|Chaud et Froid|
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Un Espace a Repose: Montreal
It was the end of June, the end of the school year, the start of the summer. For me, that’s the real new year, when life falls back to give me a chance to rejuvenate and tackle new things. I had decided I would put myself out into the world this summer, do some road trips, scratch some things off my bucket list and make it a season to remember.
I had been thinking of a Montreal trip for some time already, knowing how it was only a couple hours away from my home in Ottawa. I had never been there before, but had read a lot about it in the books of Mordecai Richler and Heather O’Neill. Through those two authors the city had attained a kind of mythical quality, with their tales of streets teeming with a rich humanity and the delicious aroma of ethnic flavours wafting in the air. So I resolved that I would take at least a single day trip to see Ville Marie, the old city, and Mont Royal for its vista of the whole city and maybe a stroll down Rues St. Catherine and St. Urbain to see the environment that had been described to me so deliciously.
Fortuitously, I saw a post of a Facebook friend of a Facebook friend who was offering her apartment for part of the month of June. I thought maybe I could grab a weekend if the price was right. After a couple of messages back and forth, the price was more than right and I managed to get the place for three days immediately after the last day of school. Excited, I e-transferred the money to my newfound friend and benefactor and began to count the days.
This would be the first major trip I had ever done on my own after the break up of my marriage. When I would tell people about my plans, they would ask who was going with me, and they would be taken aback when I answered I would be alone. I’d been living alone for a while, which was difficult and even heartwrenching at times, but I had come to find a kind of freedom and peace in being by myself. In that solitude, I could rely on and dote on my own self, learning the pleasures of doing so, the existential minimalism of single life. I wanted to experience that joy in the context of travelling solo. I suppose there is an advantage to travelling with a partner into a new place; two heads being better than one and having someone at one’s side and watching one’s back, but that isn’t the context of my life right now. I was alone, so I was determined to use the occasion to do things at my own pace and see the things that interested me without any impedance.
Past trips had been with family, where the trip had to be entertaining, which usually doesn’t translate into being enriching, or even satisfying. We would go to the kind of corporate, franchised attractions that really could have been anywhere, so far removed from the local flavour that you would never experience anything close to what the area actually had to offer. This time, I wanted everything that all those trips lacked, to indulge the local flavour to its complete fulfillment.
Exactly the day after school was over for the year, I packed my car for the trip. A gentle
but steady rain had been falling, but I didn’t have any feeling that it would impede me or dampen my enjoyment. I knew that this would be the theme of the summer, as forecasted by most weather authorities; periods of rain and coolness with waves of heat and sun between them. There was no way to get around it. Rain is part of the climate here and when you can come to terms with that, nothing will dampen your spirits. It can’t deter you if you have a good umbrella. Besides, to expect your destination to be sunny and then complain when it’s not is to be infantile and shamefully shallow.
I hit the road out of Ottawa via highway 417, which morphs into Highway 40 when you skip the border with Quebec. There is a noticeable change when you come into Quebec. For one, the road is much better maintained than in Ontario, almost seamlessly smooth and painted with clear fresh lines. Secondly, the landscape changes with it. While the eastern Ontario farmland seems to appear unattended and old, the Quebecois countryside seems greener and groomed. Quebec drivers tend to have a bad reputation for being reckless and oblivious to other drivers, but when I passed onto La Belle Province, they didn’t show themselves. That is, until I entered Vaudreuil-Dorion at the junction with Highway 20, which carries the traffic from Ontario Highway 401 into the area. Immediately the weavers and tailgaters arrived to complicate the drive. Montreal’s nearness became more apparent with the increasing industrial sprawl and congestion on the road. At one point, my GPS alerted me to an approaching traffic snarl (thank you again, new millennium!) and suggested an alternate route. I should note now that when I drive, I like to keep a healthy distance between myself and the car ahead of me in case a sudden requirement to brake arrives. When I took the suggested detour to avoid the jam on my original route, I was almost into the onramp when an SUV darted in and swiftly butted into that sacred space I was keeping. Advantageous, aren’t we? I thought. Although the detour had avoided an altogether stoppage, traffic was still slow on the alternate route, so we inched along from intersection to intersection. I created that pillow space again, letting the car in front of me move ahead while I waited, which prompted an impatient honk from behind me, urging me to move ahead. I threw my arms up in the air. “We still aren’t getting ahead, my friend!” I shouted. All I got from my rear-bumper chum was a dissatisfied scowl.
Driving into the city proper, I began to see what I would later find to be the architectural style of Montreal, where two or three story buildings are packed very close together, or in some instances, directly against each other. You might think that packing 1.7 million people into a small area would be a bad thing, stacking them one floor upon another, but Montreal seems to make it work. The traffic flow system coming into the downtown can also be a little overwhelming with a near-maddening array on one-way streets, but once one learns which street goes in which direction, you can lock into the concept and actually find your way around over time. Parking, however, is another thing.
Knowing that the apartment where I was staying was situated downtown and the parking situation could be a little squirrelly, I had messaged my friend a few nights before to get a heads up on what it might be like. Her response was none too assuring. Apparently parking on Montreal’s streets is a task of deciphering permit allowances on street signs that signify as such. One has to be sure not to park within a certain permitted zone signified by arrows and numbers, lest you want to risk your vehicle being ticketed. As a non-driver, my friend couldn’t supply an adequate explanation beyond that, so it was with some trepidation that I came into the neighbourhood of Plateau du Mont Royal, where I would be staying. When I arrived at the apartment, thankfully the landlord was talking to a friend on the corner, and she explained the complicated concept to me. She also let me in on a little local secret, wherein the school that was around the corner from us had free parking all along the front of it. During the school year, parking was not allowed there, yet while school was out, a spot was easy picking- given you came at the right time. It turned out there was a spot open right then, so I quickly took it and my parking debacle was solved.
The apartment was on the second floor of a century-old 3 story building, with a perfect layout that included a balcony out front and back. Her decorative stylings reminded me of the minimalist sensibilities that my older yuppie-aged sisters had, sparse pictures on the wall that were there were meaningful, minimal and artful, and bookcases full of poetry books. I had brought a stack of my own books that I had been in the middle of reading, but some titles drew me in and I made a mental note to sample them. I wish I could have showed you the art and books that she had but out of respect for her privacy, I don’t display them. Rest assured though, that everything about that apartment conveyed a sense of gezelligheid that would make my stay comfortable and content. Once I moved all my things in, I took a walk around the neighbourhood to see if I could find a place to have a good steak. I found the neighbourhood of Plateau du Mont Royal to be vibrant to each one of the five senses. Although most of the buildings were most likely at least a hundred years old, they were well maintained and kept a kind of eccentric personality that spanned the decades they’d gone through. Walking past shops, you could smell coffee, cooked meats and baked goods, simply because every doorway and most windows were wide open and people sat in the open air enjoying the urban fare. Conversations were everywhere, in French and with English. Nowhere did I see the divide between languages that seems to be portrayed in our media nowadays. Bilingualism works here, and don’t let them tell you anything different.
While walking down Laurier Street, I noticed a
small open sided structure that was painted brightly with benches all along the inside and planted flowers all along the exterior. Curious, I looked at the sign that was displayed inside and though it was in French, with the help of Google Translate on my phone I was able to discover that the structure was simply a place where someone could stop and take a rest, "un Placottoir" or “un espace a repose”. I thought this was a wonderful concept. Montreal was such a pedestrian city, with bikes to rent on almost every corner and sidewalk fare everywhere you looked, I would find these places of repose a welcome feature in the long walks I would take.
On St. Laurent, I kept an eye out for something that looked like it might give me a good steak. I had barely eaten anything that day and at 3 pm, I was ready to sink my teeth into something. I was glad to see that there was nary a franchised fast food joint to be found. It really says something about a city where individual and independent businesses can flourish with vitality on their own . That said, I wasn’t really finding what I was looking for, as far as a good beef dinner. I didn’t really want to stop to ask anyone to betray my serious shortcomings in my fluency in the French language. I can be borderline functional with the language but was far from the point of being conversational, and I didn’t want to employ it only to receive a Bird Parker flurry of French as a reply. It was not really unusual for me to hear French as a conversation to eavesdrop on anymore, living in Ottawa, but I knew that my hometown of Niagara didn’t have this kind of language diversity. There are only pockets of Canada where bilingualism actually functions fully. Also, I had to remind myself often that I was in North America, not Europe, in the only part of it (Quebec) that decidedly wasn't English first… except for Mexico, of course, although it can be said that Mexico is decidedly not European; identifiable with its own distinct culture apart from Spanish influences.
I found a burger joint on my own, which thankfully also served steak for a good price to satisfy my carnivorous cravings. I grabbed a seat by the window so I could survey the street scene and was happy to see a mural on the side of one building of P.K. Subban, who was defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens from 2009 to 2016. He was one of the NHL’s leading scorers for defencemen, and had achieved a kind of cult figure status for being outspoken and adventurous rather than the usual game-face stoniness that players usually take on, much like the Eddie Shack of old, flamboyant and fun to watch. It was also his admission that even while growing up in Maple Leaf dominant Toronto, he had always wanted to play for Montreal that had the city fall in love with him, with all his flair as well as his flaws. Like in any Canadian city, hockey plays a huge role in the culture of Montreal, but because of the Canadiens having won more Stanley Cups than any other city in the league, and the fact that their best players have always achieved a godlike status in the city, hockey’s glory has never been brighter than it is in Montreal. So I was glad to carve up my steak while looking on a rendition of one of Montreal’s hockey greats.
On the way back, I stopped by an artisanal beer shop called Épicerie Unique on St.Laurent, conveniently just around the corner from where I was staying. Inside were shelves from floor to rafters, wall to wall of rare and unusual beers and ciders I was looking for one in particular, a Quebecois beer called (swear word alert!) Maudite. Years ago when I was collecting unusual bottles, I had found a case simply in Brewer’s Retail in Niagara. For the beer itself, I found it too heavy and bitter, but that’s not really what I was interested in. What I was really after was the label. On it, there was the beautiful painting of a group of voyageurs, fur-traders that travelled Canada by canoe in the 17th and 18th century, of which French Canadians are very proud, as many are descended from them. But what makes the scene so memorable is the fact that the canoe is flying high in the air above the trees against a backdrop of a blazing, almost hellish sunset. It comes from the legend “La Chasse Galerie”, or The Bewitched Canoe, in which some paddlers were homesick on one New Year’s Eve and begged the devil to send them home as quickly as possible so they could celebrate with their families. The devil agreed, on the condition that none of them mention religion during the trip. To fail in this would mean the loss of their souls. The devil then sent them on a terrifying and reckless ride above the treetops, during which one of them shouts the religious curse “Maudit!”, thusly sentencing all the men to forever paddle through hell, and on the last night of every year, above the rooftops of Quebec. I looked for the bottle, only wanting one for display, but they only came in six packs. I asked the lady behind the counter in English if she had it in single bottles, but she didn’t understand me, so I stumbled through the question in broken French. It felt very awkward to say “maudit” to a French woman. I almost couldn’t say it. Nonetheless, she showed me a large bottle, the size of regular wine bottle, and there it was, La Chasse Galerie, in all its demonic glory. I purchased it proudly.
I ended the night writing all my notes and observations for this blog entry, checking Facebook once in a while and even had a brief phone conversation with my brother Henry. He had always been concerned for me in my solitude, often checking in to see how I was. I could tell him that night with certainty that I was happy, excited and exactly where I wanted to be. After pouring myself a nightcap in the form of a glass of sherry, I went outside and sat atop the steps by the front balcony and watched people walk by. It had stopped raining. In fact, the clouds had broken and given up an expansive view of the stars. I tried to guess which constellations I was looking at, but wasn’t sure which direction was North, knowing my own map of the sky with that bearing in mind. Another hindrance was the fact that, being in the heart of the largest metropolitan area in Canada, most of the stars were obscured in the haze of light pollution. I just had to be glad that the stars were out. I sat atop the stairs and spied feral cats, like the ones that haunt Heather O’Neill’s Montreal, ever present, walking casually in and out of the narrative like a choral aside to her flowery butterfly sentences. I watched small herds of friends walking through in their animated talk in different languages. I saw how there wasn’t a single person that was walking alone, and it made me think of what an anomaly I was, to be there all by myself, doing all the things I am, alone. It didn’t bother me. In fact, I felt free. I was there, completely on my own terms and at my own pace, sitting up above, watching life go by. I was happy and content. When the sherry made me muzzy and dull enough to lapse into sleep, I closed everything up and went to lay down on a foreign bed.
The next morning became a mission to find a cafe. I googled for the ‘Nearest Cafe’ and five of them popped up. Cafe Noble was the only one open and at a walkable distance. I got dressed, packed my wallet, my phone and a book to read into my shoulder bag and took off down Rue Laurier. It was overcast, but without rain, so it was a nice short walk to Rue St. Denis. I found the cafe to be just a small corner shop, more kiosk than shop actually, with tables crowding the doorway on the sidewalk. With my coffee, I tried to sit and read there, with Lou Reed, then Bruce Springsteen attempting a mood from the speakers inside, but I couldn’t abide the sense of other patrons hovering over me while they poured their cream on the counter behind me. To allay my autistic senses screaming for space, I got up and walked along Laurier some more. I noticed people coming out of a building in droves and when I went to look at it, I found that it was the subway station. I hadn’t known that it was so close. Another chalk-up to this already wonderful neighbourhood. I tried to find some information on how I would be able to go to Ville Marie via the subway, already knowing how tricky the parking would be, but when none could be found, I walked back to the apartment to look on the internet to answer my question. Again, even with translation into English, I couldn’t be educated enough to risk using it without confidence. With numerous places to go in just a little bit of time, I wasn’t convinced it would cater to my meandering itinerary. I would have to do the trip with my car, which would mean giving up my coveted spot in front of the school and surrender myself to the mercy of the invisible parking gremlins downtown.
I found that the route to the old city to be relatively simple, so I drove southeast with only occasional small zigzags to the waterfront. Arriving there, it was disappointing to see the carnival atmosphere along the St. Lawrence riverbanks. There were zipline parks, bouncy castles and ice cream shops all along there, but the worst was the large towering ferris wheel hogging the landscape. It all reminded me of Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls, which is a screaming, gaudy, obscene tourist trap, complete with its own overpriced giant ferris wheel ride. None of it said anything at all about Montreal, but clamoured for your money like a belligerent midway hawker. Every major city seems to think that they need that same goddamned ferris wheel. I hope to God that Ottawa never considers it.
I had thought that Ville Marie, or Old Port as the anglophones call it, would be along the water, but it is actually hidden behind modern buildings a city block above the waterfront. Again, even though the actual buildings are 500 to 300 years old, with the distinct dimpled limestone blocks that denote the architecture of that age, the buildings were occupied by modern commerce; restaurants, clothing stores and souvenir shops. Yes, there were the famous cobbled streets, but it was all Disney-fied into rampant capitalism. Had Montreal cashed in on its past? Going this far back, I would say they have. I knew I was done when a busload of Japanese tourists were herded in to take pictures of a medium-sized polar bear stuffy displayed in one shop window. Thankfully my leaving early meant I only needed to pay the minimum for parking.
Escaping the tourist trap, I drove directly up Rue St. Laurent and began to search for my lunch plan; the mecca of Montreal Smoked Meat: Schwartz’s Deli. Schwartz’s had been around since 1928 when Reuben Schwartz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania opened up the shop and became famous for his specially smoked brisket meat piled high into slices of rye bread. They still use Reuben’s recipe, without preservatives and full of that honest decadent flavour. It was a trick once again to figure out the wonky parking allowances, but I managed and soon had one of their legendary sandwiches in my hands. I found another placottoir where I could sit and indulge and it was truly one of the happiest experiences my taste buds have ever had. When I was finished, I could feel the food-induced endorphins ease every care I had in the world. I was one with the Schwartz and the Schwartz was with me.
On the way to finding the deli, I was able look north and see the imposing rise of Mont Royal between buildings. I set the GPS, and followed its nose to what would hopefully be the crest of that hill where I would be able to see all of the city at once. The route was winding and I was glad to have the GPS, as I would have surely gotten lost without it. Even still, I missed the turn where it was saying I would be able to park and look around. Frustratingly, because of all the one way streets that plague the downtown core, it was a fifteen minute loop to get back to where I was supposed to be. When I arrived, I found it was only an odd little parking lot for the Montreal General Hospital, with no access to a park or lookout to be seen. I aborted the whole idea and reset my GPS for the apartment. It wasn’t until I had just started winding down the hill, when I came upon the lookout I had been looking out for. It was looking north-east, so I could make out the unmistakeable spire of the old Stadium Olympique, the site of the 1976 Olympics. I had been wondering when I would come across it, but its location was shrouded in mystery in my focus on the geography of the Plateau and downtown. That Olympiad was the first one I had ever cognitively witnessed as a 10 year old, and it opened my eyes to all the other countries in the world, while also instilling a kind of nationalistic pride while rooting for Canadian athletes. The sad reality was, however that the stadium is now plagued with structural problems and has become a financial albatross around the city’s neck, prompting the inevitable discussions concerning its possible dismantling. Such a shame for such a memorable venue.
After heading home for a brief sleep, I stretched out with the laptop to investigate the subway for a possible route into Little Burgundy for what I was hoping to be the capper for this Montreal trip, a meal at Joe Beef’s on Rue Notre-Dame Ouest. They were a bit of a current sensation as of late, having been spotlighted by Anthony Bourdain and had recently had a high profile bro-date between Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama at their famous tables. One thing that really turned me onto them was, when I when Anthony Bourdain highlighted their dish “Hot Oysters on a Radio”, which is actually three oysters on an antique radio. It was so out there and… I don’t know- photogenic!, I just had to sample that. So I studied the website for the Montreal Metro and found that its Orange Line had a direct train straight to within a kilometre of the restaurant, no transfers. This was looking really good. Through the website, I saw they wouldn’t be open until 6:00 and it was only 3 at the time. Enough time for another walk around the neighbourhood.
I was happy to find that I was close to Rue St. Urbain, just a few blocks south of where I was staying. St. Urbain was the setting for the best offerings of Mordecai Richler. He described the street and its community so well, with its rich character and colourful humanity, I felt like I was on my way to meeting a celebrity. It was that familiar to me.
On the way there, I stopped at the Fairmount Bagel Bakery. I had gone by it on an earlier walk, so out of curiosity, I looked it up on the internet and found it was the first bagel bakery in Montreal, opened in 1919 by Isadore Shlafman. I had always loved me a chewy toasted bagel, and when I stood in line, I saw they had a caraway seed bagel. I had always loved Gouda cheese with caraway seeds (my father was born in the Dutch town of Gouda), so I thought this would be a good choice. When my turn came, I asked for my bagel, toasted with cream cheese. The lady serving me dropped a bagel right from the shelf into a bag with a little packet of cream cheese and practically threw it at me. I suppose I wasn’t first schmuck goy that thought he was at a Tim Hortons. Nonetheless, I turned the corner onto St. Urbain’s, pulled off the top off the cream cheese packet, and once in a while ripped off a piece of bagel to take a swipe of cheese to enjoy, not caring if I was the most annoying example of Montreal cliche ever. The streetscape was beautiful. Apartment buildings three stories high lined the street, with doors, stairways and balconies painted brightly in an assortment of colours. Flowers were everywhere and mature trees provided shade for those on the sidewalk. Some of the buildings had Stars of David inlayed into brick work, and on one entranceway, there was a plaque written out in Hebrew commemorating a donation from one Jewish couple in 1955. Indeed, as I turned the corner onto St. Viateur, I saw an Orthodox Jewish family in their traditional dress walking down the street as any family would, although the men and boys all had the ringlets along the sides of their faces as per the observations of their faith. But although there was a strong Jewish presence in le Plateau du Mont Royal, other cultures also displayed their wares straight up, a Latino store, a Greek Orthodox church complete with a shiny dome-like spire and a Vietnamese Pho shop and a sushi restaurant further down. I stopped in a few shops just to browse, but also picked up a Charles Bukowski novel in one bookshop I had found. Unfortunately, the rain returned in earnest and being without an umbrella, I had to concede defeat, cut my stroll off there and head straight back to the apartment.
Thankfully, the rain let up in time for me to walk over to the subway station for my trip to Little Burgundy. Not wanting to be caught in an unanticipated rain again, I made sure my umbrella was hooked onto the belt loop of my shorts just in case. Gladly, I never needed it. I found it pretty easy to buy a two way ticket at the machine, as it also provided an English option. I just went through the turnstile and descended the stairs and a train was right there. What a convenience to have a train come every 5 minutes! I followed the route map and counted the stations to Lionel-Groulx. Once there, the GPS on my phone was a little put off by the fact I was walking and not driving and took me a little out of the way, but I soon found what I was looking for: Joe Beef! There was a lineup outside and everyone looked so formally dressed, I was a little ashamed to be in my tee shirt and shorts. I should have known. When the doors finally opened, I met the hostess at the podium to tell her I was a party of one. She asked me if I had reservations, and I said no. Her face kind of went weird and she told me that they usually only take reservations but if I could hold on a minute, she would see what she could do. When she returned, she apologized that they were all booked up. I told her it was alright and turned out back to the street. Again, I should have known. I should have known to check to see if there needed to be reservations made to a restaurant of this notoriety. What a bumpkin I was. Bitterly disappointed, I walked along Rue Notre-Dame and tried to figure out what I should do. I knew there was a sister-restaurant to Joe Beef in The Liverpool House, but most likely that would need reservations too. I had budgeted for an expensive meal, didn’t see anything that would satisfy my plan. I contemplated just returning to the apartment, until I saw L’Gros Luxe just across the street from Joe Beef. It looked fancy enough to make me happy, yet pedestrian enough to not be out of reach. I walked in, took a place at a bar and ordered a L’Gros Burger and a pint of St-Ambroise Noire. It was all delicious, but I couldn’t console myself over my stupid oversight. There I was, sitting at a bar with a hang-dog look on my face, surrounded by happy couples and groups talking away while I nommed and grogged away silently all by myself. When I was done, I paid a hefty tip for the bartender, then went back out into the night. Remembering the mistake that my GPS had made earlier, I took the short way back to the subway station and made a quick run back to le Plateau and back to the apartment.
At the desk, I checked different reviews for Joe Beef and found that there were both good and bad reviews for the place. Indeed the food was always excellent, but at times the staff would drop the ball and keep a patron waiting too long for their food. This seemed like a common complaint. I sighed to myself, and to no one in particular I said I would remember next time. I wrote my notes, then like the night before, went to sit on the front steps. Sitting above the heads of the people that were walking by through the amber light, I could listen to their murmurings to each other. I had been feeling my thoughts slipping into that pit of self- loathing, the thoughts of punishing myself for being alone and wondering if I should partner up with someone again. I texted a few people and waited for their responses, but during that wait, I realized I should not have to wait at all. I didn’t need to depend on anyone. I was there in a gorgeous city, rich with culture and personality, totally on my own terms, and even with some disappointments, I was happy and excited to be there. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time. When I was talking to people about my trip beforehand, a lot of them said they didn’t like Montreal. It was too busy, the traffic was insane, the drivers are horrible and it’s one big tourist trap. I came here and found that all of those opinions have a solid base. All of that was true. But here in le Plateau du Mont Royal, I had found that magical and beautiful place that I had read about and fallen in love with. I had found Mordecai Richler’s Montreal. I had found Heather O’Neill’s Montreal. This is what I would take away. It was a beautiful thing and I felt richer for having been there. These thoughts made me feel worlds better.
The next day when I woke up, I stripped my friend’s beddings that I had slept in, straightened out her apartment and watered her plants. I took the beddings down to the laundromat directly across the Fairmount Bakery, went to the Italian cafe next to it and ordered an Americano coffee, then headed to a bench to read the poetry book the laundromat had in its stack of books it had saved for its patrons. I watched life come and go from the bakery and sipped from what was probably the greatest cup of coffee I had ever had in my life. It was Canada Day, and I was considering going to the lookout bunker that was at the Remic Rapids in Ottawa so I could watch the fireworks over the Parliament Buildings after the sun went down. First though, I planned to head north to Morin Heights where I could take a look at Le Studio, the former recording studio where Rush had recorded their watershed albums Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures and several others. It would be a kind of pilgrimage for me, and this was the perfect opportunity to do so. I was alone, but I had so much to do just in one day. I had a whole summer of things to do. I would go visit my sister Margaret in Kingston and my other sister Liza in Toronto. I would go to my hometown of Niagara on the Lake with my younger brother John to see the Rheostatics play their reunion tour. I would write poetry, entries for this blog, short fiction, but would mostly concentrate on finally writing a novel, something I had always meant to do. There were things I wanted to get done and this was the time to do them. Who knew how busy a solitary life could be?