Montréal: impressions

We’re back in Toronto after four days in Montréal. It was fun to see another Canadian city, and Montréal was good exercise both mentally and physically.

Along Avenue du Parc

Elderly lady eating pastry at a farmers' market

Erik looking out over the St Lawrence River

Now we only have a week before we leave for Scotland… eep!

I have a lot to say about Montréal so I’ll be posting about it both today and tomorrow… and today, bullet points and subheadings are my friend.

Français, Anglais, Franglais et plus

  • I thought there would be more English in Montréal, since both languages are official, but instead it was like Toronto in reverse. In Toronto, everything is in English except some product labels and the signs at the post office (which have both languages equally); some magazines also have both languages side-by-side. In Montréal, nearly everything is in French, including store hours (V 17 à 23 = Friday 5-11 PM) and much of the signage. Sign in French about leaving dogs outside the marketSigns in French for Russian food
  • I’ve decided the é is like the one in my hometown: sometimes people use it and sometimes they don’t. Montreal, Montréal. San Jose, San José. Maybe it depends what your native language is, maybe it depends on your political views, maybe it just depends how much you like using keyboard shortcuts; I don’t know.
  • Montréal is a really, really interesting city if you — like me — are fascinated with linguistic mixing. Although my first impression was that everything was in French, I soon realized people were very comfortable switching it up. I heard the following conversation in a Chilean restaurant:
    HOSTESS: ¡Hola! Bonjour!
    CUSTOMER: Hola.
    HOSTESS: ¿Para aquí?
    CUSTOMER: Oui.
  • I tried to practice French whenever possible, but usually I just ended up speaking in English because it was faster than inflicting my laborious pronunciation on some poor cashier. But I did have this exchange in a bakery:
    ME: Bonjour!
    (I consider the pastry case for a couple of minutes.)
    ME: (mumbling slightly) Could I have a palmier?
    CEWBFLKIG: Mais oui! Autre chose?
    ME: Non.
    CEWBFLKIG: Deux soixante-six.
    (I hand over $2.66.)
    CEWBFLKIG: [unintelligible]?
    ME: …
    ME: Sorry?
    CEWBFLKIG: Oh, I’m so sorry! I thought you were speaking French!
    ME: No no no! It’s okay!
    CEWBFLKIG: I would have switched!
    ME: No, no! It’s fine! I can understand if it’s not too fast.
    CEWBFLKIG: Yeah, French can be hard. (super-sympathetic smile) Anyway… do you want a receipt?
    ME: No, it’s okay.
    CEWBFLKIG: Okay, thank you!
    ME: Merci!
    (outside the bakery) ERIK: You ‘passed’!
Great transit
As an American urbanite, I get all goopy for public transit in other countries. We’ve been loving the subway/streetcar/bus system in Toronto, but transit is still better in Montréal, where even the single fares are hooked up to automated systems (just touch the card and go! no paper transfers!).

Montréal is also home to Bixi, the public bike-sharing system we’ve seen around Toronto as well. I’ve been scared to try it in Toronto, but Montréal has so many bike lanes, we gave it a spin — and loved it. For $7 you get 24 hours of unlimited rides as long as each trip is under 30 minutes. Since there were Bixi stations everywhere, it wasn’t hard to just drop off a bike after 20 minutes and get a new one, which restarts the 30-minute countdown. Each bike is outfitted with flashing lights at front and rear (very nice after sundown), and a handy little cubby at the front, in which I stored my backpack while riding.
Public bike-sharing docks in Montreal

Bixi station

After so much walking, biking was both terrifying and exhilarating. The last time I rode a bike successfully was probably about 15 years ago. Our last ride, yesterday, was only about half an hour but it left me exhausted. I can’t wait to do it again.

Montréal is not Toronto

Erik pointed out that the two cities are in different provinces. So even though they’re only about an hour’s flight apart (like San Francisco and San Diego), comparing them is a bit like saying “Portland is different from San Francisco.” But I’ll say it anyway! Architecture, character, style are all different. I also immediately felt, when we got into Montréal, that it was sunnier; today I realized why. The streets in Toronto go N/S and E/W on a grid; in Montréal (or at least in Mile End, where we stayed) the streets run diagonal to the compass points. That meant less shade on the sidewalks and a generally brighter and higher-contrast feel to everything.

We rented an apartment in this building.

Our AirBnB rental was on the third floor of this building.

Do Montrealers have a reputation for being a little quirky and colorful, or am I just thinking of Cirque du Soleil? Not as far-out as Berkeley, but definitely a little hippier than Toronto (I’m probably also influenced by the differing personalities of our AirBnB hosts in the two cities).

Parking-space walls and ceiling covered in B/W cartoony paintings

Covered alley/parking space next to Théâtre Espace Go

We saw a couple of protest marches while we were there (to be fair, I know there have been some in Toronto too since we have friends who marched in one); in the local handouts/fliers section of a shop I picked up one of the red fabric squares that people wear to show solidarity with the student protesters across Québec.

Protest-solidarity sign hanging out a window

I totally support the students, but as an American, the situation makes me want to cry. The Québec students are protesting a university fee hike from about $2,000 per year to more than $3,000 in the next five years; for the 2011-12 term, UC Berkeley fees were $7,230.25 per semester for California residents (nonresidents paid more than twice that).  Well… go, Québec students, and may your protests ensure you don’t end up like us!!

Food in Montréal

As in Toronto, we ate really well in Montréal. There was just as much variety of cuisines, but it was a different distribution — more Syrian restaurants, fewer Ethiopian; more Vietnamese, fewer Korean. Given the history of French involvement in other countries, this makes perfect sense.

Québec strawberries

Fraises biologiques (organic strawberries) from Marché Jean-Talon.

We ate a lot of eggs and crêpes (I now know how to say “buckwheat” in French: sarrasin), a lot of vegetables (hooray!), a lovely smoothie made of strawberries, litchi, and rosewater, and just generally a lot of delicious food. Maybe it’s the French influence, but there was a lot of focus on the repas complet (complete meal), such that — HUGE surprise — we actually passed up most of the tantalizing pâtisseries and chocolateries just because we were too dang full to eat between meals.

I know you want pictures.

Omelette dinner at Mazurka restaurant

Day 1: Dinner at a Polish restaurant. Beet soup (not pictured), omelette du jour (mushroom), cabbage salad. I think this was about $13 before tax and tip. Erik is having some kind of sausage and cabbage sauté.

Erik's breakfast: fruit, smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel, potatoes.

Day 3, Erik’s breakfast: fruit, potatoes, smoked salmon and cream cheese on a sesame bagel.

Montréal bagels are really, really good. I don’t usually like bagels because they’re so dense and doughy, but these were tender, sweeter, flatter, and lightly crispy on the outside (sesame seeds only make it even better). We had similar smoked-salmon/cream-cheese bagel sammiches for breakfast again the next day (from Fairmount Bagel, where we saw guys hand-rolling the dough and baking the bagels on long wooden boards in wood-fired ovens). Before we left, we went to St-Viateur Bagel (gotta try all the places, right?) and bought half a dozen to take with us.


Of course we had to try poutine, the famous Québécois dish of fries with gravy and cheese curds. I’m not sure this was a great example, but we can get it in Toronto too so we might try it again this week.

Smoked-meat sandwich

Another Montréal specialty: smoked meat (viande fumée). It’s like corned beef but moister and less salty. I could eat this all day… so it’s probably good it’s not available everywhere.

Banana split.

Banana sundae: banana muffin, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, chocolate macaron pieces, caramelized almonds, three flavors of ice cream (pistachio, caramelized almond, and caramel vanilla), and a piece of fresh sugar cone. Everything made in-house at Les Givrés… and a much smaller, more manageable size than a banana split would be at an American ice cream shop.

I’ll leave you with the ice cream for today, shall I? I’ll be back tomorrow with more photos from the trip, including a kitty, and a view from the top of a clock tower!