Au Canada, Part One

Morning in Montreal

Cross Canada off the list! After twenty-five years of living within a decent drive of the U.S.-Canadian border, I finally made it to the Great White North. I spent 3+ days in Montreal last week and now I am most interested I’ve been in Canada since I saw Michael Moore’s “Sicko” (in theaters). Or maybe since the 2010 Vancouver Olympics when every commercial that aired was the one for Canadian tourism where all of these famous actors were like “Surprise! I’m Canadian!” Anyway, Montreal was great! Let me tell you about it.

So, how is it that I ended up going there? Well, last year I discovered that taking Amtrak from New York to Montreal was only $63 (one way) and since then, I’ve been trying to put together a little getaway. Luckily, my friend Vincent was interested in taking the 12 hour rail journey with me so we bought our tickets, booked an airbnb rental apartment and we were off!

I wouldn’t say the train ride was bad. I actually kind of enjoyed the trip. I had plenty of leg room, plenty of snacks and I was able to finish the book I was reading, The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy. It actually went pretty quickly until we got to the border, where we were stopped for a seemingly unnecessary amount of time while Canadian Customs officials interrogated a few people and, as far as I can tell, detained someone because they were traveling without a passport. Also, for some reason, I got really nervous about bringing trail mix and dried fruit to Canada? On the little Customs form they give you, it asks you to declare any nuts and fruit you’re bringing into the country and naturally, I panicked about whether or not to declare my Trader Joe’s “Monkey Business Trek Mix” and “Soft & Juicy Mango”. Because ecological disaster would ensue were I to drop a piece of dried mango at the foot of Mount Royal. Anyway, I ended up declaring it and the Customs lady could not have cared LESS.

I wouldn’t say our seating situation was the worst. I mean, I get annoyed with any/all strangers I encounter and am just generally intolerant, so I was bound to find some things to complain about in this regard. Vincent and I had to sit across the aisle from one another because these two girls who were traveling alone wouldn’t budge from their window seats. The girl sitting next to me was reading an annotated version of Billy Budd when she wasn’t watching a poorly produced foreign television show on her laptop, which I found highly annoying just because…ugh, why would you want to do either of those things for twelve hours? Also, we sat behind an amateur train expert/Midwestern stereotype, traveling with his wife and his father from western Illinois, who I think has traveled on every train in America? He described all of the routes one can travel on Amtrak in great detail to the French dude sitting across from him. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was predicting the speed at which we were traveling.

We rode all the way up the Hudson and along Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence with these people and arrived in Montreal about an hour after we were scheduled. Through a combination of sheer luck and Google Maps, we found our way from Montreal’s Gare Centrale to the correct Metro stop, which from the outside looked exactly like a not-very-well hidden entrance to a retro bomb shelter. Once we figured out that the ticket machines wouldn’t accept our primitive American debit cards – luckily, there was an ATM in the station – we bought our tickets with some crisp Canadian twenties and struggled through the turnstiles with our luggage, our pockets singing with the sweet sounds of so many one and two dollar coins of which we Americans are so naturally distrustful.

We arrived at our stop, Mont Royal, mere minutes after boarding a very clean train, which actually sort of looked like a bus that ran on a track. After a short walk through the rain, we arrived at our rental apartment on Rue de Bienville, where we were met by our host, Michelle. She kindly gave us the lowdown on the apartment and the neighborhood, Plateau-Mont-Royal. Vincent and I decided to go out and “explore the neighborhood” in the rain, which really meant that we walked around until we found a bar that looked good/definitely wasn’t a strip club. We learned two things at the bar: 1) Yes, everyone really speaks French; 2) Our waitress, who I’m not sure was representative of all Montreal waitresses, wanted to be tipped immediately after each drink. (We made sure to tip after each drink for the rest of the weekend.)

And then we ate dinner at an overpriced “microbrasserie”, like you do when you’re a tourist. We had overcooked burgers and experienced a DJ spinning 70s AM Gold tunes for a crowd of approximately seven diners. Then it was bedtime.

In the morning, our first stop was a very cool cafe at the end of our street called Le Couteau (The Knife) that was recommended to us by a friend of a friend. She said that it was run by a “sexy lumberjack” and indeed it was! It also had great decor and a mural of a knife on the side of the storefront so it was a real win-win-win situation. (The coffee was good, also!)

Latte at Le Couteau

We then made our way over to the Parc du Mont-Royal which is, as far as I could tell, pretty much made up of a mountain! I know that because we climbed it. We weren’t even trying to. I mean, we didn’t get to the top or anything because, uh, I was wearing heeled ankle boots but we did climb like 8,000 stairs up to this thing that I just found out is called the “Kondiaronk Belvedere”. (For some reason we were calling it “the Chateau”, though, when we were there?) There was an awesome view of the city from the pavilion up there.

View of the city.

The Pavilion (via Instagram)

But I forgot to talk about our grand entrance to the park, which was at the monument I’ve taken to calling “High-Five Angel”, which is right before you get to this thing that is marked on Google Maps as “Tam-Tams !!!” which we learned is the site of a large drum circle. (Makes sense, as it also looks like a good spot for my next Beltane Fire Party.)

Eastern entrance to the Parc du Mont-Royal

After we slithered our way down the mountain – literally, could barely put one foot in front of the other going down the steep path – we walked about one million miles down the Avenue des Pins. We saw (in this order): a hospital, some McGill buildings, a man sitting in the yard outside of his mansion watching his chickens peck at the grass, a park that was just like, a hill with some mud and sticks and dead leaves and one lonely bench. That’s it. It was a bleak walk to where we were going, which was…

Schwartz’s! The place to get a delicious smoked meat sandwich in Montreal. You guys, it was so good! Just look at this.

Schwartz’s Smoked Meat Sandwich

After that, we hit a couple of nearby vintage shops on Boulevard St. Laurent. We didn’t see anything we really wanted to buy – a lot of stuff was overpriced or a little too kitschy to even be considered for purchase but we DID witness a teenage boy with fabulous orthodontia and a fur stole beg his mother to buy him the top hat that he had been searching for for his “whole life”. So that was something.

A history of the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics en Francais, found in a vintage store.

That night, our big plan was to eat a French bistro called Le Chien Fumant, but we hadn’t made a reservation and got turned away at the door! So we went to La Banquise, a famous 24-hour snack bar and purveyor of many, many kinds of poutine. (Poutine is traditionally a plate of French fries with gravy and cheese curds.) After a long wait, we were finally seated. I got some regular old poutine and Vincent got his with bacon and we both drank something labeled “spicy buckwheat beer” (Coup de grisou) and neither of us died of a heart attack.

Baby’s first poutine!

Immediately afterward, we headed to an Anglophone bar called Casa del Popolo. Fun place! Full of McGill students that night, I think. I say that because many people looked pretty young and a lot of them were complimenting each other on how “hipster” their outfits looked. So…anyway, we drank some St. Ambroise and chilled and pointed out all of the dudes with good haircuts. It was a good end to our first full day.

I’ll continue my tale of this trip in another post, COMING SOON!

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