I have a theory to try out on him, I tell Dufaux. I am sure it will be a deeply unpopular suggestion. My theory is this: That despite the very real and lingering political tensions between francophone and Anglo, despite a culture of political intrigue and complaint, despite the crushing winters and all the inherent imperfections, compromises, and contradictions of the city—despite it all, Montrealers are happy. Or actually: not despite but because of these things.
My idea is that this is what life in a complicated, beautiful city should be. We want to fight with one another but live in close proximity. We want challenges, but not too many. We want alliances and enemies and intrigue, but not at the expense of, say, good bistros with excellent French wines and an extensive, public, well-designed bike-rental system that works. More than anything, we want to feel a part of something worthy, somewhat threatened and singular.
“It’s true,” Dufaux agrees, hesitant to endorse unqualified joie de vivre, “that despite whatever people say, it is a pleasant city to live in.”
And as with any great city, it’s the lifestyle that is the true attraction. “One of the ironies of Montreal,” Dufaux says, “is that the official institutions targeting the visitor, the museums and all of these things, they’re just not that interesting. What is interesting is daily life.”
Miguel Syjuco is a dapper, young Montreal-based writer who grew up in the Philippines and has lived in New York. His first novel, Ilustrado, took the Man Asian Literary Prize and was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in May. “Let me put it this way,” he says when I ask him to describe the allure of life here, for both transplant and visitor. “The last time I had friends visiting from New York, I brought them to have foie gras poutine and then to a Montreal Roller Derby later that night, a topless diner the following morning, a quick look at the old city and a walk through the park to watch the LARPers [live-action role players] joust, beat their drums, and do battle in a clearing by the woods. That to me was a great Montreal weekend.”
It’s the mix that keeps you off balance, interested. To experience it, just find the nearest Bixi. The aluminum-gray bikes are in little rental stations everywhere, part of the public bike system launched last year. One day I meet up with a young francophone journalist named Judith Lussier. She recently wrote a book devoted to the lowly dépanneur, the indigenous Québécois version of the corner convenience store. Deps, as they’re called, are a part of the city fabric you don’t really notice—until you do. The dep sells cigarettes and lotto tickets, wine and beer—and, crucially, delivers the latter during Habs hockey games.
“A dep can give you a taste of Quebec even if you don’t really speak the language,” Lussier says. “People in Quebec love so much their little dep, even if I say in the book the reason they are popular is that the Quebecers are lazy.”
Lussier mentioned a classic dep called Le Pick Up, which has a sandwich counter and had recently been turned into a popular hipster lunch hangout. So I find a Bixi stand near Casa Bianca and swipe my credit card for deposit; the front wheel clicks unlocked, and I’m free to zip up the side streets north of the park, along empty industrial blocks, past the corner of Rues Mozart and Marconi, and onto a street lined with auto shops and Italian bakeries, the air fragrant with fennel seed and motor oil.
Le Pick Up is as advertised: a corner grocery store that sells artisanal pulled-pork sandwiches and attracts an arty bilingual crowd, but still has its takeaway beer fridges, racks of candy, and the rest of the classic conveniences.
After lunch, my cycling route is circuitous, serendipitous, aimless in a good way. Down through Little Italy, past the church with its mural of Mussolini and the Pantalon Napoleon factory and a store selling ancient sewing machines with brand names like Brute and Blue Streak. The No. 18 bus crosses my path, its route sign flashing the words Go…Canadiens…Go.
I push along the Avenue Laurier, peeking into the windows of Les Touilleurs, the best-curated kitchenware store in the world, then turn down Rue St.-Denis, past L’Express and, as gravity takes me down the hill, I glide past the bar-lined Latin Quarter, its terraces packed with McGill students laughing in the sun. I mean to head back to the hotel but the city has a hold on me now. I sweep past the Cirque Éloize practice studios in the old Dalhousie train station and down through the tight stone alleys of the old city. I ride along the quays of the port, past the blue and yellow peaks where I plan to see Cirque du Soleil in a few nights, and east along the water where a bike path leads under a snaking highway and over the Canal Lachine.
Montreal by bike—the experience of swiftly shifting landscapes, cities giving onto other cities, ever more to explore. Eventually I stop, just to stop, because I’m tired. But there’s more to see, more paths to follow. I stop and walk a bit, wobbly from the ride and the sense I’d covered more ground than was possible in a brief afternoon exploration. But the city keeps on going, always going.
Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.