Note: I visited Montreal for the first time last summer (2014) and immediately started writing a Where Fools Fear to Tread piece but put it on the shelf for various reasons. Now that I’m back from visiting England and Scotland, I thought that perhaps it was high time to finish it, so here it is.
Last year, after Una and I made plans to visit Montreal, my sister informed me that she was finally graduating. The fact that it was from Princeton was commendable in its own right but it seemed especially worth celebrating as it followed something like 23 years of university education. The trip to Montreal was thus transformed into something of a Grand Tour of the northeast.
The first time that I remember consciously contemplating Montreal was as a child on a scuba trip in Florida. Our group group went to Disney World‘s Epcot Center where I was sort of surprised to see Canada represented alongside pavilions meant to evoke China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Norway, and the United States. Not that Canada doesn’t have just as much as any of the other cultures represented but like most American children, Canada for me was a place where people went on fishing vacations and where Bob and Doug McKenzie came from. It seemed no less a part of the US as Alaska, Hawaii, or Texas. I must’ve been eleven or twelve at the time so I cut myself some slack. As an adult I tried drive the main route of the Trans-Canada Highway but never got past Vancouver. This time I decided to take Amtrak’s Adirondack train from New York.
In 2011 Montreal’s population was 1,649,519 people. It occupies an area of about 432 square kilometers, making it roughly the same size as Los Angeles’s Harbor District. It’s the eighth largest city in North America and the second largest in Canada, after Toronto. It was founded in 1642 as Ville-Marie in New France (although indigenous people had lived in the area for at least 4,000 years before that). The French colony was conquered by the British Empire in 1760. Montreal was incorporated in 1832 and was the capital of the Province of Canada from 1844 until 1849, when the capital was moved to Ottowa.
Relations between the Franco-Canadians and Anglo-Canadians have not always been smooth. During World War II, Montreal’s mayor, Camillien Houde, protested against conscription and was imprisoned as a result until 1944. The 1970s were a period of turmoil as the French-speaking majority fought to preserve their culture and language in the face of an increasingly Anglo-dominated business sector. Two government officials were kidnapped by members of the Front de libération du Québec in 1970 which culminated in the only peacetime use of the War Measures Act in Canada’s history. In 1976, Parti Québécois’s leader, René Lévesque, became the premier of Quebec.
One of the first things that struck me about Montreal was how few Montrealers seem to drive. It’s not the only city that I’ve been in with bustling sidewalks but in my experience, even in cities with large public transit networks like Chicago, New York, Paris, and Los Angeles, there are still enough people unwilling to travel by any means other than automobile that the streets are always filled with cars. Underscoring this observation was the fact that many of the parking spots were open, or had been surrendered without obvious protest to café seating and parklets. At one point I walked two blocks without seeing a single parking spot occupied by a car. At another, I (a walking Angleno) overheard to Canadians talking about what wimps and babies Angelenos are for being unwilling to walk anywhere.
When visiting a new place, walking is always my preferred means of getting around. Bicycles require to much attention to traffic and public transit separates the passenger from the streets. I did take Métro de Montréal a few times, sometimes finding it to be popular to the point of insufferability. It’s the third busiest Metro system in North America, in fact, following Mexico City and New York. Comprised of just four lines, though, it was nearly always uncomfortably packed with people making me want to walk instead.
Walking, on the other hand, is not as pleasant when its freezing cold out. However, despite Americans’ perceptions of Canada as a frozen tundra, Montreal’s record low was -37.8 °, the average January low is -8.9 ºC and the average July high is 22.3º. An alternative is La Ville Souterraine (officially renamed RÉSO in 2004) an interconnected, largely subterranean series of complexes built in 1962 comprised of over 32 kilometers of tunnels with more than 120 access points.
I quite liked the underground network — especially as most of it felt like a very tidy space station which had just been evacuated. Above ground most Montrealers seemed to relish the cancer-causing sun. Parks were filled with cherry-red white folks sunbathing and playing volleyball. Even in the Quartier chinois I never saw a single parasol in use and when I complained to a woman about the sun, blizzard of pappus, heat (28º), and humidity (40%), she claimed that she was enjoying it and was, in fact, surprised that I an Angeleno didn’t.
Even though it seemed like no one in Montreal drove, many of the people on the Metro and sidewalks turned out to be there for the Grand Prix Montreal, which we knew nothing about. Because of that there were almost no available hotel rooms available and those that were were considerably marked up in price. Without reliable wifi it was hard to search once we were there and we ended up, much to Una’s chagrin, staying in a hostel. That it was a seedy area (OK, the Quartier du Red Light) didn’t seem to bother her as much as the fact that as is the case with many lodgings outside the US, the bathroom was a shared one. I tried to console her with poutine and a tallboy of Labatt to no avail and the next morning we set out for somewhere else to stay — which ultimately turned out to have a shared bathroom but was in Le Plateau-Mont-Royal.
Montreal is a multicultural metropolis comprised of varied neighborhoods and people. 73% of Montrealers are white (23% French, 10% Italian, 6% Arab, 5% Irish, 4% English, 3% Scottish, and 2% Spanish), 9% black (mostly Haitians), 6% Asian (3% Chinese, 3% South Asian), and 4% Latino of any race. In the Greater Montreal area, 66% speak French, 13% English, 4% Italian, 3% Arabic, 3% Spanish, 1% Creole, 1% Chinese, 1% Greek, and just under 1% Portuguese, Romanian, Vietnamese, and Russian.
Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in world, surpassed only by Paris. I tried to speak French as often as possible but found the experience rather different than in Paris. In Montreal, whenever I appeared to struggle to find a word in French, everyone would immediately switch over into perfect English, a bit like in Junior High French class. I’ve never experienced anything comparable in Los Angeles, where 38% of the population speak Spanish as a first language but few Anglos could comfortably speak anything but English.
In our walk from the first hostel to the next we passed through Le village gai. Una’s gaydar isn’t the mostly finely tuned but I think she got the signal loud and fabulous when a very camp stranger laden with shopping bags sashayed up to us and (as if we were old friends) asked me, “Honey, did you just arrive?” There were also rainbows everywhere and no suggestion that they’d been installed by members of America’s National Rainbow Coalition. Alas we were just passing through on our way to another hostel in Le Plateau after a lunch break for mediocre Thai.
Later we visited the rather small Quartier chinois, where more people spoke Cantonese than either French or English. That area, especially Saint Laurent Boulevard, was apparently once the center of Jewish Montreal but long ago a population of mostly Hongkongers arrived with the construction of the railroad.
I wanted to check out La Petite-Italie. Italian-Canadians comprise roughly 10% of Montreal’s population and are the city’s second largest ethnic group. The Italian presence in Quebec dates back to the 17th century when Italians served in the Carignan-Salières Regiment but large-scale immigration began in the 19th century, many of whom also worked on the railways, in mines, and lumber camps. The peak of Italian immigration came between 1946 and 1960 and many settled near Jean Talon Market and the Church of Madonna della Difesa, which proved to be the origin of La Petite-Italie. A second Italian population is centered in the Montreal borough of Saint-Léonard, nicknamed Città Italiana. We weren’t able to visit either area.
Montreal also has a small Greektown, known as Parkaveneika, centered along Park Avenue between Mount Royal and Van Horne avenues. We did pass through Le Petit Portugal, centered along Saint Laurent Boulevard between Pine and Marie-Anne streets.
We did pass through several other neighborhoods although I’m not sure if we ever “arrived’ in Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Anjou, Cité Multimédia, Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, DeLorimier, Griffintown and Goose Village, Jeanne-Mance, L’Île-Bizard–Sainte-Geneviève, La Petite-Patrie, Lachine, LaSalle, Le Sud-Ouest, Mercier–Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Mile End, Montréal-Nord, Outremont, Park Extension, Pierrefonds-Roxboro, Pointe-Saint-Charles, Quartier international de Montréal, Rivière-des-Prairies–Pointe-aux-Trembles, Rosemont, Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie, Saint-Henri, Saint-Laurent, Saint-Léonard, Saint-Michel, Sainte-Marie, Shaughnessy Village, Verdun, Ville-Émard, Ville-Saint-Paul, Villeray, or West Island.
Montreal’s collection of architectural styles is commendably incoherent and characterized by a dramatic juxtaposition of old and new. The legacy of successive colonization by the French, the British, Canada and (at least culturally) the US. The results aren’t always pretty. Many of the main streets are lined with three or four story boxes whose only aesthetic charm comes from their brutal ugliness and the staircases which seem to be stabbed into their entrances. Other homes are more charming — but still almost always feature similar iron staircases. Homes along side streets tend to be more charming and the fact that everyone seems to live in an apartment rather than a detached home filled me with warmth.
There are beautiful buildings too. Sitting on a lawn in Milton Parc (aka Ghetto McGill), Una pointed to what looked to her like a castle on a hill (a hill which doesn’t look especially tall from a distance and after which the city is named). I assured her that the journey to it would be and easy one and lead us up Mont Royal.
When we got to beautiful-but-not-castle-like Chalet du Mont-Royal I realized that the “castle” was actually two pavilions of the Royal Victoria Hospital and that we’d climbed 150 meters more than Una had wanted to. The climb was scenic and the view stunning but even a visit to the snack shop made Una question whether or not I’d ever been right about anything. After descending again I pointed to the charming and numerous castle-like buildings on the campus of McGill University which seemed to do little to improve her mood.
There are fairly anonymous, glassy, Corporate Internationalist skyscrapers, the sort which could be swapped between cities and go unnoticed except by (maybe) those who work within them. Perhaps interchangeable high rises were so popular in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s because they allowed one city to pass for another in cinema.
There have been films shot in Montreal which take place in Montreal and those in which Montreal plays another city. Likewise there have been foreign (including American) films shot there and domestic one.
Foreign films shot at least partly in Montreal include Wait Until Dark (1967); L’ultima chance (1973); The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974); The Jackal (1997); The Whole Nine Yards (2000); The Score (2001); Taking Lives (2004); Blades of Glory (2006); Away We Go and Mr. Nobody (both 2009); and Life of Pi (2012).
Canadian films shot in Montreal included Shivers (1975); City on Fire (1979); Le Déclin de l’empire américain (1986); Jésus de Montréal (1989); Léolo (1992); The Red Violin and Un 32 août sur terre (both 1998); Maelström (2000); A Problem with Fear, Les Invasions Barbares, and Mambo Italiano (all 2003); Eternal (2004); C.R.A.Z.Y. and Maurice Richard (both 2005); Barrera de Amor, Bon Cop, Bad Cop, and October 1970 (all 2006); End of the Line (2007); J’ai tué ma mère, Polytechnique, and The Trotsky (all 2009); Barney’s Version, Les amours imaginaires, Good Neighbours, and Incendies (all 2010); and Starbuck (2011).
I generally think that music is an even more accessible entry into a culture than film and there are several Montrealais music festivals including Acoustic Nights Montreal, Black and Blue Festival, Carifiesta, Les FrancoFolies de Montréal, Festival St-Ambroise FRINGE de Montréal, Francouvertes, Heavy MONTRÉAL, Mondial Choral, Montreal International Jazz Festival, Montreal International Reggae Festival, MUTEK, Osheaga Festival, Piknic Électronik, Pop Montréal, and UnPop Montreal.
There are far too many musicians from Montreal to name individually although some of the bigger names (or ones with which I’m at least familiar) include Arcade Fire, Bootsauce, Bran Van 3000, Céline Dion, Chromeo, Corey Hart, The Dears, France Joli, Gino Soccio, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Grimes, Leonard Cohen, Lime, Men Without Hats, Oscar Peterson, Rational Youth, Sam Roberts, The Stills, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, and Trans-X.
Perhaps more even than music or film, food is the most revealing glimpse into the soul of a culture, the cumulative expression of a population and its history rather than the expression of a single artist. Although the most obvious influences on Montreal’s cuisine are French, there are also obvious Native American and Irish influences.
Some of Quebec’s best known and most popular dishes and items are bacon, baked beans, cretons, grand-pères (and other maple desserts), ham-based dishes, Le Riopelle de l’Isle, oreilles de crisse, pâté chinois, pea soup, pizza-ghetti, pommes persillade, poutine, spruce beer, tire Ste-Catherine (and other molasses treats), tire sur la neige, and tourtières, whippet cookies.
There’s a strong Jewish presence in Montreal, which at least partly accounts for the popularity of bagels and Montreal-style smoked meat. Una picked up a smoked-meat sandwich from Schwartz’s and proclaimed it more to her liking than any pastrami she’s had before or since. Other prominent influences on Montrealais cuisine include German, Portuguese, and Missourian (primarily Kansas City Barbecue). As the vegetarian half of our duo, I was pleased with how often the poutine gravy was vegetarian but otherwise found the city reasonably accommodating for those who abstain from eating flesh.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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