Report From Montreal
August, 2001

(Marsha and I traveled to Canada to meet a woman named Marilyn, whom I'd previously only known online, from my smoking cessation, support newsgroup. This was my after-action report to the group.)

A quick impression of just about everyone I met in Montreal, after I said "Bon jour" to them: "Bon jour, monsieur. Yes....I speak English..." (this said very patiently, and with a large smile.) Then I'd fumble about, attempting to use the few words of non-kitchen French that I know. You might just make note of the fact that there are an extremely limited number of occasions on which it's appropriate (or possible) to casually drop "I know where the elevator is" into a conversation, after all. Push that boundary and you definitely do not seem like the world-weary, sophisticated, global traveler you're hoping to appear; you come off like a demented soul who's overly fond of traveling up and down in a small, enclosed space.

For those who haven't been there, Montreal is a stunningly beautiful place. At first glance it's not much different from many large, American cities.The architecture's a mix of aging glory and modern flash, as historically grand old buildings and sleek office blocks nestle together. Closer scrutiny reveals that all the street signs, most of the window displays and a lot of the visible advertising is entirely in French. When you stop and listen, you realize that almost all you hear spoken by people on the streets or in the
shops is French. Montreal is the largest French-speaking metropolis outside of Paris, but virtually everyone we encountered understood English and was gracious enough to speak it to us-- unlike many of the Parisians of my experience.

The redoubtable Marilyn, President of my fan club.

We had driven 800 some-odd miles to meet Marilyn and Eddie, and actually accomplished half of this mission; Eddie was busy preparing to move and unfortunately couldn't meet with us. I received a garbled message from the hotel desk about "Eddie later calling"--  and Marilyn reported having a wonderful chat with him via phone while Marsha and I were out at breakfast.

Marilyn! I met her and lived to tell the tale! My phone rang, and I answered it "Hello? Is this someone with good news or money?" only to hear a long, raucous laugh, and a gasped reply "I sure hope this is Jeff Hyde...?" I assured her that I was indeed this alleged Hyde, and she replied "Well, good. I make random phone calls to strangers, you know; I'm a very lonely woman." I knew we would become pals very quickly...

We arranged to meet in the lobby of the Queen Elizabeth hotel. It has apparently long been a fantasy of Marilyn's to travel by rail to a cosmopolitan city, stay in a swanky hotel, meet with mysterious strangers--
and be rousted by hotel security because her companions look so damned shifty. We try to help people live their dreams...

Did I mention we also hit town as 750,000 folks were crowding in to celebrate the Gay Pride Festival? No one cleared this with us... This made it virtually impossible to drive, as the streets were blocked off for what seemed like acres around our hotel, which was in the Latin Quarter. This area used to be the red light district-- and still boasts a few strip clubs and lap-dance emporiums, though I'm told it's pretty tame compared to the old days. It is a largely gay neighborhood under normal circumstances. A couple of the main stages for acts performing at the festival were here. Foot traffic was incredibly heavy, and the sheer volume of attendees ensured that we saw... well, all manner of acts performed publicly, including some
we'd rather not actually have seen. The first couple of days of our stay our block was positively Gay Ground Zero. Double-whammy, foreign-cultural, total-immersion time. Hey; what good's a vacation that isn't an adventure, right?

Concurrent with this activity, it seemed that every restaurant we passed had a sign posted somewhere proclaiming itself to be in the midst of a "Festival du Homard"-- or "lobster festival". All manner of lobster dishes were available at absurdly discounted prices. We speculated as to the reason for this widespread lobster infestation. Perhaps they'd swum in for the Gay Pride celebration and were now stymied by the pedestrian throngs clogging up the boulevards? This would've enabled local restaurateurs to simply club
them, scoop them up in nets and transport them to every kitchen in town, making everyone a healthy profit. These cut-rate lobsters were simply everywhere you turned. Steamed, broiled, sautéed, baked, stuffed, in salads and sandwiches, croquettes and timbales, frittatas and omelettes; they could be had for breakfast, lunch and dinner--and they could be had for a song. Lobster Festival, Gay Pride Festival? Did one have anything to do with the other? Was there a theme of some sort? Was this mere coincidence? We could never really determine if any given crustacean was you say... homardsexual? None of them seemed particularly proud to be there, though; just inexpensive and quite tasty.

So-- back to Day One with Marilyn: We squared our shoulders and set off on a voyage around the city, in search of a lunch consisting of the fabled, highly-touted, semi-legendary Schwartz's smoked meat. This entailed flagging a ride with  the self-proclaimed "best cab driver in all of Montreal", who proved very adept at maintaining a snappy and diverting line of patter while he managed to take us on a 417-block detour around the 4 blocks of the city that were actually cordoned off for the Gay Pride parade. We did manage to see a fair amount of the town, though.

A few quick observations: It's a city filled with strong-featured, good-looking people. The distinct Gallic physiognomy is on display everywhere; it's like being in a huge Jean-Luc Godard movie. The men all
seem possessed of a great and noble sadness, or an amazing, life-grabbing intensity and (thanks for the heads-up, Phil) I discovered some of the most striking, bold, confident-looking, drop-dead gorgeous women per city block I've ever seen, anywhere. I nearly gave myself a whiplash trying to look at them all as they passed. That skin-tight-pants/ bare midriff top look is firmly entrenched among the females there, I am delighted to report.

We were in a hotel near the University of Quebec at Montreal (the Berri-UQAM metro station was a block from us) and we hardly saw anyone over the age of 25 or so on the streets in our immediate neighborhood. Even as we roamed further afield in the city, the older people that we encountered generally seemed to be in very good physical shape-- universally slim, tidy-looking folks. We only saw about 5 overweight people during our entire stay-- it was significant enough that we commented on it often. Our guess was that they were probably prohibited by some city ordinance from hanging out together. Or they were just dumpy Americans, wandering aimlessly...

Or perhaps they'd eaten at Schwartz's. Remember Schwartz's? We were going there with Marilyn, for lunch, before I started to ramble on... We finally disembarked from the Cab Of Eventual Destination, and had to stand in line to get into the place. It was rather like Studio 54 in its heyday, sans the high-quality cocaine, glamorous celebrity guests, muscular bouncers and snotty doormen, pulsating disco music, strobing lights, forced hipness and flashy clothing. Actually it was nothing like... well, never mind.
Eventually we were seated and ordered what turned out to be ENORMOUS sandwiches of pickled, spiced, smoked beef brisket-- fatty, delicious, juicy and simply to die for. I mean it-- it was so good you could plotz! These things could either be eaten or used as bludgeons. You could knock someone
goofy with a blow from this 6 pound wad of meat and bread. Plus French fries, killer dill pickles and a cherry soda. A little bit of deli heaven on St. Laurent street... I cannot recommend the place for its ambience-- harsh fluorescent lighting, tacky linoleum floors and surly waiters make it one of the less attractive dining choices, but the meat..! Oy!  Anything else can be overlooked once you sink a tooth into that cholesterol-laden ambrosia.

The shops and restaurants we saw were marvelously exotic; a tremendous diversity of styles and ethnicity abound in any given block. The Metro system is very speedy, efficient and simple to navigate; we found it quite similar to D.C.'s, except that it has no air conditioning. Did I mention we arrived during what was a record-breaking heat wave in Montreal (and all through the northeastern U.S., too)? Projectile sweating was the order of the day. I'm fortunate I didn't put someone's eye out...

There were a few negatives: We found an amazing number of really funky, desperate-looking street people everywhere we went. Really beat-looking, shabby bums who wheedled and cajoled us in two languages-- your basic universal derelict wino type. Then there were the long-haired,
nouveau-hippie types and punky/Goth-looking kids who clustered in foul-smelling herds, wearing 80's throwback spiked hair and dark eye makeup, with dog collars and combat boots. This was a definite time-warp sensation, as it's a look that ceased to exist on our local streets over a decade ago. They displayed acres of tattooed and pierced flesh-- not all of it very healthy looking. These kids didn't seem like casual, doing-it-to-be-hip panhandlers; they had a bleakness and an air of weary resignation about them that was not simply slapped on along with the eye makeup for a weekend workshop of nihilistic, urban angst. They had the look of actual outdoor, streetwise survivors, and one had a distinct sense of them preying upon one another. They were, for all of this, not a bit frightening--merely ineffably sad. The streets often reeked like an open-air urinal, once you got away from the tonier shopping districts.

The oddly prevalent lack of air conditioning in many restaurants and the absence of ice in our drinks was a subtle tip-off that we were in the midst of a very different culture. Aside from the language issue, the biggest significant difference (and something all of us who share this new, smoke-free existence can relate to) struck me every time we left our hotel room: Everyone (it seemed) smokes. They do so constantly, and they do it damn near everywhere, except down in the Metro. The non-smoking areas we
were lucky enough to find in a couple of restaurants were obviously seldom-used. One dusty table actually had several dead flies on it. In many cases, there was no separate accommodation for non-smokers at all. Of the few places where we did find seating in a smoke-free area, the only other people there were usually Americans-- and once, a British party of four.  We were quite often the only people availing ourselves of this scarce amenity.

In two of the restaurants we visited, we had to leave before we could  order a meal because the atmosphere was so dense and heavy with smoke. One of these establishments asked us (we'd called ahead to make a reservation) if we preferred smoking or non-smoking seating. We were thrilled to discover they actually offered the option! Imagine our dismay when we were seated near a party of five who were puffing away like chimneys... It was explained to us that these four tables in this corner of the room were the non-smoking area. No amount of shuffling about to another spot in this tiny corner would
get us any further away from the smokers, however. Dammit! I was looking forward to eating there, too...

I am quite spoiled, I suppose, by our health-conscious, All-American concern with the right of people to be free of other folks' second-hand smoke. I've also become adamant about not breathing that stench any more than I have to. This isn't an issue that seemed of any real importance to the average Montrealer. When I would complain that the smoke was bothersome to us and ask about the availability of non-smoking areas, I was looked at askance by the service personnel. I could almost hear them saying to themselves "What a weenie!" -- or whatever the French equivalent is. "Quel saucisse!"( ?) It's just a very different cultural take on the situation, after all. People there just seem to love to smoke and are oblivious to any negative aspects of it.

But I see I have digressed again. How strange... (When last we left the intrepid travelers, they were groaning at a table at Schwartz's...) After our artery-clogging lunch, we all wandered about for a bit before returning to Marilyn's hotel room, there to become quite nearly hysterical over the contents (and prices) of the in-room mini-bar and Basket o' Guest Goodies. $3.95 for Tic Tacs? $7.00 for a beer? Montreal tap water (bolstered by free hotel ice) is quite refreshing, thank you very much. We joked and gossiped and took some photos-- which will appear on a special page once we get them back from the film developers. We returned to our own hotel to rest and change clothes for dinner.

We cabbed across town to join Marilyn later that evening at Les Caprices De Nicolas on rue Drummond. I cannot do justice in mere words to the culinary delights we sampled at this establishment. Brandied foie gras seared ever so briefly and presented on a bed of haricots vert and balsamic vinaigrette began the journey which led us thru territory inhabited by perfectly grilled Arctic Char, crisply roasted duck breast with creamy, wild mushroom risotto and chestnuts, and finally to a trio of ethereal desserts that almost
brought tears to our eyes. I can't recall the last time I dropped a couple of hundred bucks on a single meal and actually grinned about it... We waddled home, and vowed to meet in the morning for more fun.

After feverish dreams in which my tastebuds were repossessed by the people from Mastercard, I awoke and ventured forth to begin another day of sightseeing in the incredible heat. We visited the Botanical Gardens and the Insectarium, both very near the site of the enormous and decaying stadium left over from the 1967 Montreal Olympics. The Gardens were breathtakingly beautiful-- or was it the 162 degree heat? Man, it was a scorcher. The Insectarium featured about a zillion species of crawling, flying, biting,
stinging....well, all manner of critters Marilyn refused to look at. Have you ever dragged a grown woman up and down several flights of stairs and in and out of a dozen rooms filled with displays of things she adamantly refuses to look at? It's hard to maneuver when she has both hands clamped firmly over her eyes and is shrieking "I WILL NOT LOOK AT THE HISSING COCKROACHES!" We wobbled about for a while, and then decided to hop the free shuttle bus to the Biodome, which had a fabulous (and, we hoped, a cooling) penguin display.

We managed to get in and be seated while the guide was rattling off facts about the various species of penguins on exhibit, and after several minutes we heard a huge whoop go up from the crowd at one side of the enclosure. Turning our attention toward that area, we discovered that Marilyn, crazed from the heat and her recent exposure to insects, had managed to vault the retaining wall and was sliding down the slope on the ice and knocking the Emperor Penguins into the water. It cost us several thousand Canadian dollars (about $17.48 American) to cool this particular beef  with the security people and get her the hell out of there. We bundled her, gibbering and hooting, onto the Metro in enough time to get back to her hotel and catch the train home. The last time we saw her she was wetly waving, and trying to blow kisses at us as the subway doors closed. This was proving difficult, as her mouth was crammed full of Cinnamon Altoids (we'd given her a case of them as a gift) and she was actually spitting them in machine-gun style on her fellow passengers as she attempted to pucker her lips. I hope she made it home all right...

Well, she *did* say that her version of the meeting would be closer to the truth, didn't she? We had a really wonderful time hanging out together, exploring the city, savoring the fine food to be had there, gassing about AS3 and the people we've come to know and enjoy online. Marsha and I stayed an extra couple of days afterward and visited Old Montreal, the Notre Dame Cathedral, and Mount Royal, soaking up all the culture and scenery we could possibly handle. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and yet I can tell you that despite the fine time we had there, I was quite relieved to cross the border again and return to the land of designated, no-bullshit, serious no-smoking areas. I was less than thrilled to be back among my dumpy, pudgy, out-of-shape countrymen, though. Probably because I more nearly blended in
with them after this trip. Sigh...Well, there's always next year.

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