Story by Nicole Keck
Vacay.ca Family Travel Columnist
MONTREAL, QUEBEC — As I sat reclining on the morning train to Montreal, enjoying the leg room in business class (which, incidentally, is a misnomer; it should be called “pleasure class”) I imagined what my first trip to the acclaimed island city would bring. Would the locals be snooty, looking down their lovely, slim noses at me when I could not reply in their preferred language? Would the the city be filled with extravagantly rich citizens, annoyed by the presence of an American journalist on assignment? Would the European, casual view of nudity and the city’s reputation for being home to sexy, passionate people be on display in Montreal, a Canadian city known for its French flair? As I contemplated what notions some Americans have about Montreal, I wondered what this city would reveal to me once I exited the rail car.
I arrived at my hotel, the Chateau de Champlain Marriott, excited to start my quasi-European adventure. At check-in, when the moment came for my first official interaction with a Montrealer, I was actually a bit nervous. I was hoping I would not stumble on my words and embarrass myself by trying to recall and command the minute amount of French that I have retained from high school. But that was not the case at all. In Montreal, nearly everyone is bilingual. (Actually, most citizens are at least trilingual, because they are also offered an optional third language in school.) So when the lovely young lady behind the counter at the hotel greeted me with “Bonjour!” I could easily respond with the same, and even add a “Ca va?” But when her next sentence flew right over my head, she grinned warmly and seamlessly shifted to English. Phew! That was easy; she was sweet, helpful and happy to accommodate my linguistic shortfall. During the next few days I found that generosity of spirit to be the norm in Montreal. Locals will initially greet you in French, but they will graciously shift to English when necessary.
Walking the streets of this enchanting city over the next few days brought clearly to mind the contrast between the hurried, multitasking mindset dominant in American culture. In Montreal, no one seems to power walk to work in a suit and sneakers, sipping coffee and scarfing down breakfast. The difference from many cities in the US is so stark and so compelling, I often found myself thinking, “This is the way I want to live.” And perhaps someday I will. I would love to rise early enough each day to enjoy a leisurely bowl of cafe au lait, then head off to the Jean Talon, or one of the other outdoor markets that are open 365 days a year, to gather enough food for the day, stopping for warm, fresh croissants, beautifully honeycombed and soft inside, and cretons on the way — only to return the next day and do the same.
On your way to the market, should you meet up with a friend or acquaintance, do not extend one arm for a handshake, or even both arms for a hug. The proper thing to do in Montreal is to give them a French double kiss, always starting on the left. It seems to me it is these trademarks of Montreal that truly explain the phrases “joie de vivre,” or “joy of living,” and “plaisir de l’instant,” or “pleasure of the moment.” And it very well could be these lovely pleasantries that have put Montreal on The Lonely Planet’s list of the 10 happiest places in the world, and the fact that, according to statistics, 94% of it’s residents report being satisfied with their life.
It is very easy, “tres facile,” if you will, to be seduced by the vibe of this dichotomous city. Montreal is both hip and historic, lovely and lively, casual and chic. And it seems the city planning is chiefly focused on quality of life, which is a refreshing change to the American, “profit first” standard. For instance, the government of Quebec requires that the budget for all publicly funded building projects set aside 1% of their budgets for artwork. So you have a $5 million project? Great, just make sure you spend $50,000 of it on art. In Montreal, art is not a luxury, or merely a pleasant addition to life; it appears to be a non-negotiable necessity, woven into the city’s tapestry and reinforced by its eclectic diversity.
Whether you want to explore architecture, music, history or nightlife, the city will present it to you in a way that showcases the value it places on art and beautification. Things like that, along with Montreal’s noticeable stand against visual pollution make it a delightful city to experience. Considerations have even been made with regard to the skyline; you will not find any “skyscrapers” in Montreal because no building may be taller than Mount Royal (and yes, they know it is really more of a hill, but the name “Hill Royal” doesn’t hold the same distinction now, does it?).
So despite the media reports of rampant student protests and constant conflict in Montreal, I found it to be very peaceful. During my stay I saw only one brief incident involving students, who are protesting a proposed tuition hike. This situation consisted of a half-dozen shirtless boys running through the 2012 Montreal Jazz Fest crowd and waving flags as they shouted unintelligibly. Humorous — yes. A reason to avoid visiting this vibrant city — definitely not.
Coming Soon on Vacay.ca: Part 2 of Nicole Keck’s series of a first-time visit to Montreal. In “Seeing Montreal on a Time Budget,” Vacay.ca’s Michigan-based columnist will explore some of the best options in accommodations, dining and entertainment when you only have a few days in this gem of a city.
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