Apartment Boxes, Bixie, Canada, La Concordia, Maisson, Marche Bonsecours, McGill University, Montreal, Moshe Safdie, Notre Dame Cathedral, Olympic Stadium, Place D'Armes, Quebec, Rude D'Artistes, St. Joseph's Cathedral
If I ask any Filipino who applies as immigrant for Canada, the answer to the question which province they are likely to apply for, the responses will most likely be skewed towards any of the following – Toronto (Ontario), Vancouver (British Columbia) and Edmonton (Alberta). Calgary ranks high too and maybe even Nunavut for the brave and the bold. But Quebec? Even to its most well- known city Montreal – not likely.
This tentativeness if not outright hesitation for Quebec stems from the fact that it is largely a French speaking province, with a people and culture as diverse as the French and English and Spanish influences which proliferated in the city a few centuries ago. Despite being the only bona fide bilingual city in Canada, even among those who learn the language, French-Quebecois cuss words included, living in Montreal is still going to be a tongue twisting experience. .
During my stay, I hardly see any Filipinos – tourists or residents so unlike Toronto where Filipinos are as ubiquitous as any Oriental food store owned by either a Chinese or Vietnamese. Either I am not looking hard enough or there are just too few of them. As I ease my way through the Pierre Trudeau International Airport, I find myself getting a helpful tutorial from the immigration officer on the proper French pronunciation of the name of the street and the hotel where I am to live. Coming from a French speaking, smiling handsome gentleman, my heart melts.
It is past midnight and outside I have a first glimpse of the gray and moonlit, starry Montreal sky. For a Canadian summer, it is unusually humid.
While waiting for taxi, I am jolted when a kindly man walks up to me, a barker and asks where I am headed to – in Spanish. I manage a faint smile. And while riding the cab, the Lebanese descent driver is chatty and despite the heavily accented English and distracting hand gestures as he speaks, is easy to understand and has very engaging stories growing up a second generation immigrant in Montreal. In the hotel, the room boy engages in small talk and tells me his mother is Thai and father Lao which makes him Canadian. He punctuates the last line with a laugh. I chuckle. I feel compelled to give him a generous tip for his sense of humor. It is the first time I have had a good laugh after what seems like an interminably tiring, long haul travel.
And so bienvenue a Montreal – a city where a few hours seem like a trip to three continents.
Although Toronto is now considered the most culturally diverse city in the world, Montreal in spite of or because of its peculiar brand of multi-ethnicity has remained to be, perhaps one of Canada’s most interesting cities. It is exemplified by the peace with which the English and the French and the First Nations co-exist as the city has managed to thrive by melding the old with the new. And among the old traditions of the original settlers, a marriage with the extrapolated cultures brought forth by its many immigrants from Haiti, Ethiopia, Brazil, Lebanon and quite accurately, the rest of the world .
In Old Montreal, where my hotel is located and is undoubtedly the best place to walk in, I find the Notre Dame Basilica, a twin towered structure built in typical Gothic architecture. In the evenings is the light and sound show which bathes the cathedral in blue lights. It is said to be this same blue lights that illuminated Celine Dion’s wedding in 1994.
On the left side of the main altar is a smaller chapel called Chapelle du Sacre Coeur (Scared Heart Chapel) where ordinary masses are celebrated. I wake up one early morning for a chance at hearing the Catholic mass but the schedule I am given is incorrect. But just as well. Because halfway through the walk towards the basilica is the historic Place D’Armes. It is now a place crowded with tall modern buildings but this is said to be the square where the early settlers battled it out with the local Iroquois.
Now the neighborhood is also interspersed with specialty shops and modern art galleries displaying the works of local artists.
This harmony of old and new is also evident in the centuries old building built by the French juxtaposed alongside modern financial centers, even in downtown Montreal. Outside such churches are minstrels in fancy garb singing Quebecois or French love songs.
Across from the basilica is the city hall where during summer, is framed by colorful flower beds. The cold concrete is complimented and made even warmer by fancily decorated horse drawn carriages by the side streets waiting for eager and jumpy tourists to hop in and tour around the city the old fashioned, and yes, expensive way.
Being largely a Christian or Catholic populace (a French influence) this city of four million, Montreal has over three hundred churches big and small – built in typical Graeco-Roman and Gothic architecture, reminiscent of the glorious reign of Franco-European empire.
Most churches have been preserved and among the most historic ones, St. Joseph’s, where crutches of people who have been healed were on display and votive candles are perpetually lighted. It takes ninety-nine steps to get to the apse and nave.
The diversity is also seen in its cuisine where a typical row of restaurants would invariably be Greek, Thai, Chinese, Cuban, Ethiopian, Tibetan or Italian whose presence is not limited to Little Italy, in Old Montreal. Angelina and Guido (whose wood oven baked pizza and pasta I sample and is highly recommended) where I could say ‘Una tavola per due’ and be understood with no raised eyebrows and in souvenir shops where I get discounts in shops just because I greet shopkeepers with ‘Buon giorno’ or ‘Bonjour’ or ‘Ni hao’ although locals say it is customary to haggle for souvenirs in these shops.
This gustatory adventure brings me to downtown Montreal where I get a glimpse of the Montreal way of life as I walk, both awed and amused. Half-naked young men, a few dread locked, dashing to cars stalled by the red light in traffic, wiping windshields clean in exchange for a dollar or two then leaping back to the side walk where their equally young and boisterous friends await them, beer bottle in hand. College kids in their colorful full frilly summer fashion huddled on campus grounds perhaps exchanging stories of what life and love bring their collective lives, stories of maybe even lovers and broken loves and whatever quirky, existential angst and happenstance over the weekend. Men and women in corporate suits run after buses in bus stops and pedestrians leisurely cross the streets. In one street corner is found a mecca for the stylistas – twelve blocks of shopping malls of pure high street fashion.
A stroll in downtown Montreal either by day or night is never boring. By day, there is always the neat rows of maissons and old Victorian houses standing partly hidden by green creepers and vines, eye catching and conspicuous in spite of taller buildings towering over the splendor of their dwarfed past. – a veritable feast in the eye that distracts me from the din and clangor of midday rush.
I walk past McGill University, an interesting and huge complex of white Graeco-Roman columns which stands proudly and it has every right to do so. McGill, along with La Concordia is one of the top twenty best performing universities in the world.
No mention of McGill University is complete without linking it to one of its most famous alumnus Moshe Safdie, now a world famous architect whose latest project is the iconic Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. It is said that as his undergraduate thesis, Safdie made the Apartment Boxes, an apartment which resembled boxes piled on top of the other in random, disorderly manner. Built in the 70’s, it is a wonder that still these boxes do not topple over up until now.
This structure is close to the Olympic Stadium. Montreal hosted the Summer Olympics in 1976 and after that, the stadium has since become a center for Sports Medicine. It is unfortunate or uncanny though that both buildings – Apartment Boxes and Olympic Stadium are in the running for the title of the world’s most strange buildings.
Unlike some people in cold European countries, the Quebecois (Quebecer if you want it the American way) are more vibrant, animated and has an inimitable way of showing their pleasure of being a visitor to their city. Tolerant. Vivacious. Sometimes loquacious, rather than staid, cold, quiet and indifferent. Minstrels in busy street corners sing romantic French songs for a dollar or two. They do not hesitate to give a wave or two if asked to have their pictures taken. This bon homme or is it bon vivant is reflected in their night scenes that have undeniably a Parisian feel, even on a weekday especially in rows upon rows of bars where chuckles and chirpy chatter fill the nippy summer evening air that brings life to the long stretch of a party place. People really know how to party, swirl with unaffected, unstudied flair their wine glasses of either white or red spirit . Tables sometimes spill over the cobble stoned streets. If this is the party scene on a weekday, imagine what Friday or Saturday night would be like.
It is in the Old Montreal where street artists (Rue Des Artistes) can also be found. Here lithographs of all subjects and sizes and prices are sold. It is not difficult to haggle. I attempt to give a little chat, pepper my talk with whatever of French I can grasp and a sprinkling of whatever I know about First Nations history and voila, I get discounts of several Canadian dollars for the lithographs I buy.
In the mornings, the city awakens quite late. Even at ten in the morning the streets are not as busy and in Old Montreal, the sight of delivery trucks for either meat or vegetables is seen from my hotel window. But, al frescos come alive as early as eleven in the morning (most people take brunch) until two in the afternoon.
At the time of my visit, the Montreal Film Festival was ongoing and some major street arteries are blocked which explains the minor delays because of traffic. I learn that Filipino films are being exhibited and screened in the non-competition category at the Maissoneuve.
Negotiating Montreal is easy. Most taxis charge a flat rate from the airport to any downtown hotel. But it is better to have loose change in rides around the city because as a matter of course, taxi drivers don’t give change. Then there’s the age old tradition of horse-drawn carriages with frilly and fluffy seats. As I found it too fancy and touristy, I didn’t even bother asking for the price.
For the sporty type, the Bixi, a self-service bike amenity is now available. Although Montreal has been touted as a world class biking destination with 500 km of biking lane and paths and has promoted the Tour-The Island by bike attraction, the Bixi which is especially designed for both men and women (unisex) can navigate easily and is solar powered. It should also appeal to the eco-friendly in us. Now, along with people from Gatineau and Ottawa,
Montrealers and its visitors can enjoy a tour of the city with a bike. Just make sure you have the proper biking gear.
For my kind of traveler – no fuss, no frill, simple, practical, adventurous and always on a budget backpacker, the best way to go about the city is to walk, get lost in its meandering roads and inner city streets. Watch out for graffiti and bills posted on the walls – they’re colorful, enticing, amusing and fun to read. I did not for once worry about getting lost. With a population as culturally diverse as Montreal, you can always ask for directions and there is always one who knows your language or better yet, you can always choose which language you wish to speak.