My feet are killing me. I’m wearing sandals, black strappy things on a three inch platform. They’d been fine in Vancouver, perfectly comfortable, but in the Montreal midsummer heat the straps are giving me blisters as I walk along the burning pavement to the restaurant. It’s 2005. We’ve just come from my niece’s graduation ceremony at McGill University and we’re headed to lunch, a disparate group of my family and her fiancé’s family. Pretty much all I remember is the blisters.
The next day a dinner. The food, the wine, the flowing conversations, strangers meeting for the first time. There’s about 20 of us seated around a long table so my niece’s family can meet her fiancé’s family before their wedding.
Another room, another meal, another group of people, all women, myself and two of my sisters and many of my niece’s friends. It’s her bridal shower and the gifts range from beautiful to risqué. We eat well, and laugh a lot.
All the women at a salon having our hair done. I only remember that I was there, nothing else.
The wedding. In in an art gallery. White walls, soaring ceilings. My niece in a gorgeous strapless dress, the ceremony in French and English, speeches in French and English, one of my sisters giving a speech in her less than perfect French – good for her for going for it! I’m wearing a long shiny dark blue sheath. And I dance! In those same strappy platform sandals.
A weekend street market way out in the suburbs. This is boring I think, as I walk by a stall selling socks and underwear. But not boring – the Tam Tam Jam on Mount Royal. Dancing again, in the midday sun. Fun.
These are the random memories of my first ever trip to Montreal, in the heat of summer. A tornado picked me up in Vancouver and without ever actually setting me down, it continued spinning me around for a blurred five days. We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto. I didn’t see Montreal at all really, and although Don and I have been back six times since then I still feel as if I haven’t really seen Montreal.
We’ve never been tourists there, explored the recommended neighbourhoods like Old Montreal,
or been inside the 19th century Gothic Revival-style Basilica de Notre Dame. I’ve seen pictures of the interior. Next visit I’ll be doing the tourist thing and going inside!
We’ve never taken a walking tour. We’ve never explored the way we usually do, all bug-eyed, when we get to a new place. For us Montreal is all about family. And cafés. And French pastries. And Christmas.
A little background: My niece Sarah, with an Australian mother and an Anglo-Canadian father, went to Quebec for university and married a French Canadian. After years in French immersion school, and years in Montreal she now speaks French like a native. Her husband Seb and his family are all bilingual, as is their daughter Camille. When Camille was born Sarah and Seb decided that Sarah would speak only English to her and Seb would speak only French. At the age of three she announced to her papa, in French, Maman speaks English, you speak French. Me, I speak both. Ha!
The Canadian province of Quebec is the bastion of French Canada, and Greater Montreal, with a population of 4.1 million, is the second-biggest French speaking city in the world after Paris. It is a multicultural city, and sixty percent of the population is bilingual, but don’t let that fool you. Montreal is French to the core. Without taking a dive into Canadian colonial history, way back in the beginning somehow the Great White North managed to attract a little bit of Europe, and, despite early attempts to suppress it the French were smart enough, and fierce enough to protect their language and their cultural heritage. Thank goodness!
Toronto may be Canada’s biggest city, and the economic capital, but Montreal, carrying the linguistic-cultural identity of francophone Canada, is an ongoing celebration of the arts; 250 theatre and dance companies, over 200 art galleries, and ninety festivals!
Despite multiple visits we don’t really delve into the Montreal arts scene, but find it in the street art,
at the extensive and spellbinding Leonard Cohen exhibition, and in a visit to the Imagine Van Gogh exhibition.
At Imagine Van Gogh it’s the music gets to me first as I walk along a dark corridor behind the exhibition to the bathroom. The music is classical and familiar and I find myself swept up by it, floating on it, elated. I ride the musical wave back down the corridor and into the room. The exhibition is fully immersive, immediately shocking in its comprehensive beauty. Floor and walls are covered by Van Gogh’s paintings, constantly changing, shimmering and moving as if alive, their colour a living breathing thing. We are subjugated to a different reality; I am transfixed. I cannot see in enough places at once as the images change, and change again. Wheat waves in the wind. Boats bob on water that ripples. His paintings have come to life.
I’m inside the wheat fields,
The irises have come alive,
and being completely surrounded by Starry Starry Night, in all its brilliant shining midnight light, it feels somehow as if it has swallowed me whole.
Five times for two-weeks we’re in Montreal in the winter for Christmas with family.
Like most of Canada, Montreal winters are long, dark, and cold. Lasting for half a year or more, it takes a special brand of fortitude to not just endure, but thrive in a Canadian winter. I lived in the Yukon for nearly ten years. Winter would start with the first snows in early October and continue with decreasing light and increasing cold until April. Montreal winters are much the same. But we are prepared. I’ve survived the Yukon, and Don has previously lived in Montreal so we know what to expect.
Longjohns top and bottom, thick pants, fur hats, scarves, padded gloves, turtlenecks, sweaters, down coats, layers and layers until everyone looks like the Michelin Man,
especially on school traffic duty when you don’t get to move around to keep warm.
I remember in Whitehorse in the dead of winter when passing someone on the street on the forty-below days you’d recognize them by their coat, the same way that Muslim women covered in chador and niqab apparently recognize each other by their shoes.
If you live in Canada, even in Vancouver where it’s comparatively mild, winter defines much of your life, and Montrealers excel at making the most of it. Yes, okay, after a few months of digging the car out,
shovelling the front steps and sidewalk, clearing snow off your car, remembering to lift your wipers so they don’t get frozen to the windshield,
pushing the snow-blower,
and bundling up in -30 degree weather it can start to wear you down a bit, and the gladness that arrives with spring is very very real. As Sarah says, there’s a special kind of stress associated with whether or not you’ll get the car moving in time for carpool each morning. On the other hand there’s skiing, snow shoeing, tobogganing, and snowboarding on the slopes of local mountains, and ice skating at outdoor rinks. And there’s a whole unique ambience in a winter-time bar with a fire burning, or in a cafe sipping coffee or hot chocolate and eating pastries as only the French can make them.
This is a typical residential street in the neighbourhood of NDG (Notre Dame de Grace). It’s the neighbourhood we know the best since it’s where the family lives.
I’ve never seen it without snow. I’ve never seen it when it’s green. But on a snow day, one of those days when the flakes are really big and suddenly winter becomes magical, I race out to photograph it,
and on another day catch Don in the sleet walking back from the bakery on the corner with a loaf of our favourite bread.
This is Monkland Avenue.
It cuts through the middle of NDG and most days we look for a reason to walk along it. Surely there’s something needed from the grocery store? It just an excuse. What we really want is to get to Première Moisson, our favourite patisserie, and drink coffee and hot chocolate and eat pastries. It’s just a long enough walk that we can fool ourselves into justifying the pastries. The patisserie is always busy, and always steamy. People are there for lunch or for a coffee break, but also to place and/or pick up their Christmas orders. We get our drinks and treats, find a seat, people squish up a little to make room, and I wriggle out of the sleeves of my coat so that it becomes padding on the seat underneath and behind me. There are so many people there’s no room for outer wear and yet somehow we all manage. I stuff my hat and gloves in my coat pockets, loosen my scarf, sigh, look around. The conversation in a language I don’t understand flows around me. There is something about the French language that is so graceful. I catch a word here, a sentence there, and imagination fills in the rest as deliciousness fills my mouth. This is pure Montreal. Of course I go to cafes in Vancouver, and of course in the winter as well as in the summer, and it is never quite the same as a good patisserie in a Montreal winter.
One place in Montreal that I have seen when it’s green is Mount Royal, the triple peaked hill in the centre of the city for which it is named. On that whirlwind visit back in the summer of 2005 some of us went to the Tam Tam Jam, a Montreal institution where dozens, maybe even hundreds of drummers, with their hand drums, djembes, and tablas, gather to play. From noon ’til sundown every Sunday the beat goes on, the drummers drum and the dancers dance. It’s a communal garden party that includes picnics, mad hacky sack battles, a street market, and food trucks.
Our winter experience of Mount Royal is a whole other matter. In the winter it is all bare trees and snow, squirrels looking for a handout, and intrepid runners. It’s a pretty good hike to the towering cross at the top, at least enough to justify the pastries anyway.
Of course the reason we’re in Montreal in the winter is for Christmas with family. Montrealers love to celebrate Christmas and it is everywhere from bare suburban trees decorated with bright baubles,
to an extravagance of lights in Old Montreal,
to store windows that have my eyes dancing with joy,
and the beautiful permanent, and collapsible, tree that Suzanne and Sarah made.
One year we take the Metro
to a Christmas market in Old Montreal on a day that feels like fingers and nose frost-bite. Walking in those tiny icy flakes that don’t beguile you with beauty but just make you long for the tropics,
we don’t actually shop at any of the little wooden pop-up shops, but instead try to warm our hands without burning our gloves at the fire, and have hot drinks and maple taffy. It’s worth it for the maple taffy!
Quebec is the maple syrup capital of the world, and all over the province at the Christmas markets there are pop-up cabanes à sucre. All you need is clean snow and hot maple syrup. Pour the syrup in a strip on the snow and when it hardens roll it up with a popsicle stick. It’s an instant celebration in your mouth. There’s nothing quite like it, and it’s a quintessential Quebec experience.
But Christmas for us is, above all, about family. And what a family. Seb has a brother M, and sister-in-law G, mother C, mother’s sister S and her husband and their son, and M and G’s kids – three girls and a boy, and then there’s my own family (at least the few of many of us that get to Montreal from Vancouver and Australia): my sister Suzanne (Sarah’s mom) and Don and I, and at various times my sister Julie and her daughter Ellie and Ellie’s dad have also joined us. I’m sure you get the picture. There are a lot of people, and lots of noise, boisterousness, games played, conversations, shouting, laughing and fooooood!
Like most Europeans the Quebecois celebrate on Christmas Eve, unlike the Brits, and by extension us Aussies, who celebrate on Christmas Day. In Quebec on Christmas Eve there is always tourtiere. To me it’s simply not Christmas without turkey. To the Quebecois it’s not Christmas without tourtiere. But what I remember most about Christmas Eve dinners in Montreal is the amount and variety of food. So here I must give way to Kenneth Grahame who, in Wind in the Willows, describes the spread so much better than I ever could. Referring to a picnic basket:
‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity. ‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly; coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater ‘O stop, stop,’ cried the Mole in ecstasies: ‘This is too much!’ ‘Do you really think so?’ enquired the Rat seriously.
Yes, it’s just like that. And while our haphazard mound of boots, coats, and hats slowly slip and drip melting snow onto the floor in the mudroom, we are eating, talking, laughing, playing games, and opening gifts, at least fourteen of us but usually more.
One year the family ask Don if he’s willing to dress as Santa for the little kids. Of course! He’s provided with the complete outfit, including the large belly, and after making his entrance hands out gifts to the children. Naturally the older kids know who it is, but even five-year-old AE has her suspicions, and you just can’t fool little three-year-old IR, though neither says anything; if they said anything it would break the magic. And their reaction is priceless. AE runs squealing down the room saying with unrestrained elation That was so much fun! and IR runs back to hug Santa over and over and over. I think he’s pretty cute too.
There’s a karaoke system in the basement so we sing karaoke on at least two occasions. Well the others sing, though Don and I do get up eventually for one song. We play board games, and drawing games (Telestrations anyone? Look it up, it’s a hoot), we go to movies and Christmas shopping and food shopping, and the kids’ school Christmas concert and then somedays we just want to hang out at home.
There’s always a big brunch on Christmas Day, and more games, and you think I’m done? Not even maybe. Next post: more of Montreal – Chinatown, the hasidim, street performers, carols by candlelight, and winter activities a bit north of Montreal (skiing, ziplining, and The Polar Bear’s Club!)
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.