This is not one of them.
A work trip this month landed me in a realm I’d dreamt of visiting since childhood. In the same way that trivia points like Equatorial Guinea being the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa or the fact that there is an Islam-practicing ethnic minority in China (comprised of over 11 million people you’ve sadly never heard of and with their own language) have always captivated my attention, the idea that the second-largest French-speaking city in the world lies only an hour flight from my apartment in Brooklyn is one I just couldn’t wrap my head around.
Grateful for the opportunity to check it out and happier still that Elena was able to join, I packed my cold weather things with high spirits. Having lived in Colorado for the greater half of the last decade and now being based in New York City, my flimsy bravado kicked in and I readied for what I envisioned would be an idyllic winter getaway.
The reality was anything but*.
*Or was it? (read on, it gets better I promise)
I’ll almost certainly get some flack for this, but the mercury never lies. Forward all concerns to email@example.com and I’ll read every last letter. I’m just going to call it like it is here:
No human being enjoys -10 degrees Fahrenheit.
You can tell me that it’s “not that bad”, that “it’s only temporary”...the list goes on. You may even be right. With the right gear, you might make it half a mile instead of a quarter mile. Yet let’s not forget that the phrase “not that bad” still contains the word “bad”, which translates in my mind as “not good”. You can write up catchy articles about the 56 reasons you should visit in spite of the weather and many people will actually read them and some may even follow through on your advice. I’m not about to do that.
When a breeze feels like an acid bath and the mere consideration of going outside to run a simple errand conjures memories of scenes from 10 Cloverfield Lane, it’s simply too hard to grasp the soul of a place in its entirery. The reality of the intense weather, which I was reassured countless times by locals is “not normally this cold”, made a thoughtful consideration of the city impossible. But does that mean you can’t at least glimpse its soul? Its inner nature?
You might think you’ve picked up on where I’m headed with this: that Montreal is not a place worth seeing, that I’m not a fan and that anyone who is a fan must be insane.
My thoughts couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In fact, the brutality of its weather gave me an even stronger appreciation of the city. And what comprises a city anyway? Is it its buildings, its parks, its public transit, its events, even its language? I think not. For me, a city is, by my personal definition, comprised of its citizens. Its people. And the people of Montreal and Quebec as a whole, Le Québécois, are entirely their own breed.
Fiercely independent. Proud. Expressive. Passionate. Creative. Kind. And extraordinarily hospitable.
The Quebeckers, as they’re called in English, make any trip to Montreal, whether in -10 degrees Fahrenheit or a balmy 82, an enjoyable affair.
So will I say it was fun receiving a chemical peel at the hands of a -30 degree windchill every time I walked to the nearest cafe (only three blocks but a mental seventeen miles on foot)? Absolutely not. Rather, it was as fun as it possibly could be, because the people of Montreal, of Quebec, go out of their way to welcome you into their unique culture. And that culture, a hodgepodge of French, British, Canadian, and American influences at its foundation with an intense warmth added by its vibrant influx of immigrant cultures from all around the world, is one unlike any other.
What then is this article’s thesis, its central topic? Id est ….where the heck am I going with this?
Theses are not my strong point nor will they likely ever be. It took some mental flying around to find a suitable place to land this story, and after some precautionary thawing of the brain at the behest of my primary physician and a good week since our deep freeze up North, I’ve touched down in this simple field of inquiry:
What was the roughly six block radius around our apartment like?
This arbitrary and factually questionable distance I established within our first thirty-seven seconds of being outside was our rough safe zone, beyond which our tether to our Mothership (a tidy and well-lit Airbnb with a lovely kitchen and sizable front-facing windows from which to view this frozen Hoth-like planet upon which we’d touched down that some people refer to in the field of space exploration as “Canada”) could well be severed.
Six blocks in any direction. That’s about the point before we’d begin to run out of air. You’d think this would mean a certain death to any hopes of discovering the spirit, the Essence, the Atman from which Montreal’s spirit emerges into existence. This city, however, let’s no amount of snow (several feet this time), no amount of sunlight (none the whole trip), no sharp breeze or storm (biggest of the year to date), nothing, prevent itself from unfurling outward like a giant hand welcoming you in.
So what was it like?
First off, it’s one of the most colorful cities I’ve been to in the world. It blows the average American city out of the water on this point. Le Montréalais are absolutely fearless when it comes to painting buildings, utility boxes, random back alleys...if paint can stick on it they’ve done it. Street art, both commissioned and unsolicited, is EVERYWHERE. Montreal is a street-art lover’s paradise. We stayed in Le Plateau, a predominantly Francophone neighborhood of row houses (all with spiraling or curving staircases on their exterior rather than inside the buildings, adding a unique Montreal-specific touch to most residential streets) that architecturally felt like a blend of Philadelphia’s Queen Village and older neighborhoods of Chicago’s North Side… but again with vast murals everywhere you went. The result was not only pleasing to the senses, but seemed to fight back against the blanket of grey and white from the snowstorm that came through during our stay. Every color of the brief segment of the spectrum of radiation that we call visible light would force its way through the snow and ice, with blues and yellows and pinks and neon greens melting all in their path as they emitted outward into an otherwise stark and frozen land of eternal Darkness. The people of Montreal have learned empirically that color can bring life and freedom and joy to anywhere and at anytime.
Honestly, I can’t tell you how epic Montreal’s miscellany of street art is for the casual passerby. I’ll commit my own pet-peeve here by self-qualifying my thoughts but I’m going to say it: I live in freakin’ Brooklyn for God’s sake. My neighborhood of Bed-Stuy is inundated with striking murals of Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z that stop you dead in your tracks. And still, I will humbly pass the torch on to Montreal. Only speaking from my personal experience as there are countless cities I’ve yet to see, Montreal is by far the friendliest and most welcoming city to the street-art community I’ve encountered. Simply put, it’s beautiful. Funky would be an even better word, with the only best attributes of the term in mind.
The interplay of the street art I’ve now over-emphasized with the generally low-rise buildings creates a feeling unlike anywhere else. I only referenced Philly and Chicago to set the scene for those of you who’ve yet to make it, for a blend of those two it is not. It’s Montreal. It’s Quebec. It’s not France, it’s not Anglophone Canada (and as many of you know, has tried several times now to not be part of Canada at all, nearly succeeding in a hairline secession vote in 1995), it’s absolutely NOT America. It is, again, it’s own thing.
I don’t give a damn in saying this at the risk of controversy, Quebec is its own country. Forgoing debates on sovereignty, Quebec is, simply put, completely unique. A vibe unlike anywhere I’ve been. If the street art is a foundational stone of Montreal’s distinct feel, it is its French language that acts as the glue. I’m probably the four millionth American to say this and am fortunately unafraid of embracing my naïveté, but shoot, the place is really French. I honestly thought it’d have some French signs and poutine on the menu here and there. I don’t know why I thought this, after all, I could’ve told you back when I was six years old that tens of millions of people speak French in Quebec and have for centuries. But like so many things in this life, I had to actually go and feel it, not look it up on Wikipedia, to have it settle in.
People describe Montreal as a bilingual city, and bilingual it indeed is. You will hear English no doubt, and certain areas are more English than others. But French is the lingua franca here, unquestionably. I’d actually say that a good comparison would be the perspective of a Latino who only speaks Spanish visiting LA. They’ll absolutely get by, and won’t need English to accomplish the vast majority of tasks, and heck they could even live their whole life out without learning English (my great-grandmother immigrated from Mexico to LA in her 20’s, died at 106 years of age and still never learned English in her 86 years in Southern California so yes it can be done with minimal difficulty), but they’ll never fully feel connected to the greater whole of the city. French clearly is the language that the city of Montreal’s soul speaks in, and in the historically Francophone neighborhood we were in, Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, that’s all the more clear.
The particular area we were in within Le Plateau was along Rue Duluth, staying across the street from a cafe called Chez Jose that perfectly fits within the genus of colorful Montreal buildings that I defined above. Something I noticed in the first of many two-to-three block expeditions to chart this unknown land and report back home as an American envoy was the prevalence of Portuguese storefronts, bars and signage (Chez Jose is one of them). Now I later discovered that where we were staying was considered part of Montreal’s “Little Portugal”, but if you’ve read along with my articles you’ll know that I do my best to avoid pre-scouting an area online in favor of just walking out and enjoying the blissful ignorance of scouting sans iPhone.
These Portuguese groceries and other locales create one of the strangest blends of culture and geography I’ve encountered: the cold and snow of Eastern Canada, fused with the colorful expression of Montreal, then made all the more colorful with Portuguese flags and iconography, topped off with an odd mixing of Portuguese (particularly Azorean), classic French, Canadian-in-general and uniquely Quebecois food options. I highly recommend popping in to some of these markets as there’s just nowhere else on earth where you can experience the divine weirdness that is the Azorean-Portuguese-Quebecois grocery store vibe.
The main drag in our area (and the whole city from what we gathered), which just happens to be referred to by locals as “The Main”, is St Laurent Blvd. It runs across the island (like Manhattan, Montreal is entirely on an island, though in Montreal’s case it’s within a river rather than being split by a true river [Hudson], a tidal estuary [East River / Harlem River] and a natural bay [New York harbor] like Manhattan) and acts as the central throughway for Le Plateau and other neighborhoods. It became the primary destination for us each day we were there. We’d put on an actual five to six layers in preparation for the three-block trek out to St Laurent, with me wearing, ordered from inner-most to outer-most:
A long-sleeve t-shirt > flannel > hoodie > North Face microfleece > gigantic Michelin-tire-guy-esque down jacket from a now defunct 1970’s Boulder-Colorado-based company called Camp 7 that my dad insists was at one time very, very cool …plus camo sweatpants that I tucked into my two pairs of socks per foot and then threw over Levi’s jeans, all while tucking in the flannel to the pants and the sleeves into the insulated ski gloves I wore to prevent frostbite/clinical depression. Lastly of course, my cinching black Gnarly facemask.
within two to three minutes outside,
I was absolutely freezing.
Back to St Laurent. It is an attractive right-of-way; a formidable Main Street if I’ve ever seen one and is filled with coffee shops and local stores that made all of our expeditions more than worth while. Of the several places we checked out, several in particular stood out. By total chance the nearest cafe (aside from Chez Jose) to us, Dispatch, ended up having some of the best coffee I’ve had in years. It isn’t every day or even every month where I’m so sold on a place that I buy the bag but Dispatch’s roasters clearly know what’s up. Elena and I spent a good deal of time here, and with its gigantic windows you can take in the snowstorms from safety in the same risk-free way that kids press their faces up to the glass at the tiger exhibit in the Bronx Zoo.
Another spot we checked out was the legendary skate shop Dime. At the risk of cliché and laziness in my explanation, it’s a high-end skate shop on par with the likes of New York’s Supreme and London’s Palace. Dime’s story is a fascinating one and as a mere fan I’m not the most qualified to retell it (Dry Clean Only, a well-read editorial within the popular street fashion store Grailed’s website, covered it in detail in this article here). As an admirer of their regular curation of skate brands (they had Kader’s pro board with Baker Skateboards up in the store only two days just two days after the announcement of him going pro had gone live) as well their uniquely Montreal shop brand, I insisted to Elena that we check the place out. It lived up to expectations and would again be familiar to those who’ve visited other stores like those mentioned above, but the refreshing difference was the kindness with which we were welcomed into the store. No pretentious holier-than-than BS (something that I will never stop ranting on about, there is nothing more ironic and pathetic than a skate shop trying to come off as unaccessible and unobtainable in a sport defined by individuality and rebellion against cultural and corporate impositions on the soul which worships rags-to-riches stories like that of Chad Muska or Ed Templeton). Just plain-old, matter-of-fact hospitality and cheerful conversation. The guy working, whose name I’ve sadly forgot, was super nice and made me want to support the brand and spread the message even more.
Beyond that, in all honesty, we stayed inside. Staying inside ended up being a respite from New York’s madness and California’s never-ending freeways that neither of us knew we needed. Sure, it would have been nice to have explored the city more, and without a doubt we’ll be back. Shooting film in frigid weather while my light meter’s battery kept dying and Elena’s digital camera flickered on and off was a humbling experience.
I did leave out a couple spots worth checking out that we Uber’d to beyond our neighborhood:
Eva B is an unreal vintage store that may well have been the most stacked of any I’ve ever seen (and it has a cafe inside of it!), our extraordinarily brief visit to Old Montreal before jumping back inside was impressive (the “European” feel that every American who’s ever been to Quebec describes upon return is indeed alive and well along the St Lawrence River), and many more cafes and bars (L’Darling was a favorite) along The Main left us wanting to come back and give the city a fair shot.
But that’s not the point nor the mission for which I fight.
Curating a trip to meet the internet’s expectations of it for readers or manipulating one’s account to make it look like we’re out here enjoying fantastical journeys you can only wish you could go on is the antipode of my goal. It is my hope that people just walk out the door and see what’s out there, whether it’s sunny and 75 or cold enough to permanently damage your face.
Just go for it. Sometimes, as was the case with Montreal, you’ll find a perspective and an adventure you could have never, ever planned up ahead of time.
And that, right there, is what makes walking around, ideally with a divine aimlessness, one of the healthiest and most rewarding endeavors a human being can take on.