I’ve meant to travel up to Canada for a while now. In China, two of my best friends were from Toronto and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia so I desperately want to make trips up that way. And Quebec City has been calling my name for years now. Unfortunately, my brother, Tony, and I have been following our local soccer team, the New England Revolution, since the first of their many championship failures, and decided to visit Montreal for the season closer.
Montreal didn’t completely match my intentions, and I mean that in neither an all-encompassing good nor bad way. This trip to Montreal the past weekend cements my love for travel even further, since every travel blog post and YouTube video couldn’t have captured the vibe I experienced in the city. Individually, each aspect of the city seems similar to online reviews I had read; in totality, though, Montreal felt rather different to anything I read.
Perhaps because only having traveled to Ottawa and Niagra Falls in Canada gives me a limited sample size, the city felt ridiculously familiar to my own country in a number of ways. In some areas of the city, an American might wonder why they left home, but if you return south with that mindset, you obviously didn’t explore nearly enough. While the roads themselves, the signage and the flow of the city itself in many ways is reminiscent of Boston or New York, there is an incredible amount of differentiation.
To be clear: in terms of infrastructure and institutions, Montreal doesn’t seem different from many large cities on the eastern seaboard. In terms of architecture, culture, cuisine, dress, language, style, etc., it was obviously a whole ‘nother ballgame.
I traveled with three other English speakers: my brother Tony, a Bristol-based solo-traveler and a Filipino-Canadian who calls Whitehorse, Yukon home. The four of us were fairly split it seemed on one question in particular, “In Montreal, do you see more English or French?” And the answer is yes.
There is obviously more French. Depending on the study (the ones I saw) somewhere between 50-70% speak it as a first language in Montreal, whereas only 13% speak English. However, it’s a super bilingual city. More than virtually any place I’ve been, locals bounced from English to French on the fly with ease. Waiters knew which tables spoke what and would zip around the tiny tables taken orders and responding without a hint of an accent and with remarkably dexterity. Hats off.
In my opinion, though, there was an incredible amount of English. It’s in Quebec. It’sthe largest francophone city outside of Paris. You expected to be bombarded with sexy French, but instead you are welcomed with the cacophonic consonants of English. The signs, the stores, the standards were French. Yes, there was a lot of French in conversations, but I imagine you could live in Montreal for a lifetime, and not so much as say “bonjour,” and probably function all right. (Therein lies the problem for traditionalists, it seems. Anglophone culture is invading both France and Quebec.)
You would miss so much of what makes the city great, I imagine, by not offering up a merci beaucoup or SVP to the waiters but it’s possible. To my friends, though, it was French all day. Tony in particular, who beyond the Spanish he experiences at work every day living in Holyoke, Mass – with the largest percentage of Puerto Ricans outside of the island at 45% – hasn’t traveled too much to non-Anglophone places. Certainly he’s used to getting by with subpar communication ability and charades on the job, but this was new. To Tony, the French swamped him a bit. Same to my British friend.
Beyond the language, there were other differences from back home. They say Montreal is the most European city outside of the continent, and perhaps it is. But as I’ve said, there are certainly some parts that do not feel overtly “European.” The people, however, do. Montrealers have an air of sophistication to them with, of course, “sophistication” being a euphemism for “Parisian.” The vast majority dress well when they leave the house, not necessarily in the chic, all-black style of their fashion capital brethren, but in an attractive manner nonetheless. Like their European counterparts, Montrealers don’t leave the house unless their hair is combed and shirt is fresh. Sometimes the millennials looked as if lifted from a 90s VH1 music video, but overall they dressed neat and tidy and held themselves well. (Mostly.)
They drive like civilized humans should. They patiently stand to the side of the escalators to let people walk by. They kindly keep quiet on the metro. They queue in orderly lines. They eat finger food with silverware – sometimes anyways. They do not block sidewalks with a four-person-wide posse. They are rarely rude, without the overt politeness associated with Canadians. And they do it all without the air of pretension Paris is notorious for. The greatest manifestation of their attitude on life is in their poutine.
Yes, the poutine. The dish is a ridiculously simple idea turned classy-ish. In the US, if you smothered French fries in sauce and threw cheese on it, you also probably have glossy, red eyes and are giggling at This is the End. In Canada, the affair is called poutine and it is lovely. Top-notch restaurants serve the down-to-earth affair and Montrealers treat and eat it with respect. Such a simple meal eaten with apparent panache, poutine is representative of the Montrealer’s demeanor. (Maybe. I called it here first.)
Unlike Parisians, Montrealers don’t categorically cringe at us Anglophones. When in the French capital, my buddy – he really likes to be called KevBot – used his incredibly conversational French at every opportunity, only for both waiters and passersby alike to simply respond in English because his French wasn’t 100% flawless. The alternative was to use English, which generally elicited cold responses. Montrealers (that I met) seemed very welcoming and warm. Merci beaucoup, mes amis!
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