Sunday, October 29, 2006


In winter, before refrigeration, men would go out onto Montreal's frozen Lawrence River and cut huge swathes of ice using long saws, which were then divided into smaller blacks and teken away on carts. Apparently the water was cleaner in winter...don't ask me how that works. The river itself was such a hub for commercial activity that when it started to thaw in the spring, the townspeople would rush to the shores and start hacking at the remaining ice to open the channels again.

All this I know, because I ended up at the museum when I was supposed to be shopping in Montreal's huge, 32km square underground city. How anyone actually enjoys shopping is COMPLETELY beyond me. I found loads of lovely, unique stuff, but it was all stupidly expensive. Anything else was....too much! too hard! colours! sizes! textures! queues!... in the end I chose a low fat muffin and ran for the museum.

It struck me, in Montreal, the effect language has on geography, rather than the other way round. Barely 45 minutes from loud, boitrous New York City I arrived in a French city; greeted by customs officials and taxi drivers with 'bonjour', taken to a steaming, rowdy restaurant in a cobbled street where olive skinned waiters served succulent, rich pork shoulders and unfettered-by-conscience fois gras to large groups of stylish, elegant people - not a botoxed forehead in sight - all discussing world affairs and great ideas (okay, I don't speak French but the conversations sounded worthy), then walked to our hotel through streets lined with grand, Victorian-era apartments and ornate shopfronts.....all the signage in French, from the Bvds and Rue's to the Chinois Place near our hotel in China Town.

Of course, this is not Paris. For a start, the waiters are very friendly. Second, there were plenty of ads pasted around the city promoting the local ice-hockey team. And in Paris, they would never allow this mutated Holiday Inn in a spot near the old town:

I was with four Aussie girls and in true down-under style we got straight into the food. I have a severe case of 'grass is greener' when it some to restaurant food and usually prefer to eat off other people's this case, no one would touch their block of deep fried 'something', except moi. It turned out to be unidentified, deep-fried, foul-tasting innards....and spat right back out. Then I dug into what looked like well cooked squash or vegetable of some sort - a good thick chunk, only to go hmm, that doesn't taste right....turn the remaining piece over to reveal a nice, two inch thick piece of pig fat, white skin shining in its own oil. Even thinking of it now makes me want to brush my teeth and run around the block.

Montreal is built at the confluence of two rivers - an island, like Manhattan - and for a long time an important place for traders, particularly the early fur traders. The French found some hardy American Indians here, living in long, multiple family dwellings, smoking on pipes that the Europeans soon emulated. The British arrived, fought the French (surprise surprise) and it remains in British hands...and feels like no part of the Empire that I've ever set foot in. The resurgence in language is relatively recent, although there were a number of people were came across, even those in hospitality, who did not speak English.

At this time of year, Montreal is slipping into winter. It rained the whole time, except when it started snowing. Rugged up in multiple layers and cushioned with lots of calorific French food, we were ok... but poor Montrealians, for them this is just the beginning. In winter, the temperature hovers around -14 degrees Celsius; the worst was -33. Every year a snow-storm paralyses the city. The boots on sale in the fashionable shops are purely functional - thick, two inch soles and all fur-lined. Of course, you could always buy a classy hat like this to keep you warm...

and if you're shopping for birthday presents (for your senile old uncle...)

Halloween in Montreal is a rather subdued affair compared to in the States, and even then they did it in style. Where else would you find a gorilla playing drums in a jazz band? (The other guy was playing a Japanese flute...very cool sound.)

Dodging snow and high winds, we made the pilgrimage to St Josephs (in a taxi) where many go to be healed. Here are the walking sticks of those who are now fit and well, apparently. There were two of these structures in the church, along with many many banks of candles...not in recesses or alcoves within the basilica, but in its own separate candle-room. Here is the most beautiful of the candle tiers.

The dome of the basilica is the second largest in the world, behind St Peters in Rome.

The church was disappointingly austere inside, all grey blank walls, escalators, and elongated effigies.... but apparently the healing thing is still works despite the lack of decoration ....

And this....this is just worth sharing.

No comments: