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Magnificent Montreal

Exploring Vieux-Montréal 
on one of the 
city’s Bixi bikes.

Photo: Jessica Antola

The easy ideas about Montreal are, like most easy ideas, somewhat right and mostly off base. The picture of Montreal as a kind of toy-size Paris on the St. Lawrence seems wrong, though I guess that Montreal is there if you go looking for it in the right neighborhoods, where all the restaurants have terrasses and all the boulangeries are staffed by nice girls flown in from Brittany.

But as we make our way from Little Italy to Jean Talon, the city’s largest farmers’ market, it becomes clear that the city’s true identity is more nuanced than it seems on paper or in its language laws. Near the market, a store called Disco Maghreb sits across from Italomelodie. A Korean jewelry shop shares block space with a Vietnamese grocery.

Gollner drives us way out north along Boulevard St.-Laurent, off the top end of the tourist map and far from where most of his friends from the hip Mile End neighborhood would ever find a reason to venture. The cliché has been that this is a city of the “two solitudes.” “The Lebanese Canadian writer Rawi Hage says this is wrong, that it’s really a ‘multitude of solitudes,’ ” Gollner says as we drive past an outpost of Adonis, a Middle Eastern-focused supermarket the size of a Walmart. “Someone asked him how you bridge these solitudes, and his answer was: ‘food.’ ”

You will recognize Abu Elias, a large Lebanese takeaway grill and grocery, not by the name painted on the window but by its always-crowded corner parking lot. The cars are triple-parked, their drivers inside waiting on orders of kafta, shish taouk, or the mythical sujuk. Or they’re back in the car eating, transported by nostalgia, displaced or real, and hoping nobody appears to ask them to move. A Lebanese friend introduced Gollner to Abu Elias. “This is Beirut, exactly,” the friend had said, breathing in the smell of spices from the grill.

If this is Montreal’s Beirut, then I guess we are in the Paris of the Middle East of the Paris of North America. It gets complicated. But inside, all is friendly disorder. One of the guys working the counter notices us noticing the cervelle, or brains, at the sandwich bar. “You try!” he says, pointing at his skull. Then he points elsewhere and emphasizes the soaring effects a good pressed brain sandwich with pink pickled turnips can have in the virility department. I can’t make any claims for it in that way, but purely as a sandwich (garlicky, piquant, creamily brainy) it is a firmly uplifting thing.

We take our sujuk sandwiches and tamarind sodas to the car. Sujuk is a kind of dry sausage with many Middle Eastern variants. I’ve never been to Beirut, so I can’t say if this sujuk is faithful to the original. I can only say that at Abu Elias it is a deeply flavorful, oddly earthy, fantastically tasty, and somewhat confusing thing to eat. Confusing because it looks simple but then plainly isn’t: a grilled sausage, painted with garlicky aioli and wrapped in charred flat bread. But the taste just…keeps going. “Oh, my God,” Gollner shouts. I suggest that it’s like you stop chewing and the sujuk chews back at you. I know I’m not explaining it right. A light rain falls; cars arrive and want our parking space. We back out of the lot, still trying to chew and digest it all.

One of the striking things about Montreal is that it doesn’t look like anywhere else. There are borrowed elements—bits that feel French, commercial strips that seem taken from any medium-size North American city’s downtown, houses that wouldn’t stand out in Boston.

And there are architectural features unique to the landscape of the city, like the external staircases everywhere, protruding like exotic steel muttonchops from the faces of otherwise normal buildings. Mostly it is the jumble of it all that gives the place its singular feel, like pieces of a puzzle that don’t quite fit together but form a picture of something unexpected, lovely even: the elegant fieldstone buildings of the old city; the hulking industrial shells and silos along the water; the iconic Farine Five Roses neon sign, blinking on and off like a noir movie backdrop; the dainty pinks and greens and purples of the painted Victorian houses of the Plateau. It’s a college town, a dump, a city of art, placid parks, islands rigged for play and diversions, gray insular urban neighborhoods, and colorful suburbs. It is tiny by megacity standards but world-class in its weirdness, in its shifting, enduringly comfortable indigestibleness.

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