Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Strangers in a strange land

We crossed the border by train. After 10 months away, we were looking forward to being back in Canada, but not surprisingly, filling out the customs form was a bit daunting. They ask all sorts of questions that are usually easy to fill in, but after being away so long, it was hard to remember the right answers, and we were sure the customs agent was going to wonder why we had been away so long. I got particularly nervous when the gentleman in the seat ahead of us on the train was asked politely to follow the officer to the customs office …

The very polite man in uniform looked at our forms, looked straight at me and asked with a puzzled expression on his face, “You left Canada how many months ago? And you have nothing to declare? Not even any souvenirs?” What is it about customs officers that make you feel guilty even if you are perfectly innocent? We had of course bought a few things since leaving Canada, but they were safely in New York and not in the bags we were bringing into Canada. “No room” I said innocently pointing to our bags. “OK” he said as he looked up at our travel bags, shook his head and moved to the next row of travelers. There was a big sigh of relief in our row as he moved past us.

The 12-hour train trip returned us immediately to travel mode, so it felt very normal being in a city where we could not speak the language or read any of the signs. Again we were strangers in a strange land, ready to learn about the culture and see the sites — but then we remembered we were in Canada!

For a few moments we were angry, with Quebecers for being so strong-minded about preserving their culture, and at the same time, with ourselves for not knowing French. After all it is the official second language of Canada! But almost immediately, the overwhelmingly friendly and helpful Montealers made us feel so at home that we forgot about the French business almost entirely (OK not entirely. It continued to bug us that we couldn’t read the signs or understand the announcements on the metro, or read the menus in restaurants, or the signs in the supermarkets – C’est la vie!)

By the end of our trip in SE Asia, I was a pro at finding hotels using, but now that we were back in North America, I had to hone my skills in another marketplace. Using expedia or seemed too commonplace so I looked for other options. Our friend Guylène in Montreal sent me several links to bed and breakfasts, and I started to investigate myself online. One of the first sites that appeared in my search was a website called airbnb. Conceptually it is one step up from couch surfing. You rent a whole apartment or a room or a couch in an apartment for a price. Airbnb takes a cut and looks after the e-commerce part. You can list your apartment/room/couch or you can find someone else’s apartment/room/couch for a variety of prices (and comfort levels). It is buyer beware for sure, and after reading some very bad reviews, I was a bit leery of giving it a try, but I thought hey, this is Canada, not India. How horrible could it be?

You can get in touch with your host and ask all sorts of questions. If you are good at reading between the lines, this service is a great option. I liked Mylène right away. She was friendly and supplied us with good answers. Her apartment was a perfect size for us and in a good location close to the metro, a park for Marc to run in, good restaurants and coffee shops and a good grocery store. We decided to go for it and it was everything and more than we expected.

Our apartment

Mylène met us at the apartment and gave us an orientation. The apartment was perfect. High ceilings, modern décor, sparkling clean and organized to our taste. She left us with a metro map, Jazz festival schedules, tourism brochures, and a list of the best restaurants and cafes in the area and even a bowl of fresh apples on the table as a welcome gift. As we parted, she set us off in the direction of the 80-bus line that would take us directly to Place Des Arts where all of the Jazz Festival events were taking place.

We spent the next two days taking in free and ticketed concerts. Several outdoor stages were set up throughout the impressive Place Des Arts complex, an area of downtown Montreal dedicated to culture. All the outdoor events were free, and there was a different concert to see every hour somewhere throughout the site. The Festival itself, as all music festivals these days, was very eclectic. We did hear Jazz music, but we also heard every other kind of music, which suited us just fine. The whole area was filled with thousands of “Beautiful People” from mid afternoon until midnight of all ages. At the end of each night, the multitudes of festivalgoers flooded the streets, lining up politely for buses or flowing in a very orderly fashion down the escalators to the underground metro lines.

By day two we were in love with Montreal. Even with the knowledge that there is a lot of “crazy” here (like students rioting out of control about justifiable University tuition hikes, Separatists and Nationalists keeping Montreal’s economy from flourishing by continuing to threaten separation, large immigrant populations that have trouble integrating well, laws forbidding English on signs above a certain point size, and the odd news story about metro civil servants not serving a blind Anglo customer simply because he refused to speak French). Maybe it is the “crazy” that is so refreshing. These people and this city are real. Like New York, the streets are filled with people all the time. There is a buzz of ideas. There is a tapestry of culture. And Like New York is to the United States, Montreal is completely different from any other city in Canada.

We realized quickly that one week in Montreal would barely touch the surface of what there is to see and do here. We decided to concentrate on walking tours and leave the indoor attractions for another trip. Our first stop was Little Italy, which was walking distance from our apartment on Hutchison and Jean Talon. The Jean Talon market was our first stop, where we tasted the delicious sliced fresh fruit set out at all of the produce stands. We bought steamed corn, pickled beets, olive bread, cheeses and assorted veggies and fruit to stock our fridge and also stopped for lunch at an outdoor restaurant serving the most artistically presented salads we had ever seen. The rest of the day was spent walking the streets of Little Italy with its authentic coffee shops and somewhat kitschy shopping area. Just outside its periphery, we hit a Sunday street market. On the sidewalk were racks of discount wedding dresses which drew crowds of, shoppers looking for a bargain. It reminded us of “My big fat Greek Wedding”. There were bridesmaid’s dresses as well, which were quite a sight to see!

There are a few things you simply can’t miss in Montreal. Bagels is one of them and smoked meat is the other. A trip the establishments serving up the best of each of these Montreal delicacies was the next thing on our list. We walked into St. Viateur Bagels on our second day in Montreal and shared a hot and delicious sesame bagel right out of the oven. Then we walked to Fairmont just a few blocks away to o the taste comparison. You can check out the scoop about these two competing bagel shops at this link. I think we both agree that St. Viateur come out on top. It was about a twenty-minute walk from there to Shwartz’s. There was a line up outside as is always the case and it was blisteringly hot outside, but we waited in line for the experience. I simply watched Marc eat his smoked meat sandwich as there is nothing for a vegetarian in this place except for a dill pickle! It was worth it though to see the enjoyment on his face as he savored each bite.

We toured the downtown area by foot on another day and eventually made it to Old Montreal, which was definitely a highlight of the trip. The architecture and cobblestone streets take you back to another era. As we were looking at our map on one of the streets of Old Montreal, a couple stopped us to ask if we needed help (each time we opened a map or looked confused, which was quite often, someone would ask us if we needed help — people here are amazingly friendly and helpful). “We live close by” he said, “How can we help?”

I don’t think we actually needed help at the time, as we were just referring to our map to read about the monument just in front of us. But he was insistent. “We love showing people things they will not find in a tourist brochure,” he continued. “Come this way and we will show you something.” We were standing in front of what once was the oldest hospital in Montreal. He told us a bit about the history of the building and then showed us a zigzag line in the street, which aligned with the edge of the building. “This,” he said proudly, “is the footprint of the building as it stood when it was first built. There were once walls here. That is not in any guide book!” He then smiled at us and said, “We have lived here for 15 years and take a walk in this neighbourhood every evening, and there is always something new to see”. We had only been in Montreal for a few days, but we knew that we would feel the same way. What an incredible place.

As the sun set on a perfect day, we began to see the effects of the street lighting on the monuments and centuries old buildings lining the cobblestone streets. There was a different walking tour for Old Montreal at night in our brochure, which we knew would be exquisite, but after about seven hours of walking, our feet were telling us we would have to leave that for another trip. We found our way to the metro and to our cozy apartment on Hutchison.

The last two days of our Montreal visit were dedicated to visiting friends. We had two friends in Montreal that we had not seen, quite literally, in a lifetime. I had not seen Guylène, a friend I went to art school with in Vancouver, since graduation in 1988. And we had not seen Ron, a friend we knew in Israel on Adamit, since he left the kibbutz in 1978.

My reunion with Guylène was particularly emotional. The sorrow of losing our dear friend Glenda almost two years ago came immediately to the surface. We know that our bond to each other is so connected to her. Her words came out in French and mine in English and we hugged each other tightly barely breathing. Guylène’s partner Nicholas quickly introduced himself to Marc and we all moved to the kitchen where they had prepared a wonderful breakfast for us. The rest of the morning was non stop talking, the guys on one side of the table and us on the other. There was absolute joy in the room. I got a chance to see the work Guylène is preparing for an art exhibit in December and to understand her process. We talked a lot about Glenda and how much she meant to us and how present she is in our lives. Marc, Nicholas, Guylène and I took a walk around the neighbourhood after our wonderful breakfast. They left us in Mont Royal Park where we would continue our day’s walk towards Snowdon Deli where we would be meeting Ron for smoked meat (for the boys) and blintzes (for me) later that day.

I will credit Richie with this quote. While visiting Barbi and Richie in DC (many moons ago), I must have said something like “It is so great to be with you guys!” His answer was quick and to the point, “This is forever”. He was referring then to the friendships and relationships developed on the top of the hill in Israel on the Lebanese border in a small kibbutz called Adamit. Any of you reading this who were there know exactly what Richie was talking about. That afternoon last week in Montreal, when Ron walked through the door of Snowden Deli after 34 years, there was no awkwardness, just friends sitting down for a meal as we did so many times in the communal dining room so many years ago.

Marc remembered fondly tiulim (hiking trips) led by Ron while we were together on Adamit. So neither of us was surprised when he suggested heading out into the country the next day to show us around the Mont Tremblant area a few hours out of the city. He picked us up promptly at 8:00 am with a cooler full of drinks and fruit and off we went. It was a beautiful day and the scenery was wonderful. As an added attraction, there was a blues festival at the top of the mountain that we were able to take in. We had lunch at the top and exchanged tales of trips to the Far East in the 60’s (for Ron) the 70’s (for Marc) and our recent year of travel. As we soon found out, many things stay the same as time passes. Ron continues to travel around the world extensively, but now with a suitcase rather than a knapsack and comfortable hotels and organized tours, rather than hostels and a lonely planet in his pocket.

For dinner Ron took us to a fantastic Greek restaurant called Marvin’s, not far from our apartment. It is one of these places you would walk past without noticing if you didn’t have the inside scoop. Great food and a neighbourhood atmosphere that could not be beat. We were all served a huge Greek salad before our entres arrived. Marc and Ron were in heaven with lamb chops done to perfection. The place was packed with locals as well as take out orders leaving every few minutes. A definite Montreal neighbourhood experience!

Ron dropped us at our apartment and we parted ways. “L’hitraot!” (until next time, as we say in Hebrew). “Give my best to Amiram and Bilha when you see them in Toronto”. And with that our visit with Ron and our trip to Montreal was at an end. Early the next morning we tidied up Mylène’s apartment and made our way to the bus station for our trip to Ottawa where another reunion was awaiting us.

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