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Magnificent Montreal

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

Photo: Jessica Antola

My friend Adam Gollner is on the phone, talking fast and describing the plan. Actually, it’s a series of plans. Or, more accurately: a jumble of narrative fragments, promising leads, and meandering enthusiasms that, taken together, will form the big mosaic picture of everything I need to know about Montreal.

Gollner is precisely the type of person you’d want piecing together such a mosaic. A funny writer, the author of a beautiful and odd book about food and obsession called The Fruit Hunters, he is a Montreal native and committed explorer of the near at hand. He is someone who is not averse to spending 20 minutes on the phone explaining the history and provenance of a particular Portuguese rotisserie chicken you need to try, plus the strategies for placing an advance order and staging a picnic—only to call back five minutes later with directions to an alternate Portuguese chicken shop that has superior french fries. In other words, he’s an ideal guide, not just because he has the lowdown on how the grill men at Rotisserie Portugalia actually learned their poultry skills in Angola during the war for independence, but because he is a tireless seeker of such stories. And because he knows that no matter how many details you collect, Montreal, like any great city, resists being fully known.

So our plan for the next day is to drive from neighborhood to neighborhood, from the coffee shops and markets of Little Italy to the outlying Middle Eastern quarters of Villeray and Ville St.-Laurent. Leaving behind the pretty but well-traveled areas of the old stone port and Vieux-Montréal, we’ll wander and see how the living city is stitched together. “When you realize you can never quite get a hold on this place, that there are always these hidden pockets that surprise you,” Gollner says, “then I think you’re getting at the magic of Montreal.” Plus, there’s a sujuk sausage sandwich he thinks I need to try at a Lebanese grill joint on the outskirts of town.

For now he’s urging me to take a walk up “The Main,” or Boulevard St.-Laurent, the traditional dividing line of the city, separating Montreal’s east and west sides. Walk up through the remnants of the Jewish section, past Schwartz’s, up past the slick bars and boutiques to where the cruddy curio shops meet the Portuguese bakeries around Rue Rachel. Rotisserie Portugalia is a block to the west. Romados, the place with the good french fries, is a couple blocks east. Walk the chicken over to the park in front of Mont-Royal for a picnic lunch in the sun.

There is one problem: snow. I’d flown out of New York under warm, clear skies and landed an hour later in a freak late-spring snowstorm. The picnic will have to wait.

I like to think of cities as conversations. First you hear the simple layered cacophony of so many people talking to (and at and over) one another. Then there are the wider dialogues—between its buildings and nature, between planning and chaos, between the urban fortress and the world outside its imaginary walls. A visitor listens in on the chatter, on the racket a city makes—the hum of its hive—and is engaged in this never-finished conversation about what this place is.

I take the unseasonable snow as an admonition from the city, a not-so-subtle reminder: It’s not all fun and games here. Je me souviens, goes the motto of Quebec, printed on all the license plates: I remember. And while nobody agrees on what precisely Quebecers are meant to be remembering, there is a shared awareness here, a respect for the collective memory of hardship in a cold, remote province at the northern edge of North America. Winters are long, dark, and brutal. In the warm months, Montrealers take to their parks and waterfront activities and outdoor amusements like Swedes worshipping the vernal equinox. And for the same reason: the break in the season brings life, sanity, exultant release.

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