This past weekend I did something that everyone living in Burlington should do at some point – I visited Montreal.
The occasion was the celebration of my relationship’s 5 year anniversary, so I’ll admit that we visited the city in STYLE. However, with Osheaga music festival as the main attraction for tourists that weekend, I think that we were able to gain a pretty authentic experience of the city.
Upon crossing over into Quebec, my immediate inclination towards this complete separate country was that it hit me like a ton of bricks. I answered my questions dutifully to border police, waited for the bar blocking my car to lift, and then BOOM: all road signs were in French, all speed limits were shown in kilometers per hour, and my cellphone had now become a useless, roaming device.
I drove for a long time past flat landscapes before the tall city of Montreal appeared out of nowhere. The first thing I’ll say about my impression of the city is that it did not match that of the Burlington locals, who had warned my boyfriend and me countless times that the French-Canadian people of Montreal were rude and unfriendly towards tourists. On the contrary, I found people who lived there to be both extremely helpful and kind. Our first cab driver was very chatty and pointed out places we should go out to after our dinner. A female bartender I spoke with was very eager to exchange information on places to see in Montreal for advice on things to do in Burlington, which she visited every other weekend. Even the museum (okay, Science Center) employee who tore our tickets offered to circle the must-see exhibits on our map so that we could have an awesome experience of the place, to which we had arrived pretty late.
My only thought as to why anyone would think that the French-Canadian locals are rude or unfriendly is that French-to-English translations were not very readily available. Most road signs didn’t have them, and often maps and menus only displayed simple translations in small font that was hard to find. But this weighing on a person’s impression of Quebec speaks only to their sense of entitlement; the same sense of entitlement that allows some people to think it’s okay to refer to the United States as “America” when traveling abroad, as though Canada and Mexico are irrelevant to the continent’s identity. In an effort to humble my vexation as I attempted to slowly navigate my way through a foreign city, I considered that my experience with reading English in Quebec was probably slightly similar to the frustrations that Spanish-speakers deal with every day in the US, where they actually live.
Anyway, aside from all that stirring in the back of my mind, my time in Montreal couldn’t have been more delightful. We spent our first night dining out in a part of town that seemed more populated by people who actually lived there. Shops in the area included mostly boutiques, restaurants, and local bars. It was very cute, and the city in general is quite pretty. The European style apartments were all two or three stories high, with spiral staircases up to the second floor balconies so that you could enter right from the street, and bright green ivy crawling up the walls. At the same time, there was a nice mix of modern architecture everywhere – geometrically inspired clock towers, interesting concrete structures, and beautiful glass facades.
Our second day in Montreal was eventful, to say the least. It began with a walk down boulevard Saint-Laurent, which reminded me a lot of Church Street in Burlington because both streets are cobblestone (or brick) and closed off for pedestrian use only. While there was a great number of outside activities going on, the main shopping attraction seemed to be the sex store, Boutique Erotika. This store was so big, it was split in two: one half being staffed by women and the other by men. One thing you’ll pick up on quickly if you’re out in Montreal is that it has a booming gay community and a ton of strip clubs. There was one night of our stay where our attempt to bar hop around the city was thwarted by the only places open late-night being strip clubs and fast food joints. Needless to say, that night guiltlessly ended with my boyfriend and me smashing on Burger King in the hotel room.
We did manage to bar hop during the day on Saturday by popping down to Avenue du Mont-Royal, which seemed to have the most bars open before 5pm. The plan was to eat small bites along the way, which worked out pretty well because for some reason, almost every bar we sat at claimed to not actually be a bar at all. What I mean is, and what was explained to us very nicely by every not-bartender, most of these places didn’t actually have a liquor license and so could only serve alcohol to those who ordered food. “Food” could consist of a cookie, a cheese plate, baked fish puffs, or even a bowl of fancy nuts. As irritating as this might be to a local who is just looking to grab a beer after work and be on his way, I appreciated being forced to consume food alongside any alcohol because it kept me energized as I headed further into my day. The street of bars was near one of Montreal’s many fairly large parks, Parc La Fontaine, so it was nice to wander in between our destinations.
Saturday evening was one of the most magical events of my lifetime so far. Before you roll your eyes at that statement, let me explain. Every year Montreal hosts an International Fireworks Competition, where pyrotechnics come from all over the world to represent their countries in a fight to dazzle the world with fireworks. This year Canada won the gold, whereas Italy won it last year. Now, by the time that we arrived in Montreal, the competition was over; however, we somehow made it just in time to witness the last night of celebration, a send off to those who had competed. This celebration consisted of a half-hour long fireworks show set to the music of Pink Floyd. Um, yes. Yes, please.
We had front row seats, and the show was so absolutely incredible that it sort of ruined fireworks for me because I doubt I’ll ever be impressed by a Fourth of July celebration again. If you don’t believe me, watch either of the videos that I took below:
Oh, and to make matters even better, the seating for the fireworks show was at a Six Flags sponsored amusement park. Nothing ends a night of Pink Floyd themed explosions in the sky quite like reliving your childhood love of wooden roller coasters. After such a busy Saturday, we decided to spend our last day in the city wandering through Old Montreal, which inevitably resulted in us participating in my favorite Sunday activity ever: Brunching. This seemed to be a popular area for locals and tourists alike, because while all the restaurants were flooded with families from New York and Vermont (including a ton of Osheaga bros, ugh), the square was occupied by some sort of Pirate Day, with a crowd of very enthusiastic French-speaking pirates and all kinds of activities for kids that looked so fun, I was actually jealous.
The Old Port of Montreal was historic and beautiful, and it was nice to walk along the water and just relax. We passed by the King Tut exhibit going on and were really tempted to join. But after seeing all those pirate-dressed kids having such a blast on their ropes courses and Giant Squids jungle gyms, we decided to skip the mummies and head straight for the Montreal Science Center. As I mentioned earlier, the ticket-tearing employee circled all the good spots on our map so we had a great time creating body-sized bubbles and moving balls across a platform with our brain waves.
To sum up, my weekend in Montreal began with restaurants and sex stores, and ended with roller coasters and science activities made for children. All in all, I loved the city and had a great time. I would like to go back, but am fairly certain I wouldn’t want to live there; although an excuse to become fluent in French is appealing, the economy seems to be really bad. Gas prices are through the roof, and we spoke to a couple of people who lived there that explained that most McGill students fall in love with the city but then leave after graduating because there simply aren’t enough jobs.
All in all, it was a really fun city to be in, and I definitely hope we get a chance to go back before we leave Vermont.