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.

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.

Things what I have seen in Montreal, #1

Despite being equipped only with a shitty phone camera, there are far too many things I stumble across that demand to be photographed. So I’ll put them up. First, shop window edition.

Strange shop display on Rue St Catherine.
This was the window display for a shop that designed and
supplied specialised or customized mannequins.
Creepy big-eyed winking shop dummies. I hope it wasn't one of theirs.
It's Canada - lumberjack shirts are not optional.
So they're really trying to protect their classy clientele and all the hard work they've put into making it look wonderful from the oiks outside. I wonder how classy it is inside...?
How classy? It's full of lava lamps - kneel before their levels of classyness, heathens.
This is a glass of Earl Grey tea with hot frothy milk. Look how authentic it is! - it has a London bus next to it. Needless to say it was revolting.
"Best swanky joint", eh? Praise indeed.