Finally, I’m going to Montreal.
I’ve been through it before (but not to it) a few times now – most recently stopping there to pick up a connecting flight – well, that was the plan…
High winds. Exceptionally high winds – and we’re flying against them. There is talk of diverting, but we don’t. We touch down in Montreal an hour late. As I had less than two hours to make my flight, this is not good. I look down into the Arrivals hall – which is full. Absolutely heaving with people. There is no way I’ll be able to get through that queue and through immigration in time. I see a guy in an airport uniform, and head over to him.
It’s daft – I spent five years learning French at school, yet strangely they never taught us the phrase “Help! I have to catch a connecting flight, and the entire population of Quebec is in my way!”
But I must have a very expressive face. The man takes one look at me, and ushers me off through a priority lane – I feel like a VIP! Into departure I go.
And in departure I stay. The wind has disrupted everything. Very few planes are landing, fewer still are taking off. No-one seems to know what’s going on, not even those who can speak French. The hours pass quicker than you’d expect, as I get to play ‘Chase the Gate’ – racing around, only to find the flight’s been moved to yet another gate, then delayed again. Several flights have been cancelled, but not mine – not yet. At one point the same gate is announced for two different flights. Half of us want Nova Scotia, the other half want Manitoba – they’re in different directions, so we can’t all be right.
After four hours, we get a plane. Half an hour later, we get a crew. We take off. It’s bumpy – and gets even bumpier as we come in to land. This is where the winds have been at their worst (over a hundred miles an hour, I find out later) – but we make it. Only five hours late.
And then – the luggage compartment won’t open. The hatch is jammed, and they can’t get our luggage off the plane. It’s midnight now. They say it will probably take an hour, and suggest that we can go to our hotels, and come back to the airport to pick our luggage up in the morning. Knowing my luck, if I do that, I will never see my luggage again. And I’m not paying cab fare to come all the way out here again. I stay.
It takes two hours. As I drag my long-suffering luggage outside to get a taxi, snow begins to fall. It’s 3am by the time I check into my hotel. I think I’m asleep by 3.15.
But that was last time. This time, the flight is uneventful – a rarity for me!
I feel underdressed. That’s a rarity for me too.
When I’m going out, my clothes can tend to be a little dramatic. But Montreal was a spur of the moment trip, and I’m travelling light – really light – hand luggage only. I’ve packed for comfort – and warmth – not style. And the women here are stylish. Even the men here are stylish. I wish I’d brought blouses, rather than jumpers.
But people ask me what make my shoes are – and where I got my hat – my wrap – my bag, necklace, gloves – so I must be doing something right.
Luckily, I do scarves. It’s amazing what a scarf can do – keep you cool, keep you warm. You can tie a knot in one to use it as a makeshift bag. Use one to cover up a stain on a top – or make a top look like a different outfit, if you’ve been a dirty stop-out (wink).
It’s April – not the best time of year to visit Montreal. The bedraggled bits of snow on the ground don’t look pretty, and the trees haven’t got their leaves yet – but the air is almost shiny. I’m staying at a hotel within walking distance of most of the things I want to see. But this being one of my holidays, the walk does involve going through a mini red light district. Even first thing in the morning, guys are standing outside the clubs, shuffling in the cold, beckoning people to come in “pour le sex!”. Yeah – like the picture behind you doesn’t make that clear enough – an eight year old would take one look at this place, and know.
The first morning, I dodge the adult entertainment and go to Reubens for breakfast. I choose French toast – huge slices, soft, and with exactly the right amount of egg – and loads of blueberries, and maple syrup. I spend a delicious hour washing it down with coffee.
Normally I like to try as many new things as possible when I’m on holiday, but I come back here the next day – and the next – and the next.
I often read at breakfast, but this is a spontaneous trip, so I haven’t packed a travel classic. I’m staying close to McGill College, so I decide to treat myself to a book of poetry by one of its more famous alumni – Leonard Cohen. I already have Book of Longing, but I buy it again – justifying it to myself on the grounds that this is the Canadian version, whereas the one I have at home has a different cover. It’s one of my favourite books – one I would almost regard as a friend – and ideal company for this trip. I wonder if it’s like having the man himself as a travelling companion.
For a book with poems about lust, depression, genocide and ageing – it’s a lot of fun. There is a quirky sense of humour here, a great deal of humanity – and a lot about faith. Not surprising, as he was raised Jewish, in a staunchly Catholic city, but spent several years in a Buddhist monastery. And coming from a Buddhist monk, some of his illustrations are… well, “provocative” as one reviewer puts it. I’m not sure if that’s quite the right word – but I’m certainly glad no-one goes through my hand luggage while it’s in there.
First stop – to see some of the Chinese terracotta warriors, who happen to be visiting Montreal at the same time as me. They’re well worth seeing, purely for the strange experience of feeling intimidated by crockery…
Next on my list is the Vieux Ville, the old town – the most French part of Montreal. Being Irish, rather then English, I don’t have that inbuilt suspicion of all things French – just as well, as Montreal is second only to Paris as a Francophone city. But most people are bilingual, and will quickly switch to English if they think you’re struggling. I do speak French – though it’s odd to be told I speak it with a European accent.
The old town (which still has some cobbled streets) really looks French. It’s full of cafes and restaurants, in one of which I have the best French onion soup I’ve ever tasted.
I also visit a cabane à sucre – ‘sugar shack’ – and try tire sur la neige – ‘drawn on the snow’. That’s a beautiful name for maple syrup boiled till it’s thick, poured over crushed ice, then rolled round a stick as it starts to harden. It’s impossible to take life seriously when you’re eating one of these. It’s warm and sticky and goes all over my chin, until I feel like a kid again.
Not all the food I had in Montreal was wonderful (shame on you, Irish pubs!) but it certainly seems to be a place that appreciates good food.
It’s also a place that’s full of art galleries. I love carved stone, so I’m drawn into one with Inuit art. It’s a fascinating place, though possibly not if you’re a vegetarian – polar bear skin on the floor, stuffed bison head, caribou hide, lots and lots of leather.
I’m admiring a dancing bear when an assistant comes over to me, determined to make a sale. He asks if I have a bear already. As it happens, I do – Nanuk, a lovely piece made from anorthosite which I treated myself to years ago in Labrador.
“Ah – then he needs company! Is he standing or walking?”
“Then you will need one that is walking. Look – ”
I tell him up front that I won’t be buying anything today – this trip is my one extravagance for the month – but he unlocks a display case anyway, hands me a cute little bear.
He names a price – it’s the cost of a transatlantic flight! I say no.
He instantly knocks $200 off the price, then tells me how good the exchange rate is right now.
I’m so tempted – it is a beautiful bear – but I cannot afford it. My lovely Nanuk will have to remain single, for now.
And there are so many other shopping opportunities. I pass one shoe shop so glamorous that it looks like somewhere good shoes go when they die! I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many clothes shops – and that’s even before I visit the underground city. I go in through an entrance by a cathedral, which does lend a touch of naughtiness to shopping.
Winter is harsh here, and long, so years ago someone had the bright idea of moving the shops below ground, around the metro stations. It’s as though Lakeside suddenly squeezed itself into the Tube. It goes on for miles and miles, floor after floor of it. You’ll be standing looking into a shop window – and then suddenly surrounded by a flurry of commuters, getting off the latest train – and then they’re gone, absorbed by the shops. The whole thing is almost overwhelming. I was looking at scarves, but by the time I emerge into what’s left of the daylight, I find I’ve bought myself a fur hat – musk rat, very soft and very warm – and ideal for this drizzly evening.
As well as shops, Montreal has churches – lots of churches. I don’t have time to visit them all, but I make a point of visiting Notre Dame Basilica, which is simply beautiful. In style it looks like a Gothic cathedral, but it’s made of wood, which makes it feel warmer, more human – though ‘wood’ doesn’t really begin to do justice to the carving, the painting, the gold… the colours around the altar.
It’s been a long time since I’ve prayed – and I don’t, still – but the atmosphere of this place makes me sit, just sit, for over an hour. On the pillars are small brass plaques, etched with a finger raised to lips, for silence. They work – the only sounds are the whirr of cameras, the whisper of prayers.
On the way back to the airport, I pass a broken bus. The display reads ‘Sorry – out of service’ then ‘Hors de service – désolé’.
I don’t quite feel ‘désolé’ – but I’ll miss this.