Sunday, 9 October 2016

Rimouski & Trois-Rivières, Quebec

(Accompanying post on Montreal here - read first!)

The régions of Quebec are a special place. They are the province's biggest power reserve - in more senses than one - and in my opinion, a society nigh on impossible for an outsider to truly comprehend. The further you get away from Montreal, the less likely it is anyone will come to your rescue in English; the more you feel that the odd clues here and there hinting that you're still in Canada (Postes Canada, Radio Canada) are little more than niceties put there by some well-meaning old soul who sincerely believed in a truly bilingual Canadian Dream; if you don't have a car, your self-esteem pretty much drops below the negatives, because there is some gorgeous stuff out there but there are no buses or anything so you can't help but feel like maybe you're not allowed it.

The province is so vast that of course I haven't been everywhere. But I was keen to revisit one place and try out another.

Rimouski

As explained here, I lived in Rimouski for a little while around three years ago and left abruptly. I approached going back like visiting an ex I had some leftover beef with.

My carshare driver from Montreal was 30 minutes late arriving at the pick-up point and on the way, made jokes about me needing bathroom stops and whose slapdash driving caused other drivers to make wtf motions with their hands (luckily there was another, equally bewildered passenger in the car to witness the antics).

Pit stop at the famous fromagerie in Trois-Pistoles, an hour or so from Rimouski

Nevertheless, we all arrived in Rimouski alive and I checked into a motel. Yes, a motel. That night, I went to François' place for a big vegan Indian dinner with some people which was really nice and fun and helped me feel a little less lost.

I count scratchy motel decor among life's little luxuries.

I spent the next day wandering around Rimouski's main thoroughfares, checking out old haunts and doing exciting things like laundry.




As always, with the evening came the most spectacular sunset - the kind that makes you think the world is ending. I recalled how I used to walk along the littoral in the evening, looking at the colours in the sky when things got too much, telling myself that even if I wasn't happy, at least there was this beautiful nature. For this reason it was even a little distressing to sit there, listening to music that had been released since I had left Rimouski and therefore hadn't yet had the chance to get melancholy associations stuck on it.




I returned to Montreal very early the next day and was kind of glad. I am now able to view Rimouski subjectively, which I suppose was the goal.


Trois-Rivières

"Why are you going there?" people asked me. True, Trois-Rivières may be unassuming to those who are either more urbanly inclined or want stunning natural sights. My original plan had been to go much further north, such as to Rouyn-Noranda, but my budget was fading fast. I'd heard talk of Trois-Rivières, though, and was curious. It's located smack bang between Montreal and Quebec City.

I got a carshare again with possibly the nicest, most uncomplicated driver I've had (even from carsharing all the time when living there). I stayed in the HI Hostel.

Trois-Rivières was bigger than anticipated. There's the downtown and old town bit, next to the river - but that's only half the story. A lot of stuff is actually at the other side of the highway that runs through, near to the university. This made things a bit difficult to plan, admittedly, so I only ventured out there once.

View over the St Lawrence looking west


I came to Quebec in September for fall foliage. Apart from these, I left empty-handed.





Femme American Football LP

As you can see from these impressions, it's a nice place; I found it quite atmospheric.

Café Frida (15 Rue des Forges)
No joke: this is one of the loveliest cafés/restaurants I have ever been to (just got done writing an email to the owner to let her know this). I think this is because of the lovely staff and its kind of maritime-meets-hip vibe. The food is all vegetarian so I went there for brunch. In the evening I returned and drank a couple of craft beers while writing. There was a screen projecting The National's documentary followed by the latest Nick Cave one. Just so nice.

Vegan huevos rancheros as part of Café Frida's amazing veggie brunch range menu 

Éléphant (830 Boulevard des Recollets)
I literally trekked 4km - crossing aforementioned highway - to get to the only Indian restaurant in the region of Mauricie. The servers were amazingly friendly and curious about where I came from, but not in an imposing way. I had roasted chickpeas to start with and rose petal lemonade - both of which were absolute firsts for me and both of which reignited my faith in, well, food. Then I had a curry. Then I walked 4km back to my dorm.

Le temps d'une pinte (1465 Rue Notre Dame Centre)
A microbrewery I came across quite by accident. It was a good place to get a midday beer - a Berliner Weiße, specifically. Ha.

I thought about it and if I had to return to la belle province - and wasn't allowed to live to Montreal - this would be my pick. Getting to either surrounding bigger city takes less than a couple of hours and is quite affordable (around $30 one way by bus - a mode of transport usually notoriously expensive). Going by all the posters around town, there is a scene, too; it was just too bad it was all happening just after I left! Also, its inhabitants are called Trifluvien(ne)s! Mark my words, guys. Trois-Rivières, next big thing.

Trip summary

In general, I was reminded of inconvenient things about day-to-day life in Quebec: the complicated politics tipping in basically any customer service situation; the need for a car; drinking outside of a licenced establishment being frowned upon. I seemed to remember that living there gave me a kind of muggy feeling in my brain all the time. So I was absolved of negative feelings and happy to be living where I am living now. I did hurt my neck looking desperately down out of the plane window at the night lights of Montreal as I left, though, aware that this might be our last goodbye.

Quant à mon français? Well, I only really got used to speaking - and thinking - in French after about a week. Up until then, whenever I searched for a French word, I got a German one instead. Or sometimes I said sentences with French words but a German construction. I found it maddening and I had a lot of self-doubt; what if it's impossible to be truly trilingual?
After I felt reasonably comfortable in French again, a few days later, it was time to return home. Annoying. One observation I can make is that in smaller places, people won't ask if you'd prefer to speak in English - but rather whether they should speak to you in French slower. I think this is a solution that makes everyone happy. I brought back some Québécois literature with me to inspire me to keep up my French when I arrived back in Berlin.

Overall, there is the knowledge that this was the last big trip I'll be able to take in a long while. As I go further into my 20s, life is costing more: various direct debit payments, contributions to my pension fund now being taken from my paycheque, even my bank sent me a letter the other day saying my current account will now cost €3/month. A measly amount, I suppose, but what the hell is the alternative? Request to get paid in cash and store it under your mattress?

There is one more thing I feel it's important to mention: I flew with WowAir and I wouldn't recommend it - not for a transatlantic flight, at least. Its two big pluses had been the low price and flying via Iceland (which I have always wanted to visit and even though I wouldn't actually be in Iceland I still wanted to see it from up in the air). My flight from Berlin to Reykjavík had been delayed, but what was worrying was the window to catch the connection to Montreal was extremely slim - one hour. Factor in half an hour of delay and I had to sprint to get on there. There were no complimentary refreshments at all and prices were in Icelandic Krona. Unless you are an Icelander, you probably don't carry this currency in your pocket, meaning you invariably use credit card to pay, i.e. more fees. The leg room is also about the same as on Ryanair, which is fair enough if you're only flying a couple of hours. But for five to six hours? Just no. Also, there was no fun flight path map on the back of the seat!

Montreal might eat its young but Montreal won't break us down

(You bet I went there with that very 2007 title!)

Not the worst problem to have by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm not yet feeling quite at home back in Berlin after my trip to Canada. Maybe it's because I haven't really processed the whole thing; it's been three weeks since I got back and I've only just opened my phone's camera roll for the first time to look at pictures I took and think about uploading them. Was I just avoiding it because it felt weird to do stuff like that on my lunch breaks? I don't know. It even feels to soon to open up Google Maps again and look at a freaking map of Montreal.

To set the scene...

When I was doing A-Level French, I stumbled across the fact that French was spoken in Canada and was blindsided/fascinated. I also realised that a lot of the indie bands I was into were from Montreal. Years later, when I had a bit of money for travelling, I went to Montreal and my suspicions were confirmed: the place did have its qualities. I applied to the Quebec language assistant programme after I graduated with my French & German degree. I was placed in Rimouski, 550km north of Montreal. It was beautiful, rather secluded, but for personal reasons I ended up returning to the UK before the programme finished. I was determined to return to Quebec one day, though, and make some nice memories. So there was a lot resting on this, but I got the closure I had been craving and came back with a notebook stuffed with precious observations and feelings.

I spent most of my trip in Montreal. I made the pilgrimage back up to Rimouski. I made a spontaneous trip to Trois-Rivières. (You can read about those two places here.)

Montreal

Having been to this city many times before - mostly as refuge - and having pined for it for the past couple of years, it was interesting and jarring to come back. When I landed I didn't feel that emotional, though. More just pragmatic, wanting to quickly settle in. Apart from a couple of spots, I wasn't overly keen on revisiting the places I knew already. I stayed with my friend Andrea in the new-to-me neighbourhood of Villeray (near Jarry/Jean-Talon stations).






Montreal acted as my base while I spent a few days here and there in other places. Turns out that when I was there, though, I spent a lot of time around the green metro line. I discovered Saint-Henri, briefly; Verdun, a whole morning. Actually, I'll tell you what. I liked Verdun a whole lot.

Verdun metro station

I wandered around there on a Saturday morning, on Rue Wellington, which has a very unpretentious, High Street vibe. I sat in two cafés, I hung out in La Librairie de Verdun. I wandered off towards the canal and sat around for a bit.





I would say the biggest triumph of this trip to Montreal, though, was discovering downtown! I know it is considered a bit naff to like the downtown of a city. But if you think about it, Montreal is unique in that it's North America's only francophone metropolis. God, its downtown wavers between tacky and seedy and dull and cool. You keep reminding yourself that this is the commercial epicentre of the whole province. I love it.

The most pleasant surprise downtown was Anti-Café. Tucked away on Rue Sainte-Catherine, I walked past it like three times while trying to look for it. Broadly speaking, it's a café where you can bring your laptop, but you don't feel like you have to keep buying a new latte - you pay per hour. It starts $3, if I recall correctly, and gets cheaper the longer you stay. This is an absolute steal, considering you also get unlimited hot drinks and some snacks. As a space, it was really cool too - a mishmash of fancy drawing room and weirdo art. You would think a place like that would want to remain all hidden but in fact they really encourage you to leave reviews and stuff!

Also visited Musée des Beaux Arts and saw the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, which was amazing. It brought Patti Smith's Just Kids to life.


I walked from Place Ville Marie down the hill towards Griffintown. Here it starts to get a tiny bit industrial, a lot of empty lots with some condos. The Lachine canal is also here.



Iconic Farine Five Roses mill in the distance


But I did hang out on the Plateau still. I found two new spots on Rue St Denis.


Café Venosa 4433 Rue St-Denis
I'd always been a little lukewarm about cat cafés (never having been in one). I don't know what turned me off exactly. Hygiene? Animal welfare? Animals being used as a commodity? I kind of only popped into here because it was raining and I had a nice time. It was just like a normal café, having a coffee, just with a couple of cat coming over to say hello every so often.



Sushi Momo (4669 Rue St-Denis)
If you time it right, you could follow your cat café excursion with a tasty meal here. Sushi Momo is a VEGAN SUSHI RESTAURANT with weird opening hours. The dîner à deux has a set price of $46 for two people and includes starters, fuckloads of delicious sushi and then dessert. It's rare that I think of food for weeks afterwards, but this? This.

Another important food thing: I had vegan poutine in several places! Here is a short review of each:

La Banquise (994 Rue Rachel E) is the go-to drunk poutine place in the Plateau. It does have vegan poutine but it's not really that squeaky cheese curd, it's more like grated "mozzarella". Made me feel sick after. There was also a big queue outside and awkward moment with cashier where I thought he said six when he said dix. Copper Branch (several locations) was very handy when I was spending days in the cafés of downtown Montreal writing. This is very much a health poutine, with coconut milk sauce, roasted fries and it's... not really a poutine? But it's still a good snack. They have other tasty, fairly affordable food on offer. Lola Rosa (4581 Ave du Parc - only one with poutine) again just has grated "cheese". But still really nice and the portobello sauce is truly tasty. Especially when followed by heavenly choco caramel pie for dessert:


Finally, we need to talk about L'Gros Luxe (3807 Rue St-André - only one with vegan poutine). Wow, I died. Excuse the awkward flash picture below (with beer in background and amusing "knob" beer mat), but this is the closest to real squeaky cheese curds that vegan poutine has ever got. I did some research and apparently it's cashew cheese, unfortunately locally sourced. Still, this has inspired me to get my own experimentation on. I just remember eating this and thinking "life is really, really good".

Continue here to read about my time in other parts of Quebec.