Friday, 27 July 2012

Transatlanticism (pt.1)

Away We Go (Sam Mendes, 2009)
This is long overdue, so to those of you reading this who knew about my trip already: I'm sorry. I'm going to divide it into two separate posts (read the second part here), since I have a lot of photos and a lot of things to say. Also, I'm going to be referring to names and places in English, where possible, as that's the language I'm writing in here.

Last month I made my first trip across the Atlantic, to visit a place that had long been calling my name: Montréal. I had some money saved up, and guessed that I probably wouldn't be able to make a trip this big again for quite a while, so there was no reason not to go ahead with it.

How, out of all the destinations in the world, did I ever decide on this one?
It started when I was 16 or 17. Someone gave me a big, fat French dictionary for my A-Levels. In the back was a map of la Francophonie (all the French-speaking areas of the world). I saw that Canada, a place I'd been quite interested in beforehand, was on there. I was mystified. For one thing, did Canadians speak French with the same accent they had when they spoke English?

At university I was still interested in Quebec, but as a travel destination it was firmly on the back burner: too far away and too expensive to reach.
But it was around this time that I began to notice that a lot of the music I liked was from Montreal - Quebec's metropolis - both in English and French: Arcade Fire, Leonard Cohen, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Dears, Cœur de Pirate, Malajube, Leif Vollebekk, Patrick Watson, Timber Timbre, Wolf Parade. And more recently, I have become obsessed with Grimes. I increasingly felt the compulsion to discover for myself the environment that inspired these artists. Perhaps I would find something there that I had been missing.

I suppose I was unsure what to anticipate regarding language - and I really wanted to satisfy my curiosity. I'd heard that it was pretty much a bilingual city, but from what I can surmise from my mere week there, it turns out that really, it is French. It is expected that you know French. Most of the public signage is without an English translation. And unless you're in certain neighbourhoods, chances are you will be surrounded by people chattering in French. It seems that English is not a priority, it's just treated as it would be in any other foreign country I've visited - it's assumed you probably know it, because of globalisation, but that doesn't mean you should use it. That being said, according to conversations I've had with locals, Montreal is undeniably the most anglophone city in the province of Quebec.

I touched down in Toronto, right in the middle of a smoggy heatwave, before having to hurry through customs, collect my luggage, then get put on a flight to Montreal an hour later than my scheduled one as there had been a delay back in London. As I ran, I spotted a gift shop with a human-sized plush beaver dressed in a Mountie uniform standing outside: forever imprinted in my memory as my first impression of Canada.
The weather wasn't much different over in Montreal, and allegedly, it was unusual even there. This affected my plans a lot. It was far too hot for anything for the first couple of days - I would attempt to do something, and it would evolve into a whistle-stop tour of Tim Hortons, Starbucks and Couche-Tard for icy drinks, wi-fi and newspapers until the evenings, when it would still be warm enough to wander around with my arms bare.

The first notable place I visited was the Notre Dame Basilica, a cathedral that for a long time was the biggest on the continent. When I walked through the door, I gasped out loud. It was really the most enthralling church I've ever seen. Its general aesthetic was so Disney-like that it made me forget the place was associated with religion whatsoever. Moreover, the stained-glass windows around do not portray the stages of the cross, as in most Catholic buildings, but the stages of the foundation of the city of Montreal. It was astoundingly peaceful. I eavesdropped on a talk being given to a school group to learn a bit about the history.

Statue of Paul de Chomedey, founder of Montreal, outside the basilica

As I left the basilica, a guy approached me and asked in French if there was air conditioning in there. He spoke so quickly that I had to begrudge a 'Désolée... parlez-vous anglais?'. He immediately switched into English and started talking to me about the Quebec joie de vivre and how everything was a little more laidback here. It was all going well until he offered to show me where the nude beach was, and he could take me there now if I wanted. I told him that actually, I had other plans. But I didn't feel so much harassed by the encounter as mildly amused. On that day, a woman also stopped me to compliment my fringe and my fashion choices, so I got a wonderful first impression of the inhabitants of Montreal.

This was my first time in a North American city, so it took me a little while to get a feel for the street system. The metro stations were not as widespread or interconnected as they are in, say, London, so I had to get used to walking. I did find it handy that generally, the streets were laid out in a criss-cross plan. It made it harder to get lost, but they were so long. It blew my mind that there could be "east" and "west" sectors of one street. And the manner in which streets were numbered - according to blocks, I believe? - was totally unheard of to me. It is a cliché of the highest order, but everything was noticeably bigger.

There was a lot of great street art in Montreal, especially in the Plateau / Mile End, hippest place ever. As I walked around, I cursed myself for not living there. There are people from all over the world who own businesses and have developed that into something that's uniquely, say, Greek-Canadian. The neighbourhood is also heavily characterised by its Jewish population - you see Hasidic kids running around, posters in Hebrew and Yiddish, and there are tonnes of bagel shops.

Street art is one of my favourite parts of visiting a new city, because it really shows off the personality of its residents.

'In the village we believe that differences should enrich rather than divide'





The defining feature of Montreal, I suppose, is Mont Royal (the city's namesake). Although actually only 233m high, it's referred to as a mountain. I went up there when it was almost 40°C outside. Big mistake. It was a much longer walk to get up there than I'd anticipated, I ran out of water, and once I realised I was halfway up I couldn't exactly back out. But at least the slope was gentle and there were plenty of benches along the way.

Finally, I got to the park around Beaver Lake, a small, artificial lake that people skate on in the winter (very hard to imagine in that heat). I got to dip my feet in it, which was so refreshing.

Contrary to the name of the lake, there were no beavers. However, I encountered the tamest squirrel ever, who came to chill out with me by the water.

Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven!
I still wanted to get to the top of the mountain so I could see the view over downtown Montreal, but I had absolutely no idea how to get there (the signposts were rather cryptic). I approached a couple of ladies from Ottawa. They were charmed by my English accent and offered to go up with me! I really appreciated it because I'm sure I would have just given up there and then, if not. I suppose that's a disadvantage of travelling alone - when you get "can't be bothered" feelings, there's nobody to tell you to get it together. On the other hand, if you're travelling with someone else you're less inclined to get talking to new people.

More squirrels! They were unbelievably tame!
This was, like, the second time in my life that I had ever seen a public water fountain, and the Canadians were amazed at this fact, so they offered to take a picture of me with it. How could I refuse?
Finally! This view is called Belvédère Kondiaronk, named after the Huron chief who negotiated between French and Aboriginal people.

On the drive down from Mont Royal, we stopped and I saw my first raccoons!

A trip to an awesome city is not quite complete without attending a show or two, so that night I went to see Destroyer, at Théâtre Rialto. The New Pornographers are one of my favourite bands ever so I was excited to see another of Dan Bejar's projects. But going on your own can be a bit weird - more often than not, I feel awkward standing around during the gaps of time between bands - but this time I really liked it, and passed the time people-watching and trying to make my $6 beer last. The venue was shabbily fancy, a kind of 1920s feel. And of course, the show was great. He played mostly stuff from the newest record Kaputt, which I haven't listened to that much, but it made for a soundtrack I can listen back to later for nostalgia. And it was a wonderful antidote to the hot summer night and my aching feet.

With that, I come to the end of the first part of my trip. Click here for part two: Quebec City and then more of Montreal!