Published in Solano Magazine
The night air is thick with heat and the sweet smell of fried beaver tails, a Quebecois confection of fried dough known as queue de castor. The St. Laurent River is alive with light, its waters reflecting the nonstop nightlife of Old Montreal. The narrow cobblestone streets teem with people-street performers, musicians belting out jazz, and locals drinking at sidewalk cafés. There are children, college students, clowns, old men with accordions, jugglers, sketch artists and street vendors. Smiles, snickers and laughter are everywhere. This is summer in a city that’s buried under snow for half the year. This is a celebration that will last until autumn, a kind of subdued, down-home revelry that only the Quebecois can pull off.I came to Montreal seeking adventure, inspired by the likes of Hemingway, Livingstone and Michael Palin. I wanted to travel solo, open myself up to new faces and experiences. I wanted to broaden my horizons, enrich my mind, immerse myself in a foreign culture and a foreign tongue. I wanted all the clichés, wrapped up in a nice, affordable seven-day package.
CINNAMON AND CULTURE
So far my plan has worked splendidly. During the past few days, I’ve attached myself to a motley band of bilingual students and Montreal natives. I found Carmen on the elevator at the Olympic Stadium, discussing the nuances of Quebecois French with a swollen German tourist. A Chinese-born, trilingual Toronto resident in town for the summer, she is studying French at a school a few miles north of the city. Her best friend, Julie, lives in Verdun, a blue-collar suburb just outside the city. She’s an art student who sells bikinis at a local mall.
Tonight the three of us are tripping along the St. Laurent in Old Montreal, looking to buy Quebecois doughnuts near the site of the first French settlement, now in the basement of the ultramodern Pointe-a-Calliere museum.
“What is cannelle again?” I ask, staring up at the menu above the counter. We’ve only just crossed the threshold of the shop-the line snakes out the door and into the street, steadily hissing French and laughter.
“Cinnamon,” says Carmen. My French is barely passable; Carmen’s is just a tad better. Neither of us could hold up our end of a conversation with a native. At this shop, everything’s in French. Nearly everywhere else, things are written in French and English, as if the whole city were some kind of amusement park. Nearly everyone speaks enough English to get by, even if they don’t want to admit it. Julie tells me that she started learning English in the sixth grade. They don’t teach the language any earlier to ensure that every native Montrealer (Montrealais in French) has a thick Quebecois accent. The Quebecois are wonderfully protective of their culture and heritage, which makes traveling in their province that much more endearing.
“Ah, cinnamon,” I reply. The shop is a cross between a ’50s soda fountain and a French bistro. Neon and chrome coexist with espresso machines and pastoral paintings of the French countryside. Much of Montreal is like this, a hodgepodge of old French tradition and modern American flare. We reach the counter and I order a beaver tail, queue de castor, with cinnamon and sugar, cannelle et sucre. The fried hunk of dough is roughly the size of my hand. It’s delicious-hot, crispy and chewy, the perfect snack after a night of drinking Canadian beer.
DIGGING UP THE PAST
We nibble our tails and amble through Old Montreal. This is where the French landed in the 1640s. Nearly all of the buildings have been rebuilt at some point, but this part of the city is still old. The sidewalks are lined with cast-iron sentinels-painted poles that separate sidewalk from street. The roofs are steeply pitched and shingled with slate, the windows are paned with distorted, antique glass and the walls are embellished with Gothic and Victorian details. Nearly all of it has been painstakingly preserved, but wears a patina of age nonetheless.
The oldest place in Montreal, the Pointe-a-Calliere, is within spitting distance. They call it the birthplace of Montreal, and for good reason. The $27-million museum was built where the first 53 French settlers ran aground on May 17, 1642. Now their settlement, and all the towns that were built atop it, lay exposed in the basement of the museum. The archeological dig site has been preserved for everyone to enjoy. Visitors stroll the ancient boulevards and inspect the nearly 400-year-old masonry of Montreal’s first walls. The place is packed with artifacts-combs, toothbrushes, looking glasses, broken pottery, iron railroad spikes, musket balls-all the things people leave behind during their lives.
We leave the Pointe-a-Calliere behind and head for Old Montreal’s pub district. Here, trendy brewpubs rub elbows with old Quebecois watering holes. College students mingle with 40-somethings, drinking Boréale, Labatt, Molson and Moosehead. We end up at Les 3 Brasseurs (translated: The 3 Brewers), a popular chain with decent bistro fare and live music. Tonight the band is plunking out traditional Quebecois drinking songs, a twangy mix of Northern French folk tunes and Celtic ditties. Julie roars along with the singer in slurred French. Carmen laughs, I clap. When she’s done, I ask her how she learned the songs. “We learn them at school, sing them at home,” she says between sips of her cocktail. “You don’t have songs like this? How sad!” She pouts her lips and arches her eyebrows in an extremely French display of mock pity, then throws her head back and laughs.
Later I take the metro back downtown. The Montreal Metro is extensive, inexpensive and prompt. It branches through the city and into the suburbs. Taking any other form of transportation seems silly. I’m staying at the Omni, a hive of stone, steel and smoked glass. It’s crammed with business people in pressed suits heading to conferences and important lunches. My room is nice, but sterile and cold. I spend as little time as possible there.
The next day I strike out on my own. The Omni is in the center of downtown, a briar patch of museums, skyscrapers, cathedrals and monuments. Head in virtually any direction and you’ll run into something. Today I aim for the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. A mouthful, for sure, but well worth the short metro ride.
The museum lies just above the Place-des-Arts metro station, in the city’s art center. I walk among intricate origami mosaics made from discarded food packaging, glassy marble sculptures in pleasing, yet vague shapes and full three-dimensional holograms. Indonesia native Fiona Tan takes credit for one of the most captivating installations. Called Saint Sebastian, it displays footage of a coming-of-age archery ceremony in Kyoto, Japan. The 20-something women, dressed in ornate Japanese garb, serenely pull their bows, releasing their arrows into the air. The camera focuses on the women’s faces, capturing disappointment or joy as their arrows miss or strike an unseen target.
I stumble into the noonday sun and humid air outside the museum. Montreal is hot during the summer, muggy and bright. Today I’ll get no respite from the heat. I’m to meet Carmen on Île Sainte Hélène, a slug-shaped island in the St. Laurent, home to the Biosphère, a gigantic geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller for the 1967 World Exhibition Expo. It’s 250 feet across and 200 feet high, large enough to enclose a jet liner or an entire apartment building. Today it encloses an environmental museum, a place where Montreal’s waterways take center stage. The exhibits are built for children, huge multicolored plastic tubes that show how estuaries and rivers work. They spray water everywhere, providing needed relief from the heat.
Buckminster Fuller gets his own floor of the museum. The observation deck houses an hommage to the brilliant designer’s vision of the future and city planning.
We leave the island that afternoon and head for Julie’s house in the suburb of Verdun. It’s about 20 minutes from downtown via the metro, but worlds away. Verdun is packed with orderly rows of red brick homes, stout duplexes built to take the brunt of the Montreal winter. Julie’s house is on a tree-lined street and looks just like all the others-red brick laced with wrought-iron balconies. As Carmen and I approach, we spot Julie’s mother drinking beer on the second-story balcony. She recognizes Carmen right away and calls down in a booming voice. “Bonjour mes amis! Entrez!” She waves us up with her free hand and disappears into the house.
Julie’s house is small by American standards, a two-bedroom crammed with furniture. Tonight the whole family is over: Julie’s mother, stepfather, brother Remy and his girlfriend, Anne-Laure. Carmen and I make seven, a full house. Still, Julie’s mother doesn’t seem to mind. She’s a gruff woman who likes to correct our French and mock our textbook Parisian accents. Quebecois French is older, purer, she says. In Paris, the language has been adulterated by English and American influences. She laughs easily and makes faces at us whenever we speak. I get the sense that she can understand our English well enough, but she acts otherwise, forcing us to stumble around in her native tongue. I absolutely love it. Within minutes my four years of high school French come flooding back and we’re talking travel, family and even politics.
I help prepare dinner in the cramped kitchen. Tonight it’s spaghetti with meat sauce and salad. I diligently chop vegetables with Remy, who’s working construction for the summer. He concedes to speak English, says it’s good practice. The 20-year-old is very tan and loves the sunshine. He recently moved in with his girlfriend, a thin, pale girl who doesn’t say much. She’s very nice, he says, comes from a good family.
Julie’s stepfather, Michel, sports a moustache and a faded blue T-shirt. He’s an air conditioning/heating repairman who has traveled the world. We talk about Thailand, China, Europe and Canadian politics. After dinner we do the dishes together and discuss the Quebecois’ attempt to secede from the nation. “We are very different from the rest of the country,” Michel says. “We do not dislike the others; we just want to do things differently.” Quebec is socialist, like much of Europe, and many of its residents identify themselves with their French counterparts across the Atlantic, he says. Still, he does not consider himself to be French. “The Quebecois are different. We do not like to be called French.”
Montreal is definitely not France, but it’s not truly Canada either. It’s a city of duality: half Francophone, half Anglophone. Half soaring skyscrapers, half stout brick row houses and cobblestone lanes. It’s a city that embraces its identity crisis with fervor, the perfect destination for a traveler who’s looking for a subtle experience and a culture that’s like no other.