Our grand entrance into Quebec was heralded by the sudden realization that everything at the Tim Horton’s we had stopped at was in another language. Oh, right. So I asked in halting French for an egg salad sandwich and two coffees. Um, un baguette salad de oueffs et … deux cafés? S’il vous plaît? <Wipes palms nervously against sides>. And: voilà, it worked.
We can’t say enough about Montreal’s beautiful and diverse architecture, from the very vertical downtown to romantic Old Montreal and its narrow, lamp-lit cobblestone streets, making you feel as if you are in a film, something very French, with lots of rain and Catherine Deneuve whipping a scarf around.
We arrived on the tail of Hurricane Irene, witnessing one full day of high winds, rains slanted sideways, whitecaps on the St. Lawrence River and people walking in the streets as if they were pushing against invisible walls, their umbrellas blown inside-out like gigantic insect legs. Nearly drenched to the skin, we ducked into My Canh, an almost invisible phở shop right inside the Chinatown gate on Blvd. Ste Laurent. We sat down to hot, delectable food—glass noodle bowls with pork, fresh salad, imperial rolls and phở, all for $8. It rained sheets while we happily slurped our soup and cradled steaming cups of tea.
In the mornings, we walked to La Cabane à Pain, a beautiful patisserie a few blocks from where we stayed. The girl there was all smiles, unfailingly patient as we hammered out our request for freshly baked items filled with things like boeuf et legumes (beef and vegetables), spinach and of course—the “dessert” one, with chocolate.
From Mont Royal we took in a panoramic view of the city, the hill falling away to meld into the neighborhoods below. We drove through Parc Jean-Drapeau more than once to admire the biosphere and surrounding grounds before crossing the Jacques Cartier Bridge. After walking all evening in old Montreal, we went across town to Rue Prince Arthur, eating at a neighborhood creperie. The neighborhoods parallel to Avenue de Lorimier were a pleasant walk in the warm sun; charming walk-ups lined both sides of the street with flowering balconies, friendly cats and spiral staircases.
The city has a large, beautiful park called Parc Lafontaine (incorrectly labeled “Le Fontaine” in our video, btw), where we spent a great deal of time, walking, talking and people-watching. Fountains at every turn, it is a haven for walkers, bikers, picnickers, grass-sitters. One late night, we sat listening to some locals play Basque folk music on benches when suddenly another (drunken) local walked up and lobbed a beer bottle into their midst, narrowly missing a djembe player and inciting pandemonium before staggering down a wooded path. The police were called in to assess the situation and quickly determined that there was nothing they could do, the culprit having fled. This was followed by a lot of shouting and flailing of hands, one long-haired woman in particular paced and cried, cutting the air into geometrical shapes at the injustice of it all.
When we arrived home in the evenings, our AirBnB hosts, Marie-Lou and Vincent were often there to greet us and chat. We all came and went; their beautiful apartment glowed like a warm, wooded hive, and was a welcoming oasis, whether we worked all day in our spacious front room or only came home to shower and sleep. Vincent, a jazz musician and teacher, regaled us with stories of his own travels—the overwhelming natural beauty of Iceland, hiking the Annapurna circuit in Nepal. The night before we left, we stood in front of his wall-sized world map, laughing and tracing paths across the continents. It was nice to be among friends in a new city ...