Sunday, 9 October 2016

Montreal might eat its young but Montreal won't break us down

(You bet I went there with that very 2007 title!)

Not the worst problem to have by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm not yet feeling quite at home back in Berlin after my trip to Canada. Maybe it's because I haven't really processed the whole thing; it's been three weeks since I got back and I've only just opened my phone's camera roll for the first time to look at pictures I took and think about uploading them. Was I just avoiding it because it felt weird to do stuff like that on my lunch breaks? I don't know. It even feels to soon to open up Google Maps again and look at a freaking map of Montreal.

To set the scene...

When I was doing A-Level French, I stumbled across the fact that French was spoken in Canada and was blindsided/fascinated. I also realised that a lot of the indie bands I was into were from Montreal. Years later, when I had a bit of money for travelling, I went to Montreal and my suspicions were confirmed: the place did have its qualities. I applied to the Quebec language assistant programme after I graduated with my French & German degree. I was placed in Rimouski, 550km north of Montreal. It was beautiful, rather secluded, but for personal reasons I ended up returning to the UK before the programme finished. I was determined to return to Quebec one day, though, and make some nice memories. So there was a lot resting on this, but I got the closure I had been craving and came back with a notebook stuffed with precious observations and feelings.

I spent most of my trip in Montreal. I made the pilgrimage back up to Rimouski. I made a spontaneous trip to Trois-Rivières. (You can read about those two places here.)


Having been to this city many times before - mostly as refuge - and having pined for it for the past couple of years, it was interesting and jarring to come back. When I landed I didn't feel that emotional, though. More just pragmatic, wanting to quickly settle in. Apart from a couple of spots, I wasn't overly keen on revisiting the places I knew already. I stayed with my friend Andrea in the new-to-me neighbourhood of Villeray (near Jarry/Jean-Talon stations).

Montreal acted as my base while I spent a few days here and there in other places. Turns out that when I was there, though, I spent a lot of time around the green metro line. I discovered Saint-Henri, briefly; Verdun, a whole morning. Actually, I'll tell you what. I liked Verdun a whole lot.

Verdun metro station

I wandered around there on a Saturday morning, on Rue Wellington, which has a very unpretentious, High Street vibe. I sat in two cafés, I hung out in La Librairie de Verdun. I wandered off towards the canal and sat around for a bit.

I would say the biggest triumph of this trip to Montreal, though, was discovering downtown! I know it is considered a bit naff to like the downtown of a city. But if you think about it, Montreal is unique in that it's North America's only francophone metropolis. God, its downtown wavers between tacky and seedy and dull and cool. You keep reminding yourself that this is the commercial epicentre of the whole province. I love it.

The most pleasant surprise downtown was Anti-Café. Tucked away on Rue Sainte-Catherine, I walked past it like three times while trying to look for it. Broadly speaking, it's a café where you can bring your laptop, but you don't feel like you have to keep buying a new latte - you pay per hour. It starts $3, if I recall correctly, and gets cheaper the longer you stay. This is an absolute steal, considering you also get unlimited hot drinks and some snacks. As a space, it was really cool too - a mishmash of fancy drawing room and weirdo art. You would think a place like that would want to remain all hidden but in fact they really encourage you to leave reviews and stuff!

Also visited Musée des Beaux Arts and saw the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, which was amazing. It brought Patti Smith's Just Kids to life.

I walked from Place Ville Marie down the hill towards Griffintown. Here it starts to get a tiny bit industrial, a lot of empty lots with some condos. The Lachine canal is also here.

Iconic Farine Five Roses mill in the distance

But I did hang out on the Plateau still. I found two new spots on Rue St Denis.

Café Venosa 4433 Rue St-Denis
I'd always been a little lukewarm about cat cafés (never having been in one). I don't know what turned me off exactly. Hygiene? Animal welfare? Animals being used as a commodity? I kind of only popped into here because it was raining and I had a nice time. It was just like a normal café, having a coffee, just with a couple of cat coming over to say hello every so often.

Sushi Momo (4669 Rue St-Denis)
If you time it right, you could follow your cat café excursion with a tasty meal here. Sushi Momo is a VEGAN SUSHI RESTAURANT with weird opening hours. The dîner à deux has a set price of $46 for two people and includes starters, fuckloads of delicious sushi and then dessert. It's rare that I think of food for weeks afterwards, but this? This.

Another important food thing: I had vegan poutine in several places! Here is a short review of each:

La Banquise (994 Rue Rachel E) is the go-to drunk poutine place in the Plateau. It does have vegan poutine but it's not really that squeaky cheese curd, it's more like grated "mozzarella". Made me feel sick after. There was also a big queue outside and awkward moment with cashier where I thought he said six when he said dix. Copper Branch (several locations) was very handy when I was spending days in the cafés of downtown Montreal writing. This is very much a health poutine, with coconut milk sauce, roasted fries and it's... not really a poutine? But it's still a good snack. They have other tasty, fairly affordable food on offer. Lola Rosa (4581 Ave du Parc - only one with poutine) again just has grated "cheese". But still really nice and the portobello sauce is truly tasty. Especially when followed by heavenly choco caramel pie for dessert:

Finally, we need to talk about L'Gros Luxe (3807 Rue St-André - only one with vegan poutine). Wow, I died. Excuse the awkward flash picture below (with beer in background and amusing "knob" beer mat), but this is the closest to real squeaky cheese curds that vegan poutine has ever got. I did some research and apparently it's cashew cheese, unfortunately locally sourced. Still, this has inspired me to get my own experimentation on. I just remember eating this and thinking "life is really, really good".

Continue here to read about my time in other parts of Quebec.