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Traditional Montreal selfie

I thought I’d finished with Montreal Christmas stories in the previous post, but I forgot this:

It begins with singing, ethereal voices in the distance that you can barely hear. Gradually it gets louder and louder as the choir slowly enters. There are 45 of them, dressed in red robes and carrying glowing candles, as they process up the centre aisle of the church. We turn to watch them.

But I‘m getting ahead myself.

The evening really begins when my sister Suzanne and Don and I meet up with her friend Josée. After a Metro ride and a walk the four of us enter into the warm and cosy ambience of Garage Beirut for a sumptuous dinner of authentic Lebanese food. Mezzes, charcoal-grilled lamb and chicken, humous, labneh, tabouleh and other dishes fill the table. We eat ourselves silly, along with good wine and good conversation. It is cold outside, the cold of a Montreal winter, but we are warm and full and happy.

Leaving the restaurant we walk to the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul. I’m not a Christian. I’m not religious at all and neither is Don or Suzanne. I don’t know about Josée. What I do know is that thanks to Josée the four of us have gotten together for dinner at Garage Beirut and Carols by Candlelight at the church two years in a row so that it has the hint of becoming a tradition. I’m sure we’d have done it again this past Christmas had we been able to go to Montreal. We may not be religious but there is not much that can beat the sacred music of Christianity, sung by a professional choir, soaring and echoing in the vast acoustic perfection of a big church.

The second year that we go we make sure to get there early and secure good seats quite close to the front. I’m immediately filled with joy by the spectacular abundance of crimson poinsettias in every available space on and around the altar and choir stalls. There are so many of them! This place is decorated for the season! And then we hear the far off singing gradually getting louder, and we turn to watch as the choir enters the church singing Oh Come All Ye Faithful.

What follows is one and a half hours of beautiful music interspersed with prayers and sermons, but mostly music. I was not raised Christian but still I’m familiar enough with the melodies of Once in Royal David’s City, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and others, that I can sing along with the rest of the crowd. It’s a joyous evening.

But back to Garage Beirut. It’s typical of the multicultural nature of Montreal that there is a restaurant serving made-from-scratch authentic Lebanese food. Which brings me to Mile End.

Mile End is known as a hipster neighbourhood with numerous galleries, designers’ workshops, boutiques and cafés. Musicians, writers, film makers, and artists congregate here, leading to it being included on many lists of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods. Most of the street art in the previous post is in Mile End. It’s also home to Montreal’s two most famous bagel bakeries, and every year we make a pre-Christmas visit to the area to get the best bagels in town for the Christmas Day brunch. Apparently Montreal bagels are special, and different from New York bagels, and superior by all accounts since each one is made by hand and they are boiled in honey-water before being baked. No matter. I’ve never been a fan of bagels. I like the trip because Mile End is also home to a significant number of Montreal’s Hasidim, a sect of Orthodox Judaism. It’s another example of Montreal’s multiculturalism and for me one of the most fascinating.

The Hasidim are a world within a world, much like the Amish in Pennsylvania, or the Mennonites in Winnipeg. Walking the streets of Mile End on a Saturday morning it feels as if I’ve entered another time, and another country. Or perhaps I’ve entered another country within another country since Montreal itself has for me a foreignness that I don’t encounter in Anglo Vancouver; Francophone Montreal feels a bit like France but without the history. And then there are the Hasidim. Although there are over 100,000 Jews in Montreal the ultra orthodox Hasidim present another culture altogether.

Am I fascinated because they’re exotic? Absolutely. It’s the reason I travel – to see how other people do life, how they make it work, what they do, or think they need to do in order to survive as a community, as a tribe. We’re so extraordinarily different in our beliefs, and ways of being, and approach to life, and at the same time we’re all the same; we all have that basic humanity that understands without question a smile, or tears. After a lifetime of travel I’m still astonished and enraptured by the exotic other.

And so the Hasidim. Yiddish is very much a living language for them, they adhere closely to orthodox Jewish practice, and they are noted for their religious and social conservatism, and social isolation. The Hasidim and the hipsters don’t always get along.

Without wishing to disparage the Hasidim in particular (since the following applies to all of us) I’m reminded of something I read recently: Traditions – peer pressure from dead people. I wish I could credit the author but have been unable to establish who said it first; so many have used it that it’s become a Facebook meme. Either way it has the ring of truth to it to me, but then I’ve been somewhat rebellious all my adult life. Society is mainly governed by traditions, until people rebel against them. And then gradually new traditions are created by the very ones who rebelled.

Traditions within the Hasidic community are strongly adhered to, and I’m completely flummoxed by some of them. For instance shtreimel. Shtreimel are the magnificent fur hats that the men wear, and on the wings of tradition travelled to Canada with their ancestors from Eastern Europe. Made from the tails of sable, marten, or fox, they can cost as much as $6000.00. A yarmulke is always worn underneath the shtreimel, and although there is no religious significance to the shtreimel, some believe there is extra spiritual accreditation from wearing two head coverings.

And of course I must mention the payot, the long curls worn by both men and boys. The tradition comes from a biblical scripture stating a man should not “round the corner of his head” and ancient Talmudic scholars interpreted this to mean there should be no cutting of the hair on the sides of the head. Thus was a tradition born.

From the Hasidim and Mile End we travel four kilometres east to Chinatown for a brief glimpse of an entirely different culture.

It’s a family tradition (peer pressure from living people): dim sum at Kim Fung. Don and I trail along behind the others into a nondescript mall, down a long passageway, up an escalator, around a corner and into the huge room. We would not have found it on our own. It’s crowded, and noisy. Within seconds a table has been cleared for us and we get seated and add to the noise. Kim Fung is commonly regarded as serving the best dim sum in Montreal; no pressure is needed to follow the tradition. Dumplings: shrimp; pork shrimp and shiitake; shrimp and snow peas; scallop and shrimp; beef meatballs with tangerine peel; tofu stuffed with shrimp paste; duck roll; pork vegetable and ginger. The variety goes on and on. Waiters circle the tables with mouthwatering speed and agility. Food rolls up, we choose, then it rolls by to the next table. We eat almost to bursting.

From there we walk through the heart of Chinatown, along pedestrian-only Rue de la Gauchetière

passing two of the four paifang, or gates, that define the neighbourhood.

We wander down towards the Old Port area

to get new pj’s for Don from Bonsecours Market,

passing a fire juggler along the way.

The audience is perhaps even more interesting than his performance.

And now we leave Montreal altogether.

Just one hour north of the city is the town of Sainte-Adele. The town is situated in the Laurentians, an area of 22,000 square kilometres that takes its name from the chain of mountains that runs down its northern side. Sainte-Adele has a population of about 14,000. Its economy is mainly derived from the tourist industry centred on skiing and other snow sports.

More importantly, my nephew’s family has a cottage there, so on a couple of different occasions some part of our visit to Montreal has been spent in Sainte-Adele.

I’m on the bunny hill,

Photo by Don Read

steadily making my way down the gentle incline, hoping I have the strength to at least slow down enough to make snowplow turns as I traverse the slope. Gone are parallel turns, gone the easy rise and fall of the knees that allows you to control skis as you speed-fall down a run. Gone. I never was a black diamond skier but I could hold my own on the blue runs.

This day I’m back to the bunny hill. It’s only the second time I’ve downhill skied in more than twenty years and my knees are, um, different now. I persevere. Slowly the feel of it all comes back, if not the style. I get a little more confident with each run, and then try one of the green runs (the easiest of the downhill runs as opposed to the bunny hill for beginners). This is a mistake. Well not entirely, but yeah, it’s scary, and at times I wonder if I’ll get to the bottom in one piece. When I do finally make it down I go join Don indoors and watch all the skiers through the big windows. I know that doing more would probably really be a mistake. Accidents most frequently happen when you’re tired. How very sensible of me!

But the kids! I am so jealous. Here they are with me and Suzanne.

Photo by Don Read

They are about 12, 10, and 7 years old, my great-niece and her cousins, and they have been on skis pretty much since they could walk. They ski with the confidence and fearlessness of children.

And this is Canada. Most children in Canada learn winter sports from a young age – skiing, snowboarding, ice skating. It’s what makes the winters better than bearable. It’s what makes the winters exciting. When I lived in the far north I would put on my cross-country skis at the door of my cabin and take off – for miles. And on every foray down south during those years I’d be downhill skiing. So much fun!

Another day, another adventure. Dressed in our warmest clothes and trussed up like turkeys

Photo by Suzanne Armstrong

we are hiking through the winter forest about twenty minutes north of Sainte-Adele

to go zip lining at Tyroparc. At the end of the hike we get to warm up a little by the fire in a teepee and then take turns to be attached to the first of two lines.

And then we are flying! Don and I fly as a pair, strapped one in front of the other. Like this!

Once is not enough of course so at the end of the first line we’re strapped into the next one, and fly some more. At 900 and 650 metres, and 100 metres above the ground, these are some of the longest and highest zip lines in Canada. And they still seem so short. We barely have time to take in the landscape beneath us and the ride is over. Zip lining is not for the landscape! It’s for flying!

For a complete change of pace Sarah and Seb

Selfie by Sarah

take us to the Polar Bear’s Club for a spa day. There are outdoor hot tubs and pools, Finnish saunas, Turkish steam rooms, and darkened relaxation rooms, all connected by boardwalks and beaded along the icy winter-time Simon River. The Polar Bear’s Club is a Nordic spa where the idea is to alternate between hot, cold and relaxation, but only Sarah is crazy enough to get into the river.

Photo by Seb

Photo by Seb

Don and I hug the luxurious white robes we’ve been given to wear over our swimsuits. We drift from one experience to the other in a tranquil daze, lulled by the sound of the flowing river, the crackling fireplace, the silence.

From 2005 to 2019 we went to Montreal seven times, our visits ranging from five days (just me when I went for Sarah and Seb’s wedding), to three weeks one September before we went to South America, to two weeks in December for Christmas with family. Of course we couldn’t go last Christmas, and next Christmas we’re hoping to be in Australia. But after that no doubt we’ll be back in Montreal. It’s become a tradition.

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.