Friday, July 29, 2005
Yesterday: arrived in Montréal after a drive that morphed from Vermont rustic bliss to border-crossing interrogation to Québec farmland/small towns to city traffic hell, Montréal style. Arrived at the B&B, a brownstone on a quiet street not far from the foot of Mount Royal Park. Walked in, realized when I saw the expressions on the young Quebecois couple who own the joint that I'd more or less just committed a home invasion. A moment of groveling apologies seemed to produce forgiveness ("We are used to eet"), the she of the couple then ushered me into a teeny, comfy bedroom, talking in distractingly, appealingly accented English.
Called a friend, arranged to hook up with him this evening, headed out into fine July weather to find an ATM machine. Which turned out to be trickier than expected. Not that they're not strewn around the city with joyous abandon the way they are in the States, just that they were either out of service or disapproved of my ATM card. One finally relented, spat out cash, I headed to the Metro to join the happy Friday evening commuters.
My first impression of the city's people: wild variety of looks and nationalities, blending together in the streets and Metro in seriously pleasing fashion. Interesting-looking people everywhere, French being spoken all around. A tantalizing place, reminding me of Madrid in the way life seems to take to the streets, restaurants and cafés everywhere, people out enjoying themselves.
Blah blah blah. I'm sitting in a geek-oriented internet joint along a busy street in one of the city's French-speaking neighborhoods, all windows covered with shades, heavy-metal music playing at low volume, pale-skinned, wild-haired nerds planted at various 'puters, looking blankly serious. My bod wants food and sunlight. I must obey.
Updates will follow as possible. Later.
This afternoon -- corner of Pins and Ste. Lauren, Montréal:
Sunday, July 31, 2005
Montréal, Thursday evening: me, heading down into the rush-hour Metro. Two packed trains and one crowded bus ride later, I'm out in the city's western reaches, in a residential area disorientingly similar to neighborhoods I know from Long Island and the Boston area, swallows streaking in and out of view above abundant, spreading trees. There to visit a cyber-friend in 3-D for the first time. Tom, a big congenial bear of a guy -- long-haired, unshaven, smile shining through the follicle foliage. Him, his dog Jack, his two teenage sons (Max, Ben), in a flat that clearly belongs to a bunch of males. Lived in, in a nicely rough-edged way, the vibe active, alive, with a healthy edge of testosterone.
Conversation as Tom made food and the boys surged in and out of the kitchen, me pleased to be there in the middle of it all, north of the border. Dinner took place in the basement, the television room -- couch, chairs, shelves of DVDs, shelves of books -- me hoovering down two plates of pasta (Jack watching me, politely hopeful), the meal taken up a level by generous helpings of seriously excellent locally-made Italian sausage. An episode of The Kids In The Hall played, punctuated by bursts of laughter. Meal over, life moved back upstairs, the evening drifted along, the kids' attention shifting to life online.
Darkness gently fell, Tom and I walked to an area of shops and cafés, loads of people out enjoying the evening, the air humming with conversation in English and French. Himself picked up a cup of his current vice, a sweet coffee topped with foam and caramel syrup. I went for a decaf, Tom seeming to find my low-octane choice inconceivable, shocking, sad, given the number of tantalizing options readily available to get my clueless ass wired in no time flat. I wasn't looking to get wired, though -- I intended to continue enjoying company and conversation until my bod began to run out of gas, at which time I'd return to the B&B, crawl into bed, sink into sleep.
It's a funny place, Montréal. What I'd seen of the city itself -- apart from downtown, where traces of European-style architecture are scattered about -- reminded me of any number of North American urban and suburban areas. The people, the signage, the energy were something else, however. A 50-something woman at a table near Tom and I spoke a mixture of French and English into her cellphone. When a young woman joined her, that mix extended to include Spanish, shifting fluidly between the three. I confess, that suits me far more than hearing just English all the time -- or just Spanish, for that matter -- the same way that the wide variety of Montreal's people proved to be a source of real pleasure for me.
Like Madrid, nightlife seems to be a part of existence in the city (though not to the wild, bacchanalian extreme that they take it in the Spanish capital). Along with an abundance of good food, movies in various languages, music. And like Madrid, it appears to be a place where coffee is basic, the city heaving with establishments to sit, drink, chat, people-watch. (There's a quote attributed to Mark Twain that goes something like, "You can't throw a rock in Montreal without breaking stained glass," referring to the quantity of churches. Could be time to update it to something like, "You can't throw a rock in Montreal without smashing someone's coffee mug.")
It's a city, I realized, that feels extremely comfortable to me in many ways, like clothing worn enough that one's body recognizes it, slips into it easily, almost with a sigh of contentment. A funky, homey place, an urban center on a human scale. Almost, at times, with a small-town feel. (Example: next day, Friday, late afternoon, I make the trip from the B&B to the city's art museum, figuring to spend the evening hours getting a shot of culture. I get there, see no one about. And of course no one's about: it closes at 5 p.m. on Fridays during the summer. (Huh?) Closes at 5 p.m. every day of the week. Except Wednesdays, when it's open late. (Huh?) I get up the next morning, make the trip a second time, arriving shortly after the doors open. Once again no one about. Just me and a handful of other intrepid types. Could be because it's summertime. Or not. Got me. Strange, though. Meanwhile, I stop into a museum men's room at one point to dump the ballast, position myself in front of a urinal. I look down, notice a blue rubber strainer-mat spread over the urinal drain, see that it has the saying "'Non' a la drogue" printed across it. First time I've ever seen an ad or public service announcement placed to be read mid-whiz. Wish I'd taken a photo of it.)
Art lover? Dairy lover? -- Outside the Musée des Beaux Arts, Montréal:
Conversation with Tom moved along (women, movies, writing, women, actors, directors, life in Montréal, food, coffee, women, the various ways the city and its people were striking me), him progressively more amped up as his cup gradually emptied, the terrace around us packed with people out enjoying the evening. Later, back at the flat -- down in the basement once again, me nosing through the DVD's -- chatter continued, caffeine and love for the craft of filmmaking generating passionate movie commentary from Tom.
Somewhere in there my energy began flagging, Tom offered a ride back to the B&B via a route with better vistas than the Metro. I could not refuse. He checked in with the kids, discovered the younger one, Max, was resisting the early bedtime hour Tom had been pushing. I listened unobtrusively, thought about how clearly Tom's love for the boys shone out in his interactions with them. The kind of ongoing, unmistakable display that reflects a heart with depth, a person of quality.
When we finally straggled out to the car, Max had joined the expedition, tossing himself into the back seat, remaining mostly quiet as Tom drove through neighborhoods that could have easily been lifted from one of Long Island's older districts, placed neatly down in this northerly locale.
Tom followed roads that led through Mount Royal Park -- the lights of nighttime Montréal spreading away to the north and south -- then down into the neighborhoods north of my B&B, Himself enthusiastically plunging us into French enclaves, giving me a fast eyeful of neighborhoods I might want to investigate. At some point -- my energy-drop having reduced my part in conversation to one-syllable nonsense -- I bailed, made the rest of the trip on increasingly tired feet.
That was the first evening.
Wednesday, August 3, 2005
Friday. Woke up after a long, lovely night's sleep to sounds of breakfast prep. (I'd been given a hideyhole right off the B&B's dining room/kitchen. Any activity out there sounded like it was, er, right outside my door.) Stumbled out to the shared bathroom I had to use, showered, etc. Wandered into the dining room, still groggy, sat myself at the empty table. The he of the couple that owned the place said a friendly 'Bon jour!', set a cup of fruit salad in front of me. I marshaled motor functions, picked up a spoon, began transferring fruit to mouth.
A young woman appeared from a rear bedroom, college-age, exchanging happy-sounding good-morning greetings with the host, clearly Quebecois. She sat down near me, I managed to get my vocal apparatus working, said good morning, she responded in nicely accented English. We talked a little then lapsed into silence, me nowhere near awake enough to simulate real, substantial conversation.
Another young woman appeared, seated herself across from me. Younger, wearing braces, also Quebecois, saying not a word of English, not looking in my direction. Conversation in French ebbed and flowed around me, now and then a question or comment in English came my way, I mustered concentration, managed to respond. At some point, I apologized for my near-comatose state, expressions of understanding coming in response.
Drank a cup of coffee. Drank a cup of tea. No change in consciousness level. Tossed down one of the best omelets I've ever had the privilege of stuffing into my mouth (made by the proprietor, a kind, capable guy), finished up toast, yogurt, blahblahblah. Told the women it had been nice meeting them. The younger one looked at me for the first time, they both responded nicely in English. Got up, retreated to my temporary lair, fell back into bed, back to sleep.
Later, post-snooze –- me walking downtown. Happier. Awake. Grabbed a cup of coffee, read a local weekly alternative rag. Found myself in an area where the streets had been cordoned off, a sizeable performance stage set up in front of a plaza. Looked like festivities were planned. Saw the Museum of Contemporary Art off to one side, went in on an impulse. Saw some interesting stuff, walked around the galleries, content. Came across a large room consisting of nothing but a huge screen hung diagonally across the center of the space, showing a video of 20ish Japanese women taking part in a kyudo ceremony, apparently in this case a coming-of-age style ritual. Intimate, the camera in close on one individual face after another, no talking, just concentration, slow movements, the sounds of arrows being released. I watched. And watched. Then sat down and watched some more. Beautiful. Spectacular. Hypnotic. (At least to freakish types like me with disturbingly high geekitude quotients.)
Sat through the entire thing twice. Roused myself, headed back outside. Walked around Montréal. Walked and walked. And walked and walked. Found an internet joint, went online for an hour. [See entry of July 29.] Saw some funky neighborhoods, some quirky sights, loads of interesting people, lots of interesting women. Tracked down a place that sold Spanish language stuff, picked up a copy of the latest Sunday El País. Finally found my way back to the B&B, gave my feet a rest before undertaking the evening's assault on the city.
Funky neighbohood: the Plateau Mont-Royal district, Montréal:
Quirky sight: outside the Mont-Royal Metro station, Montréal:
Post-time-out: tried to get into the city's art museum. Without success. [See last entry for details.] Pondered the evening's possibilities given the change in the situation. Consulted a map, saw the city's tiny Chinatown, looking to be a brief, cheery downtown hike. Saw Old Montréal just beyond Chinatown. Two destinations I'd felt ambivalent about investigating, given their big-time touristy orientation. Suddenly found myself walking in their direction, me apparently having decided to take advantage of the open evening that lay ahead.
Walked and walked. Walked and walked and walked. Gradually realized this had proven to be yet another case of the difference between how close things can look on a map as opposed to the big-distance 3-D reality. (D'oh!) Heavy traffic streamed through the rush-hour streets, people packed the sidewalks. The Friday evening restaurants and bars were alive with happy humans, eating, drinking, talking, laughing. Nice, all that, the city continuing to demonstrate that its people know how to enjoy themselves.
I passed through the area I'd seen around the contemporary art museum that morning, traffic blocked off, many, many people out enjoying music, food, the evening's perfect weather. A band with a female vocalist played onstage, their music sounding like a pleasing Patsy Cline/Cowboy Junkies hybrid. I listened for a while, my feet finally turned me around, got me moving toward Chinatown once more. I passed two 40ish black women with two kids, a boy and girl, 8 or 9 years old. The women wanted to watch the performers. The kids wanted out of there, the boy with the tip of an index finger plugged into either ear. I didn't hang about to see who prevailed.
The guidebooks use words like 'compact' to describe Montréal's Chinatown. They're not kidding. Small, rough-edged, bunches of it clearly aimed at the numerous tourists, that last detail not exactly what I was looking for. I didn't feel drawn toward any restaurant I passed, continued on to Old Montréal, my feet beginning to complain about the miles they were accumulating.
The old part of the city: way more oriented toward tourist money than I'd been looking for. I moved along, lingering nowhere, my interest by that point reduced to the simple task of finding a restaurant that might provide a decent meal. Checked the menus at one place after another, nothing grabbed me. Saw one last establishment off at the fringes of the district, on the corner of Ste. Laurent, decided to take a fast look, see how it felt. If it didn't appeal, I'd grab a bus, head back toward the B&B, trawl for dinner there.
To my surprise, the menu looked all right. And the place had live jazz, starting soon. Stepped inside, spoke with a young woman who had exactly the right vibe, who went out of her way to find me a free table near a window. The woman waiting on me turned out to be solicitous, good-humored, kind. And the food? Good. Real good. Decent jazz, too.
Passed a genuinely agreeable couple of hours there, stepped out afterward to find a beautiful, fiery sunset happening in the western sky. Groped around for my camera, saw that my bus had just arrived at the nearest stop, a block away. Took off in that direction as fast as my feet could carry me, forgetting about camera/photo op., tourists giving me the hairy eyeball as I sped by. Made the bus before the doors closed, dropped into a seat, watched the city begin to move by.
Four Quebecois women got on at the next stop, looking to be in the late 60s to early 70s age range, acting like four college girls. Talking loudly back and forth in animated French, bursting into frequent laughter, one snorting comically when she did, increasing the laughter from the other three. One got off a couple of stops along, prompting a flurry of good-night cheek kissing. The others quieted down after her departure, the bus began filling with folks out for Friday night.
When I got off, I found myself walking through crowded sidewalks, past crowded restaurant terraces, music and loud conversation coming from open doorways. The weekend getting underway in Montréal.
I eventually returned to the B&B, everything quiet, no one about. Entered my room, turned on the bedside light, got horizontal. Pulled out a good book, read for a while.
End of day two north of the border.
Sunday, August 7, 2005
Did not sleep as well Friday night as the night before. Don't know why. Found myself awake in the wee hours, the kind of awake that means no returning to the realm of shuteye any time soon. Turned on the light, read for a while ('Last Train To Toronto'). Finally edged off to sleep as dawn lightened the sky outside, woke up after eight to sounds of kitchen prep. Got up, pulled on sweatpants, shuffled out to the bathroom.
I'd had the bog to myself the first night. Not any more -- a lodger had arrived, someone who didn't get the simple system for determining whether the bathroom was in use or not. (When not in use, leave door open -- if the door is closed, don't enter. The bathroom door did not have a locking mechanism, making the door open/door closed system key in minimizing the possibility of untimely intrusions and unintentional, embarrassing comedy.) Sure enough, post-shower, me at the sink scaping away the morning's stubble, I heard the door of the neighboring bedroom open, followed by a hand gripping the bathroom door handle, trying to push it open. My body weight against door stopped that, my warning, "It's in use," prevented a second attempt.
Back in my hideyhole, pulling on clothes, etc., I heard voices out at the dining table, laughter. When I made my appearance, I found four people there -- the two young women of the previous morning had given way to a middle-aged French-speaking couple (him: slim, an academic, with glasses and thin black hair spreading out from a bald spot; her: plump, white-haired, a bit shy, with a bright smile), a bi-lingual woman from Toronto, a 30ish French-speaking woman with decent command of English (dark-haired, skin slightly olive-colored, pretty, with the barest trace of hair on her upper lip). For a while they talked mostly in French, giving me time to slowly feed myself and continue the ascent toward consciousness. The woman from Toronto -- an academic, intelligent, with a kind manner and an accent suggesting English may not have been her first language -- finally
roped me into included me in the conversation, leaving the middle-aged couple in need of a translator any time I contributed anything. A sixth person appeared, a cheerful 30-something male originally from Calgary, now living in Ottawa, the partner of the 30-something woman.
Every seat at the table occupied, conversation going at full throttle, swinging back and forth between English and French. A real good time. The couple who ran the joint tried to leave us be, finally gave up when the party showed no sign of winding down, began clearing dishes around us. When the time neared 10:30, I got to my feet and spoke with the proprietors, letting them know I'd be vacating my room early the next morning, too early for breakfast. The idea that I might hit the road on an empty stomach produced expressions of such concern from them that I found myself momentarily not knowing what to say. They instructed me to take whatever I needed from the refrigerator, make whatever I wanted before heading out the next morning -- a degree of menschness I'd never experienced before in a B&B.
By the time I'd gotten myself out the door, another spectacular day was underway. I navigated the several blocks to a bus stop, planted myself on the bench to wait for transport. Montrealers strolled by, bicyclists zipped past. Saturday traffic came and went, now and then pausing when the light turned red. A dead ringer for Jerry Garcia sat in one small car, staring straight ahead, expression serious, taking off when red switched to green. Dylan sang from the stereo of another car at a moment when no other vehicles were around, the sound of The Times Are A-Changin' rising into the air, until the light changed and the car took off. A hefty 60ish woman passed, accompanied by a small fuzzy dog on a leash, the little critter dancing and bouncing about with the joy of being out on a beautiful day, walking with its human.
The bus showed, life swung into motion. Did the art museum thing, afterward found myself back out in a beautiful Saturday. Hopped the Metro, got off in a French neighborhood. Walked around, found a sidestreet with a bunch of restaurants, tables spread in front of each. Grabbed a seat at a middle-eastern joint, ordered a dish of chicken and couscous. A pair of musicians materialized, stationed themselves not far away. Him playing guitar, her whanging away on a washtub bass, singing older stuff, St. James Infirmary and the like. Good. Really good. Made up for the weekend's only so-so meal.
Headed back to the B&B, gave my feet a rest. Called Tom, made plans for a late afternoon rendezvous. Looked like we were going to do an Indian meal, a kind of cuisine I hadn't had the pleasure of gobbling down in a long, long time. I was ready.
An hour later: hit the street, hopped two buses, bringing me to Tom's neighborhood. Found his place, skipped up the stairs, rang the bell. No response. Knocked. Rang again. No response. I'd told him I'd get there between 4 and 4:30 -- pulled out my cellphone, checked the time. 4:20. Hmm. Called his number, heard the phone ring. No answer. Knocked, rang doorbell once more, gave up. Pulled up a patch of grass on the lawn by a tree, settled in to wait, watching the swallows put on a show in the sky over the houses. Five minutes later Tom hove into view, along with a friend of his, a woman named Kelly.
Did introductions, went inside, Kelly and I grabbed stools in the kitchen area while Tom hovered around. We were apparently going to an especially authentic Indian joint, the kids were coming with -- we waited on them to return home from wherever they were, talking about this and that. The boys showed, Ben sporting a beret and a t-short adorned with the ubiquitous image of Che, his hair and features bearing a startlingly strong resemblance to the image. More conversation, and then we were outside, squeezing into Tom's little car, me assigned to sit on the, er, hump that swelled up out of the middle of the rear seat, between Max and Kelly. Leaving me with nothing to hold onto for support, swaying heavily about every time the car rounded a curve, first against Max (who took it impassively, in a way that suggested he might be feeling less than ecstatic about our sudden intimacy), then against Kelly (who seemed unconcerned), over and over again throughout the drive, at times having no choice but to extend an arm in front of Max's face, groping for a bit of door to provide some stability.
The restaurant was located without problem. Parking turned out to be another matter, though, as hunting for a space down a sidestreet lead us around the block, the block turning out to be enormous, endlessly huge, extending on and on and on in a way that may have indicated a worrisome breakdown of the laws of physics.
The restaurant: in keeping with many Indian joints, the set-up was just this side of a cafeteria, the walls adorned with some combination of what seem to be standard Indian restaurant design elements: wonderfully tacky paintings, tinsel, Christmas lights, etc. Most tables were occupied, the variety of diners as impressive as the variety of Montréal's population in general. A not-quite-life-size cutout of an attractive, sari-garbed Indian woman stood by the counter, hands together palm-to-palm, greeting us valued customers. And beneath the counter lurked a display case stacked with Indian desserts, tray after tray, each one piled high, a showing of sweet-tooth bait like I've never seen in any Indian restaurant anywhere. Eye-catching. Impressive.
Plates of good-looking fare were being dropped off at other tables, menus appeared on ours. We read, discussed, pondered. Gave our orders, waited, watched the ongoing show. A steady stream of take-out customers arrived, disappeared bearing bags of chow. Ben and Max claimed to be nearing dangerous levels of hunger, the kind that might produce auto-cannibalism.
Mural -- Rue Ste. Lauren, Montréal:
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
And then the waiter (a relaxed Indian 30-something in casual duds, complete with baseball cap) materialized, plates of food appeared, most of them large, circular metal affairs reminiscent of mutated TV dinner trays. Each bearing helpings of two different entreés and a pile of basmati rice. I dug into mine, took the first mouthful, found myself quickly immersed in a state of mind I often experience when tossing down good Indian food: an intense, tightly-focused state where not much exists apart from chow, mouth and implement ferrying chow to mouth. A transcendent place where the velocity of the action seems to increase at a steady rate until the plate reaches food-free status, me staring at it in despairing surprise.
The waiter had mixed up my order of bread, bringing some fancy-ass paratha instead of the simple, plain version I'd requested. I let him know. And, not sure my words had registered, I let him know again. And again. And bless the guy's heart, he dealt with my slightly overdone tenacity with grace and admirable attitude, the paratha I'd wanted showing up quickly, followed soon after by a complimentary helping of a lentil dish (which went down just fine).
One of my meal's two entreés had some real kick, my mouth tingled long afterward, my body feeling wide awake and then some. The waiter brought cups of tea, everyone else at the table went for dessert, balls or small ovals of sweet confection, good enough that Max went for another, then another, steadfastly ignoring Tom's counsel for moderation.
While the others inhaled that last course, I watched the parade of customers coming and going -- families (including a fair number of mixed couples of various configurations), black folks, dreadlocked types (both black and white), two or three young Indian women, white hipster-geeks all dressed in tattered, oversized black gear. All sorts of people, providing great viewing.
The bill arrived, I started to dredge cash out of a pocket, Tom informed me my food was paid for. Which somehow made everything I'd eaten taste even better, despite being after the fact. Freed from financial hooha, I stepped out into the early evening to get some air, my bod feeling SO happy, as if it were floating slightly above the sidewalk.
Back in the car, me again crammed between Kelly and Max, riding the, er, hump in the rear seat. Conversation took an entertainingly foul-mouthed turn, I found myself explaining a top-notch Spanish insult, "Que te den por culo." (More formally: "Que le den por culo.") Translation: may they give it to you up the butt. An earthy sentiment capable of getting people real upset, not to be used lightly around folks who might not care to be given, er, it. (Up the butt.)
It's possible that of all the time I spent around Ben and Max, explaining that may have been the only moment they truly paid attention to me.
At the homestead: hung idly about with Tom and Kelly, finally pulled myself together, began the hike back to the Metro station, T., K. and Jack the most excellent family dog walking with for a while. We did the farewell thing around the halfway point -- Kelly kissing both my cheeks, which endeared her to me like you wouldn't believe -- they disappeared down a sidestreet. I continued on, catching the last part of a fine sunset near the station. My bus was just pulling out as I showed, I waved my arms hopefully, the driver made a sad face, a polite shoulder shrug indicating I was too late. I showed her and took the Metro instead, emerging aboveground in a downtown active with people out enjoying Saturday evening. Music wafted from the performance stage a couple of blocks away, couples passed, talking in French and English. I had plans to be up and on the road around dawn, so resisted the temptation to wander and enjoy the nightlife. Headed home, packed, went to bed, slept little, probably in anticipation of getting my adorable patoot up and out at an unwholesome hour. Which is just what happened.
Early-morning Québec countryside zipped by, few other cars about. Traffic moved slowly at the border as a customs agent emerged from his cubbyhole to drag a bunch of stuff out from some poor soul's car. I wound up dealing with a different agent, one in a fine, relaxed mood, who asked a few friendly questions then waved me on.
And here's the thing: I love being north of the border. I loved investigating Montréal, and I want to do more of it, want to explore Québec more seriously, in more depth. And then I cross back into Vermont and I'm in love all over again with this tiny corner of the world. I cannot describe the feeling of finding myself back among this green countryside, the hills rising out of it, growing larger, more dramatic as they stretch off into the state. It's literally beyond my pathetic facility with words. So you won't have to wade through me flogging lame attempts to draw the picture.
I'll just go back to anticipating future times up north. And future stays in Madrid. And future seasons back here. And the August days will continue to unfurl and blow past, me surrounded by the almost unearthly loveliness of Vermont at this time of year. Planted on a hilltop in the middle of it all, in a place that feels like home for now.
Montréal sidestreet -- detail of a long, hyper-elaborate graffiti mural: