Montreal & Quebec

Advice: You might want to put the kettle on and make tea or grab a beer as this is a long blog.

Montreal – what a great city. My expectations were high as a good friend (thanks Karen) from The Netherlands who lived in Canada for a couple of years said Quebec was her favourite part of this country. After just over a week there I can see why. I had a fantastic time which was however tempered with some humbling experiences. The latter of which centred on the area where I stayed.

I booked a room in a guesthouse on Rue Prefontaine which junctioned Rue St Catherine. As I entered the area I could tell by the absence of mid to high range cars (even second hand ones) that this wasn’t a neighbourhood were you’d expect to find three to four types of pasta in the kitchen cupboard. At CD55per night I knew I wasn’t going to stay in the navy blue coloured parts of the Monopoly board but thoughts went quickly to bike safety. I arrived at the house where the owner had come to meet me. He was talking with some of the residents who were sitting on the small backyard terrace; most you could tell were likely to be on social welfare assistance. I asked him aside to enquire about the place, people and safety of my bike etc. Victorio said they were all good people and I’d nothing to worry about. Paul the resident caretaker, who was in his mid 50’s, showed me the room and as I passed the other guests we chatted about my bike and the trip. I could tell from the warmth of their voice and friendly eye contact that they were an honest group, so I decided to stay. As for the bike, I stored it in Victorio’s secure yard behind his nearby convenience store, which he lived above. Later on, before I headed into the city I chatted further with my fellow guests, spoke very briefly in Italian with one, about Amsterdam with all and was offered a toke on a joint which I passed. Having climbed down from my proverbial high horse I was glad I stayed despite my initial reservations and feeling a bit guilty for pre judging I undertook to join them for a toke if the occasion recurred.

I took the Metro downtown which was pretty easy and the stations were fairly impressive with their high ceilings, shops and adjacent tracks (unlike London’s Tube). There were lots going on as it was Labour Day weekend. I headed for Rue St Denis and St Laurance because of its plethora of restaurants and bars. I stopped in a cocktail/lounge bar restaurant, which looked slick with its dark black wooded décor against glass tables. Funny having to ask for an English menu in Canada. French isn’t just spoken in Quebec City but the entire state is “francophone” in its linguistic mother tongue. Interesting that they use the prefix franca or anglo followed by “phone” to distinguish between the two groups of Canadians. First time I heard this reference as most European countries are monoligusitic in their primary language (except for Belgians as usual). Anyway, my inability in French wouldn’t get in my way later that night.

As mentioned in a previous blog, I made my karaoke debut on my first weekend in Montreal. Prior to choosing the restaurant I noticed a bar that advertised karaoke that evening. Time enough to get something to eat and have a couple pints of Dutch courage. There were only 30 people in the bar but it seemed busier as the place was fairly small and the acoustics reverberated against the walls, which provided a sound of a larger space. Like Bar Harbour the participants were of mixed talent with great performances by a few who performed unaided by the words on the screen while others sung the chorus well but murdered the parts in between. I had to sink a few more beers before I put my name down for “Fairytale of New York”, an old Pogues Christmas tune that most Paddy’s can belt out. Normally I don’t have to be asked twice, and sometimes not at all, to stand on the soapbox where I’ll gladly present to colleagues, guest speak at conferences and likewise give a speech at personal events. But this was completely different. God I was nervous, even my palms were sweating.

As the MC called my name, I took one last swig to oil the vocal cords and headed for the microphone. He informed the crowd that I was Irish and that this was my first time to sing karaoke. A detail I fed him earlier so as to qualify my rendition of this song. It seemed like I was front and centre forever but when the two-minute ordeal, for me and them, came to an end I received a courteous applause. What a relief to finish and time for a stronger drink. As the night went on I joined a group of friends which included the barman who were regulars on karaoke night. My confidence grew during the evening as they sung more songs and I consumed more beer.

So I gave it another go with U2’s, One. A track that I’d memorised the words of earlier that week. As I sang (or tried to), I was unexpectedly joined on stage by a coloured girl who was easily one of the best performers that night. Not sure if she thought I needed a backing singer to support/drown me out, spotted my anxiety and decided to help or indeed simply just liked the song herself. I suspect the former two alternatives were the more likely; regardless I was glad of the company and a bonus that she was good to boot. The rest of the evening was good fun and I enjoyed the company of my new karaoke buddies. They gave me great tips of things to see in the city and Max who was off the following day offered to join me at the F1 track and show me around the city in the afternoon. His interest in motorbikes coming from his father’s Honda Goldwing and Ducati motorbikes (unusual combination btw). I left early’ish, as I was KO’d from the bike ride but before leaving we all swapped numbers and promised to have drinks again. I met Max around lunchtime to head out to the Gilles Villeneuve Formula 1 track.

Only half the length of the circuit was open to the public and even then the track was split in two: cyclists on the left and motorists on the right. So my thoughts of letting the machine fully go were dampened but I still got to reach 180kmph on the straights and take a couple of hair pin corners at low angles. Good fun. Afterward we had a beer in the nearby casino that was filled with old folks and many obese people playing one-arm bandits. I’m missing some DNA as I cannot get why people sit in front of boxes called Neptune’s Kingdom, Jungle Wild, Double Diamond etc and pour money into the coffers of the casino bank account. Although I don’t play card games like poker or black jack I can relate to the skill required and the sense of achievement in outsmarting an opponent. Anyway, it was good to visit as it was only my second time in a casino as I don’t gamble. However I have been known to take a few calculated risks!

For the next couple of hours I was shown the old harbour, Mont Royal (fantastic hill top in the middle of the city which reminded of a miniature Table Mountain) and the Underground which is the world’s largest subterranean city. It consists of over 1,200 shops and 400 restaurants that allow the 2.9 million residents to shop during the minus 20-degree winter sun. Max showed me the CBC studio sets where he regularly works as an extra and we finished up having a cocktail in the lounge bar of the tallest building in the city. It was interesting to overhear the nearby frivolous and mundane chat of eight society housewives as they celebrated one of their members 50th birthday. I laughed silently as the birthday girl kept the helium balloon that marked the anniversary of her birth with huge numbers in its plastic bag. Nice friends. It was great to have a tour from a local and Max invited me to join the crew later in the week for dinner.

On Saturday night I didn’t do anything, as I knew Sunday was going to be a heavy one. The city has the foresight to have a techno party each Sunday from June to September called Piknikelectronic on one of the islands and afterward I was going to see David Morales spin in one of the clubs downtown. Before heading to the festival I ate brunch in the city but was disappointed to see the city’s half marathon and 10K race taking place. Fresh on a Sunday morning I would have easily joined one of the two races. Mental note to better research the upcoming events of the places I visit. Anyway, with a 12 hour music fest ahead I guess I was doing a marathon of a different sort. Good work out all the same. Although I went alone to both I had a ball and talked to many people.

The crowd, music and DJ’s were fantastic even if the weather was grey and a little cool. It’s interesting that techno events attract a somewhat different type of crowd than pure house music. Those who don’t appreciate electronic music wouldn’t notice the subtle difference but the chasm is stark. Where the heavier base sounds and drawn out beats of techno attract a more sullen and irreverent crowd compared to the happier and smiling gang who prefer house music. Their clothes are also darker and I was somewhat more noticeable in my Barney coloured T-shirt which I regretted wearing. Good event all the same however I enjoyed seeing David Morales more. I’ve been a long time fan of this US DJ and this was the first time I’d seen him live. He was brilliant; raising the crowd slowly as if on a rising sea swell with some classic old tracks before breaking into a crescendo of fast paced electrifying beats. There was certainly a lot of pushing up the clouds. But more than that, he had the quality I like most in DJ’s; music aside it was obvious by the way he engaged the audience that he was having a ball too. So many DJ’s simply spin decks, churn out music and forget that they’re also entertainers. An incredible performance that topped of my first clubbing night of the trip. And, despite losing my cool Diesel sunglasses I returned to base camp on a natural high having spent the day standing in this spiritual docking station.

Labour Day Monday disappeared quickly as I slept most of the morning. In the early afternoon as I headed into city I was disturbed to see, for the first time, a half a dozen prostitutes working the street adjacent to the guesthouse. Their presence doesn’t bother me however it pains me to see these poor souls reduced to the lowest end of the sex workers totem pole. They aren’t the high-class hookers or escorts who ply the trade generally by choice and earn decent money to maintain a standard of living. You can tell from absent look in these girls’ eyes that they work the streets out of necessity, either to support a drug habit or out of desperation. Sadly many of whom had their self esteem knocked out of them long before they became prostitutes and usually at the hands of some cruel bastard. I’ve never disregarded them and actually consider them victims too as at one point they were all someone’s beautiful baby and none of them grew up with this occupation in mind.

Of course this activity is not unique to Montreal but I wish chartable organisations and governments the world over could do more to help these ladies. As I thought about them and the less than salubrious neighbourhood in which I stayed it reinforced how lucky I am. While I like to think that I’m a well grounded person the benefits arising from the combination of hard work and opportunity has afforded me a modicum of privilege which creates a distance between those who are less fortunate. It was a good and well timed reminder.

Later that day I took an overpriced coach tour that brought me through the city for three hours. Despite the price tag I enjoyed, albeit a little more humble, learning of the city’s history. The white elephant of the Olympic Stadium whose tower was only completed ten years after the Games and the retractable roof which never worked. Naturally on these tours you see a lot of churches including St Patrick’s that was designed by an English Protestant, Basilique Marie Reine, which is a one third, scaled replica of St Peters Basilique but my favourite was St Joseph’s Oratory. A church that sits on top of a hill whose grandiose exterior belies the simplicity of it’s interior. Church architecture has always held my interest and the interior of this church impressed with its simple form and absence of both frescos and ornate artwork. The church is the largest in Canada and was the brainchild of the 20 year old emigrant priest. I saw in it the emigrant diaspora, of humble beginnings yet ambitions for the future which also extended to the clergy.

For much of the rest of the time in Montreal I hung out with the crew I’d met in the karaoke bar: Carolyne, Catherine, Alain, Max and Marc-André. While I’ve meet some great people along the way and enjoyed their company, the interaction has mostly been short in duration either because of my own travel or simply no natural follow on. I’m glad to say these are first new friends I’ve meet on this trip. We had a few great nights on the beer, lunches and I was allowed the privilege of cooking a BBQ one evening, having boasted about my grill prowess. Shame I overcooked the spinach though. And Catherine kindly invited me to her birthday dinner also. An additional benefit of hanging out with my new friends was that it allowed me not to visit any Irish Pubs! I also tagged along to a Canadian Corn Party which one of their friends hosted. The theme reminded me somewhat of a Swedish Crayfish Party, were instead of honouring the crustacean homage for a good harvest is given to this yellow vegetable on the cob. And like the Swedish counterpart songs are encouraged. Jean-Eric the host impressed with three witty campfire songs. It really is remarkable how someone can hold court at a party by simply singing a tune. I was somewhat envious and made a mental note to correct this gap in my CV. The karaoke commitment is a good first step and surprisingly a great way to meet people.

After a week and a half it was time to move on. Before leaving the guesthouse I called in on Victorio the owner and Paul the caretaker. The former told me his story of growing up in Beirut as a young child, as an adult in Italy and of his gambling days in Canada before he redeemed himself and now owns a number of properties and convenience stores. His offer to call upon if I was in any kind of trouble was genuine and appreciated. As for Paul, despite his cancer (which Doctors said he wouldn’t see Christmas) he checked with me each day to see if everything was ok and if I needed anything. Glad I left him a generous tip to buy a couple of drinks. He helped to carry my luggage to the bike and his “I’ll see you next year when you come back” was more than just a hospitable farewell but rather a statement of his own hope. A handshake seemed derisory so I gave him a hug and said “I’d like that too”. As I drove off, I noticed his courage and bravery was infectious and I left feeling better about myself and the world in general.

My first ever visit to Canada was superb and definitely worth revisiting Montreal and its enviers. Lot’s to see and do in the city, where the people are honest and friendly and I’ve met some smashing friends. Merci beaucoup Quebec.

Al Dempsey
1 October 2010