Before coming here, a friend had delivered a blunt warning. Not having visited Canada was not a good enough reason to visit it. My experience of Canada, even beyond its borders, has been limited. I knew a girl at university who was Canadian but I had always put her abundance of character defects down to her own peculiar makeup rather than any national baggage. I went with my mind a blank slate. Not knowing what to expect I went expecting nothing in particular.
I don’t know how representative Montreal is of Canada in general. In some ways, of course, it cannot be at all representative. The French speaking Quebecois appear to have sought independence from Canada at every juncture when they are safe in the knowledge that it won’t be delivered. In other ways, perhaps it is representative of a country with economic and historical ties pulling in opposite directions, and with cultural ties inexorably drifting in just one direction. Whatever the case, the contradictions and tensions in Montreal are immediately apparent.
I flew in on an American Airlines ‘plane. It was tiny. At the end of the short flight, I had forgotten quite how tiny it was and tried to stand upright when getting up from my seat. Head and ceiling reminded me that this was a place for stooping. As the cabin door opened an American Airlines employee boarded the ‘plane and spoke to us in French. Of course: Quebec; but the crew and passengers all spoke English. There wasn’t, as far as I could tell, a monolingual French speaker on board. In contrast, at least half would have understood no French. It was the typical act of cultural defiance. French must come first.
So it did. Enter a shop and you would be greeted with ‘Bonjour, Hi’. Unless they forgot and a ‘Hi, Bonjour’ slipped in. Leave the shop and look at the street, though, and it was all American. The cars were American: the police drove Dodges. What could be more American than that? The street signs were in the American style, as were the fire-engines and the safety helmets worn by builders. The traffic laws appeared to be straight from down south and the chains were all very familiar from across the border too. So the distinct identity sought in the language wasn’t being sought elsewhere. Or if it was, only in the most unobtrusive manner. Of course, there were differences that made Montreal feel a little different to New York, but as a first-time visitor to Canada, I couldn’t tell if it was a true Canada-USA divide or just a big city-small city difference. I am not convinced I saw any real French-English divide except in the language. Is Montreal just an urban version of the story of Concorde: they don’t really care as long as they can insist on the Gallic ‘e’.
Tensions were found in other places too. The airport appeared efficient and spacious with good facilities, but it was weirdly slow and lacking. Flying back to the USA, US customs and immigration was dealt with in Montreal, but there was only one immigration official actually stamping passports. Airside shops were few and charged Canadian tax. This despite it being nominally the airside of an international airport with shops saying duty-free. The whole tax thing was another hideous Americanism that the Quebecois had adopted in defiance of their homeland’s traditions: advertised prices all excluded the various indirect taxes levied. As an example of another tension, arriving in Montreal one was greeted with the odd mixture of rude efficiency. Canadian immigration was fast, but it wasn’t friendly. The man at the information desk was helpful, but had a dismissive manner and didn’t really want to look up from his telephone. He also told me to get off at completely the wrong bus stop in town.
Things were better outside. The bus from the airport was fast and inexpensive, with free wi-fi on board. This was a nice surprise. Completely free, not time limited, and with no annoying registration requirements asking for endless bits of personal information. The hotel staff were friendly and let me check-in early. And Montreal was pleasant to walk around.
There were differences from New York. There was not such an aggressively high number of police on the streets. Those that I saw were equivocal in their image: thuggish looking brutes topped with camp red French-style berets. The buildings loomed less. And the city was much more walkable. It was far smaller, much less crowded and a lot more relaxed.
First off was a walk along Rue Sainte-Catherine, the Oxford Street of Montreal. Don’t go overboard about how exciting the shops are, but it was an interesting road along which to walk in any case. Taking shank’s pony west through the very French-sounding Downtown district, I came to Rue Crescent. The chain stores gave way to grim, rowdy bars. Music blared out across the street, people lined up to kick footballs through hoops. It was as if I had stepped into the backpacker quarter of Bangkok. The same faces peered from the same verandas of the same themed bars. It was horrid. I quickened my pace.
Then it stopped. One junction on and les boutiques appeared. Some even sold things one could contemplate buying. I found a pleasant little sandwich shop and stopped for lunch. Well, here was another difference from New York. No cards were accepted. I had to go searching for a bank. Here lay yet another difference from New York. An irritating number of local banks refused to accept international cards. At last, I found an American bank in Canadian guise. My cards worked. It was with more than grim satisfaction that I paid for lunch with money bearing the Queen’s head.
My route post-prandial was better. At the airport, I had picked up the tourist information centre’s surprisingly good leaflet. With maps, the guide picked out the highlights of the tourist trail in language that began to change my entire outlook on the place. The brochure clearly had not been written by the Gallic vanguard. I was directed to what was once the largest building in the British Empire. From there I was sent to churches both Anglican and Roman Catholic. Windsor Station, once a hub of Canada’s railways, was a disappointment up close, but from the outside, it was reminiscent of some medieval castle. Its grey stone walls and battlements loomed up. This wasn’t a cathedral to the railways, but a statement of Imperial power. The tourist guide, in its calm and collected way, reminded one that Canada was one of the Dominions, but it was more than that. It was a powerful, rich and important part of the Empire and later became even more than that. The plaques in the railway station setting out its history did so in the context of shared history and roots. The shared experience was not something to be blushed over but stated and remembered calmly. The governments of Canada and Great Britain had stepped up to the challenges of the twentieth century, I read. Empire. Partnership. But history. I couldn’t feel that partnership, nor sense the bonds of commonality, as I walked around Montreal, but I could see the lapidary monuments of their forging.
Old Montreal. Cobbled streets, excellent architecture, tourist bars and tat-shops. The river, a sight of the bridge, a weird looking possible light house, a fort and some sort of mishmash of square looking houses climbing up the opposite bank. Pride of place had, of course, to go, not to the over done Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal, with its obligatory entrance ticket fee (so fitting for a House of God, I am sure you will agree; the cleric collecting the lucre certainly did), but to Nelson’s Column. Actually, it really did get pride of place. In front of both the Town Hall and the Courts of Justice, it looked down a pedestrianised drag and out to the water beyond. The face on the money might not have been the sole contender for ‘best thing about Montreal’.
No. I am being facetiously unfair on the place. The area around the theatres was very pleasant and there were lots of decent looking restaurants. The locals were, on occasion, slightly trying. Witness the young man who, to impress his friends, took a long hard drag on his not-quite-legal roll-up cigarette and blew the smoke straight into my face, angling his own in order to get the best angle.
Montreal appeared to me a place that could be wonderful to live in. For a tourist on a short trip, it had ample to offer. For the sporty, it was in Canada, home of the great outdoors. Its bars and restaurants catered for all tastes. Yet it did not excite.