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From Montréal

By Sahand Rabbani

from Montréal

Dear Friends,

Boasting the second largest French-speaking population of any city in the world, Montreal is a curious place. While it is sometimes advertised as a Paris away from Europe, other accounts afford the city its own identity as a unique, bilingual, and cosmopolitan Québécois cultural capital.

This was my first trip to Montreal in my sentient adulthood, and I was quite excited when I spotted the city from the airplane amid the luxuriant verdant landscape threaded by the azure St. Lawrence River. The early flight out of Chicago had us on the ground shortly after ten in the morning on Friday, leaving a full weekend ahead of us.

Disappointment started early, however, as the city's culinary incompetence emerged. Immense hunger compelled us to seek lunch close to the hotel, so we ventured to Rue Crescent to vacillate among its many terraced restaurants until we finally picked one. My strip steak came out far from the medium rare that I had requested and the presumably once creamy sauce had formed a cold skin over the meat. I forgave this experience since, in all fairness, the expectations for a meal in such a touristy area should be tempered. We walked around the town afterward, passing countless malls, and sauntered up St.-Laurent to the famous Schwartz's, a Montreal smoked meat deli, where I enjoyed the iconic smoked brisket sandwich, a plate of fries, a hefty dill pickle, and the exceptionally kind service of our waiter.

From there, we walked a few more blocks to the Portuguese neighborhood and then back toward the river, passing several strip clubs, then through Chinatown, to the unimpressive old quarter, which did not appear to these ignorant eyes as particularly old.

A predominantly clean and modern city, Montreal does have its occasional graffiti, but mostly in the genre of a certain confused anarcho-socialistic hippiness. Combined with the unbecoming over-tatooed youth and a snooty Parisian sense of superiority, the city quickly turned me off and frequently reinforced my view of it as overrated and mediocre.

The following morning, we rode the metro to a more residential part of town to try the Persian breakfast at Byblos Le Petit Café. While the breakfast of tea, feta and herbs, and omelets was tasty, the service was slow and the old lady proprietress a little too excited to belittle her non-French-speaking clients. Even when I spoke her native Farsi to her she felt it would be more welcoming if she continued to speak the French that I insisted I did not understand.

The Francophone superiority was unpredictable at times. Some people were happy to speak English and welcoming of visitors, while others insisted on speaking French and valued snubbing above being understood. Unfortunately, the behavior of the latter drowned that of the former, leaving us embittered and disappointed.

Our most worthy activity was the hike to the vista points of the Parc du Mont-Royal, the city's namesake, from which we enjoyed a rewarding view of both the distant Olympic Park and downtown.

During this excursion, I tried the unreasonably famous Montreal bagels of St.-Viateur Bagel Shop, a cracker-like stale ring of white bread with sesame seeds. Perhaps I had bought into the Montreal bagel's story too seriously; while the town touted them as some sort of global attraction, I found my bagel to be eerily similar to the pathetic Marks and Spencer bagels that I tolerated on certain mornings on my way to work when I lived in London. I filed bagels, along with humility and respect, among the categories in which Montreal needs improvement.

When we learned, after a three-mile walk to the oddly situated Little Burgundy neighborhood, that our first choice of dinner was not yet open for the evening, we fell back on our reliable and welcoming ally whom we dearly missed, Mexico. We ate tacos and drank Margaritas at a nearby Mexican restaurant until it was late enough to go back to the hotel.

Our last day in Montreal did not come too soon. We had hoped to use the city's self-praised bicycle rental network to secure some bicycles for a leisurely ride along the riverfront, but a city-wide technical glitch had thrown the entire system out of commission for hours. Disillusioned and heat-stricken, we retired to an air-conditioned mall to run down the clock until it was time to leave.

I conclude that the optimal number of times to visit Montreal is 0.7, but since it is not possible to visit a city a non-integer number of times, visiting exactly one time is precisely the number that minimizes the error. As such, I do not regret making this trip, but I have very little desire to return to this self-involved city, perhaps one of very few large cities whose weather is strictly worse than Chicago's: even more unbearably cold in the winter and even more unbearably hot and humid in the summer. In a world with so many great places to see and a lifetime that is far too short, it is just as important to know where not to return. But perhaps the most disappointing part of my trip, the bitterness that lingers beyond the memories of the bad food and treatment, is the fact that I was consistently mistaken for a local, both by direction-seeking tourists and the locals themselves. That there was such a unanimous feeling suggested to me that maybe I was home among these pretentious snobs.


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