not. We head east, into the French ‘hood, onto Rue Mont Royal, a pedestrian-only street of lively pubs and outdoor patios. Whew, our night is salvaged. We eat and drink and talk about the preservation of French culture in Canada. Perhaps we’ve been too hasty in our dismissal of those crazy francophones, fighting for language rights. We’ve definitely noticed an uninhibited joie de vivre here in Montreal that we don’t see elsewhere in this country. Maybe it’s worth preserving?
Nearby is Saint Urbain Street, home of Mordecai Richler and his fictional protagonist Duddy Kravitz. Richler wrote about the neighbourhood and its Jewish residents, chronicling the hardships they faced in the 1930s & 40s. We walk home along this street, curious to see if we can sense the ghost of Duddy. Alas, he and Mordecai are long gone.
Little Italy is a metro ride away. We stroll through the Jean Talon fruit, veggie and flower market and then find lunch back on the Main at Corneli’s, a bustling Italian restaurant. Walking the 23,500 steps (according to Craig’s iphone) back to our townhouse takes care of the lunch calories. My feet and my Birkinstocks take a beating.
McGill University is smack dab in the middle of downtown Montreal. Being here for graduation and seeing the fresh-faced grads with their proud families makes us feel very old. We watch them in their gowns, carrying floral bouquets, posing for photos and wonder how they will make their way in the world. What difference will they make with their youthful energy and prestigious degrees?
And talk about prestige, Wickipedia claims that McGill counts among its alumni and faculty: 12 Nobel laureates and 147 Rhodes Scholars, both the most of any university in Canada, as well as 159 Loran Scholars, 18 billionaires, the current prime minister and two former prime ministers of Canada, two Governors General of Canada, 15 justices of the Supreme Court of Canada, at least eight foreign leaders, and more than 100 members of national legislatures. McGill alumni also include 8 Academy Award winners,13 Grammy Award winners, at least 13 Emmy Award winners, four Pulitzer Prize winners, and 121 Olympians with over 35 Olympic medals. The inventors of the game of basketball, modern organized ice hockey, and the pioneers of gridiron football, as well as the founders of several major universities and colleges are also graduates of the university. That’s a lot to brag about!
Gotta say something about the murals. They’re everywhere. Some border on being fine art, others look more like graffiti. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The exterior iron staircases are another ubiquitous feature, found on the many up/down duplex, triplex and even fourplex houses. The circular variety are particularly common. They are said to be both cultural icons and wintertime death traps, the latter owing to the snow and ice that accumulate on them, causing an inordinate number of slips and falls.
At the end of our week, as is the case whenever we travel, we feel changed by what we’ve experienced here in la belle Montreal. More aware of the importance of multiculturalism and more sympathetic toward those Quebecois who do not want to fully assimilate. Craig’s got a whole new wardrobe. I’ve got a pair of broken Birkinstocks. Oh, and a lovely coaster from the Ritz that somehow fell into my bag.
To the friend who wondered about spending more than a few days in Montreal we say: it’s not enough! We’ll be back!!