Montréal part deux

Yesterday’s post was all impressions; today’s will be photos and a story and a capsule vocabulary lesson. 😉

Cat outside a bookstore

Bookstore cat… I think on Boulevard Saint-Laurent.

Vieux-Montréal (Old Montreal)

I’d read that we had to see Old Montréal because it was so picturesque. Well… it was — cobblestone walks and all that — but it was also crowded and extremely touristy. I guess pretty waterfront districts always are (unless they’re the super-expensive residential type!). You know: street performers, ice cream stands, souvenir stands, local art both good and dubious, smiling guys outside of restaurants trying to hustle you in. Fun if you’re in the mood, but nightmarish if you’re not, and we weren’t. We left quickly.

Along Rue Notre-Dame Ouest

Old Montreal

And those cobblestones are no fun to walk on, really.


Fortunately, the areas of the old town that didn’t have shops and restaurants were far less crowded. Champ-de-Mars is a former military parade ground that is now a public park. It had no shade and there were some guys sleeping on the benches, so we didn’t linger, but it’s pretty stunning. If we get back to Montréal someday and I’m not so hot and tired, I’d like to sit there and sketch.

Old fortifications at Champ-de-Mars


Steps took us up from the grounds to this little square.

Place Vauquelin

I know, it’s ridiculously cute.

Les Quais (the quays)

On the other side of the crowded cobblestone tourist area, we found the quays of the Old Port, which were surprisingly not too busy. This is where several piers extend into the St Lawrence River; you can walk along the river with islands to one side and Vieux-Montréal along the other. A much more pleasant way to see the old town.

From the corner of the Promenade du Vieux-Port and Jacques-Cartier Pier

Footbridge to the Parc du bassin Bonsecours

View toward the old town

There were Bixi stations along the promenade, and I wish we’d taken advantage of them, but there was no way; I was just too tired. But it would have been the perfect place to ride — we could have seen the entire length of the Old Port rather than just one little piece of it. Well, we’ll come back someday!

Clock tower 

When we reached the Quai de l’Horloge (the northernmost quay in the port) we saw a clock tower.

Clock tower

Erik noticed there were people standing on the observation deck near the top. “Let’s see if we can go up,” he said. I groaned but said, “Okay, as long as it’s not 500 steps or tons of money to get in.” It turned out to be completely free, and fewer than 200 steps. There were no signs on the outside to indicate we could climb up; maybe that’s why we encountered very few other people there.

Erik climbing the clock tower stairs

Numbered steps

I’ve climbed other tall, narrow edifices (the Statue of Liberty comes to mind), but this was one of the best. Not too long a climb, not too stuffy inside, wide stairs, and plenty of places to stop and rest.

Inside the clock face

Above the clock faces

When we got to the top, we pushed open a glass door and entered the tiny observation area, with barred windows open to three directions of delicious, delicious breezes.

Inside the observation area

And the view.


View of the quay

Jacques Cartier Bridge

(Actually, the view in these photos is better than the view we got from up there — because I took the photos by sticking my hand out between the bars. When we were up there all our views were filtered by the bars. However, the photos don’t include the breezes, so it’s a fair exchange!)

Panoramic view

I suspect the clock tower will be much more crowded during the rest of the summer. From up in the observation area we were able to see a funny little beach, completely empty; we found out later that the beach would open the next day and stay open all season. So we might just have lucked out.

View of the beach

Parc du Mont-Royal; random churches

We did go to the mountain Montréal is named after, the day after our Old Port outing, but honestly, I enjoyed the clock tower more. It was a very humid day and not the best for walking. We climbed to one vista point, bought a cold water from a vendor (we’d drunk all our own on the way up), and then took the bus back down.

View of Mont-Royal from the Bixi station across Avenue du Parc

Erik climbing

On the other hand, while resting on a bench near the entrance to the park, we saw people mock-swordfighting, and that was mildly entertaining.

Swordfighting in the park

The park must be a lot nicer on cooler or less humid days, and we were really tired to begin with. (Also, we’ve lived across from Mt Tam for the past three years, so we’re spoiled when it comes to mountains.) But I’m glad we checked it out.

Word list: one last note on French

It’s a lot more fun learning French in real life than from a textbook. (Ideally I would have wanted to be studying French at the same time, though, so I could practice verb tenses and things like that.) Some words I recognized immediately, thanks to household product labels: nettoyage à sec (dry cleaning), sourcils (eyebrows), ongles (nails, as in fingernails). Heh.

"Lost cat" flier in French and English

Here are some other words I saw all over Montréal, and their meanings:

  • livraison = delivery (as from a restaurant or shop)
  • viennoiseries = Viennese-style pastry, which means croissants and brioches and things (I’d seen this word in the US too but never paid attention. Now I know: when I see that word in a shop window, I should go in. 😉 )
  • épicerie = grocery, provisions shop (not a spice shop, as we originally thought)
  • tatouage et perçage = tattoos and piercing 🙂 (figured that one out myself!)
  • boucherie = meat shop (butcher; given the similarity of the words, it took me a really long time to figure this one out)
  • réseau = network (saw this one above a transit map and was confused because I knew it didn’t mean “map”)
  • torréfaction = internet says this refers to roasting, so that the café torréfacteur we saw must be a place that roasts its own beans
  • traiteur = caterer (I saw a shop called Le Petit Traiteur and was curious, because my cognate-hunting mind read “The Little Traitor” and I was sure that wasn’t it…)
  • dépanneur = convenience store, corner store (Montréal-specific usage)
I remember noticing this in Hong Kong too, but sale and discount signs become shockingly more confusing when you don’t know the words. I seem to remember that in HK sales are described in terms of the amount you pay rather than the amount discounted: sale signs for 70% mean the items are 30% off. In Montréal, I kept seeing signs for 10% rabais with a certain card, and I thought maybe rabais meant rebate and somehow you would be earning points on that card. (Nope. See below.) Also, limited vocabulary means hopeless lack of understanding when a salesperson approaches you with a “welcome, everything along that wall is 30% off except for the basics like t-shirts, but everything on that other rack is on final clearance so it’s up to 70% off” spiel. That happened to me both in HK and Montréal and I’ve never felt dumber. 
  • rabais = discount (not rebate)
  • solde = sale (I gather it’s more like a clearance sale, where stuff is being moved to make way for new inventory)
  • vente = sale (general)

Chalkboard sign in French, about fruits and vegetables for health

I realized in Montréal that I was still reading French only word-by-word. When I read English, it’s easy for me to quickly scan an entire paragraph and figure out what’s important in it, but in a language I don’t know well, I fixate on each individual word and that slows me down quite a lot. After I noticed this, I tried to make more of an effort to see sentences and paragraphs as a whole, not as strings of foreign words. It did help a bit.

And now my favorite story from the trip… 

… but there are no pictures, because I was way, way too tired.

We walk a good bit in Toronto (averaging 25 km per week), but we really went crazy in Montréal. We’d actually bought unlimited transit passes but I think I see cities better on foot, so mostly we didn’t bother to ride. On Friday alone (the same day we saw the Old Port) I walked more than 13km (8 miles). By 9:30 that evening we were dragging ourselves mindlessly along Boulevard Saint-Laurent, trying to find a restaurant that was still open but not too noisy. When I spotted a Peruvian restaurant I immediately said, “We’re going there,” and we trudged in.

When we stepped through the door, the interior was dark and rather warm, an effect not helped by the red-painted walls. There were only two other couples inside, and apparently no one behind the counter or in the open kitchen. If we’d been more energetic (read: pickier) I would probably have rejected the restaurant, but that would have been a mistake. After a moment, an older man walked out and greeted us with literal open arms and a friendly smile, saying (in English), “Tonight, anywhere you like.” We took seats and he brought us menus: single sheets of paper, protected by plastic sleeves. “It’s a set menu,” he said, “but I have to tell you, we are out of the turkey, the heart, and the eggplant. Oh, and the soup of the day is vegetables.” He then left us to decide. Again I might have left if we’d been less tired, because nothing on the menu sounded that appealing to me except the turkey and the eggplant. But we were too weary to move.

The man soon returned with glasses of water, and informed us, “If you are not very hungry you can also share. The portion is generous.” But we said we were ready to order. I said I would have the ensalada, and maybe he decided from that that I could speak Spanish (even though it said “ensalada” on the menu), because he replied, “Sí, y?” I said “Y el lomo de cerdo en adobo” and he said, “Ah, I forgot…” I smiled and said, “You don’t have it.” He said, “No, we do have it, but it will not be in sauce. If you want sauce there is the chicken or the beef stew, but the stew is a little spicy.” I considered the menu and decided, “Well then, it’d better be the tilapia.” “Good choice,” he said. “It’s very fresh.”

Erik’s soup of the day was, as advertised, “vegetables”: like a minestrone made up entirely of chopped vegetables, with some cheese sprinkled on top. It looked like one of those supermarket pre-grated mixes of yellow and white cheeses; maybe it was, but the soup was tasty. My salad was a likewise tasty combination of baby greens, black olives, tomatoes, sunflower seeds, and a halved hard-boiled egg, topped with that same cheese mix and what looked and tasted like store-bought Italian dressing. I later read online that someone who ate at this restaurant hated his “hippy granola salad that had nothing to do with Peruvian food.” This may be an accurate description, but I didn’t mind. I felt like I was eating at someone’s house, not in a restaurant. The soup and salad were a bit odd, but homey and good.

When our main dishes arrived, they too were homey and good. On a big oval plate I found pan-cooked fish, brown and tender; a huge mound of rice pilaf; a scoop of colorful veggies (green beans, orange and yellow carrots) seasoned with herbs; and about a quarter of a crown of broccoli. (No pictures. I was much too tired.) By this time we’d figured out that our smiling host was in fact the only one working there. He took our orders, bused the tables, cooked the food, and washed the dishes. When he refilled my water I thanked him, and he replied ever so naturally, “Thanks to you.”

Erik cleaned his plate entirely, but I had to leave about half of mine. When the man looked at it he asked graciously, “Should I wrap this up for you?” He then offered dessert (cheesecake, or date-coconut cake) and tea or coffee. When Erik refused the latter, he asked, “Are you sure? It’s included.” He returned shortly with slices of cake on little round glass plates, a little metal teapot, a cup and saucer, and a glass bowl filled with Stash tea bags and one of a different brand. I saw that it was anise tea and made in Peru, so I opted for that one. It went beautifully with the date and coconut cake, which was dark, moist, and lightly spiced.

Our meal came out to $15 apiece, tax included. I tried to give a large tip but the man refused it, saying, “No no, it’s too much!” I reduced the tip by a dollar and gave him the rest, which he accepted. The man came to see us out the door, and when I said “Muchas gracias,” he asked, “¿Viajó a Peru?” (Have you been to Peru?) Our conversation then went like this:

ME: No.
MAN: Oh. Porque Usted habla español… ¿o bastante?
ME: Sí, yo hablo… somos de California.
MAN: ¡Ah! California, ok. ¿De cual parte — Los Angeles?
ME: Cerca de San Francisco, pero vivimos en Los Angeles, mm, casi cinco años.
MAN: ¿Están viajando en Montréal?
ME: Sí. Es un poco difícil porque… ¡todo el francés!
MAN: Sí, sí, francés es más difícil... [a little discussion about Montréal’s festivals, etc]
ME: Actually, estamos viajando por todo el mundo. Estuvimos en Toronto, um, dos meses, y la semana próxima vamos a Scotland.
MAN: [makes excited noises, but then looks very intent and inquiring] Pero… pero… [I thought he was going to ask about how we could afford it, and was about to finish his sentence by asking, “¿trabajo?” Good thing I didn’t.] Pero tiene que tener un motivo… un motivo… ¿Cultura, o qué?

I absolutely love it when people don’t ask how we’re traveling, but why. I’m not sure exactly what I said after this; communicating in other languages always amazes me afterward because I don’t remember how we conveyed what we did. Eventually, I explained about our work, and the man said eagerly that our work is so portable.

MAN: Pero la comida, no.

We laughed at this, and then I translated for Erik.

ME [to Erik]: He says food and cooking are not so easy to take around the world.
ERIK: Oh, I don’t know, I think they’re working on that…

After that the conversation switched to English, and the man told Erik about the local tech companies. He said of Ubisoft (down the street), that it has transformed the neighborhood.

MAN: When I opened this place, nineteen years ago… now this street has a different flavor. [I read in a guidebook that the neighborhood, Mile End, used to be working-class and has only recently gentrified.]

He explained that these companies like being located in Montréal because it gives them entry to the European market.

MAN: That’s how I learn everything, from my customers! I’m like a spy.

At some point he asked what I’d written, and I said nothing, but Erik reminded me of my textbook chapter.

ME: Ah well, okay, yes, some small things, but nothing big yet.
MAN: It will come. I heard once on the radio, about Gabriel García Márquez — I know more about Latin American literature — he said it took him five years even to express the idea for One Hundred Years of Solitude. So sometimes, the very good ideas, it takes time.

Finally we took our leave because one of the other diners was waiting to pay, but before we left:

MAN: If you have any questions about Montréal, come back and ask me.

We didn’t get a chance to go back, but if you’re ever in Montréal and looking for a friendly place to eat, the restaurant is called Pucapuca and it’s on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, near Rue Saint-Viateur Ouest. I read reviews and saw that other people had an equally lovely experience there; other diners commented on the “prix RIDICULE“, on feeling like a “favored grandchild” or like they were eating at a friend’s home. An entirely lovely experience, and the perfect ending to a busy, tiring day. And a sweet memory from a really enjoyable four-day trip.