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Massachusetts to Montreal

What arroz con leche is to Mexicans, what haggis is to Scots, poutine is to French Canadians. Poutine is a cardboard boat of sweaty frites (more Coney Island than Balthazar) smothered by a large ladleful of beef gravy and sprinkled with a mild, white cheese that nobody will identify. Gina is half French Canadian, so she makes us sit down in Pizza Madonna (a greasy poutinière on Boulevard St.-Laurent), where she falls upon the dish with nostalgic and rapacious enthusiasm. Joy, a Norwegian American genetically inclined toward potatoes and gravy, is an instant convert. Michael and I are from similarly carb-heavy backgrounds, but we fail to experience this Proustian epiphany.

For my own temps perdu, we walk one block to Schwartz's Charcuterie Hébraïque du Montréal. People talk about Schwartz's up here in a big way, the same way that people in San Francisco talk about their bagels: proudly, defensively, cluelessly. It's nice enough smoked meat. The garlic dills are first-rate, the Cott's Black Cherry flows like wine, and the English-speaking people all sound like my elderly relatives. But it's the Disney version of a true Jewish deli: the waiters aren't even rude.

The next morning, we venture four blocks from our hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, into Premiere Moisson, a patisserie, boulangerie, charcuterie, and chocolaterie (the marzipan aliens and octopuses are a nice change from the usual fruits and vegetables). There are 12 of these stores in Quebec; the one on Rue Sherbrooke West in Centre-Ville is outstanding. After a bowl of café au lait, we visit the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, two blocks away, where the contemporary Inuit art has elements of Henry Moore as well as Giacometti. I am surprised by its harsh wit, uncanny juxtapositions of materials (an entire ebony sea camp, animal and human, on a single, white whale vertebra), and a sense of tenacious life and melancholy understanding.

Melancholy understanding might be the theme for the Ritz-Carlton Montreal, open since 1912 and being expensively renovated since 1999. It now feels like certain middlebrow British department stores: blandly handsome, with elaborate layers of window treatments. Next time, we'll stay at the slightly surreal and entirely French La Maison Pierre du Calvet where, with the fireplaces, antique chairs, and canopied beds, you can pretend that you're Madame's house guest, sipping eau-de-vie in her ancestral home.

That night we eat at Les Halles, which is old-school French—attentive career waiters, large affectionate families, chic couples. If there were dogs and smoke, we'd be in Paris. (Fumeurs, take note: Canadian cigarette-pack warnings are nothing like ours—they feature large, vivid, and disgusting photos of blackened lungs, rotting teeth, and various lesions.) The second evening, we discover Milos, an upscale fantasy of a Greek seaside taverna. The Saint-Pierre, Dover sole, and loup-de-mer (true French bass) are as good as any I've ever eaten, the taramasalata is absolutely the best, and the friendly, knowledgeable staff ask if you prefer lobster head and tail or not. The restaurant does have those ridiculous six-pound lobsters (as appealing as giant asparagus), but the hostess assures me that she regards them as friends, so we come to see them as more like staff and less like dinner.

The house begins calling to us. We dream of mountains of mail, corridors of paper. The next morning, we drive straight home, transferring from Lexus and—happily, albeit briefly—back to Mini, finally dropping off the Mini. We're in our Connecticut driveway in five hours, and I am braced for the real world by pie and art, old books, back roads, friends, and plenty of Joy for four days and three nights.

AMY BLOOM is the author of the short-story collections Come to Me and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. She is currently at work on her third book of short stories.

ITINERARY

Day 1: Take I-91 from Springfield, Massachusetts, through Northampton. Exit onto Route 5, which runs alongside the interstate. Stop at South Deerfield before crossing into Vermont. Take Route 9 west out of Brattleboro to Route 100 north and West Dover. Overnight at the Inn at Sawmill Farm. Day 2: Follow Route 100, which winds through Jamaica and up to Plymouth, where it forks east into Route 100A. Take Route 4 east to Quechee, then I-89 for the trek to the Canadian border. Once in Quebec province, take Route 133 to Montreal (about one hour's drive). Spend the night at the Ritz-Carlton Montreal. Day 3: Explore Montreal on foot. Day 4: Marathon it back to Springfield in just over five hours.

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