Wednesday, June 27, 2007Montréal
I had very few preconceptions about Montreal. I knew I liked a lot of bands who formed or live there. I knew it was French-speaking (primarily) and famed for its many restaurants and café culture and that was about it. I had been trying not to think about my stay in New York coming to an end, taking each day for what it was and not counting down any time. Soon it was the day before our train to Montreal and we decided to go to Barnes & Noble and pick up the Rough Guide. I spent the 13 hour train journey through upstate New York and the beautiful Adirondack National Park reading the guide, my mouth watering at the restaurant descriptions. I should add that the journey was only supposed to take 10 hours, but some delays along the route and 2 hours at the Canadian border slowed us down somewhat.
Precisely because I didn't know what to expect from it, has meant that my stay in Montreal has been an eye-opening and fascinating experience. It is such a meeting point of different cultural and historical influences. Architecturally it's very Scottish, which surprised me at first. Here I am in North America and the gothic Victorian sandstone buildings are like the ones where I lived in Edinburgh but with brightly coloured balconies! Then, of course, I remember that Scottish and Irish people came in the thousands to Canada at various points of hardship in their respective histories and naturally built in the styles they were used to. But to make things more strange, these buildings are primarily in Francophone areas with North American style cars, streets and chain stores - all very confusing.
The way of life - in the Francophone areas of Plateau Mont Royal, Mile End, Outrement and Quartier Latin at least - seems very relaxed and - dare I say - European, while the more Anglophone downtown definitely seems more like a North American city. Of course, my inclination was to the Plateau! I pictured myself living, eating, shopping, partying up in the Plateau or Mile End and studying with les anglos at McGill. Something to think about, though I don't know if I'd survive the lengthy and freezing Montreal winter - apparently, colder and longer than even Moscow's winter! On a summer evening the terasses on st Denis were packed with young people, people watching and being watched - the classic summer pastime! It felt refreshingly unpretentious and laid back. Visiting Montreal for me was less about sightseeing and more about enjoying this vibe, promenading the avenues and wandering down the side streets.
While we were there it was the Quebec national day and my friend Catherine took us to see and then participate in the parade. It was really interesting to see the highly emotional separatist sentiments and identities in practice, but it got a bit scary when a minority of the paraders started chanting for everything from the internet to the whole of Montreal to be en francais, which seems to me to undermine the curious dynamic which makes Montreal so unique. The parade was definitely enjoyable and we got to try the Quebecoise speciality of Poutine - the ultimate comfort food! My stay in Montreal was a cullinary extravaganza too - more expensive than New York, but lots and lots of amazing French-inspired food - Moules Frites, Confit de Canard, crepes, mousse au chocolat, pain au chocolat...my mouth is still watering.
Of course, a major reason for making Montreal the second stop on my adventure was my love for several bands based there, namely Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade and Islands and so I'd hoped to go to a few gigs and see what was going on, especially at Casa del Popolo, but none of the line-ups were that good for while we were there. We did find a lovely little cafe bar on the corner of Boulevard St Laurent and St Viateur Ouest where a band with lots of different instruments (check!) were playing. In this respect it was like the first time I visited Berlin and we were looking for all the 'cool' things but just spent hours wandering around in vain, failing to find anything. It seems much more insider and harder to access than much of NYC, which is well documented in blogs, guidebooks and reputation. Finding all the exciting stuff in Montreal requires more digging than we had time to do.
People keep asking me whether I prefered New York or Montreal. I really couldn't say! They are definitely incomparable and are great for different reasons. I liked having the balance of hectic, fast-paced and gigantic New York and relaxed, compact Montreal in my itinerary - and it was nice to finish my trip on a slow-pace before everything speeds up back here in London. If I was to go to Montreal again (and I certainly hope to!) then I'd do some more research and make more contacts first, but otherwise, it's a brilliant city just to stroll and absorb!