O Canada. It’s just like the Unites States, except with socialized medicine.
And then there’s Quebec. Unlike the rest of Canada, the people of Quebec speak French, not English. All the lakes, rivers, and towns have French names. You’re more likely to meet a Pierre or Claude than a Jason or Mark. We hear they love Jerry Lewis movies, too. Quebec, you could say, is a lot like France. Except much colder.
Montreal, the second largest Canadian city (which is like saying Cedar Rapids is the second-largest city in Iowa), isn’t the capital of Quebec the province, but it possesses a mystique that other Canadian cities lack. Some consider Montreal the Canadian Paris, a sort of “Paris Lite.” It has all the glamour of the original City of Light, but half the pretension.
Like Paris, Montreal has earned a reputation of a “sin city” due to its unparalleled nightlife, but where Paris boasts famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, Montreal boasts an underground city shopping mall. It’s a very pleasant mall, but the Eiffel Tower it ain’t. Then again, putting a mall underground is an ingenious way to combat the frigid winters. It all comes back to the weather.
We had high expectations when we visited this “Paris of the North.” From a distance, the city appeared large and impersonal, its skyscrapers huddled together as if trying to ward off the cold. As we approached, however, the skyscrapers parted and we found our way to Old Montreal, where the narrow streets by the original port have produced a pedestrian-friendly area of markets and galleries. English was common, spoken with that alluring accent. The natives all seemed friendly. Not like Paris at all.
We expected to find nude models and playwrights waiting for Godot. Or for us. We expected to see mimes on every other corner . . . getting beaten up by celebrating hockey fans. Montreal is home to the arts to be sure, but it’s also home to the Canadiens (aka les Habitants), one of the proudest and winningest franchises in any professional sport (well, except for the Evil Empire that is the New York Yankees).
We were to be disappointed. The mimes were nowhere to be seen, and the hockey fans pretty much kept to themselves. Canadians are polite people, not usually given to beating each other up, although we’re still sure they’d make an exception for mimes.
The Rue Saint Catherine (“rue” means “avenue” for you English-speaking rubes) runs through the center of downtown. Its restaurants are among the best in the world, say some. Its women are among the most beautiful. But it seemed like any other big city, where the traffic lights regulate not only the flow of cars, but the flow of life as well.
On our way to Square St. Louis, Montreal’s bohemian hangout, we cut across the campus of internationally renowned McGill University. It was autumn; school was in session. We turned a corner and happened upon a hot-dog-eating contest. This isn’t something you expect to see in a city like Montreal. In fact, it’s not something you expect to see anywhere outside Coney Island or Illinois.
We stopped to watch, transfixed in horror. Only then did we realize how close we still were to the United States. Parisians would never have permitted such a spectacle. They would have strung up the participants and force-fed them pâté de foie gras.
But we weren’t there to judge them; we were there to score free beer. We posed as college students, but we were a few years past college age and were quickly outed. We tried to pawn ourselves off as visiting professors. That didn’t work, either. We left empty-handed, with nothing to sustain us except that memory. Unlike the winner of that contest, however, we feel no pain while regurgitating this morsel.
The Paris of the North? Not bloody likely. It’s a pretty place, sitting on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, but it’s not as raucous as Las Vegas, Nevada, or as picturesque as Savannah, Georgia. While Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world, all that might mean to you is getting to say “Mercy buckets” with a straight face.
Lessons Learned: If you decide to vacation in Montreal, the City of Festivals, remember that it’s just like most other major cities. It has its history and culture, sure, but every major city has a history and culture. Expect to find pleasant tree-lined rues. Expect to eat well. Expect to see beauty in the hills, buildings, parks, and people. But don’t expect anything like Paris.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 3
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 1
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 2
Fun Fraction: 3/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport
Native Population: 1,650,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: The Underground City (the mall), the Montreal Casino, Olympic Stadium (home to the Canadiens), Mount Royal on a clear day, and many festivals, all held in the short summer.
Final Point of Interest: Montreal is home to Cirque du Soleil, which—unlike the city that spawned it—is an entertaining circus.