Late on my first night in town, I peek out my window at the quietly chic (and aptly named) Le Petit Hôtel: a picture-postcard view of snow wetting the slanting stone streets of Vieux-Montréal. Right picture, wrong season. I run around the corner, up narrow Rue St.-François-Xavier and into a bistro called Garde Manger. Expecting an empty room, I pull back the velvet curtain on a packed house. There’s a fire going, tables of happy people eating steak frites, loud music, and one empty seat at the end of the bar. Two things the bartender says bolster my sense of being in the right place. One, they do half portions of the lobster poutine (their upgrade on that addictive Québécois absurdity, french fries with gravy and cheese curds, here topped with buttery chunks of lobster meat and a bisque-ish gravy), so I can in moderately good conscience order that and the bavette. Second, he says that this brief blizzard won’t faze the locals. “It’s been so nice recently,” he says, with a gentler French-Canadian take on the French shrug. “This makes us appreciate it more.” Whatever they’re talking about among themselves, the communal message of all these packed tables on a miserable wet Tuesday night is clear: we are unfazed. Above all, this is a city that takes its pleasures seriously. A little pre-summer snow is nothing, a reason to hunker down, light a fire, keep the dinner going late into the night.
The sun is back the next day, snow an impossible memory, spring rejoined. On Rue Dante, in Little Italy, the young men are talking to the old men holding court at the little tables outside Caffe San Simeon. The young men stop for a moment, speak French, and keep on their way. Between one another, the older gentlemen speak Italian and sit smoking cigarettes, ignoring folded copies of Corriere Canadese. The women are elsewhere. We stop in for coffee to drink on a stoop with our natas, yellow custard-filled pastries we picked up at a nearby Portuguese bakery. Everyone pays with dollars decorated with the face of the queen.
Inside there are Italian soccer flags on the wall and Italian soccer on TV. A graying Italian is making sandwiches.
“What’s on those?” Gollner asks while we wait for our macchiatos to be fixed.
“What do you call it?”
“That a house special?”
The man looks up for the first time. One gray eyebrow shoots up, like the back of an agitated cat.
“It’s an original.”
We ask about the patron saint of the café.
“Who’s St. Simeon? I have no idea. But I’ll tell you what happened. We used to have a soccer team a lot of years ago. Called St. Simon. In 1979 we went to register the business and I guess the girl was French because she added the e.”
In Montreal, every conversation the city conducts with itself is bilingual, at the very least. This former seat of British power is now the second-biggest French-speaking city in the world, a two-tongued metropolis in a francophone province in an overwhelmingly anglophone country and continent. There is an odd sense of doubling everywhere—signs and menus in two languages, overheard conversations flowing fluidly from joual, as the Québécois French pronunciation is sometimes known, to English and back again, as you pass from block to block. East of Boulevard St.-Laurent, in the residential Plateau neighborhood, or down by the old port and Vieux-Montréal, you’re walking through a French movie with English subtitles. In western Anglo pockets, a wandering American forgets he’s speaking the language of the minority. When, days later, I finally make it to Romados, the Portuguese chicken place Gollner had suggested, the sweet lady cutting up the juicy, smoky chicken winks at her customers: “Obrigada, thank you, merci, bon voyage.…”