Goodbye Montreal

 

Three months has gone by quickly, quick enough to remind me how quickly time passes even when you’re not having fun, and actually doing really mundane things.

Just walking around this city makes me realise how much I like it, even while realising how little I’ve scratched the surface of Montreal, or the huge expanse of Quebec – Canada’s largest state – outside the city limits. The broad streets lined with bare-branched winter trees, improbably wide North American cars, and the brick triplexes that are unique to this city (a housebuilding split into three flats with a presumably lethal-when-iced stairway to each); the alleyways between streets one can look down that keep going for miles through block after block; the cafes and bars whose names I don’t know and never visited, and all those I did; the 1960s metro, filled with modern art and stained glass, with trains running inexplicably on rubber tyres instead of rails; the easy beauty of your womenfolk, and they way they can veer from restrained European chic to dancing drunkenly on tables and bars in the blink of an eye, the tip of a cocktail.

Histoire de la Musqiue à Montréal, by Frédèric Back, 1967
Downtown Montréal as seen from the mountain.

I’ve loved the view from your mountain, la montagne, paths of crunchy russet leaves opening onto views of the steel towers of Montreal’s once important but now eclipsed business district, and behind it Buckminster Fuller’s dome for Expo ’67, the Habitat 67 housing blocks beyond the port, like a jumble of Lego blocks fallen mismatched, overlapping each other, and beyond that the vast expanse of the St Lawrence valley.

Habitat 67, designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie for the Montréal's Expo '67.

I was startled by the Olympic Stadium from 1976 – a year before I was born, it’s scandalous sweeping concrete curves and towers still conjuring the optimism of a future that was imagined decades before, still hoped for despite wars in Vietnam, the oil crisis, hyperinflation, economic and environmental decay.

Le stade olympique never got its opening roof to work properly, and took the city 30 years to pay back the $1.47bn it cost lending "the Big O" the new nickname "The Big Owe".

I loved your powdery snow, snow so fine it clung to everything yet still failed to infiltrate my shoddy footwear, and I loved your crisp, wintry days – such a change from overcast Britain – where a cold winter’s day could still bring sun and blue skies and send the ladies who lunch from Outrement scuttling out to bask around coffee at café tables. I loved speaking your names in your language, like “Mo’rey’el” and “Aray-anne”, and just speaking your language in general, or hearing it percolated through a slew of different dialects and regions; Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire.

He wasn't busking. He just comes to impersonate Hendrix for fun.

I met local lunatics dressed as Jimmy Hendrix, dancing jerkily like they were plugged into the mains; Frenchmen by the score looking for work; Anglophone students from Alberta exhausted from defending themselves just because they hailed from the oil-rich west; and endless folk espousing the excellence of the Montréal bagel over the New York bagel, or viande fumée over pastrami.

But in the final analysis you wouldn’t give me a job, you bastards, and if I can’t work I can’t stay. I feel I can blame the government in part – Canada is the world’s second largest country, but has a population of 30 million. There are more people in London than in Quebec and all the Maritime provinces put together, so it seems to me there’s room to spare. Schoolboy French, a glass ceiling and a culture of jobs-through-contacts didn’t help either.

(The “working holiday” visa that would have made this process much easier is only available up until age 30 – unless you’re French or, curiously, Irish. Perhaps it’s because they’re Catholic.)

Montréal bagels: more bready, less cakey and dense as those from NYC

And so I shall see in 2012 in New York City, returning only to Toronto for a couple of weeks before heading west to Detroit and Chicago. I won’t “see the real winter” as Montrealais keep reminding me, although I’m sure that continental Illinois and Michigan are not going to be exactly tropical by comparison.

Now that's some snow.

My French has improved, for sure, but not enough, and not well enough to cope with the local dialect spoken at speed and against the backdrop of pub noise. I bought some dresses for my niece and chatted to the shopkeeper for some minutes before the question of where I was from came up, and she explained she’d only been in Montreal for about as long as I – she was Parisienne. This made perfect sense as I could actually understand her, instead of just looking increasingly baffled until the inevitable switch to English, as with the locals.

I never found my groove, my niche, my social security number nor job to get up for in the morning. Which made for a funny sort of visit, neither touristy nor living and working. The most I had to show was a morning spent doing psychological clinical trials for $100 and three days of painting and decorating.

So I leave not a penny, nary a sous, richer. But richer for the experience.

On leaving town

The view from my window - my international tour of Hackney continues...

Waking up in the morning and realising that today is the day that you pack your life into a handful of bags and move to a foreign country is a fairly odd experience.

Months of talking about it, referring to it, explaining it to others using the same stock phrases and expressions, the same practised nuanced shrugs, gives way suddenly to actually doing it; actually packing, actually printing boarding cards, actually hurrying to the airport and actually panicking a little as what you’ve done seeps in.

Having to run from Liverpool Street station to London Bridge carrying three heavy bags while wearing para boots and a parka on a warm day because of traffic didn’t help.

Things looked up when I found myself sitting next to an attractive young francophone lady on the plane, but after starting a conversation with her she then said something in French to the stewardess and was promptly moved to a spare seat over the way. I tried not to take it to heart, and instead chatted to Jules, a 20-something photographer, snowboarder and chef from Montreal who had been visiting his girlfriend in Brighton. Would he be staying in Montreal for a while? “Hell no, it’s freezing. I’m heading to Vancouver in October,” he said. I tried not to take it to heart.

The flight passed without incident, apart from a beautiful view of Greenland through gaps in the clouds which the captain was kind enough to point out to all of us engrossed in watching Thor, the film showing at the time. I can safely say that I believe I enjoyed Thor much more because I couldn’t hear the dialogue. Greenland was a vast sea of white, with mountainous peaks jutting up through the ice sheet. What you expected to see, in other words, but impressive nonetheless. You could see the snowboarder in Jules thinking, “Whoah, great fresh powder, man”, or whatever it is boarders say.

Banking in low over the city, Montreal spreads a long way out. I haven’t been to North America since 1998, when I flew to and from Los Angeles en route to Mexico. There are similarities – you get the same grid of streets that are everywhere in the new world, and always look alien to my European eyes. You get the street blocks of flats, familiar to us only from countless scenes in crime films or The Wire, and reminiscent of our tower blocks until you see them up close. There’s the remnants of the Olympic stadium from the 1960s, which looks so deliberately space-agey and ’60s that it looks like a prop from Barbarella.

The immigration officer at Montreal airport (IATA code: YUL. Obviously they’d run out of relevant letters) gives me one of the grim stoney-faced looks as all border guards around the world are trained to do. He asks a lot of questions about where I’m going, who I am, what I do and why I don’t have a return ticket. He writes down things on a pad of paper. He taps on a computer and looks at a screen I can’t see. Is he checking I work for The Big Issue? Is he looking for previous articles I have written? Or is he just playing solitaire? Eventually my tale of visiting relatives across the continent in Michigan and British Columbia and a print out of my bank balance is enough to convince him to let me in. A few cubicles down, an elderly Indian gent is getting obstreperous about being made to wait, shouting “I’m a senior citizen, don’t harass me”, while harassing the immigration officers.

There’s a shuttle bus to the centre of town for a mere $8, which gets you a day-pass around town like a London travelcard. From the outskirts of town to the west, the bus cruises past insane North American style road mega-junctions, with a dozen freeways on 50ft stilts arcing through air under and over each other. Birmingham’s spaghetti junction has nothing on this. We run past decaying factories smeared in graffiti and youf statements (‘fuck tha police’), through to former factories now converted to warehouse apartments, and onto main streets lined with little wooden-fronted Victorian town houses. We cross intersections inhabited by either vast, glass and steel downtown skyscrapers or old colonial churches, carrying copper-green domes. Montreal and Quebec City are among the oldest cities on the continent.

My hotel is at the end of the line – the bus station. My hotel reminds me of the scenes set in New Orleans in the film Angelheart – all darkly painted wood and twisting stairs, over-the-top plasterwork around the ceilings and wonky floors. It’s 7pm local time, midnight UK time. I’ve been up for about 17 hours since 6am. I’m speaking French to people who apparently understand me, because they speak French back – more than I get in France.

Time for a shower, an explore, and to find out what piss passes for beer around these parts.