Saturday, 28 July 2012

Transatlanticism (pt. 2)

Read the first part here...

After spending a few days in Montreal, I took a weekend away to Quebec City. The first thing I learnt from this is how different North American railway systems are to European ones. I can now better understand why everyone drives a car there...

What I drank as I waited for the train.

I checked in and collected my tickets, which I had wisely pre-booked online about a month in advance, then interestingly, we had to wait in a queue near a gate for about 15 minutes before we were allowed to board. So it was quite like an airport, compared to the European style where you can just buy your ticket from a machine and hop on the train as easily as if it were the bus. Once on the train, it occurred to me how slow it was. The journey took four hours - for the same distance, this would take about half the time in Europe. This was no ICE or TGV. Considering how crazily expensive the tickets were - $90 was the student price for a return ticket - I'd expected it to be pretty speedy. On the bright side, it allowed me to get a good look at the beginnings of the Laurentians, the oldest mountain range in the world! I also really enjoyed seeing the pretty, picture-perfect houses dotted around that we passed. They were in an adorable maritime style, a bit like on the cover of the book below. Also, the huge amounts of forest we passed through, and the little bodies of water, were exactly how I imagined Thoreau's Walden (not too far off from where I was, I guess).

By the way, it's a murder mystery set in a village in northern Quebec. Actually, I bought it when I was living in Belgium, but only started reading it on my trip, as the location was fitting.

When I was booking the trip online a few weeks before I left, I  had no idea that weekend was St. Jean-Baptiste, the national holiday of the province. The lady who was hosting me at her place was still at work when I reached Quebec City, so we planned to meet at a café in the Limoilou neighbourhood, where I sat for around two hours before she arrived. In honour of the holiday, there was a street concert going on. The evening was setting in so the sky was a beautiful colour, there was music, kids were skateboarding to their hearts' content since the road was closed off, and I was sitting there with my drink taking everything in. It was a perfect start.

Gare du Palais - the railway station in Quebec City

In the morning, I ventured into the old town. As to be expected, it was packed with tourists, mainly American. I even heard some English people, which was really weird. When I arrived, it was just as boiling hot as it was in Montreal, then it started raining. Because of this, I will always look back on Quebec City as rainy.

Chateau Frontenac
Mouth of the St. Lawrence river

It was so odd to consider I was thousands of miles away from home, because everything around me seemed so characteristic of Europe. If I'm completely honest, I didn't feel the architecture in Quebec City was particularly special in itself, yet I would still maintain that it is a pretty unique place. I feel there is a certain mentality, an indisputable joie de vivre (however cliché that sounds) that doesn't exist in quite the same way in Europe.

But I constantly found myself taken aback that this was where it all started, and that Quebecers seemed to be still fiercely proud of all that. I feel it lives on in their accents (which allegedly resemble the way French Royalists spoke centuries ago), their Catholic swear words (tabarnak!), and that they do, in fact, use some English loan words, but they are not the same ones you'd hear in France. I apologise - I really don't like using the word "they" to denote groups of people generally, just as much as I'd hate people saying "the British" to describe a perceived national characteristic, but this was really novel and exciting for me.

I can't really put into words how much more enlightened I felt after I visited this city. I went to the Musée de la Civilisation, and looked at an exhibition about the history of Quebec and what lies in its future, including video interviews with residents of many different backgrounds. It just put everything into perspective. And I'm so glad I decided to couchsurf (which I'd done a few times before), because it's an instant immersion into the local culture and language, and you get a feel for what it would be like to live there. It was also a pretty bizarre feeling - like it was the moment I'd been waiting for after years of pondering.

On the weekend of St. Jean-Baptiste, we went up a steep hill to the Plains of Abraham - the French and English battled there in 1759, setting the fate of Canada - where there were some celebrations taking place. Apparently, people were a lot more boisterous than they had been in previous years, and there was a lot of security. Here are a couple of photos I took on the way up:

We also went to a free performance of Quebec's very own Cirque du Soleil! The show was bizarre, but the gymnastics and lights were very impressive.
The whole atmosphere was really nice, everyone was so proud to be a Quebecer, with their fleur-de-lis flags and saying 'Bonne St. Jean!' to the bus driver. I guess I was lucky to be there during the festival, but it got me wondering what it's like at other times... in the snowy, brutal winter, for example!



I returned to Montreal absolutely knackered (I slept for most of the train journey back). I came to the startling realisation that I didn't have much time left. I do sort of regret that I never went to any of the museums there, but mostly I just wanted to take in the atmosphere of the city and see whatever I could from the outside.

I took the tiny yellow line on the metro over to St. Helen's Island. After seeing a load of ticket inspectors at the station seemingly waiting for people to disembark, I had a minor panic that I had the wrong ticket and I'd get fined (a fear engrained in me ever since the close shave I'd had in Budapest). But it was alright.
One of the main features of the island is the Biosphère, which you could maybe call Montreal's Eden Project (a huge climate museum inside a dome). I didn't go in though, because it was a bit pricey and my feet were killing me.

One of the reasons I had been so excited to come to Montreal was the abundance of vegan-friendly food establishments that I'd read up about and planned to sample. So much fancy, pretentious-sounding food to treat myself to, that I don't find every day!
Actually, I mostly ended up going to places like Subway and various noodle bars before I even touched any pre-planned places. I read somewhere that Montreal has more restaurants per square kilometre than New York. And of course, there are so many influences from around the world that generate great cuisine in this city.

Here are some bastions of the Montreal veg scene:

Right in Mile End, I came in at lunchtime and only just managed to find a stool to perch on. I picked out a salad of artichoke hearts, quinoa, bulgur, spinach and pine nuts. It was refreshing, and very filling (which I don't find too often in a salad). I also got a brownie, which I had planned to save for later, but ended up scoffing ten minutes later on a bench opposite the lovely St. Michael & St. Anthony church.

The most well-known, and the first vegan restaurant in Montreal. It would seem that you have to show up at a non-meal time, because in the early evening it was absolutely packed. I ordered at the takeaway counter, then noticed the table area, and realised that I could have indeed played the waiting game (this would have actually been more preferable, since it was raining outside). Oh well. There was so much choice there, I wish I could have tried all of it. In the end, I decided on a tempeh burger with potato wedges. It was wonderful, my stomach was very happy. I dearly wish that I could order it to my door from here...

Located in several places around the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, there are three branches in Montreal, but I only went to the one on McGill (and the one in Quebec City). It markets itself as a vegetarian buffet, but I'd say about 85% of the food on offer is vegan. There are various salads, beans, tofu/tempeh/seitan, avocados (oh man), spring rolls, wraps... and you pay by the kilo. On average I probably spent $15 for a meal, but it was just too delicious to not try a bit of everything. The customers were a mix of businesspeople and students, and I sat with a cool view of downtown Montreal going by. (Edit 17/08/13: This place is no longer even vegetarian! I've heard it now has meat and seafood dishes, which doesn't guarantee it being good to go for vegetarians and vegans - I've read some negative reviews of all the branches. It's your call, though.)

Here, I stocked up on a few Go Max Go chocolate bars to take home and gobble steadily. My favourites were the Jokerz, which is similar to a Snickers bar, and Twilight, which is like a Mars bar. Wish I could get these more easily at home, because I miss chocolate a lot. I also got a nice little raspberry cupcake. The icing was pretty dense, though - not to be eaten too quickly! (Edit 17/08/13: I was sad to discover that this place is no more.)

On my penultimate night, I went to see Japandroids at La Sala Rossa. Again, I went alone, but by total chance, I got chatting to a guy who was also English, and had been travelling across Canada.
Cadence Weapon was the support act. I had listened to him a bit beforehand, and hadn't been especially blown away - but live, he was awesome, really engaging with the crowd. Because of this, I guess I was more inclined to pay attention to his lyrics. Also, turns out he's pals with Grimes - whom he described as 'Claire, with pink hair and a high-pitched voice... she's everywhere' - and performed a remixed version of her song 'Eight'. If you like hip-hop in any way whatsoever, I'd recommend him.
Then Japandroids came onstage (the two members of whom had been wandering back and forth through the crowd before the show). Brian, the guitarist, was wearing a Cat Flag T-shirt; David refuted the in-the-background drummer stereotype by stealing as much of the show as his bandmate was. They began with a fuzzy intro that soared into 'The Boys Are Leaving Town' and it was so intense, one of those goosepimply, I-could-die-right-now-and-I-wouldn't-fucking-care feelings that you don't come by at every gig. And it's a feeling that Japandroids embody entirely, I suppose. Singing along to the lines 'it's raining in Vancouver, but I don't give a fuck, 'cos I'm in love with you tonight' was a golden moment (one that would have been bettered perhaps only by actually being in Vancouver, not Montreal - next goal?). By the end, I was a tiny bit disappointed only that 'I Quit Girls' wasn't played, but can I really complain at all? The key word that night was adrenaline.

In a shocking twist, I spent far too much money on books on my trip. Hey, it's conducive to my studies and it's hard to find Quebec literature in Europe, okay? (I may or may not have also splurged on lots of books in English.) Two highlights of my purchases:

A graphic novel, set in Montreal (note the cover), about Weezer's 1996 album Pinkerton
A guide for people who want to understand the unique language spoken in Quebec. My favourite phrase? Caller l'orignal, which means "to vomit", and literally means "to imitate the call of an elk".

On my last day I was short on cash, so I spent my last few hours in downtown Montreal relaxing and drinking coffee before I hopped on a bus to the airport to get my connecting flight to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I would board a midnight flight that would take me back to the UK.
It's taken so long to put together this behemoth of a post, so thank you if you have read all of it! This was definitely one of the most exciting experiences of my life, and I really wish I could have stayed longer. But hopefully I will be back there in the not-too-far-off future. The whole thing has definitely motivated me to push on with French (I've always been better at German), which I hope will be reflected in my grades next year. It began to satisfty my curiosity about the way French is used across the Atlantic, certainly.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Transatlanticism (pt.1)

Away We Go (Sam Mendes, 2009)
This is long overdue, so to those of you reading this who knew about my trip already: I'm sorry. I'm going to divide it into two separate posts (read the second part here), since I have a lot of photos and a lot of things to say. Also, I'm going to be referring to names and places in English, where possible, as that's the language I'm writing in here.

Last month I made my first trip across the Atlantic, to visit a place that had long been calling my name: Montréal. I had some money saved up, and guessed that I probably wouldn't be able to make a trip this big again for quite a while, so there was no reason not to go ahead with it.

How, out of all the destinations in the world, did I ever decide on this one?
It started when I was 16 or 17. Someone gave me a big, fat French dictionary for my A-Levels. In the back was a map of la Francophonie (all the French-speaking areas of the world). I saw that Canada, a place I'd been quite interested in beforehand, was on there. I was mystified. For one thing, did Canadians speak French with the same accent they had when they spoke English?

At university I was still interested in Quebec, but as a travel destination it was firmly on the back burner: too far away and too expensive to reach.
But it was around this time that I began to notice that a lot of the music I liked was from Montreal - Quebec's metropolis - both in English and French: Arcade Fire, Leonard Cohen, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Dears, Cœur de Pirate, Malajube, Leif Vollebekk, Patrick Watson, Timber Timbre, Wolf Parade. And more recently, I have become obsessed with Grimes. I increasingly felt the compulsion to discover for myself the environment that inspired these artists. Perhaps I would find something there that I had been missing.

I suppose I was unsure what to anticipate regarding language - and I really wanted to satisfy my curiosity. I'd heard that it was pretty much a bilingual city, but from what I can surmise from my mere week there, it turns out that really, it is French. It is expected that you know French. Most of the public signage is without an English translation. And unless you're in certain neighbourhoods, chances are you will be surrounded by people chattering in French. It seems that English is not a priority, it's just treated as it would be in any other foreign country I've visited - it's assumed you probably know it, because of globalisation, but that doesn't mean you should use it. That being said, according to conversations I've had with locals, Montreal is undeniably the most anglophone city in the province of Quebec.

I touched down in Toronto, right in the middle of a smoggy heatwave, before having to hurry through customs, collect my luggage, then get put on a flight to Montreal an hour later than my scheduled one as there had been a delay back in London. As I ran, I spotted a gift shop with a human-sized plush beaver dressed in a Mountie uniform standing outside: forever imprinted in my memory as my first impression of Canada.
The weather wasn't much different over in Montreal, and allegedly, it was unusual even there. This affected my plans a lot. It was far too hot for anything for the first couple of days - I would attempt to do something, and it would evolve into a whistle-stop tour of Tim Hortons, Starbucks and Couche-Tard for icy drinks, wi-fi and newspapers until the evenings, when it would still be warm enough to wander around with my arms bare.

The first notable place I visited was the Notre Dame Basilica, a cathedral that for a long time was the biggest on the continent. When I walked through the door, I gasped out loud. It was really the most enthralling church I've ever seen. Its general aesthetic was so Disney-like that it made me forget the place was associated with religion whatsoever. Moreover, the stained-glass windows around do not portray the stages of the cross, as in most Catholic buildings, but the stages of the foundation of the city of Montreal. It was astoundingly peaceful. I eavesdropped on a talk being given to a school group to learn a bit about the history.

Statue of Paul de Chomedey, founder of Montreal, outside the basilica

As I left the basilica, a guy approached me and asked in French if there was air conditioning in there. He spoke so quickly that I had to begrudge a 'Désolée... parlez-vous anglais?'. He immediately switched into English and started talking to me about the Quebec joie de vivre and how everything was a little more laidback here. It was all going well until he offered to show me where the nude beach was, and he could take me there now if I wanted. I told him that actually, I had other plans. But I didn't feel so much harassed by the encounter as mildly amused. On that day, a woman also stopped me to compliment my fringe and my fashion choices, so I got a wonderful first impression of the inhabitants of Montreal.

This was my first time in a North American city, so it took me a little while to get a feel for the street system. The metro stations were not as widespread or interconnected as they are in, say, London, so I had to get used to walking. I did find it handy that generally, the streets were laid out in a criss-cross plan. It made it harder to get lost, but they were so long. It blew my mind that there could be "east" and "west" sectors of one street. And the manner in which streets were numbered - according to blocks, I believe? - was totally unheard of to me. It is a cliché of the highest order, but everything was noticeably bigger.

There was a lot of great street art in Montreal, especially in the Plateau / Mile End, hippest place ever. As I walked around, I cursed myself for not living there. There are people from all over the world who own businesses and have developed that into something that's uniquely, say, Greek-Canadian. The neighbourhood is also heavily characterised by its Jewish population - you see Hasidic kids running around, posters in Hebrew and Yiddish, and there are tonnes of bagel shops.

Street art is one of my favourite parts of visiting a new city, because it really shows off the personality of its residents.

'In the village we believe that differences should enrich rather than divide'





The defining feature of Montreal, I suppose, is Mont Royal (the city's namesake). Although actually only 233m high, it's referred to as a mountain. I went up there when it was almost 40°C outside. Big mistake. It was a much longer walk to get up there than I'd anticipated, I ran out of water, and once I realised I was halfway up I couldn't exactly back out. But at least the slope was gentle and there were plenty of benches along the way.

Finally, I got to the park around Beaver Lake, a small, artificial lake that people skate on in the winter (very hard to imagine in that heat). I got to dip my feet in it, which was so refreshing.

Contrary to the name of the lake, there were no beavers. However, I encountered the tamest squirrel ever, who came to chill out with me by the water.

Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven!
I still wanted to get to the top of the mountain so I could see the view over downtown Montreal, but I had absolutely no idea how to get there (the signposts were rather cryptic). I approached a couple of ladies from Ottawa. They were charmed by my English accent and offered to go up with me! I really appreciated it because I'm sure I would have just given up there and then, if not. I suppose that's a disadvantage of travelling alone - when you get "can't be bothered" feelings, there's nobody to tell you to get it together. On the other hand, if you're travelling with someone else you're less inclined to get talking to new people.

More squirrels! They were unbelievably tame!
This was, like, the second time in my life that I had ever seen a public water fountain, and the Canadians were amazed at this fact, so they offered to take a picture of me with it. How could I refuse?
Finally! This view is called Belvédère Kondiaronk, named after the Huron chief who negotiated between French and Aboriginal people.

On the drive down from Mont Royal, we stopped and I saw my first raccoons!

A trip to an awesome city is not quite complete without attending a show or two, so that night I went to see Destroyer, at Théâtre Rialto. The New Pornographers are one of my favourite bands ever so I was excited to see another of Dan Bejar's projects. But going on your own can be a bit weird - more often than not, I feel awkward standing around during the gaps of time between bands - but this time I really liked it, and passed the time people-watching and trying to make my $6 beer last. The venue was shabbily fancy, a kind of 1920s feel. And of course, the show was great. He played mostly stuff from the newest record Kaputt, which I haven't listened to that much, but it made for a soundtrack I can listen back to later for nostalgia. And it was a wonderful antidote to the hot summer night and my aching feet.

With that, I come to the end of the first part of my trip. Click here for part two: Quebec City and then more of Montreal!