At Long Last: Montréal

September 12th, 2011 § 1 comment

It’s a city I’ve wanted to visit for a long time now, and one I haven’t ever lived too far away from. When I lived in Chicago I remember spending a decent amount of time wishing I could visit Canada, as it seemed so close. After a false start and a few passport problems, I finally made it past the U.S./Canadian border. It still seems strange to me that while I’ve traveled outside the U.S. a great deal, I’ve never visited our two nearest neighbors: Canada and Mexico. I wish train travel was a bit more romantic than it actually is. I wish the bathrooms worked correctly, and that dining cars served more than pre-packaged snacks, but neither does. It was certainly a beautiful ten-hour ride upstate; the tracks running along the river and through forests and fields. The sun was setting as our train, finally fully inspected, was allowed to continue onwards toward Gare Centrale. Montréal itself is only about an hour from the border, and it was dusk when the silhouette of the city skyline appeared outside my train car window. Reading up on the city before I left, I had already dispelled my preconceived notion that Montréal is a small, quaint city. It’s a large, busy city with more modern buildings than historic ones.

Having lived in France for a short time, it’s hard not to expect the Québécoise to be like the French, when in fact, for better or worse, they are not. A friend of mine said before I left, “it’s like France but without the snobby French people,” and while I agree with the latter statement I don’t agree with the first: Montréal is not like France. After returning from Montpellier I slowly worked out my feelings about my experience, figuring out in the process how I felt about Americans, the French, and the culture of both peoples. My summation of French culture and French people came to rest in the idea that while the French might be snooty know-it-alls, judgmental, and terrifyingly set in their ways, it is precisely these traits that make their culture so beautifully specific. The Québécoise are more relaxed and friendly, and they lack the hierarchical distinctions so commonly made among French people. You get the feeling, even as a tourist, that speaking English is not looked down upon, and being from another place seems to be more acceptable than it ever was in France—Montréal really is a bilingual city. Though Montréal lacks a certain formal French beauty, it makes up for it with personality and poutine.

We spent most of the weekend wandering the different neighborhoods of the city, shooting as we went, enjoying the visual differences between the Latin Quarter, the Village, Downtown, Old Town, and so on. Staying in a beautiful bed and breakfast built in the 1870s right off St. Denis, with hidden doorways and superb breakfasts, I’m now obsessed with the romantic and relaxing brilliance of the clawfoot tub, and how I might possibly add one to our loft. Even coming from New York City, the parks of Montréal are spectacular, and we spent an overcast day hiking up Parc du Mont-Royal, a mountain in the city, that was designed, we were surprised to discover, by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park. We spent another hot and sunny day exploring Île Sainte-Hélène and Île Notre-Dame, two islands right outside the city in the Saint Lawrence River.

Montréal seems to make better use of its city parks than NYC, or there is simply a more interesting mix of things to do in them. The site of the 67 World’s Fair, the islands contain robotic and futuristic public art, a complex biosphere, a decadent and bizarre casino that looks something out of a James Bond film, an amusement park along the waterfront called La Ronde, and an electronic music amphitheatre called Piknic Electronik, to name a few things. There was also a beach and many public swimming pools, where we watched mesmerized as teenage divers practiced their form. Montréal also has the world’s third largest botanical garden, of which we saw not even a quarter. Lovely, expansive, and representing so many different plants and styles of gardening, it’s definitely a location worth revisiting. Seeing all of it in one day is like trying to see all the artwork in the Louvre: impossible and exhausting.

As much as we enjoyed walking the city rain or shine, we put about as much effort into eating. French food is absurdly rich and delicious, and I was hell bent on revisiting those flavors I sampled so infrequently while living in poverty in France. When you live in New York City there is little point in seeking out ethnic food anywhere else, as it will probably be disappointing, so we limited our dining experiences to French and Québécois food. Lamb, probably the best I’ve ever had and that reminded me wistfully of my Grandpa, seafood, and a veal curry comprised of the main courses of my dinners out. It was interesting to observe the crowd in each different restaurant located in a slightly different neighborhood, as the people ranged from 30ish couples out for a particularly nice dinner, to the elderly who can afford fancy meals every night. The nightlife, as in most places, ranged from specific scenes, like the Rockabilly bar we accidentally happened upon, to casual and cafeish bars—I certainly preferred to sip a martini in the latter.

The trip was of course also filled with missed lunches, ridiculous arguments, and the “lost in the ghetto” situation we often find ourselves in, but all in all it was a success. We didn’t miss our train, or forget our passports as we are sometimes wont to do, and I think, knocking on wood, we are greatly improving on our travel technique. South America here we come.

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