Montréal: d'hier à aujourd'hui

4 Jun

Over Memorial Day weekend, I took a road trip up to Montreal. Much like New York, Montreal interests me both as a place and as a concept. I started learning French in school when I was in 3rd grade, although I've never actually lived in a French speaking place, so every visit to Montreal always reminds me both of how much I'd like to be really good at French language, and also how far away from that I am relative to native French speakers. Still, I've always had a good time there. It's an interesting mix of old and new, French and English, Europe and America. I've often idly fantasized about living in Paris or Rome, but I honestly find the immense and long history of those place distracting to the idea of imagining a quotidian life in them. Montreal, on the other hand, is about as recent as most of the northeast U.S. but has this distinctly European vibe because it's French-speaking.
In any event, it was interesting (re)visiting Montreal at this point in my life. Being in New York for about 3 years, I've developed what I think is a pretty keen sense for the intricacies of urban environments and what I do and don't like about them. My first visit to Montreal was when I was about 15 and I went up with my family for a soccer tournament that my younger sister played in. The tournament was at a series of athletic fields in the northern suburbs of Montreal, so I saw very little of the actual city. I left with the impression that it was a boringly suburban, albeit French-speaking, place replete with drab hotels and a painfully slow subway system. The last part is not true — we were just staying very far from the city center. The last time I visited, I was in college. It was “spring” break (March) and it was deathly cold in Montreal. I spent a lot of time huddled in coffee shops or in the city's vast network of underground malls.

Salmon tartar with avocado puree at O Thym. Pretty amazing.Salmon tartar with avocado puree at O Thym. Pretty amazing.This time was a lot more fun. The weather was beautiful and I think I appreciated a lot of the idiosyncrasies and oddities of the city a lot more. Granted, my French is no better than it's ever been (it's actually probably a lot worse because I haven't used it in a while). However, all the Montrealers speak both French and English quite fluently. On this visit, I paid a lot of attention to the dynamics of when people speak French and when they speak English. I had lunch at a diner called Patatie Patata where I finally sampled poutine, the local specialty, and also witnessed the lunchtime to-go rush. It was Memorial Day in the U.S., but a normal working day in Canada. As I sat the counter and watched, about 2/3 of the patrons came in an ordered in French, while 1/3 ordered in English. The two line cooks, as with everyone, effortlessly accommodated either, and spoke to each other in French with the occasional English phrase thrown in code-switching style. I also ate at an excellent restaurant called O Thym which was very clearly a local haunt. The waitress asked if it was ok if she explained the specials in French, since she presumably didn't feel like slogging through it in English.

I think you can probably figure this one out even if you don't speak French.I think you can probably figure this one out even if you don't speak French.Another thing I hadn't noticed in previous visits (perhaps because I'd been in the suburbs or the Old City before) was the extent to which anarchist and bike punk culture seems to be a thing there. I saw storefronts and posters around the city that advertised anarchist meetups. You hear of this being a big deal in New York back in the punk era of the 80s and early 90s, but my experience in New York has been nothing like that. I recall reading this NYT article a few weeks after moving here back in 2007, in which the city was described as “fat, happy and standing-room only.” One does not get this feeling as much about Montreal. I wonder what its own luminaries say about its state today?

New York has its fair share of 20th century architectural disasters, but Montreal seems to have been hit especially hard by some of the bleaker (in my opinion) styles of this era. I'd have to look this up, but I got a feeling like the skyscrapers of Centre-ville (Quebecois French for “downtown”) were built a bit later than those of a lot of the major northeastern American cities. Of course, it has its fair share of older townhouses, some of which where almost reminiscent of Brownstone Brooklyn, and some of which were stylistically not like much I've seen in the northeastern U.S.

There also does seem to be self-conscious effort at keeping up historical memory of buildings. On Boulevard Saint-Laurent (roughly the equivalent of Broadway or 5th Avenue, perhaps), metal inlays in the sidewalk marked the lines where different building lots began and ended, and gave the year of construction (and major modification, if applicable) of each building. I wish I'd thought to take a picture of it at the time. This would be really interesting to see in New York, or even in a newer city like Los Angeles or Phoenix. I've recently become interested in the construction and ownership history of some buildings around here, and the information about the original construction date of a specific building can be rather hard to find, in a lot of cases.