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.

Things what I have seen in Montreal, #3

Cuisine edition: Quebec of course, being French-ish, has a long and glorious history of fine cuisine, masterfully prepared dishes of exquisite beauty and a general cultural appreciation of fine food that surpasses other, lesser nations. Here, then, are some of said cultural gastronomic treasures.

The first, go-to constituent of traditional cuisine quebecoise is equal to anything the French can muster:

Poutine!

Poutine, as you can perhaps tell, is in fact chips and gravy. You know, like you get in fish and chip shops in the Midlands. The difference is that this is served with cheese curds. I’m not wholly sure what cheese curds are, though I have in mind to ask one of my friends who no doubt makes her own cheese in her spare time. But they taste pretty good, and the alternating feeling of jostling a hot chip around your mouth and occasionally biting onto a cold curd is quite interesting. It’s still chips, cheese and gravy though, whichever way you look at it, but like a Royal with Cheese, poutine is sufficiently popular for the big boys to want to cash in on the action:

Chez BK, indeed.

Another speciality local to Montreal is viande fumée. In the same smoked, boiled, kosher, Jewish-style beef tradition as from the mighty Brick Lane Bagel Bake, this is essentially the New York-style, thin-sliced pastrami. Even describing it as such is enough to have the viande fumée SWAT team kicking my door in, so I must clarify that it is not the same as New York pastrami, but is of the same tradition, and so a bit different from the vast slabs of thick cut smoked beef served up 24-hours a day in Spitalfields. It’s pretty good; hot, meaty, not greasy (because it’s boiled) but deliciously unctuous, and while technically served as a “sandwich” it arrives as a huge plate of meat with a light dressing of bread. Loads of mustard and a cornichon are essential extras.

Montreal's viande fumée

This is from Lester’s, a quite up-scale place at the end of my road (everything is quite upscale in Outrement, even the cornershops. It’s full of children’s clothing shops and hasidic Jews too, talk about leaving home to arrive at the same place, but that’s for another post). However, the place to get your smoked meat sandwich is Schwarz’s on St Laurent, which is always packed, often has a queue of 30 or more people lining up down the street, and is so famous it even has a biography:

You bought the meat, now read the book

At lunchtime after college, I like nothing more than to pop into one of the local restaurants where standing is the norm to pick up that great North American staple, the hamburger:

Bun's - bringing you quality cheap eats

Served with a six-inch-long gherkin, which they call a cornichon – despite not being the delicious, crisp, crunchy, French-style cornichons available in England, that I spend hours searching for fruitlessly in Turkish supermarkets. This restaurant is called Buns, the burgers are $5, delicious, and – read it and weep people – the cheese is free. There’s a girl who works in the Rue St Laurent branch (“Halifax girl”, because she told me she’s from Halifax) who I talk to at the end of every Friday night and who looks more and more miserable each time. I assume this is because summer is over and this means she’ll be going back to Halifax, rather than it being the cumulative effects of talking to me.

From the supermarket:

The horror.

Everything you heard is true.

 

Italophiles among you, get your head around this:

I'm sure this wouldn't be allowed in Italy. Am suppressing the urge to say 'zoinks'.

Not a pasta style I am familiar with.

 

And I saw this on St Catherine’s Street, the main drag through down, where office workers need to be fed and fed quickly. Sometimes you just need to eat quicker than the style of food you feel like eating will allow. For these occasions, there is KONOPIZZA:

Konopizza - for when you really need to hold a small, conical pizza
in one hand while doing something else

Cone? Pizza? Konopizza! Simples.

 

Finally, cliché though it is, I have to mention the tea situation. I walked around the old port a few weeks back on a sunny Friday and stopped off after hours of photographing churches and looking at ruins and bones and stuff for a cup of tea and a sit down. Everyone seemed to be ordering coffees with long and complicated sounding names, but my heart soared when I saw “pot of Earl Grey” on offer. It arrived looking like this:

Not what I had in mind.

A bowl. I am expected to drink out of a fucking bowl, and a tiny one at that. Canadians, bless them, have mistaken tea for some kind of romantic or pre-harakiri ritual to be solemnly observed, rather than the life-affirming, loin-strengthening, massive-mug-draining, utterly commonplace and without faff quotidian thing Brits know it to be. Needless to say, it didn’t come with milk either.

The situation in the supermarket is no better:

Not impressed.

See how much tea there is? Wrong. NONE OF IT IS TEA. It is all blueberry extract with ylang ylang and bullshit like that. Shelf after shelf of the crap. The only things I could find that remotely looked like tea were the bizarrely named Orange Pekoe Tea (Tetley and Salada), or the equally bizarre Twinings Irish Tea:

I feel Twinings have reneged on their Englishness for commercial reasons.

So here I am, in the Francophone side of town in a deeply Francophone state, and lo and behold, manufacturers have twigged that perhaps marketing your product as English Breakfast Tea might not be a moneyspinner. But everyone likes the Irish, right? Job done. A mere $4.50 for 20 bags, the swines.

Of course, with one of the highest numbers of restaurants per capita of any city in the world, Montreal also has a boatload of world class, internationally-renowned eateries. None of which I shall be visiting.

The storm before the calm

 

There is a moment of doubt before taking your first pill, your first line of something, your first tightly wound rizla bomb or acid tab. There is, at least the first time, a fractional moment when the possibilities of what may or will happen swim up to the forefront of your mind, suddenly thick with doubt as you lift the narcotic to your lips, the pipe to your mouth, the note to your nostril, whatever. Do you jump? Will it ever be the same?

That moment passes, but is replaced by another soon after. The woozy feeling of the drug’s fingers reaching up through each artery, from the pit of your stomach, driving a flutter to the heart, before reaching your mind: vision swoons and sparks, colours phosphoresce, perceived distance expands and contracts. Before mind and body are taken hostage completely, before you submit to the experience willingly or not, there is a moment again of doubt – tinged this time with panic, or fear. Because now it is in you, and no matter what your poison, you must run the course.

There are other times, other occasions that recall these moments. Moving to a foreign country with nothing but the clothes on your back and a sense of – potentially misplaced – optimism is one of them.

The prospect is exciting from sufficient distance, but looms larger and more real as the date approaches. Practicalities to be ticked-off preclude too much thought. The elation of arriving somewhere new or unusual carries you so far, but after the tourist sights have been seen, after days wandering town drinking small beers and coffees, taking photos of buildings, looking in windows at things you won’t buy, looking at people you won’t – or can’t – talk to, coming back each night to a hotel room, there is an emptiness that quickly grows to fill your days in lieu of anything else.

As adults, we don’t often have the experience of being alone, without friends or contacts. The first day of a new school, first day in a new town – these are experienced usually long ago as children, and at the time come with the support of family and friends from other places. So it was with some surprise that I realised the last time I was in this position, I was nine years old. Of course there’s Skype and email and Facebook, but it’s not the same. It’s at times like these that you realise what social animals we are.

Without purpose, without a social network to hand, with a language barrier and with the days growing shorter, it’s easy to focus only on what isn’t working. And it would be easy to succumb to that, to jack it in and take a route back to easier, familiar ground. But that would serve no purpose. I don’t want the feeling of safety; I’m looking to ride out the need for it, landing the other side. There either will be buried reserves of strength, stamina and optimism that can be tapped, new skills and discoveries that will alter the way I approach the world in the future, or there won’t.

I’ve taken the jump, swallowed the pill. I’m over the wave of panic, and I’m looking up. And I absolutely, categorically, hope everything will never be the same again.

Things what I have seen in Montreal, #2

This beast was just left on the pavement outside my hotel, along with piles of other detritus that had been tossed out of a flat that was being gutted. A lot more interesting than old saucepans and mattresses though.

 

It still seemed in pretty good nick too, complete with ancient 1970s (?) circuit boards inside that looked like some kind of 6th form electronics project to modern eyes. But looking closely revealed this:

 

 

So there you have it. I am going to rename this blog, Leslie on Reverb. Actually Bass Swing Bass Walk also has a certain ring to it.

Montreal – a painted city

A minotaur, holding up the Rosemount overpass, Atlas-style

Spending days in a city with no one but the city herself for company goes something like this: wake up, breakfast, pick place on map, and start walking. Fortunately Montreal is a very walkable city.

First thing that struck me was how I’d ended up, again, in Hackney. When I went to see a friend in Barcelona for New Year’s several years ago we stayed in Raval, a down-at-heel barrio filled with Turks and recent immigrants and frequented by the usual low-rent arty types that find themselves in such places. Kebab shops, gyros, bars and haircuts – like Hackney. Then in Madrid, we stayed in Lavapiés, and found it much the same. Now my international tour of Hackney has crossed the Atlantic.

My hotel is on the edge of the Quartier de Specatacles, the museum, art gallery and theatre pedestrianised district east of downtown. Immediately around me is the Latin Quarter, whose latino qualities are either very deeply buried or non-existent, as it is mostly made of restaurants, cafes and bars and shops more reminiscent of Camden. It even has a community of crusty punks that sit around surreptitiously drinking and panhandling by the roadside. To the north, up slight hill is the Plateau, west is the gay village.

weird things on sale in the Latin Quarter

A stroll around on my first day led down Rue St Catherine, an artery that runs through the city for miles. New building sites, cheap eateries, the occasional strip club, grungy bars, art supply shops, galleries, coffee shops and graffiti everywhere left me in no doubt that this meant chalking up another international Hackney stop-off.

At the end of my road is a small square, Place Emilie Gamelin. It has a sloped grassy bank running down to a concrete plaza on which is marked out three checkered boards for playing giant chess. There is a water feature that wells up into three tree-like metal twists atop the hill, and then flows down a channel to a covered gutter at the bottom. Standing at the outflow at the bottom I thought how pleasant it was; the sun shining, the thoughtful men standing around the four-foot high rooks and pawns, chin-in-hand, the music playing from speakers mounted on high poles. I looked at my feet and saw a syringe tumble out of the water channel and bobble around the gutter. Druggies? Urban regeneration? Works of public contemporary art? All very familiar.

Unlike Hackney, however, Montreal is covered in graffiti of a very high standard. No so much grafitti as murals, in fact. Each of the two or three parts of town I’ve been to have a different flavour, some more serene, others more urban, but the quality – and the fact that none have been overwritten by tags – is the same (click on the image to see full-size).

There's quite a lot of this.
Like some kind of zombie Ray Charles
Arabesque grafitti on St Catherine
Back wall of a jazz club

Some are recognisably urban. Some are pretty bizarre. Some are just pretty. Some make no sense whatsoever.

I'm not sure what's going on here. Seeing as it's a Portuguese chicken shop, perhaps they're trying to tie Megallan's voyages with.. the discovery of the chicken? I'm not sure.
My friend Isabel warned me to "look out for Racoons",
I wonder if she meant this wacked out bunch
Winter scene in the Latin Quarter
Summer scene in the Latin Quarter
Grafitti with a Swan Lake vibe, in the Plateau
A loading bay painted with surreal, twisting scenes.

There’s also some Parisianesque details – these streetlamps have a certain Belle Epoque feel to them:

Parisian-esque street furniture? Or just wishful thinking.

I also like the mix of new and old. I’ve only walked through it quickly, but the Old Port dates from the 1700s and has a lot of massive limestone edifices with Greek-temple style architectural features, plinths, columns, and so on:

 

Everything later than about the 1950s looks very modern, practical and largely uninspired. I don’t really have a picture that captures it precisely, but there’s something about the houses built in the 19th century that makes them pretty much all look like something out of the Munsters or the Adams Family – all neo-gothic bricks and tiles, pointy roofs and oh honey, let’s have another turret:

We want classical. No, Gothic. Wait, fuckit, put it all in.
Like a brightly painted Scarborough, or something
Would have been interesting to see how that one
got past the planning committee.

I’ll keep looking to bring you the ultimate in Adams Family real estate…