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.
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
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
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
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.