Alain is a hardcore vegetarian who often complains there’s not enough vegetarian restaurants in Montreal, although I noticed almost everywhere we ate there had vegetarian options. Step and I ordered some Schezuan fish that was weirdly fruity and sweet rather than spicy like you would expect with Schezuan, but everything else was pretty good. I was happy to meet Alain’s new but serious date, a handsome ex-Navy guy who had served for 23 years and was now retired. Before he met Alain he traveled the world for 3 years straight. Step asked him how army life had been, and Michael replied he wasn’t really “into it” but he liked the early retirement he had gotten from it. I was glad to see Alain had finally hooked a good one.
The Montreal Jazz festival blew my mind with its lights, musical intensity and the fact you can wander around drinking wine and beer. We saw some Boogie Woogie Bugle Girls from Company B (I don’t even know what their real name was, but you get the idea) and then some bluesy floozies. People started wandering home and we decided to go back to Ashley’s via Rue St Laurent. Even though it was Thursday there were loads of people out seeing bands and partying in all the little nightclubs on it. Montrealers are mostly thin and beautiful and dressed up and the streets are crowded, so it has a very metropolitan feel.
The next day we went over to Alain’s and he took us out on a bike ride along the river. Montreal is by far the best Canadian city for cycling. Not only is it largely flat with numerous (2 way!) bike super-highways, but people’s attitudes towards bicyclers is different than the hostility we often encounter in Vancouver, where cyclists are expected to obey the rules of the road and stay the hell out of the way of traffic. In Montreal drivers good naturedly give cyclists the right of way and bike anarchy is the name of the game. (Speaking of anarchy, the car drivers also partake somewhat. Montreal drivers go fast!) People cross the road willy-nilly and go on the sidewalk when necessary and no one seems to care. Helmets are optional so I didn’t wear mine, even though that makes Step worry. Also, most women ride bikes in skirts like I do.
We stopped by the gay ghetto of Rue St Catherine’s where there was a street festival going on all summer, so the road was closed to cars and all the businesses had built large wooden patios on the street for the duration. There were all kinds of tents with art on display but nothing of it was too exciting.
Like France, Montreal takes food really seriously, and our host Ashley is a major food snob. He had told us one of the 2 places in Montreal with good croissants was Olive & Gourmando in Old Montreal (herein referred to as Viuex Montreal) so we went there for lunch. It was too late for croissants but we had a very good lunch of M. Dinde sandwiches, coffee and desserts. They also have a special soap they make there that had a smell that strongly associated with my childhood, but I was unable to put my finger on how. We then went along the river to the Atwater Market building (stopping to check out the little lock and Habitat 67 across the river. Alain said a condo in Habitat is worth about 1,000,000 dollars now) where I sampled some Quebec fraises (strawberries for you Anglophones) which proved to be sweeter and more flavourful than the fraises we got in Ontario. We walked through the inside of the market which turned to be almost exclusively occupied by butchers, some with really crazy sausages, and Alain almost fainted at the sight of so much carnage.
We had to go downtown and meet my old friend Robin F. to perhaps see a movie that was part of the Fantasia festival, but when we found her and checked the guide the only two movies were in foreign languages (I think Japanese and German). They would have French subtitles so it was kind of pointless to go. Instead we walked a long walk through McGill University area, stopping to check out the infamous “Butter Statue”, all the way to Rue St. Denis to some pub I can no longer recall the name of, for natchos. It was next door to a crepe place that had a crazy wall display of a bunch of plastic crepes that I really liked.
We decided to go back to the Jazz Festival for a second round, and on the way we stopped at a gas station to pee and I was thrilled to see they had an XLerator.
At the Jazz Festival I was really into taking pictures using all the crazy lights, and Step and I made some great animated picture sequences in front of a wall of red bulbs. Oh, and there was some great music, too. On the way home we stopped at Frits Alors because if you are in Quebec you must eat poutine, so we did. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are—if you’re in Montreal you always at some point end up at Frits Alors.
Another place I like to visit again and again is the bar on Rue Rachel that has a large neon sign proclaiming “Verres Sterilises”. Sterilised Glasses! I like to ponder upon what could have happened to make them hang such a sign, or why that would be considered a selling point. I never actually go into the bar, even though I know the glasses are clean.I just admire their sign from afar.
Robin F has felt kind of lonely since moving to Montreal, and she has found the language issue to be something of a barrier. Almost all Montrealers can speak English but really want you to speak French. Some separatists will even make an issue of it, so Robin has had some problems getting medical coverage because her French isn’t that good yet. She said she has two tricks. One is to mumble when speaking unsure French, and the other is to say “Est-ce quec’est possible de parles Anglais?” (Is it possible for us to speak English?).
Personally, I have very poor French. Growing up on the West Coast learning French is taken not at all seriously, because no one uses French there, and we hardly ever had to actually speak the French we learned, so even though I have Grade 11 French I can only sort of read it and understand very basic phrases. Not only that but my accent is atrocious. This becomes even more complicated when you consider in school we’re taught France French, and in Canada people speak colloquial French. Step grew up in Ontario where you’re a lot nearer to French Canada, so he has pretty good conversational French and became my personal French Dictionary. Some Francophones will cop and attitude with you and pretend they don’t understand what you’re saying when your accent is bad like mine, and last time I was in Montreal I ordered a pain du chocolat and this happened and I felt so humiliated I stopped trying to speak it.But how are you supposed to improve if you’re embarrassed out of even trying? This time I decided just to use the French I have and to hell with it. The problem is I can speak enough to order food or ask a question, but then when someone answers in French I have no idea what they’re saying. A lot of Montrealers are nice and when they figure out you’re Anglophone switch to English, so very often there is the absurd circumstance of the Anglophone speaking French, and the Francophone speaking English, and that’s Canada for you. (Once Step and I stopped in a café for a drink and when I asked “Avez vous le jus de pamplemousse rouge?” the waitress burst out laughing at me but later comforted me and said the important thing is that I try, and it turned out French wasn’t even her first language). If I lived in Montreal I think I would make practicing French a priority. One important tip is when you don’t know the French word don’t substitute with the English one spoken in a bad French accent. I catch myself about to do that all the time.
The next day Ashley breakfasted us with bread made with flour from France. Ashley is a child psychiatrist and is in a transitional phase of his career. He had gone for a job placement interview the day before and was surprised (and perhaps gratified?) they had rolled out the red carpet for him. Go, Ashley! He and Step went to Vieux Montreal to meet their friend Jenny.I met up with Robin to go the Yves St. Laurent (RIP) show at the Musee de Beaux Arts (Robin has developed a keen interest in fashion history since leaving Vancouver). It was an entertaining show. The rooms were divided into concepts. Some of the outfits were amazing and elegant, like this hawk dress that was sleek and black and long with a shiny, densely layered silver feather wrap featuring big shoulders and tapering at the hips (it really was so very hawk-like, if impractical), and some of it was just stupid like the Braque inspired dresses that had these sequined cubist’s cut-outs attached to the front that you would physically have to hold up with your hand the whole time you wore it. I also found his favourite necklace disturbing, because he would give it to his pet model to wear for that years show. Kiss My Ass, anyone? (That’s the fashion world for you). All the mannequins were of course tall and skinny, AND they all had 10 inch necks. The ones showing the African inspired fashions were painted blue. I think my favourite things were the African inspired hats which were all made out of real human hair, and the wedding dress that was completely crocheted and only had one opening for the face so it was like a huge white Ukranian doll.
About a block from the Musee we were perplexed and slighty disturbed to notice some raw chicken that had been lined up and displayed on a little concrete wall in front of a church. But why?
Ever since seeing the crazy crepe display I had been craving a crepe so we went back to that place and I had a delicious ham and cheese crepe with corn and tomato in it. It turned out the guy who owned the newly opened crepe shop knew Robin F. and that was a happy thing, because she hardly knows anyone in Montreal so these kinds of community threads are extra-valuable.
I had been stricken with the notion I must have a new dress, and we shopped a bit but nothing materialized.
Ashley was having a birthday party for Annabelle (who was feeling so unwell she ended up not attending and spending the night in their room) so we went back there. Jenny, who I had met before, attended, and some other friends of Ashley’s and Annabelle’s with their new baby. Ashley made a pasta dish known as Putanesca,which literally translates as “Whore’s Pasta”, the idea being prostitutes who needed a quick and delicious meal between clients would whip this up. It has olives and anchovies and stuff. Step totally watched him make it so I expect more Putanesca in my future.
The next day was Sunday, and for many in Montreal that means Tam Tams. If you’ve never been to Montreal, it is mosty flat with one little mountain in the middle called Mont Royal, and the whole mountain is a park. Tam Tams takes place at the foot of the mountain and it’s just bunches of people getting together to drum and dance. It starts in the late morning and goes until all the drummers go home. People also lay out blankets by the sidewalk and sell Hippie goods. Step and I checked out the scene earlier in the day, then biked to Vieux Montreal for more sight seeing and picture taking. Viuex Montreal is charming for it’s Old World style, with narrow streets and tall ornate stone buildings. I tried to buy a Tin Tin shirt (Montreal is all over Tin Tin) that had a black face jigaboo featured on it, but the shop was sold out (why do they display goods they don’t have for sale? So annoying).
We biked to St Denis and did some more dress shopping for me, and found one that was 100% polyester and scrunched up into a cardpack sized ball and was therefore ideal for traveling. After dress shopping, a man needs a beer, so we went to Dieux de Ciel, which is a microbrew bar. Step sampled a bunch of beers and I had some charcuterie. Then we rode our bikes a lot, revisiting Tam Tams to see what it was like in the evening (still dancing, just more sweaty) and cruising Little Italy looking for a likely bistro for dinner. I have to say riding around on your bike in the summer nights of Montreal is a real pleasure—people like to go out and there’s something going on on every block. We came across a little street festival with Italians drinking and dancing, but we don’t know what the occasion was.
I guess it’s kind of snotty to not to try it, but we are both convinced we will never get any sushi that’s as good as Vancouver’s, unless, of course, we’re in Japan, so we don’t even bother. We saw a sushi restaurant and I noticed the plates being served on the patio had some really crazy presentation, with long pieces of lemon grass sticking out and other edible features. The rolls were so fat the pieces were as big as baseballs. The traditional way to eat sushi is to shove the whole piece in your mouth and that would be well nigh impossible with these Montreal bits. We also saw a Thai place that looked intriguing but empty (never a good sign at dinner time). Finally we settled on an Italian place, called Le Petit Italien, that was packed but ended up being disappointingly bland and unoteworthy.Yes, we had managed to find the only mediocre restaurant in Montreal. Later, I read the Lonely Planet (I am chronically guilty of consulting the guide after we visit the place, a pointless and frustrating practice) which raved about the out-of-place Thai restaurant, so that perhaps was a decent meal missed.
Later we wandered around looking in windows—check out this wild art display—and introduced Ashley to the Wii and had a relaxing game of golf.
It’s important not to leave Montreal without stopping by Fairmount bagels for some Montreal bagel goodness. Fairmount Bagels is so open 24/7 that they don’t even have a lock on the front door. We stopped by on our out of town and had one of those funny situations where we and the counterman were all trying to communicate in French, and not really doing well with it, and then we all figured out we all had English as our first language.
Ah, Montreal. A great city. If I spoke better French, I would live there.