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July 05, 2017

Montreal 😻 🇨🇦

About a week before the July 4th holiday weekend, Celeste (my girlfriend) and I were discussing last-minute travel plans. We looked at airbnb listings up along the Hudson river. A calming vacation into the less-urban, hilly areas north of NYC was enticing. However, it would almost certainly require renting a car and driving on busy roads, and that would significantly reduce the “calming” factor of the trip. Plus, most things around there seemed either booked or more expensive than we wanted, so we started looking further afield.

“Mexico City?” I suggested. Celeste is adventurous, but this was shut down pretty quickly. 😄 We didn’t want to spend two days flying out of our four days off from work.

“Niagara Falls?” she suggested. I looked it up on Google Maps, and something caught my eye: Niagara Falls is about 7 hours away from NYC, and Montreal seemed to be about the same distance. I hadn’t ever visited Montreal before, even though I have heard great things about it. Celeste was in the same position, so we agreed to give it a try.

We made a good choice! Montreal is beautiful, and we had so much fun that it’s on our list of places we’d be seriously interested in moving to in the future (though, we should probably visit in the winter before we sign any leases or job offers).

Celeste on the street

Celeste.

Montreal's public housing has some beautiful murals

Montreal’s public housing has some fantastic murals.

Montreal homes have staircases out front

Montreal’s residential areas are full of multi-story houses with external stairs leading up to each dwelling.

Our airbnb was pretty cool

Our airbnb was neat! We stayed with a small family, and they had an apartment full of character.

A yellow cat

The airbnb also had a lively and curious yellow cat. Amongst other things, he liked to play with water. I tried to turn on the faucet just a bit after taking this photo, and he simply licked and pawed at the small stream of water.

A brown cat

There was also a brown cat, who was calmer but also very cute.

Eclectic band at the Montreal Jazz Festival

We lucked out, and ended up visiting during the week of Montreal’s International Jazz Festival. So, the city was buzzing, and every evening there was something perfect to do. He’s not pictured here, but the absolute highlight was seeing Colin Stetson, a phenomenal saxophone player. Not only does he play saxophone with circular breathing to achieve continuous harmonies; he also wears a mic on his neck to record his simultaneous throat singing, and sometimes even puts a contact mic on his saxophone to amplify the keys to create a percussive rhythm. Take a minute to watch this:

Celeste at a show

I took a lot of photos on this trip, including in crowds at the Jazz Fest. Sometimes, photos are still fun even when they’re blurry.

Celeste and an annoyed guy

A great band, Sidewalk Chalk

Sidewalk Chalk, a jazz & hip hop band, was another really fun group to see.

A crowded metro traincar

A scene from the Montreal Metro, after a night of Jazz Fest.

One of my favorite parts of seeing a new city is experiencing the public transit. Now, I love NYC, and the MTA Subway is an amazing achievement of organization, technology, and sheer volume. Still, the Subway has a few … discomforts: loud sounds, intense summer temperatures, and occasional overwhelming smells. Montreal has an underground train system that is a relatively large system, and our experience of it was really positive. It is definitely a newer train system, and it had some trains that felt futuristic – shiny, bright, and smooth-rolling (these trains don’t run on traditional train tracks, but rather a system of huge rubber tires on concrete tracks, almost like high-speed, connected buses).

ceiling of the Montreal metro A dog enjoying the porch

Walking around a city is even better than taking transport – I love seeing the million everyday but spectacular sites of a city. Here is a dog, relaxing on the porch.

A delicious and large crepe

A large and delicious crêpe.

I knew before we went that Montreal would have quite a bit of French culture and French speakers, though I had somehow imagined it would be a mostly-English city, with bilingual signage and many bilingual speakers. On the contrary, Montreal is a mostly-French city, with some English on its signage and many bilingual speakers. We encountered several people that spoke almost no English.

A frequent experience in Montreal was hearing someone speak French with complete fluency and a distinctly native-speaking French accent, then flip to English with the same fluency and a crisp North American accent that wouldn’t stand out in the Midwest.

Celeste enjoyed the delicious crepe

We both enjoyed the delicious crêpe.

The Montreal Biosphère

The Montreal Biosphère is an awesome geodesic dome, which we happened upon on a daytrip to see Habitat 67. It turns out, this dome was built along with Habitat 67 for a year when Montreal hosted both the Summer Olympics and a World’s Fair.

We walked around Île Sainte-Hélène and across the Pont de la Concorde bridge, and enjoyed seeing others enjoying the picturesque Summer day.

Fishing on the St. Lawrence River A camera-error panorama of the St. Lawrence River

People in a park viewed from above

Habitat 67

We finally reached Habitat 67! This was an architectural model community originally built as affordable housing for the workers of the 67 World’s Fair and Olympics, and today it’s used as luxury condos. We were basically another set of tourists gazing at rich people’s apartments, but it was still fun to see (from the sidewalk, as enforced by lawn signs and security guards in golf carts).

This was one of the main points of Montreal I had wanted to see, because in 1967 my Dad took a road trip as a teenager with his family from their home in Alberta to Montreal, for the World’s Fair. When I learned this, I asked, “What do you remember?” expecting to hear something about gleaming structures or technology, and the one thing he remembered seeing was Habitat 67. It’s definitely memorable, as some of the cubes in the concrete structure appear to be floating, almost weightless.

Stephen on the phone, looking heroic

Just including this because I look like I’m in a movie here.

Habitat 67 is actually a bit removed from the main city, so we had a long, hot walk to a bus stop, and were temporarily concerned that with the Canada Day weekend, buses might not come. Calling the bus tracker phone number was a bit cryptic, as again, things in Montreal are French-first. But, a bus eventually did come, and we rode back into the city.

Montreal library

The Montreal central library, officially called Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, is awesome! We really wanted to see it for longer than we did during it’s shortened hours of the holiday weekend, but a quick run-through was exciting. We marveled at the comic book selection, the CD-listening chairs, and the gleaming newness of the place.

Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec

We also visited several bookstores around the city, as Celeste searched for the right book to read with her Mom in their French-language book club.

The children's section of bookstore

Several colorful book covers

futball

I don’t know what the story is here, but it looks like Québec has some special penalty rules in football.

Menu and patrons at Oui Mais Nos café

Oui Mai Nos was a favorite Café near our airbnb. It had good coffee, plus a beautiful and eclectic interior that included a challenging-to-read but enticing menu.

oui mais nos cafe sign A grocer and his dog at the Jean Talon marketplace

See anything surprising in the photo above? The grocer had his dog in his front pouch! 😄

We visited the Jean Talon Market on a rainy day, and it was a bustling marketplace in the best way. There were many grocers selling fresh produce, stacked neatly with charming hand-written signs. The colors and sounds were vibrant, and it was all the more inviting with the light rain punctuating the areas around a between the covered spaces of the market.

Jean Talon marketplace

In Montreal, like in most cities I know, it’s illegal to publicly consume alcohol. But Montreal has an exception, the Picnic Law:

Il est défendu de consommer des boissons alcooliques sur le domaine public, sauf:

  1. dans un café-terrasse installé sur le domaine public où la vente de boissons alcooliques est autorisée par la loi;
  2. à l’occasion d’un repas pris en plein air dans la partie d’un parc où la ville a installé des tables de pique-nique;
  3. dans certaines circonstances ou à l’occasion d’événements, de fêtes ou de manifestations, suivant l’autorisation donnée par ordonnance.

Translated to English, the relevant part of that is: “It is forbidden to consume alcoholic beverages on the public domain, except … (2) for an outdoor meal in the part of a park where the town has set up picnic tables.”

So, we enjoyed a picnic in Mount Royal Park! We feasted on smoked salmon, bread, and a couple of local craft beers.

craft beer in the park

We then hiked up Mount Royal, which had trails that reminded me in many ways of hiking in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where I grew up.

Hiking on Mount Royal

Montreal is a city with so much to see, it’s hard to show much of it in a single blog post. Hopefully, I’ll get to make another trip someday in the near future!

Neon sign – biere & vin The colorful Montreal city hall A very green underpass at city hall Statue of Paul de Chomedey in Place d'Armes

…Aaand on the ride back to NYC, our bus broke down on the side of the highway in New Jersey. It was at least 90°F that day, and we were stuck without air conditioning for almost an hour. Worse, though, that morning there was a feature in the Montreal newspaper about a bus in Germany that had burst into flames, killing several passengers. 😔 Not surprisingly, then, everyone on the bus was a bit on edge when we learned that there was an electrical problem with the batteries, and even more so as we heard a roadside mechanic loudly banging around in the back of the bus. Another bus finally picked us up, but that was quite the way to end the trip!

Stuck on the side of the highway in New Jersy