Fri, 18 Apr 2008 02:21:30 +0000

Back to Civilisation Index Montreal, Day 2

I was kicking myself this morning for booking a flight at 8:15 in the morning. That implied getting up at 5:00 and trying to negotiate a public transport system still yawning and scratching itself in the gloom. I slipped out of the hostel as quietly as possible, dropping my key on the front desk since there wasn't anyone there. And it turned out that the public transport system doesn't open until 6:00. I walked up to Bloor station to save myself the time of changing trains, and there the station seems to open 15 minutes early, but it wasn't a huge saving. In the event, I got myself to the airport in plenty of time, even when I got off the bus at Terminal 1 instead of Terminal 3. It's really quite a good system in Toronto.

WestJet provide a reasonably good service. Only a couple of biscuits and a drink for such a short flight, but that's more than Lufthansa would have given me. Unfortunately they seem to have adopted EasyJet's "we're all one big, happy, jokey family on this plane" manner. It really bugs me: you're not my friends, I don't laugh at your jokes, just tell me which window to jump out of if the plane crashes and stay out of my face, please. But apart from the announcement at the start, they were reasonably inoffensive.

After an outrageous $14 fee for the bus to downtown, I got to see Montreal. The real question I have for Montreal is not "how much fun is it to visit?" but "do I want to live here?" I was a little disappointed by Toronto: the ultra-wide streets and the intermittent skyscrapers give the place a small-city feel that belies its true size. Worse, the streets seem weirdly deserted, with none of the heaving crowds of St. George's Terrace in Perth, for example. Maybe it's just that the weather is still fairly cold, but still. Anyway, Montreal is similar, but somewhat better. More tall buildings, slightly more life on the streets (and it's colder too). I could just about see myself living here, if they have a job for someone like me.

The other reason for coming here is that I still have trouble internalising the idea that some Canadians speak French. OK, sure, some of them surely do speak French, and maybe even have funny accents, but it seems hard to imagine a corner of a country like Canada actually speaking French day-to-day. Wouldn't you find yourself lapsing into English all the time? After a day of wandering around, I do now have a sense of what it's like here. This is the most bilingual place I've ever seen. Most people seem to speak both languages, and the English is frequently accentless. You hear both languages in the street.

This makes it hard for me, since I'm used to belting out a few keywords from my limited vocabulary and pointing to get what I want. That's silly here, since I can just speak English. But it also feels stupid to read a menu in French and then translate it into English so I can order from it. Of course, I can't even pronounce "croissant" correctly, so ordering in English but using the French names would just be painful. For the moment, I'm defaulting to ordering in English, and mumbling the unavoidable French words.

For my first day in Montreal, I resolved to take a nice long walk. There were a few landmarks to guide my wandering. First was the Jean-Drapeau park on an island. It has a huge geodesic dome on it, a relic of some world fair. Quite nice to look at, even though it's nothing more than a bunch of girders. Once I'd figured out the structural pattern (hexagons of tetrahedrons), I was happy that I'd extracted value from the exercise, and wandered off again.

The challenge was getting off the island: there's a bridge, and it has sidewalks, but finding the way onto it is hard because they're rebuilding the ramp. It took me no less than half an hour before I figured out the correct approach. But the view from the bridge is excellent, and I was glad I made the effort.

I then made my way to Montreal's old town. It's a little like The Rocks in Sydney: some of the buildings are nice and old, but it's not nice or old enough to make up for the touristiness of the place. I went to the Notre Dame basilica, paid my $5 entrance fee and sat there contemplating the infinite for a quarter of an hour. Nice place, very colourful inside, but I'm still spoilt by European cathedrals which have some genuine history attached. I didn't bother following the guided tour.

For dinner, wikitravel was very clear what I had to have: "poutine", which is french fries with gravy and lumps of a chewy mozarella-like cheese. Sounds easily grotesque enough to make it onto my travel menu. I ordered a version with bacon, mushrooms and capsicum. And I have to say it was pretty good. Perhaps not the most intense taste experience, but well worthwhile. I especially liked the cheese. My one mistake was that I ordered the "large", which turned out to be very, very large. I was considering going on the pub tour offered by the hostel, and felt I needed something to line my stomach. But there's no way I need that much.

Back at the hostel I got myself a beer to test how ready I was for a pub tour. The answer: not at all ready. I hadn't got much sleep in the previous 48 hours, and I've been sick. I can sip my way through one beer, or two, but I'm not ready to be the life and soul of the party. So disappointingly, it's going to have to be an early night for me tonight.

Back to Civilisation Index Montreal, Day 2