Round Two with Montreal, the City of Saints.
My brother Sam called me at about 10:00 on Thursday morning asking if I could be ready to go to Montreal in twenty minutes. I threw together a travel bag in fifteen, sat around for five, and hopped in the car with my brother and two strangers for a four hour drive through the rolling Green Mountains to the border of the United States and Canada. Kelley followed me a day later, and we made the most of our unexpected weekend “abroad.”
Montreal is a beautiful and historic city, the closest you can get to being in Europe without getting on a flight out of North America. In Quebec, the national language is French, and the Québécois will not let you forget it. It’s a great chance to speak the (albeit, accented) language with locals. I only know a few utilitarian phrases, but I’m delighted at the chance to use them.
Unlike my last trip to Montreal, which ended in a thunderstorm with a bent steering tube and a trip home, I got to wander the city streets for days, taking in the ecclesiastical architecture of Old Montreal, the eccentricity of the Latin Quarter, and the electricity of Quebec’s nightlife.
The City of Saints pulls its nickname from the churches and historic buildings that pepper the landscape. Old Montreal is even more shifted towards the historic end of the spectrum, and even residence buildings lining the hills up to Mont Royal bear an aged aesthetic. And like a fine wine, I drank it in; with snippets of French conversations wafting in and out of earshot, I felt completely displaced from anything familiar, a stranger in a strange land. It’s the reason I travel, and to find it so relatively close to home felt like a gift.
I visited the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, their Museum of Fine Arts, and reveled in it. Napoleon’s hat, Andy Warhol’s graphic design work, and a beautiful Monet collection filled me to the absolute brim with aesthetic joy. Like most art museums, the experience goes beyond the beauty of the paintings it contains.
Every trip to an art museum is a history lesson, and a vision into the social and historical context surrounding each work. Knowing the mentors that nurtured Warhol’s artistic talents throughout the early years of his career as an illustrator lends a greater appreciation for his idolization of brand and object. Seeing his collaborations with Yoko Ono, Roy Lichtenstein, and Keith Haring reveals the artistic heartbeat of the 1980’s. His background working for magazines created a blueprint for the team-based creationism of the Factory, where he produced his best work.
It’s really a unique experience in every city I go, to wander the halls of an art museum. Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal also boasts a very unique minimalist aesthetic, with a long and wide staircase as the centerpiece of the museum’s multi-building footprint.
Art extends beyond the confines of museums in Montreal. Graffiti is often left alone, and huge murals adorn the sides of buildings in even the most unassuming corners of the city.
And, of course, there is the cycling. When I first came to Quebec, it was in August, still very much inside of the cycling “season.” It’s a very friendly city for cyclists, with hundreds of bike paths and a populace trained not to throw their door into the bike lane when exiting a car. In all but the largest metropolises, cyclists usually burrow away for winter, tires slowly deflating in the back corner of a garage. In Montreal, however, the bravest cyclists face the bitter Canadian cold and keep rolling all winter long, despite the sub-arctic temperatures north of Lake Champlain.
I met Alex, Frank, Oliver, and Stefan in the business district, keeping warm and anxiously awaiting their next job. These bike messengers live by how many miles they put down per day, and it isn’t a seasonal gig. In the summer, students from the local universities flood the streets, picking up messenger jobs to pad their beer fund, challenging the income these guys make per day. Luckily, the winter months are their most fruitful riding season. When the temperature slips below zero and the windchill burns cheeks and foreheads, Montreal’s messengers cut lanes while the students wait for sun.
The bikes in Montreal also reflect the stubborn indifference of the winter cyclist. Fenders are ubiquitous, as is a thick layer of caked-on road salt. In these conditions, the single-speed is king.
Montreal boasts several diverse sections with a central theme. The Latin Quarter, Gay Village, Old Montreal, Plateau. Like most metropolises, there’s a Chinatown, with a grand arch and a quick language shift from French to Mandarin. I wonder, do the menus here come in three languages?
And finally, there’s Mont Royal. Montreal’s namesake hill rises up just outside of downtown, meaning I could climb it every morning I was in the city. A huge staircase winds up to the summit, which is adorned with a beautiful overlook that composes a perfect view of the city’s historic and modern architecture. Locals use the park for cross-country ski training, and at all hours of the day, runners in skintight winter suits plod up and down the staircase, refusing to hibernate.
At night, the city transforms. In the Prohibition era, it was nicknamed “The City of Sin,” and nocturnal haunts like Stereo, Tokyo bar, and Divan Orange offer the opportunity for anyone over the age of 18 to drink and dance until the sun rises.
Since the city is filled with university students at McGill, Université de Montréal and Concordia, the city is young and energetic. The younger population, to me, seems more than happy to shift to English upon meeting an american tourist. A simple parlez-vous anglais? was an easy way to start a conversation with anyone under the age of thirty. It also felt like waving a giant Anglo flag above my head whenever I spoke with someone decidedly older. Quebec has had a historically tense relationship with the rest of Canada, so many of the more politically charged residents look upon visiting Anglos as a net negative for the cultural health of their city, and that opinion is hardly veiled.
Still, the brighter interactions drown out the occasional French-spoken joke at my expense. I learned a lot about life in the city by striking up conversations with bartenders and shopkeepers, and Kelley practiced French with baristas after ordering with her ever-improving accent.
At this statue of (apparently) myself, I couldn’t help but drown out any negativity about Montreal. I felt as much at home as any other city I’ve visited. Canada welcomes you with open arms, and challenges you to step outside the comfort zone of your native tongue, your preconceptions about urbanity, and Mother Culture herself. If you’re trying to sedate the travel beast with a low-budget vacation outside of the United States, Montreal might be the departure you’re looking for.