.
the diary thing 
.
02.24.00
.
 montreal
.
 
tr - trainTHEY ALWAYS LOOK BIGGER IN THE MOVIES. The sleeper cars I remember from movies like From Russia With Love and North By Northwest always seemed to have room for two people -- three with the inevitable murderous villain -- and, of course, the camera crew. The sleeper cars on the train from Toronto to Montreal were built in 1953, according to the steward, so they'd be about the right vintage, but I have to say that I'm glad I didn't have to dispatch a stiletto-wielding SMERSH agent in ours, since the encounter would have been as claustrophobic as fatal.

Still, having spent a night curled up in a coach seat on the Toronto-Montreal run, I can say that a sleeper cabin, with its own sink and toilet and two bunks, was as painless a way to spend eight-and-a-half hours on a train as I can imagine. Not that I slept so very well -- years of sleeping in stationary beds has left me unprepared for a bunk that agitates constantly in every direction. K. loves the train, and especially sleeper cars, and with practice has found it easier to manage a decent night's sleep on the train. Given time, perhaps I will, too.

MONTREAL HAS ALWAYS EXERCISED a particular fascination for Toronto anglos, mainly because, until just a few decades ago, it was the unquestioned cultural, financial, and social capital of the country. My parents honeymooned in Montreal, and until the Parti Quebecois gained power in the 1970s, no Torontonian could contemplate Montreal without a resigned shrug, a hopeless envy of a city that was older, better preserved, more sophisticated and graceful than their own hometown.

Toronto was a city run by the Presbyterian Church and the Orange Lodge. Bars closed early, whole districts were dry, and the purchasing of liquor was controlled by a government monopoly that emphasized the immoral nature of the act, dispensing rye, gin and indifferently imported wine from outlets that resembled methadone clinics. Montreal, on the other hand, was a Roman Catholic city, with all the contradictions and inconsistency that implied. If you lived in thrall to the church, as most of the French-Canadians citizenry of Quebec did, you were told how to live, who to marry and, most of all, how to vote. At the same time, Montreal had a sensuous, even seedy side that no other Canadian city could hope to match, from the strip clubs on Ste. Catherine to the bustling nightclubs where American jazz acts would regularly play. Restaurants were plentiful and good, decent wine easily bought, and life was good for the city's many non-francophones, including a large Jewish population and English-Canadians who lived everywhere from the mansions of Westmount to working-class neighbourhoods like Verdun.

This was the famous "two solitudes" of Canada's official cultures, and Montreal was ground zero. It was inevitable, of course, that it couldn't last, and the last forty years has seen a small trickle of rich Montrealers leaving for Toronto turn into a tide, as the P.Q. enacted language laws that made English-speakers feel more than marginalized, and encourage a subtle hostility towards anglophones that few tourists would easily notice. My buddy Tim's family was part of the exodus of wealthy anglos in the late Fifties. My friend Scott left over a decade ago, and his family was finally driven out in the last few years, while K., who was born in the city, lived there on and off, finally leaving for Toronto when it became obvious that she wouldn't easily find work in Montreal's tiny community of English journalists. 

Still, as Toronto became wealthy with head offices making their homes here, we still looked to Montreal with ill-concealed envy. For two hundred years, Montrealers built a rich, bustling town, with huge neo-classical municipal buildings, several universities, main streets and shopping districts that have seen hard times, yet always seem to revive. Montreal was built to be a major city, with side roads and a generous public transit system. 

Toronto, on the other hand, will probably always be an also-ran kind of town, the legacy of decades of six o-clock closings, merciless "urban renewal", mediocre architecture and the merchant mind's tendency to value convenience and expediency over inconvenient beauty and history. Montreal's typical house is a triplex with iron stairs servicing each unit -- a structure built to acknowledge urban density and a population living in close proximity. Toronto's older, single family townhouses have been carved up into awkward apartments, cramped housing for those unable to afford -- or escaping -- the suburban sprawl that engulfs the downtown, built for the huge numbers drawn to the city during Montreal's slow decline. Montreal always knew it would be a great city; Toronto has never been sure what a city really is.

As our train draws into the Montreal's subterranean station, all these thoughts crowd my mind, made punchy with lack of sleep.


 
"Here is a headline July 14 / in the city of Montreal/ Intervention décisive de Pearson / à la conference du Commonwealth / That was yesterday / Love me because nothing happens."
.
- Leonard Cohen

 
A little spell of travel, some thoughts on Canada, some entomophagy.

WE CHECK INTO THE HILTON, I admire the accommodations, and K. gets on the phone, calling the tourism office to let them know we're here. An hour later we're being driven around the city by our own personal guide. She has the whole chamber of commerce spiel down pat, but it's hard to disagree with her hyperbolic description of a city in the throes of a new renaissance. A lot of money has been poured into Montreal over the last few years, from a technology boom, booming tourism, and federal government funds generously dispensed in an extortion-like effort to keep Quebec part of the confederation.

A new archaeology museum by the old port is spectacular, the best I've seen outside of Europe, and the Old City is filling up with restaurants, shops, little start-up offices, and boutique inns that charge in the high three-figures for a room. Shopping streets that K. remembers as sad and half-vacated are booming, every third storefront a decent bistro or trattoria, the streets filled with young people in club gear and shoppers with bags. The usual slick outlet stores have set up shop, and the big hotels have either built shiny new towers or restored grand old buildings. Their art museum still outshines Toronto's, and the city seems to host a new festival every week. 

We're in town for the Festival Montréal en Lumière, which seems to be a catch-all of civic spectacle, outdoor art projects, culture and restaurant showcases, sponsored by Hydro Quebec, the provincial power monopoly in need of some good press after the disastrous power failures after the ice storm two years ago. We'll skip almost everything else except for the restaurant bits; while in Montreal, we'll eat like kings and queens, for free. Between the food, the hotel and the train, for which we pay nothing, this is a to which I can easily become accustomed.

MONTREAL'S LAST MOMENT OF GLORY was probably the 1976 Olympics, held just around the time the Parti Québécois gained power, just before the first of two referendums that tore the country apart. The city built an Olympic village that nearly bankrupted them, an attempt to out-do the architectural achievement of their previous highlight, the World's Fair of 1967. We visited the remains of Expo 67 with our tour guide, on an island in the St. Lawrence. The acrylic panels that covered Buckminster Fuller's famous dome had burned away years ago, and the buildings that remain inside, now exposed in the metal husk, recall some sci-fi dystopia like Logan's Run or Planet of the Apes

The Olympic complex has always been a potent image for me, especially the great domed stadium and the exoskeleton-like velodrome next to it, built in cast concrete, with the arcing lines and biological contours that were a staple of both "modern" design of the 60s and 70s, and prog-rock album covers for bands like Yes. It's no surprise that Montreal has always been a big city for prog and jazz-fusion bands. I seem to recall Emerson, Lake and Palmer playing the Olympic stadium not long after the games. 

The stadium was a bit of a disaster -- the great concrete mast that was to control the retractible roof was never built in time for the games, and once completed, pieces always seem to be falling off. The velodrome was never profitable, and after a few years the hardwood cycling track was torn up and the city's zoo and aquarium moved in. We're heading out to the Olympic park for a visit to the Insectarium and the Biodome, and I'm getting my first, up-close glimpse of the Olympic edifices. 

It's a bright winter day, the snow several feet deep in spots, the sky clear and blue. By the time we get to the Biodome -- the amalgamation of zoo and aquarium that occupies the former velodrome -- the sun is setting, casting a pink haze on the horizon. Against this backdrop, the bone-white concrete of the buildings, arrayed like huge ribs and bony plates, the great mast arching up in the air like a scorpion's tale, is monumentally dramatic. Up close, however, you can see patching and scaffolding all over the stadium's ribs, and great wrinkled sheets of plastic covering gaps near the roof, where air-tight seals are impossible to create without ad hoc patching. Still, the buildings are impressive and poignant -- a reminder of yet one more utopian moment in the recent past, a decisive and optimistic break with the past doomed to failure.

We've just come from the Insectarium, where the featured event is an insect tasting, held once a year for brave tourists and macho schoolboys hoping to gross out their classmates. K. and I had no intention of sampling the wares until we were both in line, K. to get a close-up of the vittles, me to take pictures. Once there, though, duty and curiosity seemed to take over. 

"I kept on thinking to myself", K. told me later. "I'm a food writer. When am I going to get a chance to do this again? I had to do it -- it was like a professional obligation."

So we loaded up a plate with Moroccan-spiced crickets. Black ant sushi. Stir-fired stick insect. Mealworm with salsa. Grub fudge, cricket and chocolate biscotti, and Chinese black ant imperial tidbits. K. ate everything she was given. I had everything but the mealworm -- K.'s face as she tried to swallow that was enought to render me momentarily squeamish.

The Moroccan crickets were actually quite nice -- crunchy and nicely spiced with cumin and coriander. The sushi was the most appetizing to the eye, but went down rough; ants have hard carapaces and sharp little legs, and much of it seemed to stick in my throat. We were told that the stick insect tasted like spinach, and it did. The fudge was delicious, once I flicked off the visible grub embedded in the surface; I could deal with the unseen grubs inside. The "imperial tidbits" were quite nice; like marzipan, really, and the ants had been ground up for easier digestion. I can't say I've had a craving for bugs since, but at least I can say I did it. Many experts are of the opinion that, as food stocks suffer occasional depeletion in the next century's environmental calamities, we'll find ourselves eating insects, if only because they can be cultivated easily and cheaply. I feel too prepared.

THE REST OF THE TRIP was a bit more appetizing, on the whole -- tourtiere and the nicest steak I've had in a long time, a wonderful venison and lentil soup, sea bass and sauteed foie gras and a port wine tasting. As the train left, I looked out at the backyards of the old working-class neighbourhoods of Pointe-St.-Charles and St. Henri and wondered what it might have been like to live here, to have mustered up a bit of courage and left Toronto for school at McGill or Concordia. If I could live anywhere in Canada, without having to worry about money, I've always thought Montreal would be the place. 

I suppose I could live with the language tension, though it might get a bit tiresome when, for the thousandth time, you find your francophone waiter or cab driver or bank teller or neighbour answering you in English when you confidently ask them a question in French. It always seems such a subtle way of putting you in your place, of enforcing the outsider status that bitterly galls when, after all, you are still in your own country. There are supposedly few real differences between an American and an English-speaking Canadian -- or at least this is what we're told -- but this vague tension, this awareness of a deep schism in your own country's relationship with itself, is always there, always making you more conscious of the little battle always going on in an innocent query on the street, a coffee ordered in a diner, directions given in a cab.

Standing with my cameras in the night square outside Montreal's Old City Hall, checking the light while taking pictures of the illuminated building -- a tourist shot we simply had to have for the piece, since it was, after all the totem reason for the whole festival -- a man my age, skates slung over his shoulder, came up and began talking to me in French. I did the usual hand-dance of incomprehension -- shoulders hunched, palms facing up, hands spinning in a nervous circle -- and he switched to accent-less English. His French sounded perfect, complete with the Quebecois accent that turns "six" ("sees" in European French) into "sis", the nasal inflections and the hard "d" instead of the soft "th". He was an Anglo-Canadian nevertheless, and wanted to know what was going on with the crowd and the lights. I told him what I knew, and he asked me who I was working for. I mentioned the name of a Toronto magazine.

"Oh yeah," he said, and looked absentmindedly up at the building, lit with blue and pink and gold against the night sky while huge speakers played a kind of techno-ethnic trance music. 

"Well, our city hall has it all over theirs, doesn't it?"

He thought I was a Montrealer! -- an English transplant, perhaps, without the grace to learn some French, or perhaps from one of those old families, either rich or poor, who've held on out of sheer pride, refusing to learn the language of the locals now clearly in power. I was flattered, really, and a bit pleased -- I like being part of a country where, in spite of all the tension and anger, you are assumed to belong even when you don't fit some general profile. It's a country of migrants and immigrants and bastards, and I love it.

.
writing ©2000
Rick McGinnis
.
.
...the past
back to diary index
send me mail
the future...