Last Monday, work took me to Toronto for the annual meeting of one of my projects. The following Monday was a conference held by the team I work for in Montreal, which meant that I was facing a week-long gap between events. Given how friggin’ expensive it is to fly across Canada, I figured it would be easier for me to take a few vacation days and spend the time on some rest & relaxation than try to cross the distance twice. And so it was that I found myself at Toronto’s Union station on the 11:30 train bound for Montreal with my good friend Nate.
After arriving at our hostel (plug: if you’re going to Montreal, skip the hotel and STAY AT MONTREAL CENTRAL. Great staff, fantastic atmosphere, clean, safe, and centrally located. Plus, highly affordable) and meeting some of the other denizens, Nate and I (and a couple others from the hostel) went and grabbed some Mexican food (because hey, when in Quebec…). As we were paying our bills, we heard this loud commotion coming from the street. Rushing outside to see what the deal was, we were confronted by a most amazing sight:
It was a massive parade of people, young and old, marching in the now-notorious protest movement against the provincial Liberal government and its plan to increase student tuition fees. In reaction to the early protests, the government passed a law making protests illegal and subject to massive fines. Predictably, the shit hit the fan in a massive way, and civil society in Quebec (which has a long history of passion about civil liberties) took to the streets. The protests had quickly become about much more than a broken promise, but I will have to go into that another time.
Because I am of the opinion that peaceful protest is a foundational component of our human right to free speech, and thus is the sign of a healthy democracy, I enthusiastically jumped into the fray. I chatted with other protesters, and clapped and cheered right along:
(“on s’en calisse la loi speciale” basically translates to “we don’t give a fuck about the emergency law [law 78])
After marching for about a half hour, we met another protest going in the opposite direction. Reasoning that it would probably take us back in the direction of our hostel, we jumped aboard and headed back. Along the route, bystanders applauded and honked horns in support. People stood on balconies and banged their pots and pans in solidarity. The whole city was alive.
After following the protest for a little while, Nate and I headed back to our hostel and organized ourselves to go out to a bar. Along with a handful of others from the hostel (the guys from dinner and a group from Spain by way of Boston), we headed out to Le Sainte Elizabeth Pub to soak in some Montreal nightlife. The cool thing about the SEP is their massive outdoor courtyard, where we sat (by a wall covered in ivy) and spoke in a variety of languages.
We packed it in at around 1 (Nate had been up all night doing renovations the night before) and headed back to the hostel for sleep.
I’ve always been an early riser, so I got up early and decided to go walking around the city for a bit. Vancouver is an incredibly beautiful city, owing no small part of that to the presence of mountains and the ocean. It’s therefore not fair to compare the two cities, but suffice it to say that Montreal is gorgeous and I enjoyed my strolling a great deal.
After a while I became impatient and decided to go drag Nate out of bed. After a delicious lunch in the old city, Nate and I grabbed a couple of bottles of wine and decided to head down to the Vieux Port (the old docks). Unfortunately, we had neglected to buy a bottle opener, cups, and I had left my portable speaker back at the hostel. After snagging those items, we decided to take an extremely scenic route by detouring through the gay district. How did we know it was the gay district? Well, we had a couple of clues:
After a long walk that took us past the Molson brewery, an open-air sports bar and too many ridiculously good-looking women to count (seriously Montreal, what’s up with that?), we finally made it down to the park outside the science centre and drank our wine. One of the neat things about Montreal is that public drinking is illegal unless you’re drinking as part of a meal. If so, it’s totally okay and nobody cares. Of course, if you’re like me you’re a major klutz and find a way to spill your cup of red wine all over your pants. Merde…
On our way back to the hostel (for the free homemade dinner – this place is seriously amazing), we came across the beginnings of yet another protest. Thousands of people were gathered in the park, again representing a cross-section of society much larger than a few disgruntled undergrads:
Now it is worth noting that Thursday night we saw very little of the police. They were there blocking traffic, but were not out in any serious force. Friday was a very different story, with the riot cops circling the park and trying their best to be menacing. A loudspeaker switched on and a loud voice announced that under Law 78, the gathering had just been declared illegal and everyone had to go home. This announcement was met with joyful, spirited applause from the protesters who had no intention whatsoever of dispersing, but who were happy to be considered master criminals. To their credit, the police maintained stoic attitudes and allowed the gathering to continue. I guess they didn’t think Law 78 was worth enforcing either.
Remembering our plan to eat dinner (and facing an approaching rainstorm), Nate and I headed back to the hostel and met some new drinking buddies from New Jersey. Deciding to head out to Crescent Street (the bar hub), we hit the road:
After walking for a looong time, we finally got to Crescent Street, where we drank, danced, and shut down a couple of bars before limping home in a cab.
At breakfast the next morning, I was hanging out with Dena and Anna, two roommates from New York City who were planning on checking out a cultural street festival down in the old city. Thinking that sounded like a bit of fun, I woke Nate and we headed down to check out what was going on:
For reasons I don’t quite understand, the festival was dominated by Japanese exhibits, but we did manage to find one of my all-time Quebecois favourites: tire sur la neige – basically, maple syrup poured onto snow and then rolled into an unbelievably sugary treat. Delicious!
One of my closest friends gave me a list of things to check out while I was in Montreal, one of which was this brew-pub called ‘Reservoir’ up near Mount Royal, so Nate and I headed up that way. Of course, when we got there, they told us that the upstairs terrace (the thing we were there to see) wasn’t open for another 2 hours, so we were stuck in Montreal with 2 hours to kill. Which meant we once again grabbed wine (and some chips) and headed to the park at the foot of Mount Royal. There, we saw something which made me fall madly in love with the city:
After chilling in the park and listening to some live scratch, we grabbed a brew at Reservoir, grabbed a bite to eat, then headed back to the hostel for some down-time before heading back out. Our original plan was to march with the protests again, but by the time we were ready, they’d already left the park and moved off into the city. A bit disappointed, we decided to drown our sorrows in more wine. Wine quickly gave way to the desire to go back out to the bar, and we knew just the place to go – the roof of L’Hotel de la Montagne:
The rooftop has a pretty sweet bar, as well as a pool and one of the best views I’ve ever seen anywhere. Drinks were had, conversations were shared, events were judiciously omitted from a blog post.
Sunday afternoons in Montreal apparently mean one thing: Les Tam Tams. Basically, this is a weekly event in which hundreds and thousands of Montrealers gather at the foot of Mount Royal and do… pretty much whatever. In addition to the iconic drum circles, there are jugglers, artisans, even medieval fighting with foam swords. It’s a mixed bag that really has to be seen to be believed. However, there were a couple of things we had to take care of beforehand.
First, we needed to climb Mount Royal:
Then, we needed to check out McGill University campus:
Then, we needed to go to Montreal’s famous Schwartz’ Deli for some authentic Montreal Smoked Meat sandwiches:
Finally, we were ready to drink in the Tam Tams experience:
Despite our sincerest intentions to head back out, we ended up staying in that night at the hostel. After three consecutive nights of hard partying, we just didn’t have the juice left for a fourth (actually it was the fourth night for me – I partied in Toronto). Plus I had to work the next day. So we bid Montreal a fond “au revoir”.
All in all, I can’t find enough nice things to say about the city. Sure, parts of the downtown are eerily abandoned, and there’s graffiti everywhere, and parts of it are falling apart, but the city is absolutely incredible and I could totally see myself living there. Being in the city, especially during the protests, gave me a much greater appreciation for why Quebeckers are so protective of their culture – it’s because they have a culture that is absolutely worth protecting. Anyone who thinks Canada won’t have lost something profound if Quebec were to separate clearly has never spent any time there. I hope I get a chance to go back there soon.
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