Sunday, December 7, 2008

Going Back To Montreal

I enjoyed my trip to Montreal.

Now it wasn't always like that; in fact, I used to see the city of Montreal as a nuisance that I had to rush through as quickly as possible while driving from Atlantic Canada to some other place in central Canada. For years Montreal was – Highway 20 to the Tunnel under the St. Lawrence, highway 40 to the 417 or the 401, and into Ontario.

I first went to Montreal in 1967 to see Expo 67 with my family. We camped on a farm, and spent every day at Expo. I was 16 years old, and loved everything about the trip; the city was so big it was amazing, but I only got to see it through the Expo site, and longed to see more of it.

In 1971, after graduating high school and getting a job and a little 1970 Austin Mini, I decided to go back and see all of Montreal I missed travelling with my parents in 1967. I rounded up two friends, we bought a tent, packed the car and headed out on our first “Road Trip” adventure. We arrived in Montreal excited and ready for adventure. What we got was FRENCH; no one could (or would) speak English to us, and when they would, they were downright nasty. We went to the famous “Place de Boneventure” underground shopping centre, and couldn't even buy anything because everything was in French, and everyone would only speak French. One of my friends was a drummer and wanted to buy a particular bit for his drum set, but even when we found the Music shop, the owner wouldn't let us in. He wanted to know what we were going to buy, and “looking” was not an option. We were all so disgusted with how we were treated that we got in the car and turned south, spending the rest of our vacation down in New England, meeting friendly people and having a wonderful time.

I probably shouldn't have held this grudge against Montreal so long, but for over 30 years I refused to go back, and spent many vacations in the US. I had a serious prejudice against the province of Quebec and especially the city of Montreal.

This year, I went back to Montreal. My new status as “retired” allows me to tag along with my wife on her business trips, so for the price of an airline flight I get to visit places pretty cheaply, and this year she was attending a conference in Montreal. I had five days to reacquaint myself with Montreal, and I have definitely changed my opinion of this city.

Our Flight landed at Pierre Eliott Trudeau Airport at 7:30, so the cab ride to the hotel was through rush hour, but the driver was pleasant and although I'm sure he was swearing in French at the other drivers he was battling for positions on the roads, he spoke cheerful English to us, and was almost as good as a tour guide with his commentary about the city. He answered his phone at one point, and after a conversation in French, we were told that it was him mother who he claimed didn't realize he was 45 years old, and she was telling him to wear his scarf in the cold. The doorman at the hotel immediately switched to English when his “bonjour” was answered with a “Hello”, and the rest of the hotel staff were equally cheerful and helpful.

I spent five days exploring downtown Montreal, and all of the trip was totally enjoyable. I found friendly store clerks, helpful and cheerful waiters, and generally happy welcoming people. It was Grey Cup weekend, so the city was very busy, and I expect that it must have at times been annoying to wait on and serve some of these football fans with their outfits supporting their favourite team (Who incidentally beat the Montreal home team), but everyone I met was very pleasant. Menu's always had English translations, and stores had signs in English. Everyone I met immediately switched to English once I said “Hello” rather than “Bonjour”. I wish I could speak French half as well as most of the Montreal residents I met spoke English.

There are probably still radical French-only separatists in Quebec, but it seems they are losing the battle. As a unilingual English speaking visitor, I felt welcomed in Montreal, and where I used to say “Fine, let them separate – we don't want them!”, I now would much rather keep this wonderful province as part of Canada so I can go back and visit again.

We had one waitress in a restaurant in Old Montreal who perhaps had a bit of trouble with us four English patrons. I'm not sure she completely understood my request for Lactose free options. I suspect that the subtleties between “lactose intolerant” and “allergic to milk” didn't quite translate properly, and she took my request very seriously, so when I ordered the Creme Brule desert, after making sure I realized it contained milk, she was very worried, and came back to check that I was okay a couple of times.

This latest visit to Montreal has completely changed my opinion of the city. I had a wonderful time, and I will be back to explore this city at the next opportunity. I had a chance to see a lot of the area around St. Catherine's Street, but I know that there is a lot more of Montreal to see and I look forward to visiting again.